This was originally a writeup of a roleplaying game of the same name which I took part in with Dave Thomson, Dan Ley and Robin Gould. They are the owners of the characters Chen, Rodge/Rafferty and Jerry, respectively. I realise that this story is a bit silly and contains a few inconsistencies and plot holes: this tends to be the way of roleplaying writeups. As a project I was proud of completing it to a deadline and I still quite like it as a story. And Fiasco! is a great game, if you ever get the chance to give it a try.
Marshall’s Report: 14.05.1842, 14:07. Marshall David Rafferty: Redwood Town, Kansas.
It is with the greatest sorrow that I must report on the deaths of four members of the Redwood community: Sheriff Daniel Rodgers, 32, Deputy Gerald McKenna, 30, convenience store owner Chen Liu, 30, and property lawyer Anna Lockley, 29. Although these deaths were intrinsically linked, there is no straightforward explanation for these tragic incidents, and I feel that this fiasco may only be explained with a full account of what happened on Thursday, 11th May, and the days preceding it…
A fierce wind, made fiercer by the speed of the stagecoach over the rough highway, kicked up the dust in great clouds and grated against Jerry’s eyes. He turned his back on the stagecoach window, resting his head against the rocking wooden wall, relishing the cool shade of the carriage after the heavy sunlight. Opposite him, Anna also gazed out of the window, her eyes red and her cheeks still wet. Absently, Jerry wondered if she’d ever stop crying.
“For you, sir?” The stagecoach handler held a terracotta flask out to him; even before he took it Jerry could smell the harsh whiskey within. He took a customary sip, grateful for their fellow passengers’ quiet acceptance: so far they had offered much and asked few questions. “Ma’am? Somethin’ to put some colour back in y’cheeks?”
Anna regarded the flask for a moment, then nodded silently, taking what Jerry thought was somewhat more of a gulp than was entirely necessary. He reached briefly across to lower her arm. She let him, but didn’t meet his eyes.
“So what brings a fine couple like you across to our humble town?” asked the stagecoach handler. Jerry tapped his fingers against the stagecoach floor, considering his answer.
“We ain’t no couple, for starters,” he said contemplatively. “Jus’ old friends, closer’un blood. And we’re…we’re leavin’. Getting’ away from old pasts. Darker pasts,” he added, in a lower voice. If Anna heard, she made no sign, and for that at least he was grateful.
“I see,” the handler said slowly. He, too, lowered his voice. “It’ll be somethin’ to do with the pretty lass, right?”
Jerry nodded sadly. “Her…She was marrid off young, y’see. An old family debt. Debts are to be paid, make no mistake, but the young man…He was nothin’ut trouble, sir. And after three months, I jus’ couldn’t come back to another shiner, nor another face’f blood. No man could.”
“No, sir,” the handler said with a knowing nod. “And you removed the woman from said trouble, I take it?”
“I had to. I couldn’t do it no more. She’s closer than a sister to me. He’d’ve killed her with the time, but she’s nothin’ but a woman, young and sweet – what could she’ve done? I had to.”
There was silence for a few moments. Jerry hung his head, already uncertain of voicing his tale – and there’s worse than that, a voice reminded him in his head, worse than that sorry story to be told. Anna shifted, sniffled, and reached for the flask out of the handler’s hand again.
“So we’re startin’ new,” Jerry continued. “Find us a town where we can be among friends. People who’ll look out for us, and who we can look out for in return. Anna.” He reached out to take the flask off her again before she drained it. Again, she made no efforts to stop him, her eyes drifting back out of the window, shining with tears that Jerry couldn’t ever see drying.
“You’re sure to find that here, have no doubt, sir,” the handler said enthusiastically. “We here, we watch over each other, and we respect a man who’ll stand up for his woman – beggin’ your pardon, sir, if she ain’t strictly yours. Ain’t nothin’ like a man who’s willin’ to protect them who need protectin’.”
“I just want to – to make sure they’re alright,” Jerry said helplessly. “Make sure she’s alright. My life ain’t worth nothin’ if I can’t make a difference to them who need it.”
The stagecoach handler nodded, then grinned broadly. “You’ll be speakin’ to the Sheriff afore long,” he said matter-of-factly. “That is, he’ll be wantin’ to speak to you.”
“He will?” Jerry hazarded, but the handler was looking to his horses again, and through the buffeting sands, Jerry saw that they were nearing the town. A few passers-by acknowledged them as they drew close, recognising the handler and peering curiously at his passengers. The handler drew the stagecoach to a halt outside what Jerry imagined was the Sheriff’s office, and as they disembarked, a man came through the batwing doors to meet them: a tall, weathered man with an air of modest self-confidence. His simple waistcoat was dominated by a five-pointed silver star with his title emblazoned across it.
“Sheriff Rodgers,” the stagecoach handler bellowed as he swaggered up to him, “this here fellow has come here to offer his services to our town, and havin’ heard his story from his own there lips, I’d have the honour of recommendin’ him to you, in the absence of young Holloway, rest ‘is soul, sir.”
The Sheriff looked up and down over Jerry, who fought a sudden compulsion to shove his hands in his pockets and turn away. Sheriff Rodgers tilted his head and, after what felt to Jerry like an unnecessarily long time, smiled.
“You got the town’s interests at heart, have you, kid?”
“If there’s anythin’ I could do,” Jerry said diffidently.
“This’ere your lady wife?”
“No, sir. Just a close friend.”
“And you take good care of her, do you?”
“Yes, sir. With my life.”
“You know how to use a firearm, son?”
Jerry hesitated. For a moment he felt cold in the beating sun. I sure do, sir. You wanna hear about it?
He’d paused a moment too long; the Sheriff was staring at him, questioningly. He opened his mouth, but nothing came out: his moments’ reflection had robbed him of voice.
Then another voice came to his rescue.
“If you please, sir.” Anna placed a hand on his shoulder, her voice nervous as he turned his eyes onto her. “You couldn’t find no man better than Jerry, in this town or any other. He shoots like the best, for sure, and no man got a heart like his.”
“Then that’s good enough for me,” the Sheriff said. “Pleasure to meet you, son.” He held out a hand to shake Jerry’s, and with the other passed him a bronze star-shaped broach. “I’m Daniel Rodgers, Sheriff o’ this town.”
“Jerry McKenna, sir.”
“Deputy Jerry McKenna, you mean.”
Jerry looked down into his hand. The word Deputy blinked back up at him.
“Why, I…Thank you most kindly, sir.”
“Be hearin’ nothin’ of it. Now, would you be so kind as to see to your lady friend, see that she’s helped to a hot meal and a rest. I’ll be seein’ you at the office at sunrise tomorrow.”
“Thank you, Sheriff.”
He reached out, and Anna took his hand. He looked back to her, and for the first time in days, she smiled at him.
“We gonna be okay in this town?”
He smiled warmly back at her. “Reckon we might, Anna.”
