was tired of the sight of bare lath and low beams and in no hurry
to open his eyes. He rubbed his stubble then felt gingerly
down below to see if the bandage were wet, sniffed at his
fingers. He remembered the field hospitals. That was
where he had first heard the word sepsis. He still shied away
from hand saws.
In the next room, assuming he made it
through the night, Folsom would be lying just like him. He’d
plugged Folsom in the shoulder of his shooting arm and Folsom had
hit him in the thigh. It all happened in an instant, coming
on each other like that in the alley, guns drawn, surprise and
fear in their eyes, both Colts going off simultaneously, not
aimed, just desperately pointed, or meant to kill so much as keep
from being killed. The proof, he reflected, was that
neither of them had ventured a second shot, though it would have
been easy. It wasn’t because they were deafened by
the reverberation or stunned by their pain, or even that they
were both on the ground in horse shit. Folsom’s
pistol lay in easy reach and both had been conscious. Funny
thing. His gun was still in his hand and he could have blown a
hole in Folsom’s head if he’d chosen and Folsom still
had the use of his left hand. Instead they waited, a few yards
away from one another, breathing hard against the hurt, looking
at each other, anger and fear drained as by anticlimax. Then
Folsom began to hum. He recollected how in the war gut-shot
men would hum until they went into shock. And then, after about a
century, somebody dared to peer around the corner; he wasn’t
sure who. The word went out—“both down!”—as
if they’d been a pair of pugilists. No doubt there’d
been odds given and bets laid. It was that sort of town.
Who would expect otherwise? Very well, it was a draw,
then. But no, not a draw, not if Folsom were in custody or
bled to death.
The town, reduced to filthy boots, argued
over what to do. “Well, damn it. Can’t
just leave ‘em here,” said Hank. “Shite.
Go and fetch the doc,” said Hanrahan. Who else
would say “fetch” with that Hibernian lilt, let alone
“shite”? So they were picked up, one man per
limb. Folsom screamed when they took up his right arm.
After that he fell quiet, unconscious probably. He’d
nearly passed out himself.
They were laid out side by side
in the saloon. Damp sawdust. The doctor arrived and began
to swear in German, women rubbernecking over his shoulder and all
of them stinking of whiskey. In the old country Furst had trained
as an eye doctor but he always did what he could and people
trusted him because there was no point in not doing so. He
poured whiskey liberally on the wounds against infection, wrapped
bandages that were most likely ripped from whores’ sheets.
Then more whiskey, bottle against his lips. “Trink,
trink,” Furst ordered. After that they were lugged
upstairs. There was a brief argument over the appropriation
of rooms in which he was in no condition to participate.
paid the first visit. His door was open and Folsom looked in
sheepishly, unsure what to say.
“Well, so you’re
alive,” he said. “Good. But why aren’t
you locked up?”
Folsom squeezed through the narrow
doorway and with a grimace shrugged his good shoulder. “You
“Guess so. Doc says.”
were like old men; neither considered the other a threat.
asked permission to come and sit on the foot of the bed. “Hurts
more when I stand,” he explained. He was being
yourself, I don’t mind.”
Folsom put his rear
end on the bed delicately, so as not to disturb the Sheriff He
was quiet for a full minute, maybe two.
“I did hit
that Johnson fellow.”
“I know you did. There
were only about a dozen witnesses.”
been drinking, of course. You know how it is. We got
to re-fighting Gettysburg because we were both there and he said
some things I just couldn’t abide. About General
Longstreet first. Well, I bore that. But then he
began on Robert E. Lee. So I hit him with a bottle, and not
even that hard.”
“You damned near killed the
man, if he isn’t dead yet.”
Folsom lowered his
head. “An accident.”
up the bottle, didn’t you? You hit him over the head with
didn’t mean it was an accident that Johnson got his head
split. I meant it was an accident I split it. Any man
who’d served under Longstreet might’ve done the
same—would have too, after what Johnson said—but I
was patient with him. It was General Lee that did it.”
After this speech Folsom paused, breathing hard. “Tell
me something. If I heard right, you were at Gettysburg too
Didn’t hear what corps. Not one of Pickett’s
poor Virginia boys, were you?”
