This is a work of fiction based on characters from the films "The Quick and the Dead" and "3:10 to Yuma." There is no intent to infringe on copyright or profit in any way from the original work. The story is strictly for entertainment purposes as a work of fan-fiction. Copyright Darcy and Isobel 2007.
He Lays in the Reins
by Darcy and Isobel
One more gift to bring, we may well find you laid
Like your steed in his reins
Tangled too tight and too long to fight.
-- He Lays in the Reins
Calexico & Iron and Wine
It was still two hours before dawn but lightning lit up the church with its eerie blue glow, illuminating the two men who waited together for death to come calling. Cort sat on the bed beside him, for Wade no longer had the breath to talk loudly enough to be heard across any distance. The sketchbook lay on the floor near the bed, its cover closed. Cort looked at it, knew Wade would never draw another picture.
He poured more wine into a tin cup, held it to the old desperado's lips and waited until he'd drunk his fill.
"Ben..." he began hesitantly. "You know your time's getting short. Please think about..."
"Tell me about your mother, Cort," Wade interrupted. "Did she ever marry?"
Cort shook his head, his face softening at his mother's memory. It discomfited him to talk about her to a man like Ben Wade, but the stories seemed to soothe him and he couldn't deny the man that little comfort. "No. She never married again. Not that she didn't have the chance. She was so pretty, there were plenty of suitors who came around to see her, but she wouldn't give them the time of day. I believe she never got over my father. No one could live up to him in her eyes, she loved him all her days. He must have been one hell of a man."
A hint of pride, of pure happiness flickered in Wade's shadowed eyes before he asked, "How did you all live?"
Cort shrugged. "Well, my father left her some money, so we did all right, I s'pose. Had us a little house on Main Street in San Antone where Mama worked as a seamstress. San Antone was booming then, lots of folks lived there. Mama made the prettiest dresses in town, so she had a lot of customers. Kept me fed and outfitted in checked shirts and a new pair of shoes every year to wear to school and church on Sundays. She always wanted me to be a businessman like my father, but I was restless. Bored. Didn't like being cooped up, reading all the time. I liked horses, working with my hands, building things. I'd light out when I was supposed to be at school and go down to the yards, help the cowboys get their cattle on the trail for Dodge City. And the schoolmarm always stopped by when I played hook and gave me up."
"No sir," Cort smiled in recollection, "it's not easy for a woman alone, raising a son without a father. But she did it." He snorted a laugh. "Many's the time she warmed my britches. Spare the rod and spoil the child, she said. I couldn't get away with much, she was too smart. But she was a sweet mother, too. Baked me pies, kissed me good night. Hugged me a lot, said I was a fine son. Told me all the time that my father would have been proud of me, just like she was."
His words had Wade aching inside, thinking of Velvet alone with a little boy all those lonely nights, empty years. He wondered how his life might have been different if he'd had Velvet for a wife and Cort for a son. But he reckoned she did the right thing, keeping quiet about the boy's real father, a man known far and wide as a thief and a killer. Young Cortland Davis...this kind man tending to a stranger in his final hours on earth...had grown up better without him. Ben Wade was no family man.
"You were lucky, Cort," Wade rasped. "She did right by you."
The pitiful image of an eight year old boy waiting alone in a train station made Cort drop his head. "I know it."
His fingers plucked restlessly at a loose thread on the blanket and there was a tremor in his voice as Wade asked, "When did she pass?"
Cort sighed at the painful memory. "It was the winter of '68 I was fifteen. The influenza was going around San Antone, killing folks right and left. Mama pitched right in, nursed our neighbors until she went down with it too. I was cowboying out at the Cantrell place, but Doc Robinson sent for me when she took sick. I came quick as I could, cared for her, barely left her side."
"That's where you learned to nurse the sick."
"Didn't learn much," Cort confessed. "I tried hard, prayed hard. I begged God on my knees, but the doc said there wasn't anything more a man could do. Mama passed on Christmas Eve." He closed his eyes, remembering his mother's struggle to breathe and the fever that had consumed her. She'd been in the same shape as Wade was now, but for the blood.
"She mention your father?"
"I thought she might, but she called for another man. Carried your name, too...Ben. Just once, just before she died, she opened her eyes, but I could see she was out of her head. She said, 'Ben?' real quiet, like a question. Wasn't an hour later she was gone."
