The night Filibert Swain blew into Hell's Gulch, the winter wind kicked in through the pine trees,
powerful and fierce. He wound down the steep mountain path on Old Betsy, a mare not given to
complaining. Pine trees gave way to sagebrush. Down below the few lanterns in camp bobbed and
weaved in rhythm with the motion of the wind.
Through the dusty streets he led her to Keinhorn's Tavern, mostly known as German's Place. Filibert
tied Old Betsy up to the hitching post. He pulled on the worn leather reins, hard and tight, till
they crackled. Gave her some sweet feed, and patted her nice and tender. Her mane shivered in the
wind. Old Betsy had a habit of running like thunder when the situation so required and Filibert
wasn't one to forget it.
He pulled at his holster, so it hung low, then swung the double doors open. The place was dark, a full,
red dark with oil lamps burning low. A few round wooden tables and chairs tilted easy over the floor
covered with sawdust. The place was deserted. Keinhorn, a plump Saxon, stood behind the bar. He wore a
black apron, sleeves of his white shirt rolled up over his knotty forearms.
Filibert strode over, tipped his hat. Keinhorn put down a whiskey. It glowed a deep amber. Filibert blew
the dust off the top and tossed it back. The dirt had caked onto his duster, but had spared his black suit
with the frills at the collars. He motioned for another drink.
A portrait of a busty lady hung behind the bar, ripe and inviting. The oil lamps played tricks such that
she seemed to be singing some sweet Siren song. Filibert Swain blinked and turned to Keinhorn.
"Wind's powerful this time of year."
"Ja," said Keinhorn.
"Awful hard for a man to sit still."
"Could be. You show me your silver, eh stranger?"
Filibert pulled a handful of silver coins from a satchel and set it on the cherrywood bar so that they
gleamed against the shine of the wood.
"You ain't got the hands of a miner." Keinhorn said.
"And you ain't got the accent of a German. But a night like this we don't look too close at things."
Keinhorn ran his hands over his red beard. "Father's from Germany, but, you know, good for business."
Filibert scanned the bar. "Not tonight."
"Nah, yesterday men heard of some stake upriver. They'll come back, drooping and thirsty in a couple
of days. Always do. Name's Keinhorn, Wilhelm . . . William Keinhorn." Keinhorn
extended his hand.
Filibert just watched it blankly until Keinhorn pulled it back. They fell into an unblinking silence.
Finally, Filibert tipped his hat. "My name's Swain, Filibert Swain, man of leisure."
Keinhorn smiled. "And what brings you to Hell's Gulch, Mr. Swain?"
Filibert retrieved his Colt from the holster languidly and laid it next to the silver. "Well, Keinhorn,
you charge this glass full of whiskey and keep it coming, you might just find out."
Keinhorn's beady black eyes widened. He poured out another whiskey for Filibert. He kept his other hand below the bar.
Filibert pushed his duster off his shoulders and let it drift to the floor. "You ever hear of Cedar's Landing?"
"You want to sit down?"
Filibert eyes flashed high and imperious until the German looked away.
"Yeah, silver town. About a day's ride out of Reno," Keinhorn said.
"Potts Mining owned the general store, the saloon, the deeds to the rickety houses where the men used to sleep.
Even owned Sweet Mary's, where the men would go for recreation and a spell of female companionship."
Keinhorn filled Filibert's glass, and placed both hands on the bar. "You live there or something?"
Filibert laughed and sat down on a stool.
"Point of a company town is that the town is the company," he said. "They get money when a man spits, when his
dog looks in the wrong direction. Felicia Wiles lived there, one of Sweet Mary's girls. A girl with eyes the
color of Chinese jade. Came out of Tennessee, looking for opportunity out West. Only one kind of opportunity
for a pretty gal without a man.
Filibert looked up to the lady on the wall.
"Thing is, company takes a cut even from the charms of the fairer sex. But Felicia came out of Tennessee, high
in Appalachia. Her people lived damn poor, and they knew how to make shine. Soon Felicia's got a still. Shine
so pure and sweet it deceives a man into happiness.
"One day a few men missed work. They stumbled around town. Big Bill Tanner was so grinning and merry he stomped
his shoddy house to the ground. Company got word. Started hearing about this shine. And they didn't worry about
the houses or the men thinking they're happy. They worried that this lady's got a product, and they didn't know
what it was.
"Barrett, the Potts' man in town, came to her. Barrett, man so thin you could use him as fishing line. Asked her
where the still was. They searched Sweet Mary's. Didn't find a thing. She told them nothing. Felicia just looked
at Barrett and said, 'It's easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for a rich man to enter
the kingdom of heaven.' Barrett braced himself as if a cool breeze were about to carry him away."
Keinhorn was grinning now. He filled Filibert's glass. One lamp went out in the corner, shifting the shadows like
a crooked mirror.
"They tried to run Felicia out of town, Filibert said, "replace her with another girl, Lord knows they could find
one. But the men wouldn't have it. They struck the day she was to leave town. Barrett got to thinking. How to get
Felicia out of town. Kill her? Who knows how the men would react. And her still would be out there somewhere, and
someone would know.
"A couple days later the Preacher rode into town. Dressed in black finery, riding a fancy mare, he came into Cedar's
Landing. He talked to the men, walked among them. Listened to their problems, counseled them. Listened to Bill Tanner
profess his love for this woman as pure as the shine she produced. And her profession? He didn't care.
