Twisted Creek 1868
Dawn cast a steely grey light across the river. Thin layers of mist hovered above the still water gently folded over on each other creating gaps that filtered the watery sunlight’s lazy good morning. On the banks a tented village nested in sleep. A few wisps of smoke arose from the tepees and the horses snickered and fidgeted occasionally, but otherwise, it was quiet. The men had gone hunting. Unbeknown to the women, children and the few elderly braves left behind, they would not be returning. A few miles away on the deserted plain, the vultures were picking at the human and horse carrion of the hunting party ambushed by a rogue cavalry troop the previous afternoon.
Morning Cloud walked down to the river’s edge and stooped to gather water for her mother. At nine years old, the mixed race child carried the skin colour of her Comanche father and the light build and grace of her mother. She didn’t see or hear the troop of US cavalry on the escarpment above the encampment. If she had, she wouldn’t have continued her morning chores with the detachment that she did.
The troop’s captain turned to his lieutenant. “Looks like we aren’t expected.”
“No, sir,” the lieutenant replied uneasily. Killing armed braves – even if they were unprepared and showing no signs of hostility was one thing. Wiping out the rest of the village who were unarmed was another matter and his conscience was being difficult and it made him uncomfortable. He fidgeted in the saddle as he watched his captain, a burly man with dark passionless eyes staring from below the brim of his hat. Heavy curly brown hair fell about his shoulders and a thick moustache concealed his upper lip. He was a man who inspired fear and loathing, never liking and never respect.
The captain lifted his spyglass to his eye and swept along the riverbank looking for hostile Indians and saw none. “Get the men ready.”
The lieutenant hesitated. “Captain…”
“I don’t see any hostiles, sir. What if…?”
“What if, nothing. Get the men ready.”
“Yes, sir.” He saluted and gesticulated to the sergeant.
Morning Cloud was nearly at her mother’s tepee when the troop charged down the hill and bore upon her. She screamed and her mother threw aside the flap of her tent. “Run!” She cried. “Go! Go! Get away!”
The child froze on the spot, dropping her water container, its contents spilling on the ground, mingling with the mud and leaves as the soldiers shot the dazed squaws and children as they staggered sleep ridden into the weak sunlight. Morning Cloud stared petrified as the captain’s sabre rose above his head to strike. Her mother pushed her to the ground, shielding her with her own body as it struck, killing her instantly. The child lay under her mother’s limp corpse as the troop swept past them, thundering hooves inches from her face, shooting and slashing everything that moved. Women, children, a few dogs and one or two old men. The lieutenant was correct, there were no hostiles and he was sick to his stomach.
Arizona Territory 1888
That summer was hot. The sun baked the plain mercilessly, turning it tinder dry so nothing grew. We waited for rain that never came and the horizon mocked us with its water-like mirages shimmering in the haze. Corn baked into desiccated straw and withered in the field, livestock gasped for water and the tears dried up in your eyeballs. The town roasted in the fearsome heat, with the only refuge the dark saloon bar below Miss Maddy’s whorehouse. Some cowboys would take refuge in those enervating rooms upstairs and wrestle their sweaty bodies with the inhabitants for a few dollars and lie panting, soaking in perspiration afterwards before going back downstairs to pour whisky down their parched throats and play cards. And their cattle went thirsty and died.
But we were lucky, because we had the spring. And the spring was what the range war that summer was all about. The McAllister ranch had to cross onto our land to get to it and Jim McAllister didn’t like it one little bit even though we had no plans to keep him out. Pa and the other homesteaders wanted a peaceful existence with the ranchers and were happy to share the water. But that wasn’t good enough.
McAllister’s boys had been riding in pulling down our fences and driving off the livestock. A couple of times it came to shootouts. But the stalemate remained. We had stakes in the land and wouldn’t sell. So McAllister brought in a hired gun. That’s when things changed. And it wasn’t the way Jim McAllister planned it.
I can recall the day I saw Sinistré for the first time like it was yesterday. I was just turned fourteen and Pa let me take the buggy into town for provisions on my own. I was a gawky, introverted child in them days. I wore my brown hair long under my wide-brimmed hat, falling about my pale slender face, shoulders and the collar of my cotton shirt. The only thing I missed was a gun on my belt, but even though I was on the brink of manhood, Ma forbade it and no one crossed my Ma – especially me and Pa. But, I guess, taking the buggy into town was a step in the right direction.
I was loadin’ it up when she rode into town on that big bay of hers. I stopped my work briefly lifting my hat, wiping the sweat from my brow and shielding my eyes from the sun, watched her as she rode down the town’s dusty street. Lounging in the saddle after days on the trail, with dust spattered down her full length coat she was an image that burned into my eyeballs. Folk hereabouts said she was a half-breed Comanche and I reckoned they was right, too. Long dark hair flowed from under her wide brimmed hat with its eagle feather dangling from the brim, beads braided into the strands of hair that fell down each side of her face with its strong straight nose and dark eyes and knee-length black leather boots with silver spurs tucked into dark cotton pants.
I’ll never forget those eyes. Deep pools of nihilism that pierced you when they caught sight of you – freezin’ you to the spot. And I froze, despite the temperature. I ain’t never froze like that before nor since, I reckon.
She stopped short right by the buggy and I looked up and caught those dark eyes of hers. I don’t think she even noticed me at that point. Not until I spoke. Full of the bravado of the young man exploring the adult world and longing to make a favourable impression on the striking woman, I spoke to her. I loved her in that moment as I’ve loved her ever since – even sixty years later I can see those eyes staring back at me as she noticed me for the first time. “I’ll take that, Ma’am,” I said, reaching for the reins. “Thanks, sonny,” she replied.
Stung, I scowled, stretchin’ up to my full height and said “My name’s Jack. I’m fourteen; I ain’t no sonny, Ma’am, if you please.”
