It weren’t no secret Pa owned the best plot of land ’long Granite Creek, and I reckon that’s why they killed him.
I was down at the water, yanking a haul ’cus the pump had gone and stuck dry again, when I saw the smoke. It were billowing up over the sick-looking trees like a signal to God himself. I heard the yelping next—men squawking like hawks attacking prey. The crows were flying frenzied too.
I whistled for Silver and she came running from where she’d stooped for a drink. We rode outta there like two bats fleeing hell, but it were too late when we got back to the house. They’d only been hollering ’cus the job were already done. The house sat burning to its timber frame, and Pa were hanging from the mesquite tree out front, eyes wider than the moon. Dust puffed up to the south.
I jumped from Silver and pulled my rifle from the saddle scabbard, then dropped to one knee. Eyes on the trail, sight, deep breath, exhale and squeeze. Just like Pa taught me. Just like we practiced for years and years and years. One dark shadow fell from his horse. The rest kept right on riding.
“Who’d you say you were looking for again?”
I glance up at the bartender. “I didn’t. More whiskey.”
I push the shot glass at him, and he don’t seem too pleased ’bout that. But I got some coin and a vengeance strong enough to cut any throat that tries to cross me right now.
The bartender tips a bit more my way and I take a slug. Tastes like fire.
“It’s too early on a Sunday to be drinking like this, boy.”
I ain’t a boy, but I sure am dressed like one. Trousers and boots. One of my flannels. A flat-brimmed Stetson. Helps I got my hair stuffed up under the hat too. When I ran into the house to try to save a few precious items, my hair caught fire. Now, with its singed ends hidden from view, I reckon I look like any other greasy, tired, drink-seeking gent on Whiskey Row. And a scrawny one at that, without so much as a whisker on my chin. But if I’s learned anything, it’s that drunk men don’t notice much in the way of details. Shame the bartender’s sober.
“How old are ya?” the bartender nudges.
And I am. I turned eighteen two days ago. What I can’t figure is why they killed Pa only to run off without taking nothing.
I itch at my ribs through the flannel and watch the son of a bitch in the cloudy mirror mounted behind the bar. He’s sitting in a corner, one grimy hand clutching a shot glass, the other wrapped round his stomach. It’s well past noon and the heat’s infernal, but he’s got a jacket on over his wool shirt. I can’t see his eyes ’cus his hat’s pulled down low, but his breathing’s uneasy. And he’s shivering. I give him another hour or two. Three tops. He fell from his horse hard when I shot him. That weren’t on account of an arm graze or shoulder nick.
I thought for sure I’d shot him dead, but when Silver and I came up the trail after I buried Pa, it were nothing but dust and weeds and a few blood splatters leading to Prescott. The bastard was so hurt, tracking him those five miles were easy. Once in town, he rode up Whiskey Row. I found his horse outside the Quartz Rock Saloon—blood smeared on the saddle horn, another speckle or two showing his move inside.
The bartender’s right ’bout one thing—the place is busy considering it’s the Lord’s day. What the stout fella don’t seem to realize is that a strong drink can numb the soul as good as any prayer. Hell, I muttered “Oh, God” ’bout a dozen times after I found Pa swinging, and it ain’t like it brought him back to life.
He crumpled like a sack of grains when I cut him down. I had to press his eyelids shut and roll him onto his stomach ’cus I couldn’t bear looking at his face—bruised and beaten, blood trailing from his nose, what looked like a coiling spiral carved right into his forehead from when they tortured him for heavens knows what. They’d cleaned out his pockets and stolen his Colt right outta his belt. It were a beauty of a pistol—polished white grip, engraved barrel, a finish so pretty, it shined. The weapon in my holster matches. They were a set, and Pa split the pair to give one to me, and now I can’t even rejoin ’em.
It weren’t easy work, digging the grave. Ma’s buried right beneath the mesquite tree Pa died swinging from. He put her there ’cus he said a soul should rest where it’s sheltered in the winter and shaded in the summer. He said it were a peaceful place, and I knew he’d’ve wanted the same. I was sweating like a hog by the time it were done, knowing right well that those men were slipping free as I shoveled earth. But Pa deserved a proper burial. More than any man, he deserved things to be done right in his memory.
He landed slumped on his side when I rolled him into the grave, limbs bent at all the wrong angles, but at least he was facing Ma. He’ll sleep for all eternity with his eyes on her. After throwing earth back over him, I fashioned a wooden cross for the grave. I marked it with my pocketknife—HENRY ROSS THOMPSON, DIED JUNE 6, 1877 —hammered it into place with the backside of the shovel, and then rode into Prescott without a backwards glance.
“More?” the bartender says, eyeing my empty glass.
“More,” I says. But I don’t drink none of it this time. The first two distracted from the pain, but I need my mind sharp.
Behind me, prospectors carry on ’bout elusive gold and lode claims businessmen won’t no longer bite at. A pair of uniforms from Fort Whipple sit to my right, hammering ’bout the Apache. And the girls—they’re weaving between the men, kicking up the folds of their dresses and bending down to show off the goods.
I’m half jealous. The wrap I got over my chest to keep my shirt from looking suspiciously full is itching like hellfire. I paw at it again, knowing right well I shouldn’t carp. Pa and I rode into Prescott every week for supplies. I’s never set foot in the Quartz Rock before, but now ain’t the day to risk being recognized. Not with the deed my fingers are itching to do.
I check the mirror.
A whore’s approaching my mark. She bends and says something I ain’t in range to hear. He grumbles a response. She frowns but then slings an arm behind his neck anyways and tries to squeeze onto his lap.
“I said I ain’t interested!” he growls, shoving her off.
“Aw, come now. Ain’t no reason to be all ornery.” She pushes his hat back and I catch a glimpse of his eyes—narrowed and beady, gleaming like a demon done the devil’s work. “Just ’cus it’s Sunday don’t mean you can’t have no fun.”
The whore reaches for his jacket. She’s meaning to haul him to his feet and lead him to the ...