by Jason Polliard
Fearing imminent death in the upcoming Confederate New Mexican Campaign, a motley crew of Texan soldiers take on a fateful contract, and try to live with the consequences.
War’s coming. That much is crystal clear to Phil from the Union traffic this time of morning.
From his position about a mile-and-a-half southwest of Santa Fe, Phil peers east through his field-glasses, able to make out, two-or-so miles out, the Santa Fe Trail’s final northerly leg along the base of the Sangre de Cristos’ foothills, and into the sleepy New Mexican capital: An occasional Union runner gallops either to or from the small Union camp along the quiet town’s southern flank, speeding to-and-fro through the cold early morning air; while a sparse line of wagons and horses, loaded with families and personal belongings, slowly make their way south, away from the capital, most likely Union loyalists looking to cross over Glorieta Pass to wait out the fighting beyond, east of the mountains.
Which means the Pass is clear enough to traverse.
Phil lowers his field-glasses and turns around to look towards the hazy, distant Sandia Mountains, behind him to the southwest, just visible above the gentle rise atop the mesa of La Bajada several miles away, hiding from view distant Albuquerque along the banks of the Rio Grande. A few more wagons of the displaced approach in the distance, having already made La Bajada’s ascent. Things appear quiet otherwise, however that will change before too long.
Before then, Phil wants to check on the corral just up the road, on the edge of town, where he hopes to encounter “an old prospector marked with the scar of a cross”, as the contract had described the owner of the maps. Walter, Phil’s righthand man, scouted one of the saloons last night, and he managed to strike up a conversation with a tipsy farrier who let it slip that an old man and known prospector (with a familiar-sounding scar on his forehead) had recently returned from Colorado, and would be picking up his mare this morning. And that farrier works in a shop next to the corral just up the road, most likely the smallish adobe and wood building just on the other side, with tendrils of smoke and heat issuing from the stone chimney at its rear, driven by the small forge inside, or so Phil surmises. The town beyond is beginning to stir, and Phil’s hoping to intercept the old man – most likely the owner of the maps – before things get too busy, though all appears quiet at the corral and shop next door.
About an hour ago, not long before dawn, Phil had sent Walter ahead, with six of the crew, to keep watch over the northern approaches to town, as well as scout the trails leading further into the foothills, while keeping their cargo under goddamned control. Phil hopes the effort might yield the location of the old man’s place, but Phil also wants some familiarity with that terrain all the same – just in case – because he can’t shake the sense of foreboding about what this day holds in store, though the relative peace of the scene around him belies those feelings. Phil turns to look at his riding companion – the final member to join the crew – and he speaks in a strangely nervous drawl, though no less serious:
“You keep your fucking eyes open and follow my lead. Y’ hear me, Rex?”
Riding dapple-gray Euripides, Ryan “Rex” O’Halloran, a green-eyed redhead of twenty-or-so years, adjusts his dark sock cap and pulls down his woolen scarf, revealing his shaven, spritely face.
“Y-yes, Phil,” Rex replies with a slight Irish twang, returning Phil’s dour look with bright eyes which have always struck Phil as being a bit vacant, more like the eyes of someone who’s slow-witted, yet deceptively clever. However, even before the contract, in the ranks, Phil had always noticed that the seeming dimwit has a gift for earning people’s trust, as well as a knack for just blending in – exactly what Phil wants for this excursion. Rex starts to say something more, but simply stops as his eyes then wander towards town, like he’s looking for his next thought. Impatient Phil is about to rudely snap him out of it, when Rex apparently finds what he’s looking for:
“I’ll help keep watch for the old fella,” the redhead says at last, returning his eyes to Phil. “And follow your lead.”
Phil nods, satisfied. He stows his field-glasses and spurs Charger forward at a slow trot towards the capital, using the thin brush as he can to screen their advance, with Rex riding alongside. Both men travel in silence for a stretch, as Phil continues to mull over their situation: While in that saloon last night, Walter also learned that things were not progressing very well for the invading Texans to the southwest. Several days ago, according to the barroom chatter, the Confederates had failed to take Fort Craig, south of Socorro, and were left hurting from the attempt, now hobbled by a shortage of supplies and horses. So, apparently undaunted, those dumbasses pressed on, chancing an attack from their rear. However, it sounded like no Union counterattack was in the offing, and the Texans are expected to take Albuquerque within the next day or two, then Santa Fe a week-or-so thereafter. So, given what he knows, Phil’s pretty certain that the Union is playing for time to mass what forces it can at Glorieta Pass, willing to wait for the Texans’ slow advance in the foothills southeast of town, along the Santa Fe Trail.