She slid from the saddle in an effortless, snake-like move. Lifting a finger to the brim of her hat and tilting her head towards me, she smiled a broad good humoured smile, revealing even white teeth contrasting against the dusky skin of her face. “Much obliged, Jack,” she said and my heart raced as I’d not felt it race before. With that she stepped onto the sidewalk and I caught her scent as she brushed past me. An earthy, animal odour straight off the plains, mixed with the aroma of old leather and a hint of sweat. I wrinkled my nose and my chest felt like it would burst. If I try, I can still smell it today.
She crossed the wooden sidewalk. The half doors of the saloon creaked in weary protest as she pushed them aside and strode into the gloomy saloon bar, spurs clinking as her footfalls echoed on the dry timber floor. I looked inside and could just make out the interior in the gloom. Motes of dust danced in the stream of sunlight from the door, while the rest of the room was in semi-darkness.
“Whisky,” she said. For a moment or two she stood there, one foot on the rail that ran along the bar, watching the occupants behind her in the big mirror that ran along the full length of the bar opposite. She poured a tumbler from the bottle that the barkeep placed in front of her and slaked the trail dust from her throat.
The three cowpokes playing cards at the far end of the bar looked up as she entered the room. Two of them were Chesterfields. The Chesterfield boys worked for Jim McAllister. Dark, heavy lads toughened by the arduous work of herding cattle. Old for their age, their skin darkened by the sun and their hair bleached by it, too. I didn’t recognise the third one, he must’ve been new. He didn’t look so gnarled as the others. Frank Chesterfield looked up briefly, and then went back to his hand of cards. His brother Pete likewise ignored the woman at the bar. Their companion stared the stare of someone who is either very, very brave or very, very stupid – or, perhaps, just dumb enough not to realise just how stupid he was. Without appearing to, she returned the young man’s belligerent gaze in the bar mirror, but her body was relaxed and easy – despite those dark eyes watching everything that was going on. There was a tension building. I could feel it like a cougar waiting to pounce on a mountain goat. The young man stood up, brushed a hand through his unruly fair hair and walked to the middle of the bar room where he stopped, swaying slightly with the drink. He couldn’t have been four or five years older ’n me. Stocky and arrogant, his face was twisted into a sneer of disdain. Loudly to no one in particular, he said, “Didn’t know half-breed injuns was allowed in here.”
No one said anything. The barkeep glanced across at Sinistré, but she said nothing and didn’t move.
“I can smell it from here, dirty injun half-breed.”
The cowpoke’s truculent insult went unremarked. A couple of chairs scraped as people distanced themselves from the fight that was brewing. They had sense even if the cowhand didn’t. Drunk with whisky and bravado, he carried on digging his own grave.
Fascinated, I watched, knowing this was going to end bad and in my heart, I knew who was going to end up in Finlay Baker’s funeral parlour that afternoon – and it wasn’t going to be her and I just couldn’t help myself. I had to watch. She was cold. She barely moved, but slowly, so slowly you could hardly see it, her left hand slid her coat over the holster that was slung at her hip. I stared at the peacemaker that lounged like some dangerous animal in the worn leather holster. The holster was slung low and tied to her thigh. A gunslinger’s holster and a gunslinger’s pistol, I figured. Anyone with any sense could see it. Everyone in the room but the cowboy in the middle of it could see that and respected the violent death it could spew out in a flash. And everyone just watched the inevitable train crash that was about to follow. We knew what was going to happen, but the only one who could stop it went right ahead shooting off at the mouth.
Her left hand rested casually by pistol’s handle just waiting. If it was me – and it weren’t thank goodness – I would ’a backed off right there and then. This cowpoke was either stupid or drunk, or both, ’cos he didn’t pick up the signs and kept right on goin’.
“I don’t share no saloon with no filthy injuns.”
Finally, she spoke in that low gravelly voice of hers. A voice that sent shivers down the spine – desire and fear mixed together in anyone who heard it. Music, was what it was. Without turning to face him, watching his every move in the mirror, she said, “so leave, then.”
Angry now, he lunged forward and grabbed her shoulder, spinning her round to face him, shoving his whisky breath into her face.
“I said…” He stopped mid-sentence. The feel of a 45 peacemaker shoved in yer guts tends to do that to yer.
“I heard you the first time,” she said. “I smell, alright, but I got a bath planned, then I won’t smell no more. Shame you can’t say the same.” She gave the pistol a push, eliciting a grunt from the cowpoke. “Now,” she said softly, dangerously, deadly, “You go back to your pals and continue your game and we’ll say no more.”
She let the pistol drop back into its holster and turned back to the bar. The cowpoke stood for a second or two before crossing the floor to the table where his friends were sitting watching. Frank Chesterfield sniggered at his young companion. Stung by the insult, that’s when the boy made his move. The last move he ever made. Reaching for his pistol he spun round. The slug that plunged though the middle of his skull kept up the momentum and he pirouetted in a ghastly death spin before slumping onto the table, sending the cards, drinks and chairs asunder. The slug kept goin’, leaving a spatter of dark blood and brain matter on the far wall. On the floor, the cowpoke lay face down, the back of his head a dark bloodied mess. Pete Chesterfield stood and thought about reaching for his gun. There was an eyeball to eyeball exchange with Sinistré that lasted all of a second, but in that second, there was a whole exchange going on. He was thinkin’ that maybe he could pull fast enough and she replied, no you ain’t, not even close. So don’t try. Walk out of here alive. And he realised that she was right and that taking his pal to Finlay Baker’s was enough already. He didn’t fancy being a customer too.
