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Pale light crept into the black stanchions of pine, the ashen ground, the red center of dying coals. The camped men rose, silent, and broke the bread of old pillage between blackened fingers. One of their number looked at his own. Soot and powder, ash and dirt. Neat crescents accrued underneath the nails, trim and black, like he’d tried to dig himself out of a hole in the ground. Or into one.
Some of the others chewed loudly, bread dry in dry mouths. No tins rattled. There was no coffee, not for some days. He always wanted to talk in this quiet of early morning, to speak something into the silence that assembled them into the crooked line of horsemen. No colors among the trees. No badges, no uniforms. He wanted to ask what peace might be gained if they hovered here longer in the mist, did not mount and ride. But they always did.
So he sprang up first. He shoved the last crust down his gullet and kicked old Swinney where his britches failed him, an inordinance of cloven white flesh.
“Goddamn katydid,” said Swinney, second in command.
“Least I ain’t a old ash-shitter.”
“You be lucky to get this old, son. Right lucky this day and age.”
The boy set his cap on bold.
“Lucky as you?”
Old Swinney hawked and spat a heavy clot of himself into the coals.
They rode horses of all colors, all bloods. “Strays,” they called them, tongue in cheek. Horses that offered themselves for the good of the country, under no lock and key. The quality of a man’s mount was no measure of rank, a measure instead of luck and cunning and sometimes, oftentimes, cruelty.
The boy went to mount his own, a fly-bitten nag with a yellow-blond coat in some places, gray patches of hairless skin in others. She’d been a woman’s horse once, most likely. The men used to joke about this. Then one of their favorites, an informal company jester, had been blown right from her back. The mare had stood there unmoved, flicking her ears, biting grass from the trampled soil. No one save the Colonel enjoyed a horse so steady. They left off joking.
The boy stuck one cracked boot into the stirrup, an ill-formed shape clanged from glowing iron by an idiot smithy. Or so the men had told him. They told him many such things, their faces fire-bitten and demonic over the cookfire, the embers circling them like burning flies. The boy believed them all. Never the facts, the names, the settings. But what they were getting at, this he believed. There was faith in their eyes, so black and silvered—like the move of steel in darkness.
Rays of dawn shot now through the black overhang of trees, spotting the ground with halos of warped design. The rest of the men slung themselves into their saddles, a cadre of stiff-jointed grunts, and some of them stepped their horses into the light unawares. The boy saw them go luminous among the black woods, specterlike. Like men elected to sainthood. Faces skull-gone, mouths hidden in the gnarled bush of their beards, showing only their teeth. The equipage of war hung by leather belts, pistols and knives and back-slung scatterguns of all gauges. This hardened miscellany jolted and clanked as their horses tapered into the long, irregular file of their occupation.
They rode the forest until the white face of the sun hung right above them and the insects clouded so thickly that men soiled their cheeks and foreheads with dirt or ash from the previous night’s fire. The horses flicked the mosquitoes from their rumps with their tails, the skin of man and animal growing spattered with spots of blood. They came finally to the verge of a small green valley of sparse trees. There was a farmhouse down there, a barn. Out of habit they stopped for lunch, though there was little to drink and less to eat. They stopped within the cover of the trees so as not to be seen from the valley below.
When the boy dismounted his horse, old Swinney slapped him on the shoulder.
“Welcome to Virginny,” said the old man.
“Virginia?” said the boy, his eyes going wide with wonder.
“That’s right. Colonel wants you to see if they got anything to eat down there.”
The boy nodded. He crept toward the edge of the trees, his face dark amid the shadows. He could feel the older men’s eyes upon him, their ears attuned to the snap of stick or shrub. They listened because he made no sound, this boy, the lightest of foot among them. Their scout. A former horse thief whose skills translated readily to their pursuits. At last he stared down upon the rough-planked barn, the once-white house, the single white pig mired in a sagging pen of mud. He stared down upon Virginia for a long time, a stranger unto this country. Then he turned his head and made a whip-poor-will’s whistle over his shoulder.
