When the devil wants his due, he's willing to chase it.
"I heard the beast say, come and see, and I looked, and behold, a pale horse, and his rider was called Death, and Hell followed with him."
Laura put a hand to her mouth. "What do you mean you shot him?" she said.
Grace turned from the mirror, glaring. "Keep it down!" she said. They both paused, listening: Voices and piano music from the saloon below drifted up through the floorboards, but there were no footsteps on the stairs. "Do you want the whole town to hear about it?" Grace said.
Laura lowered her voice. "But you really did it? You shot Tom Miller? With what?"
Grace took a polished Navy Colt revolver from the dresser. Laura, still half-dressed in her bloomers while Grace sat at nightstand, gasped a little. "Where did you get that?" she said.
"It was my daddy's," said Grace. "He carried it during the war with Mexico. I've always had it, since he died."
"But how'd you do it? I mean, when even?"
"Last night. I told Miller I was going to give him a free ride but that we had to take it outside or else Mallory would get after me. I took him out by the gorge and dumped the body over the side."
Laura sat on the bed, visibly pale even in the dim lamplight. "Why?" she said.
Grace turned around. "Why? What do you mean why? I did it for you." From downstairs there was a burst of particularly loud laughter. Outside in the street a horse cried out. "Weren't you tired of him always slapping you around?" said Grace. "Weren't you tired of Mallory saying he was a paying customer so there's nothing she can do? Aren't you glad you won't lose anyone else's business anymore on account of black eyes and bruises?"
There were tears in Laura's eyes, but she nodded once or twice. Grace made a disgusted sound then went back to brushing her hair. "Fine, I don't care if you're grateful. I was lying anyway. Really I just did it because I wanted to. Because he deserved it and someone should have done it a long time ago. Or maybe just because I felt like it. What the hell does it even matter?”
Laura said nothing more. The two women dressed and primped in silence, but when Laura was about to head down she stopped at the head of the stairs, as if stuck by something. "Grace," she said, "what about Cody?"
"Cody Warrant? What about him?"
"If anyone figures out that Miller is dead they'll think Cody did it."
Grace shook her head once, slowly. "Who in their right mind would think Cody Warrant killed a man? He can't even shoot his pecker straight."
"But Cody owed Miller money! And Miller said he had two days to pay up or he'd kill him, and everyone heard them argue about it that same night, and everyone knows Cody wasn't going to have it in time!" Laura's words came faster and faster. "And they know Cody was scared of Miller, and no one will think Miller skipped town without collecting on a debt, and the sheriff never liked poor Cody anyway, and oh Grace, don't you see, everyone will think it's him, everyone!"
Grace just scoffed. She tried to push past Laura down the stairs, but Laura caught her by the arm.
"Grace, the new circuit judge is a hanging judge. Cody won't stand a chance."
"Cody won't see the inside of a courtroom unless he offers to repaint it," said Grace.
"But what if you're wrong?"
"Then Cody is bound to have a real bad day," said Grace. "I won't hang for him, not even if I did the crime. I don't owe Cody Warrant anything. In fact, he still owes me a hundred dollars, the only inheritance I had from my daddy other than that gun, and he owes it to me. Miller would have killed him over their debt anyway. If he hangs instead of being shot I don't see what difference it makes."
Laura was about to say something more but Mallory shouted from the foot of the stairs: "These men are getting impatient down here girls. Don't keep them waiting."
They went down.
The saloon was full and the piano player was drunk already, wheeling off wild notes while he teetered back and forth on the bench. The place was packed full and the liquor was flowing and a hellish haze of cigar smoke hung over everything while surreal laughter and half-slurred drinking songs bounced between patrons. It was the usual. Grace sat at her normal stool and looked at no one. Unlike Laura she didn't bother smiling or acting friendly because no one would have been fooled anyway. No one ever mistook her for somebody having a good time while she worked. But she knew that if she waited until Laura was upstairs with someone that another man would be drunk enough and desperate enough to settle for her. She’d make money enough, on her own terms.
Someone sat beside her. She didn’t even need to look to know that it was Cody Warrant. She turned her back to him on the stool, and even when he cleared his throat she said nothing. Finally he said, “Hello, Grace.”
“Cody,” she said.
“I hope you’re well tonight.”
She saw him in the mirror, he was turning his hat around and around in his hand, his round, bluff face knit in concentration.
