As you holster the gun, you think about his apple pie, the spices he uses, that pinch of cardamom he insists makes all the difference. You think about the way he stuffs so much in there that the crust almost sags, but doesn’t. You think about the time he cooked one in a Dutch oven, under the New Mexico sun, leaving it there all day while the two of you rode north to take down the stage coach out of Concord, New Hampshire. You think about how he took the heist too far, how he took things too far with the woman that day, but only after looking at you for approval, which, without meaning to, you apparently gave.
He didn’t think about you in that way, or so he told you; you were no ordinary woman and he could never think of you in no ordinary way. You were his partner, as quick on the draw as any dude he’d ever rode with. When he asked you where you learned, and you told him it was from your brother—back home in Massachusetts, after the war—he said he was glad some good come out of them Yankees winning; he was a Tennessee boy himself, would’ve been a Reb if only he’d been a little older, had a mother a little less like a hawk and more like a sparrow.
You could’ve looked away when he done what he done to that girl, but you didn’t. And she didn’t have to look at you, but she did. There were no tears on her face, only anger and a little bit of pain. She would’ve cursed you with her lips if he hadn’t told her to shut up, if she didn’t fear he’d make her. So, she cursed you with her eyes instead. And that, there, you got to feeling, was worse, so much worse. You forgot words all the time—what your mother said when there was nothing to bury of your father but the boot that washed ashore, the pleas of your brother when you told him you were headed west—but a gaze burrowing its way into your soul (your mother’s scorn, your brother’s sadness); that, you never forgot.
As you watch your partner’s body drop to its knees, you try to memorize the lines on his face, the particulars of his surprise, the way the scar on his left cheek curled up into itself as his jaw fell. Had you really tracked him all this way, across canyon and prairie, river and mountain? Had he told you why it was that coach that drove him too far, why the woman’s answer to his question—‘Where you from?’—had pushed him over the edge? He must have.
You watch to see if his soul will flee the collapsing husk, and, if so, where it will spill from. The bullet hole? Will it emerge, baptized in crimson, doomed to roam the wastelands of the world to come as a red ghost, the worst of its kind? Or is that some yarn your mother spun for you, your sisters, and your brother, after Daddy was gone, to keep you away from the sea, away from war, away from trouble in general?
‘What have you done?’ your partner’s woman asks you.
You look around the street, careful to look only with your eyes and not with the rest of your body. You’ve been here before—not in Hinsdale, New Hampshire, of course, but in a situation where you expect to have guns drawn on you from all sides. But there is nothing, no one, just the empty mills, quiet on a Sunday afternoon. Just a crying woman and the body of her man, which now, finally, collapses into a heap.
From your coat, you withdraw the papers, your license to kill him. You give them to the woman.
‘What’s a bounty?’ she asks.
‘He did bad things,’ you say. ‘The government, they’ve been looking for him.’
‘So, why not send him to prison?’ she says, cradling his head in her lap, his blood staining the dainty lace handkerchief she dabs at the bullet hole. ‘That’s what you do, when someone’s done something they shouldn’t. Not this,’ she says, choking on tears and snot. ‘Not this.’
You spend the afternoon fishing the Connecticut River, the body bagged up beside you. In the morning, you’ll head south, to Boston, to collect your reward. But, for now, you’re enjoying the moment of quiet you’ve earned. This was your last job, the one you promised yourself you’d do after you two split up under the New Mexico sunset, the evening after he went too far.
Even as you ate his pie, as you watched him divide up the afternoon’s spoils, you knew you would leave. You had seen him do a lot of terrible things in your time together, had done a lot of terrible things alongside him, but those stolen moments with the woman from the stagecoach, that was too much. The pie was scrumptious, filling, the only food you would eat for three days, as you ran from him to California, across the desert, looking for some way to redeem yourself. As you swallowed that last bite, closing your eyes to focus on that pinch of cardamom that—he was right—made all the difference in the world, you knew you would run, but that you couldn’t run forever, that some day you would have to make right what he done wrong, what you done wrong.
‘I’m through,’ you told him, as you passed him the tin plate, which you’d licked clean.
‘Through?’ he said.
You nodded, extending your hand for your share of the afternoon’s take.
