These words did not give Tobin much of a sense of self-worth. But his father spoke on, as the blood inside his body became more and more muddled due to an accidental axe wound. Perhaps he didn't know what he was saying. He recovered and lived for another year, never having renounced the theories he had put forth while he was ill. At least he was right about one thing: fear was a great and thunderous force in the life of man. It was fear that caused Tobin to become a drifter at the age of twenty-six, and later, to take some accursed money that should simply have been left alone.
Central Kansas, 1881.
While the night outside is galeful and cold, the state's most infamous liquor fiends, Luther Crim and Ray Willard, have again found warmth in Luther's modest shack.
–I could set you up, Ray, Luther is saying, his feet propped comfortably on a bale of hay. –I could set you up tomorrow.
–Get out of here, Ray retorts, pouring his sixth glass of whiskey.
–Listen, I did it for Moe Glass and I did it for Fred Franque.
–I wouldn't be any good at selling, Ray says, fingering his deputy's badge possessively.
–Better than you are at lawing, says Luther indignantly.
–What you don't seem to grasp is that this product is popular in every age bracket.
–Age what? Bracket?
–Kids love 'em. Grownups love 'em. These candy bars I sell, and any fool can sell 'em, are quality.
–Quality. They're quality product. I wouldn't sell for any business that didn't offer that. You know me.
Luther points to a corner of the shack and an unstable tower of crates labeled Furlong Snacks.
Ray is unimpressed. –I like what I do, he says.
–You like what you do. You've shackled your ass to a log and you're afraid to try new things. Here. Eat one of these bastards. See if I'm wrong, Luther offers, attempting unsuccessfully to haul his bulk from his chair.
Ray shakes his head. –I don't want a candy bar.
–Eat it! Luther insists. –Taste the quality! He gets halfway to his feet when the reason for his sojourn temporarily escapes him. He collapses again in his seat, spent, sweaty.
The wind howls outside. Ray takes another drink. –Candy bars, he mutters thoughtfully. –Christ.
–It so happens, Luther begins nobly, and then his eyes close shut and his widespread reputation for inspired narcolepsy is lived up to once again. Ray just shakes his head pityingly. He smokes and listens to the wind, having no urge to sleep, to rise, to eat, to breathe. At one point his sleepy glance goes out the window.
There, across the dooryard, his horse is tied up in Luther's makeshift stable. A stranger has appeared beside his horse. Ray leans forward, startled. The stranger is working on severing the rope which ties a leather pouch around the horse's neck. The beast doesn't like it. He shifts his weight and whinnies. The stranger is trying to cut the rope with a stout stick. He keeps his head down against the gale, which tears vengefully at a kerchief tied around his face.
His efforts are fruitless. He slips and falls into the thin layer of snow covering the earth. Without a sound, without a curse, he rises and goes back to his struggles again.
–Hey, thief, Ray says from behind him a minute later. The stranger turns. He sees the badge on Ray's chest glimmering under the moon.
–I can see you right through the damned window, you fool, the deputy says, and raises his fist high into the air. Before the stranger can ward off the blow, the fist comes crashing down, and the stranger is delivered from the intense cold into a world of no sensation whatsoever.
The jail in Issling is a shack only slightly warmer than Luther's, and one even more strangled by shadows. Deputy Ray Willard pushes the stranger through the front door and follows close behind. A fat and very tired man walks out of the back when he hears the door open and the wind holler by briefly outside.
–What do we got, Ray? he calls, walking forward to where his desk sits bunched in a corner close to the entrance.
–Caught him trying to make off with the tobacconist's deposit, Ray says. He has secured the thief's only weapon, a rusty Smith and Wesson .32, and now rests it on the edge of the sheriff's desk. He guides the thief forward to the single melancholy cell.
–Toss him inside, Sheriff True tells Ray, easing himself down at his desk, firing up an oil lamp. –And take his scarf off, he won't freeze in here!
Raymond removes a key from a nail hanging beside the cell and pushes the thief grumpily into lockup. At the same time, he tears the man's kerchief away, revealing a face in its late twenties, wearing an expression of swallowing fatigue. The cell door swings shut and the thief belongs to the law.
Ray leaves for the night, his duty done. –'Night, James, he says.
–See you, Ray, says Sheriff True. Ray exits. When the door opens, True turns away from the inrush of wind, shivering. Once alone, he slides the top drawer of his desk open and removes the proper form to begin the paperwork on his captive. That man sits quite still on his bench in the cell, quiet in the cottony dark. Finding the silence unusual, Sheriff True looks for the first time over at the somnolent criminal.
–Jesus, he whispers. –Is that you, Tobin?
The captive looks down at the dirt floor, saying nothing.
James True rises from his chair and crosses the floor, fascinated. He moves to within a few inches of the cell's stout bars, gazes downward through the gloom.
–My God, he croaks. –Five years since I laid eyes on you last. Where was it? At your grandfather's?
The man named Tobin nods sullenly. True's paternal demeanor vanishes from one moment to the next.
–You stupid son of a bitch. You ran, didn't you? You ran out on that farm and left him to grow old there.
–And now you've got goddamned Dick O'Daniel after you, he informs Tobin bitterly. His condemnations elicit no reaction.
–Christ, boy, have you lost your mind?! True asks, outraged, repulsed by the sorry sight before him. –That man will kill you just as soon as look at you!
Now Tobin looks up into True's moist, piggish eyes. True takes this as some sort of plea, and becomes even angrier.
–You expect me to help you? You want me to help you out because your grandpa is my friend? Well, I won't do it. I'm giving you to the state marshal like it's my right to. That I'll do for your running out on a fine man. I'll do it with pleasure. I'll do it, True swears, standing tall over this huddled waste of youth, –before you become a goddamned killer as well as a coward.
–Look at me, Tobin, he demands. –Look at me. How many men have you shot?
Silence. Then the head bobs once, the mouth finally releasing just two groggy words:
–No one, says Tobin Millane.
–Then I'm doing you the greatest favor of your life, True pronounces, and steps away from the cell. As Tobin watches, True walks back over to his desk. Before he sits again, he picks up his prisoner's Smith and Wesson. Looking across the room at Tobin, he opens the chamber, removes the single bullet resting inside a nest built for six, and then spins the chamber shut again. True rests both the bullet and the gun back on the desk. Tobin closes his eyes. James True resumes his paperwork.
