Ghost Town

Ghost Town

by Robert Coover


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A nameless rider plods through the desert toward a dusty Western town shimmering on the horizon. In his latest novel, Robert Coover has taken the familiar form of the Western and turned it inside out. The lonesome stranger reaches the town - or rather, it reaches him - and he becomes part of its gunfights, saloon brawls, bawdy houses, train robberies, and, of course, the choice between the saloon chanteuse or the sweet-faced schoolmistress whom he loves. Throughout, Robert Coover reanimates the Western epics of Zane Grey and Louis L'Amour, infusing them with the Beckettian echoes, unique comic energy, and exuberant prose that have made him one of the most influential figures in contemporary American literature. It is, as The Washington Post Book World put it, "a fast-forward, ribald vision of the American West, a free-for-all that slides from surreal to ridiculous like a circus-goer's grin through a funhouse mirror . . . a heady frisson, a salon entertainment, one helluva ride."

Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780802136664
Publisher: Grove/Atlantic, Inc.
Publication date: 01/10/2000
Series: Coover, Robert
Pages: 160
Product dimensions: 5.50(w) x 8.25(h) x (d)

Read an Excerpt

Chapter One

                                  Bleak horizon under a glazed sky, flat desert, clumps of sage, scrub, distant butte, lone rider. This is a land of sand, dry rocks, and dead things. Buzzard country. And he is migrating through it. Because: it is where he is now, and out here there's nothing to stop for, no turning back either, nothing back there to turn to. His lean face is shaded from the sun overhead by a round felt hat with a wide brim, dun-colored like the land around, old and crumpled. A neckerchief, probably once red, knotted around his throat, collects what sweat, in his parched saddle-sore state, he sweats. A soft tattered vest, gray shirt, trail-worn cowhide chaps over dark jeans tucked into dust-caked boots with pointed toes, all of it busted up and threadbare and rained on, dried out by sun and wind and grimed with dust, that's the picture he makes, forlorn horseman on the desert plain, obstinately plodding along. He wears a wooden-butted six-shooter just under his ribs, a bowie knife with a staghorn handle in his belt, and a rifle dangles, barrel aimed at his partnering shadow on the desert floor, from the saddle horn. He is leathery and sunburnt and old as the hills. Yet just a kid. Won't ever be anything else.

    It wasn't always like this. There were mountains before, a rugged and dangerous terrain, with crags and chasms, raging rivers in deep gorges, and dense forests, unsociably inhabited. He's knownsnakebites, mountain lion and wolfpack attacks, blizzards and thunderstorms, frostbite, windburn, gnats and locusts and mosquitoes, grizzlies too, cinch bugs, arrow wounds—a black-haired scalp, hair braided with shells and beads, is strung from his gunbelt, though if asked he couldn't say where it came from, just something that happened, must have. Back then, he was maybe chasing someone or something. Or was being chased, some vague threat at his back, that's mostly what he remembers now from that time, an overwhelming feeling of danger, or else of despair, that filled the air whenever the sky darkened or the trail petered out. He had to bury someone on one occasion, as he recalls, someone like a brother, only the dead man in the hole he'd dug wasn't really dead but kept moving blindly, kicking the dirt away, in fact he was himself the one who kept twisting and turning, the one blindly kicking, he was down in the burial pit with dirt peppering his face, but then he wasn't again, and the one who was was crawling out suddenly to flail at the air, flesh sliding off the bone like lard off a hot pan; so he left that place, to go chase someone, or to be chased, or finally just to move on to somewhere else, not to see things like that.

    Then one day, climbing up out of a steep canyon cut by a wild frothy river way down below, struggling all the while against some kind of unseen force pressing down on him, almost palpable, as if a big flopping bird were expiring on his chest, having to dismount finally and haul his shying wild-eyed horse up through the last fierce pass, he found himself out upon this vast empty plain, where nothing seems to have happened yet and yet everything seems already over, done before begun. A space there and not there, like a monumental void, dreadful and ordinary all at once. As if the ground the horse treads, for all its extension, might be paper thin and stretched over nothing. He doesn't expect to come to the end of the world out here, but he doesn't expect not to.

    What he's aiming at is a town over on the far horizon, first thing he saw when he rose up out of the canyon and the canyon shut itself away behind him. The town's still out there, sitting on the edge like a gateway to the hidden part of the sky. Sometimes it disappears behind a slight rise, then reappears when that rise is reached, often as not even further away to the naked eye, his naked eye, than when last seen, like a receding mirage, which it likely is. Sometimes there's no horizon at all, burned away by the sun's glare or night's sudden erasure, so no town either, and his goal is more like the memory of a goal, but he keeps moving on and sooner or later it shows itself again, wavering in the distance as if made of a limp sheet that the wind was ruffling. He doesn't know what it's rightly called, nor feels any need to know. It's just the place he's going to.

