He came from Natchez, this man with a horse. He rode the high country and braved the wind. He hid in his own shadow from the unforgiving sun. He saved his horse. He came from the high country for a purpose. He came to do good, but ended up doing ill.
He rode home with remorse and his horse died on the steep slope. He had lost everything a man can have because he came to do good but did the opposite of good. He paid the price in his heart, and his soul that died with his horse on that steepest slope while his new wife waited at home.
She bathed the children and baked the bread. She kept things going while he was gone. She always did. She had no choice in the matter; he gave her none. He went to do what he was asked to do, and she could not stop him. He always went to do good and always did, and always came home, and things were good at home until he had to do good again, and he left.
They called him Honcho. "Hey, Honcho!" they said, and he nodded. His real name didn't matter anymore. He was Honcho. The Big Honcho who rode away when he wanted, when he went to do things for no other reason than they needed to be done and who else was going to do it. His name was Honcho and he was an honest man, they said. He was a good man who did good things and got paid for his work, which was fine and fair because no one else wanted to do those things that were so hard to do, so very hard to do—so hard to find some good, honest man somewhere to come and do the good that needed to be done no matter how bad it was.
He rode hard and long. Wherever he was needed was never close. No one close would ever call on him to do good because he was here; and because he was here, good was already here and good remained and would never go. So they left him alone and basked in the goodness that surrounded his presence.
His wife's name was Ingrid. Ingrid from Germany. Ingrid who came to America as a little girl just in time to see the first trains cross the plains and the mountains to the shining seas she had come to celebrate. She was only twelve when her father sold her to a farmer in Colorado. Her father the man of God who knew no god or he would not have sold his daughter to be a wife to any man, much less the cruel Hoeniger he had known in Hamburg.
She would kill Hoeniger. No one would know. She would run away in the night and he would be dead forever. People would say bad men had killed him, bad men had raped Ingrid and taken her with them. No one would shoot Hoeniger in the face with his own gun and take his money unless they were very bad men.
People would say this because they wanted to believe it. They would say this to each other as if trying to convince themselves that this was the truth, that little Ingrid who was barely sixteen by then and had born Hoeniger one strong young son would run away on her own and leave the boy. They would say this and think this and believe this and would never believe the truth or dare to think it. The truth could never be true, so they never let it in.
Truth came hard. Truth came fast. Truth came in the middle of a black and starless night, the threat of winter thick and hard as that truth. Pushing. Pushing with the hard wind on the backs of the bad men who came for him, for Hoeniger.
They came for him because they knew him. They knew him because he had taken their money for cows that he knew were sick, cows he knew would die. Cows for market that would never make it to market. He took their money and shook their hands and wished them well in their travels. He took their money and put it away.
One of them saw him put that money away. They were bad men who knew other bad men. Bad men who saw signs, who knew the sound of hollow echoes, understood empty promises behind empty eyes. They knew how to protect their investments. One of the bad men circled back. He circled back and waited and watched because he knew as soon as darkness fell, Hoeniger would lock his young wife-her name was Ingrid, they thought-lock her in a closet and tell her not to come out so that he could go alone to where he kept his money, and carry his new money that he had taken from the bad men for the bad cattle, and hide it with the rest of his money he had gotten from good cattle and bad, righteous deals and wrong, crookedness and wickedness and spite-hate-money, revenge money, any money. Bad money.
They rode for high country, these bad men with their sick cattle that were dying even before they paid good money for them. The first cow fell dead on the third day. By the sixteenth day, twelve of the twenty-three head lay dead along the trail, the rest left to wander because the men knew, they understood, they saw what had happened, what Hoeniger had done to them. They did not wait to see it all play out. They did not need to.
They turned back.
Before the last cow died along on the trail, wandered off to pass in peace, the bad men were handing the gun to Ingrid and she was shooting her husband in the face. He would rape her no more. She would leave her child, hidden, because the bad men did not know about the boy.
Someone would come. He would be fine. She left him with food and water; she left him with faith. A baby has nothing else. He would be dirty, he would be filthy; his rash would be fiery, but he would be alive. And so would she.
Hoeniger would be dead forever, like his sick cows.