He is disturbed to hear the hinges on the old front entrance squeal again perhaps five minutes later as another stranger intrudes. The visitor is quick to close the door behind him, not wanting to let the snow in. True does not recognize him. He is a Negro, about six feet tall, shabbily dressed for tonight's wintry onslaught, his face wrinkled from the outdoors and the beginning of middle age: he looks to be about forty. He removes his hat in a gesture of subservience and steps over to the desk.
True frowns. The Negro motions his head shyly to the back of the room.
–You want to talk to the thief? True asks. The Negro nods apologetically.
–You can see him for two minutes, True says. –Then you get out.
The Negro nods again. He turns away from the desk and walks over to the cell. True watches him very carefully, confused by the odd pairing of the relative youth and the dark-skinned man who appears more uncle than companion.
Tobin stands shakily, and the two of them meet within inches of the prison bars.
–Rospo, Tobin whispers. –Listen to me. When O'Daniel hears that I'm in jail, he'll come and kill me. You know that, right?
–I don't want to die, Rospo, Tobin says softly. His face suggests blind terror, the verge of collapse. A strange thing in a face so young. –I don't want to die this way.
–How much do we have in the bag? Tobin asks Rospo. Rospo, perhaps overly cautious, lifts his hand mutely, spreads his fingers outward: five.
–We've got to give it to him, Rospo. There's no other way. O'Daniel could shoot me right through the bars.
Rospo nods in understanding, dropping his gaze, ashamed to be witness to such an open confession.
–I'm sorry, Tobin says. –Someday, I don't know how, I'll make it up to you. But there's just no other way.
–All right, ditchwater, True calls from behind them. –Time for you to leave.
Rospo looks at Tobin one last time before turning away.
. –Ride back fast, Tobin pleads. –In the morning.
Between midnight and five a.m., the wind outside only intensifies.
Tobin Millane has managed during the night only to skirt sleep's rim; something has kept him up. He thinks first to blame a drunken party that cavorted just beyond the cell's window a little while after Rospo left, and which went on until he became so exhausted he barely knew where he was. After that, it was a ticking sound in a dream he had. Almost nothing remains of the dream now. An image of someone he used to know, that's all, and a long canoe trip down a rushing river. But it is mostly a coil of tension in his belly that has kept his mind alert. When he awakes from a semi-conscious daze to feel cold white sunlight falling on his shoulders and realizes he must get up, that perhaps his last day on earth has arrived, the coil twists further, and he can barely breathe at first. His hands are shaking and he feels ill.
True is at his desk again. He talks with a very short man, a deputy much tougher-looking than the other.
–What time's the marshal getting here? the sheriff asks.
–He said no later than nine, the man replies. –Shouldn't be too much longer.
–Okay. You and Sal go fishing.
The deputy leaves. Ten minutes pass, during which time Sheriff True says things to Tobin, but although he sees True's lips move, the terror he feels in his gut blocks out all sound and sense. Soon Rospo is at the door, coming in, and Tobin stands to clasp his hands around the freezing iron bars, and watch. His legs can barely support him. It feels as though a rampant fever were invading every bone in his body. His vision blurs and clears again, everything finally coming back into the sharp focus of reality.
–I thought I told you to skip, dummy, True tells Rospo. But this morning Rospo makes no move to the door. In his hand he holds a leather satchel held shut with a drawstring. He takes one step forward and places it upon the sheriff's desk. True, standing behind the desk, looks at it carefully, the truth of the situation dawning early on his face.
–There's five hundred dollars in that bag, James, says Tobin from his cell across the room. –Take it.
True looks at the bag, unable to drag his eyes away from it. It is clear that he has seen such bags before and that his only doubt is not that there is money inside, but truly how much.
–Take it and give me the key, Tobin says.
–You son of a bitch, True muses in quiet wonder.
–Get out of here, Rospo! Tobin shouts. Rospo, his deed complete, turns to the door after a flicker of hesitation. Then he is gone again, for the last time. A final gust of air flows into the building, ruffling the remains of True's hair.
–Take it, Tobin urges again. –Take it. He can hear the seconds in his mind, ticking relentlessly. He finds it impossible to drown them out.
A terrible and almost audible anger washes over James True. Tobin has never seen such hate before. True's teeth clench with rage. He moves away from the desk in the direction of the cell, then removes the key to the cell door from the ancient nail on the wall, a fat and shameful man who perhaps has realized on this morning exactly what he is.
He steps in front of Tobin and inserts the key in the lock.
–You won't make it through the month alive, Tobin, he says vengefully.
The cell door opens and Tobin is free.
He walks like an old man to True's desk, measuring each step, saying nothing. He picks up his pistol and picks up his bullet, wanting to turn to look at True. He feels dreadfully aware of the sheriff's presence and the anger and shame running in a tide to where he stands, inserting the bullet into the otherwise empty chamber, spinning the chamber shut. It's something he has seen done for good luck. He carefully slides the gun into his holster. Now would be a good time to look at True. The urge is overwhelming. Instead he walks to the door, his heart pounding. His stomach turns over and over. Inches from the door, he can feel the frosty air outside sift in through the cracks and kiss his hands.
–Now you just stop exactly where you are, True commands from behind him. Tobin cranes his neck to look back, his heart hammering ferociously.
True holds his pistol outward, pointed at Tobin's head.
–You don't make me out to be a coward, boy, he says, trembling, his eyes wet with venomous tears. –You don't do that to me.
Tobin's eyes drop to the holster on his own waist.
–Go ahead, challenges True. –You've got one bullet in there. One chance out of six. Let's see if you're some kind of man.
And he snarls to Tobin: –Draw.
Tobin does not draw. His hands are numb. He looks at his gun, recalling the way he spun the chamber. Spun it like a roulette wheel, scrambling the odds, for good luck.
–Draw, Tobin! Do it so I can shoot you dead! It's going to happen anyway!
–Come on! Do it! Do it! Do it!
–DO IT! cries True, and then he himself has made the step, disengaging the safety on his weapon and pulling the trigger, in response to which Tobin tears his pistol from his holster and lets fly with a shot that erupts deafeningly, deafeningly because the hammer has no right to fall on anything other than emptiness. He is caught by True's bullet and the force of it flings him back into the wall beside the door, nearly cracking his skull. His gun falls from his hand, useless now anyway, the echo of the two bullets reverberating in his brain, which has surely been blown out by True's shot. He feels himself dying, the last sound he ever hears a repetition of their gunfire.
