A man once told me that if you listened to everybody’s rules, you’d never get anywhere in life. I ran my hand over Daisy’s dark neck as the two of us sat on the ridge overlookin’ Cimarron. The town was as beautiful as ever, dark clouds hangin’ over the valley, the river runnin’ through it, surprisingly high for this time of year. I had been told to leave and never come back, but here I was.
I whistled, knocked my heel into Daisy’s side, and we started down the hill. I wasn’t gonna let someone scare me out of livin’ in a place I had lived in for the last decade. We navigated our way down the mountainside and into the valley, my black hat castin’ a dark shadow onto my face. Cimarron was exactly as I had left it a few months ago. Drunkards staggered in the street, inebriated before three in the afternoon. A saloon girl shook her shoulders and curled a finger at me as I rode by, and I tipped my hat to her, but I didn’t have time for that. For once, I was not in Cimarron for pleasure. I was here on business.
As I passed the Echeverría house I kept my head low. Hopefully, Alicia would not see that I had come back. I walked straight through town, ignorin’ the usual distractions, and rode just out of town limits to a small inn on the hill. It’s adobe walls soaked in what little sunlight there was, and my eyes scanned for familiar faces. For once, I felt like I was comin’ home.
Taos had been… unexceptional. My fence eagerly took the items I had brought, knickknacks lifted from houses. I stayed a while, havin’ lifted nothin’ better than pocket watches and wedding rings from saps and travelers alike. The fence had given me practically spare change for the things I brought. It was a long road to three grand, and I had to start from the bottom. Now that I was runnin’ by myself, I had to make all my own money. Cimarron felt more like home than any home I had ever been, other than with my last gang, but… they were gone. That dream had died with every stroke of Smiley’s knife.
I hitched my horse and gave her a good pat as I approached the door to the inn. The clouds parted a touch, sendin’ a beam of sunlight down onto the walls. The adobe baked in the newfound sun and I breathed it in. Here was to hopin’ I wouldn’t get thrown out on the street. The doors swung wide into the lobby, where Alfonso, a boy I knew and recognized, idly used a small paring knife to chip away tiny flakes of the wooden counter.
“Hello and welcome to the Valle de Oro Inn. Are you interested in getting a room tonight, señor?” He did not lift his eyes, and the flake, flake, flake of wood shavings hittin’ the floor rattled around the lobby with the tickin’ of the large clock that stood proudly in the corner.
I picked up my boots and clomped my way over to the counter, a smile playin’ at the corner of my mouth and a chuckle bubblin’ up in my throat, and I tilted my hat. “Every single goddamn inn in this entire shithole of a town smells like trash and is too scared to give a murderous, bloodthirsty fella like myself a place to stay. You think you can do any better?”
Alfonso’s head whipped up from the desk, now afraid that I was someone to contend with, but a smile filled with perfectly white teeth spilled across his face when he saw who stood there. “McDoon!”
“Hey, mijito,” I greeted and leaned on the counter. “How are you doin’? How’s your folks?”
“Rosita!” Alfonso screamed across the inn. “Someone’s here to see you!”
It had been nearly a year since I had been inside the Valle de Oro. I had slept inside one of their rooms for several years before… well, before Smiley. I waited a moment, lookin’ about the building and rememberin’. The pine door frames had suffered a little bit of wear from use, and the Gonzales family’s massive wrought-iron cross hung on the adobe wall. Everythin’ smelled a little of coffee and ponderosa bark, and I tapped my finger on the counter impatiently. This place was more home than my home in Ohio had ever been, even more home than Butch’s camp.
Someone took their time comin’ down the hallway and shouted, “Alfonso, I don’t have time for guests! I still have three rooms to clean and I—”
Rosita came around the corner and froze when she saw me. My jaw fell agape a little as I saw her, changed from the girl I had known a year ago. A melon-sized bump pushed out underneath a homely dress and sweat clung to her brow as she leaned on the doorframe for support. I shook my head in surprise and remembered her body tangled in sheets with mine, the early rays of dawn dancin’ through the windows of the inn and motes of dust fallin’ to the sheets like snow. I knew for certain that the kid wasn’t mine, so… who’s?
“Rosita!” Another, deeper voice with a thick, drawling accent called after her. “Honey, where in the hell did you put the washed sheets? If they were a snake, they would’ve bit me.”
Maurice stepped into the lobby next. His hundred-dollar suit had been pressed wrinkle free, though some of the seams on his cuffs and around his buttons had frayed a touch from wear. A dark moustache twitched on his upper lip, new since I had last seen him, and his chocolate eyes lit up when he saw who had come. He opened his arms and bellowed in his maple-syrup voice, “Modestus Goddamn McDoon! It’s been too long, mon ami! What’s been keeping you?”
“Oh, you know,” I joked as he nearly crushed me in a hug. “The usual. I was ridin’ with Butch for a little while longer until… um…”
My face fell and Rosita paled. “McDoon, what happened.”