“Take your friend outside,” she said. And they did, like whopped dogs. There was going to be trouble here, I thought, ’cos they was McAllister’s men and Jim McAllister weren’t goin’ to be taking kindly to one of ’em bein’ killed an’ all. I stepped aside as they staggered out under the load of their dead companion and headed across the street to the funeral parlour. By the time I turned my attention back to the gloomy interior, Sinistré had been joined by Miss Maddy who’d come downstairs following the commotion. Shootin’ was bad for business. Dead cowboys don’t buy no time with whores, but Miss Maddy didn’t seem to mind overmuch this time. Even at fourteen, I knew about Miss Maddy. Enough to know Ma had given me express instructions to stay well clear of her. And I saw enough to understand why – even if I was beginning to think maybe I was missing something here.
“You stink like a skunk,” she was saying amicably. At around fifty, Miss Maddy was still a striking woman with deep red hair, some very big curves that I didn’t think even existed and green eyes that could pierce you where you stood. No injun arrow did as much damage as those eyes if they got you in their sights and you had crossed her. She brushed a hand down Sinistré’s arm and I could sense that these two knew each other and they was friendly like.
Sinistré sipped her whisky and smiled and responded to the older woman’s comment. “That I do.”
“Lucy is waitin’ upstairs; she can get you a bath.” Turning to the wide stairway leading to her domain, she called out. “Lucy, get on down here girl, someone here to see you!”
A slim, blonde girl of around twenty or so stepped out of one of the rooms adjoining the landing and came down the stairs, dressed only in bloomers and corset. Walking up to Sinistré she placed a hand on one shoulder and touched her lips to the half-breed’s cheek. She opened her mouth and wrinkled her nose.
“I know, I know,” the object of her disgust said. “I need a bath.”
“I’ll heat some water,” Miss Lucy replied, reaching for the other’s hand, barely touching the skin, but enough for an electric pulse to pass between the two women. Sinistré took the proffered hand and followed Miss Lucy up the stairs to the landing, her silver spurs jangling with each step. In that moment, I knew just why my desire for this woman was always going to go unrequited.
When I got home, Pa reckoned she was headin’ out to McAllister’s ranch. The opposite of my petite Ma, he was a bear of a man. I took after her, not him, bein’ slight and he was broad shouldered and muscular with several days’ stubble on his chin.
“It’s only a matter of time before McAllister gets in a hired gun,” he’d said. Now that Sinistré was in town, he figured he was right.
They came while we were out fixing fences. Pa an’ me and old Jake Maddison and his two boys, Tom and Joel from the homestead next to ours went out to put up the fence that the McAllister boys had torn down the previous day. We had been working for about an hour when they rode up and Sinistré was with ’em, so Pa was right. Mostly he was. Unlike Ma who was always right and woe betide anyone who said different.
She was a hired gun for McAllister. I wondered how she’d got on with having killed one of his boys, but I guess that she was valuable so it was okay. She could shoot whereas the cowboys could make a lot of noise and point their guns, but what got hit was mostly what got in the way, not what they aimed at, I figured. One of ’em was one of the boys who faced up Sinistré when she first rode into town, Frank Chesterfield – he had two of his brothers with him and his three cousins. He pulled his gun and let off a couple of rounds in the air while one of the others roped the fence and pulled it away from the ground. Ol’ Jake went for his shotgun, which was a bad move.
For a moment everything stopped as we stared at each other. Frank stared at Jake. I looked across at Sinistré and it seemed to me that she wasn’t taking part in this fight. She was there, but observing, leaning nonchalantly on the pommel of her saddle a half smile on her face. There was something about her demeanour that left me thinking that the Chesterfields couldn’t rely on her if this came to a fire-fight.
Then it happened. It must have been all of a second or two, but it seemed an age. Frank Chesterfield was dead before he hit the ground with buckshot from Jake’s shotgun blasted into his chest. Frank’s younger brother Pete shot Jake in the chest before he could reload. Jake leapt back with the force of the bullet and lay dead on the ground, staring up at the sky. Pa grabbed his Winchester as he hit the dust under the wagon and Jake’s two boys returned fire. Sinistré did nothing. She just watched and waited, left hand hovering by her pistol.
Pa pushed me under the wagon as we dived for cover, before rolling over and dropping one of the other Chesterfields with a couple of rounds. As I landed, I looked up to see Pete lining up his pistol right at my head. Then as if in slow motion he was pushed sideways from his saddle by the bullet that punched a hole in his skull. Blood and brains splattered out of the side of his head as he fell from the horse and landed dead in a heap on the ground. I turned my head to see Sinistré sitting there with her gun smoking in her hand. The other brother, Ged, turned angrily to her. “Whose side you on, injun? You jest killed one of ours!”
“He was going to shoot an unarmed boy,” she replied, sliding the pistol back into its holster. “You got a problem with that?”
“McAllister is paying you as a hired gun to kill these farmers, not to shoot his hands.”
“I don’t do murder.”
“Well, you should ’a thought about that before takin’ the job.”
“Maybe I should. But a hired gun don’t kill unarmed boys. I ain’t never killed a man who wasn’t facing me in a fair fight and I don’t intend to start now.”
“Well, seen’ as you killed two of McAllister’s men, you’d better not come back to the ranch. Stay with the dirt grubbers.”
She smiled and nodded, but the smile never reached her eyes. She sat while they turned their horses and rode off, leaving their dead in the dust. Then she slid from the saddle and walked across holding out a hand to help me up. “Okay?” She said.
“Okay,” I replied. “Jake…”
She glanced at Jake lying in his congealing blood. “We’d better get him onto the wagon.” Joel had stopped a bullet in his shoulder and Tom bound it up for him to stem the blood. They was both cryin’ and I didn’t blame them, neither. Ol’ Jake was a kindly soul and never deserved to be gunned down like that.
Pa came up at that moment. “What’s this about ‘we?’” he asked irritably, his Winchester pointing vaguely at Sinistré.
Sinistré gave him a look that said “don’t argue with me,” before moving her gaze down to his rifle and back up to meet his eyes. For a moment or two there was an uneasy standoff before Pa lowered the gun. She nodded slightly told him flatly just how it was. McAllister wasn’t going to be going away and having just lost his hired gun, would be putting out feelers for another one. She had scruples, the new one might not. Given that, maybe her help would be useful.
