"Harley!" Where was that boy? Off barkin' at some knot, undoubtedly. "Harley, confound it. Get in here now!"
* * *
A calamity exploded from the back room as Harley stumbled in, pulling up his suspenders. Blood from his face ran down onto his undershirt. He had been practicing again. It might have helped if the boy had any facial hair at all. But at this rate, scar tissue was likely to prevent such a reality.
"Sorry, Mr. Graves. I was out in the necessary practicing my angle. Let me get that mop."
"Forget the blasted mop. I got bigger problems. What's today?"
"Why, it's Wednesday."
"No, dadblame it. What day is it?"
"Oh, well, that would be the 31st of July, I believe, Mr. Graves."
"The 31st . . . " Red trailed off. Then, snapping back to action, he said, "Harley, fetch me the Henry."
"The what?" Harley asked, buttoning his shirt.
"The gun, you boot licker. The gun!"
"Oh, right. The gun." Then after a moment of recognition, he gasped. "Is it Spears? Did he come back for me?"
Some apprentice. Like teats on a boar hog. One might have thought taking Tate's hapless nephew onto the payroll would have at least bought Red a little more time. Clearly not. July 31st marked the end of the latest extension on his debt, the last extension, Tate had warned. In sheer desperation, Red asked if there was anything else he could do for the Colonel?
"Well," Tate had suggested, "I do have this nephew."
Honestly, Red could deal with Harley Atwater in the second chair. Everybody had to start somewhere. But now, Harley was asking for more than a seat in the shop. Much more. Was Tate behind that, too? It was another problem altogether, but a problem that would have to wait for later, at least now that the Twitch was in town.
"Spears ain't a-gonna shoot you, you fool. But I might if you don't get outta here this second. Now git!" Harley did, with as much grace as he entered.
Red ran to the window again and surveyed the street. Maynard had disappeared, for now. But Red knew at any second the Twitch could walk up, unholster his gun, and collect Tate's debt in blood as crimson as the witch hazel drying on the floor below.
Blood was all Red had left to offer. The shop was worthless. Tate could have it if he wanted it. There was only one thing in this life that Red truly cared about now. And there was no way Tate or anyone else was taking that away. It was the only thing he had left, and he would protect it at all costs. Compulsively, Red looked out the window once more. Still deserted. He walked back to his chair and picked up his straight razor. As he considered his plight, he worked the blade across the leather strop and listened for the telltale shump, drag, shump that would sound the end for Redmond Graves.
He should have listened to his wife and stayed in Biloxi. His first-floor shop in the luxurious Magnolia Hotel was a relative palace compared to his current sidewalk shanty. Some evenings, after spending all day trimming up the well-tipping tourists, Red would take a walk along the water and watch the oyster schooners drift back inland to Black Bay Harbor. He would listen to the waves lap against the Mississippi shore and stare at the setting sun as it rippled on the Gulf's horizon. Sparkles of light glimmered on the water like gold floating out to sea.
Red was already hearing whispers of waiting wealth in faraway lands. Everyone, it seemed, was talking about California, Nevada, Oregon, and the precious metal that apparently lined the streets for the taking. Time was suddenly short. Red knew he could stare all he wanted. But his own ship would never sail into the Bay of Biloxi. His ship was somewhere out west, and he had to find it.
"It's a sure thing, Lillian," he had told his wife. "I can't lose." But he did. The trip lasted months, as they sailed from Biloxi to Galveston, then up the Rio Grande to El Paso. From there, they continued the arduous journey by stage coach along the Oxbow across the desert. That's when Lillian began to get sick. The fever was first, then the headaches and the vomiting. By the time they'd crossed into New Mexico, rashes had formed on her wrists and ankles, and Red knew something was seriously wrong. They pressed on as far as Arizona before he sent the coach on its way and rented a room in Widow's Rest. With any luck, Lillian could convalesce and recover. Then they could resume their journey. But soon it became apparent the only "sure thing" was that Lillian would die in Widow's Rest, Arizona.
Redmond Graves had wanted more from life than a barbershop in Biloxi could provide. In exchange, life had demanded more from Redmond Graves than he'd been willing to give. He was devastated. Gone was his will to wind westward. He had traveled his last mile. So he buried Lillian and stayed in Widow's Rest.