No; he has merely blacked out. He comes to immediately, and the first sensation then is a warm stream running down the left side of his face. He touches his wound; a nasty gash, bleeding freely. When Rospo bursts back into the room, he sees only Tobin's face glowing like a sick moon, and True's crumpled body lying beside the open cell. The dead man's bullet grazed Tobin's face, he sees, leaving a nasty but superficial wound.
–I killed him, Rospo, Tobin says darkly, looking into Rospo's face for hope. –I got him through the neck.
His gun still locked in his hand, Tobin leans over the bulk on the floor, trying to grasp how it could have happened so quickly and with such permanence, expecting the man down there to move sometime soon, vowing revenge, swearing that he'll follow to the ends of the earth to see that murderers are brought to justice.
–They're going to hang me, Rospo, he says, more to himself than anyone else. His voice is a child's. He realizes this and tries, for Rospo's sake, to regain his senses. But he can only ask, like all the condemned:
–What can I do?
Before they leave this town for good, Tobin looks for a long, long time at the man on the floor, blood dripping from the slash on his face. Only when he has completely desensitized himself to the sight of all that death can he find it in himself to run.
Five hours later, Howard Salisbury, state marshal of Kansas, announces a two thousand-dollar reward for information leading to the indictment of one Tobin Millane for the murder of Sheriff James True. Any person who gives aid or shelter to Millane will be held accountable, and may be charged with harboring a felon and the obstruction of justice.
* * * * *
By October 23, he has emerged from the forest east of Toneka, riding gently through a beautiful snow mist, a white gown that reduces visibility to almost nothing. For ten miles or so he followed the path of another horseman who had gone before him, trailing him perhaps by a mile, and certainly no more than two judging by the depth of the tracks his horse had left behind. He became lulled by hanging his head down low and concentrating on nothing more than tracing the flawless history of that mysterious journey. He found his hand wandering up to his scar a great deal, running his fingers again and again over that distorted crescent moon.
Toward the end of his trek he approaches a set of railroad tracks bisecting a wide-open field. His horse hesitates before them, doesn't seem to want to go on any further.
–What is it, Brutus? Tobin asks. –Huh? What's the matter?
It is then that he hears the rumbling of a steam engine off in the distance. Turning to the east he sees it emerge from behind a hill sprouting a thicket of elms.
It's an old black monster with four passenger cars, eating the snow on the tracks and spitting it out in a spray. The engineer stares blankly into the mist. The train roars by Tobin and as it passes he reads a large, multi-colored banner strewn loosely across the side:
Brutus turns away and lowers his head. The roaring train vanishes ghostly into the mist, leaving behind a cloud of sound and smoke. Tobin guides Brutus over the rails and they go on their way.
A mile west of Trent, there is a majestic hill rising above the entire town. A farmhouse sits upon it, but it is a tragic sight: aged, fallen into ruin, its own tombstone atop a burial mound.
Tobin reaches the bottom of the hill at noon on the 24th, just as the sun frees itself from behind the clouds for the first time in three days. He and Brutus make the climb slowly, basking in the sudden warmth.
An old man is hanging clothes on a line beside the decrepit front porch. Tobin speaks from behind him:
His grandfather turns and squints through the sunlight. Tobin sees that the days the old man has spent on this hill have weathered him harder than he could have imagined.
–Tobin, his grandfather whispers, in gentle awe. –Tobin.
In no time he has begun to mist about the eyes helplessly. He steps forward and embraces Tobin tightly, as tight as Tobin has ever been held.
–I thought I'd never see you again, boy, says Jonah Millane. He releases Tobin just long enough to wipe the tears from his yellowed eyes. –Where's Rospo? he asks.
–We split up for a while, Tobin tells him. –I'm meeting him further north.
Jonah nods in approval, unable to stop smiling, a man just released from years of solitary confinement atop this hill.
–Come on in, he invites.
In the kitchen, Jonah prepares their tea.
–How are things? Tobin asks hesitantly.
Jonah dips an old bag delicately into two chipped cups. –You can see for yourself, he says, attempting to sound lighthearted. But seeing Tobin's pained reaction, he must soften even more.
–It's all right, though, he adds. –No blame. No blame.
Tobin takes his cup and stares into its muddy contents, standing at the doorway.
–I'm a wanted man now, Jonah, he says.
–I know, Jonah answers. –Was it an accident?
–Sort of, Tobin says, staring at the fields beyond through a dirty window.
Jonah sighs. –James True, Tobin, was the most corrupt man in Kansas. Even the marshal knows that. He won't be missed.
–It doesn't matter. I killed him. I'll hang for it.
–Where will you go? Jonah asks.
–North is the only way I can go, Tobin says distantly. –But I think I'll be found before I could get to the Canadian border. The law's not the only thing looking for me.
–I heard about Dick O'Daniel. Did you know who he was before you got mixed up with him?
Tobin shakes his head, again and again, slowly. –I was never mixed up with him. It was....chance.
Jonah nods in understanding.
–Tell me what happened, he says.
On the porch.
–It was my third job in three months, Tobin begins. –Shoveling snow to clear out the roads between Wyatt and Fort Jill. One night our crew camped in tents somewhere near the big lake. Sometime past midnight I woke up and heard voices in the woods. I got up and walked a ways, and I saw three men lowering a bag into an old well.
One of the men was O'Daniel.
I didn't know they'd just robbed the state gold depository. I heard them say that the bag would be safe there until they returned in a week.
When they were long gone, I went over to the well and lifted the bag out with an oak branch. They'd already converted the gold into cash.
Tobin sits on the floorboards of the rotting porch, his boots resting in the snow. He peers into the distance, remembering, seeming to look for answers on the horizon that are not here in his grandfather's house.
–Eleven thousand dollars, he stammers. –And at dawn, it would be back to the shovels, and the rest of my life.
–It was my fault, grandpa, he confesses. –I want to be more than just somebody's son and a drifter with a bad heart from when I was born.
A haze came over me. I took the bag right then and walked eight miles into town, trying to figure out what to do. That money felt like a curse already. I knew it would be easy for O'Daniel to figure out which one of the crew had gone off with it.