“Do you need a cup of coffee? Let’s sit down and talk,” Maurice offered.
“You have beds to make and things to do,” I interjected. “Don’t turn your whole day upside down just for—”
“Alfonso!” Rosita barked as she looked to her brother. “Put the sign on the desk and go make the beds.”
“Ro-si-ta!” Alfonso whined. “But I don’t wa—”
“I’ll go get Papá and he won’t think it’s so funny. We have a guest.”
Alfonso sighed the deepest sigh I’d ever heard and grabbed a sign for the desk that said Back in a Moment. He retreated to somewhere else in the inn. Rosita dragged me as fast as she was able to a far corner of the inn and into the kitchen. A rickety wooden table sat in front of an old iron stove and Maurice plopped into a chair to match. Rosita boiled water for a drip coffee pot and I slowly lowered myself into the only other free chair.
“Okay, confesa, what happened?” Rosita demanded as she stood over the stove, wringin’ her hands onto the dark braid that fell over her shoulder.
“Butch is dead,” I replied, “or at least I think he is. Smiley got ideas, and as soon as you left – Maurice, that is – everything fell apart. He and Gonzo tore through the entire camp and got rid of anyone they didn’t like. I barely got out of there.”
“Oh my God,” Rosita muttered as she crossed herself. “Do you know who survived?”
A tear formed in Rosita’s eye and Maurice clenched his fist on the table. He had really been the only thing standin’ between Smiley and the rest of us. Then, Rosita had heard from her father that the inn was strugglin’. The two of them, who had been together for some time after she left me, disappeared. Maurice wasn’t a big fella, but with the two of us together we had enough of a presence that we were able to keep Smiley in line. After that, things fell apart.
“Well, I’m glad you lived,” Rosita muttered over the hissing kettle, “even if you’re a big pain in the ass.”
“I was wonderin’ if I could nab a place to stay,” I asked. “All the other inns in town smell weird and I’m avoidin’… certain people.”
“Of course. You’re always welcome here. Actually, your arrival is quite fortuitous,” Maurice said. “We’ve been having a little bit of trouble.”
“Whose bones do I need to break?” I grumbled. That’s all I was typically good for.
“Hopefully, nobody’s.” Rosita set the coffee pot onto the table. “Though, there is a specific individual that’s been giving us an issue. His name’s Henri Lambert. He just opened a new inn in town, and because he offers liquor and isn’t… well.”
“A woman. Papá is old. He’s doing the best he can, but with us being so far up on the hill, everyone would rather stop in one of the closer hotels in town nearer to saloons and you know as well as I do that folks who pass through this town aren’t necessarily reputable.”
“What are you suggestin’?”
“We need a way to make quick pocket change, just to buy some dry goods for the next few months,” Maurice explained, “and you have some of the fastest hands I know. If we could just pick some money off passersby, then—”
I laughed as Rosita poured water into the top canister of the coffee pot. “So, that’s all I am to you? Quick change?”
“No, McDoon. No. Not at all. I just recognize that I’m a family man, now. I’ve left all of that behind me.”
Ah, so it was his kid.
“Here’s the problem. I have people around here who know my face now. I maybe made a little bit of a mistake a few months ago and need to lay low. That’s why I’m here.”
“Then we disguise you,” Rosita suggested, the drip, drip, drip of the coffee hittin’ the pot through the filter rattlin’ throughout the kitchen. “Make it hard for anyone who has a problem with you to know who you are.”
“There’s no church currently in operation in town. We could use a priest.”
The kitchen fell silent until my cackle broke it. I nearly doubled over with laughter. “Me?” I wheezed. “A priest? I ain’t never read a single page of the Bible in my life, darlin’. You seriously think I can pull it off?”
* * *
And that is how I found myself in a priest’s vestments, my face as clean as the day I had been born, standin’ in front of the Lambert Inn. I pulled at the stiff collar, tucked the Bible under my arm, and entered. The entire place was as silent as the grave, with a few stuffed animal heads on the wall that stared with their poorly-taxidermied glass eyes. A big clock ticked on the wall above a fireplace, and I dodged a few chairs to the counter where I was greeted by a very relieved man with the fullest, darkest set of friendly mutton chops I had ever seen. He pushed down his hair, slicked with pomade, and adjusted a grey suit. “Greetings, Father,” he huffed, his barreled chest tugging at the buttons on his vest. “What can I do for you?”
I had to repeat what he had said in my head a few times, fighting his thick French accent, and then replied in an accent that I had not employed since I was fourteen years old, one of a plain Ohioan nature, boring and reminiscent of a time of my life I desperately wished to forget. “Hello, blessed child,” I replied, layin’ on the Jesus in the only way I knew how. “I was hoping to get a room for a while here, if you don’t mind.”
“How long should we expect you, sir? The entire building isn’t finished, so pardon our mess, and we only have a few rooms at the moment,” the man replied, taking out a ledger, a pen, and an ink well.
