Joe entered the doctor's office gingerly, not having a good connotation with the place ever since his days back east. The doctor was cleaning his instruments on the counter, and the polished steel made Joe's blood run cold.
â€śHow's the boy?â€ť the doctor asked. He didn't know why, but it made Joe feel slightly better that the man remembered him.
â€śHe's better, thank you.â€ť
â€śIt's all about matching the medicine to the illness.â€ť The doctor gave Joe a smile. â€śDo you need more?â€ť
â€śI better,â€ť Joe said. â€śI don't want to be caught without it if we're snowed in.â€ť
The doctor left his instruments on the table and went back to a glass-doored cabinet. He had almost removed the lock when disturbance and darkness crossed his threshold.
â€śWe need you to fix him up,â€ť one man said. He and another were carrying a third between him. His skin was wan, his eyes rolled back in his head. He had a dark mustache that couldn't fit the space between his nose and upper lip, and the stubble of someone who hadn't shaved in three days.
The doctor began to carefully remove the instruments from his table when one of the men violently jerked on the towel upon which they were placed, flinging forceps and scalpels to the far corners of the room. They heaved the man on the table. Dark crimson had seeped through to the jacket. Joe subtly felt at the points of his hips, and winced unnoticeably when he realized the guns weren't there.
â€śChrist,â€ť the doctor said, taking a pair of shears and cutting open the man's inner coat and shirt. It was all the color of anger and hate and hellfire. The doctor pulled open the shredded clothing to reveal a hole in the man's chest, near the left nipple. This man had been shot through the heart and was dead, Joe knew, despite all the effort.
â€śFix him up!â€ť one of them said. His hat had fallen off when they came through the door. His hair was slicked with grease.
The doctor felt underneath the man on the table, looking for an exit wound. Finding none he grabbed a pair of forceps from the floor near his feet and wiped them on his pants. He didn't care about sanitation, apparently. At least, not with this dead man.
But Joe wondered why the doctor didn't just stop the charade and declare the man. Until the reason presented himself when one of them, not the one with the slick hair, or the dead man, but the one with the little Irish derby hat, nervously spit out some words.
â€śUriah told us to take care of it. What'll we do?â€ť
â€śWhat?â€ť Good Hair asked. â€śWe brought him here.â€ť
â€śYeah, but how many people saw us carry him in?â€ť
â€śNo one,â€ť Good Hair replied. â€śEveryone's inside with the snow.â€ť He looked at the doctor, and then at Joe. Joe looked back at him, not to intimidate, but to remember the face, and immediately a thought came to mind: he may have to kill this man, and the man's he's with, and then ride out to the Bevington ranch to kill all of them, as well, and if he did it the mountain that separated his home from all else might as well be a dirt clod in the road.
The doctor finally came up, his face ruddy, his eyes bulging. â€śHe's dead. Been dead for an hour, probably.â€ť
Derby Hat slapped his hand on the table. â€śGoddammit!â€ť
Good Hair pulled at the deceased man. â€śCome on. We'll bury him out at the ranch.â€ť
As they each struggled with an arm, Joe moved in to grab the man's feet. Together, they brought him outside and heaved him up, belly-down, onto the back of one of their horses. Derby Hat tied a short rope to the man's hands, threw the rest underneath, and came round the other side to tether it to his feet.
Joe went back inside the doctor's office to get the medicine. The doctor washed his bloodied hands in a small basin as he faced away from the door.
â€śWhat'll we do?â€ť he asked Joe.
â€śJust give me the medicine,â€ť Joe replied, watching as the men rode out the near end of town.
â€śWhat if they come back?â€ť the doctor said. â€śWe know how that man got shot.â€ť He scrubbed his hands like Lady MacBeth.
â€śI just want the medicine.â€ť
The doctor blew out a loud sigh, which turned into a nervous laugh. â€śDo you not know who the Bevingtons are? What they can do?â€ť
â€śI know, yes. Don't particularly care.â€ť
The doctor opened his cabinet and carefully spooned a few more lumps of powder into a small packet before handing it out to Joe. When Joe reached for it the doctor pulled it back.
â€śThis won't do any good if they decide to come for your family.â€ť
Joe stared at the man, annoyed, before snatching the medicine from his hand. He reached into his pocket and left two coins on the table. There were still a few droplets of blood there, and Joe didn't care. The doctor was prodding Joe for help, help Joe wasn't keen to offer. No, this situation was a horse, and Joe didn't want to be tied to it, hands-to-feet, as his body filled with accumulating gases.
â€śI doubt I'm worth the trouble,â€ť Joe said. He touched the brim of his hat and went back outside. As he mounted Bojo yet again he spied the shopowner through his window, who watched him nervously. With one more tap of his hat Joe was gone.
The snow stayed to Joe's back on the way home, with only occasional flakes lighting on Bojo's mane to remind them to keep up the pace. A brisk wind had already covered their tracks into town. To Joe, it was as if someone had erased him from history, a pipe dream if he'd ever heard one.
Because he was cursed not only with his actions from the past, but also the ability to protect his family. Fate, it seemed, would never tire of giving him opportunities to prove that fact.
