Singleton Hood turned his sunken eyes toward the sun and squinted at its heat. His lips were starting to crack and he was weak, having finished off the last of his water yesterday. He rode lazily down a beaten, narrow trail toward Red City and what he hoped was an end to his recent misfortunes. He was destitute; ruined by gambling, women, and drink. He needed work and his moral inhibitions were left with his last bit of cash that bought him a stale biscuit and cold dumplings four days ago. A good friend of his in Red City was his last, desperate option.
* * *
He was an unsavory fellow, as much a coward as he was mean. He always had work though and paid well enough, especially if the work was nasty. His name was Bill Winston.
Hood arrived in town near noon. He was sagging in his saddle now, but kept trying to hold himself up so as to keep up appearances. He made his way toward Winston's saloon, situated in a filthy looking two story building on Main Street.
He tied his horse down the alley and entered through the side door. It was always best to gauge Winston's temper before asking for work, so he ordered a tall glass of water from the bar and took a seat in the shadows under the balcony that ran around most of the main room.
Bill Winston stepped out of his office into the hazy landing above his bar and called out for Tom Jewett, a scruffy looking man who some say is half-Indian with a barrel of a chest and a savage asa meat ax look that never left his eyes. Tom put down his whiskey and started to climb the stairs. Bill, being an impatient man, met him halfway.
"Is the marshal in yet?"
Tom shook his head.
"What's he good for then?"
Tom spit and shrugged.
Bill pointed at him and uttered, "Clean that up." before turning and climbing back to his office.
Tom glared after Bill for a long while, but then bent over and cleaned up the spit with a dirty rag before returning to the bar and finishing his drink.
Bill sat back down at his desk but felt that he couldn't stay there long, the itch was in him and he could only scratch it with the blood of Bart Haynes between his nails. He stood and crossed to the window, chewing on a stale unlit cigar.
The people of Red City were half through their day. The drunks of last night's faro games were either in the flop house or back in the bottle mourning their lost savings. The children were in the schoolhouse, the mothers attending to shopping or homely duties, and the fathers were either working or in his bar getting soaked on good whiskey cut with turpentine. You had to be a good friend of Bill Winston to get it straight.
And Bill Winston didn't have many good friends.
He lit the cigar and took a hard draw. That yellow bellied marshal was never this late, he was always on time when Bill called. Either he was drunk, dead, or worse, he wasn't going to accept Bill's offer.
Bill chewed on his cigar more ferociously.
Out in the bar Tom was rubbing the leg of a girl from the hookshop across the street who came over to make change from a ten. He was smiling, showing his three tar blacks. The whore didn't think it flattered him, he had the smile of Old Scratch, but she knew he finished fast and tipped good, so she let him rub.
Tom was a man no one could tame, he only did work for Bill because he gave him enough tin to keep that pig sticker on Tom's waist out of his fat gut. Tom did his job as well as any who was so viscous, killing never came clean with him, but it always came when he had money in his pocket for a man's head.
Bill reappeared on the balcony, leaning hard on the bannister, weighing his options. Tom wasn't careful enough for a job as delicate as Bart Haynes. It required smarts, it had to be handled properly with no messes and no whispers in the saloons across the territory. Whispers were sometimes good for business, they kept the buyin' men out and the payin' men in. However, Bart Haynes had to disappear without anyone knowing any better. It had to be as if he never existed. Tom would kill the man while he drank in the bit house next door, or while he was in his hotel room having breakfast with that devil of a wife. No, Bart Haynes had to go out in the desert some cold night. He had to be tossed into a rattlesnake pit, or buried so deep that the fires of hell charred his bones.
And for that he needed a plan. Tom didn't do well with plans, but the marshal did. He could take Bart out of town on some trumped up petty charge that could only be handled in the big city and then put a bullet in him out under the moon. Or else he could put the fear in him and get that family of his on the road to safe harbor. Lots of bad things happened on the road. If that woman had to go too, well, it meant nothing to him.
But if that marshal wasn't up for it, Bill was quite possibly screwed more than a nickel whore.
He didn't have many other options.
"Tom, get up here."
Tom looked up at Bill and didn't move, after a moment he went back to kissing the girl's neck. She was begging him to go with her across the street, but right now he was still enjoying his whiskey. Hell, the man was so darn wild he might even have her right there, before patron and God. Either way, he wasn't interested in what Bill had to say.
