Authors: Nancy A.Collins
A Gothik Western
Nancy A. Collins
Dedicated to Clint
He woke up drunk and reckoned he'd go ahead and stay that way.
It took Johnny Pearl a second to remember where he was. For one brief, sweet moment, he imagined he was dozing on the summer porch, listening to the clatter of buckboards on the cobblestones as they headed for market. But then he opened his eyes and found himself in the shabby backroom of a frontier bar.
Charleston was far away and long ago, replaced by yet another starved-dog town, this one clinging to the edge of the Wyoming territory like a tick. He wasn't sure if it had a name, or even needed one. But at least it had a saloon.
He'd ridden into town two days back, covered in trail dust so thick that from a distance it looked like he was still wearing his old uniform. The first thing he did upon setting foot between the swinging doors of the saloon was call for a bottle of rotgut and a hot bath, which he got toot-sweet.
Pearl wasn't sure if the yokels recognized him. The likeness on the wanted posters wasn't a good one, that much was certain. But they didn't have to know his name to see he was trouble. The way he wore his guns was giveaway enough. And once Pearl knocked off the dust, the color of his clothes left no doubt in even the thickest cowhand's mind that this was a dangerous man.
Johnny Pearl stepped out of the spare room, pausing only long enough to take a deep breath and slick his hair back. The interior of the saloon was close to threadbare, with the bar little more than planks atop sawhorses. A beefy man with a ruddy face sat behind a battered upright piano, diligently hammering away at what might have been “Clementine.” Upon catching sight of him, the pianist got to his feet.
“Afternoon, sir. How you feeling today?”
“Like I need a drink.”
The piano player nodded his head and hurried behind the bar. Or at least what passed for one in this godforsaken wilderness. At least they had a mirror behind it.
“One whiskey coming right up.”
As he turned to pick up the shot glass, Pearl caught sight of himself in the mirror's silvery finish. He was only thirty-one, but you couldn't tell it by looking at him. His dark hair was already graying at the temples, and his eyes resembled coals dropped in a snow bank. The lines about his mouth were hard and sharp, as if they'd been cut into his face with a knife. But then, three years fighting Billy Yank and four years fighting everything else could do that to a man.
Still, thirty-one was a dangerous age for someone like Pearl. The territories were full of half-crazy man-boys with nothing to lose but their lives. When you're seventeen, eighteen years old, you're full of piss and gunpowder, fearless as only those who've never seen death firsthand can be. You're quick to take offense and just as quick to give it.
But once you get into your late twentiesâonce you've spilled more blood than beer, seen a grown man lie in the mud and wail like a baby while trying to stuff his guts back inside him after he's taken shrapnel, known fear so well you wake up tasting itâthat's when things start getting truly dangerous. That's when you're more likely than not to get yourself killed. Not because you're green and shooting before you think, but because you're more apt to think before you shoot.
And, inevitably, with each passing birthday, the reflexes slow a tad more, the joints ache a little sharper. Pearl knew he had a few more years left before rheumatism or the shakes got the better of him, assuming he didn't let his guard down before then.
After all, mercy and a conscience have no place in a gunman's heart. Still, traveling alone as he did, he constantly had to watch his back. Not that he was famous back east like Wild Bill, or Kit Carson or Jesse James, but he had his reputation â¦
He paused, the shot glass halfway to his mouth and glanced in the mirror at the reflection of the farmhand standing behind him. The yokel stood just behind him and to the left, a few feet in from the swinging batwings. The gun strapped to the farmhand's hip was, like the rest of what he wore, too big for him and looked like a hand-me-down. The boy's face was sunburned and spotty, with bright yellow hair that stuck out like straw and made him look even more like a scarecrow.
“I'm a-callin' you out!” the yokel said in a loud voice that cracked halfway through his sentence.
Pearl gave a small sigh and turned from the bar to regard the would-be gunslinger. “Kid, why don't you do us both a favor and go back home and help your daddy get his crops in?” he said, his voice weary but not unkind. Having said his piece, he turned back to his drink. While he sipped at the liquor, he kept his eyes fixed on the mirror.
The kid's face quickly developed hectic blotches of angry red. “Yer yeller, Pearl!” the boy yelled, his voice breaking yet again. “Scart yeller I'll git ya!”
Pearl smiled then. “I'm scared all right, kid. But you only got it half right.”
The kid pulled his gun and fired at where Pearl was standing at the bar, but the gunman was already moving, throwing himself forward and low. The kid's first shot went wild and shattered the bottle of redeye that had been at Pearl's elbow, sending a shower of glass and brownish liquid across the bar. Pearl had his gun out before he hit the sawdust, automatically returning fire. The kid's feet went out from under him like he'd slipped on dog shit, landing hard on his back, the gun flying from his rawboned hand.
Pearl lay on his belly, his smoking gun clutched tight in his hand. His heart beat fast and the smell of cordite burned his nostrils. It was a full thirty seconds before he was satisfied he hadn't taken a hit.
“Mister? You all right?” The bartender was leaning over him. As he got to his feet, Pearl could see a couple of townies peering in through the door. “Don't you worry none, sir,” the bartender said in a low, reassuring voice. “I'll swear to the magistrate when he comes 'round you didn't have no choice in the matter. The boy drew on you, plain and simple.”
Pearl stepped forward, looking down at the dead kid sprawled at his feet. Funny, it was only now that the boy was dead that he could see how young he truly was. Still, part of him was surprised, and secretly pleased, that he'd managed to nail the kid right between the eyes.
Pearl motioned to the dead boy. “Do you know who he isâwas?