“We ain’t got no money to pay hired guns,” Pa said.
“You got a barn with some hay and chow for the duration?” She asked.
Pa paused and rubbed his chin. “Well…”
“Pa,” I said, “let her stay. We lost Jake and we could do with someone who can handle a gun. You know it’s true even if you don’t much like it. Besides, she just saved my life.”
Pa shrugged and reached down to grip Jake’s feet and Sinistré hefted his shoulders as they put Jake into his wagon for his boys to take him home for burial. She glanced across at me just as I picked up Frank Chesterfield’s abandoned gun and winked. I blushed deep red and hoped Pa hadn’t noticed.
Ma wasn’t happy at all. “What’s that Injun hussy doing here?” she demanded. Ma was a straight laced woman who knew what was right and what was wrong and this half Indian was wrong as far as she was concerned. Wrong and trouble. Big trouble. She fussed about with her cooking pans rattling and banging them about because she couldn’t bang Pa about like she wanted to. “I don’t want her here,” She said angrily.
Eventually Pa calmed her down given that we would need someone about who could handle a gun – what with Jake now gone. She went along with the arrangement reluctantly, as long as Sinistré stayed out of her sight. So we put her up in the hay loft and I agreed to take her meals out to her.
Ma slammed the dishes on the table and I thought we might be needing to get some more from the store in town if this went on much more. “She’s dangerous,” she said. “You don’t think that McAllister won’t be sending men after her, now she’s double crossed him?”
Pa tried to sooth things over. We was gonna be in trouble anyway, we already was, he pointed out reasonably.
“Anyway,” she said, “she gonna come in and eat or not?”
“I thought she was gonna stay outside…”
“Don’t argue! Jest go out and git her in here.”
So I didn’t argue. Pa and I learned that one long since, and in the space of a matter of minutes, Sinistré went from being kept outside like a dog to a house guest for meals. Me, I just kept my head low. Seemed the best thing anyways.
Ma was right. She was always right and no one was gonna gainsay it. Not if they was wise anyway. Even Sinistré didn’t cross her. Although I think she had a sneaking liking for my Ma, but she never said as much.
They came for her of course and a part of me knew that this was not only what she was expecting, but had set in motion purposefully.
The following day, I took Frank’s gun out to practice. It felt heavy in my hand as I turned it over and snapped open the chamber. I’d put some bottles out to shoot at and lifted the heavy weapon up, took aim at one of ’em and pulled the trigger. The recoil knocked me backwards and the report deafened me. The bottle remained untouched, taunting me with its presence. My bullet had gone wide and high. The bottle was safe even if the vultures weren’t.
While I was picking myself up from the dust, the three adults came running out to see what had happened. Ma was puce with fury and turned her rage on Sinistré. “This is your doin’!” She screamed.
Pa reached out a hand and placed it on her shoulder. “Now, look, Martha…”
But Ma was having none of it. She raged about how dangerous it was and I was just a boy who shouldn’t be handling deadly weapons. It was Pa who got through to her eventually, pointing out that I was going to need to defend myself sooner or later and McAllister’s boys made no distinction on age. They was gonna kill me dead, gun or no gun yesterday, so maybe I had better learn to shoot anyways. Ma quieted down a bit after that and Sinistré said she would teach me when she finally got a word in sideways.
And that she did. I recall those days when she stood behind me, her body brushing against mine, her scent in my nose and breath so close I could feel it on my neck as she held out my arm and adjusted my aim. I learned to shoot straight and fast that summer. I would never be as fast as she was, but I was fast enough to defend myself and fast enough to earn a living doin’ it. And I never forgot what she told me those summer days.
“The first time you kill a man, his face will stay with you forever. His soul will become a part of your spirit as will every man you kill. So only kill when you have no choice. Never point a gun unless you mean to use it and if you do have to use it, shoot to kill – quick and clean. A head shot’s best, but a chest shot is second if need’s be. Don’t give ’em a chance to shoot back, you want ’em down and out fast before they can draw on you. And learn to live with your conscience, ’cos it will come back from time to time to haunt you as will the faces of the dead, who will be a part of you until the day you die.”
I can see the face of every man I shot dead. And I have no regrets. I followed her creed. Every one of ’em drew first and every one of ’em deserved the bullet from my gun. But that summer, I was young, naive and fresh behind the ears. The cynicism that ate her soul hadn’t started on mine yet. And I hung onto every word she said, savoured every movement of her lithe body and drowned in her smell because I was captivated by her and yet she made no sign that she had noticed and my heart ached because of it.
The first rider came while we was out fixin’ fences again. Sam Langman. They sent others, but none broke her heart like Sam did.
Pa let me go alone with Sinistré as he had other work to do around the farm and figured she would take care of me. I think he liked her despite Ma’s antagonism. But, then, I think men liked Sinistré anyways – that is, those that weren’t tryin’ to kill her. And women, too, I noticed. It weren’t just Miss Lucy from the whorehouse who clearly loved her and made no bones about it. Even Ma softened to her and that took some doin’ I can tell you. And Miss Maddy was always tender when talkin’ to her. There was something deep and mysterious that snuck into folks’ hearts and nested there. She was a beauty who was adored, yet made no show of ever noticing. None of ’em melted the ice that encased her spirit.
We’d stopped work for a coffee and something to eat. The fire was going well and the coffee was brewing, filling the air with its aroma. I’d caught some fish from the river and was cooking them over the flames when Sinistré pulled a pouch from her saddlebag and took out a long pipe. Squatting down next to the fire, she filled it with tobacco leaf and struck a match. The smoke smelled sweet as it filled the air. She puffed on it for a moment or two before passing the pipe to me.
I shook my head. “I ain’t never had smokin’ tobacco before,” I said.