If the men did not kill her, she told herself, she would start a new life somewhere—a better life without a godless preacher for a father, a man so bereft of morality that he would sell his daughter for a hundred dollars to The Butcher of Hamburg—a man so full of evil he had to leave the continent in the middle of a blizzard in the middle of a black night in a barrel in the bilge of a slaving ship bound south. A man so full of sin that he could not be killed. A man so full of hatred that he would not be killed. A man so fully evil that he could never be killed unless a greater evil was created, so powerful that it could overcome his worst sins. As far as he believed, as far as he had seen, as far as he ever knew: no such evil had ever been created.
Until he created it.
Ingrid Reignstagen was that evil, created. Years of the strap for the mildest transgression, a morsel of bread left on a plate he expected to be clean, her hide red and bleeding, bred the evil. But it took Hoeniger to give it life. To give it life so strong that he might die, that her evil would become so powerful that it could push his own evil down in the dirt and spit in its face—so confident that it could laugh and run away, never looking back, never regretting, never remembering.
He was surprised that night; not by the men who came back for their money and revenge—he had half-expected that—but by the gun in her hand, his gun in her hand, his gun the men he had cheated had given to his young wife because they knew the kind of man Hoeniger was and knew without knowing the things he had done to her, probably every day for four years and three months and seventeen days.
Hoeniger's big, rough hands made the preacher's strap seem like soft honey. The Butcher of Hamburg had no kindness or mercy for any of God's creatures, even if they were his own. The things he did to the child, the beatings to his own child, the boy given to him by his Ingrid, would never leave her dreams. Pulling the trigger only released a bullet.
Her freedom was won and lost in the same moment. The bad men did take her with them, when she asked to go. They would be no better than her father, but not as bad as Hoeniger. This she knew. This she could tell, not by their kindness, but by their efficiency. They brought the money from the hiding place into the cabin which was how Hoeniger saw them and the only reason he let them in. They already had his money. All of his money. How did they get it? How did they even know where it was?
Then he knew. They had waited, they had seen; that was the only way. They knew not to trust him and did not. They waited and they saw. So they were smart. Too smart to turn away or shoot. The two at the door with his money were certainly not alone. If they had his money they were too smart for that. There were others and they would kill him if he did not let them in.
How many had there been? Five? Six? He had been so filled with greed and joy at ridding himself of the sick and dying cattle that he failed to notice. He failed to save his own life, should that time come, should they come back and he would know just how many he had to kill. But he had counted their money instead of the men, and they were on him before he could attack, before he could save himself.
They wanted revenge; this much was obvious and logical. Fair. That they already had his money, all his money, and wanted inside his house, his home, his small cabin on the edge of the plain by the wilds, meant that they did not want to talk much—just enough to make him know they would kill him, just before they did.
Hoeniger was smart, too. He was known to be clever, to be relentless in his pursuits, ruthless in his dealings, vengeful in his losses. He was smart enough to know that he was going to die in his cabin that night unless he did the unthinkable. Unless he could give them the one thing they would never think he would tender.
What he did not calculate was that Ingrid would agree. That the men would see her eagerness to be bartered again, and they would understand in that instant that Hoeniger was even worse than they had imagined. That he deserved to die in a way that even he had never envisaged. And he was surprised when they took his gun and handed it to his young wife.
The men laughed at Hoeniger's stupidity, his arrogance, his certainty that he could never be killed, that he never would be killed—his young wife killing him before he could offer the murderous thieves his infant son. They laughed and knew that Ingrid might turn the gun on them next but that, for that one moment, that brief window of grief and confusion and hope and despair and pain and fear and relief, they could retrieve Hoeniger's gun safely and they did.
Since they were unsure as to whether they would kill her as well, Ingrid took that moment, that one moment she knew they would be unsure and uncaring and elated and relieved and sated and flush and afraid and confident and uncertain of their next move to tell them: "Take me with you. I want to go."
She thought to add that she could give then what they needed, whatever they needed, whenever they needed it, but those words never needed saying in that place at that time or any other place and time like it in those places at that time. In that way, times and places never changed. Only dates.