Charlie is five, and after months of practice he lassoed the corner fencepost from the edge of the porch.
He's twelve, and first Joe gives him a baby chick. When he can raise it to slaughter, Joe will give him a calf. Charlie doesn't have the heart to kill the bird, so Joe does it for him. Joe gives him the calf, anyway.
He's sixteen, sneaking over the mountain to see the daughter of the man who runs the sawmill. Once, in the middle of the night, he comes back home, drenched in sweat after the father chases him off with a shotgun. His mother forbids it further. His smile lasts for days.
He's nineteen. He married her and he wants to go find his own place in the world. Joe tells him he can go anywhere as long as it's west. Never east.
Charlie is two months old, which is why, when Joe reached the beginning of the path that would take him over the mountain and back home, he instead turned left, to a different path, one that skirted the foothills for a couple of miles until it opened up into a wide valley. Pasture land.
Bojo snorted his disapproval. Joe reached under his wild mane to scratch where the ear tubes drained down the neck. It was payment for making this journey together.
â€śJust one more stop,â€ť Joe said calmly.
â€śI just want to talk to the Bevingtons.â€ť
Joe held his arms aloft as he rode Bojo up to the cattle station at Bevington ranch. The main house was visible down the lane, but no one got close without reporting in. Derby Hat held a rifle on Joe as Good Hair checked Joe and his saddlebags for weapons. After thirty seconds of vigorous searching he turned back to Derby Hat to give his assent.
â€śThat way,â€ť the Derby Hat said, gesturing with the gun. He mounted a horse and Joe led the way to the house.
The valley created little eddies of wind, which sent the snow in swirling cyclones that formed in front of them and ran off down into the pasture, like jackrabbits startled by a rattlesnake. The wind seemed sharper there, Joe noted, a knife blade held to the cheek, and he realized that the land the Bevington's had stolen from the government hadn't come free after all. Great drifts had already begun to form in the ditches next to the road, threatening to spill over and trap them there forever. The wind pushed them toward the house. Which kept the snow from their faces but signaled to Joe the air of inevitably.
Derby Hat yelled from behind him. â€śYou had to pay a visit today, of all days?â€ť
Joe smiled, but the rifleman couldn't see it. â€śSome things can't wait.â€ť
The man mumbled something aggressive, but quickly the house appeared before them, signaling the end of the conversation.
Quickly, silently, Derby Hat appeared next to Joe and Bojo. â€śGet down,â€ť he said, again punctuating with his gun. â€śWait here.â€ť
He made his way up the steps and to the door, where he beat on the heavy oak with a gloved fist.
â€śUriah!â€ť he yelled. â€śFancy man's here to see you.â€ť
Joe waited, long enough that he looked for the best direction to ride if he had to light out of there in a hurry, but the door finally swung open. A large man stood in the doorway. Adult, yes, but with a face that still couldn't grow a beard. A sharp nose that just poked out from shaggy blonde bangs.
They shared a few sentences at the door, then Uriah disappeared into the house. Derby Hat waved Joe to the door and he obliged. Anything to get out of the whistling cold.
The inside of the house was thankfully warm, a radiating heat that immediately made Joe want to shed his coat, although he resisted the urge. Never know when one might need to leave in a hurry.
Uriah walked to the sitting room, which sat safely and warmly toward the middle of the house. A large picture window opened up to the rest of the valley, although Joe could only see the all-consuming whiteness of the storm. The walls creaked from the pressure of the wind. In his mind, Joe thought they were sounding a warning, but to who?
His host sat at a large, leather chair in front of the fire, and offered Joe the one across from him. Joe took off his hat and placed it on the table behind him, turning his back on his host and Derby Hat, but it was necessary. He reached under his coat and pulled up his pants by the belt.
â€śWhoop!â€ť Uriah let out a surprised yelp, looking from Joe to Derby Hat, then back to Joe.
Derby Hat held his hand out to Uriah, to calm him. â€śIt's okay, boss. We checked him.â€ť
Joe sat down in the assigned seat, a high-backed chair across from Uriah's. â€śLittle jumpy,â€ť he said, opening the conversation.
Uriah swept the bangs from his eyes. â€śYeah, well.â€ť He lights a cigarette and blows the smoke back at the fire, mocking it.
â€śI'm not going to waste your time,â€ť Joe begins. â€śI saw your boys bring that dead man to the doctor's office, and I'm not dumb enough to lose out on how he got that way.â€ť
Uriah's eyebrows raised, his hair fell back down. â€śYou trying to blackmail me?â€ť
Joe shook his head. â€śJust the opposite, actually. I'm here to tell you that I don't care. If you're worried that I'm going to say something to all those deputies riding around, you don't need to be.â€ť
Uriah gave a small laugh. He somehow sat back in the chair while having his shoulders slumped forward, an old sway-backed horse.
â€śWhy would I need to be worried?â€ť Uriah said. â€śI didn't have anything to do with it.â€ť He didn't have the same frontier drawl to his voice as everyone else. It had surely been smoothed out on a trip out west, some time.
