6c – The Gunfighter

THE GUNFIGHTER

SIX
“Done Some Love”

all-the-seas-and-riversOn Thursday next, Clark stood in the shadowed notch between the saloon and the apothecary, staring at the townspeople walking up and down the street in the hot New Léxico sun. When he was sure the haggard woman whose thick-necked man he had shot down failed to appear, he set his boots to the hardpack and walked over to the bank.

As he stepped up to the door, he heard a woman’s voice behind him. “Patrick Joseph Clark.”

He stopped in his boots, closed his eyes, and hooked his thumbs into his gunbelt.

“Ma’am.”

“My name is Flora Lodge.”

He turned to see creole lady in an embroidered white dress, smiling at him with a smile that poured forth more warmth and light than the sun overhead. Her cheeks were dimpled deep and he fell into them.

Patrick struggled to find words. He found the wrong ones. “And a white flower— I mean, a bright flower you are.” He closed his eyes and shook his head. Only then did the implication of her surname strike home.

She curtsied. “I am Parsiff Lodge’s widow, as you may have guessed. These two—” A pair of pink children folded around her from behind her bustle, a blonde girl and a black-headed boy. “They don’t know what you did, but I do.”

He was flummoxed. He wasn’t used to being flummoxed. He glanced back and forth at the children. He glanced at the gap between the saloon and the apothecary where Parsiff Lodge had fallen on his Model ’66. At the water tower next to the apothecary’s, dry as a desert bone, built when the townsfolk of banter thought a spur line from the railroad would come through town. It hadn’t. He glanced again at Flora’s lingering smile, and again at the children who were clearly not hers. Nothing made sense.

That bright smile broadened and she chuckled at him. “They’re not mine, obviously. I try to be a good mother to them. They was Percival’s.” She pressed their heads against her hips with hands on their ears. Her face was serious. “Their ma was taken by the Chechoye.”

He removed his hat. The Chechoye were a notoriously vicious tribe.

“I appreciate your decision.” She nodded at the bank as she let the children go. “And, I understand you was pretty much corralled into it, by the gang and by the judge. Even so, it’s a stand-up thing.”

He put his hat back on, tipped it.

“This is Fay and Merle. Say hello to the sheriff’s deputy.” The children waved at him, grinning and waving timidly. Flora’s smile had returned. She held up a key. “Shall we?”

Clark’s cheek bothered at him. He mustered a nod and turned into the bank door.

She watched as he slipped the envelope into the owe-box and closed it. He bowed and waved her forward. She stepped up and slipped her own key into the lock. With a click the box opened. She removed the envelope and spun a finger in the air. Clark turned his back to her. There was a shuffling of cloth.

“Deputy.”

He turned back around. She was waving the children off. They jogged out the bank door hand-in-hand.

“Ma’am.” It was a question.

“I came out west from Julina after the war.”

He looked her up and down. Then up again.

“I was young,” she nodded. “Very young. My family was gone. My master was gone. The world was falling down around me. I wanted a new start.”

He saw the bullets flying in her life. He traced them back to their shooters, traced them forward to their targets. He saw her reaction, her assessment of her armaments, her deployment of them. He was impressed.

“You found Parsiff in the lurch with two young ones.”

She nodded. “I did. He was a bad man, but he was a man. I took care of Fay and Merle, and he took care of me.”

“Did he put his hands on you?”

She chuckled again with that smile. Clark felt the corners of his mouth moving.

“We was married, deputy. I wasn’t happy, and he was a bad man. But, we was married before God, nonetheless.”

He nodded at that. “And now?”

“And now, I owe my freedom to you. And, this time, being free doesn’t compel me to flee.”

He nodded at that. He was good at nodding around her. “Now, it’s you who is owed.” He permitted himself a chuckle. It was her mouth’s turn to move.

“Despite what old Gibberson and the sheriff might think, I do feel like I owe you.”

“That’s not—”

“I know!” She grabbed his shoulders. His thumbs shifted in his belt. “We could have a picnic! I’ll bring the food.”

“A what?”

She shook him. “You know. A picnic! A lunch in the open air. My master’s family did it all the time in Julina. You ain’t never gone on a picnic?”

His mouth curled up. “I’ve eaten in the open air.”

“That’s all there is to it. We take a blanket to lay on the ground, some food, wine.”

“I’m not particular to wine.”

Her head tilted to one side. “We could also have beer, if you prefer.” She looked unconvinced by her own suggestion. He rethought his objection.

“If wine’s the custom, I suppose I could accommodate.”

“It’s a date, then.” She smiled in that dimpled way, which would endure no objection. “Next week, after I come in to the bank. We’re gonna meet under the tree on the other side of the creek, just south of town.”

He nodded toward the bank door. She stepped through it and he followed. “What about those two?”

“Oh, they’ll be at the apothecary’s.” She nodded at the building next to where he had shot Parsiff dead. He couldn’t look at it. He stared up at the water tower glowing emptily in the afternoon sun. “Learning their letters and numbers.”

The breeze was warm, but not overly warm. The pintado was tied to a tree, eating a basket of green apples Flora had brought. The wool blanket, which Clark had bought at the general store, was spread out under the tree. The deputy and Flora leaned on their shoulders, a spread of cheese and loaves and summer sausage and wine between them. Mostly consumed.

“You don’t want tobacco?” She nodded at the packet she had brought, untouched between a clay plate of cheddar crumbs and a pewter dish of bread crumbs.