Cort looked down at his clasped hands. "Maybe she had a suitor she'd come to love. Or maybe that feller was her first sweetheart. That was the only time I heard her say his name." He shook his head. "You know, when I was just a boy in short pants, that stagecoach story never set right with me. To a kid, there's always hope and I used to say, 'Maybe he's not dead, Mama. Maybe he'll come back someday.' I didn't realize that such a thing might hurt her worse than the thought of him dead. Not until I was older."
"I reckon she understood," Wade said.
Cort grimaced. "Probably. She knew me, all right, but I doubt she would ever have thought I could " He studied his folded hands for a long minute, then said only, "Well, I'm grateful she didn't live to see what I did with my life. It would have hurt her to know I'd gone bad." He raised his eyes and said doggedly, "But I'm back on the path she raised me to follow, and I won't falter again."
Wade thought of the Velvet he knew, the Velvet whose eyes often told him she realized what he was, though she never rebuked him, nor asked what he'd done. But knowing the man you love is an outlaw is different from the son you raised taking the same path. Cort was right, she would have thought she'd failed him, blamed herself for her son's evil ways.
Cort was still talking, almost confessing, and the dying man listened without judgment.
"I s'pose I was looking for a father when John Herod found me. He knew it too. Sensed it, like a wolf smells blood. Used it to keep me with him."
Wade scowled and shifted restlessly. "When'd you come across that sorry son of a bitch?"
"I was seventeen. The outfit I was with trailed a herd up to Dodge City, and he picked me out of the crew. Saw I was a little smarter, little faster than most. He was friendly, bought me drinks in the Long Branch. Liked to talk my ear off, telling me stories. Before I knew it, I left the trail and took up riding with him. Killed my first man at eighteen, and I thought there was no going back from there. John praised me to the skies, said he'd never seen a man so cool in the face of death. Said I was going to be fearless, just like him." Cort looked at Wade, his brows drawn close in an indignant glare. "What's an eighteen year old kid know about death? I wasn't brave, I just didn't believe I could die. And I thought..." he shook his head, "...well, I thought the sun rose and set on John Herod. Meant the world to me that I made him proud."
Wade lay still and quiet, hating the man who had stolen his son. The face of young William Evans flashed into his mind as he recalled the blind admiration the boy had for him at first. He remembered how flattered he'd been, knowing William thought he was something special. It made Cort's hero worship easier to understand, but it didn't stop Ben Wade from wishing John Herod to perdition.
"There's evil in me, Ben," Cort said suddenly, looking up to stare wild-eyed at the cross above the altar. "I don't know where it came from but it has to be there if I could kill and steal..." his voice broke, "...and God help me, even rape without feeling too much about it. I'm so ashamed now, so sorry. I swear I'll spend my life making up for what I've done, but it won't be enough."
Wade knew where the darkness in Cort came from. Folks always said it, and it was true: blood tells.
"There's evil in all men, Cort," he said slowly. "It's their nature to take what they want." He turned his face to the side to hide the tears that threatened at the sight of his son's anguish. "You're trying to make things right. That's what counts with your God, ain't it? You think He don't know your sorrow? You been after me to repent for two days now, said the Lord will forgive me. Why is it different for you?"
"Because you didn't have the raising I had," Cort said, his voice hard. "God will understand why you went down that road, but I knew better. He won't see it that way for me."
Wade shook his head. "Remember your Bible. Ezekiel chapter 33, verse 11: I have no pleasure in the death of the wicked; but that the wicked turn from his way and live." The eyes that could stare at a man in cold calculation were gentle on his son. "You told me there's always forgiveness if you ask for it. Well, you asked." He lay back on his pillow and spoke to the rafters. "The Lord ponders the heart. You're a good man, Cortland Davis. I reckon He knows it."
Cort saw the pain that lined Wade's face and dulled his eyes, and felt guilty for unburdening his troubles on a dying man. He put a hand on his shoulder, squeezed comfortingly. "Maybe you're right. You should rest now, Ben. I'll be here."
"In a minute. But first, those saddlebags I brung here?"
Cort nodded and started to get up. "They're back in my room. You need something from them?"
"Wait." Wade clutched his wrist to keep him there. "Listen to me now. All I got in the world is in them bags. About three hundred dollars cash money and my gun. It's yours, hear? Seems right for it to go to a gunfighter who's changed his ways, become a man of God."