"'Life's not a ledger,' Bill had said. 'Sometimes the figures don't always add up.'
"They told him many things, the men, but not the things the Preacher was paid to learn. He gave sermons, stressed
honesty, clean living, hard work, temperance. He visited Felicia, went out walking with her on more than one occasion.
Strolled the dirt streets. And their talks would sometimes take them far out, up into the foothills where they'd
stare up at ice-capped mountains. She knew her scripture, on account of the way she was raised before she came to
her eventual line of business. Of that she never said much, just said it was a 'closed book' and she was now
'in the wilderness.' The Preacher, he tried to win her confidence, offer her solace, but he always ended up plagued
by questions, lulled by her voice. What you might call rustic, with an unexpected sweetness.
"Barrett, he was impatient, agitated. Didn't see these perambulations getting him any closer to what he wanted. The
men, they were liable to get ideas. Few weeks later, Sweet Mary's burned to the ground. Sunday came round and the
town was transformed. Colored banners hung from the dull brown houses. The saloon was closed. A great podium and
stage stood in the middle of Main Street. Men started coming out, groggy and shielding their eyes from the noonday sun."
"They gonna cure a bunch of miners with religion?" asked Keinhorn.
Filbert glanced at the dancing flame of the oil lamp. "I'd wager you wouldn't know much in the way of religion." He
continued. "It was cold that morning, frozen dew on the tips of the houses, but the sun was shining big and bright.
The kind of day you can't figure why it isn't warm. When all the men arrived, the Preacher came onto the stage,
behind the podium.
"'Repent, my brothers, the time is nigh. Do not be fooled by the Devil's bargain.'
"The men were murmuring. The Preacher was waving his arms.
"'Did Adam eat the apple, or was he tempted? Do not be tempted by the Devil and his handmaidens. The path of
righteousness is paved by those who will guide you there. Hard work is the Lord's work. Do not doubt that
heaven awaits those who are just.'"
Filibert was shaking his fist, panting. He grabbed himself, took a deep, long breath.
"You all right?" asked Keinhorn.
"Barrett was standing by the Preacher, hands hooked into his lapels, beaming respectability. The men listened
there, trying to understand this man's flowery words. Big Bill Tanner was scratching his chin. Then Felicia
came into the center of the square, her dress dusty and torn. She said, not screaming, but her voice loud,
clear like a gunshot on an icy day: 'It is easier for a camel to pass through the eye of a needle than for
a rich man to enter the kingdom of heaven.'
"Barrett looked at the Preacher and nodded. The Preacher descended the podium. The crowd made way and soon
the Preacher was facing Felicia.
"'To corrupt the scripture is a sin,' he said.
"'Yes,' she said.
"'The rich man will not pass into the kingdom of heaven,' she said.
"The Preacher's eyes narrowed. He raised one hand. 'My child . . . '
"But the Preacher stopped. A great hiss followed by a clap of thunder. The colored banners swayed in the
streets. The Preacher, he clutched at his own body, just to make sure it was there. The men looked from
one to the other. And Barrett, shaking, he came down from the stage. He tried to speak. Couldn't. But he
had a smoking revolver in his hand that had shot Felicia flush in the chest. Felicia smiled, her green
eyes flashed. They met the Preacher's. Then she crumpled into his arms."
"And then?" asked Keinhorn.
"Well, then things got kinda rough." Filibert spun the Colt on the bar, faster and faster until its form blurred.
"You read the Bible much?" asked Keinhorn, his hand groping again beneath the bar.
Filibert was just smiling, a wild smile, and spinning that Colt, watching the blur like it was hovering in air.
"You fixing to get into heaven, Mr. Swain?"
A man burst into the tavern, the doors swinging wildly behind him. His shadow leapt and danced on the walls,
a great ox of a man. "Evening, Preacher," he said.
Filibert turned and tipped his hat. "Evening Bill. You come for the silver?"
Bill kept his hands at his sides.
"There's laws that we can't always understand," Filibert said. The smile faded and his face sagged like a
weighted-down stage. He stared through Bill, his eyes steeled to a place they couldn't get past.
"I'm here to settle accounts," Bill said.
Keinhorn's gaze moved from man to man, his arm frozen under the bar.
"Barkeep, I'd put both your hands on the bar and say a silent prayer if you know what's what,"
Bill said, still fixed on Filibert.
Filibert was staring at his glass, the silver and his gun. "Barrett was . . . You know,
Bill, I can't be blamed for acts . . . Bill, there are mysteries."
"But you get paid for the mysteries, Preacher. And Barrett, that's settled," Bill said, and reached.
Filibert scooped his gun off the bar and turned and Bill shot him in the gut. Filibert clutched his
middle and went down and Bill shot him again and again until Filibert lay motionless as the sawdust
absorbed the blood.
Keinhorn kept his hands on the bar. He swallowed hard. "I get you a whiskey, ja?"
Tanner's face stayed blank.
"Or maybe you want something else? Maybe?" Keinhorn said.
Keinhorn poured a drink, his hands shaking. Bill moved up to the bar, slowly, stepping over the lifeless
body as islands of wood shavings formed around the blood. He sat down and gulped the drink. Keinhorn
poured another. The oil lamps flickered. Outside, Old Betsy neighed, her cry caught and carried up by the wind.