Two Months Later
Chen was a fairly average guy in many respects. He played cards on Saturdays, owned a small convenience store, occasionally went out shooting with locals from the town. He had been known to source goods for particular customers that were not typically stocked; he mostly sold groceries, cigarettes, the occasional imported oriental produce. Not an outgoing man, but a predictable one. The kind of man who would happily reciprocate if a young, attractive, professional woman were to make it unashamedly clear that she wanted to brush the paperwork from his desk, seize him by the collar and throw him down on it – which was why, in the circumstances of that summer morning, he was having particular trouble focusing on said paperwork. For the second time that day Anna Lockley pushed her pencil behind her ear, brushed a stray curl of hair from her eyes and leaned so far across his desk that her crimson blouse was almost rendered unnecessary. Her hand strayed playfully past his as she regarded the contract in his hands and asked in a low, pleasant voice, “Is everything in order, Mr Liu?”
She was trying to distract him. He knew this very well. The trouble was, she was distractingly good at it. She had a way of flaunting an otherwise averagely pretty face that would make most men tear the clothes right off her shoulders as soon as ask for her name. Big, ash-grey eyes made glittery with delicate glasses. Naturally dark hair hanging innocuously around her shoulders. Good figure – below average in size, but well-formed. In any other situation Chen would have leapt at her advances. The trouble was, everything was not in order. Not with the contract, in any case – and much to his discomfort, the contract was currently standing between him and several armed, angry Mexicans. In addition to this somewhat sullying the young lawyer’s blatant passes, it diverted his reaction away from happily compliant all the way through to awkwardly uncomfortable.
“This is sorted, right?” he asked, unconsciously leaning slightly away from her. “These men will be here any minute. The contract needs to be perfect.”
“Naturally,” she said, running a finger down the typewritten text. “Them buyers’re gonna mighty pleased with your property, Mr Liu.”
“I’m not worried about the property,” Chen said. “If these contracts aren’t watertight–”
“Of course, of course. Forgive me. But if there is a problem, well…we could always discuss it further. Over dinner, perhaps.”
“Miss Lockley,” Chen said anxiously. “These men are on their way here right now. They’ll want to sign this contract and hand over the money right away, and I’ll want that, too. There’ll be big problems if this isn’t ready.”
“C’mon, Chen,” she said, sliding into the chair beside him with a smile. “You don’t trust me, eh?”
Chen wanted to protest further, but her hand on his thigh stalled his brain. Of course he trusted her: it was hard not to when she was so close, so adamant. Chen had never paid much attention to the young lawyer in the few months she had been in town – she was pretty, yes, but not remarkably so, and as far as he’d seen up she’d spent too much time serving clients, doing her job and hanging around with the Deputy Sheriff for him to care much more. But since hiring her to draw up the contracts for the sale, he wasn’t sure if something had abruptly changed in her or if he simply hadn’t paid enough attention. He would have been paying a whole lot more attention, too, had his concentration not been more drawn to the prospect of an imminent shootout in his store if the contracts were not to his buyers’ liking.
Anna Lockley spoke again, somewhat closer to his ear than he was expecting: “I can’t think too much trouble’s gonna come of this, Chen. What’s gonna happen is that these men’re gonna come, put a whole loada money into them hands of yours—” To reinforce her point she placed hers onto his, “—and disappear again, and then maybe you’n I can use some’ve that money to celebrate. Maybe you’n I could—”
“They’re here,” Chen cried abruptly, standing sharply and almost knocking Miss Lockley from her seat. Through the window opposite them he could see two men approaching the store, striding impassively, empty-handed but too sure-footed not to be armed. Chen scurried to the other side of his desk, snatching up the contracts as he did so. Behind him, Anna sat down on the edge of the desk, looking a little put out.
The convenience store door swung open. In front of Chen stood a man of obvious Mexican origin, dark-haired, clothed against the harsh sandstorms of the land surrounding the town, booted as though from riding. Behind him a second, fairer man toyed menacingly with the leather straps encompassing a tan briefcase. Chen tried to reason with himself that they hadn’t even seen the contracts yet, but he had to admit, this was already not looking promising.
The first man, taller than Chen by a head, spat casually out of the door before letting it fall shut. “Chen Liu?”
“Sure,” he said cautiously.
“Let’s do this, then,” the man said, treading purposefully across to the desk. His eyes dipped to the contracts in Chen’s hands, then glanced across to Anna, before reaching out. Chen wordlessly handed the contract over. As the Mexican methodically scanned the text, his fair-haired companion nudged him and spoke gruffly in Spanish. The man looked back up, this time at Anna, and grinned unpleasantly.
“My companion wonders if the young lady is included in the property,” he said, as the second man sniggered.
Anna straightened behind Chen, her face flushed. Chen frowned, his anxiety momentarily overcome with annoyance. “You leave her outta this.”
“I would raise another few figures for the woman,” the Mexican went on, as his companion chuckled. “What do you say, Liu? Fancy drafting your lady wife into the deal?”
“She’s not my wife,” Chen said shortly. “She’s my lawyer.”
The Mexican raised his eyebrows defiantly. “Is that so? You’ll maybe be needing her, then, before this is done.” He thrust the contract into his partner’s hand and took another step forward; Chen unconsciously shuffled backwards towards the desk. “I am thinking of what looks like a gaping loophole in that there contract, Liu. The one my companion is looking over now. If he is not satisfied with our arrangement, then neither will I be.”
“There ain’t no problem here,” Chen began.
“But I think there is. I think you are trying to cheat us, Liu. Trying to mess us over.” The second man broke in, his words too fast for Chen to follow, but his expression all too clear to read. His hand passed nervously over the desk towards the edge, against which his shotgun was rested. “Is this a fact? Is it fools you take us for, eh?”
“We had an arrangement here,” Chen said, as fiercely as he could manage while simultaneously hiding the movement of his hands behind his back. “If you ain’t gonna honour that, y’can jog on.”
“Now you bring our honour into this?” The man spat again at Chen’s feet. “I am through with you, little man.”
“Then get right outta my store before I make you.”
In a sudden motion the stranger shoved Chen back against the desk and swept out a pistol; behind him the second man’s gun was already in his hands. Anna had leapt clear of the desk with a cry of alarm and was now pressed against the wall but Chen barely noticed; he straightened up sharply, bringing his shotgun down into the Mexican’s chest.
A cold sunrise burst over the treetops, striking the back of Sheriff Rodgers’ neck so hard it almost hurt.
His hands shook. They’d been shaking all morning, but by now he thought he could feel the components of his pistol rattling against each other. His head was full of that buzzing he’d grown to know so well – it was like a backing soundtrack to his life these days – but this morning it was louder, making his head ache, distracting him from his surroundings. Focus. Whenever Rodge tried to bring the tasks at hand to mind they spun and rocked sickeningly in his head. The town. The people. The convenience store. The thief in front of him. Deputy McKenna behind him. Focus. One thing at a time. He had to force himself to concentrate on the kid standing on the hill in front of him. Skinny, badly-dressed, dirty-faced, maybe ten years old. Mexican, by the sound of the unceasing mutterings of his mother in his ear. Rodge tried to ignore her wavering voice.
“Son, do you realise that stealing is an offence not taken lightly in this town?”
The kid’s eyes flickered up to his face and back down again. Rodge supposed his attention was more drawn to the gun.
“Six days ago,” he went on, his mind drifting from the task at hand – Christ, just a drink of water might clear my head – “you arrived in this town with that there woman and a man. Where is that man now?”
