We rode into a muddy riverbank town. It was slanting cold rain. I shivered in it. We'd had nought but some biscuits in us for the last two days.
-My belly's talking, I told Kid. He slapped the reins on his horse and we trotted toward the low mass of sordid shacks.
-What all's it say? he asked light and quick over his shoulder. I kicked the pony to keep up on his tail.
-It grumbles. It wants.
Kid said: Mine too. Let's get us to a stable then find a cook house or sparing that a saloon.
We rode along in the rain. My hat was soaked and my hair under it dripped water down my neck. The town was a muddy brutal place.
-Who'd live here? I said. Kid laughed hard.
-River traffic. Gamblers. Horse dealers. Thieves. Whores, maybe. But nobody for long.
I touched the Colt Dragoon. It was stuck in my belt under the slicker. It still felt dry. You get your cap and ball piece rained on –
My fingers was wet though. I took them away, starting that sharp shivering again. I was soaked. Kid looked no more comfortable than I was.
We rode in past some half empty wagons. Horses tied to a rail shifting in the rain, miserable.
-That's a shame, said I.
Kid said, Yup.
Ahead was a set of glittering windows and we heard some hurdy gurdy music coming out dulled by the pattering rainwater.
-That would be the saloon, said Kid.
-And there's the stable, I said, if I'm not wrong. I pointed. It was the stable. We headed there.
A Negro boy was on the job. He wore a straw hat and a cape like he was in some militia. He said,
-Yes M'am, Sir.
We'd come in out of the storm leading our wet horses. Shocking to look at, probably. But the boy'd made out my sex at a glance.
Kid said, We need a roof and a stall for these horses and some grain or cord feed. They've been ridden hard over hard country.
-Yessuh, the boy said. And he named a price. It wasn't expensive but we had little coin on us. I saw Kid wince before he paid it out.
I'd turned to get the saddles. The boy said, M'am, I'll be happy to watch those for yuh all.
Kid asked, Is the price extra?
I wasn't wearing no skirts, riding or otherwise, and this M'am business didn't sit well with me. I was as bony as a man and maybe as homely.
So I said we'd take our saddles with us over to the rooming house.
-Suit yoselfs, said the boy. I glanced at him, but he wasn't being saucy.
We left the livery stables carrying our heavy saddles. I carried mine in my arms. Kid carried his on a shoulder, slouching along.
He leaped over a big watercourse -- too broad to be called a puddle -- like that and then extended his free hand to help me.
I got splashed some anyway, muddying my trousers.
-God damn this stinking place to hell, I cried.
Kid said, Come on now. Lord's name.
The roominghouse was a stark and simple place with a sitting room the size of a jakes. A clock ticking. Two velvet covered chairs, a sofa.
They had a free room at the back. We paid for it out of Kid's wallet.
-Getting lighter, he murmured to me, bouncing it in his hand.
We clomped up the stairs. We were in the third floor. It was a rickety set up, I paused at a hall window to look out the dripping panes.
-Get's dark early in Nothingness, I said.
Kid looked at me. His lips smiled.
This town ain't called Nothingness, he answered.
It was a stark little room. No chintz, just bare wood with the adze marks still on it. A greasy mattress stuffed with cornhusks. Blankets.
Kid sat down on the bed to take off his spurs. It groaned as it sank. He tossed his spurs over into a corner. I felt like tears.
Everything was hurting in me. And the tears were in my eyes already.
Kid said, Come on, dove baby. Sit here. I'll sooth you.
-Supper, I said, wiping my eyes with my sleeve. I'm fierce hungry.
-So am I, said Kid. Okay. He stood up and gave me his arm.
I turned down the gas lamp. The flame sputtered and went out. Kid opened the door and walked down the hall ahead of me. Clomp, clomp.
Those heavy Mexican tooled leather boots made real thunder. I laughed.
-What's funny? he asked over his shoulder. We went downstairs.
Kid asked the old redheaded woman,
-Where can we get a meal in this ranch?
She sucked her cheeks, considering with tilted head.
-Well, said she, you could go to the Chinaman's, or over to the Mexican lady's place, she cooks satisfyingly enough for the cowboys.
-How's that saloon?
-Oh, it's all right, if you like steer and potatoes. And if your lady here appreciates the same kind of rough range grub.
Kid turned to me with his hands open in question.
-Saloon, I said. I'd like to hear some hurdy gurdy. The old woman laughed loud.
We went out. This rain was pouring from the eaves in solid sheets. I shivered again. -Well, prairie girl, said Kid. We're out on the prairie now, ain’t we?
-Yep, I said, that's where it rains like this. To drown Sodom and Gomorrah both.
