Once he made sure he wasn’t leaving anything in the kitchen to catch fire Fred took his tin cup of coffee and went out to the porch.
As long as he lived, he’d never get tired of the view. It wasn’t just the rolling fields under the endless blue skies, the promise of the new day rising in the east, the grandeur of God’s love in front of him. It was that all he could see was his. His fields. His crops. The little wooden fence around the vegetable garden. The house around him, built up with his own two hands. His hands, and his wife’s. By God, he had a wife. And two children. He marveled at the thought as surely as he marveled at the view, staring down the dirt road and hoping Cassie would already be awake at her folks’ place, getting the kids ready to come home.
Fred had a life. Something he never thought he’d have twenty years ago. He began to think about his kids, and was cut off by a nearby gun shot. Incredibly close, actually. Why, whoever had fired that gun had to be…
Something wet tickled at his belly. Fred looked down to discover a hole just above where his belly button would be under his shirt. He had spilled coffee over the hole.
No, that was blood.
Reality finally caught up with the man and he sat down hard into one of the porch’s rocking chairs. Now he did spill the coffee, sloshing it over his ample belly and making that new hole burn. Fred was still staring at that hole, wondering how it had gotten there, when he heard the boots scratching on the dirt. With heavy clicks the boots climbed the stairs to his porch.
A woman stood in front of him.
She was dressed like a man, boots and jeans and a vest and a wide brimmed hat. Either her hair was hidden under that hat, or she’d cut it like a man’s, too. That was all he could see. The sun was behind her and she was nothing more than a silhouette like the ones hanging on the wall inside.
“I don’t know you.”
It was an odd thing to say. It wasn’t what he had wanted to say. But it was what had come out of him, and, anyway, it was the truth.
The woman made a noise. “That ain’t true. But it’s been a while, so I understand.”
She crossed the porch past him. At her closest he reached out to grab her. To what end, he didn’t know. Anyway, as soon as he moved the pain in his belly turned up to a hellfire burning and he was forced to sit back. Wetness on the chair behind him. Had it rained?
A creak as she sat in the other rocking chair. Then she set about making herself comfortable. Set her rifle leaning against the porch post. Took off her hat and hung it on the corner of the chair behind her. Reached into her vest pocket and pulled out a pipe. Fred studied her as she set about packing it. She may dress like a man, and cut her hair like a man, but her face was feminine. High cheekbones, plump limps, bright eyes. Hardened, but still feminine.
“I do know you.”
“That you do,” the woman said. She puffed on her pipe to light it and then shook out the match. Leaning back, she looked at him for the first time. “Wouldn’t be rightly surprised if you don’t remember me, but you do know me.”
He groaned and shifted as fresh pain bloomed in his middle. He had forgotten he’d been shot. How could he have forgotten?
“You shot me.”
“Yeah, well,” she said, rocking gently. “You had it coming.”
She was probably right. The things he had done, back then. The money he had taken, from anyone who had it. The nights, awake from dusk until dawn, surrounded by women and whiskey. The never-ending anger, always there, always pulsing away somewhere in him. The good times it was just in the back of his head where the neck meets the spine. The bad days it was everywhere, filling him, pouring out of him, making him feel like he’d never die. It had been mostly bad days.
Before. Yes, before. That was all before, damn it! I’m a changed man!
He looked at her, and she looked back. Had he said it aloud, or only thought it?
“You don’t remember me,” she said. “It’s alright. You wouldn’t. I’m much changed. Not just the hair, and the clothes. It was near twenty years ago, and I was barely ten. Not much bigger than your boy there.”
Thoughts spilled out of him like the blood spilling out of his belly. This woman knew he had a son. She’s been watching me? Who was she? Fred stared at her, studying her. She only watched him, not shying away from the intensity of his eyes. Was there anything he recognized? The shape of her eyes, the color of her skin, a twitch of the mouth…anything…anything…
There. There it was. The way she scratched at the back of her neck with the stem of the pipe. He’d known another who did that. Another who shared the same angles of the face, the same short fingers. His throat had gone dry. He wished for water.
“You’re Sal’s little girl.”
Her eyebrows went up in surprise. “Daggum, old man. I didn’t think you’d actually find me in that whiskey-soaked brain of yours.”
“You’re here on account I…”
It hurt to laugh, but he did it anyway. Of all the things to claw out of the dark, dank hole that was his past and find him, it was this one thing.
“You…you’re a fool,” he said. “Poor misled lamb. What I did to your Daddy, he had-”
“He had it coming, I know,” she said. Never stopping her rocking, she went on in the same voice he supposed a stone might have. “You and Pa ran together when you was just kids, back in New Orleans. Kiddie scams and such. Then you wanted to get out. You found a girl, a rich girl, and that girls’ family, why, they was going to take you in. As a gardener, or something, anyway. But you had a plan. Not a plan to steal, for once. A plan to make something out of yourself. Only Pa didn’t want you to leave. Pa didn’t want you having nothing nice. So he killed that rich girl, and he pinned it on you. Fifteen years after that you run into him in some backwater saloon south of Amarillo. Follow him home. Kill him. His wife, too.”
