Kitty pressed her face into the scrub grass beneath a dusk-drenched sky hot with the dry echoes of predators rousing for their nightly routines. The weeds were sharp and sticky like rusty blades against the dust-caked porcelain of her face and drove thin scratches into her cheek. Her eyes closed and she sighed a lover's sigh into the dirt; her felt bush hat hung against her back by its string about her pretty neck.
Cocksuckers passed through half a day ago, she called out.
The three men behind her were waiting on horseback. Her own beast was munching on some of the sticky brown grass by where she'd pressed ear to earth. Her companions nodded. One looked up at the moon just wheeling over a blood-red mesa on the horizon, cracked and burnt and looking to all the world like the gates of hell itself. Among the men was her brother Miles, situated between the two slightly older men.
Watch your mouth, he said.
Papa's rawhide belt is rottin' in the ground with the rest of him, said Kitty. Ain't no danger to me anymore.
Miles laughed so hard his hat flopped back off his head. He uncorked a cylindrical canteen hanging from the horn of his scratched black saddle and drenched his face, wet the kerchief he kept around his neck to cool him, and stopped it back again when he was finished. Doc Strickland and Charlie were drinking too, but they did so from crescent-shaped aluminum flasks, the contents of which were anything but pure spring water. Could've been month-old coffee mixed with whiskey and vodka and horse piss for all Miles knew. God, he wouldn't put that past the Doc. Charlie, though, that crazy mick was probably drinking straight grain alcohol upwards of a hundred eighty proof. Charlie did not ease stereotypes as a matter of habit.
Maybe he'll just haunt the shit out of you, Miles said. His sister's face split in half with that smile that dimpled her cheeks and made half the boys in every settlement stain their breeches. That half were the ones with bruised balls, afterward.
Hank won't haunt fucking nothing, said Doc. On account of he was so vile even Lucifer himself wouldn't let him out of his sight for a single minute. Might give hell a bad reputation, see.
I find my opinion o' ye growin' by the second, Doctor. Charlie nearly fell from his horse with the effort of speaking.
I left those fairy tales in the toy trunk with my dollies and diapers, said Kitty. God ain't done nothing for me any better'n I could've done myself.
They didn't make camp that night, but rode straight through to morning. The sway of the horses was lulling like some adult cradle rocked by the mother earth herself. Their targets rode on some distance ahead – maybe a half a day, maybe two days. Tracking was not exact, but it was all they had to go on. Kitty usually led the way with her hips worming up and down in synchronicity with her animal's, leading to eye rolling from Miles and eye fixation from Doc and Charlie. Eventually Miles pulled his mount up alongside his sister's and they continued on like that for several hours, until the giant yellow disc of the sun breached the pre-dawn gray and shattered the mists and fog of early morning in the barren desert.
And it was barren. The ground was cracked and packed salt flats with tufts of weeds sprouting from beneath boulders like shoots of hair from the ears of an aging man losing his mind. A hawk circled overhead in widening patterns concentric about the sun, that flat, torrid pan of heat and oozing light that brought all the world to a searing white blindness. They closed their eyes and kept on.
At one point a few hours after noon, in the heat of the sweltering time of the day, they came upon a watering hole surrounded by tall grasses and stunted trees half devoid of leaves, and gave their horses to drink. Their shirts plastered themselves to their chests with grimy glue made of human perspiration and salt-dust kicked up from the trail, that ever-present menace that choked the life out of them and stole their sanity at times. Only cool water could remedy that madness, that swelling of the brow which worsened until even the touch of a hat's brim on the forehead sent them into a pain so fierce that they had to hide the moaning with a cough or a faked sneeze, or in Doc's case, some song he swore he heard off a hooker one time in a town without a name.
What was the whore's name, then?
Couldn't give a shit, Miles, was Doc's answer.
Ain't no towns without a name, said Kitty.
At least one, there is. Doc grinned and splashed some more of the oasis water onto his face, let it trundle down through his thick yet patchy beard made of scruff of a dozen different shades of gray and black and the brown it used to be before it was eaten by time. Charlie was bare-ass naked in the water flopping about like some youngster who just discovered that swimming existed. Miles didn't truly care how much of a fool Charlie made of himself as long as when the time came he would be sober enough to remember which end of a rifle pointed which way. Such a time was coming.
They voted to stay there and make camp for the night, as water was spare in this blasted desolation some called a country. It would be a good a place as any to die – better than most, in some regards. But that would not be for them to choose. In fact it was their job to do the choosing.
The fire was necessarily small, what with the lack of good wood to set ablaze coupled with their desire not to be found and scalped like animals, or even hunted down by the very men they sought to themselves kill. They arranged smaller rocks to lean against while they lounged and stared into the oracular flames which spat the putrid aftermath of the nearby grasses up at the moon hanging overhead, a pockmarked traveler’s guide through the wastes.
Got any mind for your share of the bounty, Strickland? said Kitty.
