Part 1: The Search
by Darcy 2006
Originally posted on Isobel’s Lair, April 2006
"Señor? You will consider our offer?"
Cort stared at the elderly Mexican who had taken it upon himself to act as alcalde in the aftermath of Ellen's vengeance, and then dropped his gaze to the tin star she'd flung at him. Silently accusing, almost mocking, it was lying on the rough wooden table next to a bottle of aguardiente. He reached for the brandy and took a long pull.
"Si, hombre viejo," he said tiredly, wiping his mouth with the back of his hand. "I'll consider it."
nodded, but his eyes were shrewd. This scruff-bearded pistolero preacher,
who had not smiled once since the gringa
who shot el diablo
Herod rode out of town, was not going to stay and help the people. They'd
offered to build him a church and a jailhouse, asked him to be their lawman as
well as their spiritual leader. Even though he was not of the
But the gringo padre had curtly refused. Alcalde Fernando knew he'd been drinking steadily since then, and he seemed angry...muy enojado. And angry drunkards were to be feared, especially those skilled with the gun.
The old man backed meekly away from the table with his eyes downcast, almost as he would have from John Herod. Obviously intimidated by Cort's dark mood, he muttered, "I will leave you to your bottle, Señor. Gracias..."
Observing his obeisant departure, Cort realized he could take over the town, run it just as Herod had, if he was of a mind to. It was ripe for the picking; these poor peons were already so cowed from living under an iron-fisted ruler that they'd fall right into line. He could set himself up like a prince, but he wasn't interested in their town, or in any kind of redemption. He'd had his taste of redemption, and it was bitter in his mouth. What had it gotten him? A burned mission, more killings to his name, and sweet Lord, one night in heaven.
He raised the bottle again and pulled deeply, gulping aguardiente as if it were no more than sarsaparilla. It hit his all but empty belly and burned like the liquid fire it was. He grimaced as the bile rose in his throat in protest, for he hadn't eaten since yesterday. The women in town had brought him food before then...bowls of beans and rice, crisp carnitas, tortillas...good things that had reminded him of Hermosillo and the meals the good sisters would cook, when there was food to be had.
Until he'd refused to hold a public prayer meeting for them. Then his meals had stopped, as if the withholding of food would chastise him into compliance.
They'd come to him, these poor people, sure he would be only too happy to give thanks to the Lord who had finally delivered them from Herod and his minions. And if Cort had managed to resist all the temptation that had come his way since his arrival in Redemption, he would have gladly done as they wished. But not now. Not with unclean hands. He would not raise his voice to the Lord in thanksgiving and devotion while his soul was blackened with the killings of more men. He wouldn't offer prayers of supplication when his body and soul cried out for her, and not for the solace of his God.
He said it aloud, said it in a voice that was hoarse from drink. And because he didn't know any other way to assuage the pain, he raised the bottle to his mouth once more.
e e e
Drunk to the point of sodden unconsciousness, his bed a dirty blanket on the floor of one of the few remaining buildings in town, Cort slept the day away and rose up in the early evening to stumble outside to relieve his straining bladder. The sky was glorious, washed in layers of color; orange fading to rose pink fading to blue and lavender. Long after his piss had soaked into the parched ground, he stood and squinted at the setting sun while his mind cleared. After it sank beneath the horizon and nothing was left but a rosy orange glow behind the hills, he kicked at the scorpions that had scrabbled over the baked earth, attracted by his urine, then turned and walked toward the plaza and the well. He dipped his cupped hands and gulped water, finished by sluicing some over his face and neck. When he straightened, the old man was near again, his manner respectful and guarded.
Cort gazed at the blackened storefronts, the piles of rubble blocking the street. "What's left of Herod's place?" he asked brusquely, drying his face with his sleeve.
Fernando shrugged. "Nada. Everything went…" he gestured with his hands… "up into the air."
"I need a horse, a gun. Where can I get them?"
"Ah, Señor Herod's stable was left untouched, as were the animals inside. My son-in-law turned them out to pasture himself only yesterday." His hooded eyes grew wary. "But I do not know where you can find another pistola."
stable left standing. Horses, saddles, tack. Maybe a gun, to replace the rusted
Colt Herod had bought from the Kid. In the west, the last rays of the setting
sun faded. Cort lifted his eyes and saw stars shimmering overhead, a slice of
luminous moon rising over the
"I'm taking one of those horses, maybe two," he said finally, and started off toward the remains of Herod's house, his cracked shoes puffing dust with every step.