The Union’s also emptying the storehouses in the Texans’ path: A fact made clear yesterday after Gooday, a Chiricahua scout and pathfinder originally contracted by the Confederacy, scouted the various approaches of El Camino Real ascending the escarpments of La Bajada, roughly ten miles west to southwest from where Phil and Rex now sat; and, going on early afternoon, Gooday was able to sight the dust of many wagons and horses in the distance, north of the Sandias and travelling away from the Rio Grande, slowly headed this way from Albuquerque. Gooday had thought the wagons would reach the base of La Bajada by sundown yesterday. Which meant a retreating Union supply train would be rolling into Santa Fe later this morning, possibly early afternoon; whereafter the wagons would most likely hole-up for the day to resupply before starting their way towards the Pass tomorrow, or the day after. Phil has no doubt that the wagons would also have escorts – cavalry almost assuredly – scouting ahead of it, and when that damned train rolled in, this whole area would be rife with the blue bastards.
Looking to the previously clear sky, Phil cusses under his breath at the broken clouds now littering it, feeling the cold breeze on his face, possibly heralding more fucking weather. The crew has already lost a couple goddamned days due to the fucking weather, and Phil sure-as-hell doesn’t want to lose another, especially not with the prospect of that supply train arriving. From what Phil understands, the weather along the Rockies is squirrelly-as-hell this time of year, so time is not on the crew’s side, that much is obvious. Phil wants to get to the east side of the Sangre de Cristo Mountains, then follow their eastern slopes north into Colorado, on the long trek towards Denver City, then Golden City beyond. To do that, the crew needed to get those goddamned maps with all due haste, before the wagons or weather necessitated a change of plans. Phil’s betting that Glorieta Pass will be lightly manned until the supply train is ready to cross over.
To add to Phil’s worries, he can only hope that the slaughter of the prisoner transfer outside of Mesilla hasn’t been discovered yet, because he has no doubts that his crew would be the prime suspects, and the hangman’s rope might well follow them, even through enemy lines. Having ditched their Confederate garb a long time ago and now clad in non-descript dress, Phil and Rex can ill-afford to make a scene, or otherwise seem to stand out. Nevertheless, both men are armed for a fight should the occasion arise, but not a lengthy one – because nothing draws attention like a travelling armory. Under his buttoned-up, dirty oilcloth duster, Phil carries a revolver – a Colt Navy – and a (replacement) knife, both at the ready, with another revolver hidden in his bedroll; while Rex carries two hunting blades under his plain, dark woolen coat and in his bedroll is stowed his sawed-off two-barrel with shortened stock, affectionately nicknamed Ol’ Trusty.
Then, a bugle’s clarion call sounds from within the town, drawing Phil’s attention. He looks to the Union encampment, now less than a mile away, and he doesn’t see any movement other than the usual scurrying of camp life. On the breeze, however, he can faintly hear the racket of horses and riders in the distance, which sounds like a detachment getting ready to depart from the southern part of town. Most likely replacements for men stationed on the Pass. Several seconds later, a line of a dozen-or-so mounted Union cavalrymen appear, trotting south along the Santa Fe Trail, headed towards the Pass in a single file.
The sight of the men brings a question to Phil’s mind, one that has been troubling him, on-and-off, since Rex had first inquired about joining the crew, the same day, oddly enough, that Phil’s first choice became paralyzed in a riding accident, and just three days before Phil’s surreal meeting with Carlton at the way station, over a month ago. At the time, the redhead had been deceptive when Phil initially pushed the issue, but necessity to meet Carlton’s headcount had ruled the day, and Phil buried his concern. Rex had also pulled his own weight thus far, though Phil has always had a strange feeling about the redhead. Now, as Santa Fe gets closer, Phil feels compelled to pose his question again, because he has a sneaking suspicion that Rex is holding something important back:
“Tell me, Rex,” he begins in a no-bullshit tone, “how did you really find out about the contract?”