Bill swore weakly under his breath.
He started down the stairs and toward Tom. Uneasy eyes followed his every step. Where there was thunder, you found lighting. Where you found a man confronting Tom Jewett, you found blood. A few of the less adventurous patrons slipped out the door. Others just watched and waited.
Tom turned to face Bill, he looked amused. He had nothing to fear from Bill, for he saw the fear in his eyes. Tom Jewett had been waiting for this moment.
He was to be disappointed.
Bill stopped and smiled, the lily liver easing back into the big bug. He crossed the saloon to a man who had just entered and taken a seat. The patrons went back to their drinks and Tom stood with the whore and left.
The man who may have spared the Red City Saloon's dusty floor from a little more blood was still seated under the balcony near the side door, straddling his chair as if were the throne of God. No longer a husk of dehydration and hunger, he now looked the ego of man personified. He wore all black, matching his hair and thick mustache that danced when he talked and got wet whenever he drank.
"Bring us two whiskeys, Slobber." Bill told the halfwit bartender, "Out of my personal stock." he growled when he saw Slobber reaching for the gutrot. Slobber nodded and went for a box in the back.
"Singleton Hood, as I live and breathe. What are you doing way out here?"
Hood stood and shook Bill's hand, though he looked glad to see him, he didn't smile often. "Oh you know. A curly wolf like myself can't stay in a place long and eventually you run out of the decent places and end up in Red City." His voice was still a bit raspy.
Bill laughed and slapped him hard on the back. They both sat as the whiskey arrived.
"How's business, Bill?"
"To hell with business, Hood. We both know why yer here."
Hood downed his whiskey and stared hard at Bill, "And why is that?"
"Cause yer broke."
Hood shrugged and motioned for another whiskey.
Bill watched him for a few moments, waiting like a snake ready to strike. Just as Slobber started to pour Hood another shot Bill reached over and snatched the bottle out of his hand.
"Give me that." Bill said. Slobber cowered back to the bar.
"How you expect to pay for this? I just said yer plumb broke. The first one was on the house, but I didn't offer you a second, Gun Shy."
Hood licked his lips, tasting the whiskey in his whiskers.
"Bill, I don't reckon that's a kind thing to do. We're friends. Old friends."
Bill watched him, saw surrender in his eyes, or what he perceived to be surrender and poured him a glass.
"I need you to kill a man."
Hood picked up the glass and downed it in one hit. He reached over, picked up the bottle and poured another.
Bill smiled, "Come up to my office. Bring the bottle."
"I could do with some food, too."
Bill waved his hand dismissively, "Sure, sure. Slobber, bring him some bacon and a biscuit."
In the office, Hood swallowed a hunk of greasy bacon and poured himself another shot and listened to Bill's story. It was merely a formality. Hood didn't need the ballyhoo, he wanted the job before he even walked in the door. His lifestyle had robbed him of everything but his life, including his soul. He didn't care anymore, he felt like a man half in the grave. He just wanted to get back to drinkin', whorin', and gamblin' until the rest of him was obliged to follow suit. For that he needed money and Bill always paid fair. Well, fair enough.
"You know Bart Haynes?"
"Never heard of him."
"Well it doesn't matter. All you need to know is I want him dead. I want him dead and I don't want the world to know it."
With some food in him, killing a man for money didn't sit quite as right with Hood. He had a killed a couple of men in his lifetime, only one in cold blood, and even then, at least in his mind, that didn't mean the fellow didn't have it coming. The weakness he still felt when he shifted in his seat made him keep hearing Bill out.
"I was wondering why you weren't using Tom."
"To hell with Tom. I was going to use the marshal, but ain't no one seen the coward since yesterday and I'm sick of looking out my window and seein' that blue belly sole-slogger walking around."
"The marshal? Does he know what you wanted him to do?"
"He don't know the particulars."
"Good. Why do you want Mr. Haynes to die?"
"Nothing to nobody. I just want it done and I'm payin' to see that it do."
"Is he heeled?"
"Sometimes, but only when he's going out to Muddy Creek on business. Man is a regular blowhard that would sure rival Wild Bill. Thinks he ain't ever gonna get planted in the bone orchard."
"Ah. Well, I reckon the easiest way to keep this quiet is get him while he's headin' to the Creek. What's he do out there?"
