J. Michael Neal
© 2013, Melancholy Donkey Press
Maddie Holt rode over the crest of the low ridge, the winter sun low in the southern sky providing little warmth on her face as she approached the town of Peaceful. The Rocky Mountains loomed over the western horizon and a cold wind blew down their slopes across the flat prairie. She shivered briefly in her saddle as she regarded the collection of buildings clustered in defiance of the railroad’s decision to bypass them. Her riding leathers kept out most of the chill and the kerchief across her face kept her from breathing much of the dry dust and grit.
The main street ran perpendicular to her southbound approach, so she rode her horse through the narrower alleys, easing her way around a wagon parked behind the general store until she reached the thoroughfare. The buildings themselves held little interest for her so she paid them no attention. Maddie stopped to look in each direction. The cold wind kept those whose business allowed it inside so there was little bustle.
Spying the sign for a saloon, she urged her horse in that direction and pulled to stop in front. She slid out of her saddle and hitched her horse to the post advertising the stagecoach schedule. After a moment’s hesitation, she lifted the saddlebags with her meager possessions and slung them over her shoulder.
When she stepped inside she found a decent crowd for the middle of the afternoon. A few paused briefly to take notice of her entry but most continued uninterrupted. The only figure who watched her progress across the floor was the enormous man behind the bar. He had wild red hair unconstrained by the bowler perched atop and a prodigious mustache, and he wore an elegant waistcoat and the chain of a watch emerged from the pocket.
“Can I pour you something to drink, ma’am?” he asked in an incongruously high voice.
“I’m looking for Josh Mallet,” she replied. “Can you tell me where to find him?”
The man ran his fingers through his hair. “Not sure as I can. We get a lot of strangers passing through here.”
Maddie frowned. “I have it on good authority that he’s lived here for six years.”
“Then I guess he wouldn’t be the stranger I was referring to.”
“So you know him,” she said impatiently.
The giant shrugged. “Maybe. In case I do, why would you be looking for him?”
“I owe him something.”
“We all owe someone something. Sometimes we ain’t all eager to be paid back.”
“I’d like to repay my debt,” Maddie said evenly. Now that she was here all she wanted was to be done with her task.
The bartender pulled a bottle of whiskey from the wall behind him and reached under the bar to retrieve a glass. “I sense a lot of anger in you, ma’am. It’s not healthy.” He poured a generous slug of booze into the glass.
“You’re damned right I’m angry,” she snarled.
Her tone produced a gentle smile. “First one’s on the house. Why don’t you have a table and I’ll put out word you’re looking for Mr. Mallet, see if anyone knows him.” He pushed the glass across to her. “It’s never a good idea to conduct business when you’re angry, creditor or debtor. I’m Benjamin. Welcome to Peaceful.”
Maddie watched as he strolled down to the end of the bar and spoke softly to a man seated there. Benjamin indicated her with his thumb. The other man nodded and pushed himself erect. He walked to the stairs at the back of the saloon and disappeared up them.
Benjamin remained where he was. Maddie picked up the whiskey and found an empty table. After placing her bags in one chair and herself in another, she tossed back the alcohol in one swallow. She sat there, fighting the urge to order another.
Thoughts of a home that no longer existed crept up on her. They absorbed her to the point that it took her a moment to realize that someone had joined her at the table.
“Hello, I’m Patience.” The speaker was a woman, probably fifteen years Maddie’s junior. She wore a pink and black corset and had a pink flower in blonde hair piled elegantly on her head.
“I’m not one of your customers.”
“That’s okay,” Patience said cheerfully. “There’s nothing going to happen until tonight anyway so I thought I’d talk to the new person in town. I like to get to know folks.”
Maddie tried to be irritated with the whore who had invited herself to sit down, but suddenly found it hard to summon. “That makeup looks ridiculous,” she said.
Patience leaned forward. “Oh, I know. It is silly, but the men seem to like it.”
“And you want to please the men,” Maddie said.