The woman spoke up abruptly in a frantic, fearful Mexican drawl that grated against Rodge’s ears. “Please, sir, he is just a boy. He is hungry, he means no harm. We have such little money, but he is no criminal, please, sir—”
Rodge’s hand jerked against his will, half-raising the gun to the woman; her rambling broke off in a cry of alarm before she fell silent. Rodge felt McKenna stiffen beside him, but the Deputy said nothing.
“We uphold the law in this town, ma’am,” he said levelly, while his head screamed and spun. “The man you arrived with is wanted and missing, and I intend to find him. What do you know?”
The boy shifted his feet and a stream of nervous Mexican broke from his lips, too fast for Rodge to hear, and over it his mother cried, “Please, sir, we know nothing, we try to help, but please spare him…”
“What do you know?” he asked again.
“Please don’t hurt me,” the kid said, his eyes wide and fearful. Rodge noticed McKenna in his peripheral vision brush a hand over his eyes.
“…just a boy, he means no harm, please sir, he doesn’t know what he is doing…”
Rodge lowered his voice until he could barely hear himself over the buzzing in his head. “Are you gonna tell me the truth, son?”
“I don’t know nothin’, sir. I don’t—”
He didn’t hear the shot, but he felt the recoil of the pistol. As though jolted out of a trance the buzzing abruptly ceased, and clarity seeped back into the world as the boy slowly, silently, fell to the ground.
“Jesus, Rodge!” McKenna shrieked, but Rodge held a hand up to silence him. Not now. He couldn’t deal with all of this at once. One at a time. His hand abruptly steady, he swung the pistol around to the woman. The buzzing was already starting to rise again.
“Where’s the man?”
She was crying, her face streaked and her eyes swollen and red, but the gun halted her sobs. “Please,” she stammered. “Señor, please…”
“Where is he?”
Her face broke, and she flung her arm out to point back down the hill. “The convenience store,” she wailed. “Chen’s Emporium. Please, Señor, have mer—”
Click. This time he heard it: a thunderclap that tore the woman’s words away and sent her spinning to the ground.
This time the buzzing did not stop.
He lowered the gun. His hands were trembling again. It’s done, he told himself. Dealt with. But the buzzing wouldn’t stop; the shaking wouldn’t still. Water’s what I need. To get out of this goddamned heat. Even in thinking it, he knew that water was unlikely to cut it this time. The buzzing was starting to manifest in the woman’s voice, grating and echoing, pleading, somehow clearer than it had been before, clearer than McKenna yelling beside him.
“What’ve you done, Rodge?” he cried, his eyes wide, his hands outstretched to the two bodies slumped on the hill. “That kid was barely ten years old!”
Rodge turned his back on McKenna. He couldn’t focus on his voice properly; it was as though several voices spoke at once, and he couldn’t make out their words.
“We uphold the law in this town,” he said again, tightening his grip on the gun; his hands shook so badly it nearly slipped to the ground.
“Yeah, but – Jesus, Rodge, not like this!” Jerry McKenna ran both hands through his hair, still staring, transfixed, on woman and boy. “The kid – and that woman, she hadn’t done nothin’! She weren’t no criminal, and by hell did she deserve that!”
“You shut your mouth, McKenna,” Rodge snapped. The second voice was the woman, beseeching mercy; the third was the boy, pleading for his life. He couldn’t deal with this. Not now. One thing at a time. “I’m done here,” he said, his throat dry and his stomach clenched. “I’m goin’ down to the convenience store.” To find the missing man, he thought, but there was no point saying it: it was unlikely McKenna would believe it, and he certainly couldn’t believe it himself, because all he could think of was the real reason he needed to get to the store. McKenna had begun to speak again – maybe to call his name – but he had already started down the hill, leaving the Deputy standing alone with the bodies.
Anna couldn’t move. Both hands were pressed against the wall behind her as though she might fall right through it and escape. For a few agonizingly long seconds there was motionless silence, and the two Mexicans glowered over their guns at Chen and Chen stared fiercely back, and the three guns blinked emotionlessly in the sunlight.
“You really think you are getting out of this alive?” the Mexican snarled. “My friend and I, we do not appreciate being taken for fools. Maybe you should reconsider this offer right away, before we blow you and your lady friend right through the fucking wall.”
“I said, get the hell outta my store,” Chen growled back, though Anna could see his hands shaking.
“This son of a bitch really thinks he is still in a position to give orders,” the Mexican drawled to his companion, and Anna thrust a hand over her mouth to keep herself silent as he yanked back the pistol hammer. The fair-haired Mexican strode past Anna to his side, levelling his gun at Chen’s face, as his companion added in a low voice, “Last chance, fucker.”
Anna’s mind was racing, desperately seeking for a way to intervene or escape, when her eyes suddenly alighted on movement beyond the shop door. Across the road someone was approaching, and for a moment she almost despaired at the thought that the Mexicans had brought backup; then she recognised the newcomer, his stride, his clothing, his face – and the Sheriff’s badge pinned to his chest. She opened her mouth to call out to him, to warn him of the danger, but Sheriff Rodgers had already spotted her, and he was running towards the store. Chen’s eyes were still fixed on the Mexican in front of him, but the fair-haired stranger had noticed Rodgers approaching, and Anna could do nothing to stop him as he doubled back and aimed his pistol at the doorway.
Anna screamed as the shot went off, but as she watched in horror, it was the fair Mexican who staggered and keeled to the floor. Then everything happened at once: the door bursting open, the sound of three guns cocked, Anna’s own voice in her ears as she cried out again, clapping both hands over her eyes. Another shot, and another, and Anna heard a second and third thud of a body hitting the ground. For long seconds she couldn’t bring herself to open her eyes, and even when she did she expected to see nothing but the barrel of a gun.
She blinked, slowly realising that she was still alive. Gradually lowering her hands she unveiled the scene in front of her. The dark-haired Mexican was sprawled across the floor, one hand flung out over his head across his companion’s chest. With a muted cry of alarm Anna noticed the Sheriff slumped against the doorframe, blood spurting violently from his throat. She clenched both fists at her mouth as her stomach turned, and swiftly averted her eyes. At the other side of the store, Chen stood against the desk, his shotgun discarded on the ground, his chest heaving and his eyes wide, but unharmed.
“My God, Chen,” Anna whispered, staring at him but seeing the Sheriff’s open, glassy eyes burned into hers.
He said nothing for a moment, struggling to catch his breath. Then, without looking at her, he strode back across the store towards the bodies. Anna couldn’t watch him; she ran a hand across her face, finding it drenched in cold sweat. Her heart raced in panic – the Sheriff, lying dead, and two other bodies piled on the shop floor – she shut her eyes and the shop remained, a dense, bloody shade of red, the sound of gunfire repeating and repeating in her ears –
Focus suddenly returned: Chen had slapped her sharply. “None of that,” he snapped, his face still white. Anna raised a slow hand to her face; it didn’t hurt, but she was surprised to find her cheeks wet. “You pull yourself together,” he said, his hands on her shoulders, urgent but gentle. “Keep quiet and listen to me. We dealt with this like we had to. Defended ourselves. And we’re gonna tidy this up like nothing happened.”
“The Sheriff…” Anna whispered, half-turning towards the door; Chen reached up to turn her head back to him.
“He tried to stop them, and they shot him down. Nothing we could do, y’see, Anna? Nothing. So now we have to deal with what we got.” He let go of her and walked back over to the bodies.