Rex looks at Phil with newly wary eyes, a bit alarmed by the query, and Rex briefly considers a move for one of the blades under his coat, but he thinks better of it. He doesn’t want to give Phil a reason. Besides, killing doesn’t come that easy for the redhead.
Instead, Rex stammers, “I-I-I told you—”
“You lied to me!” Phil curtly interrupts. His brown eyes glint with anger, and he can sense Rex’s growing fear. “I thought you were full of shit then, but time was lacking, and I let it slide. Now, you’ll tell me the truth, and do it right-quick. Who told you about the contract?”
Phil undoes a button of his duster, seizing the grip of his Colt Navy concealed beneath.
“And do not fucking lie to me again, or I will put you down like a mangy mutt.”
And Rex doesn’t doubt that, not after Phil coldly ordered the executions of those other prisoners and their guards, killing the two prisoners himself. Rex understands well enough that Phil is possessed by pure, unadulterated greed. Rex also understands well enough that he is nothing more than a dimwitted means-to-an-end in Phil’s eyes, and expendable t’ boot. Rex figures that Phil won’t gun him down now, not with Santa Fe this close, but Phil would be gunning for him, nonetheless. Rex sighs.
“Shit, Phil,” he begins with resignation in his voice, “you may as well just shoot me then, because you wouldn’t believe the truth, anyways.”
Phil releases the revolver’s grip, and rests his hand on his thigh, keeping his eyes locked on Rex. After his experience at the way station, Phil’s idea of truth has expanded considerably:
“Try me,” he says.
Rex looks towards town, the outskirts now just over a quarter-mile away, and he swallows hard. In reality, he still has trouble believing the truth himself.
“A woman told me,” Rex hesitantly says at last, the words inspiring a mild wave of dread within Phil. “A woman told me about it in a dream—”
Phil clicks his tongue twice at Charger, tugging back on the reins and stopping the palomino. Rex halts Euripides in kind, trepidation filling the redhead’s green eyes as he expects the Colt Navy to make an appearance after all. Instead, to Rex’s surprise and relief, Phil simply nods as his eyes look towards the corral. The warning that once hummed in the back of Phil’s mind now threatens to dominate his thoughts as one name begins to echo through his head – Miss Liddy – a name Phil has kept secret from the crew out of fear of questions he can’t answer. Thankfully, that name hadn’t appeared directly in the contract, so, as far as the crew is concerned, Carlton is pulling the strings.
Phil grunts, then brusquely asks, “What do you remember of the woman?”
Rex looks down for a moment, thinking, before returning his eyes to Phil, nodding.
“I never saw her,” Rex says at last, “I just heard her voice … and what a voice, at that – powerful, like a goddess.” Rex nods again. “Anyways, she was on the other side of a door … but it wasn’t a door. It was like a curtain or cloth hung across the doorframe, flutterin’ like it did in the breeze … and dirty, I remember that … an entrance to an old, rundown mud-brick, sittin’ by a windmill and stables—”
“What did she say?” Phil interrupts, afraid of where Rex is taking things. Phil remembers that adobe – with its fluttering cloth, windmill, and stables – very well.
Rex looks down again, saying, “She knew I’m lookin’ to help my family keep the farm, and she said fortune would find them if I sought out a woman named Miss Liddy, in Golden City … Colorado, I figured. Except it didn’t feel like a request. Don’t ask me to say why, cos I don’t know.”
Looking back up, Rex catches a hint of fear in Phil’s eyes, before they regain their practiced coldness.
Rex continues, “She told me that I should talk to you, Phil … that you’d be going that way and needed one more guy for a rich contract.” The redhead sighs. “So, seein’s how I was already thinkin’ of leavin’ y’ all, I came to you the next day … and I lied.”
Rex then shrugs and looks towards town again, adding, “So that’s that.”