The bartender nodded. “Looks to be Ezra Sutter's boy, Caleb.”
Pearl wiped at his mouth with the back of his hand, which was still gripping the smoking pistol. Try as he might, he couldn't take his eyes off the hole in the kid's forehead. “How old is he?”
“He ain't more than thirteen, I reckon â¦”
Pearl reached inside his waistcoat pocket and pulled out a gold piece, tossing it onto the bar. “I want two bottles of whiskey brought to my room. What's left over is to be put toward burying the boy.”
“Y-yes, sir. Anything else?”
“Just see that that I ain't bothered,” Pearl said quietly as he stared at Caleb Sutter's blood and brains seeping into the sawdust on the barroom floor. “All I want is to be left to myself.”
The gun was calling to him again.
Pearl hated when it did that. The gun usually waited until he was drunk or tired or simply sick of it all. It was tricky that way.
Although he had two revolvers, it was always the same one that called out for him: the one with the pearl handle. He'd had the grip custom-made down in New Orleans years ago, back when he had more fire in his belly than whiskey. He could have easily had both pieces fitted that way, but he chose just the one. The one he used the most. His killing iron. A bit of theatrics is what it was. Something for the penny dreadfuls.
But sometimes he wondered if by acknowledging its importanceâits unique functionâhe had not imparted to the weapon a dreadful vitality. After all, it's the sick oyster that has the pearl. It rode heavier on his hip with each passing year, as if fattened by the souls of those it had escorted into the Great Beyond. Or so it seemed in his mind.
Johnny Pearl wasn't sure if he believed in ghosts. But he certainly believed in Evil. Lord knows, he'd done enough of it to recognize it when he heard its voice. And the voice of the gun was Evil indeed.
Like all things made of sin, the gun called to him only when he was weak. As a young man, the possibility of vulnerability had been unimaginable. Perhaps such frailty was the inevitable state of Man. But it all seemed so unfair to him that the Lord should demand perfection, yet leave His children to dwell in perpetual temptation.
Pearl sat on the sole chair in his rented room, drinking by himself, as these thoughts came to him. Not that there was much else for him to do but drink. The one window in the room looked out onto the rear of the stables, permitting a view of churned muck and a couple of bored pigs the blacksmith kept in his backyard.
He had started off drinking out of a glass, but after an hour he'd given up on such niceties and drank the rotgut straight from the bottle. He stared at the unpainted plank walls as if they held the pattern of the world within their knotholes and whorls.
Pearl had come a far piece from his boyhood in the Carolinasâbut he was neither proud nor amazed by this. He had been born the scion of a well-respected family. And when the war drums rolled, he had been among the first to enlist. He'd been full of romance and chivalry and other damn fool ideas back then.
He'd fought hard and suffered more physical and emotional wounds than a callow youth eager to teach Billy Yank his place could ever imagine. He'd lost friends beyond number, bearing witness to their death throes in the muck and the mud. He had watched them die every way a man could: bravely, cruelly, fearfully, foolishly â¦ uselessly.
And when it was all over, he'd made his way back to the place of his birth to find his home burned, his family dead of the fever that had tagged along after the invading troops like a hungry dog. He'd gone a little crazy then, like a lot of young men who'd fought for Dixie and seen it come to naught. Some folks would say he was still a little crazy. Even him.
Seeing how there was nothing for him, and that the world he had once known was never to return again, he set out to make a new life for himself. However, he didn't have the temperament to become a settler. Nor did he have the wherewithal to set himself up in business. Without family or friends to temper his anger, anchor his feet or salve his soulâthe way of the gun seemed as good as any for a man of his background. Perhaps better than most. And since there wasn't much that Johnny Pearl knew how to do except kill his fellow man, that's what he did.
For the first few years, it wasn't a half-bad life. There was excitement and thrills, like those he'd known during the war.
And although there was a great deal danger in the life he led, there was also freedom. But as the killings started to add up, the excitement began to be replaced by weariness, the wildness became more and more like madness, and the freedom a trap.
And, to make matters worse, the gun started talking to him.
When he first started hearing the call of the gun, its voice was far weaker than it was now. But as his resolve lessened, the gun's voice grew stronger, more distinct. At first he could not quite identify its voice. But now he recognized it not to be just one voice, but many, woven together like the braid of a rope. The voice of the gun was comprised of the voices of all those he had killed, all those he had wronged, all who were lost to him.
Its voice cajoled and chided and ridiculed and argued, the myriad voices losing their individuality, merging and melding until it became a wordless, plaintive wail, like that of the siren of legend who lured ancient sailors to their deaths.
The gun only wanted one thing. The same thing Pearl wanted, really. Peace. But there was only one way it could ever know
peace. And that was if he used the gun one last time â¦
There was a girl standing in the door of his room, her eyes showing more white than a billiard ball. She was young, dressed in a gingham skirt, with long dark hair pulled back in a single braid that fell almost to her waist. She carried a fresh slop jar in one hand, a skeleton key in the other.
Johnny Pearl wondered why she looked so frightened, and then he realized he had the muzzle of the gun pressed against his temple.
“Pardon me, ma'am,” he said thickly, lowering the weapon. “Didn't mean to scare you none.”
The girl hesitated for a moment, as if trying to decide whether to flee the room.
“You're not going to kill yourself, are you?” she asked.
Pearl shrugged, but did not reholster the gun. “Who would it matter to if I did?”
“It would matter to me,” she replied quietly.
Pearl squinted at the girl, struggling to bring her into focus through the haze of rotgut. “You Injun?”