“I hope—” he said.
“Unless you have any money, Cody, you can just move along.”
He shook his head. “I’m sorry Grace, but I don’t. I know I still owe you, I haven’t forgotten.”
“Neither have I,” she said. She leaned as far away from him as she could without falling over. "You know I needed that money real bad last year. You know how bad I needed it, and you know why, and you didn't come through."
"And I'm real sorry about that, Grace. I really thought that claim would pay off. You must have thought so too or else you wouldn't have given me the loan."
"Cody, what do you want?" she said. "You here to let me in on another business proposition? You going to offer me 15% again? What's 15% of nothing, Cody?"
Cody looked down. "I'll have your principle back to you when I can. I always pay my debts,” he said. "You can ask anyone. I’m just down on my luck now, and if I don’t pay off Tom Miller—”
“You shouldn’t worry much about that,” said Grace. “Miller left town.”
Cody blinked. “I didn’t hear that.”
“You will,” she said, signaling the bartender. He set a shot of whiskey in front of her. “Put it on his tab,” she said, hooking a thumb at Cody. He turned to go, but he stopped and looked at her, and she finally looked him in the eye. He looked sad.
“You know Grace, I'm sad about the money, but I'm more sad about letting you down. I wish it was different. I know you don't want to hear that, but it's true all the same. I'll make it all up in time, though. I'll pay you back, every penny, and that's a promise."
And then he went. Grace shook her head. Yeah Cody, she thought, you're going to pay. You don't even know it yet.
It was a dry storm; thunder and lightning, but no rain. The windowpanes rattled and the wind leaked through the chinks in the walls. Grace wrapped a blanket around herself and listened. She wondered if the whole building would blow down. She enjoyed the idea.
It was a year to the day since they hanged Cody Warrant. No one ever found Miller’s body, but a boy playing by the edge of the gorge found one of his spurs and showed it to the sheriff. Miller’s initials and the spot of blood on them were all it took to convince everyone that Miller hadn't just skipped town after all, and a few weeks later the hanging judge sent luckless Cody for his final swing, just as Laura predicted.
Laura had finally saved enough money to pay her debts to Mallory and leave town, and her half of the room was empty now. That meant Grace was more in demand with the customers, and would be until Mallory hired another girl to take Laura's place. For now Grace was tired, and the cold made her joints ache. She felt old.
She was brushing her hair in the mirror when she saw someone standing in the doorway, a man with a duster and a hat pulled over his face. She sighed. "It's late, cowboy," she said. "We're closed."
He put something on the end table, and she saw the gleam of gold in the lamplight. It looked like a lot. Without looking at him, Grace weighed the nuggets in her hand; they seemed real. And they seemed like a lot.
"Well," she said, "I guess it's your lucky night."
She went to take his hat off, but he stopped her, and he turned the lamp down as low as it would go without putting it out entirely. She shrugged. "Got a name?" she said. He shook his head. She chuckled. "That's fine," she said. "I'm not interested anyway."
She turned to unlace her dress but the stranger, crossing the room so fast it surprised her, grabbed her and threw her across the bed. She landed with a grunt and then he pawed at her dress with both hands, tearing the fabric. She was about to complain, but his money was enough to replace it with plenty to spare, and now that the damage was done she needed to keep him around and keep him paying, so she just gritted her teeth and even threw in one or two encouraging moans. The stranger did not reply, simply continued at his work with a kind of focused facility. His hands were cold.
When the stranger finished stripping Grace he gave the side of her ass a smack. She grunted again, sucking a hissing breath between clenched teeth. So it was going to be that kind of a night, was it? All right cowboy, she thought, we can play that game. She wiggled her hips back and forth, inviting another smack on the opposite side. She moaned, rolling the sound at the back of her throat; the boys usually liked that. If nothing else, Grace had a reputation for being satisfactorily loud. Her vocalizations were what earned her the nickname "Hellcat" when she was younger. So when the stranger brought his hand down over and over again, painting her backside with bright red palm prints, she gave him a good sound-off in return; so long as he wasn't raising welts she had no reason to complain.