The young woman stifled a giggle. “Professional necessity. I’m sure you understand. I mean, that gun you have looks kind of silly, but I’m sure you have some good reason for needing it.”
“I need it for protection.” Maddie suddenly felt self-conscious about it, realizing that no one else in the saloon seemed to have one.
“Not in this town, you don’t,” Patience said. “We take the name Peaceful very seriously.” She reached out and gently touched Maddie’s hand. “What brings you here?”
“I’m looking for someone.” She strove to hold on to her anger.
“You make it sound ominous.”
“I intend to kill him.”
“Oh.” Patience’s mouth indicated surprise but it wasn’t reflected in her eyes. “That is ominous. And I think it calls for another drink. Excuse me for a moment.”
As she went to the bar and ordered two whiskeys from Benjamin, Maddie wondered why she’d come out and said it. She certainly hadn’t planned to.
Patience returned and set one glass in front of Maddie before she sat down. “What shall we toast?”
Maddie regarded the amber liquid for a moment before picking it up. “To revenge.”
“Oh, that’s awful,” Patience replied as she held her own glass up. “To revenge.” She downed hers as quickly as Maddie. “I’m going to go get another, so that I can drink to something more pleasant.” Once again she left Maddie by herself, contemplating her loose tongue.
She returned quickly. “Don’t worry about sharing things with me. Everyone does. They say I’m just easy to talk to.” Patience smiled. “It’s part of my job.”
“Somehow I doubt that your customers are interested in talk.”
“You’d be surprised. Everybody has something they need to get off their chest. A sympathetic ear may be all they need.”
“Then their problems must not be very big,” Maddie grumbled.
“Well, sometimes they need wisdom, too.” Patience lifted her glass. “To wisdom.”
“To wisdom,” Maddie said, without meaning it.
“What’s your name?” Patience asked.
“That’s a nice name, Madelyne.”
“I prefer Maddie.”
“Shall we drink to Maddie, then?”
“Are you trying to get me drunk?” Maddie asked.
“Hmm,” Patience said, leaning her chin on her fist. “I hadn’t planned on it, but would it be such a bad thing?”
“I don’t know.” In truth it seemed attractive.
“Temperence wouldn’t think so but she isn’t here right now.”
“Are you joking?”
“About what?” There was merriment in her eyes.
“Are you all named after virtues?”
“Well,” Patience said with a delicate lift of her shoulders, “there are seven of us.”
“I’m trying to imagine a whore named Chastity.”
Patience smiled. “Perhaps we are just being ironic. We do prefer the term Lady of the Evening, though.”
Patience returned to the bar as Maddie tried to puzzle out whether she’d actually said she wanted another. A hush fell over the saloon and Maddie blinked, trying to determine what had changed. It took her a moment to notice the woman who stood at the bottom of the stairs.
When she did, she exhaled slowly. Despite wearing a sheer black gown that left her garters perfectly visible, the new presence exuded regality. Her long neck emphasized her overall height. Maddie examined the fine structure of her face only to have the gray eyes fix her own. She barely registered the wry twist of the woman’s lips as she approached.
The newcomer stopped right before Maddie, forcing her to stretch her neck to continue to view those eyes. “Well this is a conundrum,” she said softly. She looked up and Maddie finally resumed breathing. “I am sorry, dearest Patience, but this is beyond your abilities.” She stretched out her hands. “Run fetch Franklin, please. We must talk.”
“Yes, Madame,” Patience said.
The elegant woman placed both of the whiskeys she had taken from Patience in front of Maddie and then sat down in the vacated chair. “I apologize,” she said in a musical voice. “That was surely awkward but please do not blame Patience. She was only attempting to perform the task I have assigned her.”
“Who are you?” Maddie whispered.
“That would be a long story,” the woman answered, “and not terribly enlightening. You may call me Circe and before you ask, no, I am not the Circe of legend.”
Maddie felt shame that she had never heard of the legend in question. She covered it by grabbing one of the drinks and pouring it into her mouth.