    Maybe he dozes off betweentimes, but out here it seems always to be either dark and starcast or else the sun is directly overhead, beating down on him as though fingering him for some forgotten crime, just one condition or its contrary like the two pictures on a magic lantern slide, flickering back and forth, as he opens and closes and opens his eyes. Nothing much could sneak up on him in all this emptiness as long as he's mounted above it, so in the saddle is where he does most of his sleeping, his eating too, which is largely confined to the strips of old buffalo jerky, black as tar and half as tasty, that came with the horse. He could use a watering hole, a bit of forage for the beast between his legs, the best prospects for which would seem to be that town on the horizon, unsubstantial though it appears. Out here, nothing but stumpy cactus and tumbleweeds and a few old dry bones, provender unfit for the dead.

    Who haunt him, or seem to, whispering at his back like a dry wind with eyes. That feeling of eyes in the air gets so potent at times that he has to stretch round in his saddle to cast his gaze on what's behind him, and one day, bent round like that, he discovers another town on the opposite horizon, a kind of mirror image of the one he's headed toward, as if he were coming from the same place he was going. A vapor of the atmosphere, he supposes, but the next time he looks it's back there still and clearer than it was before, as if it might be gaining on him. Which is the case, for as the days, if they are days, go on, the town behind him closes upon him even as the one in front recedes, until at last it glides up under his horse's hoofs from behind and proceeds to pass him by even as he ambles forward. He tries to turn his horse around to face this advent, but the creature's course is set and it is clearly past considering further instruction. It's a plain town that comes past, empty and silent, made of the desert itself with a few ramshackle false-fronted frame structures lined up to conjure a street out of the desolation. Nothing moves in it. In an open window, a lace curtain droops limply, ropes dangle lifelessly from the gallows and hitching posts, the sign over the saloon door hangs heavy in the noontime sun as the blade of an ax. A water trough catches his eye as it drags lazily by, and he spurs the horse forward, but he cannot seem to overtake it. The whole dusty street heaves lazily past like that, leaving him soon at the edge of town and then outside it. He halloos once at the outskirts, but without conviction, and gets no reply, having expected none. He is alone again on the desert. The town slowly slips away ahead of him and grows ever more distant and finally vanishes over the horizon and night falls.

* * *

There's a dull flickering light on the desert floor as if a decaying star has slipped from its rightful place, and he follows it to a warmthless campfire where a group of men huddle under serapes and horse blankets, smoking and drinking and chewing, bandits by the look of them.

    Look whut the cat drug in, one of them says, and spits into the low flame.

    Reckon it's human?

    Might be. Might not. Turd on a stick, more like.

    He's just stood in his stirrups to ease himself out of the saddle, but he changes his mind and rests back down. A tin pot squats at the edge of the smoldering fire, leaning into it as though in mockery of the squatting men and emitting a burnt coffee stink that mingles unfavorably with the viscid reek of burning dung.

    It dont make a damn t'me, says another, without looking up from under the wide floppy hat brim that covers his lowered face, lest I kin neither eat it nor fuck it.

    Dont look much good fer one'r tother. Lest mebbe it's one a them transvested pussies.

    Y'reckon? Little shitass dont look very beardy at thet.

    C'mere, kid. Bend over'n show us yer credentials.

    Ifn they aint been down outa thet saddle in a spell, I misdoubt I wishta witness em.

    The men hoot damply and expectorate some more. Whut's yer game, kid? the one under the floppy hat asks into the fire, his voice gravelly and hollow like one erupting from a fissure in the earth deep below him. Whuddayu doin out here?

    Nuthin. Jest passin through.

    That also seems to amuse them all for some reason. Lordy lordy! Jest passin through!

    Ifn thet dont beat all!

    A one-eyed mestizo in a rag blanket lifts a buttock and farts fulminously. Sorry, boys. Thet one wuz jest passin through.

    Just as well to keep moving on, he figures, and to that purpose he gives his mustang a dig in the flanks, but the horse drops its head in solemn abjuration, inclined, it seems, to go no further.

    So whar yu passin through to, kid? asks a wizened graybeard in filthy striped pants, red undershirt, and a rumpled derby. Next to him, the man in the floppy hat is deftly rolling shredded tobacco into a thin yellow leaf between knotty fingers.

    Thet town over thar. His rifle is off the saddle horn now and resting on his thighs.

    Yu dont say.

    Wastin yer time, boy. Nuthin over thar.

    Then nuthin'll hafta do.

    Yu'll never git thar, kid.

    Aint nuthin but a ghost town.

    I'll git thar.


    Ifn they's any gittin to be done, son, says the graybeard in red skivvies and derby, I'd advise yu t'rattle yer hocks outa the Terrortory and trot em back home agin. Pronto.

    Caint do thet.