“A month to start, please,” I replied. I tapped my heel in the black shoes I was given, my nerves showin’ themselves in the way my hands fidgeted with the hems of my sleeves. The shoes hurt my feet, and I missed the comfort of my broken-in boots.
“What brings you to Cimarron?” the man asked as he began to do some math, the tip of his pen scratching across the paper as he wrote.
“I want to start a church. The bishop I studied under told me to go where God needed me the most, and this place is a Godless land. There’s an old, abandoned buildin’ near –” Shit. “There’s an old, abandoned building near – pardon me, something in my throat – the creak that runs through here?”
“It’s called the Cimarron, funnily enough.”
“It used to be an old mining operation, if I recall correctly. The gold came up next to nothing, but some people stayed. I came up here to start a restaurant, but, as fate would have it, here we are.”
“Well, this new establishment is very nice, Mr…?”
“Lambert.” He pushed the ledger toward me. “Your stay for a month will total fifteen dollars.”
I swallowed hard. Holy shit. I had not expected the price to be so high for such a trashy area. I dug in my pockets for my coin purse, from which I produced the money. I paid the man and leaned to take a peek into the restaurant. “You run the whole place?”
“My wife and I do, yes,” he replied. “You’ll be in room four, just upstairs.”
“Thank you, friend. I look forward to my stay.”
I hauled the bag that I had, just my same old saddle bag, up the stairs. It looked as though the inn had no more than a few rooms. The gaudy, brightly colored carpet clashed with the orange brocade on the wall, and I blinked to clear my head. What a place this was. I wandered my way to the door to room four which opened to a room covered in pink. Pink brocade and pink sheets and a lamp with a rose shade. He had brought the east coast with him, and I hated it. I tested the bed. It was soft enough, I guess.
I made back the money quicker than I spent it. My goal was simple. I hung in the restaurant and around the hotel and if people asked or came to talk to me, I absolved them of their sins, prayed for them, and asked for donations for a church that would never exist. My coin purse got fatter and fatter as people donated a couple cents here, a couple dollars there, and days dragged on. I made up Bible verses faster than I made up lies, but no one caught on. Most of the people I pilfered from were east coast folk on their way to California to chase an American Dream that didn’t exist. They were simple, wealthy, and stupid.
And then the head.
About halfway through my stay, I woke up to a bloodcurdlin’ scream. Henri Lambert’s wife was an excitable woman and sometimes screamed at bugs that flew by her face, but this was different. I bolted out of my bed in my slacks and a cotton shirt, not botherin’ with the vestments and the stiff collar, and scrambled down the stairs. Nothin’ was wrong in the lobby, all quiet there, so I followed the sounds of Mrs. Lambert’s sobs to the front of the hotel. There, one of the folks stayin’ at the inn held her daughter, covering the child’s face, and Mrs. Lambert sobbed into her hands. “Look away!” someone shouted. “By God, get the women inside!”
As the weaker-willed folks cleared from the front of the inn, away from its brick edifice and into the comfort of the terrifying taxidermy animals, which I didn’t really think made the situation any better, I saw what had made everyone shout in such a fright. A man’s head, beard, sinew, and all, stood on a pike. That pike had been shoved into the ground in front of the entrance to the Lambert Inn. Even for me, it was a gruesome sight. The man’s eyes had rolled back into his head and clearly had started to rot, flies buzzin’ around the head’s dark hair, scalped in some places.
Someone approached me and I turned to find a little red-headed thing, freckled and pale and in a maid’s uniform. I had seen her before on occasion, cleanin’ things up around the hotel, but never spoken with her. She stared at the death, her mouth open just a touch, and I held up a hand to her. “Go back inside, Miss. You don’t need to see this.”
“I don’t mind, Father,” she replied, her tone nothin’ more than a whisper. “Someone needs to clean up the remains.”
“Does anyone know what happened?” I demanded from the other folks at the door.
“I do,” someone said.
A woman with dark hair and a long braid, her large hat shading her copper skin from the sun, stepped forward from the crowd. She raised her nose at me, silver traced in the roots of her hair and wrinkles playin’ at the corner of her eyes. My eyebrows twinged in a challenge and I cocked my head at her.
“And?” I pressed.
“Simple. Men did what men do best. Murder.”
“A little more information would be preferred.”
“Why?” she pushed. “Are you going to ride after him, Father, and kill him? Someone of your profession?”
“I am—” I coughed, choking on my own words, “—merely trying to put together what happened to give this poor… head… a proper burial.”
“Clay Allison,” someone else in the crowd muttered. “He’s been tearin’ ‘round the territory for some time, I hear. He and his party rode into town last night, and they left this head here.”
“Whatever for?” the redhead behind me whispered.
“It’s a message,” the other woman replied. “The same as every message left before. He wants you out of this town, Father.”
I gulped. Great. I had made a little cash up until this point, but it wasn’t worth getting’ guillotined. “I… I need a minute to hold a proper service for this person. If you all could give me a moment of respect.”