“I am afraid that I have caught you in a trap meant for others and it leaves me in something of a quandary.”
“Of a sort. Perhaps the softest of traps. But it was not meant for you. I assume that you have come here looking for someone?”
“Yes,” Maddie replied without thinking. “Joshua Mallet.” Then she saw Circe frown. “I’m sorry.”
The woman quickly erased her expression. “Not your fault. I just hoped that it would be someone who had left. So many do.” She sighed. “That would make this much easier.”
“I don’t want to cause any trouble,” Maddie said quickly.
“That is quite enough of that.” Circe stood up. “Come with me.” Maddie rose and followed as she headed for the stairs. “Send the sheriff to my room when he arrives,” Circe said to one of the patrons as she passed.
Maddie followed the swaying hips as they ascended the steps. Circe turned right when she reached the second floor and stepped through an open door. Maddie caught a glimpse of a red-headed woman peering out of another room, who quickly slipped her door shut. When they were inside Circe turned to face her guest.
As she did everything changed. Eight inches of the gown’s fabric pooled at her feet and Maddie gasped at the plain, short, and stick thin woman who stood before her. The fog lifted from her mind. “What . . .”
“Again, I apologize,” the woman said. Her voice had shrunk along with her body. “I truly wish that you had never become involved in this.”
“Who are you?”
If nothing else, the wry half-smile remained the same. “That’s still a longer story than I care to tell. Instead, I will just explain what has happened. I lure men here to Peaceful, you see. Violent men. Men who pose a danger to those around them.”
“What do you do with them?” Maddie asked.
“Do with them? Almost nothing. It’s more accurate to ask what I do to them. They come here, often expecting to perform various acts of mayhem. Inevitably they stop here and start talking to one of my girls. That sucks all of those nasty, violent desires right out of them.
“Then what happens?”
“Then they either leave or they stay. No one asks them explicitly, but if they like the feeling of peace we build here then they stay and become one of us. If not, then they depart. I hope that they have learned something by being here and become less hazardous to the rest of the world. But that’s really up to them.”
Pieces fell into place for Maddie. “Josh Mallet is here. You are providing him a refuge.”
“Yes,” Circe replied. “He is here. He arrived about four years ago and he has stayed.”
“He killed my husband. In cold blood.”
“That wouldn’t surprise me. It was hardly his only violent action.”
“And you let him stay here,” Maddie said, surging to her feet, “unpunished.”
“Yes, we do,” came a male voice. Maddie wheeled to see a lean, weathered man leaning against the door frame. He wore a tin star but no gun. “That’s the entire purpose of Peaceful.”
“Franklin,” the plain woman said. “This is Maddie. Maddie, say hello to Franklin. He’s the sheriff.”
Maddie spat on the floor. “I intend to kill him for what he has done.”
The sheriff looked past her. “What is the problem here, Elizabeth?”
“Isn’t that obvious?” the woman who had introduced herself as Circe said.
“Don’t ignore me,” Maddie insisted.
The other two proceeded to do just that. “No, it isn’t,” Franklin said sharply. “She isn’t any different than any of the others. It doesn’t change what we are doing.”
The woman drew her gown around her and without definably changing gathered a portion of her former majesty with it. “Do you forget why I am here at all, Franklin?” Her tone had assumed its former resonance.
Maddie fell silent before her presence.
“No, I don’t.” Franklin didn’t back down from the woman a mere fraction of his size. “I’m just not sure why you are letting that interfere.”
“It doesn’t matter,” she replied with a smile.
“What haven’t you told me, Elizabeth?” the sheriff asked quietly.
“It doesn’t work on women.”
Maddie stepped up to the man and shouted at him, “What doesn’t work on women?”
The sheriff gave a weak smile. “The . . . thing,” he said hesitantly, “that makes this town Peaceful, apparently. I do wish she’d told me that earlier.”
“I’m leaving,” Maddie said. She made to push past the man.