Cort shook his head. "A man of God doesn't need a gun."
"Every man needs a gun," Wade hissed in deadly certainty. Then, gentling, his lips twisted in a knowing smile. "You'll break the curse."
Cort's brow hooked. "What curse is that?"
Restless, impatient, Wade stirred. His time was running out, every ragged breath was agony. He felt the ebb of his life now as surely as he'd felt each pinnacle: the thrill of power over lesser men, the triumph of a big take, the sweet pleasure of making love to a beautiful woman. "The damn gun is cursed," he spat. "Besides me, every man who touches the Hand of God dies."
The young priest shrugged. "I already touched it. Found it in your bag when you sent me for the whiskey last night."
Wade chuckled low. "Then you better pray that curse is broke."
Cort shook his head, dismissing the dying man's superstition. "My prayers are all for you right now. Why did you come to the house of God if not to make amends?"
"I don't know," Ben said truthfully, clutching Cort's wrist. "Might be something led me here. But I'm glad it happened like it did, more than you know."
Growing desperate, Cort urged, "Why won't you repent, Ben? All you have to do is ask. Say you're sorry for what you did and mean it." Searching his thoughts, he tried to find a way to convince him. "You want to see Velvet again? Ask forgiveness, and maybe you will."
An enigmatic smile played on Wade's lips, and he squeezed that strong young hand with what reassurance he could give. Gazing benignly into Cort's eyes, he said only, "Hush now, son. Maybe I already have," then let his eyelids fall, too weary to keep them open. His chest hurt, everything hurt. Dying was a hard business.
"I'm awful tired, Cort," he confessed. Looking away into the distance, back down the road he'd already traveled, he murmured, "I wish we'd met long ago. Wish I had more time "
Cort nodded and gripped the man's wasted hand. Blue rope-like veins stood out in relief, and the bones, strangely delicate, showed through Wade's thinning skin. Men had once feared that hand and the gun it held as an instrument of death, but those days were gone.
Moved to pity, Cort soothed, "Rest easy, friend. I'll stay with you." Wade still held fast to his cross, but Cort didn't take it back. He let the old man hold it, hoped it would bring him a measure of comfort.
* * *
All night the wind blew thunderstorms across the land, the little church jarred by thunder loud as cannon fire, and rain pelting on the roof and against the windows. Cort knelt on the unyielding stone floor beside the bed, his face hidden in his hands, and prayed. Not for a miracle he believed his God was almighty, but knew He didn't throw miracles around like chicken feed. Instead he prayed for Wade's peace, for a death as untroubled and easy as it could be. And Cort prayed that even at the last minute, the suffering desperado would turn his face to the Lord and ask His forgiveness.
His rosary was in his room and the young priest wished for it, but he feared to leave the bedside even for a minute, sure Wade would die alone while he was gone. Instead he told the beads on his fingers, moving through the mysteries and the decades, the cadence of his voice a low comforting susurration as he murmured the familiar words.
"Holy Mary, Mother of God. Pray for us sinners, now and at the hour of our death "
An hour passed, and then another. Cort meant to keep watch, but like the Apostles in the Garden, he couldn't stay awake. "Just gonna rest a bit, Ben..." he murmured, and laid his head on his arm. He fell asleep as soon as his head was down.
The old man's eyes shifted from the dark rafters to the tousled chestnut head lying near his hand. My son, he thought, reaching to touch Cort's hair. Lightly, so he didn't wake him, he combed his fingers through once, twice, allowing himself one tender caress before it was too late. Cortland Davis was a fine son. Ben Wade let his hand fall to the bed. Forgiveness? Yes, he'd beg for it.
"Ah Velvet," he whispered, "Forgive me, darlin'."
* * *Cort was dreaming. His mother's hand was in his hair, stroking the unruly locks back from his face, just like she'd done all those years ago when she tucked him into bed at night. He couldn't see her, but he felt her there and a smile twitched at the corners of his mouth.
He tore a folded scrap of paper from his shirt bosom and flung it away. Helpless, Cort watched as the old desperado was wracked by another violent spasm. He appeared to be drowning in his own blood, and his agonized eyes locked on Cort's face. The priest took his hand, held it tightly. Blood frothed at his bluing lips, and Wade choked out, "Son, my son..."
"Shh," Cort hushed him, his throat aching with sorrow at the sight of the dying man's fruitless struggle. "Let go now, Ben. She's waiting for you," he promised. "It's all right."