“You’re old enough to try,” she replied.
Reaching out, I took the pipe and sucked in the smoke. The sweet smell belied the bitter taste as it caught in the back of my throat. Coughing and spluttering I handed the pipe back. Sinistré laughed and the laughter lit up her eyes – something I’d not seen before. Genuine warmth and a sense of girlish fun illuminated her face and in that moment she was beautiful, even though I was struggling to see through the tears that flooded my eyes.
Then she tensed. Standing slowly, she reached down for her gun as a rider came through the trees behind us.
“Hello, Morning Cloud,” he said. A wiry man dressed in a dark duster coat and wide brimmed hat pulled low across his face.
She relaxed. “Sam.”
“Yup. Long time.” He sat there on his horse looking at her before asking if we could spare a coffee.
“For you, Sam, any time.”
He slid from the saddle and hunkered down beside me, and Sinistré joined him. He took the proffered pipe and puffed from it, blowing a few smoke rings in the air. Old friends catching up, they shared those moments in silence, suppin’ coffee and sharing her tobacco. Eventually, he said what was on their minds. “McAllister,” he said.
She nodded. “I know.”
“He’s hired me to kill you.”
“Yup. Figured. Did he recognise you from Fort Lowell?”
Sam shook his head. “If he did, he wasn’t showin’ it. It was twenty years ago, girl. We’re both older now. I bet he didn’t recognise you when you showed up either?”
They lapsed into silence, passing the pipe back and forth and drinking the bitter coffee.
“I didn’t see you today, I was never here and you never saw me, neither,” he said, tossing the grounds on the fire. “But next time, I’ll have to. You know that, don’t you?”
“Leave, Morning Cloud. Do that for me.”
“Won’t more’s like. Nothin’ to do with what happened at Fort Lowell, eh? It was a long time ago. Don’t let it eat you up.”
“I have no choice.”
“There’s always a choice, girl.”
She snorted. Sam nodded. “Thought so. Then you’ll have to come past me and I’ll kill you.”
“You could walk away,” she said. “You knew what you were doin’ when you took McAllister’s money and you know what he did.”
He sighed. “I have to. Times are hard.” I looked across at the man. He was well dressed, but the expensive cloth and leather was old and worn. There was grey in the dark hair and lines around his eyes and a pallor on his skin. Times had been better for Sam, and Sinistré could see it too. I guess he probably wasn’t as fast as he once was either.
She threw the last of her coffee onto the fire and stood slowly like some big cat unleashing the power held in its body. “There’s always a choice,” she said with a grin.
He laughed briefly as he stood. He walked back to his horse and mounted the saddle. “Just go, Morning Cloud, go and live, eh? McAllister ain’t worth it. The past is a foreign place; we can’t go back and right old wrongs. You need to live for now, girl.”
She slapped the rump of his horse. “See ya, Sam.”
He lifted a finger to the brim of his hat. “Well, till we meet again. Brush up on that draw of yours.”
With that, he rode off through the trees.
“Why Morning Cloud?” I asked.
“It’s my name,” She replied. “My given name.”
“Frenchie Bresson gave that to me and it stuck, so I live with it. My mother called me Morning Cloud and that’s what I will always be.”
“Pa says Sinistré means lefty.”
She laughed. “Pa is right.”
“You’re gonna kill Sam, ain’t ya?”
She nodded. “It’s what he expects.”
“Sam’s seen better days. Times are hard for an old gunslinger. You saw how he was. Someone’s gonna finish him. Better me than some stranger, I guess.”
There was something deeply sad about her manner. An old friendship and the decision by the two of them – unspoken, yet there – for one to euthanize the other, ’cos that was what it was. And I didn’t understand.
“And McAllister?” I asked.
She hunkered down again and filled her pipe. She drew on it for a few moments before telling me something I don’t think she had shared before. The massacre of Twisted Creek.
Sam Langman rode up to the troop and pulled his horse to a halt with a tug on the reigns. “Well?” Captain Connor Reilly asked.
Sam lifted his hat and wiped his brow. Sighing heavily, he conveyed the bad news. “It’s a massacre, Con,” He said.
Reilly absorbed the news. “What are we looking at?”
Sam turned his horse. “You’d better see for yourself.”
Reilly followed his scout down the escarpment to the deserted camp. The troop fell into line behind them, horses trotting down the slope, disturbing the vultures that flew squawking from their disturbed meal. The stench of rotting flesh filled the air.
“Nothing here but women and children,” Sam explained.
“Who killed them?
“US Cavalry,” Sam answered.
Reilly swore. “Go on.”
Langman pointed to the tracks – hooves, shod hooves, stamped upon the dirt – and the vulture-picked bodies strewn about the village. “None of ’em’s been scalped, so not Indians. This was definitely done by one of ours.” He stopped suddenly and raised an arm. “Hear that?”
Reilly shook his head and listened.
“There!” Sam said, turning round and pointing to a nearby tepee. Dropping silently from the saddle he walked across to the tent and lifted aside the flap. Inside, a small girl shrank away from him, trying to cover herself with a blanket. “Okay,” Sam said softly. “I won’t hurt you.”
The girl moved back further and said nothing; fear stared back at him from dark, mysterious eyes. Sam reached out a hand, encouraging her to reach out to him, his voice soft and gentle and she moved further away to the edge of the tent. Sam coaxed her like a kitten. Suddenly she leapt forward and struck like a cobra with the knife she had concealed beneath the blanket. “Ouch!” He yelped, withdrawing a bloodied hand.
“Everything okay in there?” Reilly enquired.
