An experimental short story/work in progress/western
© Christoffer Petersen, 2021
It was a vulture wind that stirred the paddock grass by the side of the barn, blowing thin and warm, tainted with the stink of oiled feathers. It brushed dust against the barn door, spitting a dollar’s worth of grit into the young girl’s eye. She pulled away from the knotty hole in the door and laid low, wiping her eye with the tip of her grubby finger, knuckling it until she wept. The grit spilled onto her cheek in a thin stream of tears. She wiped them away with the back of her hand, as she thumbed the hammer of the stolen Colt army revolver. The man she stole it from was standing in the paddock, together with six more.
“I heard it all before,” the man said, pointing at each of the men with the stub of his index finger. “So, any man one of you who thinks this ain’t right, you can just walk away. Right now,” he said, with a wave to the town behind them, pinched between the mountains and the parched land.
“It’s a girl,” said one of the men. “Why’d they put a bounty on a girl?”
“Why? I tell you why. Look at my finger. She bit it off.”
“Was that when she took your gun, Cal?” said another man.
They all laughed until Cal brought up the shotgun. He held it at hip height, turning a slow circle until the last man choked back his laugh and the men beside him fell silent. Cal lowered the shotgun.
“That’s right,” he said. “That’s when she took it. My finger and my gun. But you don’t know the half of it. We’d already been chasing her through the mountains, down Roberts Pass. You know it?” Cal nodded with the men – they all knew Roberts Pass, knew its twists and sharp drops.
“Crawling with Apache,” one of the men said.
“Ain’t it just.” Cal pointed at the barn. “But you knows she’s Apache, right? You knows that?”
“Then maybe you also knows why we was chasing her?”
“She shot Dean Walker.”
“That’s right, Sam,” Cal said, nodding at the bearded man beside him. He cast an appreciative eye over the bandoliers stretched in a cross over the man’s blue cotton shirt, before continuing. “And she killed Henry Scott before him.”
“She killed Twice Henry?”
The girl risked another look through the peephole. She felt the heat of her breath on her cheeks as it brushed against the wood. She still had bad dreams about Twice Henry, seeing him stalking her with his hands raised and his long fingers reaching for her throat. She woke up coughing every time, shaking his face out of her mind as she fought for her breath.
The white doctor at the mission had said her coughing was to do with consumption, a white man’s disease. The girl wondered which one of all the white men had given it to her, because she didn’t have it before they came to her village, before they sent the sickness raging down through Roberts Pass onto the plain. She wanted to cough now, felt the pinch of her lungs, but the man called Cal was pointing at the barn again, raising his voice. The girl willed her lungs to behave; she wanted to listen. Cal didn’t know she could speak his language; no white man did. She always played dumb, keeping her face flat when she was serving in the saloon, just playing dumb and listening. Listening helped her stay away from the men when they started to look at her, thinking that her fourteen years were more than plenty, that they would be the first to make her a woman. She found plenty to do out back when they started talking like that. Twice Henry had talked like that, before she killed him with the poker.
To be continued…