Wade's body tensed, arching off the bed, only to sink down and go still. The quiet gurgle of blood from his rotted lungs slowed, and Cort saw the light in his eyes flicker and go dark. The little church fell ominously silent, and Cort stood over him, unsure whether to mourn the loss of a friend or rejoice in his release from pain. Gently, he laid the lifeless hand on the bed and made the sign of the cross on the grooved forehead.
The infamous Ben Wade had drawn his last breath.
"May the Lord have mercy on your soul, friend," he prayed, leaning to close those blue eyes for the last time. He bowed his head and recited the prayers for the dead. After a few moments' quiet contemplation, Cort shuffled to the heavy mission door and pushed it open. He was greeted by dawn washing the sky in glorious hues of pink and gold, squinted at a sun Ben Wade would never see again. The air was fresh and cool from the rain, and he closed his eyes and breathed deeply for a selfish minute, anchoring himself firmly again in the land of the living.
As brilliant as the day was, as much as he needed light after so much darkness, he couldn't linger. There was too much to be done. Wade's horse to be fed, the chickens turned loose to scratch for bugs. And a man to bury. No, not just a man. A friend.
His eyes slid across the land, and as he took in the beauty, he considered the past two days. He'd befriended a killer who refused to ask God's forgiveness and gone to his death unrepentant. Maybe he should have disdained such a man...get thee behind me, Satan...but he couldn't. For all his grievous faults, Cort liked Ben Wade. Felt a kinship with him, and knew that, but for the grace of God, there he would be too.
He started across the little churchyard to his room to fetch a basin and some towels. He'd need to wash Wade's body, prepare him for the grave and then he'd face the hard job of digging one. After the glory of the morning, the church seemed too dark and solemn, but Cort respectfully closed the doors and sat on the edge of the narrow bed. Rolling up the sleeves of his white shirt, he began the somber duty he'd performed many times before.
Ben Wade's face was pale but peaceful, slack in death. Dipping the cloth in fresh rainwater, Cort cleaned the blood from the dead man's skin and beard and hoped again that he'd made his peace with the Lord before his struggle ended.
"Sorry friend, I'll be needing that back now," he whispered, prying open the clenched fingers. Wade had clutched the cross and his mother's ring so tightly they'd worn grooves in his palm, and Cort got up to set them at the feet of the Virgin for safekeeping. And there, lying near the altar, was the folded paper that Wade had torn from his shirt and thrown away in panic. Cort had forgotten it, but he knew that paper had to be something precious. He bent to retrieve it, wondered what could have meant so much to the old desperado that he kept it close to his heart.
It was vellum of some kind, more substantial than the cheap stuff he'd been using before. Better quality, but crisp with age, yellowed, the edges frayed. The creases were worn as if it had often been taken out and viewed. Careful of the folds, Cort turned the image into a shaft of sunlight.
The breath left his lungs, his vision narrowed to a tunnel that focused only on the paper in his hand. And his mind reeled as he realized what he was holding: a perfectly rendered portrait of his mother.
The years fell away as he stared down at the drawing. So many times he'd called her up in memory, afraid he'd forget that beautiful face. It had dimmed over the years but here she was, her image captured on crumbling paper by a loving hand.
"Mama. Sweet Jesus..."
Suddenly weak, rejecting the conclusion his mind had already reached, Cort sank down on the edge of the bed and studied his mother's face. Composed of flowing strokes and delicate shading, he marveled that a simple pencil had produced such amazing detail. She was young, her eyes radiating love and happiness, her mouth curved in a smile that enticed and teased. It was the kind of picture a man would draw of the woman he desired above all others, capturing every nuance of her expression. Velvet was written in a strong copperplate script centered at the bottom of the page. The right corner was inscribed simply, Wade. Cort turned his head to look at the dead man in his bed, saw as plainly as if a light had come on the straight brows, the strong nose, the cleft in the chin so like his own. Though his mind sought a different explanation, there was only one that made sense.
Ben Wade had known his mother and loved her. Ben Wade was his father.
* * *
The drawing fell from his numb fingers, and Cort got up and walked out the door. Ben Wade is my father. His reeling mind repeated the words over and over, knowing they were true, wishing they weren't. Everything his mother had told him about Newlin Davis was a lie, the life they lived in San Antonio was a lie. She wasn't Anna Davis. She was Velvet, a whore who'd worked for a blind Irishman in Leadville, Colorado. And his father was her best customer, a murderer, a cutthroat, and a thief.
