"You see that man?" one bouncer said, inclining his head toward the scrawny fella slurping whiskey at the bar, his shoulders hunched forward.
The other bouncer shifted in the lookout chair, shotgun across his lap. "I see him."
"That's Marshall Verge."
"That a name I should know?"
"Is if you want to keep workin here."
The lookout nodded, his Stetson dipping down like a bird drinking.
"Verge's got three stages of rowdy. Stage one is what he's doing right now, pounding down whiskey, sullen, still hurting from all the shit what happened to him four years ago."
"What happened to him?"
"Don't matter. Stage two go two ways. He'll work himself into a fighting mood or else get horny and go after one of the whores. Horny is fine. Fighty, you best sit up and notice. Stage three he starts something. You throw him out. Don't hesitate a minute. Stage three, you throw him out."
The lookout looked unimpressed. "What happens if I don't?"
"Son, they asked me to train you. Just do what I say."
"And ask no questions?"
"Verge apt to kill a man you leave him here. How about that? You throw him out before he do. Killing is bad for business."
"Seems like he apt to kill me if I do that."
The first bouncer chuckled, shook his head. "How you think this job come open?"
* * *
Verge viewed his life in two halves. Before Sept. 23, 1898 and after—split in two by the day Sisco Dent rode to Constitution with revenge in his heart, put a bullet in Verge's wife Charla, and choked to death his young daughter Addie.
Verge had found Charla dead in the kitchen and Addie in the middle of his bed, in the same place she had been conceived three years prior, where Charla had bent over in labor pains and pushed the child into the world, the same place she breathed her first gulp of air and took in her first eyeful of everything beautiful.
That was it: the line that divided Verge's world in two. The before and the after. He spent the after the same each day, haunted by their bright smiles, seeing them when he closed his eyes.
The whiskey helped. It blurred them into nothing. So he gobbled it like he was starved, drinking until the world vanished into black, as if he'd died and left everything behind.
Maybe one day he would. Get rowdy with the wrong man, maybe they'd put a bullet in him.
"Another," he told the bartender, sliding the empty glass across the wood. It teetered on the brink for a heartbeat before tumbling to the floor.
"What'd you do that for?" the bartender said, his face all tight.
"You relax now and bring me another."
"Can't you find someplace else to take your spirits?"
"Reckon you like my money good enough."
"Don't like your smell. Your attitude. Bout nothin else but your money."
"I'm drinkin tonight to forget. Give a man the goddamn dignity to forget, for Christ's sake."
Everyone knew what happened to Charla. They'd been sympathetic for a while, but Verge turned each of them against him over time.
"Your wife ain't comin back. You want to see her, put that sidearm in your mouth and pull."
"Talk like that makes me think I am unpopular."
The barkeep stared across the bar, locked eyes with the lookout. Verge was not too far gone to know what that meant.
"I just want to drink in peace," he said.
The barkeep put a bottle in the center of the bar. "My gift. Drink in peace at home."
"Ain't goin no place."
"Don't get ugly now."
Verge could hear the lookout approaching from the back, the tiny click of the safety coming off his shotgun. The lookout worked the lever. Verge spun, drew his gun and shot the man in the throat before he ever got that shotgun cocked. He leveled the gun at the other bouncer. "Don't you draw on me," he said.
"Ain't gonna." the bouncer said, showing his palms.
Verge grabbed the bottle of whiskey from the table, still pointing his gun. He walked backward through the door.
"Somebody get the sheriff," the barkeep said, his voice drifting through an open window. "We gonna hang Marshall Verge for this one."
* * *
Verge made his way out of Constitution, to the craggy outskirts, where farmers tended to the scarce food that would grow between the rocks. No one had followed him out of town, but he walked with urgency, stopping only to take another pull from the whiskey bottle.
He staggered along the empty path until he came to a house hidden among the trees at the base of the mountains.
He slipped through the gate and stumbled to the front door.
"Crone," he bellowed. He knocked twice with the butt of the whiskey bottle, sloshing liquor down his shirt. The door cracked, a pair of eyes like dirty cotton flashing in the dark. "What do you want?"
