Incident At Cedar Fork
This is story that mixes a bit of surrealism into the western genre. It was published in the Petigru Review.
Ed Macklin sat heavily on his horse and wondered how many more times he would have to ride into another town where the next fast gun waited. The stillness before the draw as if the world had become caught in mid-turn. Below him, Cedar Fork lay under a thick cloud of acrid smoke and fire. There was a chill in the air and he could hear the crows calling from a grove of trees ahead, then stopping as they heard him. He clucked softly to his horse and sent him rattling down the trail that led to the rutted street.
By the church next to the general store a man in singed white shirt sleeves poured kerosene on a pile of bodies that had been loosely stacked in a shallow hole. He touched the pile with his torch, and flame sheathed the bodies in a crackling mat of red and yellow.
Macklin steadied his horse as it passed the sputtering flesh, then headed toward the Palace where a group of men had just finished unloading more bodies from a wagon.
A building across the street tumbled into flames. Sparks showered the air.
Macklin reined up, swung his leg over the saddle and lowered his body to the ground. He tied his horse to the hitching post and stood in the doorway watching a man bent over the body of a boy. The man's weathered face tilted above the boy’s mouth searched for life. His vest was tight over his large stomach. Beads of sweat glittered on his face.
An old woman followed him with a bowl and compresses.
Macklin looked down at the man. "I’m looking for someone?" he said. "His name’s Sampson, would have got in this mornin' or late last night from the north. He'd be a young man with glasses and a red beard. Got a tattoo of a butterfly on the back of his right hand. Usually wears a silver vest and a Mexican hat with a silver band on it."
"I don't know, Mister," said the man. "Can't you see there's sickness here?"
The man felt the head of the boy then took his hand and timed the pulse.
"You're going to die, son," he said in a low choking voice.
“No, you must save me,” said the boy. “I’m too young to die. What will my mother think?”
He signaled the woman, who brought a new compress and put it on the boy's forehead.
You're going to die; you're going to die...
The boy stared out not hearing. The man let the boy's hand drop, and turned away, looking down at his own hands. His body swayed with fatigue. The woman knelt and shaped a compress on the boy’s small white forehead of the boy.
The room smelled of sweat, death and yellow flames. Macklin stepped past them and with one foot turned over the bodies that lay twisted on the floor.
"Are there any others?"
"Buried or burned most of them," came the man’s answer.
Macklin kicked angrily at a body, and then grabbed the man.
“Sure you haven't seen him?"
“No. I haven't seen anyone like that," he said, challenging Macklin’s stare.
The old woman put down her bowl and grabbed at Macklin's arms. He pushed her away, tilting her backwards into the wall.
The man shook loose.
Macklin grunted and strode by them into the next room. Blue-beaded curtains rattled sharp prisms of light across his body. Pale yellow sheets covered the furniture and violet brocade trimmed the walls. He smelled the distinct odors of slept-on mattresses and the heavy sweetness of women's flesh.
A full-bodied young Mexican girl knelt in the corner, a stubby candle burned in a small altar in front of her. A shawl covered her bare shoulders and her black hair was braided across her head. She looked up at him, then rose and slowly came toward him with a bottle. He took a drink, savoring it. Her skin glistened, and for a moment the thick fragrance of her body made him dizzy. The thought of having her stirred him the way he was stirred when another gun lay dead in the street. She seemed to sense what he was feeling and reached out to touch his hand, and then pulled away.
She studied him as he pushed his black coat up over the handle of his .44, and tied down his holster. Macklin towered over her. He knew she saw age in his face, sadness in his dark eyes. Like her, Macklin had come to a place from which there was no turning back, no escaping.
She let her hair down, dropped her shawl and stood to face him, so close that the perfumed tumble of her hair grazed the hard angle of his jaw. Her big eyes were wide and her face full of rich shadow. He shook his head.
"There is nothing out there but death," she said. “Stay."
He felt the room's close heat and the sticky sweat on his back and palms.
The girl was all flame and shadow in the firelight. She returned to the altar, bowed her head and began to pray softly.
He turned and stepped into the street. Standing under the porch roof he wondered why he didn't feel anything, just hollow inside, the iron bluntness of his .44 on his hip waiting to lash out once more.
"You better get out of here, Mister," said the torch man. "It's cholera, it’s cholera...."
The man ran to the next building, broke open a window and poured kerosene over the floor. The torch caught at a pile of straw. The small yellow flames grew until they clogged the air with heat.
Macklin strode quickly through the gritty black smoke to the only remaining saloon. He felt the instinctive bracing of his flesh every time he walked by an alley mouth.
The saloon doors had been ripped off, the windows broken and the furniture stacked and ready to light. Sampson leaned over the end of the bar, a bottle of wine in front of him. He was reading from a book, eyeglasses next to him on the counter. His beard was powdered with dust. He turned and looked up as Macklin approached.
"Well, well,” Sampson said. “You made it. Didn't think you'd come what with the cholera being here."
"I still got four bullets in me. Cholera don't bother me as much as they do."
Sampson smiled. “We meet at last."
"I've heard a lot about you," said Sampson, holding up his hand and counting with his fingers. "San Angelo. Four. Luther. Boggs. Davis. Crandall. And Jackson’s Crossing. Five."
"Six," said Macklin. "You forgot the boy."
Sampson nodded his head and then closed the book and poured out a glass of the bright red wine for himself.
"You like wine?" said Sampson.
Macklin shook his head.
"You should get to like it, wine makes for friendship."
Macklin refused the bottle Sampson held toward him. Sampson tilted his head back and drank his glass down. His tongue came out of the tangle of beard and ran over his lips, collecting the last of the wine.
"You picked a real nice spot," said Macklin.
"Couldn't be helped. I didn’t know about the cholera. Besides, I find fire pleasing. It allows me to think.”
Sampson put the cork back in the bottle and slipped the eyeglasses back on his nose. He followed Macklin to the street. When they were about 30 feet apart in the rutted dirt, they stopped, turned and faced each other.
Macklin looked out over the long brown valley and the juniper-speckled foothills to the mountains beyond. For a moment he thought what it would be like to be there. A white ball of sun hung above the burning buildings. Between the smoke and fire he felt the air, fresh and keen with cold.
Sampson drew. The single leaping action of his .38 pushed the bullet deep into Macklin's chest. Macklin fired as he fell, then pitched over and lay still.
The girl watched from the doorway. The wind flickered her hair into a crackling brown flame. She brushed it away from her eyes, and then slowly turned back into the dark of the room behind her.
Sampson found his horse, steadied him, mounted slowly and rode off into the sunlight. His side was wet. A thin trickle of blood filled his mouth, and then subsided. He spurred his horse on, felt the familiar scrape of his holster against his leg.
Behind him piles of charred meat lay in a ravine: eyes burst from their sockets caught the gleams of the firelight and legs were contorted as if in running.