"Not right sure. Charlie Luck told me that he leaves with a pocket of cash but rarely comes back with anything but empty trousers or some trinket for that new wife of his."
Hood nodded, poured himself another shot and sipped on it, thinking a bit.
Bill lit a cigar and watched him through the thick smoke for a few moments. Hood was perfect for the job. He was called Gun Shy, but Bill figured he'd kill a man if necessary and not lose a lick of sleep over it. He earned the name because he always did everything in his power to avoid killing someone. That rare quality is what made him perfect for this particular job. It took a man who understood the weight of killing, not someone like Tom. Business was all about the ramifications, cause and effect, and when it came to killing a well liked man like Bart Haynes, business always came first. People understand the world, deep down they know that sometimes killing is necessary, most of the time they acknowledge that it's awful and move on. But people like Bart Haynes made them think on it a little bit more, men like Bart Haynes made hanging judges famous.
"When does he usually ride out? Specific days."
"Saturday mostly, but usually once during the week too when he ain't busy in his shop or helpin' with the new chapel. It's already Tuesday and he ain't been since Saturday, so I reckon' he'll go tomorrow or Thursday. Don't recollect a time he's gone two days in a row."
"Alright." Hood said, standing up and fanning himself with his dusty hat. "I know a shortcut down through Sidewinder Trail that will get me out ahead of him. And if it don't, I'll get him on the way back."
"What's yer plan?"
Hood could tell Bill doubted him. He'd have to give him more to ease his mind and loosen the string on his money bag. He knew Bill had been up here in this stuffy office for, hell, who knows how long going over and over this job in his head. And it just kept getting more and more complicated. He just couldn't believe that it could be so simple. He just needed some convincing.
"Listen, Bill, it's easy. I'll pretend I'm sticking him up and lead him off the trail. You said he's a blowhard, well, he'll think he can get out of it by being calm or that he'll fight his way out given the chance, so he'll oblige. And then I'll just shoot him."
"And the body?"
"I'll rob it and leave it."
Bill's face turned red, "I don't want him found!"
It was just like Hood thought. "Bill, you're stumped. You think it's complicated, but it ain't."
"Listen here, if Mr. Haynes disappears the story will never die down. Ain't no end to it. The stories will start and they will get wilder and wilder. Some might involve you, or you might not even get mentioned at all. But they won't die. People know the road to Muddy Creek is dangerous. That's why Muddy Creek ain't nothin' but a few shacks now. It's too rough out there. If he dies, yeah, people will ask questions, they'll look for someone. Give them Tom."
"What? Are you crazy?"
Hood smiled a rare smile.
"Send Tom to Muddy Creek today. I hear there is some rotgut peddler out there with some good stuff."
"I'd know if there was."
"Follow me, Bill. Send Tom out there to talk to him, tell him he's supposed to arrive sometime tomorrow, but if he don't show to wait one more day and come back Friday morning. Along with enough money to cover a good shipment of whiskey, give him some drinkin' and whorin' money. Muddy Creek still has a hookshop right?"
"This is plumb dangerous, Hood."
Hood knew it, knew it was foolish too, but he needed the money bad, so he just poured himself another glass and took it hard, "Killin' always is. And if you play your cards right, Tom Jewett may cash in, too."
"Why don't I just pay Tom to kill him then? Cut out the middle man."
"Because Tom won't do it smart and you'll get dragged in eventually. He's wild, yes, but even a wild man has gotta have motive. He kills him here for seemingly no reason, minds will turn to you quick like. Out there? Things go bad, especially during a stick up. More money is always a good motive."
The sun burned down mean on Gun Shy Singleton Hood's weathered face from his vantage point behind an outcropping just off the road. He replaced his hat and spit into the dust. He glanced over at his bag where his payment from Bill was stuffed. Five hundred dollars, paid in advance. Bill was wary of paying before Bart Haynes lie dead, but Hood told him he'd know where to find him if the man came back into town riding a horse instead of tied to one. It was essential that the last the folk saw of Hood was Tuesday night when he rode out to camp off the road and wait.
Hood took a long drink of water. It was hot, he thought. He'd rather do it at night, when Bart was on his way back, but he couldn't risk Tom getting impatient and messing things up by coming back too early. Cracked as he is he still listened when he had money in his pockets, but when it ran out he'd come back into town and plop back on that stool. Plus, his plan worked better if Haynes still had the money he always took with him.