Phil can only warily stare at the redhead as his mind tries to deal with yet another swipe at his reality. The fact that Rex described the cloth-covered entrance of the ruined way station does not concern the crew leader too much, as Phil figures the other crew members could have, like him, stopped by the ruined mud-brick during one patrol or another. However, hearing Miss Liddy’s name cross the ginger’s lips came almost like a blow to the gut, and erased any remaining doubt in Phil’s mind about Rex’s veracity.
And it also inspires a twinge of paranoia.
Phil looks away, towards the ground, and closes his eyes, behind which a fresh headache simmers. Though Phil would never admit to it, it feels as though there’s something behind the pain, beginning to pound its way through. Phil desperately wants to prevent that, but he has no fucking clue as to why. He takes a deep breath, soothing his nerves a bit, then returns his practiced, cold gaze to Rex, having half a mind to slit the redhead’s throat right then and there. What if this ginger dimwit were somehow in cahoots with that witch? Better to eliminate the possible threat now. However, Phil gives a quick shake of his head to clear the thought, because there’s no time to entertain such ideas. He needs to stay focused.
After several uncomfortable seconds and in a voice that sounds a little frayed around the edges, Phil says at last, “We will discuss this later. For now, just do your fucking job. Back to the road – time’s a-wasting.”
And with that, Phil turns Charger and spurs the palomino forward, making a bee-line for the road at a quick trot through the sparse brush, and Rex spurs Euripides forward, following behind. The two men remain mostly silent during that last quarter-mile to the corral. Rex just gawks about, taking in the morning views of the foothills and mesas standing above Santa Fe, not really paying attention like he should; while Phil stews in his tumultuous thoughts as he keeps an eye on the corral and the road leading towards the center of town. Then, in unison, Phil and Rex blink, and …
Rounding the corner of the first small cross-street town-side of the corral, a lone, plainly dressed man of unremarkable height and size, with a pack slung over his shoulder and carrying a derby in his hands, walks towards the corral with a stiff and deliberate gait that implies many years of hard manual labor … like mining … or prospecting. With his damn-near eagle eyes, Phil can plainly make out the cropped white hair that covers the man’s head, with what appears to be a slightly darker circle beard and eyebrows. Very quickly, Phil is almost certain he’s found his mark, and he quickens Charger’s pace to a light gallop, focusing solely on the approaching figure as he tries to steady his thoughts.
As they rejoin the road, Phil reckons him and Rex now have a little over three hundred yards to go.
A balding, dark-haired, stocky-looking fellow wearing a leather apron, and appearing to match Walter’s general description of the farrier, leads a dark bay mare, saddled and ready, from the stables and out of the corral’s gate before tethering her to the fence’s railing. Turning to face the approaching old man, the presumed farrier waves in greeting, and the breeze carries his loud hello to Phil’s ears, though the name that follows is indistinct amidst the clip-clop of hooves.
Approaching two hundred yards to go, now.
The old man extends his hand to the farrier, and they shake before making some small-talk as the old fella quickly secures his pack to the saddle after hanging his derby on the pommel. When he finishes with the pack, the old man moves to the horse’s foreleg, and the mare lifts her hoof willingly enough when prompted, so that the old man can briefly inspect the farrier’s handiwork. Nodding with apparent satisfaction, the old man lets go of the foreleg, then gives the mare a pat on her shoulder, while he and the farrier continue to chitchat.
With roughly one hundred yards left, Phil slows Charger back to a quick trot, patting his trusted palomino on the neck.
“Be ready, my friend,” he says to his steed, as much to comfort himself as anything else – it looks like plans are changing. They had almost tarried too long. Phil then looks over his shoulder, and barks, “Eyes open, ginger!”
“Sure thing!” Rex replies from behind. Phil hopes so as he returns his attention to the corral:
The old fella is retrieving something from the pack he’d secured to his saddle, before turning back to the farrier, holding what looks like a smallish drawstring pouch to Phil’s sharp eyes. The old guy opens the pouch and reaches his fingers inside, pulling out a small object that just happens to glint in the morning sun with a needle of golden light. Though Phil can’t say for sure, he believes the object is most likely a nugget of gold.
With about seventy-five yards left, a large scar on the old man’s forehead starts to become visible, beginning to stand out a bit lighter against his dark complexion, becoming more prominent to Phil’s keen eyes as the distance closes.