    No? Floppy hat licks the tobacco leaf, presses it down. Why not, kid? Whar yu from?


    Nobody's from nowhars. Who's yer people?

    Aint got none.

    Everbody's got people.

    I aint.

    Thet's downright worrisome. The man tucks the thin yellow tube away under the overhanging hat brim at the same time that a tall ugly gent in a flat-crowned cap, much punctured, and with stiff tangled hair spidering down to his hairy shirt, stuffs a fresh chaw into his jaws and asks him what's his mustang's name.

    Thet's it.

    Whut's it?


    Shit, thet aint nuthin of a name. He spits a gob against the tin pot to fry it there.

    Dont need no other.

    Dont fuck with me, son. Hoss must have a proper name.

    Ifn he does, he never tole it to me.

    Thet boy's a real smartass, aint he?

    Either him or the hoss is.

    Tell me, kid, says floppy hat, holding an unstruck match out in front of his fresh-made cigarillo. And I dont want no shit. Dont keer fuck-all about the damn hoss. But whut's yer name?

    Caint rightly say. Whut's yers?

    We call him Daddy Dunne, says a grizzled hunchback with greasy handlebars sloping to his clavicle like a line drawing of the shadowy deformity behind his ears. On accounta he dont do no more. And they all laugh bitterly again, all except the man under discussion, who is lighting up.

    So why dont yu git down off thet mizzerbul critter'n come set with us a spell, says the one-eyed mestizo, unsmiling.

    He watches them without expression, knowing what must come next, even while not knowing where that knowing has come from.

    Y'know, says a scrawny skew-jawed wretch, pulling on his warty nose, thet young feller dont seem over friendly.

    Looks like he's plumb stuck on thet dang animule.

    Looks like he's hitched to it.

    Lissen, boy. I ast yu a question, floppy hat says, straightening up ever so slightly, so the glowing tip of his cigarillo can be seen in the voided dark beneath the broad brim, both hands braced like talons on his knees.

    The rider shifts his seat for balance, his finger edging up the rifle stock toward the trigger, and in the fallen hush the saddle creaks audibly like a door suddenly opening under him. And I done answered it, ole man, he says.

    Nobody moves. There is a long direful stillness during which a wolf howls somewhere and stars fall in a scatter, streaking across the domed dark like flicked butts. Then that dies out, too, and everything stops. It goes on so long, this star-stunned silence, it starts to feel like it won't ever not go on. As if time had quit on them and turned them all to stone. The rider, the horse under him gone rigid and cold, feels his own heart winding down. Only his hands have any action left in them. He uses them, struggling against the torpor that fetters him, to raise his rifle barrel and shoot the man in the floppy hat. The impact explodes into the man's chest and his hat flies off and his mouth lets go the cigarillo and he pitches backwards onto the desert floor. With that, things ease up somewhat, the mustang snorting and shifting under him, the skies awhirl once more, the others watching him warily but returned to an animate state, more or less. Chewing. Spitting.

    Yu shouldna done thet, kid, grumbles the ugly man with the spidery hair.

    He rests the rifle back on his thighs again. Warnt my fault. He shoulda drawed.

    Shit, sumbitch warnt even armed.

    He's blind, kid. Stark starin.


    The man he's shot lies arms asprawl on the desert floor, staring up at the night sky with eyes, he sees, as white as moons.

    Yu shot an ole unarmed blind man, son. Whuddayu got t'say fer yerself?

    He walks his horse over to the dead man, bends down from the saddle, and picks up the fallen cigarillo. Not a bandit, as he'd supposed, after all. Wearing a sheriff's badge, the star pierced by his rifle shot and black with blood. Probably he should shoot them all. Maybe they expect him to. Instead, he tucks the half-spent cigarillo between his cracked lips, sucks on it to recover the glow, and, without a backward glance, quits their wearisome company and slowly rides away.

* * *

It is high noon, and the main street of the vaporous town which has been so long eluding him now rolls up under his mustang's plodding hoofs as though in abrupt repair of some mechanical disorder. The street, with its dilapidated gray frame buildings squared off against the boundless desolation, is empty and silent and yet full of dimly heard echoes, a remote disturbance of mumbling voices, swept into town perhaps by the hot desert wind. A saloon sign creaks desultorily in this talking wind, frayed strands of hitching-rail rope turn idly, a lace curtain flutters in an open window. Particles of dust gather into airy spirals that dance in the street like hanged men with their arms tied behind them and as soon dissolve and then as soon regather to wind about again.