–But it was so much, Tobin says, with one gentle shake of his clasped hands for emphasis. –It was everything I needed to start myself right.
Two days later, one of his men tried to gun me down. I got away.
Well behind him, not wanting to get too close, Jonah allows Tobin a moment to regain himself.
–What happened to the money. Tobin? he finally asks, gently.
Tobin breathes deeply.
–On my way to find Rospo, I lost it. I just lost it.
One day it was there and the next it wasn't. Stolen. Gone.
I went to find Rospo and Jay Buckner to help me. Jay wouldn't come. We never found it. We've been on the run since then.
He turns to Jonah now, exhausted, defeated. Jonah's old mind formulates an idea that he himself will soon realize is worthless, the product of senility.
–How about leaving the continent? he asks. –It's possible.
Tobin does not answer.
Back inside the kitchen. Jonah opens a drawer and lifts from it an eroded wooden object the size of a small brick.
–Look what I found out in the field, he tells his grandson. –Inside a box with some old coins. Someone must have buried this a hundred years ago.
He holds the object out to Tobin, who takes it in both hands. It's a child's peg game, he sees, whose edges have rounded with age.
–Can you imagine? Jonah wonders. –Why would they do such a thing?
Tobin skates his fingers over the game. The pegs, he assumes, are gone now, as are the children to whom they once belonged.
–To be remembered, Tobin whispers: a prayer, something that should have been left unspoken. The words sound meaningless now.
–Yes, Jonah says. –Bastards like O'Daniel, they'll be around long after they die.
He moves closer to Tobin, speaks to his slumped shoulders.
–That's what matters, Tobin, he tells him gravely. –You've got to make a claim on your time. Else you're just dust. I wish someone had told me that when I was young.
He takes the game from Tobin, examines it like a precious diamond.
–Why did you come back, Tobin?
Tobin concentrates, summoning the truth. –I wanted to ask you to forgive me for what I did, he says. –Leaving.
Jonah smiles kindly. –But I always knew you would. From the day your father died and you came to live here. I knew you'd go.
–I didn't, Tobin says.
He examines the scar on his face in an upstairs mirror. He touches his wound lightly, feeling nothing anymore. It's permanent, he realizes. Nothing can conceal it now. Part of him, forever. Like the small round mark on the bottom of his foot where a nail had been driven into it while he ran after a candy-thieving girl at the age of eight. Like the bump behind his left ear, a bump he doesn't even know he has, the result of being struck by a stray baseball at eighteen. Or the way one eyebrow is so infinitesimally thinner than the other, because of a long-forgotten burn injury when he was just six. He has no idea how the landscape of his body tells of such trials, which prove nothing about him other than his simple human animal's ability to suffer, but then move on and on.
–Which way are you headed? Jonah asks him. They stand in sunlight again; Jonah strokes Brutus' back.
–Straight north, Tobin says.
–But there's a storm that way, Tobin. I've heard it's the worst of the century.
From his horse's reins, Tobin unties a leather bag. He holds it out to Jonah.
–I want you to take this money, Tobin tells him.
Jonah takes it hesitantly. The heft of it surprises and saddens him.
–You tried to give it to True, didn't you?
No use in denying it. –Yes, Tobin says.
–Maybe now that it's offered in kindness, Jonah reasons, –it doesn't matter.
–Maybe, Tobin agrees, trying to smile.
–Thank you, boy.
He hugs him, both of them knowing it is the last time. The sky over the house is a slate grey now: rain sooner than snow.
–You come back when all this is settled, Jonah says.
Brutus shakes his head, sneezes. Tobin hoists himself onto his back, kicks him lightly, and they go. On the way toward the stream beside which Tobin often slept as a boy, he lifts a hand to Jonah, but does not turn.
Jonah walks upstairs first thing, to climb into bed and rest awhile. The window in his little room has a view of the south side of the property. He stops before it to look out at the sky and predict the weather's imminent future.
He sees two horses at the bottom of his high hill, climbing laboriously, bearing two grey-garbed men, their faces low against the wind. They head for the house, and the spot where Tobin had stood just ten minutes before.
Jonah hurries back down the staircase.
Wrapped in his heaviest coat, he waits for them beside his porch. The sun has disappeared.
The horses, two beautiful brown geldings, approach. Their owners dress in a stylish way that suggests money and stature. One man has a trim blond beard. Upon seeing Jonah, the other raises a hand, then stops and dismounts. His friend remains behind and saddled, watchful.
–Mr. Hill, good day, says the grounded man. –Can I speak to you for a moment. My name is Dick O'Daniel.
–I know who you are, Jonah says brusquely.
–Really, O'Daniel says, pleasantly surprised. –This is Mr. Speece, an associate is my business, he continues, gesturing.
–How do, says Speece. Jonah does not even look at him.
–Now, Mr. Hill, O'Daniel says. –It seems your grandson has gotten himself into a bit of trouble. We'd like to help him out of it. You see, only by clearing his name can we make sure he will, in the future, have the ability to settle a debt with my corporation.
–He doesn't owe you anything, Jonah says.
O'Daniel grins patronizingly. His rocky, angular face holds many secrets.
–He killed a man, Mr. Hill. Now I have certain connections. Only through these connections can he be cleared of this charge. So if you would just tell us what you know about his whereabouts, we can be on our way.
–Be on your way, then.
A brief silence. O'Daniel's grin disappears like the sun did before.
–Shot a sheriff through the neck, he did. Nasty business.
Speece sighs, appearing bored. O'Daniel removes his gloves and places them with care on his horse's back.
–Where is he? he asks softly.
Jonah shakes his head defiantly, turning away. –I believe I'll go summon Walt Daly and tell him I've got a villain on my property, he says.
–Have it your way, then, O'Daniel replies, unsheathing a Winchester shotgun from a sling wrapped around his horse's neck and moving toward Jonah, who has unwisely offered his back, so that he does not see O'Daniel scowl and pull the trigger.
The gunpowder ignites with an explosion of smoke; Jonah's hands fly upward upon being shot. He grunts and falls heavily forward, his chin slamming into the snow, his body collapsing with a soft thud.
O'Daniel grabs his horse's reins testily when the beast backs away from the gunblast.
