Western Short Story
“I am the Devil’s due.”
He kept hearing her words, as if they were coming out of a long, thin funnel of rocks someplace where he had been; “I am the Devil’s due,” she said, the voice as thin and as narrow as the funnel of its delivery, that old place he could not remember. In the mountains. In his past. Anywhere?
“I am the Devil’s due,” she had said, just like the dice were loaded and had been tossed, still rolling end over end.
“I am the Devil’s due.”
Even before the coach came to a standstill, Chess Morton saw the lady standing under a red umbrella in front of the Stone Ridge Hotel in Sampson Green, Nevada and he hadn’t felt a drop of rain for more than a month. When he leaned out of the coach window, staring at her, and her but a few yards away from him. their eyes locked. A surge of energy passed through him that he could not put a name on. More than plain old curiosity or mystery, he passed over love or want or need, all in turn, and settled on plain, all-out awe. This woman had unsettled him … again! And he was a veteran sheriff of the range wars, of endless posses, of the saloon and poker table wars, and of the second floor wars between man and woman when one treats the other less than kindly.
Morton showed some of his past in a weather-beaten face, in a few obvious scars from his wars, two of them on one side of his face that creased any smile, making it memorable in a sense, and a look of a man in eternal search. When he drank it was always a beer and never hard liquor, set for the quick turn of events that came along in a lawman’s life on or off the job in the growing west … in most cases.
Sitting alone in the White Stallion Saloon, in Sampson Green, not having seen a familiar face in the few customers, he couldn’t remember what color were the eyes or hair on the woman he had seen from the coach. All he remembered was the red umbrella and, quick as thought itself, the red of the dress she wore; it was blood red.
The immense awe returned as he sat in place.
He was rapt in the thought of her, knowing that she was something special in his life, when a familiar face stared down at him from under a wide sombrero. He leaped up and shook hands with Jonas Buck, once long before a deputy with him on a posse chasing down the Colorado Killer, Roscoe Kearns. Unlike him, Jonas Buck seemed not to have aged a single day in the 6 years six since the posse attained its final success.
Jonas Buck had not a single line or wrinkle on his face, and his smile was wide and wholesome and not a flashy fake like others Morton recalled on the instant. The solid and warm attitude of friendship enveloped the man and people knew right away it was cored deeply inside him. Morton recalled a poker player once saying, of Jonas Buck, “Even in cards when you know he’s got a better hand than you, he’s still an aces gent.”
Even before the two old friends began their folksy chatter on old days and old pals, Morton and Jonas Buck heard the stage driver say to the barkeep, “He was layin’ right there beside the road, his horse dead as a log and the saddle still on him and the gent was talkin’ about some woman almost half as dead as him and he took our water right off so we had to slow him down and then get the saddle off’n the horse and meanin’ to pack him and his saddle up on the top of the coach, but one gent rider inside said he could have his place and he’d ride topside. Said this found gent was talkin’ about some woman out in the Mojave where he must have come from, dry as bones they were, him and his horse. He must’ve rid that poor critter to his death.”
Jonas Buck, hearing the coach driver talk as clear as a classroom teacher, sat down beside Morton and said, “Is that gent at the bar talking about you, Chess? You’re looking like you’ve had a rough time of it recently. You been stuck out in the desert? You owing some dude big time? If you do, I’m right with you.” He clasped his hands with relish, as if all adjustments were made, and added, “Just call it the old days catching up and getting even.”
His past leaped up at him in pieces and came back to the latest incident. “He got the drop on me just outside Widow’s Rock,” Morton explained. “Took my hat, my gun belt, my rifle, and then, with three canteens hanging on his saddle, he run us out on that hot sand until we were lathered to a fare-thee-well, me and my horse, and left us there. Had a mask on all the time and never once gave his name, just said he owed me and a few others he hadn’t caught up to yet.”
“He didn’t owe your horse anything, Chess. You know anybody back there so mad he’d do that or send someone to do it? Talk about high and dry getting low and dry as foot blisters. That’s a pretty mean ass critter, if you ask me. You sure you don’t have any recollection who’s behind it, making something intolerable come out all even? A madman? An escaped prisoner you shoved into his proper place one time back there in the territory?”
“I got nothing, Jonas. Not a tinkering. But that woman under the red umbrella’s hanging back on the edge of my mind, her in the red dress clinging around her like a glove in place, tight and firm and full of halleluiahs.”
“Like a glove, man? Halleluiahs?” Jonas Buck might have started dancing. “Whoa, that sends me hopping. Where’s she now, Chess?” His eyes were as open as his mouth.