“What’re we gonna do?” Anna mumbled, staring straight ahead: she didn’t dare look anywhere else. “What’re we gonna do, Chen?”
“Make the best of this,” he replied shortly; she heard a rustling and a snap, and he appeared in front of her again, placing the briefcase on the desk. She watched hazily as he opened it and inspected the contents. “Holy shit,” he muttered, running a hand across the pool of green. “They were gonna pay up, and all.”
“It’s alright.” He nodded, probably to himself, and closed the briefcase again. “This is all alright.” He looked back over to her, calmer. “You’re not hurt, are you?”
She shook her head. She felt suddenly light-headed, like her mind had drawn thick, hazy curtains behind her eyes and ears, the same feeling as drinking beyond capacity and losing the judgment to pay attention. The shop seemed distant, the events just past uncertain. She wasn’t even sure of what had just happened. How could the Sheriff be dead? How could it be? How could…
She blinked and shook herself again. Chen was still watching her, frowning. “You alright, love?”
She nodded wordlessly, straining to find her voice. “D’you…d’you mind if I get outside for a bit? Away from all…” she trailed off, fighting not to look at the front of the store.
Chen sighed, his eyes flickering between her and the money beneath his hand. “Sure. Go ahead. But don’t you say a word to no one, understand? Not even – no, especially, not the Deputy. You get me?”
She nodded. Chen hesitated another moment, then turned his attention back to the briefcase. Anna edged past the desk and into the shade of the back room. For a moment she stood, her head spinning in the sudden, fresh chill. Then she threw open the back door and ran.
Jerry heard footsteps approach as he stood in silent prayer, gazing down at the recently-turned earth beneath the tree. He guessed it was Rodge returning, maybe to apologise, maybe to pretend, like he had pretended a thousand times before, that nothing amiss had happened. But when he turned to look, it was not the Sheriff’s face he saw, but Anna’s. Her face was pale and her smile shaken as she approached, but Jerry found it hard to believe that anyone could smile with sincerity so soon after such an incident. Even those who hadn’t seen it ought to be mourning, he thought.
She stopped beside him, following his gaze to the graves. “What’re you doing up here, Jerry? What happened?”
Jerry slowly replaced his hat, not meeting her eyes. “Couple’a thieves, is all,” he said. “The Sheriff sorted them out.” Damn straight, did he, he thought bitterly. “Where you bin, Anna?”
“Just in the town.” She sounded out of sorts, he realised, but he still thought little of it until she touched his hand. “Jerry, I been thinkin’ about this town. Say we was to have the money to leave, go someplace else. What’d you say?”
He didn’t look up. “This town needs us, Anna. The Sheriff relies on me; I got a duty to this town. Don’t you got clients lookin’ to you here now?” He took her silence as an affirmative response, and added, “We’re all right here, ain’t we? It ain’t perfect, but what place is gonna be?”
“Ain’t nowhere in this world better than ‘not perfect’?” she mumbled. Jerry blinked, realising that something was wrong, and looked around at her. Her head was lowered, and behind her glasses her eyes were shining. As if she felt his eyes on her, she looked up abruptly, tears spilling down her cheeks. “Jerry, the Sheriff’s dead.”
He stared at her, the words not quite making sense for a moment. He fumbled with a response but nothing came. A few seconds passed, in which he hoped, in some bizarre way, the meaning of Anna’s words might revise themselves, but she closed her eyes and hung her head, and a sickening chill fell over him.
“What – how?”
“These men,” Anna said, her voice shaking, “the ones buyin’ the store from Chen. They looked at the contract and – and they both had guns, and they were so angry – I thought they was gonna blow Chen away, and maybe me, but the Sheriff showed up, and they – they –”
“Jesus,” whispered Jerry, as Anna broke down into tears. He reached out and Anna ducked into his arms, crying against his shoulder; he placed a hand on her hair but he could barely focus on comforting her. His mind was racing. Two men, buying the store – hadn’t Rodge been looking for a man, reported to be there as well? “What happened, Anna?” he asked, drawing back from her, hands on her shoulders. “Tell me straight, what happened to him?”
“He t-tried to stop one of ‘em,” she stammered through tears. “This Mexican, he had his gun on him already. And the Sheriff, he was firin’ and Chen was firin’ – I just don’t know, Jerry, but they’re dead, both of ‘em, and the Sheriff with ‘em. God, I thought they might—might’ve—if the Sheriff hadn’t walked in that moment…” She took off her glasses with one hand and rubbed her eyes fiercely with the other, taking a deep breath. “But Chen’s got some money together, and I was thinkin’, Jerry, why don’t we just leave? Just get right out of here for good? I can’t do this any more, this goin’ from place to place puttin’ up with one thing or another. We thought this place was better, but what’s better about here then back west? We—”
“What were you doin’ there?” Jerry interrupted. Anna hesitated, caught off guard.
“What was I – what do you mean?”
“At the convenience store. What were you doin’ there? You ain’t still caught up in that Chinaman, are you?”
“Chen’s sellin’ that store. I was writin’ up his contracts.”
“You know what I mean. Anna, he ain’t no good.”
“You don’t know nothing of him!” Anna cried, completely thrown off-stride by the sudden change of topic. “You just don’t trust no one in this town.”
Jerry took a deep breath to keep himself from shouting. He wasn’t normally a hot-tempered individual, but he wasn’t normally standing six feet of earth above a ten-year-old kid. And Sheriff Rodge was dead…
“I trust them who can be trusted. I’ve seen the faces of the folk in this town, I know a thing or two about who can be trusted. And you believe me, that cretin ain’t one of ’em.”
“Don’t you speak of–”
“He’s been supplyin’ the Sheriff with dope, did you know that?”
Anna stopped short, gaping at him. “He…what?”
“Him and God knows who else in this town. Got him on it in the first place, too, I shouldn’t wonder. You ever wonder why he’s sellin’ that store? He ain’t all he tells to be, believe me, and you shouldn’t be associatin’ with the likes of him.”
“That ain’t true,” she snapped. “Why would y’say somethin’ like that, Jerry?”
“Believe me, Anna. Why would I ever lie to you?”
“So you’re the perfect hero in all this?” she cried. “That Sheriff was nothin’ but a lousy turncoat while you’re here pickin’ up the slack, is that what you’re sayin’? You got my best interests at heart again, huh, Jerry? This town ain’t so perfect, you say – wasn’t it you what brought us here in the first place? Was it my better interests that made you do that—like it was when you put a bullet through my fiancé’s head?”
Jerry was silent, stunned. Anna stared back at him; she looked shocked at her own outburst. Jerry fumbled with a response but found nothing to say. She visibly forced her alarm down and glared at him defiantly, and made as though to storm away, but she’d barely turned around when she froze again. Confused, Jerry leaned around to see what had made her stop. Halfway up the hill a man approached them, booted and jacketed in a striking combination of finery and practicality. A silvery broach pinned to his chest flashed at them, and Jerry was hit with sudden recognition.
“The Marshall,” he breathed, hurriedly placing himself between Anna and the newcomer. The man came to a halt in front of them, glancing between them levelly.
“Marshall Rafferty – to what do we owe the pleasure?”
The Marshall shook his head. “Ain’t no pleasure, son. I’m here strictly on business, and the news I been hearin’ ain’t good. Ma’am,” he added, tipping his hat to Anna; she nodded back, eyes wide and shining. “I’m sure you know already what brings me down here?” Rafferty asked Jerry.