To earn a living, Red returned to the trade that made him and hung out his barber's shingle. Yet, while his quest for the West had ended, his dream of fortune was still at large. Not even the loss of Lillian could hamper the conviction that he was meant for more. And since he could not mine the great mountains of California, Red started digging for gold in the saloon across the street.
He had to admit he enjoyed the warmth of the whiskey and maybe the company of the sporting women. But even now, a full ten years since his beloved Lillian's death, their company was all he could bring himself to enjoy. What he supposed he truly lusted after was the gamble, the pure chance that on any given night a fortune could change. A man could pan for days or dig his way through a mountain. But all it took was one good hand, and a fellow could instantly be somebody. A sharecropper could turn sole proprietor. A blacksmith might forge a new future. And a barber from Biloxi? Well, who knew what ship might sail into the harbor? But digging for gold leaves a lot of holes, and Red had dug himself so deep that he might as well be standing in his own grave.
Red stopped his stropping and checked the blade. Sharp enough to slice. (He should hide this from Harley.) He walked over to his safe in the corner. He had a small stack of bills in there. How many times had he thought of just grabbing the money and pulling up stakes? But he couldn't. One thing kept him from riding off into the sunset, one thing he had to protect.
Without warning, the door flew open. Red jerked around, ready to fling the razor sight unseen.
Red gripped the back of his chair and exhaled. "Dang it all, girl. You scared me half to death."
"Why, land sakes, Daddy. Looks like you've been killing hogs in the floor. Or bathin' 'em in after shave from the smell of it. Gracious."
Belle Graves, beautiful in her decorative polonaise, took a step back and waved a gloved hand past her nose. Red hardly recognized her anymore. Gone was the little girl who sat in the second chair and brushed her dolly's hair while he tended to his customers. He knew that girl well, had held her and fed her and protected her. She had slept in his lap across a vast eternity of land and sea. She had clung to his leg and cried silent tears as her mother said goodbye.
Now, in her place, stood a grown woman who was foreign to him. She spent her days flitting about town, dressed up like some high-class debutant. The clothes had cost Red money he didn't have. And her socializing (and flirting) was attracting suitors she didn't need. She was still biddable enough, he supposed. But on some things she had become obstinate to a fault. Red, for example, had been suggesting for months that it was finally time to move on from Widow's Rest. But Belle was digging in her heels. With increasing urgency, he had implored her to pack her bags. It wasn't safe for him here, not anymore. But biddable had its limits. And once a girl flirts with her future, she'll be hanked if she'll listen to her daddy about a darn thing, especially about leaving this town. She had found more than a reason to stay. She had found her man.
"I found it, Mr. Graves. I found it." Harley blew into the room with a mop in one hand and a rifle in the other, both of which he held by the barrel. Was the boy begging for a hole in the ceiling? Or in his head? The latter, Red thought, threatened to do the least damage. Harley stopped short, however, when he saw Belle. Without another word, he smiled. Unfortunately, Belle smiled back.
"Well, ain't you a belvedere," she laughed. "In all my born days. Are you going cleaning or going hunting?" She laughed with the ease of someone who didn't know her father was about to get his flint fixed.
Harley leaned close to Red and whispered, "Any sign of Mr. Spears?"
"Give it to me." Red ordered. Harley held out the mop. The boy's brain must have stopped growing somewhere between hay and grass. "Not the mop, dad blame it. The gun. Give me the gun." He jerked it out of Harley's hands.
"Why, Daddy, what has you in such a ruckus?" Belle took the mop from Harley and sat it against the wall. She brushed stray bangs from the boy's forehead and patted his chest. Red checked the rifle's chamber.
"Harley, honey. Your face." She reached out to touch the shredded flesh. Harley winced. "Why, you're getting so much better!" She squealed with delight and kissed him on the forehead. "I'm so proud of you. You'll make a great barber one day." She cut her eyes at Red. "And a great husband, too, if my daddy ever gives you his permission, that is."
Red answered with the click-clack of the rifle's lever.
Belle giggled and handed Harley back his mop. "Daddy, I'm headed over to—"
"Go home, Belle."
"But Daddy, I was just over to—"
"Go. Home. Belle. I'll explain later." (He hoped.) His daughter looked at her suitor for support. But she would get none. Harley just shrugged. The sassy smile turned to pout as Red's daughter, still biddable to a degree, acquiesced, and turned to leave. Red followed her out the door. He looked around for signs of danger. With the streets clear, he grabbed his daughter by the arm.