-I could use a little of the former tonight, said Kid.
It was under his breath but I gave him a slap on the cheek.
- Give me a kiss before we go in.
-You're a traitor to me. And I don't kiss traitors.
Kid said, Suit youselfs.
We walked hastily through harrowing cold rain to the lights.
A smoky place, thick with man-smell. At the bar, a big man in a bearskin coat. At tables, some broken down river rats.
The gas lights were blazing and a half dressed whore sat on a stool playing the hurdy gurdy. Sawing away, eyes shut, mascara tear streaked.
-Looks like we've come to the right digs, said Kid. I followed him to the bar. He addressed a skeletal barman as follows:
-Two whiskies, and two heaped high plates of whatever you've got cooking.
The barman grinned, showing us all his bad teeth. He said:
-You got it, my friend. Sit down anyplace you can find that's clean.
But we didn't move to sit down. We stood at the bar, Kid putting one boot toe up on the bar rail and turning his head to gaze at the bearskin.
The big man looked at him, his heavy eyelids drooping. He was wearing a cap also of bearskin and his expression was remote and cold.
In his belt were stuck two Colt Navy pistols with horn grips. These pistols were turned so that he could get the left one right handed, &c.
Kid said: -You a lawman?
The man looked at Kid.
-A desperado from Texas.
–Hellfire, son, you don't look it.
-Them Colt Navy pistols look like they got some use.
The man said:
-Done a little shooting in the Territory and over California.
-Who'd you shoot down?
The man's lips winced. He didn't smile. He took a drink of what he had there on the bar. Looked like whiskey.
-Askers of too many questions, said the man, swallowing his rotgut and turning away from Kid and me.
Kid laughed. He always did enjoy the spectacle of rudeness. He never took offense at it. He just laughed out loud joyously.
Our whiskeys were poured and slid to us. We clinked the little glasses and drank.
-Phaw! I said, gasping. My eyes had filled with tears.
-That's some potent stuff, Kid said to the barman. You got anything with a little less of a burn to it?
The barman said:
-We got what we got. Your grub's on its way out. You gonna sit down or eat standing here at my bar?
-Guess we sit. Kid took my elbow, led me to a table.
A boy came out with the tin plates steaming. He looked a little simple. He didn't speak to us. He just smiled and put the plates down.
Cornbread, beans with ham bone, mashed potatoes or turnips it looked like, some carrots, and a T bone steak each.
-Damn, Kid said, his mouth full. It's tasty. He shouted over to the bar man, Who does your cooking in this saloon?
-My wife, came the reply.
She from New Orleans?
-No, she's a Choctaw.
-Hell, Kid said. Hold onto that Indian. I ain’t tasted grub this fine since Bourbon Street.
Why was he called Kid? I guess he just wanted the name. He was from Joplin, Missouri. He'd run with bad people in his time. He wasn’t young but he wasn’t old either. His hair was shaggy and dark and his eyes sparkled witty. How I met Kid, how we ended up riding together, is a longer story than I’ve got patience here to tell.
We ate our fill. And I confess it, we drank more than we should. We left the place reeling. Kid had to hold me upright as we stepped from the saloon onto the boardwalk.
Amazingly to us, the rain had let up and a fine mist covered the sky, and the moon shone dimly through it.
-It’s all of a sudden got cold, said Kid. As he said it I could see his breath. He was looking at the moon.
-Beauty, he murmured. I didn’t know if he’d meant me at first. Then I realized it: he was just overwhelmed by the radiant light.
We’d been riding for days in rain and soaked through by it had forgotten that the sky held such mysteriousness.
He’d felt me shiver. I was clutching his sleeve. My heart was still in pieces but my head oh it was glorious with drink.
-Lean here, said Kid. I leaned on him and he guided me down the dark street shimming with misted moonlight to the roominghouse.
We struggled up the stairs. I don’t know what came after that. He’d got the clothes off me, at least, because I woke up naked with a piercing headache.
Kid was naked, too. His arm hung from the blanket. I picked it up and put it back in. He said something with his eyes shut and turned toward the wall.
I was thirsty. I got up and put on trousers and a shirt then boots, wincing, and clomped down the stairs.
I drank from the pump outside, by where the horses drank. The pump water was so cold it stung. I squinted in the light. The sun was high and it was not too cloudy.
The street was a mass of mud. Horses and wagons going by. Some of the people of the place looked at me, the men and the women too.
I didn’t see no children.
They were all like Kid’d said: vagrants, transients, shiftless looking types, cowboys, drummers, river rats. A few whores out for their morning stroll under pink umbrellas.
I laughed at that.