Fernando watched him go, shoulders straight and broad under the dusty brown coat. So the gringo padre wouldn't be staying among them, didn't care for their offer. Remembering the look on his face and the coldness in his eyes, the old man was very grateful that the Señor was leaving Redemption, for he suddenly appeared to be touched by evil too. The town would be better off without him.
Fernando spat on the ground, and made a hasty sign of the cross against the devil.
e e e
As if they hadn't wanted to touch anything that had been tarred with the brush of Herod's ownership, the people of Redemption had left the stable intact. He pushed the double doors wide and peered inside. It was too dark to see much besides shadows. Cort struck a lucifer and lighted a lantern hanging from a nail near the door. Cautiously, the Colts in hand, he searched the stable and behind the last stall, pushed open a door and hit pay dirt.
room had obviously been used as a bunkhouse for Herod's gang. On pegs driven
into the wall clothing hung, as if waiting for its owners to return, and though
none of it was of good quality, it was better than his. He exchanged his filthy
shirt for a cleaner one and a plain dark coat that didn't bear the stink of the
man who'd worn it. Found a pair of boots that fitted him well enough, and a
low-crowned black hat to keep the sun out of his eyes. A long gray duster, split
to accommodate the saddle, would keep off the rain. And in a locked rack nailed
to the plank wall, he beheld an arsenal...two
He broke the hasp with a blacksmith's hammer and helped himself to a rifle and the Peacemakers. The pistols were Buntline specials, modified by Colt to use the same shells as the rifle, a convenience he appreciated. He hefted them in his hand, liked their solid weight, then spun one into the well-worn holster Ratsy strapped on him at the beginning of the contest. The fit was snug but smooth. Cort decided the holster would do...he had never been one for the fancy hand-tooled and silver-studded leathers that bantam cocks like Ace Hanlon affected. Plain and serviceable had always been good enough for him. He slid the other revolver into his waistband and practiced a draw, cleared leather in a blur of movement. Grimacing, he reminded himself that the weapons were for protection and hunting, not fighting. He told himself that, but he knew a man who carried guns often found himself forced to use them. When he turned to go back into the stable, his face was grim, like it was carved from stone.
A rummage through the stable acquired him all that he would need. He packed his gear into saddlebags and bedded down on a pile of straw, disdaining the stained mattresses on the bunks. He spread his borrowed blankets and used a sack of grain as a pillow, and dropped off as soon as he lay down. It was the first night since Ellen rode out of town that he hadn't had to get drunk to find sleep.
But he dreamed of her, naked on her knees before him, her mouth bringing him a pleasure sweeter than any he'd known before, and then jolted awake, wracked by the pleasure of a nocturnal release. He lay awake the remainder of the night with his semen drying on his belly, thinking of her, wondering why it had been so easy for her to ride away from him. Did she feel nothing for the man she had refused to kill? Was there no tenderness in her at all? And he wondered why, of all the women he'd known, it should be this one, so soul-scarred and troubled, who had stolen his heart.
At dawn he filled a measure of oats from a bin and went outside, shook it and whistled. Several horses answered his call, trotting toward him curiously with their ears twitching and their heads tossing. The first was a fancy bay with white socks that he passed over as too flashy. Horses that fine were easily remembered, and Cort didn't want to be remembered. A buckskin gelding with a black mane and tail thrust his nose inquisitively into the oats. Cort caught him by the halter, tied him to the corral fence, and approached another gelding, a nondescript brown with no distinguishing marks. He examined teeth and hooves, ran his hand over withers and flanks. They'd do. He led them back to the stable, fed them both on oats and hay, and as they chewed their breakfast, Cort got ready to leave Redemption forever.
He rode out of town when the sun was barely over the horizon, feeling the eyes of the people on his back. He didn't bother with farewells.
found him forty miles east on the outskirts of Oracle. He'd followed the
With his hobbled horses contentedly cropping the wiry gramma grass, Cort lay back against his saddle and closed his eyes. Again Ellen's face came to mind, the look in her eyes as she found her pleasure in his arms that last night, the tenderness of her mouth as she kissed him before leaving at dawn. He remembered her determination, the raw courage as she faced her fear and challenged Herod, the cunning and intelligence that led her to devise a plan to defeat the man she'd come to Redemption to kill. And he remembered his cruel disappointment when she'd tossed him her father's badge and left town without so much as a backward glance.