Verge slipped his fingers into the cracked door and forced it open. The woman leveled a shotgun at his face. "Think real hard about what you say next," she said.
Verge lifted both hands. "Heard you was a diviner of secrets. I'm being run off, hag. Tell me where I ought to go."
The woman lowered the gun. She cinched her shawl around bent shoulders and stepped aside. "I ain't divining nothin for free."
"I can pay."
She led him to table, still holding tight the shotgun. "Let's see the money first."
He rooted around in his pocket, dropping several wadded dollar bills on the table. He eased into the chair, his head spinning with the drink. "Whoa there," he whispered, catching the world on its tilt with both hands on the table. "You done spelt me."
"You spelt yourself."
He picked up the bottle, roved for the tip with his tongue. He tipped it into his mouth and drank deep. "Reckon I did."
"It is nearly midnight," the woman said, sitting across from him, the shotgun still pointed at him under the table.
"Who told you to come here?"
"Folk know all about you."
She smiled. "Do they?"
"Is it true or ain't it?"
The woman thought for a moment. She stood, walked to the far side of the room. She snapped open the latch on a small wooden box and produced a rectangular object. Verge struggled to focus in the dim lighting. She returned, leaving the shotgun leaning against a wall, and sat at the table.
"The hell you got in your hands?"
She placed the object on the table. Verge could see it was several thin rectangular objects.
"Tell me. What is your name?"
She dimmed the kerosene lantern between them, throwing her features into contrast, her eyes vanishing into shadow. "What would you ask the spirits?"
Verge takes another pull of whiskey. "Where can I find Sisco Dent."
"The man who took everything from you."
Verge blinked, the world murky around the edges. There was something strange about that statement, but he was too drunk to discern it. "Reckon I sleep better knowing he's dead, no matter what else."
"Are you sure this is what you want?"
"Ain't I paying you?"
"Sometimes a box opened can't be closed. And hope is like laudanum to the hopeless."
"Do it, woman. I thought about it enough. All I done since the day he took them from me is think about it. I had enough thinking to last me three lifetimes over."
She laid six cards on the wooden surface and began flipping them, one by one. Verge leaned forward to read the text printed on the cards.
Three of Swords. Death. The Devil. Judgment. Ten of Swords. The Tower.
The old woman clucked, rapped a fingernail on the table.
"What is it?"
"Tarot does not tell you the future as it must be for we are the sole arbiters of our destiny. Tarot tells you things as they might be."
Verge took another swallow. "And how might things be?"
"You go after Sisco Dent, and you will see your woman again. Your child. Of that, I have no doubt."
Verge watched her face come into amber focus as she moved closer to the lantern. Her eyes seemed to drink in the shadows.
"Impossible," he said.
"The cards do not lie."
"Where is Sisco Dent?"
The woman shrugged. "Anywhere."
"Tell me where."
"The cards don't work that way."
Verge shoved the table away as he stood. The woman jerked from her chair and backed to the corner of the room. "Get out of here," she said, grabbing the shotgun from the wall. She jabbed the end at him, her hands shaking.
Verge showed her his empty palms. "I'm leaving, you jumpy bitch," he said. He tipped his Stetson toward her and thudded through the house toward the front door.
He stepped outside, his head filled with thoughts of splitting Sisco Dent's skull in two with a .45 slug. He wasn't sure how this might bring his family back, but the witch had said it could.
If it didn't, Sisco Dent would still be dead.
Who knew where Sisco Dent ended up? He'd had about half the United States law after him at one point. Other outlaws too. Verge searched his memory as he walked back to the trail. Who did he know that might know where Sisco Dent ended up?
A crow fluttered from the night sky, briefly eclipsing the moon. It settled in a nearby tree and eyed him, moonlight reflecting in its beady eyes.
"The hell do you want?" Verge said, pointing a finger gun at it.
The crow cawed once, then flew away.
Verge spent most of his savings at the livery getting a horse tacked and suited for travel.