The old fella considers the nugget for a moment, then hands it to the farrier, who weighs it in his hand before nodding his agreement as he pockets it. The two shake hands again before the farrier untethers the mare, then hands the reins to the old man as they continue to talk. Their voices, audible but unintelligible, sound warm and cheerful.
Within forty yards, Phil’s eyes begin to discern the large scar’s form, and, sure enough, it looks to be a cross, which only becomes clearer with each foot he moves toward the old man – indeed, “an old prospector marked with the scar of a cross”.
Then, with twenty yards left, Phil slows Charger to a walk.
The farrier says his farewell, patting the mare on her flank as he retreats back to his shop without giving Phil and Rex any notice, though the old man’s attention is focused upon both of them as he leads the mare into the road to meet the approaching newcomers. Phil halts Charger a few yards away, and Rex pulls up alongside.
“Well, looky here, Ruby!” the old fella exclaims with a smile in his voice and on his lips. He slips the mare a piece of carrot from his coat pocket, then looks at the newly arrived steeds with dark yet cheery eyes, continuing:
“Charger and Euripides have stopped by to say hello. Isn’t that nice of them?” The mare snorts in reply, and the old fella lets out a small laugh, “Yes, I thought so too.”
In a shaky voice, Rex blurts, “How in the hell—?!”
“Shut up!” Phil barks, rebuffing the redhead, but, amidst the confusion already in his head, Phil has the same question himself: How does this pig-fucker know their horses’ names? Immediately, Phil gets the feeling that, like Carlton yet more subtle, something about this man is just not right.
Salt-and-pepper hair rings the old fella’s mouth and highlights his eyebrows, while the short-cropped hair on his head is completely white. The weathered features of his dark face and the slight accent in his voice are foreign to Phil, but that doesn’t matter much: Phil’s interested in the scar, whose shape and proportions match the hefty, blackened silver cross hanging around the old man’s neck, as if it had been branded into his forehead long ago, and still carried the fire’s soot. Phil briefly ponders a move for his pistol, but a dagger of pain from his nascent headache suddenly stabs behind his eyes, bringing stars and a fleeting moment of nausea, and he clamps his eyelids shut, cringing as the feeling climaxes. Rex can only look on in a state of mind somewhere between dumbfounded and fearful, killing being the last thing on his mind.
Seeming to ignore the humans, the old man continues on with Charger and Euripides, whose ears have perked up, curious about the odd old man and his friend:
“This fair lady is Ruby,” he says, tenderly stroking the dark bay’s snout. “Gentle and strong is she – dependable to the end.” The old man then puts his hand over his heart. “And folks around these parts call me Diligence … sometimes just Dilly.” He gives a quick bow of his head. “We are well met, princely steeds.”
Before Phil feels ready to say anything, Diligence has his hat on his head, and mounts Ruby with the nimbleness of a man half (even third) of his apparent age.
“The two men that you fine horses bear however,” he says, looking at Phil and Rex with disdain in his eyes and a smile on his lips, “now that’s a different story entirely.”
Diligence half-heartedly guffaws, not taking his dark, scornful eyes off the other men.
After the pain behind his eyes subsides, Phil finds his words at last, and he goes through the motions of angry and threatening speech, only to find that he now has no voice. A hint of satisfaction glints in the old fella’s eyes as a mixture of anger and fear lights Phil’s, and Rex looks at the suddenly mute man with a quizzical expression:
“W-what’s the matter, Phil?” the redhead timidly asks, and Phil jerks his head around to fix Rex with an onerous glare. Rex holds up his hand, as if to say Sorry I asked, then he turns his green eyes to Diligence, asking in a voice that seems to gain urgency with each syllable:
“What did you do to him?”
Diligence looks at the redhead, the old man’s eyes softening a bit, and he says, “Relax, Mister O’Halloran.”
Rex’s jaw drops open upon hearing his surname, and Diligence looks back to Phil, disdain returning to the old fella’s eyes:
“Mister del Olmo is overdue some quiet time … a chance to just hush up and listen for a spell.”
