Loretta learned to read the tarot cards in prison.
Her cell mate was a wild-eyed puritan from the edge of town, a deranged loner possessed by demons. Held on a charge of child murder, the crazed woman awaited the arrival of the hanging judge. She spent the days pacing the cell, wringing her hands and twitching as if devils danced around her, mocking and provoking her to react. At night her tormented sounds filled the air as she spoke in tongues, arms outstretched, supplicating some mysterious God. Loretta wished the judge would hurry; at least once they'd hanged the mad bitch, she could get some sleep.
The wardens were brutal, but left Loretta alone for no other reason than they hated the crazy woman more. No one in the prison could abide her, not the women on the wing, nor the men in the main jailhouse, nor the prison staff.
One stormy evening, after supper and lock-up, the wardens came to visit the child killer. They had news: the hanging judge had arrived in Copper Creek.
Mimicking someone with a noose around their neck, the wardens jerked their heads, eyeballs wide open and bulging, as they made strangulated sounds. The crazy woman screamed in fear and they set about her, beating her legs and arms and ribs with their truncheons.
Loretta kept her faced pressed into the stained pillow, making sure the wardens knew she wasn't watching them. The dull thumps of the clubs hitting flesh and bone stopped after a while, replaced by the sound of ripping cloth. The crazy woman howled in terror, a wail of violation. Loretta knew where one of the wardens was sticking their truncheon. The shrieking intensified as a second baton came into play, and the scream turned into a guttural gagging as a third truncheon entered her.
Loretta kept her eyes closed and her face buried until the crazy woman fell silent. The cell door clanked shut, the key turning in the lock marking the end of the evening's brutality. Only then did she raise her head.
Later that night, Loretta heard the mad woman sobbing. Ignoring her, she drifted off to sleep. As she floated in dream time, the crazy lady shook her awake and spoke in a vulnerable tone, the first time she'd displayed any humanity since arriving in the cell.
"Please Ma'am, take this and look after it, and remember me when I'm gone."
She handed over a bundle wrapped in a lace handkerchief. Tucking it under her pillow, Loretta went back to sleep, and the cell fell silent.
The next morning, Loretta awoke to see the crazy woman's feet drifting in mid-air, swaying to and fro. Rather than face the judge, she'd hanged herself in the night. Before raising the alarm, Loretta opened the bundle. It contained a pack of tarot cards.
The cards were ornate and highly decorated, the images so detailed they came to life in the half-light of the prison cell. They meant nothing to Loretta, but carried a certain something, a power she could sense. On the night the crazy woman decided to hang herself, she'd protected the tarot deck. Loretta was determined the cards wouldn't fall into the wrong hands.
During her remaining time in the jailhouse, Loretta sought the company of the elder women. She listened to their stories from the old times, when prophesies, divination and acts of witchery were commonplace. Never revealing the existence of the tarot cards, she absorbed everything the women had to say, filtering any nuggets of wisdom from the general nonsense and boasting.
Loretta spent time in the kitchen, helping scrub the cooking pots when it wasn't her duty, to pick up details which might help her understand the meaning of the cards. She'd manipulate conversations to learn about the deck. Cards of the Major Arcana showed significant events and changes, they told her, and those of the Minor Arcana added detail and circumstance. The suit of batons symbolised creativity and action-taking, coins related to material matters, cups were associated with love and relationship, and swords represented thought and intelligence.
The elder women unwittingly taught Loretta the basics: the symbolism of the suits, relationships between the cards and their positions, and interpretations. However, nothing taught her more than the cards themselves.
At night, alone in her cell, when the jailhouse fell silent, she'd take the deck and shuffle it until one card cried out for attention. Cradling it, she'd stare at the delicate etched image until the colours and shapes blurred and the card took on a life of its own, showing Loretta what it wanted her to see.
* * *
As the prison gates slammed shut behind Loretta, she headed into Copper Creek and made her way to the saloon. The owner erupted into a belly-laugh when she asked if she could pick up with her old job. His multiple chins wobbled as he guffawed, tears streaking his cheeks. Each fresh outburst of hilarity hit home like a knife to her guts.
"Loretta, you've been in the block for twenty years and you weren't too young nor pretty when they locked you up," he said, struggling to contain his laughter. "Let's be honest; most men only paid for your company so they could beat on you once they'd shot their load. Ain't nobody going to pay for a whore what's older than their grandmother, not one with more scars than teeth. I suppose I could find you a mop and bucket if you're happy to clean up the piss and puke. Otherwise, I got no need for you."