Eventually he grew bored of that game and she heard the jingle of his belt buckle. As he adjusted his stance, she noticed he'd left his boots and his spurs on; they rang against the floorboards whenever he moved. The sound sent chills up and down her back. The stranger grabbed her hips with both hands, pulling her into him; she yelped. His prick felt strange sliding down her rear. He jerked her legs apart, his calloused fingers running over flesh already bruised from the over-eagerness of a previous patron. She winced as his touch lit up those sore spots, like a bee sting. If he noticed, he said nothing, in fact, he was utterly silent the whole time; even his breathing was so quiet as to be inaudible.
He slid the length inside and Grace braced herself by gripping the side of the bed frame. It was a long one, and it was curved toward the tip, so she could feel it rub against her all the way in. It glided along the inner ridge of her, pressing against her cunt muscles, sending a quivering ache all up through her. "Ooooh, fuck," she moaned, giving it her best throaty rendition. The stranger did not seem impressed; he grabbed her by her hair, pulling her head back for a moment, his grip so hard and his movements so fast that this time her scream was genuine. "Motherfucker!" she said. "You watch what the fuck you're—"
But he didn't listen. Instead he pushed her back down again, burying her face against the mattress, and for a panicked moment Grace thought he meant to smother her as he ground her into the pillow so hard that the fabric clung to her nose and mouth and her throat and nostrils shortly burned for air. But he let up and she gasped in a breath, tears appearing at the corners of her eyes. By this time he was all the way in and hammering away at her with what she guess he though of as a hell of a show. Fighting against him, she pushed up onto her hands and rammed herself back against him while at the same time clenching her cunt tight; her muscles were strong and they contracted around him, squeezing him on all sides. He froze, and a smile flickered across her face; that usually got their attention.
"So you're a tough guy, huh?" She pushed into him more; his boots slid a fraction of an inch under him, his spurts dragging the floor. "Think you're tough? Think you can pay your money and do whatever you want?" He was silent as a stone. "Well you don't feel very tough," she said. She braced her hands against the wall, palms flat. "Come on. Show me what you can do." She looked over her shoulder; he was a dark silhouette, faceless, blank. She raised an eyebrow at him. "Well?" She smirked.
The stranger pushed into her again, his strangely arched cock grinding along her insides. She pursed her lips at him. "If that's all you've got for me I'll just take a nap here. Wake me when you're done." He did it again, harder. She gave him an impish giggle, too girlish to be coming out of her mouth. "I'm not feeling anything. Are you sure it's in?"
Harder now, and faster, and harder still. He grabbed her hair again and pulled back, but this time she did not scream, in fact, she laughed, and she kept laughing as he kept hammering away, over and over, harder and harder, his knees rocking back and forth as her body jerked against him. Now, she had to admit, she really was feeling it, but there was no need to let him know that; the sound of his spurs ringing with each thrust he gave became almost pleasant in her ears.
"Come on cowboy, you can do it," she said. "Come on, just a little more. Come on, don’t be shy now, don't be shy…"
Each of his movements was a perfect imitation of the one before, completely uniform and regular; he went in and out, in and out, all the way each time and each time his hips colliding with her backside, bringing a little smacking noise all its own. Despite having stripped her naked, he didn't bother to grope her, instead keeping his hands on her hips, a uniform grip on either side. He was strong; even Grace wasn't sure where her push ended and his pull began. And he was still quiet as a gallows tree. It was beginning to unnerve her.
His climax, when it came, was a curiously silent thing as well. She didn't so much feel as sense his release, like a pressure change in the room. He released her and she fell forward on her elbows. Her knees were unsteady, but she didn't let him see her shake as she stood. She heard his belt buckle again, and the sound of his spurs on the floorboards. She rolled over on the bed and smirked at him. "Okay," she said. "Not bad. I think you've already dropped enough to warrant a second go-round, that is, if you're man enough for—"
She froze. With the stranger's back turned, to her, she saw that he was wearing only one spur. The hairs on the back of her neck stood up.
Grace dressed again in a hurry. She feigned breathlessness, then stalled by pretending to fix her hair in the mirror. The stranger stood in the shadow of the doorway, watching her. "Something else on your mind?" she said, keeping her voice steady. Her hand inched toward the drawer. "You stay there much longer I'm going to start charging you rent," she said. "Nothing to say? Well that's okay. I've got enough on my mind for both of us."
The stranger's hand darted for this holster; he was a fast draw, but Grace was ready for him. She turned and raised the Navy Colt, leveling it at his chest. He froze with his hand halfway to his hip.