When he returned, the men of the troop, thirty-odd strong, were tightening their holsters and sighting their rifles, sliding their knives back and forth in their sheaths, back and forth, making sure no catches might slow the draw. The boy carried a French dueling pistol of uncommon caliber. He mounted up and pulled the heavy J-shaped weapon from his belt and thumbed the hammer back. The filigreed metal of the action spun and clicked into place. The rich wood frame was scarred by countless run-ins with his belt buckle, tree branches, roots where he’d dropped the thing practicing his pistoleer skills.
Swinney stood below him.
“You got any bullets left for that thing, boy?”
The boy held the pistol toward him butt-first.
“She’s a firecracker,” he warned, smiling.
When the older man reached for the pistol, the boy dropped it sideways from his hand and hooked it upside down by the trigger guard and spun the gun upon its axis, catching it by the backstrap, the trigger fingered, the barrel at Swinney’s chest, the older man’s eyes wide with fright.
“Let them sons of bitches learn the hard way,” said the boy.
In fact, he did not have any bullets. He was out.
Swinney’s eyes narrowed and he shook his head.
“What you need is a good ass-whooping, boy. Not them parlor tricks.”
The boy spun the gun and stuck it in his belt.
“Now don’t you go getting jealous on me, Swinney.”
The older man, his keeper of sorts, made a derisive gesture and waddled down the line.
The provenance of the pistol was known—one of a pair from the vast arms collection of a Union sympathizer whose home they’d raided. The boy’s first of such prizes. He’d been promptly swindled of one of the guns in a bet over the estimated height of a sycamore that was fated for firewood. That left him one pistol and five balls for the smoothbore barrel. Two went to target practice, one to drunken roistering, one to a duel with a blue jay on a fence post (lost), and the last plumb lost along the way.
He could only wait now for another of his comrades to fall. Be first to scavenge.
“Hey, Swinney,” he called. “You think they’re down there? Any villains?”
“Somebody is,” said the fat man, turning back down the line.
The boy sat astride his horse and made ready to maraud. When their leader rode past, the boy could smell him. The Colonel was riding the line with words of exhortation, of courage and duty and triumph. He had long curly locks, dark as crow feathers, flying loose under a plumed hat. He wore four Colt revolvers on his belt, butt-forward, and carried two dragoon pistols in saddle holsters, and he wore fine riding boots that went up to his knees. He was the man who had once poled across the foggy Potomac in the dead of night to ambush the Maryland Guards in their sleep. The man who had kidnapped a Northern general from a hotel room in West Virginia, pulling him from the bed he shared with a purchased negress. He was the man who had blown more Baltimore & Ohio Railroad bridges than anyone, and captured at least one of those B&O trains for his own profit, keeping the gold, and been stripped of his commission for it. His battalion of Partisan Rangers had been disbanded, some said by order of Lee himself, but for these few who remained. He led them through the hills on missions their own.
The Colonel rode out into the light and struck his saber heavenward, no gleam upon the corroded blade. The band spurred their horses’ bellies at the slashed order of charge, dropping down into the valley upon a thunder of hooves. The cavalcade fanned out as they descended, tearing divots from the soft turf. The boy, so scant of weight, pulled ahead of many in the onrush. He was not first to the house but first onto the porch, his horse needing no dally to stay her. The porch planks gave beneath his boots, sodden or thin-cut or both. The door was standing wide and he ducked into the sudden dark. Pistol first, knife second. The ceilings were low, the furniture neat. No roaches scattered before him. No people. Other men clamored through the door behind him. Outside, war whoops and the squeal of the slaughtered pig.
No one in the front rooms, the rear, the kitchen. He found the stairs and shot upward into the blue dark of the second floor, the balls of his feet hardly touching the steps, the point of his blade plumbing the gloom like a blind man’s stick. The curtains were all drawn, the floor dark. He stepped from one room into another. Quilted beds neatly made, wardrobe of cheap wood. Then he crossed the threshold into still another room, this the darkest.
He swung the pistol toward her white back, the dark hair all upon its contours like a black eddy of stream water. She had not heard him, was watching the other door. Her thin shift was open at the back, skin and cloth pale as bone. He swallowed, suddenly nervous, and realized how hungry he was, his stomach drawn up empty inside him. Heart, heart, heart again. It sounded in the cavity of his chest. The pistol began to quiver like a pistol should, whelmed with power.
His voice a whisper: “Ma’am?”