“So,” said Folsom very carefully,
“the way I se it, it could’ve been you. No
He looked Folsom, a man who had almost
killed him and whom he’d almost killed. “None
taken, Folsom. But it’s of no account.”
accident that you had to come after me, though.”
“Exactly,” drawled Folsom and
nodded two times. “That’s the truth of it, no
mistake. And yet some might consider even that an accident.
I mean that they hired you to be the Law hereabouts and not
“What? You, for
“Well, why not? We’re
the sort they hire, aren’t we?”
wire people, dry goods and opera house people, church and
The sheriff laughed but not
because Folsom was wrong. He’d got his job because
after three men had been killed on one Saturday the town was
desperate and he’d just happened to knock down those two
drunken cowboys and took their guns away. He wasn’t
any better than Folsom and saw no point in pretending to
“Where’s the deputy? He ought to be
keeping a watch on you.”
to buy himself a beefsteak, I think. Nice enough fellow,
but kind of stringy. Looked to me like he could do with a
couple of beefsteaks.”
The sheriff smiled. “I
call him Rail.”
looks something like a fence rail.”
coming after me, too?”
The Sheriff laughed at this.
Folsom laughed also. “No,
I allow as he probably wouldn’t.”
women more or less took care of them for two weeks, though they
badly wanted the rooms. The sheriff paid for his own food
and Folsom paid for his Rail would visit after supper bearing the
news which seldom amounted to much. The sheriff and Folsom
played some cards and talked. Mostly Folsom talked. He
seemed to need to talk about the war and the sheriff let him.
As soon as he was able to hobble about he ordered
up a bottle from the bar and took it into Folsom’s room and
they got drunk and had some laughs.
Rail reported that
Johnson was considerably better, though he still had headaches
and didn’t always see quite straight. When the sheriff told
Folsom this he said how sorry he was and wondered what the charge
would be assuming Johnson kept on getting better.
Folsom considered this. “Battery,”
he said, no doubt thinking of artillery. “Oh.”
the third week both men were so recovered that Furst told them
they could go about their business if only they did it slowly and
the rooms could go back to their original purpose which would be
a general relief. Folsom didn’t have the four dollars
the doctor insisted on, only two, so the sheriff made up the
“Thank you,” said Folsom. “I
“You can pay me back some
“Why, sure, sure. Word and
The two looked at each other and felt
“What do we do now?” asked
The sheriff shrugged and took a quick look over
his shoulder though nobody was around. Then he brushed at
the star on his vest, turned his back on Folsom, and limped down
hot, dry day, the fifth of June. He leaned against the lintel and
looked apathetically at the empty street, the three bleached
cottonwoods, the absence of clouds.
He had done his
utmost to get help, humbled himself, offered to deputize almost
all the men—Hank and Hanrahan and the rest. Charlie Ransome
had grabbed at his arm as he passed him on his accustomed bench
and, for a moment he had even been tempted to accept the old
man’s offer. “I’ll stand with you,”
Charlie had wheezed consumptively, trying literally but
unsuccessfully to do it there and then.
It was a trial to
see how they hid from him or, if they weren’t quick enough,
turned away. The most humiliated tried to pick a fight. As
for the women, they began to glance at him furtively, as though
he were already a carcass, as if he were Death and wanted to
steal their men away. Ever since the boy showed up it had
been like that.
Apparently the Johnson boy had been out
fixing a fence when Folsom’s man rode up, handed him the
note and a fifty-cent piece to deliver it.
kilt my brother. Now me and my boys are going to
things Be seeing you on the sixth inst.
truly yours. Now where had a mean character like Folsom
picked up that lawyerly phrase? Mean Folsom famously was, said to
have shot a man in a bunkhouse for snoring too loud and another
in an Abilene saloon just because his mustache reminded him of
his father’s, so maybe he had killed his daddy too.
Folsom’s letter was roughly written in pencil on the
back of an old wanted poster. The news went through town
like spoiled meat through a Philadelphian.
You kilt my
brother. All he’d done was track Henry Folsom down
and arrest him, which was what he was supposed to do, what the
town expected of him, what even Folsom ought to have expected.
