Madge took one look at the old man and shook her head. Cullen Grayson wore a black broadcloth suit twenty years out of style, with a celluloid collar and black string tie. Not a speck of dust on the suit, not a hair out of place. The guns were freshly oiled as they always were, one tied down to his skinny thigh, the other set for a cross-draw on his ornately carved leather gun belt. Cullen climbed the steps into the Bon-Ton restaurant with his customary uneven gait. People said a Shoshone bullet had ruined one of his knees in a raid down in the Nevada territory years ago, but Madge wasn't sure. They said a lot of things about Cullen Grayson. Maybe some of them were even true.
"Good morning," she said after Cullen had tottered unsteadily inside and made his way to a table in one corner. Madge regarded him with the same level of distrust one might have for a dog with a questionable reputation. With his back against the walls, the old man seemed to relax a little. He took off his hat and placed it in the chair beside him.
Cullen nodded curtly and said thank you when she brought him a cup of scalding hot coffee. He shifted in his seat, easing his six-shooters into a more comfortable position. Madge thought of her own gun, then. The big dragoon Colt was too heavy for her. She'd probably break her wrist if she ever fired it. But the thing worked well as a club, and she'd used it to mediate several disputes between drunken cowboys and miners, dropping the heavy barrel upside the offending party's head and looking on as he was dragged from the restaurant.
Madge didn't ask Cullen how old he was. It was impossible to tell. He was the oldest man in the Basin, certainly. And today he had put on his only suit and come to town to pay for it, just as he'd been doing for the last ten years.
* * *
Cullen poured a splash of coffee into the saucer on the table and blew on it. He lifted the saucer with a liver-spotted hand that barely shook at all and sipped. He made a face, and sipped again. Outside, the sun had finally broken over the Big Horns and the day looked bright and alien, like all the days that came before and all of the ones that would come after. Cullen's pale green eyes stared out at the street. It would start any minute now. He flexed his hands, tried to keep the tremors in check. He could remember when his hands had been fine and supple, nimble and long-fingered. Before he came west. In another life—whatever and whoever he had left behind—Cullen could have been a musician, could have been something or someone else.
Wishful thinking. He had always been the man with the gun.
Cullen had never meant for it to happen, had never meant to earn his reputation as a gunfighter. It felt like something that had simply happened to him. He had stood waist-deep in the river of time and watched everyone and everything he had ever loved be carried away by invisible currents he could not control. There'd been a few scrapes, and he survived them. That was all. Five years before, some dime novel writer had come out here to this arid, remote place and found him. What was the fellow's name? Cullen couldn't remember, and maybe it didn't matter anyway. The writer asked him how many men he had killed.
Cullen had made a mistake then. He'd answered truthfully: He didn't know. However many it had been, there were five more since.
* * *
Madge watched Cullen the way she might've observed a snake dying in the street with its back broken from a passing wagon wheel. He was thin to the point of emaciation, barely more than a skeleton. What inner fire kept him on his feet, kept him coming to town in that ridiculous suit year after year, she could not know. Heat radiated off of him like a sickness. The tails of his suit coat drooped around his hips and his trousers puddled in his lap. The collar of his shirt gapped at his neck. If you could look past the lines that had grooved themselves into his face, Cullen Grayson looked like a little boy playing dress-up in his father's clothes. Only his guns looked new, and that was because he treated them like royalty.
Cullen didn't look up. He kept his eyes on the bright and dusty street just outside. From inside the restaurant, the street looked far more vivid, brighter and somehow more real than the tables covered in gingham cloth and the ghostly glowing whitewashed walls. Madge thought that Cullen—this Cullen, the one she could touch and see and hear—held himself in some kind of stasis. He came alive only when he strode to the middle of the street, with his guns tied down and his hat pulled low over his eyes.
They heard the challenger coming, boot heels chocking on the boardwalk, the jingle of spurs playing counterpoint to the percussion of the steps.
Madge tried to ignore it.
"You want some breakfast? You look like you could eat."
Cullen stared at the street. He rose, put on his hat, and nodded to Madge.
Madge pulled in all of the breath she could muster. It wasn't her business, and yet she could not help herself.
"You don't have to do this. You don't."
Cullen flashed a smile, and in that moment, Madge could see the man he had been twenty, maybe thirty years before.
"Yeah," he said in a tone that brooked no argument. "I do."
* * *
"Did you ken him?" Cullen's voice was low, filled with an almost holy wonder in the aftermath. He had survived again. He sat at the table in the corner, just as he had before. Outside, men had gathered around the lifeless body of the loser and tended to him. Soon the undertaker's hearse would come. Someone would throw fresh dirt over the blood on the ground, and the townspeople would come out again. When it was time. When it was safe.
"It looked like Tyler Garth's boy," Madge said. She brought Cullen a plate of baking powder biscuits and bacon.
Cullen didn't say anything. He had known Tyler Garth since the man had moved to town, known the son since he was a boy in short pants. Paul had been a good boy, a smart boy. What in the hell had set him on the path to challenge Cullen?