“Matter of fact, I jus’ heard,” Jerry said, absent-mindedly removing his hat. “I understand Sheriff Rodgers’s bin shot down.”
“That’s certainly the rumours I’ve been hearin’,” Rafferty said. “Couple’a the kids downtown, all talkin’ about it. But you don’t know more about it?”
“No sir. I bin outside’ve town most’ve the mornin’.”
“And you, ma’am?” Rafferty asked, addressing Anna, who started when spoken to. “You wouldn’t happen to know nothin’ more on the subject?”
Jerry turned back to her, and instantly knew the answer. Anna’s sobs were muffled behind her hands, but her eyes told him clearly that she knew a lot more.
“Anna,” he said quietly, reaching for her arm. Anna tensed beneath his touch. “What happened down there?”
She shook her head, stepping slightly away from him. “They’re all dead, ‘s all I know,” she mumbled.
“When did this happen, ma’am?”
“Jus’ now. Maybe a half hour ago.”
“And you were there to witness this?”
Anna sobbed, fresh tears overflowing behind her glasses. Jerry reached to put his arm around her but she pulled away.
“I dint see what happened,” she said. “They were all firin’ at once, and it all happened so quick…”
“Alright, love.” Rafferty sighed, readjusting his broad hat to block the sun from his eyes. “What say we head down to the Sheriff’s office together, see if we can’t sort this out?”
Jerry nodded mutely, still watching Anna anxiously. Rafferty gestured, and Jerry fell into step beside him as they made their way back down the hill. He’d been looking forward to getting away from the scene of Rodge’s actions not an hour past, but by now he’d all but forgotten the kid.
Chen watched the Sheriff examine the substance in his hands. He was obviously struggling with the decision, but judging by the violent shaking of his hands, he thought he could guess which he’d eventually go for.
“This ain’t harmful, is it?” Rodgers asked cautiously. Chen was surprised that the Sheriff didn’t already know more about the subject, and even more so that he was even having this conversation with him about it: compared to some towns he’d set up shop in, Rodgers was less like the jaded, two-faced lawkeepers he’d met before and closer to a modern-day saint. But still, no man was perfect.
“Not harmful, no,” he said bracingly. “Not if you use it right. You’re a sensible man, I’m sure.”
“And it’ll…and it’ll help?”
“The nightmares? You got it, chief. Calm you right down, give you that respite you bin needing. You deserve it, too, if I may say so.”
Rodgers tilted his hands uncertainly in the light. Chen tapped his fingers against the desk, trying to mask his boredom, until the Sheriff finally asked, “How much?”
“You take that,” Chen replied. “On me. I’m only in the business of pleasing my customers, especially them that look out for my business. You give that a try, and then we’ll talk prices.”
For the next half an hour or so Chen absently made use of himself, or at least made motion: he shuffled merchandise without any actual tidying effect, sauntered outside once or twice to observe the passers-by, complacently shifted coins from one draw of the cash register to another. All the while the Sheriff sat, quiet for the most part, making the occasional comment about the shop, or his business, or Chen himself, or the drug – although the latter less often. Chen answered shortly and politely but paid little more attention than making sure that the Sheriff stayed in his seat, around the corner from the door, away from the majority of passing eyes. He was able to deter most customers for various reasons, until he finally shifted the cash register into the back room of the store for the evening. When he turned back, he found that a child had entered the store: a pretty, strawberry-haired girl of about six. He’d seen the girl before, sometimes with her young mother, sometimes, as now, with the Sheriff. Lillian Rodgers, he thought her name was. She’d padded around the store a few times while her father sat at Chen’s side, and now trotted over to him, her hands full and her eyes alight with innocent joy. Chen felt, for the first time in such deals, a little uncomfortable.
“Daddy,” the girl said, “momma says she wants t’head home. Are you comin’?”
“Ah, Lillian,” Rodgers said thickly, reaching out and, on the third attempt, placing his hand on her head. “Jus’ a second. Daddy’s gotta finish up with the shopkeeper first.”
The kid could see something was wrong, Chen was aware, but she was too young to work out what. Instead, she held out her hands to her father. “Daddy, I found this ribbon in the store. Can I have it? It’d go right with the dress momma made me – can I, please?”
The Sheriff’s eyes flickered as he regarded the fabric in his daughter’s hands. He blinked up at Chen, visibly struggling to focus.
“How much, then?” he asked. “For this, and the ribbon?”
Chen cleared his throat, averted his eyes, and mumbled the amount. It was lower than the price he normally quoted. Somehow he couldn’t help himself.
Rodge nodded slowly. “And…without the ribbon?”
There was silence for a beat. Lillian Rodgers looked imploringly at the Sheriff, not understanding. Chen felt miserably embarrassed for a moment, then found his tongue.
“Nothing for that,” he said. “That’s a gift for you, precious.” He closed the kid’s hands around the ribbon as her eyes lit up.
“Thanks, mister!” she said, beaming at him, and she reached for her father’s hand. Chen took the notes from the Sheriff and turned his back as he staggered to his feet. He had no moral qualms with the business he dealt – never had, and presumed he never would – but he didn’t feel obliged to watch an infant lead her heavily-influenced father by the hand. Silent, he pushed the notes into his pocket, and didn’t turn around again until he heard the door swing closed again.
Anna watched from around the doorframe as Chen piled money from the briefcase into the cash register. She was only marginally surprised that he hadn’t finished the job already. Presumably he’d counted it several times before he’d finally conceded to pack it away. She was glad, at least, that he’d moved the cash register to the back room to do so: the front entrance, as she’d seen on her way around, was blinded over, and from here she couldn’t see the scene of this morning’s incidents. Her head felt clearer now, and she’d stopped crying on the way through the town. Now she felt empty.
“The Marshall’s in town.”
Chen started, scattering a heap of cash onto the floor as he turned sharply to face her. Anna stood motionless, helpless.
“How do you know?”
“Spoke to him.” She hesitated, then added, “They know.”
“God damn,” Chen hissed, smacking a palm against the tabletop, making Anna jump. “What were you doing, talking to the Marshall?”
“He already knew. The people are talkin’, Chen. Someone musta heard the shots. We gotta do something. The Marshall came all the way over from the next town to talk to Jerry because he heard the people talkin’ about—”
“Jerry?” Chen repeated, and Anna fell silent at once. “You – you told him!”
“He was gonna find out!” she cried. “Everyone knows already! But they’re on their way here, you gotta do somethin’ with that money before they—”
“God damn!” he shouted again, and strode towards her so suddenly that she flinched. “Forget the money, Anna, you realise what you’ve done? Christ – come here.” He snatched a leather rucksack from the shelf beside him and swept the remaining cash into it. “We’re leaving,” he said. “Now.”
“They’re on their way down here now, you say,” he snapped, “and we sure as hell aren’t gonna be here when they do. Christ, going straight to McKenna, telling him everything—”
“The Mexicans held up the store,” Anna said earnestly. “They killed Rodge, you said so! Jerry won’t do nothin’!”
“And you reckon that’s what they’ll see?” Chen raged. “Don’t you get it? They’ll be in here and see three dead men and me standing there with the gun. What’s to say they won’t turn around and say I did it? Killed the Mexicans, took the money, killed the Sheriff when he found out? McKenna already knows enough to want me booked, and after this?”
