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Published on Friday, January 1, 2013

East of Revenge

By John Laneri

 

Will Carter had ridden into many towns like Dripping Wells - small dusty corners where life was simply a poker game and a good shot of whiskey.

"You murdering dog," a voice shouted from an alleyway.

Dropping a hand to his side, he tensed, his senses alert. The gunfight at the saloon had been fair. The shout, he knew, was a taunt - an insult designed to provoke.

He took another step, his eyes moving from one side of the street to the other. Across from him, he noticed a hardware store presenting with two rooms above, its ramshackle structure masquerading as a hotel. Next to it, sat a makeshift livery stable. And further along the main street, he spotted an an adobe structure that served as a bank and a simple feed store, the building sitting silently in the shadowy desert sunset.

   

Looking away, feeling the cloak of night gather over him, he continued on, moving cautiously - his steps taking him toward the only diner in town.

Another voice shouted, "We'll see you dead in hell before you leave our town."

Ignoring the taunt, he stepped through the door.

Two people were eating, a man and a woman. He moved past them, keeping an eye on their hands and a finger near his forty-five. Predators, he knew, resided in respectable places as well as in the dark crevasses of night.

Once seated, a waitress clad in a gray dress covered with a dingy apron approached his table. As she walked, she bore a slight limp.

"Howdy, mister," she said, as she wiped her hands on a corner of the apron. "Welcome to Barton's Diner.

I'm Laura."

"What's for dinner?" he asked in his usual drawl.

"I'm serving steak tonight, just like every night."

On her face, a smile appeared. It was the first he had seen since arriving in town. Ignoring it, he asked, "What else do you have... any chicken?"

"Only steak, sorry."

"Then bring me a healthy cut cooked done. I'll need a whiskey too."

He watched her disappear through a doorway then resumed looking about. On a far wall, he noticed a charcoal sketch. There, someone had drawn a scene of trees near a stream. He studied it, wondering why they had bothered. Then yawning silently, he settled back to enjoy his first moment of peace since arriving in town.

"A bottle of my best," she said, as she returned to his table.

He watched her pour his first shot, his eyes going to slender fingers and clean nails.

"I hear you shot one of the local boys," she said, as she bumped his elbow to the side and set the bottle on the table.

He reached for the whiskey and turned it quickly. "I was just defending myself. The town sheriff agreed."

"Thirsty, aren't you?"

"A man can get dry in a place like this." Pausing, he brushed a splatter from his mustache then continued bluntly, "There's nothing but dirt and rock as far as the eye can see. You people are fools for livin' here."

"We get accustomed to the desert. I've been in these parts since my man was killed by outlaws five years ago."

"You've been in this god-forsaken place that long? You should'a gone back to where you come from... settled in with family. The desert's no place for a woman."

"I never had much family. Them that I had are all dead." She looked him straight on then continued firmly, "Just cause I'm a woman doesn't mean I can't care for myself."

Will studied her. She was relatively young. While she appeared weather-beaten and worn like the land around them, she was naturally attractive. The eyes charmed him most, for they were dark brown and intent, and they seemed to project an inner strength - a deep, penetrating power that reached out to explore his inner character.

She pulled a chair from the table and settled across from him, her fingers reaching to press a strand of hair against her face.

Continuing, he said, "Shouldn't you be tending to my steak? I damn well don't want a piece of boot leather to chew on."

She chuckled pleasantly. "Indian Charlie is fixin' your steak. Don't you worry, he knows how to cook a steak and potato fries. He'll get it done just the way you like." Her eyes went to his. "I didn't ask if you wanted greens. I got 'em a few days ago. They're still fresh enough if you're wonderin'."

He shifted uncomfortably. "The greens sound good." He looked away, his core rebelling at her attention. "Don't you have something better to do? I prefer to sit alone while I enjoy my whiskey and eat some meat."

"Most folks enjoy a little friendly talk," she said, as she pushed away from the table. "I'll leave you be, give you a chance to get settled."

With a confident smile, she started away. He watched her, noting that despite the limp, he saw a mannerism to her walk, a vitality that reminded him of the good times in San Antonio.

Soon, Will noticed the other diners leaving, so he relaxed and settled back to reflect on his years of traveling the trails across Texas. As always, his thoughts turned to Loon Madden, the man that had murdered his family - the memory causing a knot to form in his gut.