“Certainly, Father,” the maid replied. “Let me know if you need your robes washed afterward.”
I returned to my room, changed into my robes, and shook my head. This had very quickly become a disaster. I put my Bible under my arm, cleaned up my shave a little, and returned to the front of the inn. The head on the stick gazed back at me with the gaze of someone who had been dead at least a day. Poor bastard. The fly crawled across his eye, and I let out a long sigh. It was going to be quite a day. I muttered some bullshit under my breath and crossed over the head a couple of times, rosary in my hand, until I felt someone step up beside me.
“You’d think a priest would know his own prayers,” someone muttered.
I nearly jumped out of my own damn skin. I turned to find the woman with the dark braid there, her arms crossed. I swallowed, ready for a grillin’, and replied, “You a Catholic, ma’am?”
“No. I am of the Islamic faith, but my father fought with many Copts in the army. You learn things if you watch people, and I know very well when someone is lying.”
“That obvious, huh?”
“Not to the others. The others want to believe in you. They’re scared out of their mind.”
“Do you know anythin’ about this… Clay Allison guy?” I asked, dropping my forced, old accent. “I’ve never heard of him.”
“I’m surprised. He flies the flag of the South, the one of the fallen army, and is known for being vicious. That’s all I know.”
“Thank you. Perhaps I need to do some diggin’.”
“Not dressed like that, you don’t. There are better ways to get information, sir. You will destroy your reputation.”
I scoffed. Who did she think she was, comin’ in here and tellin’ me how to run my entire scam? I hoped she wasn’t gonna expose me, because that was gonna cause a hell of a lot of problems. “I hope you’re not fixin’ to say anythin’ about this to anyone else, Miss…?”
“Yah-NAN, but nice try. And you?”
“Father Modestus. Good to meet you.”
“Oh, ha ha.”
“No, I plan on keeping this to myself. However, if we can get those men into this inn tonight, we may be able to find out why they are here. Clay Allison is supposedly holed up at the Casa del Gavilan, but if we can convince him to stay at the Lambert, we can get information out of him.”
“What’s in it for you?” I asked, lowering my voice and masking my accent as someone passed into the inn. “Why help me?”
“I want to watch horrible men burn.”
“Fair enough. What’s your plan, then? There’s no way we’re getting’ him to stay in a half-finished inn with mediocre food over the Casa del Gavilan.”
“Horrible men love cute women. Give me a moment to speak to the redhead, the maid, and then we’ll give Henri Lambert the best business he’s ever had.”
* * *
Clay Allison strolled into the Lambert Inn like he owned the place. He was invited by Henri Lambert himself after the maid – I learned some time earlier her name was Saoirse – had invited them, batting her doe-like eyes in Allison’s direction. Janan, though I did not know if that was her real name, had worked some magic on the Irish girl. She was more than willin’ to work her charms on drunk and horrible men. And Clay Allison was a horrible-lookin’ son of a bitch. Sometimes you can just tell by lookin’ at people that they’re mean. As Saoirse passed plates of Henri’s classical French food into the hands of a half a dozen monsters from the underbelly of the New Mexican territory, I shuddered. I dug in my pockets to pay for a plate of hot chicken and potatoes with some kind of sauce I had never had, honestly surprised at how good it was, and turned my ears to Allison.
“I’m glad we rode out here!” Allison boomed, drinking what had to be his sixth tequila. “Elizabethtown is nice, but this place is empty.”
“I don’t like that new County Courthouse here, Clay,” another man interjected. “That just means law ain’t too far behind.”
“No way they’ll send a sheriff out here, not with someone like me in town. I’m the fastest gunfighter in the territory, and that’s all there is to it.”
“I hear there’s a priest in town, though. With religion comes folks, and with folks comes law.”
Allison and I made eye contact. I had been watchin’ him, takin’ in the way he sat and the way he moved, and his dark eyes met mine under his thick brow. A scowl twitched at the corner of his mouth as he glared at me, judgement behind a dark beard, and I turned to my food. My heart pounded in my ears. I hoped to God he hadn’t noticed me starin’.
“Nothin’ to worry about, boys. We taught those assholes at Elizabethtown that we are the law. We took Kennedy from his cell, hung that murderous, crazy son of a bitch when the law wouldn’t, cut of his head, and carried that down the road to plant it here. Fuck the law. They ain’t never done anything right by the people, and now we’re the law.”
“You boys want any more liquor?” Saoirse’s voice dripped over her lips in the way that only an Irish woman’s could, her slender white hands peeking out from underneath the sleeves of her black dress. Allison took her hand as it passed in front of him to refill his mezcal, and he began to roll up her sleeve. The sleeve made its way to just below her elbow and he turned her wrist over to look at it.
“How did someone with skin lily-white like snow end up in a dump like this?” he asked.
My lip twitched. He better not. She was no saloon girl. Those girls did what they did because that was how they chose to make money. Saoirse was no saloon girl and had not asked for his affections.
