“What the hell is this?”
The two men sat astride their horses – horses which refused to move any closer, despite their vain efforts, which included shouting, kicking and slapping. Frustrated, the two men gave up.
Across from them, no more than twenty paces away, stood the tiny taverna. A raven-headed whore stood outside. Her skirts were hitched up to reveal a well-muscled thigh, one booted foot propped on a small stool as she rubbed olive oil into her flesh. She threw back her hair and smiled in their direction.
“That is his woman,” said the Mexican, kicking at his horse’s flanks one last time. The animal still refused to budge.
“Damn it, if she ain’t the prettiest damned thing I’ve seen in a month of Sundays,” drooled the man beside the Mexican. He sucked at his teeth. “How old would you say she is?”
“I don’t know, maybe forty. But if you try anything on with her, he’ll kill you.”
“If he’s inside, he’ll kill you.”
“Well, we’ll just have to see about that, won’t we?”
The man eased himself from the saddle and dropped to the ground. Hands on hips, he stretched his back, the long grey coat hanging open to reveal two revolvers at his belt, butts pointing inwards. He tried a wide-mouthed grin in her direction and she stood straight, hands on her own hips in a mocking imitation of him, pelvis thrusting provocatively forward. He cackled. “Shoot, she is flirting with me, Sanchez.”
“She is playing you for a fool, Root.”
“Nah. I think she likes what she sees.”
Root rolled his shoulders and strolled nonchalantly towards her, taking his time, pulling out a tiny cotton bag from his right vest pocket. From the other, he produced a cigarette paper, trickled tobacco from the bag along it, drew the bag shut with his teeth and put it away. Running his tongue along the edge of the paper, he rolled it expertly and tightly and popped it into the corner of his mouth. Upon reaching the taverna, he stepped up onto the creaking, dilapidated veranda and stared directly into her smouldering, black eyes.
“My, you sure is pretty.”
“Gracias,” she said.
“What’s your name?”
“Yeah… of course it is.”
She pulled out a long match from somewhere amongst the folds of her skirt and ran the head along the wall adjacent to the open door. It flared into life. Cupping the flame with her hands, she offered it to him, and Root obliged, leaning into her, lighting his cigarette. He inhaled deeply, the paper sizzling as the dry tobacco smouldered brightly. Releasing a long stream of smoke, he picked at his teeth with his free hand and nodded to the interior of the taverna. “I’m looking for a friend of mine. Last I heard, he was inside.”
“My last customer is inside. He is young.” She cast her eyes around, an impish light playing around her face. “He is young and very energetic.”
“Is he, by God?”
Nodding, Maria looked away – feigning coyness, Root decided. Without warning, Root shot his right hand out to grab her crotch. She cried out and he slammed her against the wall, blew smoke in her face, then kissed her before she could cough.
When at last he pulled back, gasping, she pressed the back of her hand against her lips, saw the spots of blood on her skin and hissed, “Bastard.” Screwing up her lovely face in fury, she launched a punch in his direction, but Root turned and parried the blow, grabbing her wrist with his right hand. He grinned as she desperately tried to break free.
Her efforts proved useless and Root squeezed. She cried out, “Let me go, you gringo sonofabitch!” She struggled against him, but her protestations merely resulted in him tightening his grip still further and she squealed, dropping to her knees, tears springing from her eyes. “Please, señor...”
A man stepped out from the gloom of the taverna and put a bullet through Root’s head. In one easy, flowing movement, he altered his aim slightly and put another bullet into the throat of the Mexican as he struggled to turn his horse away. Hands flew to where the blood boiled, and Sanchez gurgled and screamed until the lights went out. His body fell to the dirt, where he lay, legs twitching now and then until he died. His terrified horse bolted, along with the second animal and, as the echoes of the gunshot dwindled away into the far-off mountains, the silence gradually settled once more.
The man with the gun got down to the girl’s level and helped her to her feet. She sobbed into his chest as he drew her to him. He kissed her on the cheek and stared down at the dead man lying on his back, eyes wide open in total disbelief, the hole between his eyes a perfect circle, smoke still curling from the cigarette protruding from his thin, pale, dead lips.
“Wonder who they was?” said the young man, slipping his revolver back into its holster. He led Maria back inside, his hand already disappearing beneath her skirt to find her firm buttocks.
Gus Ritter leaned on the bar counter, idly turning the beer glass in his palms, lost in thought.