    He dismounts and leads his horse past an old buckboard with a broken wheel to the water trough. Nothing but a dry dust bed in its tin hollow. At one end by a bowed porch column he finds a well pump with a rusty handle, gives it a crank. No resistance. Like wagging a dead man's bones. Under the saloon sign overhead, a small board hangs by knotted cords with the word ROOMS on it, though it's the crudely lettered COLD BEER notice tacked up over the doorway that most gets his attention. Rifle in hand, he steps through the swinging doors into the saloon's dense murk, ready for whatever, but whatever doesn't happen. The place is dark and empty, hotter inside than out. There's a scatter of tipped chairs and tables, broken lamps, a few empty dust-caked bottles lying about, but nothing with which to tickle the throat. An old grand piano, one of its legs caved in, sits on its haunches in one corner, baring its wide grinning row of yellowing teeth, its broken wires sprouting wildly like hair standing on end. A cobwebbed staircase leads up to the dim suggestion of the advertised rooms. No promise there, and that low muttering hum is worse in here, the way the wind is blowing through the shattered windows maybe, so he strolls back out into the glare, sand crunching under his boots on the board floors.

    His horse has wandered away toward the edge of town. He can see it far off, head down, rear to the wind. Looking for water probably. He heads that way but is distracted by a sign painted on the crusted window of an old frame building: GOLD! it says. CLAIMS OFFICE. The door hangs loose on its sprung hinges. Inside, there's a wooden swivel chair and rolltop desk behind a counter, all blanketed by thick dust laid down over time, and on the counter a stack of cards with the sign: TAKE ONE. He takes the lot, turns them over: a pack of ordinary playing cards, but with coordinates of some kind inked onto each of their faces. He pockets the jack of spades, flings the others at the desk to make the dust erupt, steps back out onto the street.

    The mustang has drifted further away, almost out of sight. He tries to whistle it back but his mouth is too dry, so he sets off after it once more, cursing it under his breath. The dusty wind tugs at his hat brim and flaps his raggedy vest in brief irregular gusts, and the horse keeps moving as he moves. Like he's trying to suck him out of this place. Or into trouble. He watches himself as though from high above as he strides down this scorched street of derelict banks and saloons, hardware, dry goods, and grocery stores, stables and brothels, laid out on the desert floor like two parallel lines drawn on a slate for the practice of handwriting, his passage the looped, crossed, and dotted text inscribed between, signifying nothing, and he is reminded at this high remove of something a lawman once told him in ancient times. Livin a life out here is shit, son. It's got no more meanin than writin in the sand with yer dick when the wind's up. To keep goin on, knowin that, sufferin that, is plain stupid. Loco, in fact. But to keep goin on, in the face a such shit, a such futility and stupidity and veritable craziness—that, son, that is fuckin suh-blime.

    This high-minded overview is disrupted and he is brought swiftly down to earth again and back behind his own two eyes, when before those eyes appears, behind a dust-grimed window of a house well beyond the town center, a beautiful woman, very pale, dark hair done up in a tight bun, dressed all in black and staring out at him, as though in judgment, or else in longing. He pauses, holding on to his rifle and hat out there in the middle of the gusty street, transfixed by the inviolable purity of her framed visage, like something dreamt and come to life; but as, in a daze, he steps toward her, she fades back out of sight. He peers in through the window when he reaches it, face to the glass and cupped hand for an eyeshade: a barren room sparsely furnished with a couple of long midget-sized tables and a dozen straightback chairs with their legs sawed down, long since out of use. No sign of the woman. If any woman. Likely not. No more likely than that murmurous drone in his head is really carried on the fitful wind. It's that damned sun plaguing him. Still as directly overhead as when first he rode in.

    No sign of his horse now either, nothing but another spectral dust devil coming and going where he saw him last. Although in such utter solitude he cannot figure where such a thought might come from, he thinks his horse may have been stolen, or might have allowed itself to be. But then he spies the perverse creature again, back by the saloon, near the buckboard, nosing once more the empty trough. Must have circled back when he wasn't looking. He calls to him and the horse looks up at him with a stricken expression, then turns away again. He walks back toward him, boots hurting him now, but the wind gusts briefly, curtaining the street with flying dust, and when it settles the horse is gone again. In its stead, in the sunbaked distance, four or five horsemen come riding in at a slow canter, dust popping in tiny explosions under their horses' hoofs, giving them the impression of approaching on smutched clouds. They pull up at the saloon in dead silence, dismount into their own shadows, hitch their animals to the rail there, and, the tread of their boots on the wooden sidewalk unheard as if they trod on goose feathers, disappear through the swinging doors. Though he knows full well that no good can come of it, he follows them on in.