A swirl of dust danced back down the trail. Hood squinted his eyes and pulled a dirty rag around his mouth. Bart Haynes came around a bend in the trail. He didn't look like he suspected something was up, or maybe he did and didn't care. He was a rail post of a man, with that beaten down look of a society man who came out here for freedom and found it. He was heeled, but it was an old thumb buster, likely to jam, even though Haynes wore it like it never would when he needed it most.
Hood didn't like him, men like that had a habit of living when good men died. They just kept on, defying fate itself.
Straitening himself, Hood pulled his hat lower and stepped out around the rocks, gun out, eyes calm.
"Stop right there."
Bart rode past him a bit, but then stopped.
Hood smiled, "Hot as a whorehouse on nickel night. Now kindly step down off the horse and get over here by me. Slowly. No need for anyone to get killed."
"You're Gun Shy Singleton Hood."
"Then you know that I don't kill unless I have to, so why don't we just make sure it don't come to that."
"I heard that you ain't killed many folks at all."
"Well I reckon folks will be hearin' 'bout one more if you don't get down off that horse."
Bart nodded and climbed down off his horse, arms raised, a smile on his face.
Hood smirked under his hood and gestured off the path, "Walk over there down into that dead creek bed."
Bart's smile faltered, but he obeyed.
When they reached the old creek bed, Bart turned and faced Hood, looking into his eyes, searching for the truth of it. He wasn't sure if Hood was going to kill him, but he knew it was possible.
If he wasn't already sweating from the heat, he'd sure be now. He swallowed and tried to remain calm.
"Is it Bill Winston?"
"It's that money in yer pocket."
Bart looked down at the cracked earth beneath his feet. It simmered in the sun. He had never noticed how visible heat could be in such a barren, dead place. Never noticed how it sunk into your skin, cooking it raw til it dried up and forever branded you with the harshness that is life out here. This knowledge struck him as something he was never meant to know until this very moment. It felt as if the salvation of his soul depended on that. He began to weep.
Hood laughed, "Bill painted you as a blowhard. I figured that too when I first saw you. But you're just a man."
Bart looked up, but said nothing.
Hood pulled the trigger and put lead in Bart Haynes' knee. When Haynes fell to the ground he walked over and shot him again in the shoulder, then in the chest. Then Hood bent down over the corpse, his jeans soaking up the oozing blood, robbed him of the money in his pocket and cut his gut open with a knife.
Waving his hand at the stench, Hood stood and made his way back to his horse. He saddled his bags, stuck Bart's cash in with his payment and started to mount his horse. Hood felt a lurch in his stomach, he coughed a bit, trying to steady himself, but felt it again, more violent this time. He pulled the rag down from his face and bent over on his knees, retching hard.
He swore and stood up, wiping thick spit off his lips. After a few moments of blinking and repeatedly wiping his mouth he bent back over and got sick. When he had finished he took a swig of water and spit it out. Shaking his head he finally mounted his horse again and rode off. He never looked at the stinking corpse of Bart Haynes.
A few months later Singleton Hood sat in a dirty saloon down near the border pounding back shots of liquor. He had heard the story a few days ago from a half-drunk Charlie Luck about what had happened when Tom Jewett rode back into town.
The marshal met him with his gun, but was too afraid to use it. He told Tom he was accused of killing and looting Bart Haynes. Tom rightly disagreed, but in a manner fitting his nature. He turned to find Bill Winston comforting the grieving widow Haynes and started toward him. Though the marshal ordered him to stop, the half-Indian had blood in his eyes. Bill pulled his pistol and fired off, the first shot missed Tom, but found a young boy exiting a shop with his mother. The second found its intended's gut. The boy's mother was screaming and Tom was writhing in the dusty street crying he'd been shot, but no one came to help him.
As for Bill Winston he was absolved of the murder of Tom Jewett on account of self defense, but hung for killing the boy by a judge out of Two Tree City. Bill Winston and Bart Haynes were buried next to each other in Boot Hill Cemetery. Tom Jewett was buried in a lonely corner under a dead mesquite tree.
Singleton Hood drained another shot of whiskey and dreamed of just one more, but his money was all gone.