Anna couldn’t speak for a moment, then stammered, “It’s true, isn’t it? You have been dealin’ to the Sheriff.”
“Nothing to do with this, Anna. Did you see who shot who this morning? Did anyone else? Who they gonna believe, me, or what they want to believe? They’ll come in here and that bastard Deputy’ll have us both to blame.”
“Don’t you talk about Jerry like that,” Anna said quietly.
“Pack up. We’re getting outta here.”
“I ain’t goin’ nowhere.”
“And you’re gonna, what, wait for them to come catch you? It was your lousy contracts that got us into this in the first place! Here.” He tossed something; Anna caught it instinctively, her hands sinking with the unexpected weight. “They’ll be here any second. Like as not we’ll have to fight our way out.”
Anna stared down at her hands. The pistol’s handle was inscribed with the Sheriff’s name. “You’re jokin’.”
“Do I look like I’m joking?” he shouted. “Now shut up and help unless you want to be here when the Marshall and that fuckin’ Deputy get here.”
“Don’t you talk about Jerry like that,” Anna said again, struggling to contain a sudden burst of anger.
“I’ll shoot him down myself if I have to, the son of a bitch. Always wanted to put a bullet through his pretty fuckin’ head—”
“Don’t you talk about Jerry like that!” she shouted, and suddenly found herself staring at him down the barrel of the Sheriff’s gun. Chen froze. “Don’t you say another word about him,” she whispered, her hands shaking with fury. Chen said nothing; his hands were frozen, midway through shoving another handful of money into the bag. “You can run all you want, but I ain’t gettin’ into this. I’ll tell ’em the whole truth if I have to – how you woulda wanted the Sheriff dead if it meant an easy escape for yourself. You can say what you like and you can do what you want, but you don’t know Jerry like I do. And you won’t say another word about him.”
Chen stared at her as she circled around, the gun still levelled at his face, to back out through the shop. “You crazy bitch,” he cried. “You get the hell outta here, then. Run back to that pretty-boy if you think it’ll help. They’re gonna take you down for this, Anna. You’re gonna hang, and you can be sure as hell I won’t be here to see it.”
She barely heard; she had turned around and was staring, transfixed, at the blood and the bodies. For a second she thought she would faint, but she gripped the pistol tightly and forced herself to focus. Her feet slipped as she began to walk, then she broke into a run, throwing herself against the door and bursting out into the sunlight again. Behind her, she thought she heard a metallic clang before the door swung closed again.
Following the Marshall out of the Sheriff’s office, staring at his feet, Jerry looked sharply up when he heard the slam of a door ahead of them. He stepped around Rafferty to see what was happening and Anna almost collided with him, throwing herself into his arms so abruptly that he almost fell over. “Anna—”
“Jerry, I’m sorry,” she cried, her voice muffled against his shoulder. “You were right, you always were. I should’ve never gone back there. I should’ve never done wrong by you, Jerry…”
“Anna, it don’t matter,” he said, alarmed, but she pulled back and stared desperately at him.
“It does, it does. Jerry, Chen’s gonna kill you if you go in there. He’s got a gun, he thinks you’re gonna hand him down for killin’ the Sheriff. He said so himself, Jerry. You gotta get outta here.”
“Calm down, Anna–”
“I don’t know, maybe he did do it, Jerry! I couldn’t see, it all happened so fast, but maybe when he saw the Sheriff he – but you can’t stay here, if he sees you—” She tried to pull him back towards the Sheriff’s office, and Jerry caught her hands to hold her still. He glanced back at the Marshall, who had already pulled out and loaded his revolver.
“Let me look into this, McKenna,” he said gravely. “You take Miss Lockley back in there and see she don’t come to no harm, y’hear?”
“I hear you,” Jerry said, reluctantly letting Anna draw him back towards the office. “You be careful in there.”
“Sure will.” Rafferty turned his back on them and headed back towards the store as Jerry turned and ran, Anna’s hand tightly clutched in his, back across the street.
He upturned the metal canister and let the last drops of oily-black fluid splatter the desktop. The smell of gasoline stung his eyes, emanating from all around, the walls, the shelves, the bodies still heaped on the ground – all but for the pathway to the back room, the money, and escape. He’d already shifted one of the bodies into the back room before giving up with the task – why hide the evidence, if he could destroy it all at once? With the can in one hand he fumbled in his pocket for the matchbook he kept there. The first one slipped, his fingers slick with oil; the second snapped. He cursed under his breath and pulled out a third when the door suddenly banged open. Chen started, just as the tip flashed and flared, and the match slipped from his hands. Marshall Rafferty threw up his arm to shield his face as a great strip of the floorboards burst in flames from left to right, forming a blazing barrier between him and Chen. Chen watched the Marshall straighten up, eyes wide, and held up the can; the metal glittered gold in the firelight.
“Too late,” he shouted as the flames roared around him. “You won’t get none’ve them bodies, no sooner than you’re getting me.”
“Don’t be a goddamn fool, Liu,” Rafferty called, taking a tentative step away from the door. The flames darted and leapt; the corpse of the Mexican caught suddenly, flaring. Rafferty half-raised his revolver towards Chen. “Put down the can, you’re gonna kill the both of us.”
“Go to hell,” Chen shrieked.
“Put down the can!”
And he did: he raised it above his head and hurled it at the Marshall. Rafferty darted impulsively to the side and the canister shot past him, and through the smoke and flames Chen watched it land on the flaming corpse behind him.
Jerry was about to tell Anna that everything was going to be okay, but as he opened his mouth the words were swallowed by a thundering blast that rattled the windowpanes and lit up the office in sudden, flaming light. Anna screamed, and Jerry seized her as he ducked to the ground in alarm; a moment later he scrambled to the window ledge to look out, and found himself staring across at an inferno. The convenience store’s windows were blown out, the door hanging open, and through it he saw a maelstrom of fire was blazing.
“My God,” he whispered; beside him Anna was crying, screaming, but he couldn’t make out her words. “Stay here,” he heard himself say, and before he’d had a chance to think he was on his feet, halfway to the door.
“Jerry, no!” she screamed, seizing his hand, “Don’t, Jerry, you’ll be killed!”