He reached to massage away the pain, his fingers pushing into the pit of his stomach. After five years of fruitless searching, life to him was no different than the dust and dirt that covered the land. Deep within his soul, he longed for the pleasures of water and green shade trees - his ultimate symbols of peace and prosperity.

The girl returned with his steak and again took a seat across from him.

Ignoring her, he reached for a knife and fork and dug hungrily into the food. Eventually, he looked up. "Why are you watchin' me?"

"I'm just curious," she replied, her eyes searching his.

"Damn you, quit lookin' at me. I'm trying to enjoy a steak."

"You remind me of someone I heard about a few years back."

"Wasn't me," he said. "Now, leave me be."

He forked another cut of meat into his mouth.

She pointed toward the food. "Try the greens. I flavored them real good with chili peppers."

"Give me time. I can't eat everything at once."

He wanted to ignore her. She was too much to contend with, especially at mealtime.

Finally, he pushed the plate aside and drained the last of his whiskey. Then, narrowing his peppered eyebrows, he said, "Go ahead and ask whatever it is you been wantin' to ask. I'm not going away, just yet."

She pushed the hair away from her face and watched his eyes grow wide. "Do you see this scar?" She indicated a ragged line of tissue that ran along the side of her face toward a corner of her mouth.

He nodded, feeling a chill run his spine. The scar was hideous. He glanced away not wanting to see more.

"Loon Madden did this to me when he killed my man. And, you needn't look away."

Will shifted in his seat, his eyes returning to the scar. "You say that Loon Madden cut your face?"

"You heard me right."

"How well do you know him?"

"Well enough to know that he murdered my husband and poked my insides until blood soaked the ground. When he was through, he left me in the dirt to die like an animal with a busted leg and a dead horse beside me. Do I need to say more?"

"How'd you get to this place?" he asked, his voice moderated.

"Indian Charlie found me in the desert half-dead, set my leg and nursed me back to health. We've been together every since."

He eyed her carefully. "You're a mighty fine looking woman except'n for that scar, but what does this have to do with me?"

"You're the man who's been looking for Loon Madden. Your name's Will Carter."

Taken back, he cocked his head curiously. "You know my name... so what?"

"I know where you can find him."

Will sensed honesty, but he'd been fooled before. Maybe, she spoke the truth, maybe not. And, what did she want? Was it revenge?

"Where is he?" he asked, bluntly.

"I'll lead you to him."

He eyed her suspiciously, his lips curled into a cunning smile. "You'll have to tell me more."

Smiling sweetly, she returned his smile. "What more can I say? I know where he is. I'll take you to him."

Will considered her words then rocked his chair against the wall, his fingers going to his mustache. "I'll have my coffee now. It's been awhile since I've had a taste."

"I only fix coffee in the mornings. You'll have to come back then."

She stood to take his plate then quickly retreated toward the kitchen.

"Get the hell back here. What about Loon Madden?" he growled, as he knocked chairs aside and hurried to follow her through the kitchen then outside and into the night.

Once behind the diner, he found her standing over a bucket of water, washing dirty plates.

She looked his way and said firmly, "Take me with you. I'll led you to him."

"I can't take you with me. The trail is too hard with a woman. I'd be a fool."

  

"Come back tomorrow, after you've had time to re-think my offer. I ride as well as any man, and I can shoot the eye out of a rattlesnake." She looked away. "Now, I have work to do."

"How much for the whiskey and steak?" he asked, knowing that he was wasting his time trying to reason with her.

"Two bits."

He slipped several coins in her apron pocket, again glancing toward the scar in the dim light.

"What are you looking at?" she demanded, anger suddenly filling her eyes.

"Nothing," he replied, backing away a step. "I wasn't lookin' at nothing."

"I saw you staring at me with that pitiful look in your eye," She turned away and hurried to her kitchen, pausing only at the doorway to say, "My face is my face. Now, go away. Leave me be. And, if you're still around tomorrow, we'll talk - if not, to hell with you!"

Will moved into the yard where he stopped to roll a smoke while he considered her anger and her association with Loon Madden. From his vantage, he watched her move about the kitchen, hurrying from one task to another. Soon, he saw her reach into an apron pocket and remove a handful of change.