He reached out almost effortlessly and grabbed her. When she tried to draw her gun he twisted her wrist behind her back, forcing her to drop it. He pulled her into an embrace and kicked the revolver deeper into the room. The thin woman just watched, looking amused.
“I’ll kill him,” Maddie screamed.
“Not in this town,” Franklin said, showing little sign of exertion. Maddie struggled, crying out obscenities but coming no closer to escape.
He waited patiently until she calmed down. At last he set her free but continued to block the door. “Have a seat, Miss,” he said gently. “The three of us are going to have a talk and we’ll figure out what we’re going to do.”
Maddie glared at him and stepped back. She almost ran into the other woman, stumbling over the folds of her dress on the floor. “What the hell is going on?” Her momentum carried her into the bed and she sat down abruptly.
Franklin and Elizabeth looked at each other. “I take it that we’re going to tell her, whether I think it’s a good idea or not,” he said.
She huffed and turned to Maddie rather than answer him directly. “It’s simple,” she said. “I’m a witch. I cast a spell that keeps people from being violent here in town.” She crossed her arms under her breasts and glared back at the sheriff.
“Well, it keeps us menfolk from being violent, at least,” he replied. “You’re not catching dear Elizabeth at her best, it seems.” He smiled at his partner indulgently, which only seemed to irritate her further. “That’s why we call it Peaceful. It is a place of rest and respite.” Then there was steel in his tone. “And there will be no killing anyone here.”
“He killed my family,” Maddie said flatly.
“By ‘he,’ I assume you mean Joshua Mallet,” Franklin said. Maddie just nodded. The sheriff sighed. “I don’t doubt that that’s true. He’s talked of doing many things he regrets.”
“I want justice,” Maddie said
“What you want,” Elizabeth said almost cheerfully, “is vengeance.”
“Yes,” Franklin responded, “those two things do get mighty confused.”
“Stop it!” Maddie shrieked.
Franklin removed his hat and ran his fingers through his hair. “Fair enough. Yes, Joshua Mallet is here. He is one of those who has stayed. I will talk to him and if he agrees that he committed these crimes I will imprison him here.”
Maddie jumped to her feet. “If he agrees that he did it? You expect him to admit it?”
“Yes, Mrs. . . . “ His voice trailed off.
“Holt.” Maddie bit off the word.
“Mrs. Holt, Joshua is a very different man now. I am quite certain that, if he killed your family, he will admit to it.”
“Then he should hang.”
“No.” Franklin was adamant. “There will be no one killed in this town, lawfully or not. We are Peaceful.”
“Franklin,” Elizabeth interrupted, “this is outside . . .”
“No,” he said sharply. “You need me as much as I need you, Elizabeth, and the responsibility of judgment was given to me. My sentence is to prevent violence and I will not permit it in this town.”
The witch closed her mouth and stared at him.
“No,” Maddie whispered.
Placing his hat back on his head Franklin spoke to Elizabeth. “I’ll talk to him. Make sure she stays here.” He stepped back into the hallway and closed the door.
Maddie ran for that door, but when she turned the handle it refused to budge. “That man makes me so angry,” Elizabeth exclaimed. “Sometimes I just want to . . .”
“Why won’t the door open?” Maddie banged on with her fist, to no avail.
“Because he’s right,” Elizabeth said with resignation. “We decided to call the town Peaceful and so it must be. It’s my fault, I guess. I agreed to it.”
Maddie spun and raced to one of the windows overlooking the main street.
“Don’t bother,” the witch said. “I’ve sealed those, too.”
“Why?” Maddie tried in vain to lift the window.
“Because,” Elizabeth said, deliberately answering the wrong question, “I wanted a place that women would be safe. A place away from violence, where the men would be civilized.”
Maddie wheeled and grabbed a chair, planning to use it to shatter the glass.
“Oh, fee, please stop.” Elizabeth reached out towards Maddie and the frantic woman felt a lassitude come over her. “This furniture is expensive and you have no idea how hard it is to find anything with style out here.”