There was no way to tell. He knew that. Boys—young men, Cullen supposed—were prone to deviltry. No one had forced Paul to step into the street. He could remember being that age, young and full of fire like a kerosene lamp turned as bright as it would go. The problem with that bright heat was that it would burn away. Cullen had seen it many times over the years; gunfighters, cowboys, miners, lawmen, and outlaws burning with white-hot rage. They slapped leather and died, made too slow and clumsy in their haste to raise the gun and shoot, or else they were too afraid, too fight-sick in their fear and they missed their first shot.
They often didn't get another.
Cullen was the opposite. Stalking into the street turned him cold and allowed him to peel back the layers of his humanity, leaving nothing more than the remorseless reptile of his soul. There was a nearly sexual tension he felt in those moments, a thing he would not have admitted to anyone. The gun came up and settled in his palm, walnut grips worn smooth to the contours of his hand by years of long practice. It exploded, the round surging forward toward his opponent. Sometimes in the moments after, when he stood in the sun-drenched street with the sweat ringing the armpits of his snowy white shirt and the dust billowing around him like a living thing and the other man lay dead or dying in the dirt, Cullen felt as spent as the shell he calmly ejected from the six-shooter's cylinder and replaced. He always felt dirty afterward, like he had when his mother had found him with his hands down his pants. There was a sensation of disgust as he put the pistol away. A hateful thing to be used only rarely.
* * *
Madge poured more coffee for the old man, steam rising from the delicate china cup. He still didn't want anything to eat, but she buttered two thick slices of sourdough bread and put them on the table in front of him. He broke the bread with long-fingered hands that used to be elegant. Now they were knotted at the knuckles and nearly skeletal in-between. His hands trembled as he ate, and crumbs fell onto the front of his fine black suit.
Rodriguez filled the doorway. He moved deliberately, so that they could see him coming. Neither fast nor slow. He wore moccasins, buckskin pants, and a homespun shirt. His dark, wavy hair fell past his shoulders, and his wide black hat hid most of his face from the sun. If he had a gun, Madge couldn't see it. Sean Rodriguez was not yet thirty years old, the only son of a Mexican horse-breaker and an Irish immigrant, with his father's dark eyes and his mother's pale skin. He took his hat off when he came inside, and Madge busied herself with sweeping at a spot on the floor she'd cleaned twice already that morning so that he wouldn't catch her looking at him. Sean had always wanted the wild life of the mountains and streams. He hunted cougars that preyed on cattle, and sometimes he hunted men, too. Madge had no idea where or how he lived; she only knew that being with Sean Rodriguez had filled her with a longing that she couldn't quite explain.
Rodriguez brushed Madge's arm with the tips of his fingers, and she turned away as he approached Cullen, who lifted a hand in greeting. Neither of them offered to shake hands, but Rodriguez pulled a chair out from the table and sat opposite the old man, putting his back to the open room.
Madge brought coffee.
"There's not going to be trouble in here," she told them. It wasn't a question. She kept her voice as flat and hard as the street outside. She filled Rodriguez's cup without looking at him. Nearly jumped out of her skin when he turned his face toward her. She remembered that face in the dark, her mouth tracing the shape of his again and again until everything had become too much and crashed over them both.
"No trouble, just a conversation. Would you get me some of that bread, maybe a couple eggs?"
Madge nodded and moved off toward the kitchen.
"How you doing, Mr. Grayson?"
"Good days, bad days. It's my birthday, you know. Day like this, I feel like I could live forever."
"Happy birthday,"Rodriguez said. The words were automatic, something to say as he studied Cullen, taking in the shirt collar that no longer fit, the sagging skin of the old man's cheeks and neck, the tremor in his hands. The snowy white shirt frayed slightly at the cuffs of his sleeves, and crumbs of bread held onto the front of Cullen's suit coat like shipwreck survivors clinging to the wreckage.
"How old are you now?"
Cullen started to answer, but then he had to give it some thought. He raised the coffee cup to his mouth while he considered. Swallowed, put the cup back down gently on the table, and wiped his nicotine-stained mustache with a shaking finger.
"Close as I can figure it, I'm seventy-eight," he said. "Mama and Daddy came into this country in the first wave, spent their nights in a covered wagon while he built a 'dobe. I was born the next year, old Tewa woman was midwife."
Rodriguez grinned at him, a flash of white, even teeth that nearly glowed in the gathering gloom of the restaurant.
"She tell your mama that you were going to live forever?"
"Nobody ever told me. But I lived this long." Cullen said. He ate the last of his bread. He wiped his hands with a linen napkin, finally noticed the crumbs on his suit, and brushed them to the floor. Sean Rodriguez put his elbows on the table and steepled his fingers together.
"Not much longer, though, huh? You got the sickness in you, I can see it. Where does it hurt, your gut?"
Cullen's face went pale underneath the permanent burn that the elements had weathered into his skin. He ran a finger along the celluloid collar of his shirt where it gapped enough that he could fit two fingers in there to touch the wattled skin.