I drank my fill which took me a number of pumpings. Then I washed my face and shook off the water. My hair was loose and tangled and there was nothing to do about it.
My headache seemed a bit lessened. I went back into the roominghouse. The redhaired lady said she had breakfast ready in the breakfast room. I thanked her and went in. It was coffee and rolls. She asked if I wanted eggs. I shook my head no. I buttered and ate two rolls with my coffee. Other than me in the room there was only a thin man in a dark suit and derby. A seller of some wares of some type, probably. He hardly looked at me, absorbed in a serial novel about gunfighters.
I went upstairs. I stripped down and got into bed with Kid. His back was glossy and warm. I clung to it. After a while he turned and took my face in his hands and kissed me. His mouth tasted tinny and harsh from last night’s debauch but I couldn’t help it: I arched my back.
-Oh my alley cat, he said. I bit him. We struggled. Then he entered me and I gave a long helpless sigh and everything sort of rippled and went sunlike. I can’t describe it. I fought him a little just to make it more glorious. He was careful and attentive to me as ever before. I was satisfied by him; fully.
I fell asleep. I woke alone in the bed. It was afternoon I could tell by the light.
I washed myself all over standing naked in cold water I poured from the tin pitcher into a tin bowl, then dressed again, yawning and aching. My skin itched and I had some red welts. We’d picked up lice somewhere, thought I. Where was Kid?
I went downstairs and crossed the muddy street to the livery stable. In the daylight I could see it said in large letters LIVERY STABLES. There were some coaches parked inside and most of the dim stalls held horses, shifting and snorting a little as I stepped through the big doorway.
The Negro boy was sitting on a crate playing a copper pennywhistle. He put it down on his lap and smiled at me. Then I saw Kid with the big bay. He was in his shirtsleeves and held a currying brush. He turned his head to smile at me then went back to it. The bay stamped a hoof. I went to my pony and put my forehead against hers.
-Yous all be leavin’ today? asked the boy from behind me in his soft lilted voice.
Kid said, Yup. Already done all there is to do in this burg.
-Yous had the Chinaman’s food yet?
-Nope. We didn’t make it there last night.
-It’s worth your while, said the boy. Then he put the penny whistle to his mouth again. He played some little ditty. It sounded like one of those happy ones they had before the war.
Kid said to me over the shrill piping, What about it? Ready to eat some river rat grub cooked by a Chinaman?
I shrugged and said, I’m hungry all right.
Kid put down the curry brush and left the stall, shutting it behind him. He said to the boy, We’ll be back in I reckon an hour or so.
The boy nodded, still playing, the whites of his eyes showing large in the dark face.
Kid pulled on his coat. We walked up the muddy street. He said:
-You’re looking fine today.
-I don’t always?
He laughed. Then of a sudden:
-Got your piece on you? he asked.
I looked up sharp. It was just something in his voice. A tension.
I saw the bearskin man. He was slouching against a doorway smoking a cigarillo. His bearskin hat was pulled low. He had a murderous look about him. His eyes looked bloodshot to me as if he’d been drinking and playing cards all night.
I said, I got it.
-Be ready to hand it over quick.
As we approached, our boots sinking in the street mud, Kid hailed the big hard looking man:
-Hello friend. Shot any more questioners today?
It was his typical impertinence. The bearskin didn’t laugh. He tossed his cigarillo into the mud. Then he stepped away from the door. His bearskin coat swung open and I saw the yellowish horn grips of his Colt Navy pistols.
He took something out of his shirt. It was a piece of paper. We stopped and watched him unfold it. Then he turned it out so’s we could see it. It was the wanted notice for Kid from Missouri. The sketchwork was poor. It hardly looked like Kid at all. Maybe like his little brother if he’d had one.
-D’ya see that?
-I see a wanted notice for a man named James Thomas MacKinnon. 100 gold dollars paid to whoever brings him in dead or alive.
-Recognize the face?
-Nope. Don’t reckon.
-Look in the mirror this morning when you shaved?
Kid rubbed the side of his jaw with a fingertip then dropped the hand to his side. I knew he didn’t have a pistol on him. But the stranger didn’t know that. Did he? I’d started to sweat.
-You’re a bounty hunter. You must have made some errors identifying wanted men in your checkered past.
-I’m the last in that string of errors.
-Could be. Could easily be.
The bearskin folded the paper again without looking at it and stuck it back in his shirt pocket. I noticed that he was sweating too and some strands of his black hair were pasted to his brow. Slowly, he dropped his big hands to his sides.
-You him? The man in this portrait?
-Nope. I’m from Texas, and my name’s Charlie.
I glanced at Kid. He was smiling; looking fresh and relaxed.
