Friday, March 8, 2013

Paid For

Paid For
Bobby Derie

The pilgrim followed a trail marked these last few miles by the corpses of bad men, whose waiting shades fell in among her ghostly train as she passed them by.

The gunman waited for her, in the shade of a hanging tree. His hammers had fallen on empty chambers, so he had sat to rest there for a spell, and let evil come to him.

Her spurs jangled as she dismounted, kicked up dust as she led her horse over to look down into the grave. "Quite a tally."

"Sins paid for," he said, lying in the open coffin he'd carved from the living wood at the root of the tree.

"Enough of that now. Up. There's work to be done and miles to go."

There were silver dollars worked into the band of her hat, and her sweat kissed all the right places; there was a fat-bladed knife hanging down from the braided leather holding up her britches, and a knuckleknife tucked behind the flat metal buckle, but she wore no pistol at her belt.

He rose to a sit, and looked about at her horse, a cream-colored palomino whose scarred flanks spoke of more thieves than honest sale and a Spanish saddle over an Indian blanket. His grey eyes would not meet those haints clustered thickest about that beast, but wandered on to the line of dead coming up behind, and he could name the bullet that had put for each of those.

The pilgrim offered a hand, and he took it.

They went on toward sunset, she not offering to share the horse and he not in mind to argue walking beside, as the ghosts took pace behind. She took her route by the first evening stars, before the sun had even set, and led them on to a cleft between two great rocks, and then into a deeper shadow. They passed through a winding canyon and along a creek where slow, clear waters burbled over rainbow-striped pebbles worn small and smooth as marbles, where tiny black things shot and swam and dodged in their own little world. The might have passed an hour and an age in that place, 'til the canyon walls widened and they came out to the night country.

It began to rain.

Water filled footstep and hoofstep as they went on, tangled hair and mane, and the gunslinger raised his face to the sky and let it run off the dust of trail and grave. He opened his mouth, but the drops were salty on his tongue, and he spat it out. He looked a question.

"The Vale of Tears," she answered, still staring at the distant stars, and the long shadows of the mountains against the blackness of the night. "Every drop that's ever been shed for you, and for me, and for them."

"Ain't no one as would weep for me, living or dead."

He thought the pilgrim had nothing to say to that, but in a while she said.

"There's those as weep for everyone."

And they left that matter be.

At length the sage and brush died away, and the long lonely cacti grew fewer, so all there were of growing things were small pale things that flowered brightly in the purple night, and the scraggly reptiles that fled the cold.

Her voice was strange and clear in the still night, with no moon and no wind but only the impossibly bright stars in a midnight blackness that seemed to wrap and surround them all, and any three steps from the trail might take them over the edge of the world into the well of the infinite.

"You said when we met that you had sins to pay for."

He said nothing, but looked at her. The pilgrim had eyes only for the trail, and cut a profile against the Great Bear.

"To whom?"

"God, I reckon."

"Our accountant, who art in heaven?"

"Ain't no reason to blaspheme. Got to be somebody keeps track. Makes all things square."

She stopped then, and the gunslinger wondered and gripped his pistol. Yet she only dismounted with a jingle of spurs; the trail had gone to a narrow path, on one side an abyss blacker than the night, on the other a cliff worn smooth as river rock. She took out an old horn lantern, and lit the fire. She handed him the glowing horn.

"You think you're square, now?"

He did not look back at those that followed.

"Maybe," she said. "It ain't about paying back. Maybe it's about earning your way forward."

She took the horse in hand, and waited. The gunslinger took the lantern and led the way forward.

It was a colder night than any he'd spent in his makeshift grave; darker than any night when he had lain awake and await with cold steel in his hand and murder in his heart, and the stars covered their eyes so he had only the trail before him, the pilgrim following him with her horse, and all them as followed her for their own reasons. And by that flickering horn he picked out the trail, one foot at a time, and puzzled at the forks, and laid a hand on his pistol when some of the rocks looked strange to his eyes. Once there came a ribbon of darkness slithering across the path, and he raised the horn to break its back but halted when he saw those amber eyes meet his own. So the rattler smiled and carried on its way, and he went on his own.

When the trail petered out to a game trail, the gunslinger felt as though he had come out from a cavern under the open sky once again. There were seven cities on seven hills under seven dawning suns, and between them green valleys brown with buffalo and deer, and the smells of mesquite, bacon, corn, and bear fat came on him on the wind. Yet before that place there were six pale things in dark clothes, standing on the edge of night with their backs to that warm place. Some of them he might have recognized, and others were new to him, but there was a listlessness to them he knew well, the calm before burning barn, or jumping on the moving train, or the battle that was simply murder by another name.

She came up beside him, and wouldn't let him catch her eyes.

"I reckon you folks get a move on. I got business here." The gunfighter said, fingering his irons. The pilgrim took the horn from him, and mounted her palomino. She watched him walk toward the line of shadows between him and the light.

The shade of a woman took up beside her, cradling a dead infant to her breast. "Does he have to do this?"

"It's what he needs." The pilgrim said. "What they need to. Wait for the thunder, sister. Then be prepared to move."

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