Slowly, she counted the coins then stepped to the door.

"If you're still out there," she said, her voice calling into the darkness. "You need to know that you needn't give me a five-cent tip. I'm not available."

Will moved into the light, smiling to himself. "I always tip ladies that do me good. I'm much appreciative of your honesty. I need to find Loon Madden."

She hesitated a moment, then said, "If you want a place to sleep, I have a shed in back."

He watched her turn away and return to her duties.

In the background, Indian Charlie remained silently to the side, his arms folded against his chest.

Later that night, during the quiet hours, Will awakened wondering if the sound that alerted him was man or animal. Out of instinct, he reached for his forty-five and placed it across his chest, his senses tuned to the night.

Seconds later, a gunshot thundered though the air.

Rolling quickly into the shadows near the side of the shed, he tried to shake the sleep filling his eyes. In the distance, he sensed movement near the back of the diner. Cautiously, he crept forward, looking, searching.

A muzzle flash and the sound of another gunshot rolled through the air, the brightness momentarily blinding him.

To his left, someone started running, the footsteps moving away. He waited, allowing his eyes to readjust to the darkness. A wrong move, he knew, could lead to instant death.

Behind the diner, he saw a body in the dirt.

Carefully, he crept forward, his instincts penetrating the blackness. He paused to listen then continued on, hesitating, searching. On reaching the body, he rolled it over and realized that Indian Charlie had taken a bullet.

Behind him, a sound came from her shack. He turned and quickly hammered his forty-five.

"Who's there?" she called.

"It's me, Will," he said hurriedly. "Someone took a shot at Charlie... got him in the head."

With a shotgun at the ready, she circled him carefully. "Move away," she demanded, nudging the weapon a fraction.

He took a step back and waited.

Moving to the old Indian, she crouched over the body, her hand touching his face. Then slowly, she came to her feet and stood silently to the side where she remained for many long, minutes, her head bowed. Finally, she touched the body with a bare foot and turned to Will.

"I'll miss that old man. He kept me going when times were rough."

Will said nothing.

She squared her shoulders. "I suspect it was those boys that taunted you last night... had to be. They've been trying to take me for months. Charlie probably surprised them and got himself killed."

"Will you be okay?"

She lowered the shotgun. "Why shouldn't I be? I'll get him buried when the sun comes up. Now, I'm going to bed. Tomorrow promises to be an extra long day." She turned away and started toward her shack. "If you want, you can sleep in the kitchen where Charlie lived. It's better than the shed."

"I'll keep with the shed. I can hear things there."

The following morning activity from the diner woke him. Rolling over, feeling the crispness of a new day, his thoughts turned to green shade trees and flowing water. But, as he came to his feet, he remembered Loon Madden. Deep inside, he again sensed the hatred. It felt good, and he accepted it with pleasure, knowing that it would carry him another day.

As he approached the doorway to her kitchen, he saw her mixing dough.

"You're startin' early," he said cautiously.

"I need to get my biscuits baked." She brushed a sweaty frock from her forehead. "Indian Charlie always made the biscuits."

Will grunted then looked toward the old Indian laying face down in the dirt. Flies were already starting to circle the head, attracted to the smell of death.

Turning back to her, he watched her fingers work the dough, kneading and pounding it to the right consistency. "Do you want me to move the body?"

She glanced toward him. "I'd be appreciative. I'll get him buried later."

He watched her for a few minutes longer then stepped to the body, took hold of a leg and began dragging it across the rocks. When he reached the edge of a gully behind the shed, he shoved the body away, watching it tumble into the crevices below.

By the time he returned to the diner, she was outside, kneeling near her oven prodding a bed of coals.

She looked up. "I was hopin' to give Charlie a proper burial. I guess you saved me the trouble."

"That's the best way in these parts," he said, as he watched her move toward the far side of the yard where she stopped to look toward the east.

"What are your plans?"

She remained focused on the horizon, watching as the sun slowly crept higher in the morning sky. "With Charlie gone, I can't run this diner alone. It takes two people"

"You'll manage. We do what's important."

She returned to the oven and reached for a shovel. "There's nothing for me in Dripping Wells. There never has been. It's only been a way-stop to give me time to get my life together."