Jonah's face is pressed into the snow. O'Daniel walks forward, looks down, unimpressed.
–Look here, Tim, he says, frowning. –I have done violence. That Millane boy has driven me to violence.
Now O'Daniel looks from the barrel of the smoking shotgun to the threatening sky. The clouds shift, overlap, move in an ominous swirl.
–Snow's a comin', O'Daniel remarks, to no one.
By a campfire of his own making, Rospo dreams of the impending snowfall. In reality, it has chosen to hide behind another stretch of rain, but here in his dream, the event has arrived: he can actually feel the delicate flakes on his cheeks, can sense the frigid night swirling around him. Then the snow becomes grainy, more dry than wet, and he has awakened to the truth of dust on his face as Tobin stands above him, sifting it through his fingers, smiling.
Rospo pushes away the blankets and the darkness. Tobin laughs, stepping away.
It has been seven hours since Jonah and the farm. The moon is full overhead. Tobin kicks out the fire.
–I figure we'd ride into the next town, it's only about five miles, he tells Rospo. –Get something to drink, some supplies.
Rospo packs up the blankets, goes over to his horse, unties him from a tall tree. Coming back to the site of the campfire, he sees that Tobin is looking at him strangely.
–Why do you ride with me, Rospo? Tobin asks him cryptically. –Why do you do it?
Rospo appears honestly unsure. Before he can ward off the question Tobin's eyes have dropped to his holster.
–Give me your gun, Tobin tells him.
Rospo unbuttons the holster flap cautiously, confused. He removes his .32 and presses it without protest into Tobin's palm.
–Armed men get shot, Tobin says. –So long as you're with me, you'll never have to use this.
His words bear the solemn weight of a religious vow. Rospo nods, grateful.
–I promise, Tobin says. –Let's go.
They ride north, backtracking to the main road, which Rospo was careful to camp far away from. It's cold going but within an hour the scattered pinprick lightpoints of a sleepy town are visible across a half mile stretch of level country where the snow cover is immaculate, undisturbed. By the time they've reached Monroe the rain has begun, tiny droplets spattering on the snow like dimes, making a sound like fingers tapping on cloth.
They enter a place called the Little Inn, the first and perhaps only establishment of its kind inside town. The place is musty and dark inside, tomblike. Once they've stepped under the low ceiling, the rain begins to drum fiercely on the ground outside, cordoning them within, making anyplace dry a better place to be. The sensation of flowing warmth that enfolds Rospo makes him shudder momentarily as he is made quickly aware of how disturbingly close his body has come to walking hand in hand with pneumonia, frostbite, agony.
–Kick the snow off, please! the barkeep shouts as Tobin and Rospo walk inside. They do as asked and then move over to a center table; Tobin orders two beers. Whatever conversation there might have been among the Inn's two other patrons evaporates when they sit.
The barkeep brings over their drinks. Tobin nods briefly.
–What the hell happened to your face? asks a man with screaming red hair seated at the table beside them.
–Dog, Tobin says.
–Jesus. What kind?
–Just a dog, Tobin replies, staring into his beer. Rospo does likewise. Red turns back to his companion, an amazingly thin soul who doesn't bother to break his morose stare at the rain outside.
The front door of the place opens inward again and a fat man wearing a huge fur coat stumbles in, shaking his head back and forth to dry his hair.
–Jesus Christ, it's cold! he exclaims, hitching up his trousers and taking a seat at the bar.
–No, no, no, Luther, warns the barkeep, closing his eyes. –Not tonight. If I have to hear one more word from you about how cold it is, I'm kicking you out right now.
–This cold could freeze a man, Bartlett! Luther insists, offended.
–We're in goddamn Kansas, you lackwit! We know it!
–Give me some coffee, Fat Luther says. He looks over at Tobin as Bartlett pours his coffee into a shiny black cup.
–All my candy bars are like rocks, Luther pontificates to Tobin and Rospo, utter strangers. –Like rocks, they are. Sitting out there on my wagon. I can't sell 'em. I used to have a route in Georgia. It never got this cold in Georgia.
–Did you ever go to school, Luther? Bartlett asks. –Did they ever mention the word 'climate' to you?
–Sure they did, Luther says. –'Hey, Luther, there's a tree. Go climate!'
Laughter. Tobin and Rospo do not join the others in their short-lived mirth. Tobin's face remains stony. Rospo touches Tobin's beer glass to get his attention, worried.
–I'm okay, Tobin mutters, his eyes half-closed. –I haven't eaten in two days.
He parts the newfound silence with a weak wave to the barkeep.
–Could I have¯
But that is as far as he gets; his request is interrupted, crushed.
The Inn's front door has swung open again, slamming against the wall with a crack. Two men stand in the night outside, huddled under the rain. One of them backs into the room, oblivious to its patrons, dragging something in. The other man props the door open for him.
Everyone inside the Little Inn stares, rapt, at the reticent arrivals.
The rain assaults the two viciously before they can get inside. Then the parcel is dragged onto the floorboards and the door is shut tight.
The parcel is about six feet long, looks quite heavy. It's wrapped in a sheet of stout black tarpaulin. What are obviously its lifeless legs are held tight by the taller men¯and then dropped unceremoniously with a thud.
–My God, Bartlett prays. –Is that him, Dale?
Dale, the tall one with the cruel, unshaven face, gazes down at the tarp tiredly.
–That's him, he affirms.
Red, sitting close to Tobin and Rospo, downs his beer and speaks up hesitantly.
–What happened? he asks.
–He froze to death, Dale says, wiping his mouth with Bartlett's counter rag. Luther takes it from him when he's done, unable to drag his eyes from the body on the floor.
–We found him near the old cabin in that damn forest, Dale tells the room. –There's a big pond nearby. I think he fell through the ice trying to cross it and make a shortcut up to the house. He made it out, but he didn't get far after that.
–Let's have a look, urges Red.
–No, you don't want to, Dale cautions. –That's something you don't want to see. The animals got to his face.
–Jesus, Bartlett whispers. –Does Billy know?
–We just wired him. He was out hanging posters for that guy who shot James True down in Issling. Give him about twenty more minutes.
At this, Rospo looks hard at Tobin. But Tobin hangs in a murky haze, his eyes rooted to the body hidden in its tarpaulin shroud. He seems to be trying to burn a visual hole in that tarp so he can see through it.