Blood always tells, Cort thought. The apple don't fall far from the tree.
He thought his heart would pound out of his chest. A wild fury he hadn't felt in years threatened to consume him and he had to run, to get away from the dead man in his church before he did something he'd come to regret. As if sensing trouble, Wade's horse nickered from the makeshift stable and Cort turned his steps that way. He saddled the black mechanically, without even a pat or a word, then led him outside and mounted. A low click of his tongue set the horse in motion, and at a sharp kick to his sides, the black broke into a gallop.
The wind blew Cort's hair back from his face and stung his eyes until they burned. Tears ran down his cheeks and were immediately scoured away by the wind. Galloping hooves beat a rhythm that jarred up his spine and was answered by the heavy thud of his racing heart: Ben Wade is my father, Ben Wade is my father.
And my mother was a whore...
Lies, they were all lies. Everything she'd told him about her husband, every kiss good night and home baked pie, every fucking visit to church of a Sunday...it was all a lie. There was no businessman named Newlin Davis, there was no bank up in Colorado, there had been no stagecoach attack. He had no right to the name Davis, and the name he should bear was tainted forever.
Cortland Wade. Son of a whore and a killer, and a killer himself. Bad blood.
The ground blurred under the horse's hooves. Cort urged him on faster, desperate to escape his past and his present, and the black flew over rocky uneven ground with a power he hadn't felt in years, flat out across the valley toward the blue rock mountains. How long had it been since he'd been out of this little valley? Three years he'd been trapped in the mission, doing penance for a sin that would never be washed clean. And for what? Only to learn that in killing men for money, he'd simply been doing what he was born for, fulfilling his birthright. Killer Cort. No matter how hard he drove the stallion, even to his death, it wouldn't be fast enough to outrun that truth.
Three long years, wasted. Since he'd left home, Cort had always been on the move, never stayed in one place more than two seasons, first on the cattle trails, then with Herod. Only in this moment did he realize that a part of him had withered cooped up so long, and that part now felt the wind in his face and sang, while the speed of the magnificent animal beneath him infused his soul with power. That part rejoiced at being set free and told him to live like there was no tomorrow, because there wasn't one.
Death was on every man's heels.
Take the money and the gun and go, Cort thought. Quit hiding out like a scared rabbit and track down John Herod, kill the son of a bitch. Take the name Wade, and with the Hand of God on your hip, no man that wants to live will stand in your way. Take anything you want, take it all, and burn the rest down. It's your birthright. Your destiny...
It would be easy. Too easy
The black's strength never flagged, though foam flecked his mouth and hide. Running was what he was born and bred to do, and he reveled in it. But when Cort was ready to slow, it seemed like all he had to do was think of easing back on the reins and the stallion responded, commanded by a touch so light it amazed him. He worked to slow his racing thoughts the same way, with a deep cleansing breath.
As they topped a rocky ledge, Cort clucked his tongue and the horse slowed to a trot, then finally came to a halt. He dismounted and let the reins drop, walked to the edge of the precipice alone. Holding his aching head, he muttered into the vast emptiness, "Mama, why didn't you tell me?" then lifted his voice and shouted, let his rage take flight over the valley like a soaring bird: "Why didn't you tell me?"
The agonized question echoed across the land, fading to a faint hum. He waited, he listened, and after a long pause, Cort thought he heard her sweet voice in answer.
She didn't tell him because she didn't want her innocent son to begin his life already in disgrace. Velvet the whore had moved on, changed her ways, become Anna Davis, and she'd done it all for him. She could have cast him from her womb, bled him from her body. He'd seen it enough times in booming cowtowns behind sordid brothels, found the mangled corpses of unborn children swaddled in rags tossed into alleyways like garbage. She could have given him life but abandoned him, like eight year old Ben Wade had been abandoned in the train station. But she didn't. Velvet Anna Davis gave birth to the son of the man she loved, and told the lies she needed to tell to give him a decent life. The whore became a mother a good mother who loved her child.
His knees weak, Cort settled down on a rock and tried to bite back his tears, but they ran down his cheeks when he thought of his mother taking such a burden upon herself. Alone. She never breathed a word of her past to another soul. She kept it locked inside until her last moments, when she'd whispered the name of man she loved.