‘Why?’ he said. ‘The woman?’
‘My share,’ you said, gesturing for him to give it here.
‘You jealous?’ he said, with a laugh.
You stepped round the campfire and grabbed the bag he’d sorted your money into.
‘That’s it,’ he said, slapping his knee, falling backwards, laughing so loud the coyotes in the hills laughed right back.
You stuffed your prize into your saddle bag and made ready to mount your horse. But then, then he grabbed you. Gentle-like, but still a grab.
‘You want to see what you’re missing?’ he said, a smirk across his lips. ‘I’d be happy to show you.’
‘I thought you didn’t think of me that way,’ you said.
‘I don’t,’ he said, ‘but I understand a woman’s got needs, just as sure as a man. And we have been out here a long time.’
You pried his fingers loose and climbed atop your mount.
‘I’ll be here a few days,’ he said, sitting back by the fire, going back to his pie. ‘For when you change your mind.’
The story he told was that, after Nashville fell, a detachment of Yanks from New Hampshire stumbled across his family’s plantation—literally stumbled, drunk off of Tennessee mash—and decided to, as they put it, turn the tables, raping the white women while they set the slaves free. Your partner, not yet a man, was held by an alternating pair of blue-coated devils, and made to watch while his mama was defiled by the third. He’d heard tell, in his travels since, from Northerners themselves, that the men of New Hampshire were the hicks of the north, the lowest of their low, and that that kind of behavior was to be expected of their ilk.
When you finally get a bite on your line, the joy is short lived. Behind you, you hear her coming, twigs breaking beneath those dainty shoes of hers—everything about her so tiny, so precious. You smell her, too, a fancy perfume—probably mail-ordered from New York—with a hint of citrus to it. You dive behind the body at the tell-tale sound of a hammer being pulled back, and even though you know there’s plenty of meat between the bullet and you now, your heart races just the same.
The first shot ends up God knows where—probably in the river. But the second, the second is true; it finds its mark. The body lurches against you from the impact. You’re almost ready to shoot, almost have the gun cocked, when the third shot gets you, grazes your shoulder.
She’s good, damned good. You thought she’d struggle, that she’d be all rage and no skill, that you’d get your moment and maybe a spare moment besides. But now, now you have no ideas. You stand up and she’s going to kill you.
‘What right do you have?’ she screams. ‘What right do you have to judge?’
‘I’ve seen what he’s done,’ you say, wondering if she’s out, if you’ve miscounted, if she’s buying time to reload.
‘You think I haven’t seen?’ she spits back at you. ‘I’ve seen. I’ve felt his rage. But it ain’t my place to decide his fate. That’s God.’
You hear a shell drop, bounce off the rocks. Then, you hear her scramble to pick it up. And now, knowing she’s out, now you leap to your feet and you put one in each of her knee caps.
The blood stains the ivory of her petticoats as she holds tight to one knee and then the other, unable to decide which one hurts the most.
You kick the shotgun away, surprised that’s what it was, trying to figure out where your counts came from, and then you kneel down. You press the muzzle of your piece to her temple. When she yelps for help, you put a finger to her lips to shush her. But when she tries to bite your digit off, you sock her in the jaw with your fist and back away.
Standing up now, you say, ‘My right is to treat animals like animals. That’s what I done to him. That’s what I’m going to do to you.’
‘I ain’t no animal,’ she whimpers.
‘You felt his rage and did nothing about it? Sounds like an animal to me.’
She laughs. ‘What would you know about men and women, you horse-faced cow?’
‘I know,’ you say, crouching down again, putting the gun to her head one last time, ‘that if you act like a bitch, wagging your tail until some mongrel comes around to do his business with you… if you act a bitch, you deserve to be put down like one.’
You say that. Then, you shoot her.
Her body, with a few kicks from you, it tumbles into the river. The body in the bag, you hoist that up onto your old nag. ‘Let’s go,’ you tell the horse, starting the walk to the south and east, the sun setting behind you. In the hills, there’s howling. When it grows too close, you howl right back. And then, for a moment at least, it’s quiet again.
Originally published in 2016 in the anthology Live Free or Ride: Tales of the Concord Coach and republished here with the support of my patrons at Patreon.