–Who is that? Tobin asks numbly, breaking a long, dead quiet.
–Not from around here? Dale asks him.
Tobin shakes his head.
–His name's Jason Dunahy.
–Who's Billy? Tobin asks.
–His father, Dale tells him. –The sheriff.
Rospo clasps his beer glass tightly. Again he tries to influence Tobin with a grimace and a glance that urges him to suggest leaving now, right now.
Tobin does not notice. Rospo sees that he is lost somewhere deep, and can only return by his own effort.
–Where was he going, Tobin asks, his voice low and flat.
Dale regards him for a long moment before turning to the bar.
–Should I tell him? Dale asks.
–Might as well, Bartlett answers.
Dale nods, looking Tobin over from head to toe. At some point he becomes satisfied enough with what he sees to take the barkeep's advice.
He drags the body of Jason Dunahy to the back of the Little Inn, where through a side door Tobin can see the railing of a staircase heading up and out of sight. Dale rests the body bag beside the railing and re-enters. By that time, everyone, including his vigilant partner, is seated and quiet.
–He was going up beyond Kasota Wood, Dale tells Tobin. –You know about the train? The art train?
–I've seen it, Tobin says.
–It's an art exposition, going from New York all the way to Pueblo. Paintings, you know. It stops in the big towns and people get on and meet a lot of fancy rich collectors and painters and look at their stuff. The world's only travelling museum. Won't stop anywhere around here, of course.
–A month ago the train stops for fueling in Kasota Wood. One of the painters who got paid to go along with the expo shows up in the woods a ways at a special school for deaf children run by some woman poet. Just shows up uninvited, on a lark, he said, without telling anyone. He says he'd like to give a talk on being an artist. The deaf use their hands to communicate, you know. Not that this painter was like that.
Tobin sits inert, waiting for him to go on. Dale stands above him, seeming ten feet tall, humorless, godlike.
–The painter's name was Auguste Renoir, Dale says gravely. –Ever heard of him?
Tobin nods, and at this Rospo's face registers surprise.
–Funny, says Dale. –I haven't. Now I've heard of some Englishman and one other they said was on that train, but not this man; but that don't matter much. It appears this Renoir was so taken by one of those little deaf girls that he did her a picture of her very own. Signed by him in charcoal. It was of a bird, they say. And then he vanished, just like that.
–Well, that picture, mister, be it good or bad, has that man's name on it. When the story got out that Renoir gave a little girl this present, you can understand that there are those who trade in this kind of thing who would be very interested in having it. It turns out that an offer was made by some man in Philadelphia. He wanted it for a thousand dollars, sight unseen.
–Am I lying, anyone? Dale asks his audience.
–No, I'm not lying. And that wasn't the lowest price offered, from what I hear. It might be twice that. For a picture of a bird, flying.
–This Renoir left, supposedly got back on the train, which is God knows where now. But every pennyfool thief in that state knew about that picture by the time the expo was gone.
Dale pauses a moment. The men in the Little Inn listen to the rain, drumming on.
–One day, Dale continues, –another man went into that school. He told a teacher there that either he'd have it, or she'd die. She said she didn't know where the thing was.
–And then he shot her through the eye. Dead.
–The others at the school, there were only five of them, rode back here in a wagon, and told Bartlett here what had took place. The little one who owned the picture didn't cry at all. She just stared at the floor. Staring, staring. It was only girls that were there when it happened.
–So, mister, Dale says, leaning in toward Tobin's shadowy face. –Would you like me to tell you now who the gunman was? Who the bastard was who shot up that woman looking for that goddamned picture?
The front door opens behind him: a new arrival. Everyone glances over at the man, who sits quietly, seeing that Dale cannot be interrupted. Dale nods to him, an acquaintance. Then he looks back at Tobin, propping one foot on a chair, his voice becoming softer.
–This is only rumor, now, what I'm going to tell you, he says. –Just the word of one scared woman. Who, I might mention, asked the man who he was before he pulled his guns on her sister. And got an answer.
Tobin swallows the last of his beer. It is the only sign he has given that he is still alert, listening close.
–Jesse James, Dale says, and waits for the sound of the rain to punctuate his words and give them weight. –Goddamned Jesse James killed that woman. And then the others ran away, leaving him up there.
Dale removes his foot from the chair beside Tobin and stands straight again.
–Jesse James, he says again, a magic incantation.
–It was up to me to ride and tell Bill Dunahy, he says. –Which I did. And that's the story, except for young Jason there in the back room. He means something, too.
Dale peers into the back, and then at a point beyond, a phantom horizon. The most recent arrival at the Inn rises and summons some whiskey. Glasses are raised and lowered.
–Tell me, Tobin says.
Dale looks at him, amused.
–Oh, didn't I tell you that last thing?
Silence again. Dale moves closer to Tobin than ever, speaking carefully into his wounded face, making sure he understands.
–He's still up there, Dale says, and nods when he sees the doubt in Tobin's eyes. –At the deaf girl school. He never left.
–The thinking is, he's hiding the winter out up there. Where it's safe and warm, and he's got plenty of food and quiet. Just going to hibernate, apparently. His horse is still tied to the hitching post.
–You never told the sheriff, Tobin accuses him under his breath.
–Oh, yes I did, Dale assures him. –But it could be that Billy Dunahy, father to Jason, is a goddamned coward. Too frightened to do anything about it. Too interested to pass the word on to the state marshal.
–So up there he sits. Jesse James.
–We've got a man in a cabin up there who takes the three miles to the schoolhouse every day to see if that horse is still there. We're content for now. To wait and see what happens. The only problem is fools like Jason, who take it upon themselves to be the hero. It's sort of understandable, in a way. That picture is gonna be worth a lot of glory if Jesse James' head comes with it.
Dale retreats and sits on a barstool, sated. He lifts a stray beer from the bar, sips from it, shakes his head sadly.
–Still nothing but a bird, though, he concludes.
Rospo would try a final time to shake Tobin into an awareness of the time, of the way precious minutes are dwindling to nothing, but Rospo feels even himself pondering the situation now, in the same wordless, drugged way as the others in the place. No one speaks for a long time; there seems little else to say.
–You could take him, Tobin murmurs reflectively. –You could all take him together.