Phil spits in Diligence’s direction, which is quickly deflected and beat down by the breeze. Phil’s heard enough of this bullshit, and he wants some goddamned answers from this sonofabitch … better yet, Phil wants the fucking maps! Again, he thinks of making a move – this time his hand twitches towards the hilt of the knife under his coat – which is met with another bolt of withering pain behind his eyes, forcing them shut as he cringes once more, with stars again dancing behind his eyelids, inspiring more queasiness in his gut.
“I know you two’re here on behalf of Miss Liddy,” Diligence says, his intense eyes shifting between Phil and Rex, and Diligence notices a flash of fear in Rex’s face at mention of her name, though Phil keeps his head down and eyes closed as his pain starts to fade. Despite being upwind of the other two, Diligence declares, “I smell that dark witch’s stench all over the both of you – that foulness of flowers and filth. Even this breeze can’t touch it.” He spits off to the side. “I’d recognize her reek anywhere, and anywhen.”
Reminded of Carlton’s reek, Phil takes a deep breath, inhaling through his nose, smelling nothing except hints of sage, juniper, horseshit, and burning firewood, then he opens his eyes and fixes Diligence with a burning, baleful glare. Phil dares not ponder what else might go to fucking shit this morning, and his mind does not turn to his weapons (having learned a quick and painful lesson), though one thought rings clear above the confusion still stirring amidst the dull pain in his head: This old motherfucker has to die – but that will have to wait. Rex looks at Phil with a question in his eyes, remembering the hint of fear in Phil’s when the redhead recounted his dream, and Rex wonders what else the now-silent man is holding back. Diligence laughs softly.
“Ah, yes,” the old fella says as he unflinchingly meets Phil’s fierce stare with a warm smile and intense, knowing eyes, “Mister del Olmo failed to mention Miss Liddy. Hmm … yes. I wonder why that is.” Phil simply sits and glares and Diligence’s eyes then return to Rex’s partly befuddled, partly scared gaze. “And you hearkened to her words, Mister O’Halloran – from a dream, no less – and failed to mention that … even lied about it.”
The old man chuckles as he briefly glances towards Phil, then in a sarcastic tone, he adds, “And I wonder why that is.”
Phil turns to glare at Rex, who’s overtaken by a curious sense of violation, feeling just plain creeped out by Diligence’s words and demeanor.
The redhead nervously stammers, “Y-you don’t know—!”
“She also concealed herself when first she came into my dreams,” Diligence continues, knowing well enough, and silencing Rex. “During my normal life that was … and though I barely remember it now, it haunts me still: You see, Mister O’Halloran, I too hearkened to her siren song. And I too chose an ill-fated path.”
Diligence shifts his stare to muted Phil, then continues, “And that path led me to Miss Liddy’s door, where she damned me to my fate for the sheer folly of my effort … as she put it anyway.”
Though Diligence’s words so far give Rex the creeps, he now feels a tug of self-interest in what else the old fella might have to say, and the redhead asks:
“W-what did she do? Did she brand y-your forehead?”
The old man looks back to Rex with a sly smile and intense eyes. “Yes, she did, with the cross I bear, no less. And if it were only that, we wouldn’t be here, Mister O’Halloran, for I would’ve passed on long, long ago. Cherish the thought!” Diligence chuckles to himself. “But, alas, my fate is what you see before you – a scarred old man who’ll never age another day, yet who’s died many a-time, but is never allowed to pass on.”
Rex doesn’t quite follow, which can be forgiven, because neither does Phil. But Phil doesn’t give a shit about Diligence’s yarn, while Rex feels self-interest tug ever harder. So, he asks, “Are you a ghost?”
Phil wants to punch Rex in the face, but instead casts the redhead a momentary glare of disapproval, before looking back to the old fella with a look of anger and hate, while Diligence guffaws heartily.
“If only it were so, Mister O’Halloran!” he exclaims with heartfelt amusement. “If only it were so! However, that would be far too easy and obvious for Miss Liddy’s tastes – too vulgar, you could say. No, that witch preferred me to be a wanderer of worlds, and so I am.” Diligence motions his arms about him. “Your world has simply been my latest stop, Mister O’Halloran … my latest iteration, as I like to say. Just the latest in a myriad of iterations – some similar to this world, most not.” The old man’s smile widens a little. “Yea verily! I helped the great Hannibal raze Rome to the ground before empire was ever a thought, just as I helped Queen Boudica push the Roman Empire back into the sea. I’ve watched humankind wither and die, just as I’ve seen it reach the stars.”