"Belle, listen. Get the bags ready. We've got to leave. I'm closing up shop early. I'll pick you up in the wagon, and we'll catch a train in Winslow."
Belle pulled her arm away. "Daddy, we've discussed this. I'm not leaving."
"Belle," Red growled. He turned back to catch Harley bobbing his head in the window. Caught in the act, the boy resumed mopping with great abandon. Red turned back to Belle. "Now, you listen here, young lady. There are things afoot. Things you don't know. Now, just do what I say."
"And there are things you don't know, Daddy. I love Harley. And I aim to marry the man. I have dreams for my future."
"And you think I don't?"
"You chased your dreams, Daddy. And look where it got us." Red winced at the implication. "Now I have a chance to start over. With a husband and a home of my own." It was her turn to gaze into the cloudy window. "A home with little Harleys running around."
Red threw up in his mouth a little. "That man's got Tate blood."
"That man's got rich blood," she retorted.
"As opposed to your blood?"
"Daddy, that's not what I meant."
"I know," Red lied. But she was right. She didn't need him anymore. The Tate name alone would mean her security, perhaps her fortune. And the connection would ensure her safety, even with a price on her father's head. But Red had lost so much. He wasn't prepared to put his own daughter in the middle of the table. He wasn't prepared to lose her to Tate, too.
Belle stood on her toes and knowingly kissed Red's cheek. She did not say the word, but he heard the "goodbye" all the same. Usually, all Red lost was money. This hurt a whole lot worse. As she walked away, Red took a breath and went back inside. He slammed the door and glared at Harley, who pretended not to notice and mopped like a mad man.
The next hour crawled. Red made mental preparations, listing his options. He still wasn't sold on a single ticket out of town. But what else could he do? He had lost Lillian, and now he had lost Belle. Maybe. As he thought, he listened through the silence for any sign of impending doom. The afternoon sun beat down upon the parched earth and shot heat through the uncovered windows. Even the air decided it was too hot to move. Occasionally, Red pulled out his watch to check the time, which he typically found to be five minutes later than the last time he checked.
Harley was eventually able to clear the mess. But the red stains and antiseptic odor lingered. Harley also lingered, but in the back room for fear of retribution from one Heflin Spears, and maybe from Red, too. This was fine with Red, who needed time to think. He eyed the rifle, the unfired rifle, leaning in the corner. Unlike Tucker Maynard, Red had never killed a thing. Even Harley had more blood on his hands than Red did. (Of course, most of it was his own.) He doubted he'd have what it took to pull the trigger, if it came down to it. Even on Harley Atwater. (Well, perhaps.) And even if he could bring himself to do it, he doubted he could be fast enough to match the speed, intentional or otherwise, of the great djab, the amorphous blackness that was the Twitch.
The Twitch. He was still thinking the man's name when he heard the boots outside. Shump. Drag. Shump. That was not Belle. That was not Spears. That was death at Red's door. He froze with paralytic terror. This was it. This was the end. His mind reached for the gun, but his hands knew he'd waited too long. The door was already swinging open. A gunfight was a losing proposition in any event. He turned to his cash safe. How much was Tate paying? Did he have enough to pay more? That was about as likely as Red surviving to see August 1st.
"You open?" a cold, steely voice said from beneath an oily hat.
Red turned to face the angel of death. "Well, yes, sir. I guess we are. I was thinkin' of closing up, but it's still early yet, as you can see. Still plenty of daylight left. So, maybe not." Red was a panicked idiot. What would he do? Leaving was now off the table. Oh, Heaven help him. He was in a box. Redmond Graves was in a bad box to be sure.
"Well, are you, or ain't you?"
"We, um, are. I mean, yes."
Maynard shook his head and limped to the first chair. As he took off his hat, Red thought he could see the faint indention of a mule's hoofprint on the corner of the man's forehead.
"I need a scrapin'."
"You don't say? Well, we can do that. Yes, sir." Red tossed a cape over his customer, which Maynard immediately threw to the ground. He grunted his displeasure as he caressed the gun at his hip. Red apologized and slowly lowered the back of the chair. Maynard sniffed.
"Smells like a bed house on nickel night in here."