The bile rose in his throat, and he reached for his canteen and gulped brackish water. 'Should have brought some whiskey,' he thought, but whiskey was a head-blurring temptation he'd indulged in too often of late; he needed to be sharp for what he planned to do. Go into Oracle and case the town, just like he'd done when he rode with Herod. The only difference was this time, he'd do it for himself. And if it played out right, he'd take the bank.
"Just before closing time..."
He uttered the words aloud; the horses' ears twitched at the sound of his voice. His mind made up, he stood, undressed, and waded hip deep into the slow-moving river. With his bandana, he scrubbed his body, then washed his old shirt as well as he could without soap. Lying on his back in the water, he let the current wash him a little way downstream. And when he felt clean again, he slogged out of the river and sat on a rock in the sun to let it dry his skin.
By the time the sun was well over the meridian, he was saddled and ready, the buckskin hobbled and staked, his gear loaded on its back. He checked the loads in his pistols, slid one into the leather holster, the other into his belt, and mounted the brown gelding. Ten minutes ride brought him to the edge of town. The place didn't seem any busier than it had at . The marshal was in front of the jailhouse, sprawled in a chair he'd tipped back against the building, with his hat over his face to blank out the sunshine. Cort ignored him, rode past at a slow walk with his eyes straight ahead. In front of the bank he reined up and tied the gelding to the hitching rail. His eyes flickered as he took in the all but deserted street, and then he walked into the First Bank of Oracle.
Inside there was only one clerk, one customer. Cort ambled to the table against the wall and with his back to them, stalled until he heard the clerk say, "That's five hundred even, Joe. I'll put it in the safe," before he went to the room where a massive I. A. Goodwin safe reposed, its heavy metal door standing conveniently wide open.
"See you in church, Ben."
Joe waved, and as soon as the door closed behind the departing customer, Cort locked it and vaulted the counter. His gun at the back of the stunned teller's head, he said softly, "Give me what's there or you're a dead man." For emphasis, he thumbed back the hammer on his revolver, the metallic click as loud as a clap of thunder.
over in a minute. Cort stuffed his pockets with greenbacks and gold coins,
gagged, tied, and locked the clerk in the room with the now closed and empty
safe. He sauntered out of the bank, stopped to look up at the sky as if he had
all the time in the world before mounting his horse to ride slowly out of town. 'Take heed that no man deceive you...' he
quoted softly, then nodded pleasantly at the sunning marshal, who lifted his hat
and nodded back disinterestedly. On the outskirts of Oracle, Cort spurred his
gelding into a canter until he got to the river and his waiting packhorse. In
minutes he was headed toward the foothills of the
e e e
"Buy you a drink, little lady?"
Ellen raised her head from her folded arms and focused on the voice. Bleared eyes slid over the man standing in front of her table, took in the rough clothing, the empty holster at his hip. There was a law against carrying weapons in Bisbee, enacted by the town council to keep the miners and the cowboys from shooting up the place when they came into town to spend their wages. Her holster was just as barren...she felt oddly naked without her guns.
fellow didn't look all that appealing, but he had offered to buy her a drink,
and another drink was what she needed. She managed to slur out the words: "
The cowboy let his eyes linger a beat on her bosom. As bosoms went, hers wasn't much to write home about...barely made a bump in her shirt...but at least she had a pair of tits, even if she was dressed in pants. And that yellow hair...damn, but he liked yellow hair on a woman. It was scarce as hen's teeth in these parts, overrun as it was with Mex and Injuns.
A five dollar gold piece slapped on the bar bought him a bottle, he brought it and a pair of glasses and set them on the table before taking a seat himself.
from around these parts?" he began. When she remained silent, he went on
conversationally, "I'm from
She wanted to cut him with one of her usual curt replies, but he had the bottle, and she was flat broke. Didn't even have the means to pay for room for the night, but she'd slept with her horse before. 'Should have picked up some of those greenbacks, I could be sitting pretty now…' she berated herself, remembering the way Herod's money had floated through the air like fat snowflakes after she'd blown up his town. The cowboy was still talking, she knocked back the first shot of whiskey, gave him a bored glance, and reached to pour another one.
