A man entered the bar from out of the smoky grayness of dusk. He was a handsome man, Alice thought. She liked the look of his face and hands. A strong man. She saw that his arms were long and muscular. And then there were his eyes. Enormous, blue eyes. Sad eyes. Eyes that said nothing and at the same time said everything. Eyes that looked like they might be hiding something. The man must have been in his early thirties, a bit old for the usual crowd in the bar. Most of the inhabitants of Lightning Spruce were in their mid-twenties. He seemed lost in thought. Alice wondered what he was thinking, but she was not about to ask. She had an uneasy feeling about him.
Someone called out to her from the counter. A young man with curly blond hair. Ted. One of the regulars. Ted had a crush on Alice, though she had never encouraged him. It would have angered Stu, for one thing. And it was well known what Stu had done to the last man who tried to steal his girl. It had happened six months before. Harvey Klaus was a day worker on the Thirdstone Vein in the Ceti gold mine ten miles north of Lightning Spruce. Harvey was tall and thin with light-brown hair, steely eyes, and enormous hands with long, bony fingers. He'd been mining for nearly a year and was already rich, he bragged to a pretty, young bartender named Alice Jones late one evening. To prove it he handed Alice a gold bracelet inlaid with precious gems that sparkled in the harsh light of Fisher's Bar. There was more where that came from, he told her. But the next day Harvey was found in a back alley two blocks from the bar. He had been strangled. When word of the killing got around, well, it was hands off Alice from then on. Even so, that did not prevent Ted from gazing lovingly at her whenever he got a couple of drinks in him.
The Mexican Highlands was a mining region in southeastern Arizona. It was a geologist's dream, with rich deposits of silver, gold, copper, and zinc. It had been discovered by prospectors in 1882. Within five years a dozen towns had taken hold. There was Cerbat, Pierce, and Courtland. Hackberry, Truxton, and Valentine. Gilmore, White Knob, and Quartzburg. And Lightning Spruce. The area was lawless, the weather scorching, and dust storms a common occurrence. But Lightning Spruce was not a place where you went for a vacation. It was a place where you went to get rich. As a result competition was fierce. It was not uncommon for fights to break out when new veins were uncovered. And with little in the way of local law enforcement, crimes usually went unpunished. As Alice was well aware of.
Alice was an attractive woman with long light-brown hair and cherry lips. Her eyes an opalescent gray. She nodded when Ted asked for a lime daiquiri—his third—and as she was jotting down his order he asked when she was off. Would she like to see a play that evening? Troubadour was playing at the Crystal Globe at 9. She smiled. She remembered the last time he had asked her out. As luck would have it, Stu had overheard. He let Ted off with a warning—he did not feel like spilling blood that night, he said—but made it clear he would not go easy on him again. He would put a knife in his back.
"I don't think so," Alice said. Even if Stu had not been in the picture she would not have been interested. Ted was nice enough, good-looking if a bit plain, a man who could always make her laugh, but he was not her type. She liked tall, handsome men, men who knew how to stand out in a room full of braggarts. Like this stranger who had entered the bar as night was falling, who strode over to the counter without acknowledging a soul, and who was motioning Alice over to him.
She brought Ted his drink and then turned her attention to the stranger. The man ordered an Arizona Throbber. Those were tough to drink, Alice knew, and she admired him for trying. It showed courage and she liked that, too. She tried to read what he was thinking, read it in the lines of his face, but she came up with nothing. She looked at his hands and noticed that he was tapping the counter. And it was then she saw an ugly scar that ran across the back of his right hand from the base of his thumb to his little finger. When the man realized she was staring at his hand, he turned it over. Palm-up. He made a fist with his hand. She gazed into two blue eyes, but he looked away, into the distance, the shadows of the bar. Alice had the feeling the man was here for a purpose. And not the usual one.
"Back in a second," she said.
When she brought his glass, he thanked her. He put a five dollar bill in her hand. Then he said:
"Mind telling me who owns this place?"
"Jimmy Fisher," Alice replied and added, "Why do you ask?"
"Just wondered. I'd like to speak with him. If that's possible."
"He's not here."
"Know when he'll be back?"
"Nope. You never know with Jimmy. He comes and goes as he pleases."
"What do you mean?"
Alice laughed. "I mean he owns this town and he can do what he wants. That's how it works when you own something. You know? Look. Why don't you finish your drink and see what you can do in the casino room. If Jimmy comes back, I'll tell him you were looking for him. What did you say your name was?"
The man paused. "I didn't. It's Fredericks. Sam Fredericks. I'd be real grateful if you'd send him my way."
"Okay," she said. "He's a thin man with red hair. You can't mistake him. What was it you wanted to see him about, anyway?"
Sam looked at her but did not reply. Was that irritation she saw in his eyes? "I don't mean to be nosy," she said, "but Jimmy will want to know. He doesn't speak to just anyone. In fact, he's quite particular about whom he speaks to these days."