She spun on bare feet, kitchen knife clutched to chest, face silly-hard with courage, fear.
“Which side?” she asked him.
“It don’t matter which.”
She was not looking at him, not listening, either, staring instead into the black tunnel of the barrel like she might jam the pike by willpower alone.
He looked at her and then at the gun, kinking his wrist to better see the thing. An object foreign to him. He lowered it to his side and sheathed the knife as well, and the two of them stood staring at each other, unspeaking.
“What’s your name?” he asked finally, dry-mouthed, his words hardly crossing the six feet of space that separated them.
She pointed the kitchen knife at him.
“Ava. Any closer and I kill you.”
The floorboards jolted, steps upon the stairs. He shot across to her, past the blade.
“You got to hide.”
“Nowhere to,” she said. “I’ll take my chances.”
“They ain’t good.”
A bearded sharecropper with tobacco-juiced lips, black-gritted, clopped into the room. The boy knew him but not his name, not at this moment. A Walker Colt hung loosely in the man’s hand. He saw the girl and smiled.
“Christmas come early,” he said.
The boy stood beside the girl, his mouth agape. She spoke to him without looking.
“You a man, or I got to protect my own self?”
His mouth closed. Slowly he raised the dueling pistol, ornate and empty, at the older man’s heart.
“I don’t reckon it’s Christmas yet,” he said.
The man spat a black knot on the floor and leveled his pistol at the boy, casual-like.
“Now Mr. Colt here, he beg to differ.”
The boy went to thumb back the hammer of his weapon, but back it was.
“Where them pistol tricks, boy?”
“Don’t reckon I need them.”
Black caulking divided the man’s teeth.
“You killed yet?”
“No. I knowed you was a virgin the day we took you on. I knowed by plain sight and I know it still. You want to be a man? Tell you what, I’ll let you watch.”
The fingers of his free hand began to unbutton his britches as he walked slowly across the room, legs straddled.
The boy put the palm of his hand against the girl’s belly to push her behind him, and her waist was as tiny and delicate as his idea of what was fragile in the world.
“No,” said the boy to the sharecropper. “No.”
The man kept coming.
At last the boy lunged, unsheathing his knife, and a white crack exploded inside his head, and dreaming or dying he felt his blade plunge into the liquid underbelly of all that might have happened. All that would have. He saw her eyes come over him, blue-rimmed, the pupils deep and black and wide as wells. All for him. Then darkness.
* * *
Hands upon his face, his brow. Palms smooth. Tough but smooth, callus-shaven. No scratching, no frictive grit. A voice like running water. The layers that bound him were cut away, piece by piece, until he was naked, unwooled, committed to dark.
In and out for hours, days. Drifting. Sometimes there were voices over him, whispers and orders he could not decipher. He floated in a world his own, dark with nightmare. Dreams of his past, fevered, like the night of the wreck. The men he pushed under, the men who pushed him. Ladders of them, limb-conjoined, wanting for air. The spouts of exhalation, gargle-mouthed. The groan of the ship sinking beneath them, sucking them under. The white jet of expelled air, last of the pockets that saved him, shooting him to the surface, white-birthed.
Then and now black-whirled. Nightmare and memory.
The ship gone, the waves high. The pale slit of coast, like snow. The beach underneath his feet, his knees, his face. Then the lopsided shack, the man called Swinney who nursed him on fish and whiskey, who took him in as a father might, and then the Colonel, who took them all. After that the land grown mountainous, and meaner, and scarecrow men who haunted the ridges, and rib-boned horses beneath them, and always the hunger, insatiable, and the wagons raided, and the barns and the farmhouses, and never so much blood.
With these fever dreams came the vomiting. Hot on his chest, aprons of himself expelled. Sickness and sweat and instruments on his skin, metal-cold.
One day he could hear the words of the men over his sickbed:
“How long’s he been like this?”
“Couple days. Took that long to find you.”
“How old is he?”
“Couldn’t really say, Doc.”
“He’s hardly even whiskered.”
“Well, where did he come from?”
“Shipwreck off the coast, blockade-runner.”
“Immigrant? Another Irish, with sympathies?”
“Could be. What’s that matter to you?”
“Niggers turned inside out is what they are. They don’t fight for us.”
“This one does.”