Saoirse pulled her hand back and laughed. “Lots of travel, a hard day’s ride, and a dead husband, sir. Let me know if you boys need anything else. I’m just a call away.”
I watched them for weeks. They ate, drank, and did whatever they damn well pleased without taking no for an answer. On one occasion Allison even shot at the feet of some poor soul, demandin’ he dance the only kind of dance someone dodgin’ bullets could do. Henri Lambert constantly had a smile on his face, plates flowin’ and rooms full. The bangs and bumps of bodies against each other echoed through the walls of my obnoxiously pink room. I had worried, at first, that Allison’s presence would keep regular customers from comin’ in, but once the townsfolk found out that Allison had hoped to replace the law, to be a gunslingin’ vigilante force in Cimarron, they feared him less and less. I continued to take money from the people who passed through, claimin’ that I had the intention of opening a Catholic church the next year, and no one was the wiser.
People kept dyin’. Gunslingers from all over the state came to challenge Allison’s supposedly legendary fast hand, and people dropped in the Lambert Inn like flies. The common and popular question became, “Who died at Lambert’s last night?”
Sometimes, I’d wake up with bullets embedded in the wall over my head. Within a few weeks, I nearly had enough money to pay back Rosita’s debts. The Echeverrías were none the wiser and tended to leave me alone. Maurice let me keep ten percent of everything I lifted, so slowly my own private stash of wealth grew. Soon, I’d have enough to just up and leave, buy a place I wanted and disappear from the eyes of everyone. When I had started on this entire escapade at sixteen, I thought I had found a new home with Butch and my travelling family. Now that the entire family had been massacred, I had to reevaluate my plans. Maurice had left with Rosita to start a different kind of family. Did I envision myself with a child?
I watched her waddle around the Valle de Oro and imagined how life could have been if we had stayed together. I slept in her bed for almost a year, and her father had constantly probed us as to when I was gonna to marry her. I dragged her into my life, and she polished her rifle with the rest of us around Butch’s campfire. And then Maurice toddled along, and she abandoned me. Had never been interested in startin’ a family with me, it seemed. They fell head over heels for each other and that was the end of it. Their baby was due soon, and Maurice was hesitant to become involved with someone the likes of me again. It couldn’t be helped. They needed the money, and I needed the work. We would all be out of each other’s hair soon.
At least, that was what I had thought. Maurice kept me company some nights while Rosita worked at the inn, and he sat at the bar with a whiskey in his hand, watchin’ me with scrutinizing eyes as I walked the floor like I walked on water. I finished askin’ for money from the last religious customer of the night and put the money into my pocket, but when I turned away from the fireplace and the creepy taxidermied animals, I bumped straight into someone shorter in stature but broader in nature than myself. Clay Allison stroked his beard and grinned up at me. “Oops. Sorry, Father. Didn’t mean to bump into ya.”
“No problem, sir. One too many libations tonight?”
“No, Father, I was actually interested in having a conversation with ya.”
“What can I help you with?” I started to sweat under my collar.
“I just wanted to talk to you a little bit about your plans for Cimarron. Do you have a moment to sit?”
“Sure!” I beamed. My hands started to shake, and I returned to a rickety wooden table. I pulled a chair out for Allison before I sat and pretended like it was the most normal conversation in the whole world. “What’s on your mind?”
Clay Allison sat for a moment and stroked his beard, thinking on what I had said. “Are you planning on building a new church here?”
“Yes. That’s why I’m asking for donations. That way, this town can have a place for proper God-fearing folk to go.”
Saoirse began to clear table adjacent to us, her ear tuned to what we were sayin’. I wasn’t certain if she was listenin’ to keep me safe and to intervene if necessary or if she was listenin’ to get extra tips. Another group, one with Allison, I presumed, guffawed loudly by the check in desk as they made the largest commotion over who had won the hand at cards. Henri Lambert clanked plates around in the back as he fervently washed dishes and Allison leaned in closer to me to hear better. “I’m nervous about that, the church, I mean.”
“Whatever for?” I asked for clarification.
“I’ve heard wind from Elizabethtown that the federal government is planning on sending troopers out here if we’re not careful. At the very least, they want to put in a jail and a courthouse. We shot the last sheriff, scared him off, and would like to keep the town free of lawmen. You can see how a church would be particularly bad for me and my boys.”
It would be bad for me, too. I needed the government to stay out of Cimarron just as much as he did, but I had to play pretend. The boys playin’ cards made another loud exclamation of loss and Allison’s eye twitched. I leaned backward in the chair and it creaked. “Fortunately for me, I have nothing to do with the law, Mr. Allison. The matters of the territory are complicated. I’m merely a simple hand of G—”
“I’m sorry, come again?” Allison projected over the rowdy noise.
“I am merely a hand of God,” I emphasized. “I don’t do dealings with the governme—”
“Would you baboons keep it down?” Allison shouted as he stood. “I’m trying to have an intelligent conversation with the clergy.”