The chair slipped from Maddie’s hands and she didn’t fight the urge to place it back on its feet. Lacking the will to do anything else, she sat down.
The other woman paced back and forth and Maddie was struck by how ridiculous she looked in a peignoir far too long and big in the chest and hips for her current figure. “So I design a spell that would do that, that would give me the power to pacify them. And I decide to use it on a town instead of just each man that came in turn.
“I spent three days casting it but it was too big. I couldn’t contain it. It just . . . I needed something to stabilize it. It needed a vessel. So I used this ghost. Make it do penance for the evils in its life.” She came to a stop, almost yelling. “I didn’t mean to put it in charge of anything!”
Spent, Elizabeth flopped down onto the bed. “So there you have it. That’s why I can’t let you out of this room to go extract proper vengeance on the man who killed your family. Fiddlesticks.”
There was silence for several minutes before Maddie spoke. “I didn’t understand any of that.” She felt drained, unable to even stand up.
“No, I suppose you didn’t.” Elizabeth sat up, showing a bit of her previous animation. “I’ll try again. I’m a witch. That’s why I can do this.” She drew her hand down from her head to her waist and the glamour took hold once more, rendering her a tall, raven-haired beauty. “I used the power of the Goddess to create a place where there wouldn’t be violence. And it is. I can’t tell if men of violence are drawn here or if it’s just happenstance when one comes to town. When they do they feel a need to come to the saloon.” She giggled. “There have been some who showed up intending to rob the bank but they suddenly decide they need a drink first. And when they do one of my girls talks to them. And that’s all it takes. The fight just gets sucked out of them.”
Maddie shook her head. “That’s it? They just stay here with no punishment?”
“No. Most of them move on. I have no idea what happens to them after they leave.” Elizabeth scooted so the she was leaning upright against the headboard. “A few stay here and make a new life.” She sighed. “I never really considered that there was no punishment until you showed up. That was pretty silly of me, really.”
“It’s wrong,” Maddie said.
“Oh, I know,” Elizabeth replied in a weary tone. “But it’s all bound up in him. He’s the embodiment of the spell. He literally keeps the peace around here. Every sheriff’s dream, I guess.”
Maddie felt light headed. The anger was still inside her but she was detached, just examining it. “I mean the whole thing.” She mustered the energy to gesticulate with her hands. “The spell. Whatever it is.”
Elizabeth pouted. “How can it be wrong? We have a wonderful life here in Peaceful. Wait, are you one of those who believes all of that, ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live,’ nonsense?”
“I don’t know. But people should be free to make their own choices.”
“Not if they’re going to use them to kill each other they don’t. Not here.”
“It’s still wrong.”
“You just say that because Franklin won’t let you kill Joshua. And I agree with you. I mean, he’s a decent fellow, now at least, but if he killed your family, then . . . you had children?”
“Three of them. Two boys and a girl. He shot the eldest, him or his brother. The other one shot my husband.” Maddie felt the sorrow rise up as distant as the anger. “My babies burned to death when they torched the house.” She marveled at how even her voice remained.
“That’s awful! Why would he do that?”
“He was hired to. They wanted our land. John wouldn’t sell to them. So they burned us out.”
“And you survived?”
“I was in town,” Maddie explained.
“You should kill him. That’s what I think.”
“Right now I just want to be able to do anything,” Maddie said with less venom than she would have liked. “You’re doing something to me.”
Maddie felt a curtain lift in her mind and her emotions flooded back in. She fought down an urge to get up and strike the other woman. Instead, she settled for retrieving her gun before sitting back down.
“There you are.” Elizabeth fluttered her hands. “And I am sorry about Franklin. He is very dedicated to his task. He has so much to atone for in his life that it makes him positively unreasonable.”
“He and his brothers practically invented train robberies. They killed a lot of people. Raped a few, too. The fine citizens of Indiana lynched him and his brothers. Hung from the trees.” She used her hand to mimic a noose and made face as if she were being strangled.
“Franklin . . . wait, that’s Frank Reno?”