There had been a trial, a proper one, since the circuit
judge came through that same week. Henry Folsom had been judged
and the law had executed him fair and square. He’d
shot down an unarmed sodbuster named Jenkins and then raped his
wife. Mrs. Jenkins couldn’t speak for shame but she
bravely pointed her finger at him in court. So it was all
square. But that didn’t count with Folsom, who had a
code of his own and had to take somebody’s life for
Henry’s, which was his idea of how to even things. You
didn’t smack your lips over legal niceties with the likes
He put his feet up on the desk to give the
matter full consideration one last time. Nobody in his
position could help but feel let down. Still, he didn’t
relish the way resentment coiled up in his gut. He also
hated feeling frightened, and he was scared. If he lit out
Folsom just might shoot up the town but then the town deserved to
be shot up. On the other hand, Folsom might just ride out
to track him down the same way he’d done with Henry.
Folsom might even find that fitting. Any way the he
turned it over, sticking around would be foolish.
unpinned the badge from his vest and laid it carefully on the
desk, bright side up. It made him feel lighter but also
more exposed. He pulled his canteen from under the cot and
took down the Winchester, which he examined carefully, since it
hadn’t been used for a while. From the ammunition
drawer he pocketed two handfuls of extra rifle rounds, not even
bothering to count, then filled his cartridge belt. Sitting
on the cot he slowly cleaned and oiled his Colt, waiting for
sundown. He could buy food from the Olsons, whose place was two
miles outside of town. Then he would light out. Maybe
up to Wyoming. Maybe west all the way to California. There
was plenty of space. Anyway, he would run.
Appomatox he had imagined a limitless refuge between the whited
sepulchres of the East and the frank debauchery of San Francisco.
Because he could write a fair hand he’d found work as a
clerk in St. Joe, but he soon tired of registering the departures
of others. So he bought himself a used outfit and a decent horse
and for a year he was a cowpuncher, which he thought a good life
once he’d callused up and accustomed himself to the shit
and the Indians. By the campfires he dreamed of women;
every cowboy did. He’d have liked to pity the cheap
whores who were the only females he saw in those days; but they
were so hard, sentiment of any variety seemed misplaced. “Poker
and poke her,” Purdy, the squinty old trail boss had joked
bitterly the night before they finished the drive at Abilene. The
old coot said it as if what he anticipated weren’t crude
pleasures but a sentence, as if the muddy cow town were a canker
on the clean rolling plains, a sewer into which all the foulness
of men ran. Come to that, what did he really think of the
civilization he had been serving for two years? Had he come
to agree with Purdy? Well, what did it matter what he
thought? That’s the way the tide was running and had been
ever since Lewis and Clark first settled their rear-ends in a
canoe, ever since Henry Hudson blundered on his river, ever since
deluded Columbus sloshed onto that unfortunate island. So
probably there would come a time when men would hang up their
guns. But that time sure wasn’t yet.
into the livery stale well after dark, saddled his horse, and,
keeping clear of the lit-up saloon, headed out of town. If
anybody caught sight of him, which was not unlikely, they were no
keener on a discussion of the merits of discretion than he was.
No matter. His absence would be noted soon enough and
eagerly reported to Folsom. He could picture his fellow citizens,
the apprehensively smiles, the anxious pointing.
midnight he rousted Olson out of bed and bought beans and salted
meat off him. Olson threw in some tobacco too, but they
hardly said a word to one another. Neither Folsom nor the
absence of the badge came in for a mention. He had done
Olson a few good turns and both men understood that was what the
tobacco and the silence were for.
Shortly after dawn he
caught sight of a couple turkey buzzards spreading their wings on
the early updrafts. Mockingbirds and meadowlarks sang among
the high tufts of brown grass. For a minute the boulders
turned violet then pink and there was velvety warmth to the air
as the sun commenced to rise. It wasn’t the first
dawn he reckoned might be his last, yet it was the first since
the war that found him on the run. Perhaps there comes a
time, he speculated, when cowardice looks like prudence. He
wondered what would be said of him by the town that day; for the
town he now pictured as a single person, a timorous but
disapproving farmer or a gangly teenager ashamed of his father.