Diligence chuckles, then adds, “But not in this world, Mister O’Halloran. Not in this history. Indeed, in this history, Mister del Olmo means to kill me.”
Diligence’s smile fades a bit and his eyes harden as his stare shifts to Phil.
“And, soon, your crew will do just that, and I will move on to my next iteration.”
The old fella snorts a brief laugh as his eyes return to Rex, then he adds, “And I hope it will be my last, for I have died enough.”
“L-look, Diligence,” Rex responds, not at all sure what to make of the old fella’s answer, “we’re just lookin’ for some maps you may have. There d-don’t need to be no trouble—”
“Of course, there does, Mister O’Halloran!” Diligence interrupts, chuckling. “While I find your ignorance refreshing, you are dangerously so if you believe there’s still time to bargain. Besides, Miss Liddy would have it no other way: We three chose to dance with a force of nature, so there will be nothing but trouble, Mister O’Halloran.”
Diligence’s dark eyes scan the two men before he continues:
“The World isn’t without a sense of humor however, because I can travel to her doorstep anytime I choose, for that knowledge is always in my mind … much to her chagrin. Only the starting point changes world to world. Apparently, that knowledge is made manifest when my iterations expire, though I’ve never been around to witness it.” Diligence snorts another brief round of laughter. “I simply deal with the assassins that Miss Liddy sends to claim these maps – such as you and your crew, Mister O’Halloran.”
Diligence’s smile widens while a look of consternation crosses Rex’s boyish face, as the redhead takes some offense to the bald-faced truth: He believes hired killers are dishonorable louts.
“I ain’t no assassin,” Rex sternly replies.
“No, you are not!” Diligence agrees as he chuckles again. “More likely a lamb off to the slaughter than anything – especially given your present company.” Diligence briefly glances at Phil. “Yet, who’s to say? Miss Liddy has a sense of humor as well, however profane and accurst it may be.”
Diligence scratches his nose as he laughs softly to himself. Rex wants to say or ask something – anything – but he is at a loss for words, unable to wrap his mind around Diligence’s tale. Phil looks at the ginger with anger burning in his eyes, also expecting the fucking dimwit to say or do something – anything – like putting a well-thrown blade through the old pig-fucker’s heart. Diligence’s eyes once again meet Rex’s.
“Indeed, Mister del Olmo is obliged to dance Miss Liddy’s jig to his doom, that much is set in stone,” the old fella says with new seriousness plain in his tone. “Though, your fate needn’t be tied to his, Mister O’Halloran, because she chose you. Could be she’s taken a shine to you.”
Smiling, Diligence chuckles, though his eyes remain sharp and sense Rex’s quick confusion.
“Which means you’re not beholden to her,” the old fella explains, “so you can ride away now and chance a normal life should you so choose. That is, if you’re willing to risk her reprisals, which could be … severe. But you must ask yourself whether you’ll fare any better if you do find her. I sure-as-hell didn’t.”
Diligence’s smile fades.
“However, should you continue on your current path, Mister O’Halloran, then all I can say is this: The World has other plans for you, most assuredly, same as it did for me.”
Diligence studies Rex’s face for a moment longer, then sighs. “Pity. You plan to continue on, or so your face tells me.” He nods. “Very well. Just know that once you start towards Nowhere, there is no turning back. May the World be kind in its judgment of you, Mister O’Halloran.”
Rex isn’t quite sure how to reply to that, and Diligence doesn’t wait for one anyway: He once again focuses upon Phil’s wrathful glare with a warm smile and scornful eyes.
“For Mister del Olmo,” the old fella continues, “may The World lead him to what he desires … and forever keep it just out of the reach of his avarice.”
Phil curls his lip into a snarl, in that moment deciding that he’ll kill the old man slowly, and Diligence chuckles as he looks to the other two’s steeds with softened eyes, tipping his derby.
“Charger and Euripides, fair journeys to you both. May you two find ever-great herds and boundless plains.”
His eyes harden as they return to Phil’s vicious snarl, but his smile remains warm and full.