Sam looked puzzled. "Why is that?"
"Ever since the summons came down, I guess."
"The brawl two months ago. In this very room. A man was killed."
"Jimmy wasn't real happy about that as I'm sure you can imagine. Not that he did anything wrong, mind you. It wasn't his fault things got out of control. Not Jimmy. They don't come any straighter than him. He's got a temper, I'll grant you that. But who doesn't around here? You need a temper in this town just to survive. And the sheriff needed someone to blame."
Just then Alice heard the rumble of thunder in the distance. She went over to the front window and looked out and she saw thunderclouds curtaining the sky. The wind was picking up and she saw flashes of lightning.
"I'm not going out there," she said.
"When are you off?"
"Probably about the time the storm hits. Guess I'll hang around until it's over."
"You live far from here?"
"On the edge of town. It's okay. I'll wait."
"It might be awhile."
Alice shook her head. "Summer storms are always brief. Hey—you're not from around here are you?"
"No, I'm not."
"Where are you from then?"
Sam did not reply. He was looking at Ted who was looking at Alice, an expression of annoyance on his face.
"Guess I'd better go," Sam said.
He finished his drink and made his way into the casino room. With its dark paneled interior and smoky atmosphere, the place seemed to beckon. As his eyes adjusted to the dim light of the room, he saw the gaming tables with people crowded around them and the slot machines and a bar. A stage where men and women were dancing.
A woman brushed by Sam and he smelled her perfume. Like a flower garden, he thought. Her black hair fell past her shoulders. Her skin looked smooth and soft. Sam looked around and he saw more women and he saw men ogling them and he saw men gambling. He heard snippets of conversation, all of it inane.
A woman came up to him and asked if he would like to dance.
He smiled. "Maybe later," he said.
She laughed. "Okay." And then she disappeared. She was pretty enough, that was for sure, but Sam was not interested. Not now. Now, there was something else he needed to do. There was something else he needed to do while he waited for Jimmy.
Within two hours Sam had hit the jackpot at a dozen slot machines and had won every game of craps, roulette, and blackjack he had played. He had won so much money, in fact, that he had become the center of attention. Everyone was watching him. Everyone was watching and wondering what he would do next. You did not clean this place out and get away with it.
Sam was about to play one more game—all his winnings against the casino itself, he said—when from out of a back room strode a brawny man in a white linen suit, with sneering lips and caterpillar brows, his hair slicked back, his black eyes dancing. He must have been a man who commanded respect for a hush descended over the room. Everyone stopped what they were doing and watched in anticipation as the man went up to Sam and tapped him on the shoulder.
"I'm sorry, sir," the man said, "but I'm going to have to ask you to leave."
Sam didn't say anything. He looked at the man as if he was crazy. The man continued, "If you please, sir."
Sam said, "Who are you?"
The man pulled himself up to his full height. Even so, he was a good two inches shorter than Sam. "Name's Frank Williams." He pronounced the words crisply, as if they were supposed to mean something to Sam, but of course Sam had no idea who Frank Williams was. He said, "Pleased to meet you Frank. I understand a man by the name of Jimmy Fisher owns this place. I'm waiting to see him. And I'm going to stay here until I do."
Beads of sweat appeared on Frank's brow. If Jimmy was here he would not stand for this, he thought. Not for a moment. He put his arms akimbo and said, "Sir, it's time for you to go."
"I'm not through," Sam said sharply.
"Oh, but you are," Frank replied angrily. "And," he continued, stabbing the air with his right index finger, "I'd like you to return the money you've won before you leave. No questions will be asked."
Sam raised his eyelids. "You think I'm cheating?"
"I'd never accuse you of something so dishonorable."
"I've won everything honestly," Sam said. He paused, then added, "However, if I hadn't removed those magnets under this wheel—" He pointed at the roulette wheel.
"You're not from around here are you?"
Sam smiled. "People seem to think I'm not."
Frank scoffed. "You think you're smart, don't you?" He ran a hand through his thick, black hair and smacked his lips. "No, you're not from around here. And we don't like outsiders."
"I'll leave when my business is concluded," Sam said. "Lightning Spruce is a mining town. It's nothing but outsiders. And besides, I'm just passing through."
"Get out!" Frank raised his right arm threateningly. "Or must I have you thrown out?"
Sam smiled. "As you wish. But we'll let Jimmy decide about my winnings when he returns."
Frank glowered, but said nothing more. In all his years at the bar, he had not come across anyone like this man. Most people slunk away without a word when he confronted them. They knew what they were up against. And they valued their lives. But to tell the truth, Frank was scared this time. He would let Jimmy handle Sam when he got back. Jimmy would know what to do. He always did.
Sam went back out to the barroom. He went over to the counter and sat down and ordered another drink.