Since he’d taken the sheriff’s job there had
been some good days when he felt the town to be his, under his
protection, and he’d sauntered through it like a sole
proprietor. Now his vanity was borne in on him. Belonging
had been an illusion—that the town and he had belonged to
each other—the worst of it being that he’d permitted
himself to think he was what he thought the town believed of him.
Up against the starkness of a killer like Folsom the mirage
had evaporated like the ponds that would presently spread on the
flatlands. All had gone with that five-pointed piece of
From time to time he’d dismount to rest or to
water his horse and drag some sage over his tracks. It
wasn’t a serious effort but one he felt obliged to make
since he was now to live by prudence. He’d changed
his direction three times, too.
It ought to have been a
shock to see the dust rising behind him; and yet, he wasn’t
at all surprised. He realized he’d never believed he
could evade Folsom, not from the moment the Johnson boy had
handed him that poster. This surprise was that he’d lied to
himself about that as well
He headed for the high ground
to his left, trying not to raise dust of his own. He was in
unfamiliar territory but the big rock formations promised some
tiny chance of safety. He rose on his stirrups and swiveled his
body to look back. They were closing on him. He
counted four riders, like the ones in the Bible, riding so hard
they must not have cared about killing their mounts.
picked his way among the outcrops, the horse stepping delicately
along the edges of scree. There was no hope that Folsom had
missed him; he had seen them turn. Should he look for some
high defile and set up an ambush or make a run for it? During the
war they had done both and neither mattered in the end. He
had yet to decide the question when he ran up against a towering
wall of limestone. There was no way out; he had blundered
into a box canyon. “Figures,” he said to
himself as he dismounted and pulled out the Winchester. As
he scanned the rocks he wondered if Folsom, that free-ranging
renegade, had known where he was headed and was laughing at
He climbed, pulling the horse after him, then wedged
the reins between two boulders well behind the spot he had chosen
and made ready for a last stand. The sun was directly
overhead. He held the rifle close, unwilling to give
himself away by a glint from the barrel just to get off one or
two clear shots. He peered over the edge and saw them just
below. They had their pistols drawn and were looking up.
Suddenly the one with the long black beard shouted and made
a sweeping motion with his arm. All four hastened to dismount
when shots reverberated all through the canyon. Two bullets
struck close to him and then he felt like someone had stuck a hot
poker across his flank. He looked around wildly and saw an
Indian moving rapidly across a rock above him; then there were
more shots from across the canyon.
Folsom and his men
never got off a single round. He saw their bodies jump as they
were hit, saw them fall, still jumping. The noise was
awful. He slipped down a crevice, pressing his hand against
his bleeding side. For a full minute everything went silent then
he heard a movement above him, the soft sound of moccasins. A war
party looking for horses—probably Sioux, maybe Commanches.
He was never good at the names of tribes. There were
good Indians who didn’t kill you and bad ones who did. He
waited for them to come looking for him and prayed his horse
would know enough to keep quiet.
The Indians must have
been in a hurry. Or maybe they forgot about him or just
counted wrong. It was hard to figure. They never came
and, after a good long while squeezed in that crevice, he decided
to risk a peek.
He crawled over the rock. Four
corpses lay spread out below, blood all over their chests and
legs. Just one had been scalped, so those Sioux must have
been in a rush, were on the run like him and needed those ponies.
Hanrahan had mentioned seeing some cavalry the week
His side hardly hurt at all, unless he took a deep
breath. So, inhaling as shallowly as he could, he retrieved his
horse and led him down to the dead bodies. The terrified
mare shied and he stroked her nose. The one with the long
black beard, shot neatly in the forehead, had “Folsom”
scratched on his belt.
It was late afternoon when he
trudged back into town. It had taken two days what with
walking the horse with the body laying over his saddle. Folsom
kept falling off.
He led the horse up the street. People
gaped, said things, called out his name, but, seeing the set of
his face, nobody dared to approach him.