Fred grunted. “I let you live.”
The woman puffed on her pipe and sighed the smoke out.
“Yes. Well. We all make mistakes.”
The sun was getting hot. Fred swiped at his forehead to pull away sweat, unaware of the blood smears he was leaving behind. Too bright. Too hot. A shiver shook him all over like a dog out of the water.
Her eyes were looking away, over his crops. His own eyes shot to her gun. Only a couple of feet away. She was distracted. Thinking. He could get the gun. Kill her. At least run her off. Get into town, get to the Doc. With a hand pressing on his belly, Fred leaned forward.
Sal’s girl was up in an instant, standing over him with the gun pointed at his face. He barely saw her move. That flat look on her face was gone, replaced with measured rage.
“I know all that because he told me. He told me and Mama everything. Even went down to the priest and told him, too. He’d been absolved. Saved. Much like you have been, it seems.”
Fred nodded wildly, his eyes sticking to the barrel of that gun that yawned at him like a new dawn. “I been saved, I been. Saw the priest. Left that life behind. I got a wife, a boy and a girl. You saw. I left all that behind.”
Sal’s girl nodded. “Just like my Pa did.”
She didn’t sit, but she did lower the gun. Leaned back against the same post the gun had been leaning and held the gun in her arms.
“That same priest who told my Pa he’d been saved, he used to counsel me. Tell me I had to let the hate go. Revenge was a fool’s game. Only kept the cycle of anger going. He used to tell me, the only way to end it, this cycle of anger, was with forgiveness. Or at the very least, forgetting. ‘Leave it, Susan,’ he’d tell me. ‘Let go of the anger and let God heal all.’ And you know what? For a while I thought I could. I really did. I’ve known you been out here for a year now. Maybe more. It would comfort me, going about my day, knowing you was here and me doing nothing about it. Letting you live. Just like you let me live.”
A breeze picked up, pushing her hair. Fred was suddenly cold and hot at the same time. Sweating and shivery. He couldn’t get a read on her. Now that she was standing with her back to the sun he could barely see her eyes. Just shadows.
“I think that’s what finally broke me,” she said. Her voice was becoming hoarse. “You let me live. You…let me live. Like it never even occurred to you I might come for you. Like…like the story ends with you getting your revenge. ‘Once upon a time a man ruined my life and then I found him and I killed him and got my revenge, and I lived happily ever after, the end.’ I got to wondering, what makes you special? What makes you think you’re the one who gets to end the story? Killing me would have shown humility. But you let me live, because you never thought the story might keep going.”
“No, no,” Fred said. He was shaking his head. He was babbling. God, he wished his thoughts would come in straight but he couldn’t think beyond the pain and that light feeling growing on his brain. “I let you live as a mercy. A kindness.”
“Tell yourself whatever you’d like,” she said. “You got your revenge on a man who’d repented. Now you’ve repented, and never even thought someone would get their revenge on you.”
A giggle rose up out of Fred. “What about you? You’ve done the same thing, now. That priest was right. All you’ve done is sign your own death warrant.”
Susan knelt down, inches from him. He wanted to reach out, slug her face, kick her stomach. He had no strength for any of it. So close he could see the upturn of the corner of her mouth and the dead look in her eyes.
“And who, pray tell, is going to do it?”
Watery panic made him tremble. He reached out and only managed to grab the edges of her vest, staining her white shirt with blood.
“Shut up, old man,” she said a few times, cutting through the babble. He was babbling, didn’t even know what he was saying. She pried his fingers off her and pushed him back. Blood bubbled out of him.
“Your family is alive. Only delayed. Cassie received a letter from you two days ago now, requesting she and your children stay with her mother for an extra day. So you could ready a surprise. They won’t be home until tomorrow, now. See? I knew very well that this is bigger than me. So I prepared. No one will know. Hellfire, no one will suspect. Unless you told them about your crimes, the way my Pa told me?”
Fred’s silence made a bitter laugh well up out of Susan.
Clouds began covering the sky. A storm was rolling in, surely a big one with how dark it was. But when Fred looked up again, he still found a perfect blue.
“I…I guess…” Fred took a large breath and found enough energy to look up at her. “I guess I’ll see you in hell, then.”
For the first time since she had appeared, barely ten minutes ago he realized, Susan looked at him with something besides stone-face rage.
“Ain’t you figured it out yet?” she asked. “There ain’t no God.”
Fred leaned back. “You can’t know that.”
“Of course I can. If there was a God, do you really think he’d let his Children act like this?”
There was no time to argue. There was no time for anything, it seemed. Susan said a few other things. He didn’t catch any of it. It seemed a good time to sleep. He leaned back in the chair, closing his eyes. Missing his wife. His son. His daughter.
There was a God, that he was sure of it. As the darkness closed in further, invading his mind, for the first time in years Fred began to wonder if he’d actually get to meet Him.