Dead Men Can’t Talk
… 7 …
Virgil followed the Gila River for over an hour before turning the dun to the dry, barren landscape of the desert. Though Betty had washed and ironed his clothes the night before, they were old and sun-faded and smelt of the dry desert air. Already sweat droplets trickled down his cheeks and back, and he scratched with annoyance at his discomfort.
Virgil kept the dun at a steady pace, maintaining a constant lookout over his shoulder. Slate was a fella he didn’t trust and expected he hadn’t seen the last of the man.
Mostly, he was a peaceful man caught up for a while by the influence and promises of bad men, a softness he had replaced with a show of toughness, without cruelty, but quick and hard, and ready to bare his fists anytime a stranger might incite a fight. Virgil had never killed a man. He had made sure of that by always shooting wide and high, but that would not lessen the judgment of a circuit judge.
Thoughtfully, Virgil built a thin cigarette. He liked the star-spangled taste of Bull Durham tobacco, and with a nudge from his tongue, he rolled the cigarette between his lips.
It took a full day’s ride to cross the narrow strip of the desert to reach his ranch. The sun was sinking quickly, and the bank of clouds that hung above the far mountains glowed a soft, flushed pink in the fading light intertwined with bands of gold and yellow. He had crawled up behind a low crest where he could just see over the ridge, his horse hidden among a clump of Jupiter tree, and out of sight of a keen eye. There were scattered junipers beyond the rim, and loose boulders dotted the ridge itself. The small ranch sat in a deep valley beside the creek. The fields below were dry and seedless, but the grass that swayed in the evening breeze along the banks of the little brook grew thick and tall and green. A young woman sat on the shaded porch enjoying the evening breeze that ruffled the frills of her dress collar, while a young boy moved about the corral attending to a solitary horse. The drought had passed, and for a moment, he felt homesick at the thoughts of the good times he had shared with his wife before their misfortune — a feeling that lasted for only a short moment.
There were no horses tied to the holding rails outside the front porch, and Virgil guessed the regulars that supported the girly house had not yet arrived for an evening of heavy drinking and to quench their lusting needs. Virgil waited for the darkness of night to close in around him before starting down the ridge to the farmhouse. Lantern light flickered through the two, cotton draped windows at the front of the house, and the tonking sound that came from a piano spewed out through the open front door to the porch.
Virgil kept his distance from the two riders that led the way through the farm gate. He waited until they had dismounted and entered the house before he rode by, headed for the barn, and on down to the creek. In the light of the crested moon, Virgil moved upstream for nearly a mile before reining the dun to a stop beside a large flat rock that rested on the bank at the foot of a rushing cascade. He smiled with relief. It still lay where he had placed it, untouched and half-hidden by the damp green moss and the thick growth of the maiden-hair fern bushes.
When he finally returned to the house, the young boy he had seen in the corral now sat on the steps of the porch whittling a stick of hardwood. He looked up.
“What were you doing down by the creek, mister,” he enquired through a forced note of authority. “Mrs. Malone won't be happy knowing you wondering about her property.”
“Do you work here, boy?”
“Yes, sir,” the young boy came back quickly, surrendering his bold mindset to the brace of Virgil’s tone. “I clean up in the mornings, sir, and attend to the vegetables planted at the back of the house. In the evenings, I look after the horses out here. Do you want me to look after your horse?”
“No,” Virgil told him. “I’m looking for three men?”
“Look inside, sir. The house is full tonight.”
“I have no need. I don’t see their horses.”
“What they riding?”
“Nothing special.” Virgil turned in the saddle, looking toward the barn. “Where do you keep the horses that belong to your overnight customers.”
“None stay intentionally, sir, but the ones that drink too much sleep out here on the porch. Their horses I set free in the corral.”
“The three I’m looking for might have spent a night or two here?”
The young boy went quiet, stroking the blade of his knife. “There were two that stayed here for one night,” he said eventually. “It wasn’t their first visit. I didn’t like them very much, especially the one called Isaiah. He hit me a couple of times and made me dance out there in the yard by shooting at my feet. They left around noon the next day. Said they had to meet some friends of theirs and would be back in a week or so. The other one called himself Sean.”
** 8 **