He halted outside
the saloon and, grabbing a leg, yanked the body from the horse
and left it in the street. Then he took the horse to the
livery and then walked straight back to his office.
badge was where he’d left it. He picked it up and pinned it
on his vest. Then he lay down on the cot.
and Rail turned up a few minutes later, followed by pretty nearly
the whole town. The Irishman spoke first. Perhaps
that’s why it was his version of events that became
history, displacing all suspicion, embarrassment, and
“Well, Sheriff, you’re a clever one all
right. Jesus, Mary, and Joseph, but we’d figured you’d
run off. Soon as the Folsom bunch showed up they took off
after you. Lord knows what they’d have done if they’d
found you here.” He turned around and spoke to the
crowd. Hanrahan looked at him a moment, considering what he
was about to do, and then he said what he must have felt he had
to say. “Why, he saved the town, he did!” Then
he turned back to the sheriff. “Handsomely done,
boyo. What say I stand the first drink? Sure, if
there’s any justice in the round world you’ll never
need to pay for one again.”
moment he laid eyes on Eurydice Folsom, even before he caught her
scent or touched her hand, his knees buckled. That’s how it
He knew who this woman was, at least who her husband
was. Every lawman in the territory knew about Jacob Folsom
who had gone completely to the bad after blowing one of his hired
hands nearly in half with a shotgun. He had been a
successful rancher; now, turned outlaw, he seemed determined to
make an equally good job of it. He gathered a gang of
toughs and made a specialty of robbing banks, though there was
also the occasional train or dry goods store. The banks and
the railroad had put a rather flattering price on his
Folsom’s spread was twenty miles away and in
the neighboring jurisdiction It was the ranch about which
Eurydice had come to see him. The first bank her husband had
robbed held their mortgage and was now trying to foreclose
notwithstanding that she’d done well running the place on
her own and hadn’t missed a payment. The local
sheriff was the banker’s brother-in-law and declined to get
involved. She’d consulted the town’s only
lawyer but he was on the bank’s board and would do nothing
for her. In fact, he was working to get the foreclosure
“I didn’t know where else to turn,”
she said in a voice that sounded like an April afternoon in
Charleston. “You’ve a good reputation,”
she added, lowering her eyes. “My husband’s a
monster. A monster. I hope he’s arrested for
what he’s done but it’s not right for them to take my
land.” She paused and looked at him in a way that
made her seem something other than distraught. “Is it,
He promised to do what he could. He
would take the matter up with the county attorney, he said, and
the U.S. Marshall’s office. He admitted that he
didn’t know much about property law.
hardly an expert either but I believe the law’s on my side
in this. May I sit down?” Apologizing, he rushed to
put a chair behind her. Taking her time, carefully
smoothing her skirt under her, she placed herself in the chair
and looked up at him. “Tell me, Sheriff, are you a
married man yourself?” This made him blush and that made
He got two dinners from the saloon and she
stayed with him that night. Since then had ridden twenty
miles to her place every Thursday and twenty miles back the next
day. It wasn’t much of a secret, none at all in fact,
but he didn’t care. If men like Rail shook their
heads and frowned or those like Hanrahan grinned and
winked, what was that to him?
She enjoyed talking about
her husband, even in bed, though he hardly encouraged her.
According to his wife, Folsom drank to excess, regularly
molested squaws, beat up piano players, cheated at cards,
lied as a matter of pure habit, was an ungenerous lover, and had
in his earlier years jumped claims and rustled cattle. Marrying
him was a ghastly mistake, she said, a girl’s foolishness.
Folsom had deceived not just her but also her parents, both
now deceased. He had been all meretricious manner and
put-on charm. The man had shamelessly claimed to have been a
colonel under Lee which was as big a lie as everything else about
him. It was her bride money that went for the down payment on the
ranch and her business head that made it prosper. To her he
behaved like a brute. And jealous—that was what led to his
murdering that Johnson, his accusing the poor man of looking at
her in the wrong way. Folsom often struck her, she confided
tearfully. Her tears were hard for him to bear. He
held her close and stroked her shoulders.
He credited all
she said not because he was certain of its truth but because he
couldn’t face what it would mean not to have believed her.
That’s how it was with him.
prevailed on the county attorney, who owed him three favors, to
intervene in the case so as at least to delay a court order.