With a load of coals from the fire, she started toward the kitchen, pausing only to indicate a stack of firewood. "Would you be kind enough to add some wood to the fire? I need to get the bacon started."

Will tossed several splits on the glowing remains then settled on a stool in the shade near her kitchen, his thoughts turning to Loon Madden.

"Keep an eye on the biscuits," she soon shouted out the door. "When the tops turn a golden brown, bring 'em inside."

Will hesitated, knowing that she was asking him to do her work. If he lingered doing the chores, circumstances could draw him deeper into a situation that was none of his business.

Reluctantly, he stepped toward the oven. But, as he drew near, the aroma of freshly baked biscuits began to fill him with a long-lost, sense of home. Carefully, he removed each one and placed them in his hat. Before taking them to her, he held the hat close to his face and inhaled deeply, remembering that life had once been good.

Later that morning, she handed him a plate with two bacon strips and a biscuit then took a seat on the ground near him.

"I'm obliged for your help. I couldn't have made the morning without you."

"Just a man's duty," he replied, as he took a generous bite of biscuit. "These are mighty good biscuits."

"You're a honest man, Will. You would make any woman proud."

Ignoring her, he downed a strip of bacon. "You cook good bacon too."

"Take me with you."

"I travel alone."

She reached for a piece of the bacon on his plate and dropped it into her mouth. Then gesturing about she said, "I need to get this place ready for lunch. I'll give you another meal if you'll split some kindling and work the fire. I surely don't want to lose my oven heat."

"Why don't I just pay you for the food and be on my way."

"It's your choice," she replied. "It takes a good hot fire to cook a cobbler. I've been saving a can of peaches... thought you might like to share it with me."

"Peach cobbler sounds tempting, but you'd best be savin' the peaches for some other stranger."

"Then, I guess you'll be on your way."

"How much for the food?" he asked.

"Breakfast costs ten cents."

Will reached into his pocket and came out with a small handful of change. He counted the coins then said, "I only got six cents."

"Then, I'll be needin' to call the Sheriff."

"That won't be necessary," he replied quickly. "I can still sweep floors."

She pointed to the side. "Put your dish in the wash bucket and come with me."

An hour later after rebuilding her fire, Will stopped sweeping the floor of the diner and walked to the front door. Kicking it open, he swept a pile of dirt into the street. For the next few minutes, he remained at the doorway watching the local activity, his thoughts again turning to Loon Madden.

Looking away, his eyes swept the diner and immediately settled on the charcoal sketch against the opposite wall. It appeared interesting.

Moving closer, he remembered that scenes of trees and water were enjoyable subjects. He studied the lines, his attention going from detail to detail, and soon, he realized that they had come from a delicate, steady hand - one that demonstrated will power and determination.

From the kitchen, he heard her singing. The song was a happy melody, one that resided at the fringe of his memory. When he heard her leave the kitchen, he set his broom aside and followed, remembering a voice from San Antonio and a girl that had captivated his spirit.

"I'll be movin' on in the morning," he said as he stepped outdoors. "I'd be appreciative of any information on Loon Madden."

She remained firmly directed to the east as another gust of desert air blew against her. Finally she said, "I'm going with you."

"I can't have a woman on the trail with me."

Ignoring him, she continued, "We'll take Indian Charlie's horse and use it to carry supplies. He won't be needin' a horse where he's going."

"Forget what you're thinking."

She turned to him, the intensity in her eyes boring through his. "We can get our start after the sun goes down and travel at night while the air's cool. San Antone is a long ride from here."

He tried to protest, but she eased close to him. "I'm going with you Will, no matter what you say."

Through the dust and dirt filling her hair, he could smell her sweetness, and he knew they were leaving Dripping Wells forever.

Days later, after a long difficult journey through scorching heat across the southwestern desert, they reached the Pecos River. It was their first decent water since leaving the town.

They immediately waded in.

"I give it two more weeks to get to San Antone," he said, as he splashed about, intent on removing the dirt from his body. The water was cool and refreshing. It was exactly what he needed to rejuvenate his weary spirits.

She looked around, her eyes sweeping the canyon walls outlining the river. "We don't have to go that far."

"I thought you wanted to go back to San Antone before takin' on Loon... have a little fun."