"Howdy Tom," Grace said.
Thunder rolled outside.
"Long time no see." The dark figure stirred a little. "Your spur gave you away. Silver, with your initials etched in. And the gold; I forgot you tried to pay me in nuggets just like that the night you died. I figure you must have ambushed some poor prospector come to town to spend his claim. I guess your jim-dandy had something to do with it too, truth be known. But mostly the spur."
Miller was still as a statue. The air in the room chilled around him.
"So what'd you come here for? One last good time? Well, now you've had it. I suggest you be on your way back to…wherever it is you've been." Blue lighting illuminated the room for a flicker of a second. "On the other hand, just what were you planning on doing with that gun, Tom? Got some hard feelings? Well, me too." Grace cocked the hammer on her gun. "You've got until the count of three to leave. I already killed you once; I don't mind doing it again. One, two…"
Miller went for his gun again, and Grace pulled the trigger twice, the pistol kicking hard. Miller fell against the door and sprawled into the hall, his hat rolling away. He kicked a little, foot jittering in a nervous spasm, and then he was still.
Grace picked up the lamp and brought it over, holding it to his face; it was Miller all right, but not Miller the way he'd looked every night in the saloon, year in and year out. This was Miller the way he must have looked after a night dead at the bottom of the gorge where she left him, blue-faced and glassy-eyed. He still had the two holes in him where she'd shot him that night. Now she'd put two fresh bullet holes in his chest too, but there was no blood. She unloaded two more into his head, sending fragments of his skull and a cloud of dust flying. By then she was panting, blinded by gun smoke, nostrils burning with the scent. She waited, half expecting him to sit up again. He didn't.
"Guess the second time was the charm, huh Tom?"
Suddenly Mallory was there, charging up the steps from her room behind the bar. She was dressed in her nightgown and hugging a blanket around her shoulders. "What in the hell is going on—Oh my God!" she said.
"Since when do you have a God?" said Grace.
"Sweet Mary, you shot someone! You killed a man, in my place!" said Mallory.
"No, I didn't, he was dead already" said Grace. "Now you, you I wouldn't mind killing here." She turned the gun on the other woman and pulled the hammer back. Mallory's eyes widened. The Colt was empty of course, but Mallory didn't know that. Probably couldn't even count that high.
"Now wait a minute," said Mallory. "Let's not get carried away here."
"That'll depend on whether you want to be the smart bitch or the dumb bitch tonight, boss," said Grace. She gestured with the gun. "Come on, you go down first."
Grace led Mallory downstairs at gunpoint and made her empty the cashbox into a bag. Then she corralled her into the storage room. "I'm taking your favorite horse," Grace said as she barricaded the door. "We'll call it my back pay."
The storm was still howling outside, but Grace preferred riding through it to staying here with Tom Miller's twice-dead corpse. She put on her best coat and shook Mallory's mare awake. Mallory would take her time busting that door down and by the time she roused the sheriff from his evening drunk Grace would be halfway to the border. And after that? She wasn't sure. She'd just ride as far as she could. As far from here and the place that Tom Miller’s body was supposed to lie as possible.
She kicked hard and rode. The desert flew past; the sky was black, only occasionally lit up the surreal white glare of lightning. Grace was riding for some time before she realized she was being followed. The wind and the clatter of the mare’s hooves disguised the sound of another horse approaching, and for a time even after she heard it she chose to ignore it, as if trying to will it away. Finally she looked over her shoulder and saw, silhouetted against a lightning stroke, a pursuing figure on horseback. Worse, she recognized the horse: a charging horse, an Arabian, the one that belonged to Miller, the one that went mad and broke out of the stable and trampled a man before disappearing into the desert the night she killed him. Clouds of sparks flew from its hooves and its eyes gleamed red in the murky night.
Grace dug her spurs in and urged the mare on. The land was open and the mare was a solid horse, but every time she looked back Miller was gaining on her. The Arabian seemed to take two strides for every one of hers. Grace hunched over the reins and spurred the mare again, but it could go no faster. It would falter before long, and Miller’s horse never would, she knew.