–Is that right? Dale asks. –Well, that might be so. And just as soon as this big snow falls, it might be we're gonna take that chance. Or maybe I could use just a few more men with guts enough to join me.
He tilts his head to the barkeep. –See, Bartlett doesn't want to go with me, and he's the bravest man I know.
–I risked everything I had to get this house, mister, Bartlett tells Tobin, leaning on the bar. –I don't like the idea of doing it all over again. This is mine. I have something. I want to keep it.
–Not much of a town we got here, Dale says mournfully. –Fifteen houses and a bar. Not too easy to get people up to face a true gunslinger. So now we take that bag to the mortician, and leave it for him to deal with. That's all we can do.
Dale narrows his glittering eyes.
–How about yourself? he asks Tobin. –What's it worth to you?
Tobin peers into his empty glass. He is the first to become aware that the rain over Monroe has thinned to a trifle. He is aware of little else.
–Sheriff's coming, Dale's friend remarks, looking through a half-boarded window. –Shank's with him.
At the last possible moment, Tobin rises from his seat.
–Got a place to wash up? he asks Bartlett.
Bartlett points toward the back.
Tobin walks through the door there, closing it behind him.
Rospo waits for things to happen.
When Tobin is completely alone, he sees that the staircase leading to the second floor has been boarded up securely. CLOSED FOR A WHILE, reads a slanting line of green paint. There is no rear exit. Just walls on every side, and the bathroom.
He turns and looks at the corpse lying beside the staircase, concealed in its soaking wrap. He observes a large crawlspace beneath the stairs, shadowy, guarded by cobwebs. His mind begins to race freely for the first time since Issling.
Billy Dunahy enters the Little Inn like a zombie. His every movement seems an effort against some kind of sedative working sluggishly through his veins. He is soaked through from head to toe, but does not seem to notice.
–Sheriff, Bartlett greets him hesitantly.
Dunahy, sixty years old, haggard to the point of shattering, looks at the area of floor before him, as if expecting to see something there, perhaps a spiritual trace of his son.
–He's dead? he asks the room.
Bartlett nods. Sitting at the bar, Dale offers no word or consolation. Rospo folds his hands in his lap, stares at the night through the window.
–Did the animals get to him? Dunahy asks.
Dunahy hangs his head. Except for Dale, the other patrons do the same, expecting a moment of reflection.
–Stupid son of a bitch, Dunahy spits instead, sounding like a man bent on vengeance against the dead. –No good juvenile son of a bitch. Nineteen years old and dumb as a post!
Yet there are tears already in his eyes. The men around him look away.
–We'll take him to Larry's, all right? suggests Dale's friend.
Red, at the center table, suddenly appears queasy.
–Larry's gone to White Hook to see his ma, sheriff, he announces apologetically. –I asked him if I was to dig any graves before the ground froze, but he said don't bother.
A short, remarkably ugly youth with eyeglasses thick as tree sap appears from outside. In one hand he carries a dented bucket of blue paint. He looks around the Inn myopically.
–Then we'll bury him ourselves, Dunahy croaks. He has been holding two short pieces of wood under his right arm, and he now displays them weakly in his bony hands.
–Here. I brought these goddamn sticks. And Shank to paint something on 'em.
Dunahy begins to tremble slightly. Rospo alone sees it and cannot conceal his pity.
–Let's go, Dunahy says, his voice cracking. –We'll do it out front, okay, Bartlett?
Dale and his friend walk to the back room. As they go, Rospo's hand wanders to his waist, and brushes against a holster which no longer has any utility.
Dale and his friend emerge again.
Tobin is not with them. They drag the corpse of the sheriff's son back into the main room. The tarp scratches and squeaks over the floorboards.
Dunahy stares at the bag. His face is a grey slate.
–Useless, he summates bitterly, unable to hide the lie.
Dale turns his head toward the back, puzzled.
Rospo sees this. Then he joins the sheriff in looking fiercely at the bag. Considering, reasoning.
–You, Dale says to Rospo. –Help us with this, your friend must still be back there.
Rospo leaves his chair. He assists the other pallbearers in carrying the bag out into the freezing night. It is his job to hold the legs. His fingers press into the tarpaulin firmly.
He expects to feel at least a bit of movement¯but Tobin manages to remain still as the dead.
Seven men emerge from the Little Inn and proceed across a field through a sparse thicket of birch trees in the direction of a tall, mangled hickory, one which stands more or less alone on the shunned plain of Monroe. The moon shines in odd patches on the tree's crooked limbs, giving it the appearance of a beckoning ghost.
Once beside the tree, Dunahy points questioningly to a shallow hole ten feet across and almost three feet deep.
–We can't put him in there, Shank DuRoi pipes feebly, pushing his glasses up his nose. –That's Bartlett's cold storage.
–Shutup, Shank, Dale warns him.
Dale and Rospo Avery lay the bag gently inside the hole, but must drop it the last few inches. The rain is now only a reminder of what it once was. A drizzle, nothing more, but it makes the cold colder. The pallbearers and mourners step back, wrap their arms around themselves, shift from foot to foot.
Rospo looks down into the hole.
No movement from the tarpaulin. His worry becomes a deep, biting fear.
–When was he born, Sheriff? Shank asks.
–Sixty-two, Dunahy says.
He becomes the center of their attention: Dale, his friend, Red, his skinny companion, Shank, Fat Luther in his garish coat, Rospo. Shank kneels and dips a brush into the bucket of paint. He then touches it to one of the sticks that will mark Jason Dunahy's burial place. He draws the dates of the boy's troubled existence with flattering care.
–Want any words, Sheriff? he asks.
Shank stands again, waiting like the others for the sheriff to speak if he must, so that they can all go back inside.
William Dunahy gazes at the black wrapped pile that used to be his only son. Standing there before his familiars, he begins to cry.
They watch him curiously, embarrassed by the spectacle. Every sickening tear that rolls down Dunahy's face sinks a new sickle of terror into Rospo's stomach. It is too dark now to see any shifting within the tarpaulin. He must wait for the shocking rise of the dead, wondering what to do when it happens, wondering why it is taking so long.
–I tried to care about you, boy, Dunahy says over the grave. –At least your mother still does.
He sinks to his knees before the hole, a line of spittle emerging from his mouth to slink onto the surface of the earth.