“Jesus, Clay,” one of the men muttered. “We’re just playin’ poker and—”
Before I could blink, Clay Allison had drawn his six shooter from his hip. A spray of bullets popped one after the other as he fanned the hammer, loadin’ the man who had opposed him with metal. Two bullets missed and lodged themselves in the ceiling above a taxidermy bison and the bar. The man who had been shot froze as he processed what had happened for a moment, his knees buckled together, and then he slumped forward face first to the floor. Blood began to pool out from his body and Allison spat, “Keep quiet please! You can take your game to any other saloon in town!”
The other men shuffled out of the inn as if they had been scolded and after the dining hall had quieted Henri poked his head out from the kitchen. He saw the body on the ground, muttered a quiet curse under his breath, and then rushed off to get the mortician – or the doctor, anyone, really – to deal with the death. As I watched Allison’s friend pass from this life I dabbed at the sweat on my brow with my handkerchief. He had a fast hand, that was certain.
“I’m sorry to cause such a fuss. In truth, that guy has been causing me trouble for months. Nearly turned me in to troopers and was not on board when we killed Charles Kennedy and put his head on that pole. Federal government was going to let that monster go and he deserved to die. I don’t take kindly to rebels in my own group.”
“The Bible would say that you should go after your lost sheep, bring them to the light of God,” I muttered. I was certain I had read somethin’ about sheep in there.
“I sent him straight to the pearly gates. That’s Jesus’ job, not mine.” Allison leaned forward. “Why build another church, though, Father? Lucien Maxwell already built one. Cimarron just doesn’t have a priest at the moment, and I would like to keep this town a place where I can go and let loose on the weekends, you understand.”
They did? I scoured my brain tryin’ to remember if I had seen a church around. An adobe building with a terribly built bell tower climbed into the fog of my mind. Shit. “Of course,” I answered. Talkin’ was not my strong suit. “My intention is to enlarge the building and then also get other clergy from Taos over here to help me.”
“Really? Because you’ve been telling other folks you’re building a church.”
“Ah, I seem to misunderstand you.” My throat tightened up and closed like someone had their hand around it. “I’m going to be building an Orthodox Catholic church and then expanding it.”
Allison lowered his voice and shifted his weight to the side, readyin’ to grab what I assumed was another firearm on his other hip. I was problematic to his entire plan for Cimarron, and he was gonna take me out of the picture. “It would be a shame if something had to happen. You seem like a pious man. I suppose, at the end of the night, if you are who you say you are and I put a bullet through your head, you’ll end up going somewhere nice.”
“Now, we don’t have to do this,” I cautioned. My phony accent faltered. I stood and took a step backward. I did not carry a gun, never did. I slipped my hands into my pockets under my vestments, sliding my fingers into brass knuckles that I kept there. The question was if I was faster than his bullets or not.
Allison whistled and a group of four men entered Lambert’s inn, hands on guns and ready to cause a problem. Lambert’s wife entered the main room, saw what was about to happen, and left, lockin’ the door behind her. Saoirse stood and backed out of the room as well, not willin’ to get into a fight, but Maurice stayed, raisin’ an eyebrow. He, with the poise of a man raised in wealth, took off his suit jacket and rolled up his sleeves. “You boys looking to cause a problem?”
“Sit down, rich kid,” Allison spat. “This fight isn’t for you.”
I decided I wasn’t gonna wait around for things to turn sour, and if I had to get dirty, I had to get dirty. No one remained in the inn to see the truth behind what was going on, and I wasn’t about to get shot. I pulled my fists from my pockets, brass knuckles glintin’ in the light of the oil lamps, and I swung. Unfortunately, Allison responded in kind by dancin’ out of the way. I stepped right into the blood of the other poor fella who had been shot and a brawl began.
Maurice jumped into the fray with no hesitation and dove for a gentleman who looked to be unarmed. The poor bastard nearly tripped over his friend’s dead body as Maurice’s fist landed in his face, his nose fracturin’ on contact. I could hear the break across the room and blood splurted all over the cuffs of Maurice’s pressed French shirt. The bandit decided stayin’ and fightin’ was not for the best and dashed out of the front door of the inn.
The other rogue near the bar drew a knife and slashed at Maurice after seein’ what he did to their friend. Their knife glimmered as they swiped once, twice, and then connecting with Maurice’s chest on the third stroke. A bullet grazed my shoulder and cut through my priest’s costume as Allison aimed his Colt at me. I ducked and weaved my way behind cover as two more bullets whizzed by my ear, deafening me on that side.
Someone pulled out a shotgun and buckshot knocked chips of wood from the top of the chair I hid behind. Maurice did not have time to hide behind anything so took the full force of the blast. I remembered when I had first met Maurice, how small he was, and then something happened to him. We picked up a Lakota Native at some point when Butch and the rest of us had stopped in Utah, a Native travellin’ far from home, and then Maurice changed. He took more interest in the physical tasks of the camp and was a rich kid no longer. Still, I didn’t know anyone who could take that kind of a blast from a shotgun like he did.