Rubbing his eyes on his shirtsleeve, Cort looked out at the valley below, saw his little church in the distance. The father he never knew lay dead in that church, the man his mother loved all her days. And somehow, God had bestowed on father and son a gracious gift; he'd allowed their paths to cross before the dying outlaw made his final journey.
Now when he thought of the man he met so long ago in Tombstone, that charming dangerous renegade, all he could picture was the dutiful little boy in the train station, reading his Bible because his mama had told him to. Waiting for her, frightened, alone, through three long days that had colored the rest of his life. And still he loved her, Cort thought. Was it any wonder he had taken a wayward path, done what he needed to do to survive? Maybe he'd become a thief and a killer because he had no choice.
But Cort had choices, and three years ago he'd vowed to renounce violence. Seeing the once powerful Ben Wade at the end of his days, friendless and alone, he knew that he'd been right.
That poor child, the child that became my father, Cort thought. How he wished he could go back to that day in the train station, take the lost boy's hand, and smooth his tears away. Save him from his destiny. Love him.
Well, he could still love him. It was the Lord's place to judge, not his, so he laid that burden down.
The sun was high, Cort reckoned it was near mid-morning. He stood and dusted the seat of his pants, then clucked to the black. The horse flicked his ears, chuffed through his nose and came to him. Cort leaned his face into the glossy neck, breathed the good smell of horse, and patted him.
"You and me, Dan. It's just you and me now."
black turned his head, nudged the man's shoulder. Cort gave him one last
caress and mounted up. He was exhausted, drained, but there was work to
Manuel was there when he rode into the mission, looking confused and forlorn as he pointed to the church mutely.
"Yes, Manuel, I know. He's gone. It's all right now."
Cort pushed the heavy church door open wide and let the sunlight chase away the gloom. Inside the sacred space, he went again to the bedside to kneel, and for the first time knowingly looked down on his father's face. Brushing a strand of long silver hair back from Ben Wade's closed eyes, he gave voice to his fondest childhood wish.
"I always knew you'd come back."
* * *
The drawing was still there on the floor. It had fallen near a pool of Wade's blood, and a corner had wicked up enough to stain the paper. He picked it up, considered tucking the only part of his Velvet that Wade had been able to hold on to back inside the dead man's shirt. But he couldn't do it. He couldn't let go of the portrait of his mother.
So he offered a trade. Taking the tiny circle of gold and emeralds from the altar at the feet of the Virgin, Cort slipped it on Ben Wade's little finger. It would go no farther than the first knuckle, but that was far enough.
"Give it to her when you see her again, Ben Wade," he murmured. "Rest in peace..." he hesitated, "Father."
The day wore on long and solemn. Patiently, Cort showed Manuel what he wanted him to do, and the simple man did his best to help him knock together a rough coffin from the wood of a church pew, then went out back to the tiny mission graveyard to dig a final resting place on the hill overlooking the valley. By the time they lifted the wasted body and laid Ben Wade inside his casket, the sun had begun sinking in the west.
As Manuel wandered down the hill, Cort stayed to speak the Lord's Prayer over the grave, a meager service, but he was exhausted. A tear came to his eye when he realized that it was probably more than Wade ever hoped for.
* * *
That night in his room, worn from a long day's hard labor and his heavy heart, Cort sat on the edge of the bed where Ben Wade had died and gazed down on the gun in his hand. The Hand of God was an awful temptation, and Cort realized too late that he should have laid it in the coffin with its owner.
There it was, famous, deadly. Beautiful, in its way, the gold crucifix gleaming against the ebony grip. The elegant Colt was perfectly balanced, and the weight felt good in his hand. Familiar. Seductive. Ever since boyhood, he'd loved guns. Loved the touch of cold steel that warmed in his palm like a living thing. The smooth rotation when he chambered a round, the ominous click as he cocked. Loved the sound and the fury when he pulled the trigger, and the smell of spent powder.
Alone in his quarters, he dared to fasten the rig around his waist, adjusted it until it rode low, in the position he favored. He drew. Fast. Smooth. Looked at the pistol in his hand, slid it back in the holster. Drew again and twirled, a fancy piece of gun play that had always impressed men like John Herod. It was a beautiful gun.