He’d ridden for three days straight, sleeping as best he could in the saddle, forced to stop and camp only once on the journey. More for his horse’s sake rather than his own, he’d decided to rest up for a while, found a slit in a rocky outcrop and managed to grab a few fitful hours. The horse ate oats, gulped down water and seemed, in the morning at least, renewed. He did his best not to push the mare too hard. If it were to die out there, in the wide, open prairie, he’d be rich pickings for the buzzards within a day.
And now he was here. Archangel. He pondered why anyone would choose such a name. Wasn’t it something to do with God, or religion, or some such hokum? He never could fathom those stories as his old mom had never forced him to attend Sunday School, owing to her being drunk most days, and especially on the Sabbath. He chuckled at the memory. Poor old Mom. She’d been kicked in the head by their mule whilst cussing the animal and thrashing it across the rump with a stick. She got paid her dues when it lashed out with its hooves and broke her skull. Ritter never shed a tear.
He was eleven years old.
Thoughts of church and Bible stories seemed apt at that moment, as the batwing doors burst open and a heavy-set man in a long brown robe of coarse cloth strode in, his face a mask of pure fury. A couple of old men in the corner took one look and, cards and drinks forgotten, made a quick exit.
“Now, padre—” said the barkeep sharply. He quickly put down the glass he had been polishing and strode over to the swing hatch at the end of the counter.
“You hold your tongue, Wilbur,” snapped the padre and moved to the far end, where a fat, slovenly-looking individual bent over the counter, spittle drooling from thick lips, a whisky tumbler before him, almost empty.
The padre stepped up to this miserable-looking individual and jabbed him in the arm with a thick finger. The man groaned, muttering some indecipherable garbage from his slack mouth, and peered at the padre with narrow, unblinking eyes. “Ah, shit, Father. What the hell are you—”
Moving fast for such a big man, the padre gripped the fat man by the shoulder and swung him around, slamming his knee upwards into the crotch. The man squawked, and the padre swung a looping left into the man’s temple, smashing him against the edge of the counter. Crying out again, the man retched as if he were about to vomit before the padre sent him reeling backwards with a tremendous right punch straight into his nose.
Crashing against the far wall, the man slid to the floor, blood leaking from his face like beer from the barroom tap to mix with a stream of puke covering his shirt front. In a blur, the padre was on him as if possessed, raining down punches, the screams of the fat man drowned by the sound of smashing bones and the squelch of blood.
Ritter saw it, but didn’t believe it. A man of God? A padre? He was certainly not like any country parson Ritter had ever laid eyes on. He sighed, returned to his beer and drained the glass.
“Padre, you needn’t have done any of that,” said the barkeep, moving across the barroom towards the blubbering fat man on the ground. “I try to keep a decent establishment and you’ve just about undone six months of good house-keeping right here with all of this bullshit.” He got down on his haunches and studied the semi-conscious man’s face. “Dear God, you sure bust him up real good. What the hell is all this about?”
The padre, breathing hard, struggled to control the anger in his voice. “You tell that bastard when he wakes up, he has until sunup to get out of town. If he ain’t gone by then, I’m gonna come a-calling.”
“That still don’t tell me what this is about.”
“Wilbur, is you an old woman, or is you an old woman? Just do what I damn well say.”
Shaking his head, Wilbur stood up, placing his hands on his hips. “He’s got friends.”
“If they are anything like him, then I’ll kick their butts, too.”
“I don’t know what in hell has gone on here, padre, but something tells me it ain’t gonna end well.”
“He took the Parker girl into a barn and he had his way with her.”
Gaping, Wilbur looked from the priest and back to the fat man. “Nati Parker?”
“No, her younger sister, Florence.”
“Shit. She ain’t but—”
“She’s thirteen, Wilbur. This bastard violated her.”
“Her sister found her in a dreadful state. This bastard had beaten her, torn off her dress and had his way. I won’t tolerate that, not from anyone. You understand me, Wilbur – I will not tolerate it. So, you tell this miserable piece of filth, if he ain’t gone by tomorrow, I’ll see he hangs.”
And with that, the padre whirled around and stomped out of the bar.
Gus Ritter watched him go and whistled silently through pursed lips. “Damn, that man is hell on wheels.”
“He sure is,” said Wilbur, prodding the fat man with his boot. By now, he was fully unconscious. “I don’t think I’ve ever seen him so riled.”