“Well, he won’t be fighting for anything, this swelling doesn’t diminish.”
“You best hope it do, Doc.”
“Shall I, Mr. Swinney?”
“Otherwise you might find yourself there beside him. Untongued.”
“Where is your commanding officer?”
“Don’t you worry your head about it.”
“Where is he?”
“With the girl. And you, Doc. You with me.”
Days later the sickbed gone, the house, too, his world beginning to sway and totter beneath him, uncertain of step. It expanded and collapsed and sweated and snorted, a ribbed joinery articulating beneath him as though the surface of the world had sprung from engines hot and deep beneath the soil and rock.
Sometimes he could not sit the horse, too dizzy, so they laid him belly-down across the torso of a horse with no saddle, his head lying against one of the flaring sides. In daylight, the sun leered sickeningly above him, the trees all warped and gnarled, the world ugly and pale and mean. He shut his eyes against the light. Nightfall, he was led stumbling to void himself in the trees, liquid and quaking. A round man, gone strange to him, leading him by a length of rope.
Swinney, he realized.
He came back into the world but slowly. The ground growing more certain, the light less painful. The dreams shorter. The pain duller. Then he was back in it, all at once, and it was hunger that brought him. He awoke on the back of the horse. The light was slanted, late afternoon, and he had never been so hungry. He tried to wrestle loose and found himself rope-bound to the animal like a sack of feed or beans or other provision.
He called out when someone walked past, his voice strange with disuse. Before long another man stood beside him, unhitching the ropes with thick fingers. He slid to the ground and leaned against the horse. The blood receded from his vision, leaving old Swinney standing there before him, loose loops of rope in his hand. The boy rubbed the chafed skin at his wrists. He touched his head lightly, the bandage, the long crust of blood.
“I a prisoner, Swinney?”
Swinney shook his head.
“Should I be?”
“Colonel said you done him a favor puncturing that son of a bitch. Said he never did like him.”
“So is he…”
“Bled out. Colonel’s orders.”
“And the girl?”
Swinney turned from him.
“Come with me, boy. You need to eat.”
They walked toward the light of the fire. The boy staggered along behind, finding his legs. He was still disoriented, his boots tripping along the ground.
“Where are we?” he asked.
Swinney was to the left of him. He said something, but the boy didn’t quite hear him. He stepped closer.
Swinney answered again. Again the boy didn’t catch his words, not fully. He stopped and clamped his nostrils and blew to clear out his ear canals.
Swinney came around to the front of him.
The boy tapped his left one, just underneath the bandage. Swinney came around to that side of him and leaned forward to whisper into the ear. The boy heard only strange mufflings, like the whisper of a foreign language.
“I can’t hear,” he told Swinney.
The older man came around to his good ear and patted him on the shoulder.
“I said, a few days north of that farmhouse. It’s been near a fortnight. Doctor said you was bad concussed. Ear ain’t much to lose, considering what you could of.”
The boy nodded. “North,” he said, mostly to himself.
Swinney looked at him a long moment. His belly shook.
“Lucky dog,” he said. He turned.
The boy thought to say something, but nothing came.
He followed the old man the rest of the way to the fire, the men and horses glazed with flame. The boy sat on the white heart of a hickory stump, and the others showed him their smiles, yellow-toothed, dark-gummed. He cocked his good ear toward the fire. They handed him a tin of stewed pork and he slurped down its contents in a single go.
When he handed back the empty tin, he saw the sleeve of his coat.
One of the men leaned into the fire, showing his face.
“She sewn it for you,” he said.
“We had to cut away your old,” said Swinney. “We was going to give you Oldham’s.”
“Oldham?” said the boy.
“Man you killed,” said somebody. “Probably you ought to know his name.”
“You know all their names?” the boy asked him.
A chuckle rose multilunged from men’s chests, choral.
“She wasn’t wanting you to wear Oldham’s,” said Swinney. “She sewn you that one out of old what-have-you.”
“Rags and quilts and such.”
“I heard scraps of old Oldham hisself.”
“A coat of many colors.”
“Yea,” said another man. “Like Joseph’s of old.”