Alice was off now, but she could not leave Sam. She went into a back room and changed her clothes and then she came out to the counter—to the other side of the counter—and sat down next to him. Sam looked at her. She was wearing a dark-red blouse with a picture of a dragon on it, and a short black skirt with a narrow silver belt. A bracelet around her left wrist. Her legs were long and slender and her hair looked almost green in the pale light of the room.
Alice said, "Mind if I join you?"
He nodded. She sat down. The new woman on duty asked if she could get them anything. Sam ordered a beer. Alice, a margarita. The woman wrote down their order and left. Sam said, "What's your name?"
"Alice what? I like to know a woman's full name when I'm speaking to her."
"Hello, Alice. Pleased to meet you."
"You're really good, Sam. And Frank is such an idiot."
"You watched us?"
She nodded. "Everyone did. Frank is Jimmy's cousin, you know. He works for Jimmy. He's supposed to keep accounts, but most people think he doesn't do anything. Most people think Jimmy is indebted to him for some reason. Stu—my boyfriend—told me Frank helped Jimmy out of a jam once, but he wouldn't say what happened. I got the impression it was something illegal, just from the tone of Stu's voice. I think Stu might have been involved in the whole mess, but like I said, Stu hasn't told me. I know Stu doesn't like Frank and he says Frank doesn't like him, either. If you ask me, Frank is just a prick."
Sam was silent. Alice said, "Has your girlfriend run out on you?"
He shook his head. "I don't have a girlfriend."
She frowned. "I think I understand you. You want someone, but she doesn't want you. That's sad."
Their drinks arrived and they sipped at them. Then Sam said, "How old are you, Alice?"
"Twenty-four. And you?"
"That's a nice age."
"You look like you're eighteen."
"I'll take that as a compliment."
A pause. Then Sam said, "How old are you, really?"
"Right." He eyed her closely. "You're family lives here?"
"I was born in Reno. My parents divorced when I was sixteen and after a few months I fell for Stu. He told me Lightning Spruce would make us rich."
"What do you see in Stu, anyway?" Sam asked. There was a puzzled expression upon his face.
"I don't know," she said after a moment's hesitation. "I like his looks, I guess."
"That's what you care about?"
"I'm a simple girl. Easy to please."
Sam said, "No, you're not. You're not easy to please."
Alice fidgeted nervously. She stared at the wall behind the counter. She seemed to be reading the menu—or else she was lost in thought. When Sam spoke again, he pronounced the words slowly, crisply, "You know who Stu is, don't you?"
"What do you mean?" Her hands were sweating, the color draining from her cheeks. Sam spit out the words, "Stu killed a man in this bar two months ago. A man named Edward Quinn. A man who happened to be my friend."
"Oh." She spoke in a watery whisper.
"And Jimmy's protecting Stu."
"Why would he do that?"
"Because Stu is Jimmy's friend."
Alice's heart was hammering. She looked out the window into the darkness. She closed her eyes. When was Jimmy coming back?
"Quinn was a miner," Sam continued. "He'd prospected in California and Nevada, wherever he could find work. He had a family to support and when you have a family to support you do what you have to do. He was a good man, a kind and just man. We met in Fresno. He saved my life once. We were heading home from work and were jumped by two thugs wielding knifes. We took our blows"—he pointed at his scar—"but our attackers got the worst of it. One of the men was killed, the other was wounded but managed to get away. I found out later the men were brothers. Stuart and Carlos Kennedy. Quinn left shortly thereafter—he was drawn here by the prospect of easy money—and I vowed that if I ever saw him again I'd be sure to repay him. When I learned of his death at the hands of Stu, I knew I had to come here. Death doesn't absolve us of our debts, no matter where we may be."
"I know Stu is no angel," Alice said. "I'm not dumb, Sam. I know what goes on around this town. But he loves me. Okay? And I'll take Stu, warts and all. He's not like the other men in this place. Men who want you for the night. And want you to leave in the morning. You know what I mean?
"And, like I said, I know about the brawl. I wasn't there, but people told me what happened. A drunk got in a fight; one thing led to another. People said so many fists were flying it wasn't clear what happened. It was probably an accident. Those things happen. Out here on the edge of nowhere they happen all the time."
Alice finished her drink and Sam ordered her another and while she was waiting he looked around the room. He listened to the wind howling outside. He heard the branches of a tree rubbing against the windows. Alice looked at Sam as if she expected him to say something, but he said nothing. The romantic sounds of a guitar floated through the air from out of the casino room and filled the silence between them.
Alice sighed. "You'd think—"
"Hey, man." Someone grabbed Sam by the shoulder and spun him around. "What do you think you're doing?"
"We were just talking," Sam said.
"Stu!" Alice cried, recognizing her boyfriend.
"Stay out of this, baby."
"But he's right. That's all we were doing."