Official letters were sent to the bank president and
Eurydice with copies to him. The matter required study,
wrote the county attorney, and he might become a party. He
would need to examine the bank’s records, the mortgage
agreement, and the deed. In the meantime, no action should
be taken Eurydice’s gratitude was boundless. When
he next rode out she met him by outside the door, half undressed,
threw her arms around his neck, her legs around his waist, and
kissed him until he was breathless. She had made him a
cherry pie and a roast of beef and kept him in bed straight from
Thursday afternoon till Friday morning.
A week later Rail
brought the post to the office, a sorrowful look on his
perpetually long face. “Personal letter for you.”
He spoke ruefully, knowing already who had written it and
what it signified.
Folsom was calling him out. The
language was flowery, the handwriting almost feminine.
I regret to hear that
you have been fornicating with
wife. I don’t know what the bitch told you; however,
you will appreciate that
scarcely matters, as, whatever
she is, she remains my wife and not yours, for which,
my opinion you ought to be grateful. I intend to be up
your way next week when
you can try to kill me, but don’t
of making an arrest. This is between us and, like
affairs of honor, a fatal necessity of manhood,
he in the wrong or the right in this business? Folsom was an
outlaw, a killer, and yet he had wronged him. Eurydice was
Folsom’s wife yet Folsom betrayed and beat her, besides
which she loved him and not Jacob Folsom. That he could be in
some measure both wrong and right was perplexing because he was a
man who insisted on clarity, though he admitted to himself the
simplicity of his life was finished the moment he saw her. Was
it conceivable Folsom had been right about Johnson? Had
whatever happened gone beyond looking? He tried to dismiss
such doubts and blamed himself for them. Folsom lied.
However, the last sentence of the letter affected him. He
read it over and over, thinking how the man had linked honor with
stupidity. It was a curious thing to write; it was the
declaration of an interesting man.
Eurydice came to
warn him in the morning. Folsom had sent a man to tell her what
he intended to do to her lover and precisely when and she had
ridden through the night to alert him. “Why, he might
be here already,” she said fearfully, “lurking in
some alleyway with his men to help him, which would be exactly
like him. Get a posse together,” she ordered, “shoot
him on sight.”
He did what he could to calm her
As it happened, Folsom rode into town an hour later,
quite openly and entirely alone. He dismounted outside the
sheriff’s office and called. The street emptied at
once. Eurydice began to shake. “Don’t let
him see me!” she cried.
He put on his gun belt,
considered taking off his badge, then decided not to. Folsom
called again, called him by name. Rail stuck his head in at
the back window and started to say something, then thought better
of it and went away.
A fatal necessity of manhood, however
stupid. The clock ticked and he glanced at it. Nearly
Folsom was leaning against the hitching post, arms
folded, not exactly expectant or nonchalant but a little of each.
He was a big-boned man, no longer young but not old either,
covered with dust from his ride. He was lean, but not in a
healthy way; in fact, he looked as if he’d shed a good deal
of weight owing to his irregular life. His face, fiercely
sunburned, displayed authority and refinement. It wasn’t
difficult to believe he really had been one of Lee’s
Folsom tossed his head toward the office, an
impatient, dismissive gesture. “I suppose she’s
He nodded, unable to say it was none of
the man’s business.
“Well then, sir,”
drawled Folsom, “we’d best get it over with.”
There was fellow-feeling as well as weariness in his words
and no hatred whatever, as if he took it for granted that they
agreed what they had to be done was indeed necessary but
Of course it was impossible, but he
would have liked to talk with Folsom, even knowing they’d
still have to go ahead and shoot at each other afterwards.
Instead, he stepped off the duckboards into the street.
They were suicidally close to each other.
off for about five seconds. They drew and shot, almost
simultaneously. He felt Folsom’s bullet shatter his
right arm and dropped his gun. Evidently untouched, Folsom
still pointed his pistol, deciding whether to finish him
The next shot was a surprise. It came from
behind, like a resounding, stunning slap from some giant
congratulating him. The blow whirled him around so that as
he fell he could see her throwing down the Winchester. He heard
her shout “Jake!” With his cheek pressed against the
ground he watched her pink lace-up boots scurry by his face. Then
there was no more breath and, despite it being noon, everything