“She stabbed me,” Langman said ruefully sucking his punctured hand. Morning Cloud crouched menacingly clutching the knife close to her breast and snarled at the man trying to extract her from the tepee. The troop’s sergeant, a grizzled old Pole with more grin than teeth, Bobek, gave a sly salute and crept around the back of the tepee. With a deft movement of his bayonet, he had sliced through the skin of the tent and lifted the child out, screaming and struggling, her knife safely out of harm’s way. Holding her at arm’s length and laughing at his captive, he handed her to Sam who relieved her of her knife before clasping her close. She continued to squeal and struggle and tried to bite his arms as he made soothing noises in an attempt to calm her. Eventually, she gave up the unequal struggle and lapsed into a sullen silence.
They rode into Fort Lowell and saw the horses of another troop hitched up outside the garrison. As they drew up, the captain came out, blinking as he stepped from the dark interior into the harsh sunlight. A big man with flowing dark hair falling about his shoulders beneath his hat. A full moustache swept across his upper lip. He stared at the incoming soldiers, Langman and the girl with his dead eyes. Morning Cloud reacted immediately, letting out a scream of both fear and anger, forcing Sam to hold her more tightly. “Okay, okay, Honey,” he said. “No one’s gonna hurt you.”
Reilly tensed. “Looks like we know whose troop was responsible for that massacre,” he said.
“Knew that already,” Sam replied.
Reilly raised an eyebrow.
“That horse was the one that left those tracks,” Sam pointed out. “But the child’s reaction confirms it.”
“I’m going to have to see the CO.”
“Careful Con,” Sam said. “That man’s dangerous and if this gets out, he stands to hang.”
“I know, I know. You better keep that child safe.”
Reilly turned to sergeant Bobek. “Get these two billeted somewhere safe,” he ordered.
“Sir!” The sergeant saluted and gestured for Sam to follow him.
Sam turned back to Reilly. “I meant what I said. Be careful.”
He wasn’t careful enough.
It was late. Very late, when Bobek woke Sam. “Git the girl Sam,” he whispered.
“Knife in the back. Injun knife, so Cap’n McAllister is sayin’ it’s the squaw child did it for revenge.”
“She’s been with me.”
“Yeah, well, we’d better get you outta here. Both of yous, she’s dead meat if you don’t get her outta here.”
The sergeant led the two fugitives through the back alleys to a side gate in the wall. “Go!” He instructed. “I’ll keep ’em busy. Good luck.”
And Sam Langman’s scouting career with the army came to an end. He rode south as fast as he could.
As the years passed, Morning Cloud grew from a child into a young woman. One morning, Sam came across her turning his Colt in her hands. Angrily, he snatched it from her grasp. “You leave that well alone. Pick up one of these and you better be ready to use it.”
“I want to use it,” she said.
“I’m going to kill Jim McAllister.”
Sam heaved a sigh. “Look…”
“No,” she pouted. I’m doing this, whether you let me or not.”
Eventually, she wore him down and he took her outside.
He turned the pistol over in his hands, letting her see it as he tested its weight. He flicked open the chamber and spun it showing her the cartridges. Five – one empty chamber for the hammer. “When you pick up one of these, you better be prepared for what might happen. If you ever point one of these at a man, you had better be ready to pull the trigger and live with the consequences. Killing ain’t easy and it never gets any easier with each one you kill.
“How many you killed, Sam?”
“Enough. Too many. That’s why I’d rather not be doing this.”
“If you don’t, I’ll be doing it anyway,” she said.
He nodded. Her will was more powerful than the average cyclone and would turn out to be as dangerous for those who dared to get in her way. As she grew from a child to a young woman, that will become ever more intractable and she became ever more desirable.
As she practised, her draw became quicker, her accuracy improved and she became ever more deadly. There came a point where the pupil was in danger of overtaking her teacher and Sam worried. One day she would ride out of his life and put her own on the line.
It was Frenchie Bresson who gave her the name Sinistré. Lounging on Sam’s porch watching the girl shooting bottles he noticed she was left-handed. He walked down to the girl as she carried on drawing and shooting, concentration etched on her face. “Sinistré,” he smiled. She looked up at him. “You are left handed and there is something about you – something dangerous and deadly. Something sinister,” he said. She thought about this for a moment. “I hadn’t even considered it.”
“No, I suppose not, but it’s unusual. May I?” He held out a hand and she placed the Colt into it. Turning it over, he admired the shooting iron. “A nice piece,” he remarked.
“It shoots straight and that’s good enough,” she said.
“McAllister,” I said.
Sinistré sucked on her pipe and blew a smoke ring into the clear blue sky, eyes wrinkling against the sun and the whips of smoke that drifted back into her face. “McAllister,” she answered.
“Why did I go to work for him?”
“Something like that.”
“I needed to see if he remembered. He didn’t. Or if he did, he weren’t sayin’. And I need him to make a move. I’ve goaded him now. Eventually he’ll come for me. When he does, I’ll be ready.”
I thought about this for a moment. “Why’d he do it?”
“Twisted Creek?” She asked.
She sighed. Twenty years previously, she told me, he was a rancher. He narrowly survived a Comanche raid. They took his two children – a son and a daughter.
“Spent nearly twenty years lookin’ for ’em.”
“Did he find them?”
“Found the boy. Trouble was, he was too savage. He killed one of the posse and they shot him down when he tried to run.”
“And the girl?”
Sinistré paused. “The war came,” she said. McAllister went back East to fight the rebels. After the war, he stayed in the Union army as a cavalry captain. Made a name for himself in the Indian wars. Had good reason to hate us, I guess. But, yeah, he stopped lookin’. Didn’t want a repeat, I reckon.”
We caught up with Sam again a few days later when we rode into town for provisions. I drove the buggy and Sinistré sat beside me. I hitched it up outside the stores and went to go inside. Sam was waiting outside the saloon resting a chair on the sidewalk against the wooden wall of the building. “Morning Cloud,” he called out, lifting a hand in half salute. She jumped down off the buggy and leaned against it as he stepped off the sidewalk and walked down the middle of the street, spurs clinking as he walked.