* * *

In the saloon, men are clapping shoulders, shooting craps, drinking, laughing, brawling. Heard through the foggy racket: the soft slap of dealt cards, the poytt! thupp! of missed spittoons, the rickety-click of roulette and fortune wheels. Hit me, says a mustachioed fat man in a straw boater and raps his tabled cards with a balled-up fist. Beer is drawn. An ear is torn off. A bony bald man in a white shirt, yellow suspenders, and black string tie bangs out a melody on the grand piano, against which a buxom rouged-up lady with wild orange curls leans, singing a song about a good girl who went bad. She is dressed, like someone else he's seen today, all in black, except for the crimson ruffles on her blouse, a ruby pin worn in her pierced cheek like a beauty mark, and a brass key, shiny as gold, dangling between her powdered breasts on a black ribbon. The fat man in the boater takes a punch and careens backwards toward the piano player, who keeps his left hand going while raising his right elbow to deliver a hammer blow that sends the fat man caroming headfirst into the wall and nearly through it. THIS IS A SQUARE HOUSE says a sign over his head. The other cardplayers pick the fat man's pockets and divvy up his winnings.

    I'm gonna kill thet fuckin humpback, someone breathes in his ear.


    Yer throw, podnuh.

    There's a shot, and somewhere a horse whinnies as though in sudden terror.

    Shitfire, parson! And I mean thet sincerely!

    Shet yer gob'n git yer money down, yu ole dildock!

    Awright, smack yu double, jughaid. So dole away!

    Yu gonna roll them damn bones, son, or eat em? he's asked. A small circle of angry men glare up at him over their wild face hair, their pocked noses aglow under the kerosene lamp.

    All he wants is a beer, anything wet, but the leather cup his hand has closed around holds only a pair of ivory dice. Across the barroom, the singer is dolefully lamenting the unlucky gambler who bet and lost, one by one, all his body parts. He rattles the cup of dice. She's hurtin tonight, he hears someone say behind him. Probly makes her peculiar hot, muses another. Yu reckon?

    Whoa boy, a squint-eyed stringy-haired oldtimer in a gambler's knee-length black broadcloth coat cautions: Whut's yer stake here? Having none other, he tosses his hat down, gives the cup another shake, throws a natural, and wins all their hats. There's some grumbling. The oldtimer, scowling suspiciously, spins the dice on their corners while fingering an ebony-handled derringer tucked in his vest pocket.

    He hooks his thumb in his belt, within reach of his own pistol. Just in case. Any a them hats wuth a beer? he asks, and they all snort at that and throw them at him in disgust.

    A row is brewing meanwhile over behind the piano by the slowly spinning wheel of fortune. It's the man with the ear ripped off. I'm tired a yu blowin off at the mouth so, he barks, blood cascading down the side of his head like a waterfall down a cliff face, and the baggy-eyed halfbreed he's addressing sends a thick smear toward a spittoon and says: They's a lotta truth in thet. Thet's yer lookout, mister, says the man with the ear gone, and pulls a sawed-off pistol out of his pants and shoves it up the halfbreed's broad brown nose. Before he can pull the trigger, though, the bald piano player, in the long perilous beat between chorus and verse (the lady is into a love song now about some legendary hero who was suddenly expired by an itinerant gunman and was "gone off to his reward, bless his big pointy boots"), rises up and head-butts him. The one-eared man's head splits with a pop as a clay bowl might and his brains ooze out like spilled oatmeal when he hits the floor, by which time the next verse has commenced and the piano player's back on his stool again. No one pays much attention to any of this.

    Come back, cowboy, and do us like yu done before, moans the chanteuse, but more to the smoke-smudged ceiling, stretched out on the broad piano as she is now with the men of the saloon lining up and taking their turns on her. Through the jostle and the saloon's pearly light he can see she's wearing black petticoats and, flagged to one bobbing ankle, black drawers.

    Seems like widow weeds is in fashion here, he remarks to the barkeep in a friendly manner, forcing a smile onto his parched lips.

    The barkeep grunts. Here, they always is. He's a tall skinny man with stiff greasy hair reaching to his shoulders, making it look like an ugly insect is standing there, its belly resting on the top of his head. So whut kin I do yu fer, stranger?

    Whuskey. Double. Not what he wants at all. What he craves is a few gallons of water. But he figures some things you can get in here and some you probably can't.

    The tall ugly barkeep glares down at him, both hands braced on the bar edge, jerks his head inquiringly, making his locks walk about. Ah. He offers him the black flat-crowned hat full of holes he's just won off the oldtimer, best of the lot for all the damage to it, but the barkeep shakes it off. A truly formidable thirst has him by the throat and he's ready to barter away anything he's got, down to his weapons and his horse, assuming the horse is still in the neighborhood. Then he remembers the card from the claims office and he slaps it down on the bar.

    There's a sudden hush. The barkeep backs away a step, hands fallen to his sides. The lady on the piano is sitting up, black skirts around her waist, and the men are stealthily pulling their breeches back on. The piano player sits stonily with his hands in his lap, staring at him, as do the faro, craps, and monte players, all hands poised. At the back, the tall fortune wheel creaks and ticks in its slow ceaseless rounds.

    Who is thet kid? he hears someone whisper, though no lips move.

    Some gunslinger most like.


    Lookit thet injun scalp hangin from his belt!