-Where’d you find it? Kid asked.
The big man said, In the telegraph office put up along with about ten others.
-Just this morning?
-Saw it there when you went to send your old dear mother a telegraph?
The big man shifted his weight a little. His eyes narrowed like a snake’s.
-Let’s not do this, said Kid.
-I’m a bounty hunter, said the man. Want me to get another job?
-No, just to find the right man. You won’t get a dollar for me. I’m not wanted in Missouri.
-He’s not, I said.
The big man didn’t spare me a glance. He was intent on Kid and was sweating more.
I swallowed thick saliva.
-Step away, said the man out of the side of his mouth. I knew he was talking to me. I looked at Kid.
-Go on, he said softly as reading a bedtime story.
As I walked four steps to the side I unbuttoned my slicker.
I saw the bearskin man glower. He showed some of his brown teeth. It was all in his face. I knew he was going to draw.
Kid was standing there proud and silent looking at him. And this murderous bastard was going to draw on Kid.
I pulled out the Colt Dragoon just as the bearskin drew his twin pistols. I had an inch or two on him. I dropped to one knee as I cocked it.
Kid meantime had dashed away from me. Presenting a running target.
One of the man’s pistols cracked off a shot. At the sprinting Kid.
I leveled my weapon and drew in a breath and held it and pulled the trigger almost softly as he half turned to me bringing the Colt Navy up in his left hand.
The wild concussion of the round knocked my arm back and the report was shattering.
My bullet caught the bearskin man under the ear. I saw it smash his jaw apart and he fell in a torrent of blood. He got off another shot as he fell but it whirred by me. Then he lay sprawled and shapeless. The black powder smoke made me cough.
My gun wrist felt broken. Yet I brought the pistol to bear on the corpse with both shaking hands. No, that corpse wasn’t going noplace fast.
Kid walked over and kicked the bearskin bounty man and picked up the two mud besmirched pistols.
-Jesus Lord, he said to the dead glaring eyes. You reasonless fool bastard. Look what all you’ve got now. Nothing. A ticket to Hades.
-Know what’s most upsetting about shooting somebody? I asked Kid later the same afternoon.
We were riding. (We’d left town in a hurry. Kid’d gone through the bearskin coat’s pockets and taken his flask of powder, balls and percussion caps, and also a small leather pouch of gold pieces. He’d taken out one gold piece and placed it on the big man’s forehead before we hastened away, stopping to collect our saddles and the Henry rifle from the roominghouse before double timing it back to the stable for our mounts.-To pay the coffin maker and the gravediggers, Kid’d remarked at questioning glance. Then he quoted Scripture: “The laborer is worthy of his hire.” He’d also taken the wanted notice and torn it to bits right there and tossed them into a puddle.)
-Dunno. Shooting them? Kid said with a hard laugh.
I glanced sidelong. He was wearing the two Colt Navy pistols stuck in his belt with their yellow horn handles turned just as the bounty hunting man’d worn them. They were good precision weapons, with brass frames; Kid looked smarter wearing those pistols than the bounty hunter in the bearskin had.
-Nope, I replied. It’s when they fall down.
He was silent. We rode along. That was undistinguished country but it was kept green from the rain. My pony had to trot to keep up with the walking pace of his big bay horse.
I chewed my lip and went on, wanting in a fierce way for Kid to understand my meaning:
- I am saying that you can remember shooting somebody, blowing a hole in him you could put your hand through, and not really even be troubled by it, yet it is troubling to remember the man you shot just toppling over into the mud. Maybe it’s because the falling down part just seems so –
-It’s a queer thing to be sure, he said finally, in a lower voice. And I believe you are absolutely right. Devil’s truth. I never thought of it before but that’s exactly what one remembers hardest and feels sickest about. Not you shooting, but them falling right where they stood. Like some vacant thing, like some -- barley sack. Huh.
He shook the reins suddenly.
-I want to gallop a bit, he said.
-Go on. I’ll catch up with you where you stop for water.
He didn’t use his spurs; Kid was too fine a horseman for that. He just squeezed that bay with his knees and slapped the reins and the bay broke into a smooth loping gallop.
I saw Kid bend over the flying black mane, crouching low in the saddle. He snatched off his hat and held it in one hand so as not to lose it to the sudden wind.
-Hyaa! I heard him shouting. Hyaa! Hyaa! He didn’t need to shout to make that horse go. It was going to move no matter what. He was just expressing his sheer joy in life.
That bay could gallop all right. The thudding hooves scattered dirt and grass. I watched them go with a lump in my throat. Straight across the prairie and over a low hill. Profiled for an instant against the floating white clouds.
-I love you, Kid, I said to the sky.