"My apologies," offered Red. "A small mishap. Say, you want a trim, too?" He really did need one, Red thought.
Maynard sat in the chair and leaned back. "No. Just the shave. A real close shave, too. Got a meetin' tomorrow morning."
Red busied himself making lather in a bowl. "A meeting, you say. Anyone important?"
"Colonel Tate. Some fool's in dutch. Colonel wants me to collect." Maynard offered his chin and closed his eyes.
Red dropped the bowl with a clatter and burned himself with steam as he readied the hot towel. "Say, that sounds bad for that feller."
"It ain't good."
"Reckon who that feller is? Why, I sure hope he ain't one of my payin' customers." Red laughed nervously, but Maynard did not reciprocate.
"I'll find out tomorrow. Now shave, dadblame it. I ain't got all day."
Red felt some relief as he started to wrap the hot towel around Maynard's filthy face. There was still time. But time for what? Red was drawing a blank as dust and tobacco juice stained the towel's fabric. That's when it happened.
At once, the outlaw jerked away the towel and glared at Red. This is it! Oh, dear God, Red prayed, I don't want to die. Hail Mary, full of grace. He backed up, closed his eyes, and waited for the worst. But nothing happened. After an eternal second, Red cracked a lid to peek. Tucker Maynard's eyebrows began to seesaw up and down. Then his eyes rolled back in his head. Red stared with morbid curiosity as Maynard's chin began to quiver. The jingle of spurs indicated the man's feet were also involved. Then his knees bent upward and his hips jerked to one side in a convulsion that thrust the outlaw's torso forward and slammed him back into the chair, rocking it on its pedestal. The episode concluded with one massive tremor, followed by a series of short quivers that left the outlaw breathless and silent. Struggling to sit up, Maynard finally spoke.
"Now you listen here," he threatened, still catching his breath. The whole thing was much more violent that Red had imagined. (No wonder he killed that mule.) "I get one nick from that blade of yours, and I'll put a bullet between your . . . " His eyes fluttered as he jerked again. Then he shouted, " . . . between your eyes! You hear me?"
"Of course," Red offered. He was suddenly thankful he didn't own a cat. The Twitch finally settled back into the chair and closed his eyes. Red turned to grab a fresh towel and rewrapped Maynard's face.
Once again, Red calculated his odds. He could just give this man his shave, close the shop, and ride off into the sunset. (This, of course, assumed he didn't cut the man mid-twitch and end up on the floor next to the witch hazel stains.) He'd have a good twelve-hour head start. Enough to hop a train and disappear forever. But what about Belle? Could he fold with her on the table? She was all he had left. Red would rather die (the odds of which were increasing by the minute). Oh, he rued the day he let Atwater into his shop and into his life. The boy had made a mess of both. If it weren't for that nervous bird, the Graves family would already be long gone from Widow's Rest.
Red removed the towel and began to lather Maynard's face and neck. The smell of sweat and horse manure mixed with the aftershock of the witch hazel. Red wiped his hands and took up his razor. He sat the blade against his thumb and admired the edge. (Sharp enough to slice.)
That's when he remembered a story from the Daily Picyaune back in '42. Some man, a baker by the name of Martin something or another, got his throat slashed with a razor. Right across the jugular. They caught the man that did it. Sent him away to St. Louis on the Monmouth steamer boat. Red remembered that man's name just fine. Mr. W. Woodhall, the baker's father-in-law.
He could just kill Maynard right now. One swipe across the throat and call it a night. But Red would likely not be any better at killing than he was at gambling. He'd botch the job and end up shot or hung or both. He lowered the blade to the neck of Tucker Maynard, but jerked it back as his customer suffered yet a third lingering spasm. He's worse than Miller's sow, Red thought.
That's when it came to him, a kind of epileptic epiphany. While Maynard's eyes remained closed, Red's were suddenly wide open. He sat the blade on the counter and turned to the safe. Quietly, he opened it and extracted the small contingency of cash. Then he picked up the gun and stepped in front of Maynard (just in case). With one hand, he raised the barrel toward the chair. With the other, he opened the door and grabbed his coat. Red was going all in, even if he wasn't holding a full house. But currently, he held a pair of jokers, and he meant to discard at least one of them. He shouted toward the back room.
"Harley! You've got a customer!"