    But he's jest a brat. And he aint got but one pistol.

    Thet we kin see.

    Rifle, too. A blade ...

    The buggy-haired barkeep, who seems to have shrunk half a foot, sets a double shotglass on the bar and, his hand trembling, smiling a nervous gold-toothed smile, pours it full to overflowing. Before he can pick it up, though, the glass is batted away. It's the one-eared man with the oozing brains, back on his feet again. Whar'd yu git thet card, stranger? he asks, breaking the deathly silence, weaving unsteadily back and forth beneath the overhanging gas lamp. Whar'd yu git thet black one-eared jack? Everybody's watching them. It wasn't his intention to draw notice to himself, but it seems hard not to in here. Gimme it, kid. Gimme thet card.

    He shrugs. Hell, I dont give a keer. Here, yu kin have the damn thing.

    Goddammit! bellows the man, rage flushing his face, both sides of the split. Out comes a dirk, the blade agleam in the yellow lamplight. I said I want thet black jack!

    And I said yu kin have it.

    Yu gonna gimme thet fuckin card, boy, or I gotta kill yu fer it?

    Awright, he says, seeing how it is and bracing himself. The man lunges at him with the dirk, exposed brains wobbling like gray custard: he deflects the thrust and it slices clean through his tattered vest from sleeve hole to bottom hem. He whips his own bowie knife out and, as the one-eared man plunges forward again, buries the blade deep in his belly. The man staggers back, staring down in amazement and confusion at the staghorn handle protruding from his stomach, which slowly sucks it up until it vanishes entirely. Even the pierced shirt seems to mend itself behind the handle as it sinks inside. The man looks up at him around the cleft in his skull, grins crookedly, opens his mouth as though to taunt him, and blood bubbles out. His eyes roll up and he topples over on his back. Blood continues to trickle from his mouth. Then his lips part and the knife handle slowly emerges like a stiff tongue. The men in the saloon gather round to watch it come squeezing out, bending close as though trying to decipher a message in the rivulets of blood coursing through the staghorn grooves. Offered up to him is how it seems, a kind of gift, or challenge, which he accepts, taking hold of it and midwifing it out from the man's lips. Not easy. Like drawing out a knife buried deep in wood, as if the man were sucking on it or biting down. A fountain of blood follows upon the blade's withdrawal, making those crowded around gasp and fall back. He wipes the blood off on the dead man's flannel shirt, tucks it back in his belt, and turns again to the barkeep, who hands him a shiny brass key strung on a black velvet ribbon. He nods up the stairs. No thanks, he says, and hands the key back. Jest gimme a goddam drink. But the barkeep is gone, the bar as well, and the key he is poking forward is sliding into a door lock.

* * *

Awaiting him on a brocade-laid table inside the room is a tall mug of cold beer and a plate of eggs and beans on fried cornbread. He has such an extravagant need, these things, consumed afoot, go down like air, but they ease somewhat, if not his wants, at least his apprehensions where such feasts appear, more may follow—and he feels his saddle-hammered spine loosen like an unstrung fiddle bow. The room is filled with heavy carved furniture, not from this place, the high-headboarded bed heaped with quilts and fancy coverlets, satiny paper hiding the rough walls, lace curtains aflutter in the open windows like hovering butterflies. Butterflies! He rubs his bristly sunburnt jaw. Damn. Hasn't reflected upon those peculiar creatures since he entered upon the desert. Which has been a bit like getting sick. For an interminable long time.

    Behind a hand-painted dressing screen is a wooden tub full of sudsy hot water, meant, must be, for him. As all else here, that bed in time, with its inviting headboard like a saloon's false front. He unknots the braided scalp from his gunbelt, sets it, belt, gun, and knife on the table, against which his rifle already leans, then sits down on the plush seat of a high-backed chair to work his boots off, breathing through his mouth against the prodigious reek. In front of an oak-framed mirror there, he stands to peel away the rest, his shredded vest and old gray shirt, chaps and denims, and the foul blighted rags that were once a suit of underwear, seeing in the glass beneath the shadowing hat the scrawny ulcerated thing he is, scabbed and scarred, in general a most unwholesome sight, but one he shares with the pale dark-haired widow woman he has seen before, standing now behind him in the reflection and gazing with quiet awe and pity upon his stark condition.

    He turns to face her but there is no one there. The room is empty as before. As, somehow, he had surmised.

    He unties the red rag, sweat-blackened, from around his neck and, dressed only in his wide-brimmed hat, steps into the tub, his feet, so recently liberated, reveling in the emollient power of the steaming water, seasoned with bath salts whose aroma bespeaks a distant land, one where flowers grow, or grew. What brought those butterflies peculiarly to mind, may be. He stands there for a moment, letting his feet swell out, soaking up this newfound bliss, then squats to accustom his beat-up backside and privates to the heat, finally sinks in whole up to his chin, his eyelids dropping like iron shutters over his eyes, forcing their hard gaze inward toward the softer sensations that, like sudden family, embrace him all about.