His hand covered hers, pressed it to the table.
"Easy now, ma'am. Pardon my sayin' so, but you look like you had ought to take it slow." His eyes went over her hollowed cheeks, her dark-ringed eyes. "You et much of anything lately?"
She glared angrily. "Why? You gonna buy me supper, too?"
cocked his head. There was something about this woman that both warned him off
and called him on. It was the look in her eyes, haunted, sorrowing. Reminded him
of his mama's eyes when it was plain his daddy wasn't coming home after
She snorted in derision. "Seems like every goddamn ex-Rebel I meet is named Rafe...you boys aren't very original, are you?" She looked away from his penetrating gaze. She couldn't stand it, the look in his eyes. Wondering, full of questions. For Christ's sake, pitying...
He poured another shot, she reached for it with a shaking hand. The whiskey burned its way down her throat and she waited for it to work its magic, blur the jagged edges of the pain that killing Herod hadn't cured. And just as she set the glass back on the table, two other slyly grinning cowboys came over to the table and pulled out chairs.
Ellen got mad, and the anger chased away the pain even better than the whiskey could.
"I don't need more company," she gritted, her eyes suddenly focused and clear as the two settled in and greeted Rafe. In a surge of enraged violence, she wished she had her guns; these hombres wouldn't look so goddamned smug if she had the Colts at her hip. She pushed her chair back, intent on leaving, but Rafe covered her hand again and said softly to his compadres, "You boys get on back to the ranch. Me and the little lady're gonna have us some supper."
The tension didn't ebb when they shrugged good-naturedly and left the saloon. Ellen glared at Rafe and dragged her hand away roughly. "Listen, mister. I might be a drunk but I ain't a whore. If you think I'll bed you to pay for a couple of drinks and a dinner, I won't. You might as well go to the cathouse with your friends."
Rafe leaned closer and said softly, "Have I been disrespectful to you, ma'am? Done one thing that you could take offense at?"
Ellen opened her mouth to retort, then bit back the rude words. He hadn't been insulting at all. Fact was, there was something about him that reminded her of the handsome preacher in Redemption. He had the same placid demeanor, non-threatening, easy. She relaxed a little, shook her head.
"You reckon you could stop bein' so mad at me then? Maybe tell me your name?" He smiled, displaying a full set of teeth that were still white and unstained, and a chastened Ellen looked down at the scarred tabletop and nodded.
She dragged a sleeve across her mouth and stood.
"If we're going to supper, I'd best freshen up a little," she said, her sense of pride rising up to remind her that she was still a woman. "Be right back. And...uh...my name is Ellen." She gave him a hint of a smile, and it was enough to keep Rafe in his chair until she returned, her face washed, hair brushed and tied into a queue at her nape, a fresh shirt replacing her dirty one.
He stood, offered her his arm, and with an air of propriety, escorted her to Mrs. Kincaid's dining room across the square.
e e e
In the end, she slept with him. Over supper he offered to take a room for them at the Silver Queen Hotel, and dreading a sleepless night alone out in the desert, Ellen accepted. She wasn't drunk anymore, so she couldn't blame her weakness on that. It was just that he reminded her of Cort with his respectful manners, his lazy drawl, his kindness. She felt needful of some kindness, of a sudden.
They didn't talk on the way up the staircase. With an air of nervous anticipation much like a bridegroom's, Rafe unlocked the door, lighted the lamp, and stood aside to let her enter the room before him. She glanced around in the dim flickering light and saw that though plain, the place was clean, and there was water, soap and towels on the washstand. She strode across the room and poured water into the bowl, her intentions plain.
Clearing his throat, Rafe made an excuse and left while she bathed, and when he came back, she was naked and waiting under the coarse muslin sheet, her hair spread in a halo around her head. He fisted it in his hands, rubbed the skeins of yellow against his lips, and it was this lover-like gesture that thawed her heart. Ellen squeezed her eyes closed and allowed him to kiss her. He was gentle, if clumsy, and spent himself almost as soon as he entered her, sobbing as he came. Sated, he kissed her again as if she were likely to break, then fell asleep with his head pillowed on her breasts.
Ellen lay awake for a long time, lightly stroking his head, feeling his breath warm her skin while his semen cooled between her thighs. And in the darkness, with his crisp hair curling between her fingers, she remembered someone else.
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