The boy held the sleeves toward the fire’s orbit. Ribbons and patches of cloth cross-laced the coat, thick-stitched. He stood among the men and worked his arms inside the coat and found the cut of it closer than any he’d ever worn, his small frame normally swallowed in volumes of wool. This one hugged him like a second skin. He thought of who’d stitched it, of how she must know the contours that shaped him.
“How is she?” he asked them.
They rustled. No one spoke.
“What the hell y’all done to her?”
The boy looked around, his face darkened.
“Should I of stuck every last one of you? That it?”
One man, then another, put a hand to his knife.
Swinney stepped forward. He cleared his throat.
“We left her,” he said. “She ain’t none of your concern.”
“Says the Colonel.”
The boy looked to where the Colonel’s fire flickered a good ways off. He knew he should lower his voice but didn’t.
“What does he care?”
Swinney let his hands fall open, silent.
The boy looked at him, his eyes slowly widening.
“The Colonel is married,” he said.
The men shifted on their blankets and stumps. The boy looked at them a long moment. His voice was low. “He’s had his way, then.”
It wasn’t a question.
The men said nothing. Their assent.
Then he whispered it, the question that remained: “Against her will?”
None of the men looked at him. They looked at the fire or their hands or their boots but not at him. The boy swallowed thickly and thumbed the bandage on his head.
“So be it,” he said. He sat back on the stump and stared into the fire.
Sometime later he discovered a giant pocket sewn into the inner flap of the coat, on the left-hand side, as if made for something specific.
“Say,” he said, “I get something out of all this?”
Swinney stood and pulled an object from beneath his bedroll. The men handed it one to the next, circling the firelight until a woolen sock, heavy as a giant’s foot, arrived in the boy’s hand. He slipped off the sock, and the Walker Colt sat in his lap. It was a giant of a pistol, twice the weight of a newer Colt, built to kill not just men but the horses they rode, this one outfitted with trick grips that glowed like a moon in his hand. It looked made for a man twice his size, a frontier treasure for which men would surely kill. For which they had.
“You earned it,” said Swinney.
“Yeah, you did,” said somebody else.
The boy pointed the pistol into the dark of the man’s voice.
“Five shots left,” he said. “One through my head.”
Nobody spoke, and he knew they wondered what spirits might have snuck through that wound of his. Into his head. What meanness. He did not feel like a boy anymore. He felt old as any of them. Older even.
He rode for three days among them, quiet. Alien.
One night, Swinney pulled him aside.
“What the hell is wrong with you?” he asked.
“Tell me how to get back.”
“You got to be shitting me.”
“Tell me,” said the boy.
The third night, he lay down to rest early. The cold was coming down out of the north and the ground could keep a man from sleeping if he didn’t get to sleep early enough, with some sunlight still left in the dirt, the rock. He pulled the bandage from his head and felt the scabby place where the ball had passed along his skull, an inch from ending him.
After a time he rose from his pallet of old sacks amid the snoring of his compatriots and moved toward the far-off embers of the Colonel’s fire, silent as a wraith, one hand on the grip of his pistol to mask its glow. When he passed Swinney, he saw two white orbs look at him. Just as quickly they disappeared, closed, and whatever they saw prompted no movement.
The boy kept on picking his way among the stones, the heads, making no shadow, no sound. The coals of the Colonel’s fire glowed red, the flames low. His black thoroughbred stood seventeen hands tall, thick-muscled, big haunches twitching in its sleep. A stallion. The boy did not see the saddle sitting in the shadows, but he saw the Colonel’s slouch hat lying there beside him, the twin tassels still gold even for all they’d ridden above.
The boy pulled back the sleeve of his new coat and crouched, slow to lessen the crackling of his boots, and took the hat by the hand indentions over the crown. It would cover the scar. As he turned to the horse, the shadow of the round brim crossed the Colonel’s face. The boy saw him shift, his hand groping for the butt of the pistol under his bedroll. By the time the Colonel sat upright, he must have found himself all alone, his gun pointed toward empty space. Leaves, fire-spangled, quivering where the horse had been, hoofprints welled with firelight.
The boy laid his cheek low against the horse’s neck as they crashed through underbrush and low-hanging limbs. He hit upon an old wagon road whose dust shone white and crooked down the mountain switchbacks. The company shunned such roads, where spies could estimate the size of their force, where they could be detected at all. They took horse trails or even game trails instead, or they cut their own where the brush grew thick. The boy had the strongest horse underneath him and he was the lightest rider to boot and he believed he might outrun on the open road whomever they sent to catch him.