"I got my start there. After this..." She indicated her scar. "They won't want me to sing and dance. I'm not sure I want to go back."

Will stopped splashing. "Then, we'll go directly for Loon and surprise him... put a bullet in his head."

"Is that what you want?"

"It seems the right thing to do. Now is the time to finish him."

In the distance, she watched a kettle of vultures circling to the west, riding the desert heat. They reminded her of the hardships she had left behind. Uncertain of her future, she turned to him and asked, "Why do you swim with your hat on?"

He laughed. "I'd feel naked otherwise."

"But, you're already naked."

Only the blue of the sky watched as they frolicked about splashing, playing and experiencing their first taste of pleasure in years. For those few moments, merged together in the river, they found solitude in each other, unaware of the forces slowly guiding them onward.

During the next two days, they remained camped beside the river, enjoying the water while they hunted game and rested - pretenses that allowed their determination additional time to mature. Deep inside, they hesitated moving onward.

On the third morning, he found her at work near the water's edge washing his shirt against the rocks.

He moved near her. "I think we should get back on the trail. Lingering here only makes the unknown more difficult."

She looked up and smiled. "We'll leave tonight."

He remained at her side watching. He liked her strength.

When she noticed him staring, she asked, "What are you lookin' at?"

Will glanced away, embarrassed. "I was thinkin' about things... lettin' my mind wander."

"What kind of things?" she asked, as she set the shirt aside.

"Nothin' that matters," he said, as he turned away and hurried toward the horses.

When they were again on the trail, Will soon realized that he had forgotten to re-think his daily hatred of Loon Madden. For him, the days came and went with a new excitement.

Through it all, she remained beside him, smiling, probing and coaxing him onward. And, slowly, just as he, her life began to change too.

Finally, a few miles west of San Antonio, they made camp amid shade trees and cool breezes.

"You need to gather more firewood," she called. "The air feels like a chill tonight."

At the time, he was snoozing quietly under a tree near a stream, his hat covering his face.

"In a few minutes," he replied. "I was having a good dream."

He could still hear a melody flowing through his mind. It was a song she had sung many times on the trail, one that had given him joy and pleasure.

She moved near him. "We'll never get to San Antone if you spend your days dreamin' and napping."

"I'm in no hurry," he replied, lifting the hat.

She settled on the ground and dangled her feet in the water. "The land around here is so beautiful." She nodded toward a rise in the distance. "My eyes keep going to those trees across the way."

"I saw that piece of land earlier. I like the green." He gestured about. "Most of the land around here is the kind where one could live easy... lots of trees and water."

She turned to him. "You could live here?"

"I could," he replied.

She returned her attention to the hill. "You seem to have forgotten Loon Madden."

"To some extent, I guess I have forgotten him. I've wasted much of my life searching for revenge. And, where has it gotten me?"

"Nowhere," she replied. "The Loon Madden' of this world are everywhere." She moved beside him. "I haven't thought about him either. Maybe, I've let him torture me for too long."

"You want to know something."

"And, what is that?" she asked, turning to him.

"I'm not sure that Loon Madden murdered my family. Someone only pronounced his name, and I took it for gospel. Maybe, I've been chasing a ghost."

"It's strange you would say that."

"How so?" he asked, as he looked her way.

She paused, searching for words, and then quietly said, "Indian Charlie killed Loon Madden years ago and left him in that same gully behind the diner. You've been searchin' for a dead man."

His eyes suddenly narrowed as the wasted years flashed before him. Finally, he turned to her, his voice subdued. "Then, I guess I have been chasin' after a ghost."

She eased closer and laid her head against his shoulder - letting the hair fall freely from her face. "I've been doing the same. I've hated him every day for what he did to me."

Together, they remained on the ground, listening to the water trickle beside them. Overhead, the sky was a clear blue. In the distance, the sounds of birds calling one another filtered through the trees. And from deep within, harmony once again began returning to their lives.

He stood and reached for her hand. "Care to explore that hill?"

"I was hoping you would ask," she replied, as her eyes brightened into a smile of delight.

THE END

 

John is a native born Texan living near Houston. His writing focuses on short stories and flash. Publications to his credit have appeared in several scientific journals as well as a number of internet sites and short story periodicals.

 

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