Doc scratched at his neck, a dull, scruffy sound like a knife passing over sand. Well, he said, I imagine I'll whore a bit. Maybe finally start up a new clinic somewhere civilized.
The thought of you wielding a knife dark and terrible over a helpless patient scares the shit out of me, Doc, Miles said.
Well I am a doctor.
I figger I'll go back to me maw across the drink, buy her a dress coated with pearls and sewn of satin and linens and wool and whatever the fuck they make dresses out of. Charlie ripped the end of a cigar off with his molars, spit the tip into the fire. The tiny cigar fragment flared warmly until it consumed itself. Charlie lit his smoke on the flames.
Doc looked to Kitty, arched an eyebrow bushy enough to make a toupée for a normal man. She laughed, pulled a damp rag across her brow and closed her eyes.
Here's how it'll be, she said. Me and Miles, we'll take our share and head north into the territories where the streams are made of gold and the booze flows in almost as much volume. Maybe Miles, he can get him a good little woman to make him a home and push out some whelps for him to call his own.
Miles tossed a pebble across the fire at his sister, who shrieked in laughter and returned the favor threefold. Real nice, sis, he said, only I have one thing to change. Ain't never am I going to let you buy me a home. What kind of woman would live in a house bought for a man by his little sister of all people? Goddamned embarrassing. With that, Miles took a pull out of Charlie's flask. Charlie had apparently passed out in the meantime.
Doc turned over and pulled a rough spun blanket up over his shoulders, set his hat beside his face so his cowlick stared back up at the moon in defiance. The mesa waited in front of them, the moon looking across at it from near the other horizon as the night drew on and the embers soaked in the darkness to relinquish their heat. Miles was the last one to sleep.
They stopped to look at the two mounted silhouettes up on top of the mesa studying them from the shrinking distance like grounded birds of prey. Each of the both of them had a long rifle hoisted across his shoulders with typical outlaw bravado. Kitty spat, a gift of moisture which the hard-pack accepted unquestioningly. Within a second there was no trace of where the saliva had fallen.
Cocksuckers, she grunted at their targets over two miles away.
The desert pavement amplified the hoof falls of the horses until it sounded like they were trekking across a drum. Charlie was moaning and rubbing his head. Doc rode off a few hundred paces to one side to study the ravine running past the mesa with its river tiny in the bottom of it like a worm shriveling in the heat of day. Miles and Kitty struck out ahead to locate the way up into the hideout.
I never figured you one for caring what other people think, Kitty said. She adjusted her bush hat so the cocked side of it blocked out some of the sun.
Miles rested a hand on the nickel and ivory jacket his revolver wore about its handle. He said, A man needs to keep up appearances or the cash will dam up and stop flowing.
Ain't that the fucking truth. She smiled.
Charlie was singing his rendition of “God Save Ireland” in what Miles guessed was a rough approximation of a tune. The liquor thickened Charlie's voice until it sounded like molasses sloughing out through his teeth, glued syllables together and hijacked his pitch to run off and never return it.
Climbed they up the rugged stair, rang their voices out in prayer, Then with England's fatal cord around them cast, Close beside the gallows tree kissed like brothers lovingly,
True to home and faith and freedom to the last.
Charlie held the last note until he was coughing and gasping for air, and Miles couldn't help but laugh a dry laugh at his expense. Kitty sent her lilting contralto into the winds to join Miles's merry sound.
Strickland was riding back up to them as they neared the south face of the mesa, partially in shadow due to its gnarled overhangs and outcroppings from when this whole flat was submerged in water. Miles nearly had another laugh at the thought of this place covered in so much water only the top of that mesa would stick out above the wetness.
I seen a cave in the cliff face to the north, said Doc. Abandoned mining shaft with rotten timbers for a rail system. They ain't getting out that way.
And we ain't getting up this one, offered Miles.
The south side was a sheer climb perfectly perpendicular to the ground until about a hundred feet up when it started to gently slant inwards toward the plateau at the top. A large number of vultures had chased away that hawk that had been following them for days. Their shadows were monstrous beasts in two dimensions dancing the shapes of unspeakable evils lost to history.
We'll check the west face. Come on.
Kitty pulled her beast around to the west and drove her heels in. Her hair flowed behind her as if in slow motion. Miles was close behind with Doc Strickland, and Charlie was somewhere riding at a slow trot and weaving this way and that in his stupor. Miles swore and prayed to whichever god was the true one that Charlie's head be made clear by nightfall, else there would be blood, and none too much of those they meant to kill.
I'll fuck a monkey if the Randal brothers can't pick a good spot to hole up, said Miles.
You'll fuck anything with a taint, Kitty replied.
Won't fuck you.
Papa would be proud to know it!
With that she kicked at her horse's flanks twice, and twice again harder until the beast was lathering green at the mouth and swaying back and forth as it pounded its hooves into the dust. She soon pulled so far ahead that by the time Miles was halfway around the mesa she was turning the corner to inspect the west face without him.