A bullwhip cracked but I didn’t get hit with anything. Who brings a bullwhip to a gun fight? I needed to get that shotgun out of the bandit’s hand. I tore the vestments from my body, tossing them to the side, and then dodged across the dining area of the inn to another chair, hopin’ to not get shot on the way over. Crack! The bullwhip sounded again. Maurice gripped at his chest, pattin’ himself down and makin’ sure he wasn’t gonna bleed to death.
The asshole with the shotgun reloaded with new cartridges and I took the opportunity to get him out of the picture. I rushed him and threw my arms around him, lockin’ him in a bear hug and forcin’ him to drop a few shells. The tinklin’ of ammunition hittin’ the floor was nearly overshadowed by the other sounds of struggle in the bar and I dragged the bandit out of the inn and onto the street. I felt better about fightin’ in a place where I didn’t have to destroy someone’s private property. Crack! The echo of the whip sounded even in the street, followed by the pop of gunshots. I had to get back inside to help Maurice, but I had to get rid of the shotgun. People began to gather in the streets to see what all the fuss was about, and seein’ a priest grapplin’ a rogue with a shotgun probably wasn’t what they expected.
Holdin’ on to the bandit with the shotgun was like holdin’ onto an eel in a barrel. I slugged him once in the side of the head, but he wriggled away from my second swing. I hit air. He kicked me hard in the shin and then proceeded to stomp on my foot. I yowled out as my grip loosened, and he scrambled away from me, not wantin’ to let me get close again. I chased him down, now hopin’ to just knock him into the dirt and keep him there. My knuckles connected with his jaw as I chased him, my long legs playin’ to my advantage for once, but when I went in for a second swing with my left fist, my ears still ringin’ from nearly bein’ shot inside the inn, he threw his foot underneath me and I hit the dirt, eatin’ a mouthful of sand.
I scrambled to my feet only to find the other guy had run down the street as far as he could while still bein’ able to shoot at me and I chased after him. Stupid decision, I know. At a moment’s notice, he could turn around and hit me with a blast from his weapon. I was either the smartest person I knew, or dead.
“McDoon!” someone shouted from the sidelines. “Where’s Maurice?”
I turned my head for just a moment, stoppin’ to see who had called me. Rosita’s frantic face stuck out in the crowd, but I had to squint, the light from the moon not good enough for me to see well. “Inside!” I shouted.
My biggest mistake was stoppin’ to chat. The click of the shotgun bein’ primed barely came through the noise of the residents of Cimarron shoutin’ in the street and I dove for cover. While I avoided the majority of the blast, the shrapnel from the shot tore through my shirt on my backside and I hissed out in pain. Despite wantin’ to get up, I laid there for a moment, tryin’ to sort out what to do next and swimmin’ in the stinging. I couldn’t chase the guy all the way to Elizabethtown and the shotgun was something I didn’t want to contend with.
Something came flyin’ out of the Lambert Inn and hit the road next to me. When I lifted my head to see what had happened, I found Clay Allison lyin’ in the sand to my right. Maurice emerged from the inn, cut up and clothes rent from the shotgun and Allison’s bullets. He raised his head high, his perfect finger waves out of place and a cut tracin’ its way down the right side of his face from his eyebrow to the corner of his mouth. The bandit with the shotgun primed his weapon again, seeing his boss downed, but never fired. A loud clang echoed down the street and my head snapped to look back to where I could potentially be shot. Saoirse had slammed a frying pan into the backside of the bandit’s head, and he dropped his shotgun in shock. I took this opportunity to rouse myself, dash as quickly as I could to my opponent, and unleash hell.
I slugged the bastard twice in the head, sendin’ him to his knees and eventually to the dirt, unconscious. As I rose to my feet, chest heavin’ from effort, someone began to clap. Before long, the entire crowd that had gathered in the street joined in on the jubilation and I turned, the light of the full moon casting an eerie glow onto the whole scene. Maurice stumbled to one knee and Rosita rushed to him as best as she could, wobbling in her state, and I grabbed Allison by the coat, knockin’ his six shooters from his hands.
“Well done!” he laughed, out of breath. “I hadn’t expected such opposition! So, what’s your secret, Father? God gave you one hell of a right hook.”
“Shut your mouth,” I spat, not caring to hold up my disguise anymore. “You’re gonna listen to me and listen good.”
“I’ve never seen a priest hit like that,” someone from the crowd sneered. “As much of an asshole as he is, Clay Allison is right.”
I turned to meet Alicia Echeverría’s eyes. She stood at the front of the crowd, arms crossed and a scowl on her face. My cheeks and ears flushed, and I stuttered, tryin’ to find my next few words. “Sometimes, when the opportunity presents itself, one must do terrible things to—”
“Isn’t murder a sin?” she asked.