“In the flesh. Not his own, mind you. We had to find something a little more fashionable for him to wear than a five year old corpse.”
“Oh, I know. And I think it’s made him too sympathetic to the criminals that live here now.”
“Are they all outlaws? The men here?”
“Oh, no, not many. As I said, most of them move on.”
“Are they reformed when they leave? Not violent anymore?”
“Oh, I really have no idea,” Elizabeth replied breezily. “I didn’t design the spell that way but I suppose it could change them. It’s not my problem, really. I was only concerned with making this place safe.”
“And that’s it? You aren’t concerned about everyone else?”
Elizabeth pouted again. “Am I supposed to solve all of the world’s problems? Besides, I thought you didn’t approve.”
“I don’t. I’m just trying to figure out your boundaries.”
There was a knock at the door.
“Come in, Franklin,” Elizabeth called.
The door opened and the sheriff, one time train robber, stood there and looked at Maddie. “He wants to talk to you.”
Maddie frowned. “I don’t want to talk to him.”
“You will if you want him punished. That’s his condition.”
“You won’t hang him, so what’s the point.”
“He would at least be in jail for the rest of his life.”
“So he admits that he did it?”
“He didn’t deny it,” Franklin answered. “I think he wants to say it to you instead of me.”
She closed her eyes briefly. “What difference does it make?”
“Beyond a confession? I don’t know.” He pulled something out of his pocket and Maddie’s eyes immediately teared. “He asked me to give this to you. He said you would know what it is.”
Maddie bit her lip as she took the tied rags from him. “It’s a doll. Becca played with it. My daughter.” She could barely make out the faded ink that had been the doll’s face. She started crying.
“I’m sorry,” the man said. Elizabeth stayed mercifully silent.
“I’ll talk to him,” Maddie said when she recovered her voice. “God help me, I’ll talk to him.” She pushed herself to her feet, clutching the rags.
“I’ll need you to give me your gun,” he said, “and the knife in your boot. I won’t let you in there armed.”
Wordlessly Maddie handed them over. She followed Franklin down the stairs to the main room of the saloon. She felt the eyes of everyone on her as they walked through. They exited on to the street.
“He works in the laundry. It’s also where he lives,” Franklin said without looking back. Maddie stayed silent as he led her down the street and then turned into an alley. He rapped on a door at the back of an unmarked building. A muffled voice told them to enter so they did.
The one room contained large tubs for washing as well as lines for drying and the requisite supplies. It was hot and humid within, the heat fueled by a cast iron stove. A whip-thin man sat on a cot watching them. He indicated a chair. “I don’t have much to offer you, Mrs. Holt, save a hard wooden seat.”
She sucked in her breath. It was the first time she had ever seen the man who had taken so much from her. He didn’t look at all like she had expected, despite hearing descriptions of his appearance. He looked too normal to match the figure she had created in her mind. His hands were chapped and cracked and his face was placid save for a look of worry in his eyes.
“Where’s your brother?” she demanded, remaining on her feet.
“David is dead,” he said quietly.
“Are you certain?”
He gave her an enigmatic smile. “Yes. We had a falling out in Santa Fe seven years ago. I shot him myself so I can assure you that he is no longer among the living.”
“Why?” she said, trying not to wail.
“Why did we kill your husband and children? Is that what you are asking?”
“We were paid. I wish I had a better answer than that. I truly wish that I could justify it but I can’t. David and I were hired killers. Back then there wasn’t anything I wouldn’t have done if you had paid me enough.”
Tears rolled down her cheeks.
“I know it can’t mean much but I am sorry we did it. Every morning I write down the names of everyone we killed so I don’t forget them.”
“Do you expect me to forgive you?” she asked, trying to keep from sobbing.
“No, Mrs. Holt, I do not. I would be grateful if you did but I don’t expect it. Given that I have trouble forgiving myself I can only imagine how much harder it must be for you.”
“Well, I won’t. You’re an evil fucker.”
“I won’t dispute you on that,” he said. “So what are we going to do?”