“It’s time,” he said, stopping dead in front of her. He pulled the flap of his coat back to reveal the handle of his gun. Around them, people cleared the street. They knew what was coming and they wanted to be out of the way. “I told you to stay away,” Sam said.
“You did. But you knew I couldn’t do that.”
“Then it ends here.”
“Not if you walk away,” she replied amicably, playing their pre-determined game. She still hadn’t stood way from the buggy. She lounged against it, her hand nowhere near the gun at her left hip. She knew him well enough to know he wouldn’t reach until she was ready and she wasn’t ready yet. She was in no hurry.
“Sam, walk away. We don’t have to do this.”
“I can’t do that.”
She looked down briefly so that her dark face was concealed beneath the brim of her hat. Then she moved away from the buggy, sliding the coat tail behind her holster and stood, just looking at Sam. For what seemed a lifetime, they looked at each other, but she didn’t draw. She wouldn’t. She never drew first. She never killed a man who hadn’t drawn his gun. So she waited. Then he drew. He was fast for an old man. Rattlesnake fast.
But not fast enough. He got his gun up to waist height, but she was quicker. Two slugs pumped into his chest and he fell back in the dirt with a heavy grunt. She holstered her gun and ran over to him. “I’m sorry, Sam…”
He smiled. “You got faster,” he coughed.
“It don’t matter,” he said. “We had some good times, didn’t we?”
“Yes,” she said. Tears were running down her face. She reached forward and kissed him gently on the forehead as the life slipped from his eyes. She cried then, great keening sobs. I pulled her away from the body. “He was more than a friend, weren’t he?”
She nodded, but said nothing.
Old man Baker came over to take care of things. “I’ll pay for the burial,” she said. “He should have a decent burial.”
Finlay tipped his hat and started fussing about as I led Morning Cloud away from a man she had once loved enough to carry out his last fatal request.
There were only the two of us at the burial – and the preacher, of course. He said some words over Sam and then went. Sinistré just stood there not saying anything, so I stood next to her. I heard the sound of footsteps and turned to see Doc Haldane shuffling up the pathway to the cemetery. He tipped his hat.
“Morning, Jack. How’s your Ma and Pa?”
“Oh, they’re just fine,” I responded. I didn’t tell him that Ma was mighty displeased with my latest friendship.
He nodded towards my companion who had remained mute, staring at the new grave by her feet. Which was unlike her, you’d normally expect a reaction, but not this time.
“I’ve come to see Miss Morning Cloud,” Haldane explained. She turned then and nodded, but said nothing.
“Sam wanted me to speak with you,” he started. Awkwardly he carried on. “Look, Miss, Sam didn’t have long to live. Came into town a few weeks back and looked me up. He had a tumour and there was nothing anyone could do about it. He would have been dead in a few months – six at best.”
“So why didn’t he tell me?”
“He didn’t want you to know, not until after. He wanted to die with his boots on. Quick, like. And he figured going up against you would achieve that. He said you would make a clean kill.”
“He taught me to shoot.”
“He said you had a fine teacher.” Haldane nodded and placed a hand on her shoulder. “What you did was what he wanted you to do.”
He tipped his hat at me again and walked away back down to the town. Sinistré turned her attention to Sam’s grave. I don’t know how long we stood there, but I could see tears streaming silently down her cheeks. I reached across and brushed my hand against hers feeling the warmth of her skin. She wrapped her fingers around mine and held them tight. Instinctively, yet with the gauche awkwardness of a young boy dealing with something he didn’t quite understand but wanted with every fibre of his being, I reached for her and we hugged. Her body was supple, soft, inviting and warm, yet strong. Her embrace nearly took my breath away. Her face was so close to mine and her breath hot on my cheek. I knew what I wanted to do, I ached to kiss her on the mouth and to keep holding on to her, but also realised that she would never be mine, so I held her tight as the sobs wracked through her body – the ice in her soul melting into the turbulent white waters of spring. Silently, I remained in that strange embrace, my collar wet with her tears and that musky scent deep in my nostrils and I loved her then as I’ve loved no one before or since. And because I could never have her and she was as far from me in that moment as she is today, six decades on, she broke my heart as Sam Langman had broken hers. And I shed tears too, for both our losses.
Eventually I pulled away from that bitter-sweet embrace and walked back to the buggy to wait for her and let her do her grieving alone.
There were others. She knew there would be others. As that hot summer faded into autumn, Finlay Baker did a mean business. They say he’s a wealthy man because of Sinistré Morning Cloud and I wouldn’t gainsay ’em. One by one, the gunslingers McAllister sent to kill her ended up in the small cemetery on the edge of town.
One of ’em killed Joel Maddison. Pa came in and told us all about it. “Gunned him down in the street right in front of everyone,” he said. “He weren’t armed, neither. That ain’t right.”
Sinistré didn’t say nothin’. She just went out to the barn and saddled up her horse. She didn’t say nothin’ when she rode back in a couple of hours later. We just knew that there would be another one coming along sooner or later, and Finlay Baker was buryin’ another body in the cemetery.
Eventually, there was no one left. McAllister ran out of options as she knew he would.
A rider came up to the farm one evening in late October. He sat on his horse and waited. She came out of the barn and stood before him, left hand hovering over the grip of her pistol.
“Ol’ man wants to see you,” he said.
“The saloon in town. Tomorrow. Six.”
He turned and rode off. She watched him as he went. She said nothing.
“I’m coming with you,” I said.
“No you ain’t,” Ma snapped.
“Ma, I’m goin’ no matter what. She’s my friend. I have to be there.”
Eventually, Ma and Pa gave up. I was a man, now and men stand by their friends.
We arrived in town early. I rode alongside Sinistré in silence. She offered no conversation and I didn’t push her. Everyone McAllister had sent, she had sent back, feet first. Now there was no one else and this was what she had been waiting for. She’d never said as much, but I knew. I knew this was it, finally; the end of her bitter, lonesome twenty year voyage.