The expression on Morton’s face caused a shift of concern in Jonas Buck, who spurted out, “What else you got hanging on you, Chess? Looks like the devil just grabbed your backside and won’t let go? Damned if it don’t.”
“When I came in on that stage, leaning out the window, getting some air, looking at things I thought a while earlier I’d never see again, she was right there staring at me.”
Buck’s voice jumped right out of him. “Right here in town? You fooling with me, Chess?”
Jonas Buck turned to the stagecoach driver and the barkeep and said, “You gents see or hear anything about a woman in a red dress and carrying a red umbrella here in town?”
The coach driver said, “The gent that gave up his seat for your pal there said he was mutterin’ about some woman and a red umbrella, but I think that was just Mojave talk comin’ out of him. Real, hard Mojave working on the soul. I ain’t seen her yet anyplace, here or out there on the trail. I seen more than one man come out of the Mojave like he did, all tight and as dry as a man can get, but his mind as loose as hoops young uns get to roll down the road.”
“I am the devil’s due,” Morton heard again and he turned to look at the saloon door, expecting her to walk in, but only an old gent came through the creaky door. The door swung closed behind him and hit the jamb, but Morton did not hear it close. There was absolute silence.
The bartender yelled a greeting to the newcomer. “Silas, I ain’t seen you in a couple of years. Where you been?” He saw the look on the old man’s face. “You ailin’, Silas? What can I do for you?”
“Damned if I didn’t see her again,” the old gent said.
“That woman you told me about when I first met you?” The bartender, with surprise written all over his face, looked at Morton and Buck sitting at their table across the room. “She wearin’ a red dress, which you didn’t mention before?”
“How’d you know that, about a red dress? Know any more about her? You been bit too?”
“She have a red umbrella?” the bartender said, still staring at Morton and Buck. “You seen her again, Silas?”
“Hell, yes,” the old gent said. “I just saw her outside town, but don’t go lookin’ ‘cause she ain’t there.” He said it again. “She ain’t there. She’s never there, even when I see her. It’s been like that for 40 years. She’s there but she ain’t. Give me a whiskey, Pete. I got money this time.” He dropped a small pouch on the bar and it hit softly, saying it was gold dust.” He added hurriedly, “That’s all there is, Pete. The year ain’t been too good for me.” He gathered himself but added, “And she ain’t helpin’ none neither.”
He looked out the door as if the horizon of his past was sitting out there so close he might be able to touch it and he tossed down the whiskey making it appear the glass was empty beforehand.
Pete the bartender offered an explanation to Morton and Buck. “I saw Silas maybe two-three years ago, at the coach station ‘fore the town of Timberton got burnt to the ground. He was ailin’ then too like your pal there. Like seein’ is believin’ as they say but it ain’t always true.”
Jonas Buck said, “He hasn’t paid his dues in 40 years? What the hell did he do?”
“He shot at a gent on a horse draggin’ a woman down the street in Timberton and shot her kid instead. It ain’t ever gonna get over and done with.”
Buck stared down at his pal still sitting at the table. “You do anything like that, Chess? You owing that big?”
He was thinking, “Chess has been on many trails that crisscross, that seem untraceable, but none that were ever devious. He’s never stolen a horse or a dollar. Maybe a few favors. I wonder if they count?”
Chess Morton, a man who for years carried a chessboard and a bunch of small figures in a bag in his saddlebag, who offered to teach any trail hand or posse member the rules of the game, showed the same lost and imponderable look on his face that Silas had shown looking at the past horizon of an earlier time.
The feeling expressed was suddenly known by his friend and he might have heard the words, understood the impact of them, before Chess Morton let go of them.
“It’s been just like that,” Morton said, “like with the old gent there.” He pointed to old man Silas pushing his pouch forward on the bar and the bag of gold dust at the same time. Everything expendable.
“I was in Timberton too. I found a cuss I was looking for right in the main street and he went for his gun. I shot at him twice because I knew he’d be tough to knock down. I killed him with the first shot. My second shot went right through the schoolhouse window and killed a teacher in the classroom in front of all her kids. In front of every one of them. Knocked her right out of her chair in front of them. When I was at her burial just outside town, her mother said I’d never forget it, that she won’t let me forget it. She was wearing a red dress and carrying a red umbrella.”
He shook his head several times, as if affirming his words and her words, and then said, “She didn’t lie. Not one word of it was a lie. Like not all of Timberton got burned away in that fire.”
For two men, the horizon of the past was never far away.