He was three towns west of Constitution, where the sheriff or a posse or both waited to string him to the nearest tree.
He'd lived there for six months before spoiling it for himself. Sober, he did not recall exactly what crimes had been levied against him, just some dim recollection of a gunfight, of blood, of someone falling away from in the blur, clutching their chest with one hand, a rifle in the other.
"You headed far?" the stableman said.
Verge fed a handful of corn to the horse. "Far enough."
"Heard there was some business up in Constitution. Heard your name said a few times."
"Business follows me everyplace I go, seems like."
"Said you shot a lookout at The Wolf and Sparrow."
Verge mounted the mare, adjusted himself in the saddle. He looked down at the stableman. "You ever heard of Sisco Dent?"
The man blinked, his eyes small and stupid, like a cow chewing cud. "We all heard the story, Marshall. Goddamn have we all heard the story. About all you talked about since."
"Then you know why I am like I am."
* * *
Verge found Ben Carson playing poker in the same rundown saloon he'd left six years ago. Carson looked up from his cards and almost smiled.
"Why Marshall Verge," he said.
"What brings you to this fine establishment?" he swept his hands wide, gesturing to the entire room.
"You know what."
Carson looked down, as if contemplating the cards in his hand. "Sisco."
Verge pulled up a chair, squeezing between two fat gamblers. "Where is he?"
"I don't know, Verge."
"I think you do know. We was real tight once upon a time, weren't we?"
One of the fat gamblers thumped his cards face down on the table. "Can't you see we are trying to have us a game here?"
Verge flipped the man a quarter with his thumb. "Buy yourself a drink. I'll be gone before you get back." He turned back to Carson. "Tell me where Sisco is."
Carson tossed his cards. "Fold," he said, standing. He walked to the far side of the room, to an empty booth and sat down. Verge followed him.
"Won't bring them back," Carson said.
"Don't need to."
"Won't make it better."
"Don't need to do that neither."
"Then why do it?"
"I got to have something or else I got nothing."
Carson's handlebar mustache bristled. Beads of sweat formed across his brow. He fished a red handkerchief from his pocket and dabbed his face. "Weren't right what he done to you, Verge. I want you to know that's why I got out. Sisco said I was a coward, but I just couldn't ride with a man who would backshoot a woman, choke to death a child. And over what?"
"Sisco found a new way to make money. New game. Safer than robbing banks. Robbing from Wells Fargo trains. Having shootouts with Pinkerton cocksuckers. Safer than all of that."
"What'd he find."
"Started him up a church in Abbington. Traded the gun for hellfire. But he gets his money all the same."
The bar is quiet, as if everyone is eavesdropping on their conversation. Verge looks around the room. A whore on the far wall shakes her tits at him.
"Verge, I understand why you want this thing done, but you have to know one thing."
"What's that, buckaroo?"
"It don't fix nothing. That hole inside you just gets bigger. Gets bigger every drop of blood you spill. I promise you that."
* * *
It took thirteen days to reach Abbington. Verge drove his horse hard, digging in his spurs until her flanks ran slick with crimson blood.
He stopped on a hill outside town and looked down at the city lights, scattered across the valley below like the reflection of stars on the rolling ocean.
One of those lights belonged to Sisco Dent. Maybe he was at his church, taking care of a few things before service in the morning. Maybe he was nested for the night at a nearby parsonage, enjoying whatever family he'd been able to assemble in the four years since.
He cooked beans over the fire, chewed them slowly, their grit dissolving between his teeth. The fire danced in his pupils.
He slept. Restless. His soogan failed to block the cold. He woke before sunrise and prodded the dead fire. He fed his horse a handful of corn, then slapped her rear, sending her trotting away from Abbington. He wouldn't need a horse after today.
He turned to the city. He could see the gridwork of streets, only the earliest risers out and about.
Church began in an hour, worship soon after. He checked his gun, a pearl-handled Colt .45.
All six prayers accounted for.
* * *
Verge sat in the back row, his head low, face hidden from the the pulpit by the brim of his hat.