Every morning, Loretta cleaned the saloon, mopping and polishing and refreshing the sawdust on the floors. In the afternoons she prepared the upstairs rooms for the girls, laundering the bed sheets and using cheap perfume to cloak the stench of sweat and spunk and debauchery. In the evenings she'd sit at a table to the side of the bar, offering tarot readings to anyone who'd part with a few coins.
The customers were mostly copper miners. After finishing their shifts they'd trudge home, eat supper, kiss their wives and children good night and head to the saloon. They weren't interested in tarot readings. What fortunes awaited them? Another day of back-breaking work, not enough pay, and the possibility of injury or death. All they wanted was to drink, gamble, fuck and fight.
Loretta had empathy for the girls. She'd been in their place. Many years ago, four miners had taken her to an upstairs room. One by one they used her, leaving their muck in each of her holes. Then they beat her unconscious. They didn't even leave her money on the bedside table. The next morning, she took a knife from the saloon kitchen and waited outside the ringleader's house. When he set off to work, Loretta approached him.
She didn't conceal what she was doing. In the middle of the street, with a whole shift of men heading towards the mine, she announced he owed her, loud enough so everyone could hear.
"Fuck off," he hissed, "or you'll get more of what I gave you last night."
She produced the knife, and for a moment fear danced across his face. Then his bravado returned and he pushed her to the ground. She heard laughter, people mocking her plight.
Struggling to her feet, she lifted the blade, driving it in between his shoulders as he walked away. Contorting in pain, he collapsed, flipping over to protect his back. Loretta straddled his chest and plunged the blade into his eye, twisting it hard to ensure it hit his brain. Then she stabbed him in the other eye. The laughter had stopped, but no one came forward to help the miner. Climbing off, she fumbled with his trousers, opened them, and hacked off his penis. When the sheriff arrived, she was trying to push it down his throat.
If the judge hadn't been one of her regulars, she would have hanged. Instead, he sentenced her to twenty years in jail with no parole.
At the saloon, Loretta's income came from her cleaning duties; no one ever wanted a tarot reading. Sitting alone, ignored by the customers, she'd shuffle the cards and wait for one to stick in her hand. Turning it over, she'd gaze at the image until it came to life and revealed its message. Every day she learned more about the deck, and every day her wait grew shorter.
* * *
The stranger was out of place, standing at the saloon bar with the miners, ranch hands and deadbeats who survived by fetching and carrying for the townsfolk. Loretta watched from her table as he ordered a whisky. Clean shaven with hair trimmed and combed, clothes clean and pressed, shoes free of dust, he was the antithesis of the local men. As he paid, she watched his fingers, pale and elegant but not feminine. His dexterity was obvious, even from a distance.
Lifting his drink, he turned and looked straight at her. Loretta expected him to do so and nodded, a gentle head movement which most observers would have missed. He made his way across to her.
"May I?" he asked, pointing at the empty chair opposite her, and she smiled.
As the stranger sat, he reached out a hand, soliciting a shake.
"I'm pleased to meet you, Ma'am. Elijah Black, and you are . . . ?"
"I'm Loretta, Mister Black," she said, taking his proffered hand and giving it a single shake.
"Please, call me Elijah," he said, a smile breaking across his face.
Without a further word, Loretta placed the tarot deck in front of him. He picked it up, shuffling the cards with a slow gentle motion. As his fingers manipulated the deck, his eyes never left Loretta's. Then he handed the deck back, and she laid out a spread of seven cards, face down.
Her hand hovered over the first card. Closing her eyes, she turned the card over, and opening them again, glanced downwards.
The card was the nine of cups.
"The wish card; that's what you have. I see contentment, an abundance of riches, a surplus which will fulfil your needs and desires."
Elijah Black lifted his glass and gestured a toast to Loretta, before sipping the whisky.
"I'm very sorry, Ma'am, but you couldn't be further from the truth," he said, placing his glass back on the table with precision. "Back home I trained and worked as an engineer, a specialist in mining and ore extraction. I liquidated my assets and bought passage on a ship to the New World. I wanted to build a career in the mining business, but when I arrived I saw bad practices, cost-cutting and companies putting profit over the safe management of their mines. They won't change, not while men will work for a pittance regardless of the danger. Less than a month after my arrival I find myself bereft, with no prospects but to seek manual labour in order to earn my passage home."
Loretta held up her hand to silence him, before turning over the second card: the wheel of fortune.
"Fortunes change, Mister Black. Yours was heading downwards, but now it will take an upward trajectory. Fear not; this is the beginning."
Again, her hand hovered, and she turned over the third card: the chariot.