–Oh Christ, what am I going to tell her? he weeps. Dale, standing next to him, reaches out an unfriendly hand to steady Dunahy's shoulder.
His grief continues, becoming more vocal. The men around the grave, humiliated, ashamed, say nothing, offer no help, don't know what to do, would give anything to be away from here.
The tarp remains still. Rospo feels as if he is about to swoon.
Shank DuRoi tosses a shovelful of dirt into the burial hole.
It slaps the cold tarp over the chest area and then settles.
A plaintive voice drifts out to them from the Little Inn one hundred yards behind.
–Help! Bartlett cries.
William Dunahy, a crumpled heap beside his son's grave, is the first to catch sight of the flames rising from the side of the Little Inn, yet he is the last to move. Through his tears and the trees he sees rising licks of fire, and Bartlett's silhouette running out onto the front step. In a moment the others have become aware of the disaster as well, all of them save for Rospo breaking and running to help their friend, but already it might be too late to save the place: the fire is eating the west wall at an amazing rate, dancing into the low sky, reflecting off the snow in the color of sunset.
Seeing everyone else run off shouting confusedly, leaving him incredibly alone with only a Negro stranger as mourner, Sheriff Dunahy rises and stumbles toward the others in a blind gesture of bonding. The fire grows with each clumsy running footprint he leaves behind. In the distance, Bartlett Todd points and shouts.
Rospo jumps down into the dank grave and kneels beside Tobin, who within the tarpaulin seems completely unaware of the chaos and just how close he has come to disaster. Rospo fumbles with the tiestring around Tobin's head and pulls the tarpaulin down.
He reveals the frozen, raccoon-chewed face of Jason Dunahy. Dunahy has only one eye left. His skin has been torn from cheek to ear by some indifferent and impatient claw.
Rospo squeezes his eyes shut and flinches back.
–Rospo! Tobin calls from above. Rospo turns.
Tobin stands tall at the edge of the grave now, beckoning hastily, watching the Little Inn.
Rospo waits a long dazed moment before climbing out of the grave.
They run as quickly as they can through the thicket of trees toward their horses' hitching posts. The fire one hundred yards away lights up the sides of their faces and can now be heard as a series of roaring snaps as it devours the cheap wooden facade of the Inn. The gathering of men can do little but stand outside and monitor the progress of the blaze. One or two of them have run inside to try and stave off the inevitable; Rospo's quick glances cannot determine who went in and who has stayed out in the cold. The only face he recognizes is Bartlett's, a man who had made something for himself, and wanted only to keep it.
Tobin and Rospo mount their horses and flee.
Very soon the bellowing of the fire is just a rumor on the wind and the Little Inn has been left behind. Rospo trails Tobin, letting him set both pace and direction. They gallop across a string of fields in an unwavering line, one giving way to the next.
Tobin finally slows Brutus and turns to look back. Rospo eases beside him, his own horse panting dangerously.
The fire is a shining star on the horizon, an insignificant beacon.
Rospo hangs his head as if still at Jason Dunahy's grave. He dares to look at Tobin from under the brim of his hat. Tobin catches the glance and sees in it an indecipherable mixture of emotion.
–What could I do? he asks Rospo. –What else could I do?
And of course, no answer.
–Don't look at me, Rospo! Tobin shouts. –Don't look at me!
Rospo gazes at the dark ground.
–Come on! Tobin urges. Rospo is slow to ready his horse, appearing at first to pay no heed to Tobin's command.
–Come on! comes the order again. Tobin goes on without his partner, vanishing into the night wrapped in an earth-eating shadow.
But Rospo follows soon enough. In another mile, the fire cannot even be seen as a glint on the plain. In another three miles, Rospo cannot even be sure of the direction from which they fled. Twice during the ride he looks over his shoulder expecting a chase, or at least a chorus of accusing voices. There is neither. He forgets about everything and rides.
Tobin often gets too far ahead for their safety. Rospo has a terrible time keeping Brutus' shape in focus ahead of him. But never once does he consider abandoning that shape and giving in, giving up, letting it rush ahead to an ending that doesn't involve him, an ending of its own.
Tobin and Rospo ride until the sweat lathers their necks, their backs. It must be about one in the morning when they make contact with one another again. Their horses, driven to the point of exhaustion, are allowed to walk the final miles of their journey. The length between their hoof tracks diminishes from yards to inches.
There is a town even smaller than Monroe. The name of it will always be a mystery to them: they see no sign going through. On the other side of a loose gathering of houses (the only business here is a livery for men passing through on their way to anyplace else) they find an old abandoned hotel, boarded against trespassers.
Tobin judges it safe enough. They hitch their horses under a precarious slanting overhang. Tobin jimmies a side door with his bare hands. The operation takes place without a word.
They climb a rotting set of stairs in pitch darkness, feeling their way to an empty room barren of beds. All that remains is the flooring and the dust. The room is perhaps ten degrees warmer than the outdoors.
Rospo lays down to sleep, resting his head against a wall. Tobin heads for the opposite corner, but is drawn toward the room's only window, which is covered by a blanket thin enough to read through. He removes it from a couple of strategically placed nails and looks out onto the plain, standing silently for several minutes.
Rospo is almost asleep when he hears Tobin speak, his face to the frosty glass.
–I saw one of that man's paintings once, Rospo, he says softly, as if speaking to Rospo in a dream. –Strange thing.
His index finger traces a meaningless line across the windowsill. Rospo stares into the darkness.
–That snowstorm.... Tobin begins, trailing off into silence. He looks out the window and into the sky, as if seeing the storm right there, right now.
–You've got to go back to your family now, Rospo, he says. –Just for a little while. I have a plan. In Proudmill. I think it might work.
He does not turn from the window. It is doubtful he could see Rospo's face anyway, across the lightless room.
–You should be with your family for a little while. I'll come back when I'm done. Okay?
Tobin leaves the window, sits on the floor. To Rospo he is just a voice now.
–This might get us both out of this mess, Tobin finishes.
Rospo is asleep a few minutes later. He expects to dream of the gutted face of Jason Dunahy, and the fire that should not have been, but his sleep is undisturbed.
He wakes at dawn. He is alone in the room. He can never be sure just when it was during the night that Tobin rose from his place, left the hotel, untied his horse, and crossed the border into Nebraska.