He dropped down, down out of the mountains in darkness, his breath and the breath of the horse pluming together, their dust hounding them as they rode. He thought of the men pursuing them, riders with plumes of dead birds in their hats, guns of many hands come to rest finally in their black-creased palms. He knew they fashioned themselves the most devoted Yankee-killers in all the land, and there were but two things that sated them: blood and money. He didn’t have any money.
First light rose colorless over hills crumpled and creased into one another, a sheet enameled over a miscellany of untold items, of corpses and rock and whatever else gave the earth its shape. Sparse trees bristled from the hillsides gold-leafed, a touch of red. The season was turning, and fast. He had been out of the world for what seemed an eternity, and if he could just see her, he thought she might embrace him surely as the coat she’d made him. Their courtship so short, seconds alone, but the true shape of him displayed forevermore in the event that split them. He thought this would count above all else.
At a high outcropping of rock, he tethered the horse and climbed to the flat top to surveil the terrain behind him, the terrain ahead. Dust rose from the road far behind him. Whether of riders in pursuit, he could not say. Plenty of others traveled these roads. Couriers, runaways, men of uniformed war. Militia and home guard, too. Enemies all for a boy of his position and exploits.
He let the horse drink at a rock-strewn stream and drank some himself and set off again. In daylight he left the main road and traveled parallel, rounding into and out of sight of its commerce, his path much slowed over the closed ground. When darkness fell, he returned to the road.
Day and night he rode to see her. His Ava. Dusk of the third day he rode out onto a ridge and saw farmhouses of the sort he sought, houses like hers in the valley bottoms. Swaddling them were forests richer with autumn than the forests out of which he rode, more abrupt spurts of red and yellow against the green. Whether by time or altitude, he could not say, the land of his past mainly evergreen, few colors to mark the seasons. His heart swelled upon the vista below him until he saw the black kink of river that lay in his path, no bridge in sight.
He rode down the ridges until he reached the riverbank, where the road attenuated into a long white spear under the shallows and disappeared. A wooden barge sat beached on the bank, a ferryman dozing on the afterdeck.
The boy hauled the horse to a stop alongside and kicked the hull.
The ferryman opened one eye beneath the shadow of his cap. He eyed the boy and the horse he rode and the hat he wore.
“Ten bits to cross,” he said. “No bartering ’less you got something to drink.”
The boy looked out at the flat river, the black surface vented here and there with hidden currents. Then he looked behind him at the road. Then back again to the river, deep as the nightmares that plagued him. The shipwreck.
“Two bits,” said the man again.
“Where’s the nearest bridge?” the boy asked him.
“Bridge? Two bits is cheap, son. Specially for a man with a horse like that one. Course, if you got you a drop of whiskey—”
“I need a bridge, sir. No ferries.”
The man looked hurt.
“Well, if you’re extra partial to bridges, the nearest is ten miles yonder. Them sons a bitches blown her last month. Dynamite. But she’s still operable, least tolerably. Don’t you go telling nobody, though. That’s in confidence.”
The boy looked upriver in the direction indicated. Then he tipped his cavalryman’s hat at the ferryman.
“I’m much obliged, sir.”
As he hauled the horse down to the soft flats of the riverbank, the boy knew his pursuers would learn all they needed to know from this man. They would know what condition he was in, what condition his horse. They would know what direction he was headed, how much ground they could gain on him by taking the ferry. And, most of all, they would know he was not a boy without fear.
He stopped the horse a ways down the bank and looked back over his shoulder at the dozing ferryman. The boy knew how he could remove all of that knowledge from the man’s head. All that might betray him. And he could prove to them what kind of a man he was. A kind better left alone. His fingers touched the butt of the Colt. A moment later he gripped great fistfuls of the horse’s mane and shot away toward the bridge.
He began to catch shapes quivering upon ridges he’d crossed, dust rising from paths he’d taken just hours before. They were gaining. He stopped for nothing, and still they gained.