"Be bold and you will succeed," she said with conviction. "Determination and perseverance are all you need to change your fortune. Hesitate, doubt yourself, even for one moment, and you'll lose everything."
Elijah Black sat back, a quizzical look on his face. Loretta waited, expecting a question, but he didn't speak.
Revealing the fourth card, the seven of swords, Loretta gasped and lowered her gaze, not meeting Elijah's eyes as she had done with every other card.
"I'm sorry, Mister Black, I truly am, but . . . "
Saying nothing, he leaned forward in his chair.
"This is a nonsense," she sighed, reaching out to collect up the cards, but he took her hand, preventing her from doing so.
"What does it tell you?"
"What does it tell you?" he asked again with a greater insistence on an answer.
"You'll take your riches against the will of others."
"A robbery?" he asked with a mischievous grin.
Loretta turned over the fifth card: the magician.
"A deception," she muttered.
Elijah sat back and when Loretta looked up, he smiled and nodded, signalling her to continue. She turned over the sixth card: the two of batons.
"A partnership will be favourable to help you achieve the right outcome. With a little guidance, all is possible."
She turned over the final card: the fool.
"Trust," Loretta whispered. "You must have trust."
With that, she swept up the cards and wrapped the deck in the lace handkerchief. Holding the bundle up, clasped between her two palms, she said, "Remember, Elijah, there is always a friend willing to give you advice; you only need to ask."
* * *
The bank delivered Copper Creek mine's wages on the last working day of the month. There was no fixed time. If the wagon arrived at the mine office and no one was there, it continued into town, stopping in front of the saloon, across the street from the sheriff's office. The wagon's two armed guards protected the money while they sent an errand boy to find the mine manager. The driver waited in the saloon, quenching his thirst. On occasions when the manager was out, Loretta had seen the driver licking his heels for a few hours, sometimes longer. Elijah Black learned about this during another tarot reading.
Loretta suggested one of the saloon girls could visit the mine manager on the day of the delivery, ensuring he would be out when the wagon arrived. If someone bushwhacked the errand boy, a well-dressed stranger could easily be mistaken for a new mine manager and collect the wages.
In a further divination, Loretta mentioned the old fort outside town, at Black Rock. Legend had it the indigenous tribes attacked the fort and flayed the first settlers alive, dumping their children into its well. Nowadays folks avoided the place for fear of rousing ghosts. The well was dry. Someone could lower themselves down and hide at the bottom. Any posse might haul up the bucket, but their Christian fears meant none would be brave enough to climb inside the well itself. It was a perfect hiding place. Later, when the posse had given up the search, a partner, a trusted ally, could come and haul the fugitive up again.
On the penultimate day of the month, Elijah Black entered the saloon, bought a drink and settled down in front of Loretta. He took the deck without speaking, shuffled, and passed it back. Loretta place a single card on the table and turned it face upwards. It was the seven of swords.
"Act with speed and determination; take what you deserve," she said.
Elijah Black did not reply. Instead he stood, nodded to her and left the saloon.
* * *
The delivery arrived just before noon. The mine office was empty, the manager away in a nearby barn frolicking in the hay with Betsy-Lou. After rattling the locked door with no response, the driver headed into town. Pulling up outside the saloon, he climbed down, tethered the horses and went into the bar.
Clambering from inside the wagon, discomfort obvious as they stretched and shook their limbs, the guards appeared, rifles cradled in their arms. After a few moments, a young boy scampered from the saloon and ran up the street, heading for the Copper Creek mine office. As he cut down a side street, Elijah was waiting.
Killing the boy was the smart thing to do, but could he kill an innocent child? His panic over the planned deception was already pushing him close to the edge; he couldn't commit murder too. Sweat clung to every inch of his skin, but the day wasn't warm. His heart punched against his ribcage as if it wanted to escape his body and avoid participation in the planned crime.
"Boy, come here," he ordered with as much authority as he could muster.
The boy stopped, uneasy with the delay.
"What is it, Mister? I'm taking a message to the mine office and I've got to run."
"It's your lucky day," Elijah said, forcing a smile onto his face. "I'm the new mine manager, so tell me the message and then I have another job for you, an important one."
"But Mister Fletcher, the wagon driver, gave me two cents and said make sure I deliver the message to the man in the office."
"What's your name, boy?" Elijah asked, squatting.
"Well, Tommy, I'm the man from the office, and because I'm here, the office is closed. I've got a shiny silver dollar if you deliver my message, so you've got two choices. The first is you can walk to the mine office, stay there until I get back, and then give me your message. You'll have to wait because I need to find another errand boy to take my message and my dollar. The second choice is you tell me the message now and take my more important message and my dollar. Which is it to be?"