“I haven’t killed anyone today, Miss, but—”
“Not today, Modestus McDoon, but on other days, I’m sure.”
The crowd began to mumble. Clay chuckled and raised an eyebrow at me, not puttin’ up a fight. “Modestus McDoon? That’s one hell of a made-up name if I’ve ever heard one.”
I sighed, an exhale heavy enough to push a ship from port. My cover had been blown. “He’s right!” I projected. “I’m not a priest.”
The crowd gasped and grumbled and mumbled and I was sure I was gonna get shot.
“Well then, where the hell’s our money?” someone demanded. “Did you rob us?”
“No,” I amended. It was a lie, but here was to keepin’ my head on my shoulders. “No. Señora Echeverría is right, I’m no priest. I’m a wanderer, at best. I hardly know a lick of the good word. However, what I do know is a good town when I see one, and what I cannot stand is when someone like him –” I shook Allison for emphasis, “—decides that he’s gonna come into a place like this and disrupt the natural order here.”
“Your point?” Alicia demanded.
“My point is that I’m a man for hire. I don’t work for nobody, not the government, not a gang, no one. I was hired by a local family to collect money for them to pay for supplies. They have a baby on the way and things have been dry with bastards like Allison making nice places like this uninhabitable. I took only what people were willin’ to give, so if you all have qualms with frontiersmen on the way to California and drunk robbers and highwaymen givin’ me a few cents here, a half a dollar there, then take that up with them.”
The crowd thought over what I had said for a moment, but no one uttered a word in opposition.
“We asked for the money,” Rosita admitted, holding Maurice’s large frame up on his feet as best as she could. “My father’s inn is going out of business and we didn’t know what to do. We just needed forty dollars.”
“We need to get Maurice to a bed,” I stated as I pulled Allison to his feet, lookin’ him directly in the eye. “Here’s the deal, Allison. Nobody wants you here. We don’t much appreciate you tearin’ through town puttin’ people’s heads on poles. The folks here want a quiet life. You damaged a hell of a lot of property with your bullets and your friend’s shotgun so this is how this is gonna go. You’re gonna pay Mr. Lambert for damages and then you’re gonna get the hell out of here.”
“Says who?” Allison challenged.
“Says me,” I threatened. I threw a fist into his gut and he doubled over. “My name is Modestus McDoon, and you better remember it. If I see your ugly face in Cimarron again, I’ll punch you so hard your nose will go up into your brain. They won’t even be able to put a name on your tombstone.”
Clay Allison looked me up and down to see if I meant the threat as Rosita lowered Maurice to sit on the stoop of the inn. He nodded and put his hands up in defense. “You have my word. I won’t come around here anymore.”
The crowd cheered out in surprise and joy, and I let go of Allison’s jacket. As soon as I did, he grabbed his unconscious friend, slappin’ him and shakin’ him until he roused, and then they bolted off to their horses, hopefully never to return. Once that had been handled, I looked to Maurice. Rosita could barely hold him up and I shoved my way under his other arm. He groaned as we lifted him, and Rosita nodded to the road, indicating that she wanted me to take Maurice all the way back to the Valle de Oro.
“Wait,” someone muttered.
Alicia stepped from the crowd and pointed to her house. “Take him there. I’ll get him bandaged up. That way you don’t have to walk all the way up that hill.”
“Gracias, amiga,” Rosita replied. “Díos te bendiga. Él es el único que tengo.”
Alicia took care of Maurice just as she had done me. My injuries did not hardly compare, and I could not believe he had taken such a beating. He sure as hell had tough skin. I spent the next few hours watching Alicia use tweezers to fish whole bullets out of his body from where Allison had shot him and stitchin’ up knife wounds with twine and an upholstery needle. She did her best with the mark on his face, but the wound was deep. A bandage covered his eye, as well as half his face, on that side, makin’ him look more a bandit than me.
People thanked me everywhere I went in town. Though some of the residents were upset that I had taken a little of their money, some donated to Rosita directly, tryin’ to keep the Valle de Oro open. Others referred to me as Mr. McDoon which was terrifying. I certainly didn’t like it. I had never been in a town where I was well respected, wanted, and not at all chastised for my raucous behavior. Alicia forgave me, on the condition that I protect people. I wasn’t allowed to take another single cent from people who lived in Cimarron. That was an easy deal, and I agreed. The room in the Lambert Inn became a permanent home for me, as permanent as stayin’ in a hotel-to-be got. Someone even asked if I was gonna be the new sheriff. Me? Sheriff? Hell no.
The sun set on Cimarron and I counted some of the money I had made from the last bit of tithings I had pilfered. I knew where I was going, now. A family life may not be the life for me but being able to retire and become nothin’ more than a shadow appealed to me. I had lived my life, roamed the West, robbed trains and banks, nearly died. Now it was time to save for something better. I watched Rosita and Maurice’s quiet life, the way she whispered to him as he recovered, the way they had settled, and I made a promise to myself. One day I’d settle, too.