Yes, it was a terrible temptation to keep it. But a gun like this is only good for killing, he thought as he unbuckled the holster and rolled it up. And killing is wrong. After tucking it back into the saddlebag, Cort laid his head down and slept dreamlessly.
The morning after he'd laid Ben Wade to rest, Cort wrapped the Hand of God in oilcloth, placed it in a tin box, and buried atop the grave.
Gazing on the portrait of his beautiful mother drawn by his father's loving hand, he thanked the Lord for giving him the strength to turn from his wicked way and live in the light. He wasn't going down that road again.
Three years later
Cort puzzled over the chalk slate, tugging absently at the white collar at his throat while the child's expectant dark eyes looked up to him. Divide and carry the four, he thought. No, wait, first you have to subtract. Dammit, these kids out-learned me months ago. What the hell am I supposed to teach them now? Sighing, he checked himself for cursing, then smiled down to the eight-year-old girl at his knee.
"Miranda, darlin', I'm sorry, but I don't know the answer to this one."
"Lo se, Padre," answered Juan Carlos from the next seat, with his hand raised politely. He nodded to him and he made his way up to the blackboard where he solved the problem without fanfare or, seemingly, much effort.
Cort shook his head in dismay. Turning his attention to the children at their seats in his makeshift schoolroom, he said, "Ninos, I want you to know that it's never wrong or shameful to admit you don't know something. It's part of telling the truth. I was a restless boy, and didn't have the patience to set my mind to learning. See where it's got me?" He shook a scolding finger. "Don't go down that road."
I knew it was going to happen, he thought looking over his brood of orphans, six in all, their bright shining faces scrubbed clean the night before in their Sunday baths, I just didn't think it would be this soon. Once you get their bellies full, it's their minds that cry out for sustenance.
Dismissing the children to their chores, Cort collected the chalk and rubbed down the blackboard. He'd have to see about getting a real teacher for these children, the sooner the better. Ben Wade's money had gone far in Hermosillo. He'd been able to build this school room, take in the village orphans, and fill their bellies for three good years. Maybe if he wrote to the church, told them of his success with the children, they could assist by providing a real school teacher. Or they could sweep in and take it all away from him. He sighed, unsure which path to take. Figured he'd pray on it. After a good night's sleep, he might have a better idea.
Outside in the mission yard, Manuel watched over the children at play like a sentinel while the scent of Senora Ramirez's good cooking wafted on the breeze. Suppertime, Cort thought, sniffing the air. "Birria again tonight." A look passed over his face, a smile tinged with sorrow, and then it was gone as quickly as it came. The aroma of simmering birria always made him think of his father.
* * *
Something woke Cort Davis, an unfamiliar sound that penetrated the adobe walls of the Mission de Hermosillo. Eyes open in the pre-dawn darkness; he held his breath to listen. Nothing, silence.
Another nightmare of riders in the night.
Then it came again: the thud of horse's hooves on hardpan, a man's hushed whisper, and the choking scent of smoke in his nostrils.
Throwing off the blankets, Cort struggled into his pants and shoes, tore the door open to see the flames already licking at the night sky, the mission church engulfed in fiery conflagration.
"No!" he screamed, racing for the children's room.
A horse reared before him in the dark, cut off his path. A familiar toothless grin smiled down on him, the man's dirty face lit by the blazing fire.
"Hey there, Killer," Ratsy sneered. "We heard a rumor you got religion. Well, well, ain't that something? Killer Cort, down here in 'ol Mexico with the orphans and the cactus flowers, praying for salvation."
Cort turned to escape, but another rider appeared from the darkness. "John's been looking for you, Cort. Told us not to come back without ya."
He wouldn't turn his head to mark them, but from the corner of his eye, Cort saw Manuel leading the children into the cover of the night, and gave thanks for his years of patience with the good, simple man. Instead, Cort's green eyes shot to the distance, out to the hill where the Hand of God lay buried atop Ben Wade's grave. He knew he'd never make it
"Looks like we're going home, Foy," Ratsy grinned. "Come on, preacher. John Herod says come to Jesus."
Cort didn't see Foy raise his rifle, just felt the crushing blow to the back of his head. And the image of his life's work engulfed in hellfire faded to black.
have fought a good fight, I have finished my course,
I have kept the faith.
For I am now ready to be offered,
and the time of my departure is at hand.
I charge thee therefore before God,
who shall judge the Quick and the Dead...
~ The End ~