“I want to kill you.”
“I wouldn’t stop you,” he replied.
“I would,” Franklin said from the door. “Not in this town.”
“You’re a fraud, Josh Mallet,” Maddie spat. “You want me to believe that you’ve changed, but you haven’t. It’s just the magic. You can’t fool me.”
“What?” he said.
“None of them know,” the sheriff said to Maddie. “Until you came to town neither Elizabeth nor I told anyone what we did.”
Maddie sneered. “You’ve been bamboozled, Josh. You thought you were repenting but that isn’t it at all. The whores of this town stole your manhood. It’s witchcraft. You’re the same person you always were but the sheriff and the madame are controlling your mind. They’ve made you weak and unmanly.”
Joshua looked over her shoulder at Franklin.
“It’s true, I’m afraid,” he said. “We’ve worked magic on the town.”
Joshua nodded. “That explains a lot of things, actually. I have often wondered why everything changed so suddenly. That first night I was here I pitched my gun in the outhouse. I couldn’t bear to touch the thing.” He looked back at Maddie. “You’re wrong, though. It hasn’t made me weak. Oh, the first year or two I was here I might have agreed with you. It was very confusing. But not now. I am a much better, stronger man now than I was six years ago.”
“It’s not fair,” she said.
“I would imagine not,” Joshua said. “I’m sure that it would be more satisfying to find me miserable. I apologize for not accommodating you.”
“You’re mocking me.”
“No, I’m not. I mean that sincerely. You are right. It is not fair that I’ve found peace and contentment. Are you familiar with the idea of karma, Mrs. Holt?”
She shook her head.
“The Chinaman that ran this laundry when I got here tried to introduce me to the concept while I worked for him. I’m afraid that I never really understood what he was telling me but I’d say that it means that everything balances out in the end. I’m afraid of what awaits me in the afterlife given that I’ve found peace on earth.”
Maddie had regained some of her composure. “You can’t talk me out of wanting to kill you.”
“I’m not trying to,” he said. “I’m afraid that we’re having two different conversations. I’m not trying to persuade you of anything. Beyond offering an apology I’m not sure what my purpose is. Maybe I’m just trying to show you a way out of your pain. I’m sorry, that clearly isn’t what you want right now.”
“Joshua,” the sheriff growled.
The man on the cot bowed his head. “I’m sorry again. That time I was perilously close to mocking you. My attempts at virtue are still a work in progress.”
An idea suddenly struck Maddie. “The witch said she doesn’t know if the changes in people are permanent. She doesn’t know if they stay meek and mild if they leave town.”
The strange smile reappeared on Joshua’s face. “Do you have a plan, Mrs. Holt?”
“Come with me. We’ll travel together. If you can convince me that this new you is real, I’ll let you live. You can return here, go somewhere else, I don’t care. We’ll be quits. If you don’t, if the man who killed my family is still there, I’ll put you down like a dog.”
He looked at her for a long time, smiling. “Very well. That strikes me as more than fair.”
“I don’t like it,” Franklin said from the doorway.
“I don’t think we’re giving you any choice, my friend,” Joshua replied. “Unless you plan to keep us from leaving town.”
“You just confessed to a capital crime. I can toss you in my jail and be perfectly happy about it.”
“And both of us would be unhappy about it. Please, Franklin, let us do this. You kept the secret of my conversion from me all this time. I find that I am very curious to know whether the changes in me are real.”
The sheriff’s voice was strangled. “Joshua . . .”
“Franklin, we read the gospels together. We discuss them. Free will is important. I need to find out whether I’ve had it. I need to know whether I have made a choice or have had one made for me.”
Maddie didn’t look behind her but she heard an exhalation of breath. “Very well.”
“Thank you.” He looked back at Maddie. “Shall we set out in the morning, then?”
“I am unprepared for travel. If nothing else I need to arrange for a horse.”
Maddie bit back the first thing she wanted to say and nodded. “That’s fine. In the morning, then.” She pivoted on her heel and faced Franklin. “I assume you have some place I can stay.”