They overtook him two days later in the valley of the farmhouse. It was the Colonel and two of his fastest riders, the Colonel riding hatless on a big blood bay, the other two flanking him. The trio broke from the trees diagonal to the boy in a flying wedge, the Colonel leading with his horse pistol drawn, the others with Spencer repeaters already shouldered like buffalo hunters of the plains. It was just the three of them, riding light for speed, and it was plenty.
They came on not firing at first to save the horse he rode. They headed him off right before the porch of the house. He called out to her over them, and they smiled from behind the long barrels of their weapons, pointing him down. Ava appeared in the window of the room where he had first and last seen her, where she had perhaps sewn the coat he wore with those white and slender fingers that spread now flat upon the windowpane like a prisoner’s.
“Off the horse,” said the Colonel.
He had his horse turned broadside to the porch steps, the front door.
“Didn’t hear you,” said the boy, cocking his ear toward him.
A blow landed across his back and he fell forward. His hands streaked across the sweat-slick musculature of the horse, helpless. It was too lean to grip. Too hard. He landed shoulder-first in the yard and his wind left him, thumped out of his lungs. He rolled onto his back and looked bleary-eyed at the men and horses, their shapes warped and wavering as those seen from below the surface of a well. He could not get enough air.
The Colonel shucked his near foot from the stirrup and brought his other leg over the pommel and dropped from his horse without ever turning his back. The gaunt hollows of his face, his cheeks, looked down into the boy’s. The upturned points of his mustache sat upon his face like a black smile. He reached out of sight and his hand came back, placing the slouch hat on his head, pulling the brim into place.
“I give a boy a chance, and look what it gets me. All for a goddamn woman.”
“Her name is Ava,” said the boy. “I saved her.”
The Colonel pulled him off the ground by the coat.
“But can you save yourself?”
The boy heard the patchwork of colors strain against the stitches that bound them, begin to tear faintly but not to give.
“I saved her,” he said.
The butt of the horse pistol came hard across his temple, his jaw, his nose. Bone and cartilage succumbing to harder matter. The Colonel dropped him, broken, to the ground.
“Get her, then,” he said. “Go in and get her.”
Faintly the boy saw a hand against the sky, a finger pointed heavenward. Wayward from the house, the window. The boy could not see if the Colonel was wearing gloves or if his hand was just that black with gunpowder and soot.
“Go get her.”
The corners of the boy’s vision were darkening. He looked up at the Colonel, tall above him, his chest pushed out. Pleased. He was standing that way when his heart exploded from his chest. Only after seeing it did the boy hear the shot. More followed in quick succession, long plumes of smoke bursting from the trees, the Colonel’s two riders shot from their mounts. One of the horses screamed, struck too, the others thundering in flight. Their hooves shook the ground. Then silence.
Soon he found other men around him, strangers, these in uniform. Gray or blue, he could not tell. They asked him who he fought for and what company and what name. Their breath was rancid, their words quick. He could not answer them. They asked him how he came by such a horse and was it not stolen. They asked him whether he was a deserter or a bounty jumper or a coward or a foreigner, and he could not tell them. They told him the men they’d just killed had died trying to kill him, and they could only honor the dead by carrying out their final wishes.
They said they did not want to waste another bullet.
They rode him up onto the ridge where he’d first looked down upon this valley, this state. They slung a rope over a heavy limb and sat him on the horse he’d stolen and slid the noose over his bare neck. There were three of them. He did not fight.
Below him the forests glimmered firelike in the last rays of sun, colors as brightly variegated as the coat he wore. He could hardly swallow for the snugness of the rope. He looked down at his Ava, a white cutout in the black upper window, and he was sorry she would remember him this way. He looked down upon that whole country so pretty in the fall, in the season of blood and gold, and he was no longer a stranger unto the land.
A man stepped forward to bind his hands. He was wearing the Colonel’s slouch hat slanted rakishly over his brow like some kind of joke. Another had a repeating rifle propped over his shoulder. The third was scratching his groin, smiling, his long sharpshooting rifle cradled across his chest. The boy put his hand into his coat. Slowly, to provoke no alarm. They watched him. He pulled the pistol butt-first from where it hung hidden in the folds and offered the bone-white grip of it to his captors, one finger on the trigger guard.
“She’s a firecracker,” he warned, his smile broken in the gathering dusk.
Copyright © 2015 by Taylor Brown