"Just let me get a few things," is what led her to the baby's room and the silenced baby in the warm cupboard with the bread and the water and the knowledge that other men who owed money to Hoeniger would be coming around to pay under the weight of the fear of his harsh reprisal if they did not. Or maybe the one man to whom Hoeniger owed his soul, who would come to collect his pound of flesh with the same hard weight, Hoeniger thinking he would kill that man first someday, because he always thought that, but doubting he would ever have to. Easier just to pay what he owed as he owed it and keep the rest. Now his thoughts no longer mattered, as they mattered even less than the man himself, than Hoeniger, than his cooling corpse.
Ingrid knew that some one or several of those men who would come to pay or collect would find the boy and figure what happened the only way they knew to figure. That story would stick, as Ingrid knew it would. She knew the bad men would have their way with her as soon as they got the urge, and that itch would not be far down the road. The men knew this was not new for her and she knew they knew so she let them in and pretended. In their surprise she hoped for escape, which never came.
When the men returned home to west Colorado with their money and Hoeniger's, they figured never to have to work again. They fought and one died. One was taken away and never returned. The remaining four made a pact of peace and, though they never fully trusted one another, managed not to steal from or kill any of their gang. That price seemed too high. They had what they needed: enough money to live all or at least most of their lives
And they had Ingrid. Ingrid who cooked and cleaned and provided pleasure when they wanted it even if, as time went on, her own lack of pleasure became pronounced and she hoped someone would find her or see her and understand and kill them all and take their money and let her go. If they would not let her go, she would go along with them as well, again, and she would keep going with them, whoever they were, until one of them was not looking or forgot to lock the chains or incorrectly assumed he did not have to and she would be gone as far away as the chased sun before they knew it.
The day Ingrid turned nineteen, a traveling preacher rode up to offer these four bad men the perspective of God and the goodness that went with a life that offered back to God even the most paltry moments of faith and glory on the most irregular of schedules. "He hears every word of praise."
The men were not moved to the spirit but refrained from showing their Colts and Remingtons, their Henrys. This young preacher, wise for his years, saw that a woman's hand was at play in the house. "And which of you fine gentlemen be wed?" he asked. "Perhaps your wife would offer your prayers for you."
Not able to think past suspicions, the bad men declined possessory information—and showed him the Henrys. He protected his heart with his upheld Bible and passed freely, his mule slow but steady in the path of resurrection.
He had heard of a man, this young preacher had—a man who did good work for the Lord. A man who rode out of Natchez on his horse, over the high slopes and down, across the plains up into New Mexico. He asked no money, this good man, only that his word be noted on the prayerful tongues of others, an atonement, the young preacher had heard, an atonement for the worst sins a man can commit, sins that cannot be described and should not be imagined, sins that should remain unknown, but that God might forgive if the atonement came sincere and fruitful, plentiful and insolvent.
Honcho found Ingrid chained to a pine trunk in the root cellar. The bad men were dead. Three of the men had not heard of this man from Natchez, this man with his black steed who rode out when he wanted, when called to good duty. One man had heard but did not believe. Honcho did not give him time to repent in his belief, though he believed he did hear the man pray before the bullet split his skull. The others went next almost as one, this man with the false name arriving so swift and thorough.
Ingrid did not know for sure where they kept the money but she had a good idea and she was correct. They were bad men, not clever men. On their way back to Natchez, the man whose name she did not yet know left all the money—Hoeniger's and the outlaw cattlemen's—in a small church in the poorest town in New Mexico. He knew the priest there would not spend it on a new and larger church, but would feed the poor and clothe the naked, take in the infirmed, comfort the aged, and give council to the dying. He was a good priest. A good man.
"There aren't many of them," Honcho told Ingrid just before he told her his real name was Lawrence Jefferson Taylor—and he was wanted for the murder of six men in South Dakota, but that he had killed more than twice that. But now, no one came after him for doing bad in the past; they came asking him to do bad to do good. Every man has needs and limits. Perspectives change.
Ingrid was thirty-two when Honcho rode out for the last time. She had been violated so badly and so many times in the twenty years prior that she could bear Lawrence no children, which suited him. "My seed is bad," he said. So, they took in two orphaned Indian children—a girl they named Esmerelda and a boy they named Lawrence against Honcho's fears.