He shook her off and broke into a run, taking the steps in a leap and sprinting across the street to the store. For a moment he was brought to a skidding halt by the sheer heat, and was forced to shield his eyes from the thick smoke pouring from the windows. But the initial eruption of flame was dying down, leaving the window ledges burning but the doorway clear. Pulling his bandanna up over his mouth he sprinted around to the doorway to look inside. The whole interior was aflame: the fire had spread from the front of the store around the walls and to the desk, and ahead of him he thought a body lay, already burned black and unrecognisable. Forcing himself to look around, he spotted the Marshall lying on the ground in front of him where he’d undoubtedly been thrown by the force of the blast, maybe unconscious, maybe dead. Beyond that the Chinaman was sprawled across the desk, but Jerry could already see him stirring. Blinded by smoke, he dropped to his knees and seized Rafferty by the collar, dragging him back towards the door, his eyes still on the desk; as he watched, the store owner struggled to his feet, staring blearily around. Slowly gaining his senses he glanced back over the shop, and for a heart-stopping second his eyes locked into Jerry’s. For a moment Jerry froze up, and like lightening Chen grabbed the shotgun from the desktop. Jerry let go of Rafferty and threw himself to the side as two shots smashed into the wall behind him; he grasped for his own pistol, taking vague aim through the choking haze, and fired twice, certain that neither shot would find its target. Another two blasts hit splintered the window frame, and Jerry heard a curse through the flames; he grabbed hold of Rafferty again and hauled him across the floor and to the doorway. He reached back to push the door open and cold, fresh air struck his face for a second before a sudden, shattering pain burst through his hand and jarred through his whole arm. Jerry yelled out, his pistol clattering to the ground, but forced the door back open and strained against the weight of the Marshall, all the strength in his uninjured arm suddenly deserting him. Blinking ash and sweat from his eyes he glimpsed the Chinaman turn and run for the back entrance. He tried to take hold of the Marshall again but his fingers wouldn’t grip, succeeding only in splattering his collar with blood. He dug his heels into the sandy earth and shoved as hard as he could, feeling fabric tear as he hauled himself and Rafferty clear of the shop doorway. He shook his bandanna from his face to breathe more clearly, straining to keep going, to keep breathing, to keep his one-handed grip on Rafferty, until the roaring of flames finally diminished and he let himself collapse onto the ground, the warm sand like ice compared to the choking heat in the store. He could hear pounding footsteps, and looked up as Anna hurried over to them, but the blinding pain in his hand was driving everything else out of his head, and then everything was engulfed in a sudden, fiery red.
Chen staggered into the back room, cursing the empty chambers of his shotgun, fighting for breath as though he was trying to inhale mud. He slumped against the doorframe at the back of the store, away from the flames. He was vaguely aware of hitting his head against the desktop a few moments before, and the smoke made thinking difficult, clouding his mind as well as his vision. He took a second to clear his head, and another thought sprung unbidden to mind. The cash. His eyes widened, and for the first time he looked properly back into the store: flames ripped across the floorboards and around the walls, eating away at the Sheriff and the Mexican still slumped on the floor. The fucking cash! He couldn’t have come this far and then get out empty-handed. You ain’t fucking losing everything for nothing – Doubling back on himself he ducked under the table and pulled out the bag he’d filled earlier. He’d meant to empty the Sheriff’s pockets before leaving as well, but there was nothing he could do about that now. He hesitated for a second to ensure the money was still inside, momentarily blind to flames and the law alike by the staggering amount in his hands, then finally shouldered the bag and made for the exit.
He’d barely taken two steps when his foot caught suddenly on something; he overbalanced and hit the ground hard on his knees, the bag tumbling out of his reach. He swore loudly again – time like this you can’t even walk straight you fucking useless – then shot a look behind, and he nearly screamed aloud in horror. His ankle was grasped by a human hand, and through the smoke drifting into the back room he made out a face, eyes wide and wild, staring back at him from along the floor – the Mexican – staring without thought, without emotion, with nothing more than bleak, desperate intensity, gripping Chen by the ankle so hard he felt the bones might break. Chen’s brain ran into overdrive, willing himself to strike out, to break free, to attack, to run, to move, to do anything – but for all that he was frozen, paralyzed by the unblinking stare, accusing, hungry, deathly. Then – he was amazed he even saw it out of the corner of his eye – beyond the doorway, the flames flared and caught onto the cabinet beside the door, the one Chen kept locked to safeguard a collection of spirits. His mouth opened again but he had no voice left to scream.
Anna ran to Jerry and fell to her knees beside him just as the second explosion shook the air around them. She shut her eyes and clung to him as all around them echoed the sound of the world tearing itself apart.
Gradually, the blazing roar of diminished, leaving in its wake the gentle, innocuous campfire-like murmurings of flames feeding on wood and stone. Anna raised her head to find the street bathed in a shimmering orange light: the evening sky above was blacked out with smoke.
Marshall Rafferty was coming to, coughing and struggling to regain his senses; Jerry lay on his back, his eyes tight shut, blood from his broken hand steadily staining the sandy ground a shady crimson. Anna tore a strip from the hem of her skirt to staunch the blood flow; Jerry opened his eyes, shielding them with his uninjured hand from the glare of the firelight. Rafferty climbed unsteadily to his feet, looking gravely back the way they had come; Anna helped Jerry sit up, embracing him tightly, without thinking, before finally forcing herself to follow the Marshall’s gaze.
There was little to see. The outline of the shop front was hazy; she could just about make out the window and door, but beyond them was nothing but fire. At first she thought the Marshall would leap into action, but he stood as helplessly as them, perhaps because of his recent brush with death, perhaps knowing, as Anna knew deep down, that there was simply nothing to be done. As they watched, the heavy beams supporting the ceiling fell past the window and crashed to the ground; Anna shut her eyes, burying her face against Jerry’s shoulder, but the sound growled and resounded in her ears still. After several agonisingly long minutes she heard Rafferty speak in a low voice, and Jerry took his hand and let himself be hauled to his feet; Anna followed, numb and silent. She kept her eyes averted, but the fiery glare illuminated the whole street, as if the entire town was aflame.
Rafferty led the slow way back across the road to the Sheriff’s office. Behind them, the townsfolk were looking to the burning store, but Rafferty insisted that Jerry was to sit down, and Anna conceded that she wouldn’t be much help. Back inside the shady chill of the office she sat with her back to the wall, staring at the only patch of floor not flickering with firelight, and listened absently to the men talking.
“…up to some shady deals for months now. I shoulda known better, shoulda had the Sheriff look into it,” Jerry was saying. “But I don’t suppose there was nothin’ he coulda done anyway.”
“By the rumours I bin hearin’ it sounds like the Sheriff mighta known a whole lot more than he made out,” Rafferty said.
Jerry sighed; Anna could make out his eyes in the shifting glow, troubled and regretful. “Whatever he did, he died lookin’ out for the town he loved,” he said heavily. “He was tryin’a protect the store, tryin’a protect Anna. He died a hero, sir. No, he weren’t perfect, but what man is? I know for sure I ain’t,” he added in a low voice. Rafferty blinked, but didn’t press this comment. “I know Rodge always had this town’s best interests at heart,” Jerry said presently. “Whatever his fallbacks, don’t let’s drag his name through the mud now he’s dead. He don’t deserve that.”
“No, sir,” Rafferty replied. “He were always a good man by the reports I heard.” He raised a hand habitually to his hair, realised that he’d lost his hat in the fire, and dropped it again. “I’ll be seein’ to the crowds,” he said. “You wait in here, will y’?”
Anna didn’t look up as the doors opened and closed. The chattering and shouts from outside rose and quietened. She kept her eyes firmly on the floor until Jerry reached over and lifted her face.
“You were right to be mad with me,” he said quietly. “Rodge paid such a price for his shortcomin’s, and he ain’t nearly the worst man in this town. I should tell Rafferty the truth about what happened back home right now.” He lowered his gaze, leaving Anna staring at him in surprise. This was the first time he’d ever spoken about their home on his own accord. She’d been angry this morning – in a way, she’d been angry ever since they’d left – but now she felt nothing but compassion, nothing but pity and longing and affection. She reached out and took his hand in hers.