Then three shots rang out from around the bend. Miles nearly killed his horse to reach her.
Kitty was leaned back against the mesa with her horse crying and reeling on its side, filled with holes and one of its eyes popped out from the heat. The flies were already gathering. Kitty was bleeding from a graze on her right arm, soaking through her sky blue shirt and turning a deep, sickly purple. Miles jumped down before he came to a stop and almost tripped over his sister's dying animal in reaching her. He grabbed her by the face and shook her until the shock in her eyes died down.
Kitty? Kitty? Goddamn, was it the Randals?
They shot at me.
Miles slapped her. She regained herself and pushed her brother away with a scowl that bored to the core of him.
They went up that stair carved into the rock. There has to be caves in there, she said weakly.
The Doc was dismounting and rushing over to tie a strip of white rag cloth around her bicep, but she slapped his hand away. I ain't no baby.
No you're not, he said. But blood don't grow on trees, and your losin' yours quick.
She relented and allowed him to patch her arm up. Charlie fell off his horse as soon as he reached the shadow of the west face.
Sundown grew the mesa's shadow to ridiculous proportions. It stretched out long and thin and wiry until it grabbed the far west horizon and wouldn't let go.
Charlie was shockingly sober, as if all of a sudden the divine sucked the liquor straight out of his blood like a bushman sucking venom from a snake bite. His face was sunken and heavy with determination, the want for blood, or maybe just the want for pay. Could have been both stewed together.
Miles led the party up a steep, crude stairway carved into the side of the mesa by some savages in dark times long past. Kitty walked behind him, followed by Charlie and Doc in the rear watching for treachery from behind. Miles could see lanterns hanging from poles up near the plateau where the Randals surely had their camp of merry outlaws, rapists and murderers.
Kitty was wearing her bush hat down across her eyes like a dark gunman from the stories. She had her double barrel held loose in her hands and pointing at the ground before her feet. All about her waist was slung ammunition for the shotgun and for the revolver hanging against her thigh. It was one of a matching set she shared with Miles which had belonged to their father Hank.
Charlie had a shotgun pistol in one hand and a giant knife in the other. His eyes were glazed with blood lust. Doc Strickland carried a lever-action forty-four, a behemoth of a mother that could stop a man cold from half a world away. They all of them ascended in silence.
Miles counted eight men in the Randals' band, including the twin brothers themselves. He drew on them and gunned down two sentries with two bullets before he was forced to duck behind a rock for cover. Kitty was soon crouching beside him sliding two more shells into the barrels. She winked at her brother before popping up and squeezing off both barrels before coming back down again. Doc hung back with his weapon, firing only when he had a clean shot. Charlie charged in and unloaded both shells in his weapon, flung the empty thing at one of the men, and tackled one of the Randals to the ground. The hunting knife sunk deep into that man's throat, and soon the Randals had become the Randal. He was holed up alone in a wooden shack they'd constructed on the plateau.
It had all happened so fast that when the four mercenaries reconvened to strategize they all entered into a rowdy laugh. Charlie had taken a slug to the left thigh and was bleeding profusely, but he claimed to be fine after he emptied the contents of his flask into the bullet wound. Doc had had a chunk of his ear taken off by a shotgun blast nearly missing his head. Kitty was fine. Miles was exhilarated.
We know you're fuckin' in there, Randal, Doc shouted. He fired off a few rounds through the tiny window to send the message home. His forty-four was deafening.
You killed my brother, you mule fuckers! called back Randal. He peeped over the sill and fired indiscriminately from his pistol until it was empty. No shots hit.
And several of your friends too, looks like, said Miles with an arrogant grin. He kicked at a corpse by his foot with a hole blown neatly through each of its eyes.
Come out and we promise not to harm ye too much, said Charlie, who hadn't spoken since earlier that afternoon. The chill in his voice was palpable.
Fuck this diplomacy bullshit, said Kitty, and set off at a brisk walk toward the shack with shotgun leveled at the door.
Hold up! Miles rushed after her pushing new cartridges into his revolver.
The door slammed open and there stood Randal wearing some stupid headdress stolen off a red man all full of pomp and feathers. He held a sawed off shotgun in each hand, and when he fired off he was knocked back into the hut. Kitty went down hard, but before she even hit the ground Miles had pumped Randal's face full of hot lead.
Kitty lay there bleeding from a thousand tiny holes by the time Miles had spent his ammo. He cradled her against his chest and didn't even care if Doc and Charlie saw him cry. Kitty smiled and put a hand to his cheek. A tiny trickle of blood ran from her mouth.
I'll tell papa you won't be fuckin' no monkeys just yet, she said at barely a whisper.
Miles closed her eyes and they buried her right there on that blood-red mesa. Before she was in the ground he took her revolver and slung it along with his own, the pair reunited at last. He stroked the handle of it and smiled as Charlie and Doc dumped dirt into Kitty's paling face.