She heard the crack of what sounded like thunder, but closer. He’s shooting at me, Grace realized. She wasn’t worried; it was impossible to hit anything while riding, especially at night. Two more shots reported and she ducked in the saddle, though she knew it didn’t matter. He was almost empty. There wouldn't be—
The last shot reported and she heard her horses’ hooves skid in the dirt. She lurched forward, trying to catch herself, but fell to one side, barely avoiding getting her foot tangled in the stirrup. She hit the hardpan rolling, the gravel and thistles tearing her up. The mare screamed and tried to gallop on but it fell instead, and she saw the blood from the bullet wound painting its haunches. Grace's head hurt, and blood blurred her view in one eye. She stood, fell, stood again, and felt the first sting of cold rain on her face.
She looked back. Miller was still riding hard, coming right for her, and he’d be on her in half a minute. The thunder rolled. She looked around; her horse was finished and there was nowhere to go. Her gun was empty; she wished she’d saved one bullet for herself. She’d at least have liked to deprive him of the satisfaction of trampling her. She considered running, but no, he would find that amusing. Instead she closed her eyes and waited for it. At least I'll have a ride to hell, she thought.
What happened instead surprised her: Something circled her waist and pulled her up, and she was moving again, and she realized she was on the back of someone’s saddle, and the horse under them was riding so hard it took her breath away.
“Hang on,” said the rider.
She put her arms around his waist and leaned into his back. The storm was coming on stronger but the wind and the rain seemed to go around them. Grace felt a strange heat at her back. When she looked behind them she saw Miller still riding hard. “He’s chasing us!” she said. She blinked, sure that she was seeing things; Miller and his horse seemed to glow like an orange ember in the night. The wind carried a scent like brimstone.
“He won't be for long,” said the other rider. Grace looked ahead; somehow they’d doubled around, passing the town again, and she saw that they were heading straight for the gorge.
“Stop!” she said, but the rider ignored her. If anything he sped up, the mystery horse pressing forward, heading right for the suicidal plunge, all of them about to be dashed to pieces on the rocks. Grace braced for the fall, closing her eyes and anticipating the brief, weightless sensation of the plunge, but again, ruin didn't come. When she opened her eyes they were on the other side, as if they'd run across thin air. Miller, though, had stopped right at the edge, his pale horse rearing and pawing and crying out in the voice of the wind. He came not a step closer. Grace saw him raise his gun but of course, it was empty. There was nothing he could do.
Miller was silhouetted by the flames surrounding his own body; he looked like a blazing tree in a forest fire, and the wind blew the heat of him onto Grace's cheeks, stinging her. But one last fork of lighting lit Miller in blue, and then when it faded he was gone. The storm died down almost immediately.
“That’s it,” said the rider. “He can’t cross the spot he died." He half turned in the saddle to look at her. "You okay?"
"I'm not sure."
"Will you live?"
"I sure as hell hope so."
She climbed down, knees shaking. The rider shied his mount, an appaloosa, away a few steps. His face was hidden under his hat. Grace brushed the dust off of her coat. “Thank you,” she said.
“No need,” said the rider.
“No, really, thank you,” she said. She wiped her eyes. “Why’d you help me, Cody?”
He sat up a little straighter. As the clouds parted and the moon came out, she saw the rope mark around his neck.
“I still owed you,” he said. “And I always pay my debts.”
“But I let you hang."
“That’s right,” said Cody. “You’ve got debts to pay too. But not to me.”
He wheeled his horse around. She tried to stop him. "Do you have to go? I mean, so soon…"
"Afraid so. Now that we're square again I've got no reason to be here."
"But will I, you know, see you again, ever?" The wind blew Grace's hair across her face, blinding her for a moment. Cody seemed to consider her.
"It's not for me to say," he said. Like a dime novel hero he tipped his hat to her, once, and turned his horse around again. Then he was gone. Just gone.
Grace looked over her shoulder. Miller was nowhere to be seen, but even so she half expected the sound of hooves and hellfire. She sat on the hard ground and waited. No apparition appeared. Eventually the sun rose, and she saw something lying at her feet: it was Miller’s spur. His initials were still readable, though it was burnt around the edges and half-melted. It felt hot in her hand. She wondered about the kind of fire that would make a heat that lingered so long. She wondered if it would burn hotter for her. She wondered how far and how fast she'd have to ride to stay ahead of that fire, and for how long.
It was a long walk to the next town. She set out right away. She traveled light, but kept the spur in her coat pocket. It cooled a bit, but the head never died completely. At night, when the cold set in, it kept her warm.