Though Ingrid did not know why she felt it or how she knew, she understood in some dusty corner that her man, her savior, would not return this time; or that if he did, he would not be the same. Honcho had no such feeling, or if he did, he did not show it or share it or fear it as she did. So, her fear left her and she fell into her own soul and drowned.
The man from Natchez with two names, neither of which mattered to him anymore—one he abandoned, one he donated to his adopted son, distancing himself so that his legacy would not burn a hole in the boy's future—rode on his black steed up the steep slopes and away, knowing this time was different. For the first time he could remember, he missed Mississippi, the green optimism of the place. Now, he could feel the sky pressing down, the rivers running away from him, and the brown grasses blowing aside to make way for his passing. He was no longer either of those names; he was just a man with a horse, going to do what had to be done, one last time.
Neither he nor Ingrid knew or could foresee or even imagine that such good work could turn bad so quickly. That the boy he had come to save would not understand and would want to avenge his fallen father. That he would take up arms and track the man on the black horse and ambush him in the early morning hope with the low sun behind his back, his sister at his side, taller and with her hair tied back, in pants and chaps, a shovel hanging from her hand looking like a long rifle-looking like a man with another man with a Henry who actually had a Henry, spitting fire at the unknown man who had come to save him by murdering his father.
He had killed the boy's father in one shot, one painless shot, to save the boy who did not know he needed saving—who did not know his father was not his father. The father who had killed a whole family in the Missouri Breaks over a card game gone wrong, buried them and sold their land to immigrants who knew no better; the father who had never felt an ounce of remorse for it; the father who had lain with his daughter when his wife would lie with him no more; the daughter who now carried his child; the father who planned, once that child was born, to bury the son who was not his son at all, but a child he had found abandoned in a bureau in a cabin at the edge of a wide plain.
The child was thirsty and hungry, yowling—not to get saved by the men, but to get saved from the burning hell that was his skin, his world—his faith unformed and of no use, his fear only that his mother would never return while not knowing he would forget her before a year was past. The infant boy whom the father took so that he could have a son. He would tell anyone who asked—and he would tell his barren wife to say the same—that she had the boy a year earlier that time she was away visiting her sick sister; the barren wife who had no sisters, sick or otherwise; the wife who had died by falling and receiving a blow to her head one week before the preacher sought out The Man from Natchez one last time. The daughter who would now give birth in four months and the whole town would know; the father who planned to run away and start a new life in the Missouri Breaks with his daughter who carried his only hope; the son who was not his son, a millstone around his neck, a tie to this town and the empty truths around it; this father who calculated that the boy who was not his son was already living on borrowed time, who should have been dead in that bureau save his adoptive father's generous offer to placate his barren wife; the father who was the first to arrive at Hoeniger's to pay down his debt so that Hoeniger the Butcher would not have him killed, or do it himself; the first one there who found Hoeniger dead and his young wife Ingrid gone; the young wife everyone would assume had been kidnapped by the bad men who killed Hoeniger and took Ingrid and their baby; Ingrid and the baby probably lying in a ditch dead, somewhere, violated and shot.
The hardest truth came that night just before dawn when the man with a big black horse blocked the father's way and the father knew his road had ended, his runaway life had run away from him, taking everything he had; taking his daughter and her daughter whom he had pledged privately to be the first he would never hurt. The first he would love. The first he would cherish. The first he would never see alive again. That much had already been settled by a higher power.
The girl in the chaps with her hair pulled back, a shovel in her hand, and life inside her that would never see life—that was already dead inside her—who went along with her young brother to kill the only man who knew the truth, who would be the only one to go on knowing that truth. The man who would use her shovel to bury her and her brother, their father's Henry and the truth—and leave it. No one would find them, no one would know. This man would never come back to this town or this place. It was better this way. Only he and the preacher man knew; and the preacher did not know any of this.
The man with no names who would see a flash of Ingrid's face in the boy's face—a death mask stretched perfectly over his—a second before the first earth obscured it. The nameless man who would ride for home, but never arrive whole. He would never arrive, the man who was once from Natchez and who once rode the beautiful black steed up the steep slopes through the high country and down again. Down again.