“You don’t owe him nothin’, no more than you owe me,” she said, her hands trembling with the yearning to seize him and never let go. “You always did everythin’ for me, and never with a word of thanks or forgiveness. I should’ve told you a long time ago how much that means to me.”
He glanced back up, smiling fondly. She embraced him again, and as he held her she realised fully, for the first time, what he really meant to her. Jerry had always been there for her. Jerry was the best friend she’d ever had. Jerry was all she had.
He stood with his hands in his pockets, staring so far down at the ground that the Sheriff’s badge pinned to his waistcoat glinted fiercely, accusingly, in his peripheral vision. It was a cold, clear morning, and the fresh chill of the air felt like the first after long months of oppressing darkness. Beside him he could sense Anna trying to simultaneously keep from shivering and hold back tears. Outwardly she had seemed to cope surprisingly well with the events three days past, but it made Jerry all the more concerned for her: she’d done exactly this after her fiancé’s death, refusing to acknowledge her own trauma and grief, and he was certain that it had in some way led her to throw in her lot with the Chinaman in the first place. Marshall Rafferty had advised him to keep a close eye on her, but he needed no telling. It was his instinct to keep an eye on her; far from that, it was his duty.
The Marshall himself stood at the head of the velvet-covered casket in which the body of the Sheriff now lay. He had spoken a few customary words to the small congregation (“I did not know Sheriff Rodgers myself, but by all accounts…”) and now stood sombrely as one or two others paid their respects (“I knew the Sheriff ten years if I knew him a day…”), together painting a picture of the steadfast, brave and devoted man they all longed to remember. Jerry wished he could remember that Sheriff. Right now, all he could remember was the blood splattering his face as he lay spread-eagled on the floor, the gun in his hand as he took aim at a kid.
Brave, steadfast…if Rodge was any of these things, he was a hell of a lot of other things, too.
“…if Jerry McKenna, the good Sheriff’s Deputy, who knew him best, might say a few words.”
Jerry blinked, and let his arm slide from Anna’s shoulders. As he stepped forward the memories of three days gone flowed back into his head from where he’d pushed them so firmly back. The gun. The blood. A ten-year-old kid, his crying mother. The Chinaman and that goddamned drug. The generic niceties of the townsfolk started to seem laughable when he realised they referred to the wreck of a man who had died so short a time ago. If they’d seen him that day, when he put a pistol to a child’s head…
But all their eyes were on him now. He had to say something.
“I didn’t know the Sheriff long,” he started uncertainly. He was not accustomed to speaking in front of strangers. He caught Anna’s eye in the crowd and took a deep breath. “But there ain’t no denyin’ he made me who I am today. Rodge gave me everything. He had faith in me without needin’ me to prove myself. There ain’t a man who ever had the honour to cross paths with him who couldn’t say he dint deserve to go the way he did.” He paused, letting his eyes pass over the townsfolk. “He wasn’t perfect, no sir. But not a man standin’ here today can say he is. He had his problems, and a hunnred of’um, but he always saw through’em and he always was here for the town he loved. He was always there for me.”
He sought out Anna in the gathering again. She was crying, silent tears tracking down her pretty face the way they had the day they’d first arrived in this town. She was suffering, he knew, and she couldn’t keep it buried forever, but if there were bridges to cross and shadows to face, he would sure as hell be there for her when they did. The Marshall spoke another few words, and a few young men of the town stepped forward to lower the casket into the grave. Jerry stepped back to the Marshall’s side to watch, brushing his hair out of his eyes and unconsciously touching the Sheriff’s badge as he did so.
At first, she didn’t recognise the sound behind her as the click of a pistol hammer. Nor did she fully register the shot until Jerry doubled over, his hands clasped at his stomach and blood bursting through his fingers. Someone screamed – Anna wasn’t sure if it was her – and she spun around in wide-eyed search for the source of gunfire. The crowd had parted and behind them she saw the figure: disfigured, hairless, black eyes glinting madly from a face so scarred and burned it barely looked human. There was a shout – probably from the Marshall – the Chinaman pivoted, swept the gun around, and Rafferty’s shot caught him in the shoulder and spun him off his feet. Jerry hit the ground and Anna thought she felt the earth tremble beneath her; but she found herself running, not to his side, but back towards the hideous figure, and in her hand was the Sheriff’s pistol; there was another shout – another shot – and then she was on him, flung across him the way she had once longed to be, and she smashed the gun down against his face. The world around her seemed to shudder and distort, blinding her to everything except the maddening urge to strike again, and again, and again, until even the bloody wreck of the man’s face was shrouded by her tears. Someone seized her shoulders and hauled her back, and for a moment she stood shell-shocked, the surge of hatred and rage slowly ebbing away, her right hand crimson with blood almost to the elbow. Gradually her vision cleared, and dimly she registered the Marshall standing in front of her, grasping her shoulders, shaking her. Then, as though suddenly waking, she thought of Jerry.
She shook Rafferty off her and ran to where he lay curled on the ground, both hands clutched around his stomach but failing to stem the torrent of blood. Anna fell to her knees beside him and rolled him back, resting his head on her knees. He turned his head towards her and opened his eyes, even as her own filled with tears.
“God, Jerry,” she whispered, “don’t you go away from me now.”
He shuddered and coughed; blood surged beneath his wrists. He let one hand slide to the ground and raised the other, trembling, to her face; she grasped it, pressing it against her cheek, her tears running tracks of his blood down her face.
“That Marshall gonna take care of you, Anna,” he said, his voice husky and faint. “You be good for him now.”
“You ain’t dyin’. You said we’d leave this place, Jerry, find somewhere we’d be alright.”
Jerry shut his eyes, his fingers tightening around hers. “I was just fine right here,” he said, “where I knew I had you safe with me.” He gave an effortful chuckle; blood rose to his lips. “I wish,” he breathed, and Anna leaned closer to hear him, “I wish I’d ever told you that I love you, Anna.”
Anna choked on her words. Shock and fear and remorse and desperation battled inside her, and all she could do was stare down at him, knowing he was dying, knowing that the seconds were racing past, knowing that she had to say something, and that in that final moment there were no more words to say. Jerry tensed up in her arms again, his breath short and his face drawn in pain, and all she could do was pull him closer and kiss his hand, the way he’d done to her more than twenty summers ago when they’d first met. He blinked, and their eyes met for a second longer, before his closed again and hers clouded with tears; when her vision finally cleared, he was still.
She could hear voices behind her, sense movement around her even if she couldn’t see it. She felt the Marshall’s hand on her shoulder, but it felt like he stood a thousand miles away. She knew something bigger, unexplainable, had happened in the last few minutes, but suddenly it was harder to put into perspective. Her eyes still burned with tears but she was suddenly calmer, quieter, as she gently laid Jerry’s motionless body back on the damp grass and slowly rose to her feet. Marshall Rafferty was speaking, maybe to her, maybe to the congregation, but the words slid past her like raindrops over glass. Around her the townspeople mingled and chattered, their panic and confusion muffled by her own sudden sense of empty calm. Beside her the Marshall tried to restore order, his voice faraway and unintelligible. Behind her the blood of the Chinaman soaked slowly, steadily, into the ground. In front of her, the breeze ruffled Jerry’s hair into his closed eyes.
Anna swayed, the world around her reeling. The gun was heavy and glinted in her hand. The barrel was cold and tasted of blood.
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