Elijah took a silver dollar from his pocket and tossed it a few times. Tommy thought for a moment, his eyes following the coin.
"The wagon's arrived, from the bank," he said.
"Aha, the wages delivery; are there papers to sign?" Elijah asked.
"You see, Tommy; that's the problem. Anyone could claim to be from the mine and walk off with the payroll. Do you see my point?"
"Yes sir," Tommy said, but he looked confused.
"That's why my message is so important. I want you to run over to the town of Redemption, to the bank there. Tell them from now on all business with the mine must have signed papers to prove its authenticity. Tell them it's the order of Mister . . . Carmichael, the new mine manager. How long will it take to get there?"
"About an hour, sir."
Elijah handed the boy the dollar.
"Get going," he said, and Tommy ran off into the afternoon sun.
Elijah sat in the shade, checking his pocket watch every few minutes. The hands moved at a crawling pace, and when a drawn-out twenty minutes had passed, he stood and strolled towards the saloon. Once the wagon was in sight, he picked up his pace and walked with an air of authority. One guard gestured to the other and pointed at Elijah. The pair relaxed a little, assuming they'd done their job.
Approaching the wagon, Elijah nodded towards the men, who returned the gesture.
"I'm Mister Carmichael, the new mine manager," he said. "Are you two regulars on this run?"
"We sure are," the taller of the guards replied.
"Well, from next month things will change. I'll be speaking to the bank. You'll make the payroll delivery to the mine office, and only to the office. You'll need signatures for the transaction too. I appreciate the way you've done things until now suits you, seeing as you can turn up whenever you see fit. From next month, you'll have to be here at a time set by my company. Think about it; anyone could pretend to be from the mine office. It'll be less convenient for you, but I'm putting the interests of the company first. Understand?"
"If you say so, Mister Carmichael. We just do what the bank tells us."
Elijah breathed a sigh of relief. His authoritative manner had put the guards on the back foot. One walked over to the wagon and, leaning his rifle against the wheel, reached inside and produced two leather bags.
"Like I say, we'll do whatever the bank tells us to do," he said, placing the bags on the ground.
Elijah thanked the men, picked up the bags and walked away.
* * *
There was no reason to believe the guards had seen through his ruse, or to suspect the errand boy had smelled a rat. Despite this, Elijah rode towards Black Rock like a man being chased by the devil. Occasionally he slowed, turning in the saddle to scan the horizon. He saw nothing, just heat haze rippling across the scrubland. A few plumes of dust hovered where his horse had kicked up the ground, but otherwise the air was clear. Flicking the reins, he switched his attention back to pushing on towards his hiding place.
Inside the old fort, shade blocked out the burning sun and the air was cooler. Dismounting, he gulped down a few mouthfuls of water before leading the horse back into the sunshine. Cracking the sweating animal with the reins, it galloped off, but soon stopped. The stupid animal didn't have the sense to enjoy its freedom. Taking out his pistol, a few shots placed near its feet got it running again. He watched until the beast was nothing more than a speck in the distance, and then the shimmering haze swallowed it.
Lowering himself into the well was a slow process. Arms trembling, shirt soaked in sweat, he reached the bottom. Clambering from the bucket, he settled on the floor, using the bags as a seat. Then he worked the rope, pulling the bucket back upwards, stopping when it was around two-thirds of the way to the top.
Sitting in the darkness, trying to slow his deep ragged breathing, concerns bubbled up through his buoyant mood. The elation at having pulled off the deception faded, and doubt stampeded into his head.
Would a posse not search the well? A few ghost stories wouldn't frighten them; someone wouldn't be scared by old wives' tales. Might someone wonder why the rope for the bucket dangled down into the well's depths? It seemed too obvious a clue. Had Loretta misled him somehow? Maybe he'd be better running. The posse would have to get lucky to catch him; there was a lot of scrub to search.
Before he could act on the growing urge to flee, he remembered his horse galloping off into the distance. Stuck in the fort, he had no choice but stay hidden. They would find him; they wouldn't ignore an obvious hiding place. He would hang; that much was obvious.
* * *
It started off low, a distant rumble of thunder, a sound reminiscent of a bruise spreading across the earth. The volume increased, a rhythmic pounding, fast-paced, encroaching on his solitude. It was the posse, horses racing into the wasteland, seeking the fugitive. The noise engulfed him in the well, and it built in intensity until it was so loud it almost drowned him. Then it stopped.
He heard footsteps, voices shouting, echoing down into the confined space of the well.