    The fragrant water is not completely still but, stirred perhaps by his own entry, seems to eddy around him as if he were being bathed in a rippling brook fed by hot springs, one that cleanses itself even as it cleanses him. He feels buoyed up, stroked by the fingering currents, fondled soapily from head to foot as if he were in the hands of some water nymph or an Indian princess, one who touches him in all the tenderest places, turning pain to sweet delight, skilled as such creatures of nature are in the art of healing with water, or so he's heard. He tries to open his eyes, can't, so surrenders to these silky caresses and takes them for what they seem to be and quite likely are, all the killings he's done and seen soon washed away by them, and just as soon forgotten, or nearly so. Rolling in the water to open all his crevices to its tender attentions, or hers (as he thinks of them), he feels the water well up into volumes like liquid thighs, rolling as he rolls, and with spongy patches in between and wet lips that kiss and tickle, stripping his mind and spirit pure as his body is, and as is hers, bare breasts soft as foam brushing him gently as the water streams about. No such things in this watery world as widow weeds, no weeds at all, for she, like he, like all beings in this happy valley with its genial clime, goes always naked, stark staring, as someone's said, wearing nothing daylong but the shells and beads braided into her black hair. Here, where he is now, everything is in unison with love and nature, and all that is true, fitting, and natural in a passion is proper and legitimate. As she teaches him in her silent and voluptuous acquiescence.

    How did he come to such a place? Perhaps he lost his way, or was sent by the army, or was chased by lawmen, or went in purposeful search of some secret treasure or his own self-knowledge, or perhaps he was captured and dragged to this alien land, stripped, bound, spread-eagled on the desert floor to be tortured and killed, only to be rescued at the last moment by the great chief's only daughter, straddling his condemned body with her innocent one, staying her father's hand with her tender plea as she knelt over him, dressed merely in her tinkling shells and beads, a rare sight unseen by him just so before, and one that, in spite of the extremity of his circumstances, arouses in him a most profound agitation, the evidence of it rearing up before their astounded eyes like a hostile totem erected on the arid plain—which in turn arouses in the men of the tribe a contrary emotion and, in a rage shared by all of them, a young brave, one of her brothers, or a suitor, or both, staggers forward with a tomahawk to chop down the hateful thing. To save it from destruction, or simply to hide it from view, the beautiful pagan princess impales herself upon it, screaming with the sudden pain, her coppery back arching, blood dribbling in a hot stream down over his groin. Like a baptism, he thinks, a blessing, a sweet salvation, his pinned body gratefully discharging its own boiling fluids like a surging revelation into her moist interior. No choice now. He's set free, yet unfree: one of them.

    Life with the tribe, which follows as a river follows its bed, is, though always harmonious in this idyllic wilderness, not always painless. To initiate him into their exemplary ways, his new brothers play face-kicking, fire-throwing, and dodge-the-arrow games with him, rub him with skunk oil and hang him upside down in the sun without water and food for a week, cage him with rattlers, pierce his scrotum with sharpened hawk quills, chop off one of his fingers, and send him out to wrestle buck naked with a seven-foot black bear. They display their own scars and mutilations to show he isn't being picked on, it's all just for fun, part of their guileless way of life. While educating him in the art of scalping, they provide him with a wild coyote to practice on, failing to inform him that it is usually judicious—a lesson he learns almost immediately while losing a second finger—to kill the scalp's owner before trying to slip a knife in under its hairline, the consequences of his ignorance providing further entertainment for his stony-faced but attentive pagan brothers.

    Everything here gives delight or else fuck it, that's the essence of their religion, as best he can understand it. The white baby, for example, adopted survivor of some massacre or other, perhaps the same one in which he himself was captured—if—is a favorite tribal toy until its colicky crying disturbs the sleep of his Indian maiden's chieftain father, whereupon he is called upon to swing the squalling thing by its feet against a tree and bash its little brains out, which is one of the easier tasks they ask him to perform. Compared, say, to the hard work of skinning buffaloes, then curing their heavy hides, stitching them into tipi covers, robes, and winding sheets for the dead, turning the bones into knives and arrowheads, hoes and dice, the fat into soaps and the tongues into hairbrushes, the paunches into water buckets, the sinew into bowstrings and tipi thread, and the scooped-out scrotums into hand rattles. All this, with typical patience and forbearance, the tribe teaches him how to do. Likewise how to slit throats, impersonate animal spirits, break mustangs bareass, wipe snot on dogs, woo his love on a magical flute with songs borrowed from the rutting bull elk, eat nits out of his own armpits.