“I now have preparations to make, and an apology to convey … for my hubris, if nothing else.” A wave of sadness momentarily clouds Diligence’s eyes before they regain their clear disdain of Phil. “However, fear not, for we will yet paint our danse macabre upon the land.” Diligence tips the brim of his derby to Phil. “Y’ all come find me now.”
He then looks at Rex, and tips his derby one last time, saying, “Au revoir.”
At that, both Phil and Rex blink, and …
“Hola?” a voice calls from beside Rex. “May I help you, gentlemen?”
Both Charger and Euripides stand at either end of the water trough along the outside of the corral’s fence, drinking from it, while, still in their saddles, Rex and Phil now stare out across the corral, where a couple of pintos and a mule stand inside of the fence on the opposite side. Rex doesn’t remember any animals being in there just a second ago, same as he knows that he and Phil were just in the middle of the road, now behind them, listening to Diligence. Moreover, the sun looks to be a bit higher in the sky. Phil simply remembers the devilry at the way station, and he takes a deep breath, staring ahead as an undertone of dread arises amidst his silent fury and hate. His head throbs in rhythm with his pulse.
“Need some new shoes on your fine steeds? I can cut you a deal – a good one! No waiting if you hurry!”
Rex, utterly stupefied at this point, somehow keeps his wits and turns to look at the farrier standing a few yards away, towards his shop. The gruff-looking man’s leather apron is dirty with the stains of his craft, and a stained smile beams from his otherwise creased and furrowed face, from which clear gray-blue eyes appraise Rex and Phil. Dark, longish hair rings his bald crown.
“N-no, thank you, sir,” Rex finally replies in a shaky tone, though he tries not to sound scared or otherwise babble, because instinct tells him to play ignorant. “Th-that’s a generous offer, but we’re lookin’ for someone. Do you know a man named Diligence by chance? An old fella we were told might live ‘round these parts.”
“Aye, Dilly’s well-known around here. You missed him, though,” the farrier replies, taking out his pocket-watch from beneath his apron, opening it to check the time. “Picked up his mare a little over half-hour ago.” He scratches his scruffy cheek after replacing his watch. “He said he was expecting visitors, so I reckon you’re them.”
Rex nods in eager agreement.
“Strange I didn’t notice you two gentlemen coming up El Camino. I’ve been keeping my eye open for signs of that supply train. Good business rolling in, I’m betting.” The farrier glances down the road with a greedy glint in his eyes before he adds, “Anyway, Diligence said to meet him at his place.”
Rex begins to—
“But don’t ask me where that is,” the farrier promptly interrupts, “because I don’t know. Never had reason to ask him, anyhow. He’s always been a good customer, and his business is his. I just know he spends most of his time in the mountains, northeast of town.”
Rex turns to look at Phil, who simply nods with murder alight in his eyes, and the redhead spots a rider – a Union runner, he thinks – rapidly approaching along El Camino, about a mile out. Rex turns back to the farrier:
“Thank you for your help, sir,” Rex says with a nod and a wave, and even Phil tips his brim to maintain the appearance.
The two men maneuver Charger and Euripides away, following the corral’s fence away from town, and then around the western and northern outskirts of Santa Fe, to meet up with Walter … and their cargo. As they leave the farrier, Phil clears his throat and coughs a couple of times, followed by a growl. He has found his voice at last, though he stays silent after that. His head still throbs, and (how in the fuck did we just lose half-an-hour?) Phil needs a chance to fucking think.
As does Rex, who too stays quiet as he ponders to himself: If he did indeed find Miss Liddy, would he suffer a similar fate as Diligence? Is that prospect not enough reason to ride away, and at a hard gallop? The answer seems simple, but the redhead has other considerations to weigh, because if he calls it quits on Phil, Rex knows he’s as good as dead. In for a penny, in for a pound, the redhead thinks to himself, clinging to the hope that he’ll still do right for his family at the end of this corrupt plight.
The farrier waves as Rex and Phil depart; though, as they move off, he can’t shake the feeling that he’d seen something recently about riders of a palomino and dapple-gray. After a moment of thought, he shrugs, and returns to his shop.
But the thought will refuse to go away.