“One of the rooms above the saloon will be available.”
“With the whores.”
He smiled. “They aren’t actually whores. All they do is talk.”
She stared at him. “This town makes no sense.”
“It grows on you.”
Maddie pushed her way out the door into the evening twilight. The wind had picked up, making it unpleasantly cold on the street. She returned quickly to the saloon. The crowd inside fell silent as she stalked up to the bar. Before Benjamin could say anything she demanded a bottle of whiskey.
“I usually sell it by the glass,” he responded.
“I’m taking it to my room.”
“Not feeling sociable, then.” He reached under the bar and pulled out a bottle. “I’m afraid I’ll have to charge you for this one.”
“That’s fine.” Maddie pulled out a dollar and set it on the bar. As she reached for the bottle she asked, “How many people did you kill?”
The bartender looked at her for a moment. “That’s a strange question.” Maddie started to respond but he interrupted her. “I don’t know and I’m happier that way.”
They continued to lock gazes for a moment before Maddie flinched. She grabbed the whiskey and fled up the stairs. She almost ran into Patience at the top of the flight. “Which room is mine?”
Obviously flustered, the woman responded, “I don’t know. Are you staying?”
“Just give me an empty room, dammit.”
At that moment Elizabeth stepped out of the room they had talked in earlier. “You may use this one,” she said smoothly. “Your things are still here.”
“Great.” Maddie entered and slammed the door behind her. She sat on the bed and pulled the stopper out of the bottle. She realized she was still clutching the rag doll. As she began to drink she stared at it. That focus continued until she passed out.
She stumbled out early the next morning. Franklin and Joshua were the only ones in the main room. “When do you want to leave?” the latter asked.
“Right now. I have no one here I want to say goodbye to.”
He nodded. “Our horses are saddled up outside. I thought you might feel that way.”
Maddie walked outside and squinted. The cold sunlight hurt her eyes. The men followed her without speaking. They made ready to ride in silence.
“Which way do you want to go?” Joshua asked when they reached the edge of town.
She shrugged. “I don’t care. ‘Away’ is the only direction that matters.”
“Then let us go west.” He tugged on his reins until his horse faced the Rocky Mountains and urged it into a walk.
“Why west?” Maddie asked suspiciously.
Joshua looked back over his shoulder. “Because it’s neither the way you were going nor where you came from.”
She frowned. “Is that meant to be profound?” A cold gust of wind whipped her hair into her face.
“I thought it might help my chances of survival to say it. Does that count as profound?”
“No,” she answered, turning slightly so the wind was at her back. “Just start riding.”
“All right.” He set off, the mountains stubbornly remaining in the far distance. They said nothing to each other for a while.
When they had covered almost five miles Maddie called out, “Stop. This is far enough.”
Joshua reined in. She almost lost his words in the wind. “I don’t think it’s been long enough to know whether I’ve changed.” He turned and found himself looking down the barrel of her revolver.
“I don’t give a shit whether you’ve changed or not,” she said evenly. “I just wanted to be far enough away from that town so that they wouldn’t hear a gunshot.”
“You could have just shot me in the back.”
“I want to see the knowledge that you’re going to die in your face.” The gun trembled in her hands but not so much that she was likely to miss her target.
He just folded his hands across his chest. “If it makes a difference I don’t feel any different than I did back there. I think the changes were within me, not the magic.”
“I don’t care.” Tears leaked out of her eyes. “You deserve to die for what you did.”
“Very well. I won’t try to talk you out of it. All I ask is that you make sure I’m dead. Don’t just leave me here, too injured to make it to town, to freeze to death.”
Maddie said nothing in response, just training the gun on him. She sat on her horse, summoning the will to pull the trigger.
They remained there motionless for almost a minute. Then the pistol’s sharp crack sounded across the plain. Joshua slowly toppled from his saddle and hit the ground with a thump. Maddie wheeled her horse without giving him another glance and rode south.