He looked up from the leavings. “I don’t smoke, ma’am.”

She grinned. “Neither do I. Never could much afford the privilege.”

“It’s a fine day. And a fine lunch.” He would’ve tipped his hat, if it had been on his head.

“Thank you, sir.” She lay back on the blanket. “What a beautiful, perfect day. Not a cloud in the sky.”

He tugged his thumbs from his belt and locked his hands behind his head. He lay back on the blanket. “Not a cloud.”

“You’re a fine man, Patrick Clark.”

He felt his face grow tight. “Miss Flora, you hardly know me.”

She giggled. He couldn’t see her face, but he guessed its appearance well enough. “A bad man would never deflect a compliment.”

He recognized her aim and let her have it. She was as good a shot with sentiment as he was with lead. A survivor. Someone he could trust, feel relaxed around.

“You like Banter?”

He nodded before he had decided to. “It’s been better to me than anywhere else.”

She tugged at her black curls. “That’s why you decided to stay?”

His mouth tightened into a smile. “I considered riding off. But, I found a purpose here, I suppose.”

“How many purposes can a man like you bear?”

Her eyes were cocked, waiting for him to take the jest.

“Banter can be as good to me as it wants.”

She leaned over the empty dishes to shove him on the shoulder. Her smile was a glowing coal. She leaned back on both elbows and stared into the horizon toward the town.

“Would you give up your guns for Banter? Once your debts are settled to Gibberson’s satisfaction?”

His thumbs itched for his gunbelt, but he bid them stay still. His mouth was a dust devil spinning in the dry wind of his thoughts. He caught his head nodding again. Nodding for her. Nodding for a moment of peace.

“If I could. If circumstances were peaceful.”

She smiled her dimples at him and let her shoulders rest against the wool blanket. A deep breath sent a slow wave down the curves of her body. Clark stared up into the limbs and leaves of the tree. Watched them grow dim as his eyelids surrendered to the wine and the food. And his long-sought peace.

His nose twitched and woke him up. There was smoke on the air.

He rose to his elbows. The noise brought a stir to Flora’s body. She twisted in her dress, rubbed her eyes.

Across the creek, up the dry rise, dark clouds rose. Over the town. The pintado stamped its hooves over an empty basket.

Flora got to her senses, and then to her knees. Her chest was working against her dress. Clark grabbed his hat.

“The town’s on fire. Get on the horse.”

They dismounted just outside of Banter. She was hesitant to walk on. He lead the horse, and her, into the smoking ruins.

The stable at the edge of town was a smoldering husk of burnt wood. His two roan ponies had been in there. He leaned to look in, between the coals and smoking beams. There they were. Twisted and black, taken by the flames.

Flora fled up the main street, her shoes kicking up a wake of dust. Clark wrapped the pintado’s reins around a post and let his boots carry him into town. His hands rested on the butts of his pistols.

In the middle of the main street were the bodies of three men. Unburned, but staked to the ground with ironsmith’s tools, spread-eagled. The Chayanos who had come north to see the Lodge Gang buried. The men he had shared drinks with. Pablo, Juan, and Chuy Romero. From the look of the burns and gashes on them, they’d been tortured.

His ears burned in the sudden spark of Flora’s shriek. He felt his boots pounding the hardpack. His eyes danced here and there, corpses in every direction, some burned to blackness, others striped by bloody gashes. No live hands, no hands on weapons. Only ash and blood and hoofprints.

Flora kneeled near two bodies at the base of the water tower. The tower was burned black. The two small bodies were unburned, but broken. The children. Fay and Merle. Had they climbed to the top to hide, and leaped to escape the flames?

It didn’t matter. It was Patrick Clark and Flora Lodge who were tumbling from the water tower now.

She was locked in a spasm, gasping for breath. He knelt beside her. Ventured a hand on her shoulder.

“If you’d have been here—”

“No!” she sobbed.

He removed his hat. She leaned into him.

He mustered himself. “If you’d have been here, you’d only be on the street beside them.”

He let her weep. Her hands were glued to her face while the sun slipped by slowly overhead. The town around them was silent but for the crackle of cinders.

“We need to go.”

“No,” she spat at him. Her black curls shook with a violence. “Find a shovel.”

He settled the hat back on his head, and settled himself to help Flora dig a pair of small graves.

She was on her belly, slung over the rump of the pintado and sleeping, as he rode out of town. Ahead of them, the sun and three sets of hoofprints settled toward the west. He summoned a map in his mind. Across the desert, away from Banter, and out of the territory of New Léxico. Toward where the rail lines meet. In the state of Costilla. A town called La Torre.

As the sun fizzled in the dusk, Flora quickened and lifted herself to take a seat behind him. He stared down at his hands, still red and sore from the effort of shoving a spade into the hard dust of the desert, and resigned himself to let her have the first words.

“Where are we going?” Her voice was a ghost. He was carrying her west again, fleeing a ruin. Another war, another legacy.

“I aim to find out who burned Banter.”

She leaned against his back in a peculiarly heavy way. Not intimacy, just weariness.

“But, how?” She sniffed. “We didn’t even see them.”

The sun died in the orange haze ahead of them. He glanced along the trail for a good place to camp. He found a site ahead, snapped the reins, and slipped his free thumb into his gunbelt.

“I guess I’ll have to set the gunfighter aside for a spell, and think like a detective.”

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