When the congregation stood to sing, he remained seated, listening to their creaky voices haw out the lyrics, "Because he lives, I can face tomorrow."
Sisco sat on a bench near the pulpit. He welcomed everyone to worship by clapping his hands. "Are you glad to be in the house of the Lord?"
Verge considered shooting him right there.
Sisco took the stage for the sermon after a few more songs. He thudded a fat King James Bible down on the pulpit.
"Good folk here in Abbington," he said. "But can I tell you something? It ain't about being good folk. I'm going to say that again, cause I want you to hear it. It ain't about being good. It's about the blood of our marvelous Lord and Savior, Jesus Christ."
The crowd said, "Amen." Verge kept his head low. He touched the pearl grip of his revolver, his finger twitching, heart thudding.
"I know about sin," Sisco said. "Lord knows I am a sinner. You all know where I come from. An outlaw life. I come here broken, and you fed me with the spiritual food of Jesus. Weren't for the Lord, my wife, my child, I would still be out there somewhere, living a life for who? For me. And me alone."
Verge looked up enough to scan the room. He spied a woman and child sitting in the front row, their Sunday best crisp and clean in the light that filtered through the stained glass windows.
The girl was just a little older than his own daughter, her thin legs like the stems of a dandelion disappearing into her white dress. The woman was tall but fair, her hair pulled tight into a bun on her head.
Sisco's sermon droned out into a murmur. The world fuzzed like a pinhole camera, with the woman and child in crisp focus in the center.
When he glanced back at the pulpit, Sisco was staring straight ahead. "No matter what we done, Jesus' forgiveness is sufficient," he said. "I'm gonna say that one more time. No matter what we done. No matter what."
Verge downed another shot of whiskey. The man behind the counter nodded and poured another. "Say when."
"When it's empty," Verge said.
"Ain't many come in here on a Sunday."
Verge downed the next shot and placed it on the table with a clank. "So what."
"Something on your mind, stranger?"
The barkeep smelled like stale beer, his eyes like muddy puddles of water. He smiled like he cared.
"Somethin is. Sure."
The barkeep poured another shot. "You want, I can talk to you about it."
"You know Sisco Dent?"
"Sure I do."
"What do you know about him?"
"Know he was rough when he got here. Said he done horrible things. Things that ate him to his soul. Wouldn't say what. He's doing right fine there at the church these days."
"I know what he done. I know all about Sisco Dent. Give me the bottle."
The barkeep slid the enter bottle of whiskey across the bar. Verge caught it just before it tipped over the edge.
"It don't matter what he done."
"Don't it though?"
"Why don't you tell me, and I'll decide?"
"Sisco Dent kilt my wife. Kilt my baby child. Kilt them in my own home."
There was a long silence. Verge gulped down half the whiskey.
Verge didn't answer, just kept drinking.
"Let me tell you something else about Sisco," the barkeep said.
No answer, just the sound of spirits bubbling from the end of a bottle.
"Sisco one of the best shots I ever seen. Had a festival here a while back, a shooting competition. He took first by a mile. I wouldn't draw on him."
"I know he can shoot."
"Man kills a man's family deserves to die."
"But you think it ought to be from you?"
"He ought to've hung a long time ago."
"Men are victims of all the things that happen to them. Ain't no one decides for themselves who they are. God shapes them with tragedy, and that's all. All men. Even Sisco. Leave this town, stranger. Find happiness somewhere. It ain't here. Not for you."
Verge downed the rest of the whiskey. "I'll leave. One way or another, I'll leave."
* * *
By mid afternoon, he was hiding out on the reverse side of a barn on Sisco's property. He slouched against the aged wood, turning the chamber in his pistol, listening to the delicate little clicks.
He watched a murder of ravens settle in the trees across the way, bustling their shoulders, bobbing their heads. They spoke to each other, argued and fought.
"You kilt men before," he said, still drunk. "You kilt a lot of men. What's Sisco dead to you? After what he done? What's his wife dead to you? His girl?"
The crows answered in little sharp barks. He sat up straight, the world tipsy beneath him. "What'd you say to me?"