"Winch up the bucket!" someone above ordered.
The rope snaked. Above him, the halo of light between the edge of the bucket and the well walls shifted. Then a whole circle of daylight appeared. He felt exposed.
Silhouettes of two men appeared, looking down in the bowels of the well.
"It's as dark as the Devil's ass," one said. "You going down there?"
The other man spat.
"Nope. Fuck that."
Then they disappeared.
"Hold on one moment," a man shouted, his voice authoratitive. Elijah froze, a tingling wave of stress rushing through his body.
A silhouette appeared at the top of the well, holding a pistol. The gun pointed down and an ear-splitting explosion of powder echoed off the walls. A buzzing sound, like a hornet, hung in the air for a second and then something ricocheted off the wall near Elijah's head. Brick dust exploded into his face, his eyes burning as the grit coated their surface. He blinked hard, desperate to rub them but too frightened to move. Another bang, ricocheting above him, higher in the space. The dust fell like a fine rain. He jammed his eyes shut, tensed, waiting for a bullet to hit him. The shot never came.
The sound of thunder kicked back in, only now it was receding. He sat shaking, too afraid to move or make a sound. Maybe they hadn't all left; one might have stayed behind in case he emerged. He sat in silence, rigid, for what seemed like hours. The thunderous beating of hooves had long since died away. Pain spiked in his limbs until unable to bear the discomfort, he moved. He was wet through. He'd pissed his pants.
* * *
The posse had removed the rope and bucket from the well. Trapped, he had no choice but to wait for Loretta. Everything she'd said, everything the cards had showed her, was true. She'd asked for ten per cent of the payroll. Maybe he'd give her more. It was only right he gave her a bigger cut. All he had to do was wait.
The circle of light at the top of well changed to orange, then red, grey and finally black. The chill in the air grew more noticeable and took on a sharp edge, biting, mean. Somewhere a coyote howled. Elijah stood, his legs feeling weak and tired beneath him. Stretching, his back was tender and the muscles ached. Hungry, thirsty and sore, he wondered how long Loretta would be. She'd want to get her hands on her share of the money. She'd come before morning; she had to.
Elijah Black slept fitfully, a few times awaking with a start, but the night was silent. When he next awoke, the darkness was turning to a grey pre-dawn light; the calm disrupted by the sound of hooves, slow and plodding. There were several horses. Elijah panicked for a moment, but realised Loretta would bring a horse for him. If it was her.
Unsure, he remained quiet, even when he could hear muttering from the top of the shaft. The small disk of light above him disappeared, and the squeaking of an unoiled pulley told him the bucket was being lowered.
"Loretta?" he hissed.
"You'll be up here in two ticks," she whispered back.
Above he could hear Loretta talking to someone. She must have brought help; it'd be difficult for her pull him up without assistance. She deserved more than ten per cent. He'd split the money with her, half and half. It was only fair. He wouldn't tell her in front of whoever was helping her. They might want a bigger cut.
Progress was slow, the bucket creeping upwards a few inches at a time. As it moved closer to the top, Elijah could hear people breathing hard, puffing and blowing from the effort. Occasionally the bucket stopped while they rested, then it would inch up again, each jolting movement another exertion from those hauling the rope.
It was close to the top when Loretta leaned over the edge. Seeing Elijah, she smiled, and he smiled back.
"I can see him real good," she said to one of her helpers.
The bucket stopped its motion and Loretta disappeared for a moment, returning with something in her hands: a rifle.
The first steel ball hit Elijah in the chest, tearing a hole in his torso, shattering his ribs and smashing his heart to pieces. He'd entered the realm of darkness before the projectile ripped its way out through his upper back. As his thoracic cavity filled with blood, a second steel ball hit his stomach, punching through his flesh and tearing up his intestines. His abdomen filled with blood and shit and splintered bone from his spine where the ball had lodged.
Loretta nodded to her accomplices, and the bucket resumed its jerky journey up into the dawn light. When it reached the top, she removed the two leather bags and carried them to her horse. The men released the rope and let the bucket and Elijah's body crash back down into the darkness. An echoing thump of dead meat accompanied by splintering wood filled the air as it hit the bottom of the well.
Loretta knew the tarot cards had brought her wealth, riches she'd not even contemplated in her dreams. The cards had given her a new life, another chance. She didn't feel guilt for what had happened. The cards had shown her the way. Removing the bundle from her pocket, she glanced at the top card: the devil.
With a smile, she rewrapped the deck in the lace handkerchief, pushed it inside her coat, and spurred her horse into the early morning light.