    The young Indian lass meanwhile loves him openly, freely, with a love as pure and as wholesomely naive as this land of her birth is free of the evils of the civilized world from which he's come, as evidenced by his telltale pallor and embarrassing ignorance of wigwam etiquette. She feeds him and bathes him and dresses the wounds inflicted upon him by his brothers and ornaments his naked body with horned caps and silver pendants on rawhide thongs and bear-claw necklaces and welcomes him generously into all her orifices. She cures his bellyache with skunk cabbage and wild mint, sucks out his earwax, tells his fortune. She looks into his hands and his eyes and the entrails of a dead badger and prophesies that, after many moons have passed, his old life will beckon him once more and he will abandon her and his newfound brothers and sisters and so cause her to die of a broken heart, if worse does not befall her. He does not believe this, and tells her so while beating his chest in the manner that he's been taught, yet somehow, he knows that it is true.

    First, however, they must marry, something he mistakenly supposed they had already done, and in preparation for this event a special purgative ceremony is required, known as the dance of the errant bridegroom. The medicine man cuts holes in his breast on either side of his two nipples and skewers the holes with wooden pegs attached to rawhide ropes, and he's made to dance at the end of the ropes until the pegs pop out. When they don't, they hang him by the ropes to the central pole of the medicine lodge, his ankles and privy member weighted down with buffalo skulls (a form of mercy, his brothers assure him, with commiserating nods and unsmiling winks), until they do, while the older warriors prod him rhythmically with spears and arrows to the beat of a tomtom and carve religious symbols in his buttocks. Fortunately, after the first peg rips out, he's told, the second follows quickly, but meanwhile the pain is such he is only conscious part of the time, drifting in and out of nightmares about the corruptions of civilization and the horrors of the cosmos as depicted by the animal kingdom and visions of the future as foretold by his bride-to-be: yes, he will leave her; the terrible pain engulfing his heart tells him so. Perhaps he will say his sad goodbyes while lying beside her in the beech woods, in which the squirrels skip, the wild deer browse, and the wistful redbird sings. Or while enjoying her from behind while she is bent over at the riverbank, laundering her father's ceremonial shirts and breechcloth, riding her horse-fashion and pulling on her braids like reins. Or perhaps he will wait until they can share one last delectable bath together. She has predicted his eventual farewell, it can come as no surprise, and yet her beautiful face seems to darken and flatten out with the shock when he tells her, her eyes to narrow, her cheekbones to rise in rage, her lips to thicken with an unspeakable fury. The next thing he knows, her powerful hands are at his throat and he is far under water, fighting for his life. He flails about desperately but cannot seem to find the rest of her, just her sharp-nailed hands closing around his windpipe and pressing him deeper and deeper—No! Stop! (glub!) I'll (blub!) stay! I'll

* * *

He takes a deep breath and, in the oak-framed mirror, examines his new duds: a fringed and beaded buckskin shirt with matching leggings, soft and bleached a golden hue, glossy new boots with silver spurs, the boots embossed with shootout, stampede, and campfire scenes, a white tengallon hat with silky white neckerchief, and hand-tooled gunbelt. He fills out these things in ways unfamiliar to him, as though he might have swelled up in the long soak. He's clean-shaven, barbered, and his nails have been trimmed. Pulling on a pair of snow-white kid gloves, thin as new skin, he counts his fingers: all there. His old rags are gone, nothing left of them but for his rumpled wide-brimmed hat, afloat on the soap scum in the wooden tub, and the braided scalp knotted to his new gunbelt. Whereon are also strapped a pair of engraved, silver-plated, ivory-handled Peacemakers and, in its own rawhide sheath, his old bowie knife, wiped clean and polished up so bright he can see himself in its blade, the staghorn handle newly silver-studded as though to marker its most recent history. He fingers all these things speculatively, and also the new Winchester leaning there with its hand-carved mahogany stock and engraved brass fittings, meditating the while upon his old felt hat, once dun-colored, now darker with the water it's sucked up, riding gloomily on the cold gray surface of the bathwater like a derelict river raft. Or the bloated back of something long demised.

    Hlo, cowboy. It's the barroom chanteuse with the orange curls and the ruby in her cheek, propped up in the bed in a silky black nightgown with slots in it for putting her powdered ruby-tipped breasts on view. He takes in the sight, then turns away, picks up the long-barreled rifle to check its heft and balance. Good range and easy to draw a bead with but less lethal maybe up close, and up close is mostly what killing he's had to do out here on the desert. Might have to hack off a few inches. C'mon over here, darlin, and solace a poor widder woman with a sorely achin heart and a lonesome pussy sufferin from a sudden and dreadful deprivement.

    Sorry, mam. I aint the condolin sort.

    Well fetch yerself over and set yer dick t'dancin in the damn thing then, it aint overparticular about yer intentions.

    Some other time mebbe.

    Dont be so crool, kid. Caint yu see how I'm hurtin? Whut's eatin yu anyhow?

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