He pointed his gun, watched the tip dance in front of him. He winked one eye, concentrated hard. "Why don't you be still?"
"Who you talking to, mister?" Verge jumped. A little girl stood at the corner of the barn, one pale hand spread around the corner like creeping ivy.
Verge lowered the gun. He hiccuped, swallowed vomit. "Them birds," he said, after a moment.
"Don't you mind them birds."
Verge laughed. She stepped fully around the barn, all legs and torso. She frowned at him, her hands on her hips, channeling her mother. "I ought to get my Pa."
"I know your Pa. We was friends one time."
"I'll go get him. He'll want to know."
Verge tried to stand, but his legs collapsed like hot wire. "Wait now."
She took a step back. The crows rustled on the trees nearby, the sound of their feathers like an executioner's snare drum.
"Don't you point that at me," he heard her say. She danced at the end of his pistol.
He pulled the trigger.
Crows exploded from the trees like pollen on the wind, cawing and screeching. They flew in great whirling circles in the sky, pinwheeling through the clouds, specks of black on searing blue.
* * *
Sisco nudged Verge with the end of a .30-30.
"Wake up, boy."
Verge opened one eye. Nothing came in focus except the cold iron of a gun pressed against his temple.
"You cracked off a shot at my girl," Sisco said. Verge shifted, feelings around on his hip for his sidearm. He looked up at Sisco, a black silhouette against the sun. Sisco jabbed him with the gun. "Stand up. You think I ain't thought to disarm you already?"
Verge guided himself to his feet against the side of the barn.
"Walk," Sisco said. "That way." He motioned to the empty field with his eyes. The crows drifted back down to the trees. They seemed to hunch forward, eager to see what would happen.
"Did I kill that girl?" Verge asked, walking.
Sisco pressed him further and further into the frontier. They stopped for a minute so Sisco could rest his fat ass, and drink from a waterskin.
"Always reckoned you'd come," Sisco said.
"Come and find you here with the very thing you stole from me."
"I know it."
"I was trying to live clean, Sisco. Built me up something. A life. You steal it away from me, and I got no choice but to go dirty again."
Sisco pointed to a nearby tree with the tip of the gun. "Why don't you sit down by that tree."
"I ain't sitting no place."
"Your choice," Sisco said. He lowered the gun and blew out Verge's knee. Verge hit the ground screaming. "You always got a choice, Marshall. Take me, for example. I could shoot you dead right now. Or I could let you live."
"Shoot me dead, you cocksucker."
Verge pulled himself backwards, holding his bleeding leg until he could rest against the base of the tree.
Sisco cracked the lever on the .30-30 and lowered it again.
"Do it," Verge said. He touched himself on the forehead. "Right here."
The rifle roared. Verge's good knee buckled. He screamed, clawing up fistfulls of dirt and rock. He writhed against the tree, foam gathering in the corners of his mouth.
"See you, Marshall." Sisco said. He turned to leave.
"Don't leave me."
Sisco kept walking.
"Sisco, don't you leave me here. You leave me here, my blood is on you. You leave me here, you kilt me. You kilt me, Sisco. You kilt me."
Sisco turned and looked at him, his face scrunched as if he were looking at something confusing. Then he shrugged and kept walking.
Verge screamed until his voice went out.
* * *
Verge saw Charla in some green country, snow dusting the deep spaces of giant pine trees. She carried Addie on her hip, the little girl's hair in delicate blond ringlets.
He crept behind her, uncertain—afraid to call out, to find that it was another woman, another child, another trick of the mind.
Charla turned, saw him. Her eyes were bright, open like two wells straight to her soul. "Why Marshall Verge," she said, smile growing across her face.
Addie kicked her little legs and clapped her chubby hands. "Papa."
"My beautiful girls."
"Come on over here," Charla said. "Put your arms around us."
Verge stepped toward her.
Somewhere, a hot sun blistered the sky. Crows huddled around a tree, furious for the smell of blood. Verge took his wife in his hands. He kissed her. He kissed his child.
The crows descended.