"He wants your ass. Look at the bastard."
"No, Stu, please."
Sam said, "Alice is right: we were just talking, okay?"
"Don't give me that crap," Stu said. "Just get the hell out of here."
Sam rose. "As you wish." He paused, then added, "And if Alice wants to, she's coming with me."
Stu pulled a knife. Alice screamed. Someone cried out, "Oh, Christ. Everybody look out!"
Sam looked at Stu and he looked at the knife. And then he frowned. But he did not look scared. Stu did not know what was going on, but he did not like it. He was used to people turning tail when he confronted them. Nobody faced him down and got away with it. Nobody. But as he looked into Sam's steel-blue eyes he saw the look of a man who was not about to back down. And for a moment, he felt the coldness of fear. But only for a moment. He ran his hands through his thick brown hair. He spat on the floor. He looked at Sam icily. And then he said, "Chicken."
Every muscle in Sam's body was taut. The veins on his neck stood out. He ran his tongue over thin, dry lips. A lawless wind was slamming in from the south and it rattled the windows, shook the walls. A flash of lightning lit up the place as if it was daytime.
Sam looked towards the window and then he looked at Stu. His foot tapped the floorboards steadily. "Hear that?" Sam said. "Hear it?"
Stu said, "Get out." He ran the blade of the knife slowly across his throat.
Alice had never seen Stu like this, not even when he had confronted that man from up north, the man Stu thought was trying to undercut him. Then he was merely angry, but now he seemed like a man consumed by rage. The blade of Stu's knife gleamed in the light cast from the lightning bolts that lit up the room and Alice saw blood on it. Blood that was not there.
Sam said, "Put that away."
"Get your ass out of here." It was Frank, emerging from the casino room. He leaned against the doorway, an expression of contempt upon his face. Filled with renewed bravado, his thick hands seemed eager to kill. Sam looked at Stu and he looked at Frank, but he did not move.
"I think you'd better do as the man asked." A voice from the counter. Sam turned and he saw Ted smirking. "You care for your life, you'd better get out of here right now." His words were slurred and his eyes bloodshot. "And as for Alice . . . " His words trailed off.
Sam looked at Alice and said, "Let's go." Alice did not reply. She was trembling. Sam guessed that she did not know what to do, but when he looked at her more closely he saw that he was mistaken. She knew what to do. Maybe for the first time in her life she knew what to do. But she was scared. "Let's go," Sam repeated, "after I've done what I came here to do."
"I've had enough," Stu said and he spat on the floor. He took a step towards Sam, his knife at the ready. Alice cried out, "No!"
Just then the lights went out and the music stopped. People started screaming. Someone threw a punch and moments later a fight had broken out. It happened so fast that for a moment Alice did not realize what was happening. She heard the cries of men and of women, saw ghostlike silhouettes, eyes glowing in the darkness. A bottle grazed her chest and she fell to the floor.
It was thirty minutes before the power came back on and order was restored. Chairs had been overturned, broken glass was everywhere. The smell of blood hung in the air. Men lay sprawled on the floor, many of them with cuts and bruises. Alice lay among them. Her blouse was ripped and there were marks on her face and hands.
Sam had vanished. And in the middle of the room, face down in a pool of blood, was the body of Stu. A knife was embedded in his back.
Sam disappeared from Lightning Spruce and was never heard from again. The investigation into Stu's death was inconclusive. Most people thought Sam had killed him, of course, but others were not so sure. Some thought it was Ted or even Frank. They had motives as well and it did not help that they maintained a stony silence whenever the subject was brought up.
The funeral was held two days later and was well-attended. Whatever people thought of Stu, he had quite a reputation and needed to be put to rest with respect, they said. Alice watched emotionless. She did not think anyone deserved to die, at least not in the shameless way Stu had been dispatched, but she knew what people meant when they said he deserved it.
Blood was to be spilled that fateful evening—a natural consequence of events set in motion when Sam entered the bar—the only question was whose. And that depended on Alice. Stu laughed when he saw her lying on the floor, did not notice the weapon clutched in her left hand, saw only the anger in her eyes. He dismissed her with a smirk, then turned to face Sam. A final confrontation.
What happened next was like a dream to her now. A woman slowly rising. An arm outstretched. A hand hovering in midair poised to strike the fatal blow. What would Stu have felt if he'd pivoted to face his attacker? Surprise—or humiliation? He certainly would not have expected a woman to wield the knife.
When the funeral was over, she headed home. It was a warm, windless evening. As she walked, she looked up at the night sky, at the unfamiliar stars, so bright and faraway. High overhead, she saw the faint outlines of the great nebula in Andromeda. Little Cloud—as it was known—was sixteen thousand light years away, yet, tonight it seemed much closer. She walked on awhile longer, by the river that wound along the outskirts of town, wondering what would become of Sam and realizing that she already missed him.