Joe rolled his eyes as he pushed down against the arms of the chair. â€śI get it. I'll just go.â€ť
Uriah pointed angrily. â€śSit down.â€ť Derby Hat quickly leveled his shotgun at Joe from about 2 o'clock.
Joe let his body fall slack.
â€śNow, I bet you came out here because you want some guarantee that I won't come after you, after your wife, after your son.â€ť He looked for a reaction in Joe but his guest offered none. â€śBut I won't offer that guarantee . . . â€ť
Uriah leaned forward. His hair ran down his face, a dirty blonde waterfall. A boy trying to look like a man.
â€śBecause people are much more trustworthy if you have something on them.â€ť
Again, he sat back in his seat. Joe looked away from him, toward the fire, watching as bits of dry wood popped and threw whistling sparks to the corners of the hearth.
Uriah looked away, waving Joe off with a flick of his careless hand. â€śTo you, your father should be as a god; one that compos'd your beauties, yea, and one to whom you are but as a form in wax by him imprinted, and within his power to leave the figure or disfigure it.â€ť
Joe whistled. â€śMidsummer Night's Dream. No one told me you were cultured, Uriah. Except for the child killing, that is.â€ť
That piqued Uriah's interest. He pulled a knife from the sheath at his side and pretended to clean his nails.
â€śFew sons are like their fathersâ€”many are worse, few better,â€ť Joe said.
Uriah raised an eyebrow. â€śHomer.â€ť
Joe sat forward slowly. He didn't want to draw the sharp attention of Derby Hat watching from the corner. â€śEnough with the classics. Here's a real story for you. One day, when I lived back east, I was told to go kill a man, Andy O'Fallon. Want to know what he did to warrant that?â€ť
Uriah again feigned boredom through manicure.
â€śNothing, in reality. My boss thought the man had welched on a bit of money he owed, but really it was the man's twin brother, Aaron. I mean, can you imagine? Getting killed for some accident of your birth? Like being a twin. Or an Indian.â€ť
â€śHold on, Uriah, it gets better. So I'm waiting for him at his apartment and when he opens the door I plug him, and he falls, and his wife is standing there, behind him. So I plug her, too. Because we can't have any witnesses and all that. And . . . â€ť
Joe looks to the fire, for guidance, for absolution. It offers neither. It never does.
â€śTheir daughter is standing there. She's seven, eight. And you know what, Uriah? I have to kill her, too.â€ť
Uriah stops. â€śJesus.â€ť
Joe sits back, slightly. He needs to.
â€śWhich is why killing you, killing your man in the Derby Hat. Riding to the gate and killing your man with the good hair. It's nothing to me. It's as taking a breath, or drinking new water from a spring.â€ť
Finally Uriah's eyebrows raise.
Joe pulls his Stephenson pistol, heretofore hidden beneath his coat, in the holster, which Joe turned around before he sat because he knew he'd need to draw sitting down, guns which stayed hidden in a pocket in Bojovnik's heavy mane as Joe and the saddlebags were checked at the cattle station, guns which Joe took into the general store but didn't sell a second time. Beautiful Stephenson pistols Bill Richter bought back for him because he wanted Joe to be a better man than he was, than he was capable of being. This Stephenson pistol, the fireplace light sliding off its barrel, waiting to fire to an accuracy of a tenth of an inch at twenty yards, although Derby Hat was much closer. The trigger pulled, smooth and unfussy as a sleeping child, and Derby Hat's life was ended, abrupt-like, when the bullet zipped through his right ventricle. Uriah had time to make a noise, something akin to a man burning his hand on a hot skillet, when Joe took an extra second to appreciate the sight past the end of his barrel. Matching the medicine to the illness, the doctor called it. Another squeeze and Uriah sat back fast and hard in his chair, eyes looking up to heaven, his bangs again cascading down over his face like a curtain being pulled at the end of a show. Joe stood up and walked over to him. Charlie is two months old; he falls asleep in his father's arms on a cold winter night. Uriah will disappoint his father, when he comes back from Texas in two months. When he sees what his poisoned blood has wrought yet again. Uriah will be rotten by then, next to a fireplace grown long cold. Charlie fusses for a moment before settling himself back to sleep. Joe leaves the house, mounts Bojo, and they ride out to the cattle station, and when the man with Good Hair comes out in the snow to see him he doesn't realize what's happened because the wind's blown everything the other direction. He also doesn't know he's been dead since he looked Joe in the eye back in town. But some people are like that, dead without knowing it. Walking corpses. Andy O'Fallon and his wife and his child fall like dominoes in their doorway and Joe tries not look down on them as he steps over. He goes home, he packs up what he and May can carry, and he takes her and their unborn child to the prairie to escape all the death but here it follows yet again. Joe rides to get out of the unholy valley, across the mountain where the wind doesn't slice a man down to the bone. May sings while she cooks supper. Charlie hears her and smiles for the first time. A family is more than a group of people, living together, or sharing blood. It's love, and laughter, and suppers cooked and eaten, and first smiles, and fathers who clear the land, clear the table, clear a path through the damned world so they have a place to be.