She walked into the saloon and took a bottle of whisky from the bar, crossed the floor and sat at one of the tables rocking the chair back onto its two back legs. Nonchalantly, she took out her pipe and filled it with tobacco. Then she just sat there, waiting and blowing smoke circles in the air and sipping her whisky.
She heard the footfall on the sidewalk outside. Most folk wouldn’t have noticed, but she did and I had spent enough time in her company to see the slight tensing of her body, even though to all intents and purposes, she was as relaxed as ever. Her left hand slid ever so slowly down to the handle of her pistol and rested there.
Jim McAllister burst through the swing doors, dominating the room with his presence. A big man with a shock of white hair and a huge moustache on his upper lip, he glowered across the bar room floor. Slate eyes glinted from a weather worn face, resting on Sinistré who feigned not to notice. He strode to the bar. “Whisky,” he barked. The order was filled and he threw the glass of liquor down his throat before turning to the object of his ire.
“Well, half breed,” he said. “Time to end this.”
“Yup.” She slowly brought the chair back onto its front feet. There she sat, felis, waiting to pounce.
“Why? What have I done to you, that you kill my boys? This range war is nothing to you.”
“You killed my mother.”
So, I saw McAllister thinking, that was what this was all about. Except, as it turned out, there was more, much more.
“Ah. The battle of Twisted Creek. That was war. Casualties happen.”
“War!” She snorted. “It was a massacre. You and your troop murdered women and children. The few braves that were in the village at the time were either wounded or too old to fight. But you and the cowards who rode with you shot everything that moved not one of them armed to shoot back. And they gave you the congressional medal of honour for your dirty work.”
“Had to be done.”
Sinistré lapsed into silence for a moment as she tapped out her pipe and refilled it. Drawing the flame onto the tobacco, her dark eyes looked up at McAllister and therein lurked menace I ain’t never seen before; a hatred that ran deep to the quick.
Blowing smoke into the air, she said, “You lost your children to the Comanche. I’m sorry for that.”
He was taken aback momentarily at the change of tack. “Son and daughter,” he said bitterly.
“Mm, you found the boy, I heard tell.”
McAllister said nothing at the painful memory.
“They shot him, I heard,” she continued equably. “He was too savage and killed one of the rescuers, so they gunned him down as he ran. Must’ve been painful for you, I reckon.”
“What’s it to you?” McAllister was rapidly tiring of the conversation that was leading to places he would rather not revisit.
“What about the girl?”
“Never found her. She’s dead to me.”
“Oh, you found her alright and, yes, she’s dead. Been dead this past twenty years. You found her at Twisted Creek when you cut her to pieces as she was runnin’ away from you trying to protect her daughter.”
“No!” His face was ashen. “No! You’re lying.”
She shook her head. “No, I’m not lying. My father was a Comanche brave – you killed him the day before when you ambushed a hunting party. My mother was white – and you cut her down in cold blood.”
He said nothing. The truth was written in her face.
She smiled, but there was no warmth in that smile – the devil would ’a been looking for his overcoat. “Hi ya gran’ pa,” she said.
A sound came from Jim McAllister’s throat, like I ain’t never heard before. The nearest I can recall was a mountain lion I once saw caught in a trap. It was a deep, primeval sound, busting with the rage and hatred he had carried in his belly for forty years and now it came flooding out.
He reached for his gun.
It was the last thing he ever did and what she had been waiting twenty years for.
The slug from her forty-five punched through his skull spraying bone, blood and brain in its wake until it hit the long mirror shattering it into a thousand shiny shards. McAllister was thrown back by the force, his spine arching and his neck snapping back then forwards as he hit the bar, before slumping lifeless to the ground in a grotesque heap, his blank eyes staring at his executioner.
She slid her pistol into its holster and walked across to the body. “Goodbye, gran’ pa,” she said. “May you find peace with your god, ’cos you never will with mine.”
With that she turned and walked through the swing doors and passed me like I weren’t there. Stepping into the saddle, she spurred the bay into action and rode back out to the homestead against the wine stained sky.
She left a few days later. I guessed that I always knew she would. Now that her business with McAllister was done, there was nothing to keep her. I went out early that morning to feed the chickens and she was saddling up the bay. “You’re leavin’” I said pointlessly.
“I am.” She carried on with hitchin’ her bedding roll to the saddle and seemed in no great hurry until I caught her eye. On the horizon a rider hove into view. It was Miss Lucy astride a dapple grey. I’d never seen her outside of the whorehouse before, so almost didn’t recognise her in pants and long coat. Like Sinistré, she wore a wide brimmed hat pulled low over her eyes.
“Mornin’,” Sinistré smiled as she launched her lean frame into the saddle and pulled up the reins. “Goodbye, Jack,” she said, turning to me and tipping her hat.
“I’ll miss you.”
“I know, but I’ll be thinking of you. And you take care, y’hear?”
With that she turned her horse and they rode out together. I watched for a while, until they were just dots on the hazy horizon. And they were gone.
The old man drifted into silence and tapped the ash out of the pipe she had given him all those years ago.
“Did you ever see her again?” The boy asked.
“No,” the old man replied wistfully. “A few years later when I was old enough, I did ride out lookin’. I thought I caught her ghost on the desert wind once or twice when there was talk of two women ridin’ together headin’ out for California.”
“Did you go?”
“Yup. Never seen her, though. It was like she just disappeared into the desert and vanished from the earth. She was always a bit mysterious, was Sinistré.”
Once more he lapsed into silence and closed his eyes. He slipped off into a light sleep and as he lost consciousness he could see once more the morning sun as she drifted into town on that big bay of hers, the dust of the plain on her coat and her wide brimmed hat with its eagle feather pulled low across her eyes.
Wherever she was, wherever she went, it didn’t matter, for she was always alive in the memory of an old man who cherished the few weeks he shared with her.