The sun melted into a golden-copper lake. The rider watched violet fingers stretch greedily across the azure, clawing for the clouds that would soon vanish for another day, absorbed by the remorseless, endless sea of black, broken only by the scattered fireflies of stars he could already see nosing into the sunset.
Broken, too, by the moon, sometimes. Not tonight. Tonight it was at its merest, a near-invisible blade that offered less light than the solitary match he had just struck.
Foolish habit. Some said a dirty one, some an unhealthy one. He didn’t worry about that, and no one around him cared if he was dirty…or foolish.
Once, that was different. When Rosa used to dance for him, he might have thought twice about the smoke, about the smell. Now she was part of his past, like all the other good he had ever known.
And she had been good. She had worked out of the cantina—the saloon, that’s what it was, and that was really too good a word for it—worked for the riders, the wranglers, the gauchos who passed through. ‘Worked’ was too good a word, too. He knew what she did. What she did for him she did for any of them. He told himself he didn’t care, no man cares about a whore, but he did, foolish. What was worse, though, he wasn’t the first.
Rosa was supposed to leave, to settle down over the border with his partner Jericho. He and Rik had partnered up months ago in Colorado. Really, they had fallen together. When Skinner, the rider, showed up for the job, the trailboss thought it was a joke. He said he had just hired him an hour ago. He and Jericho could be twins, with less than an inch difference in height between them.
When that drive ended they had drifted south, tired of snow and mountains, looking for sand. They found it, plenty of it, and still plenty of work too. The money wasn’t as good, maybe, but it went farther in Mexico…and they’d both had enough for Rosa.
Then Rik started acting peculiar, talking about leaving the trail, getting a patch to farm with Rosa and not rely on others anymore. Maybe it was the pretty way he talked about it, or the way they were both weary of the dust and the drive, or maybe it was the way the light in Rosa’s eyes looked like all the stars in Heaven, and you could fall in and never come out.
Whatever it was, Skinner knew he wouldn’t be on the trail much longer himself, and he was no more eager to leave Rosa than he was to get back on his horse. So one night when Rik went to talk with a banker about setting up his new life Skinner called on Rosa, intending to change her choice of man for her future. He expected to have a couple of hours to convince her and ride out that night, but Rik had only been gone forty-five minutes when he heard shouting voices, including Rik’s, and boots on the stairs. Skinner jumped to the window and out, dropping to the street. It bummed his leg up pretty good but he was able to get to his horse before anyone got to him. He climbed on Ash and started away, figuring to come back to his room when it quieted down. What he didn’t figure on was being stopped by the sheriff before he got out of sight of the hotel.
“Hold up there, ole son. Need a word or two with yuh.”
“What’s the problem, marshall?”
“You’re Skinner? Trailhand down from Colorado?”
“A while ago, but I’m Skinner.”
“Mr. Skinner, seems we’ve had a killin in town about a hour ago, and a couple townsfolk think they saw you doin it.”
“You kill somebody, Mr. Skinner?”
“I don’t even know who you’re talkin about!”
“That matter? You kill somebody but need to know who I mean?”
“Where were you for the last hour?”
“Mr. Skinner? I didn’t hear you.”
“I was…in my room.”
“By yourself, I suppose?”
“You eat anything, have a drink?”
“Hm. Missuz Wheatley, this the man you saw?”
“That’s him, sheriff!”
“Looks like him to me, sheriff. Getting dark out here.”
“Sheriff, I was in my room—“
“Let’s go up and see your room, Mr. Skinner. Don’t wanna hang a man who didn’t git his say.”
Up to his room and everything was as he’d left it—almost. His topcoat was thrown over a chair. He’d left it on the bed near the door, thinking he’d grab it up with his grip when he came back with Rosa to leave. And…there was another case on the floor beside his. With the bank’s stamp on it.
“What’s this, Mr. Skinner? Our dead man, the banker Mr. Tyler, would have had this in his office normally. Did you see it there, Mr. Skinner?”
The sheriff lifted the case and set it on the bed, clicked the clasps and opened it. Skinner saw tiny trails of dust trickle onto the bedsheet. They took forever to fall. The sheriff’s voice came from far away. It didn’t matter. He knew what the man would find, what he’d say.
“Well, Mr. Skinner. Quite a bit of cash in here. A gun, too. Missing a couple cartridges…same kind in here as what we found in the bank…and the banker. Why’d you stop, Skinner? Plenty of money and plenty of dirt out there. Why’d you stop? What’d you come back for?”
He didn’t answer. He had no answer. His only alibi was only an alibi for Jericho now, and both of them were probably halfway to Juarez.
So he’d gone to the gallows for Jericho and Rosa. Sweet Rosa. He’d said he didn’t want to stay on the trail, and it looked like he’d gotten his wish.
He’d felt the rope around his neck, felt the door drop out below his feet, then…discomfort as the rope scratched, tightened under his ears, heard and felt his skin stretch, the bones pop, he gagged and gasped and would have clawed his throat if his hands weren’t tied, felt the heat as his heart burst, as he pissed himself and kicked and hammered his heels in the air.
Then it was over. Like staring into the sun, a brightness that looked black. No vision, no feeling, but a coldness without sense. It was an awareness he’d never felt before, and he couldn’t tell how long it lasted. Couldn’t be sure it ever really ended.
But somehow the trail wasn’t through with him. He…woke up? It wasn’t waking up, it was coming back, seeing again. And he knew what he was seeing, where he was. It was the trail, somewhere. Didn’t matter. Mexico, Montana, Missouri. He was on the trail, riding, herding. And he would stay here, riding forever with this herd. Forever. Forever the dust, the heat, the dry, the hunger, the devil, the herd, dust, heat, dry, hunger, devil, herd forever