"I don't know what you're talking about."
Rodriguez plucked a piece of dust from the knee of his buckskins and flicked it away. He didn't want to look at Cullen. The old man was in bad shape, anyone could see that. He didn't know how much hate Cullen must have salted away in his spirit, but it must have been enormous. Maybe it was some kind of Hopi medicine that kept Cullen breathing from year to year, but it was only in those moments on the street with the sun on his face and the permanent shadow of death at his back when he truly came alive.
And everyone else paid for it.
"Go home," Madge said. She'd come up to them quietly, but her voice was high with anger and fear. "You've already killed one boy today. Isn't that enough? How many more are you going to kill?"
Cullen sat quiet, closed his eyes and tilted his chair backward until he was able to lean the back of his mostly bald head against the whitewashed wall. He looked comfortable, like a man at ease and ready for an afternoon nap. But his hands never strayed far from his gunbelt.
"All of them," he said. "Every one of them who stands against me."
Madge looked at Rodriguez then. He shrugged. She went back to the counter and stayed there.
"I don't want to be the one to stop you," he said. "I've known you all my life."
Cullen grinned without opening his eyes.
"You can't stop me. It ain't my time yet."
He sounded so sure of himself, Rodriguez thought. Of course, all of those men that Cullen had killed had been sure that they would be the one standing after the guns talked loud. Everyone was sure of themselves until they weren't. And sometimes it was too late and you were lying on the ground with dirt in your mouth and blood on your clothes and your life force racing away like the sun chased from the sky by the coming night.
How long had it been since Cullen had felt fear, the real thing, the prickling in your spine and the heavy racing gallop in your heart when death was around the corner or worse yet looking you in the eye? Rodriguez, who lived out in the mountains and hunted big cats and wolves and anything else that threatened his employer's stock, had lived with fear so long that it felt like an old friend. He recognized and welcomed it, channeled it into something useful. A sign that he was still alive. And Madge . . . Rodriguez glanced at her. A woman alone on what still passed for the frontier, where the Chiricahua had raided only a short time before. She'd come West with her husband, but he had died somewhere on the mountain near Ten Sleep. Was Madge afraid? Rodriguez thought that she must be. She was a woman alone in the vastness of this high desert plateau. Her fear was probably greater—or at least different—than his own. He wished that whatever they started that night near the canyon had led to something more, but he didn't know how to say that, didn't know what words he needed to lasso her.
Everyone thought Madge was a dance-hall girl, a sportin' woman who would take a walk upstairs with anyone. Rodriguez wasn't sure about that. If it was true, did it change the way he felt about her? He didn't know. All Rodriguez had ever seen in Madge was a woman who kept her restaurant open and fought like hell to survive.
Maybe that was all any of them had. Survival.
* * *
"You so anxious to die, Sean? Lot of country left to see." Cullen opened his eyes and cut them toward Madge. "Seems a young man like you should be at home with a woman. You don't want the reputation that comes from killing me."
Madge sat a little apart from the men, trying to ignore them. She'd left the coffee pot on the table between them. She polished the restaurant's silverware and folded the white linen napkins. Her fingernails were bitten down to the quick, and every now and then she would worry at one with her small, sharp front teeth. Did Rodriguez even have a gun? Madge couldn't see it if he did, but it might be stuck in his waistband. Not every man wore a holster, let alone two of them like Cullen. She wished she knew. She wished Cullen would go home. She wished Sean had never come to town. She wished. The idea stopped her cold. Madge never wished for anything. She couldn't afford to.
Why now? Why today?
Rodriguez put his hands on the table between him and Cullen. His fingers were long with scarred and knobby knuckles, but his nails were clean and neatly trimmed. He held Cullen's gaze without flinching.
"I don't want a reputation. I don't want to kill you, and I don't want you to kill me. I want you to go home."
Cullen shook his head like a man trying to clear away a pesky gnat. He pushed forward in his seat and put his forearms on the table. Around them the restaurant was dim and cool. The warm whiff of freshly baked biscuits and honey seemed to linger in the air. It was a fine aroma, maybe the best thing Cullen had ever smelled. If they would leave him alone, he could sit here all day, drink coffee, and watch the afternoon slide by like the shadows on the wall.
"I'll go home when I'm done," he said. His voice was mild, soft in the quiet dining room, but there was no mistake. He was resolute. He would not be moved, he would not be hurried, he would not turn from his burden.
"Mr. Grayson. Cullen." Madge's face wore a look of surprise, as though she hadn't realized that she was going to speak. "Please stop this. Go home. Haven't you killed enough? Aren't you tired of it by now? Why can't you just die and leave us alone."
Cullen stared at Madge, his face bone white save for two spots of color high on his cheekbones.
"If a man spoke to me that way, I would have gunned the son of a bitch down."
"If I were a man, I'd walk out in the street and shoot you myself."
Cullen shot to his feet, tottered, and had to place his palms on the table to regain his balance. Madge rose and moved toward the counter, her long skirt whispering along the floor. Rodriguez stood, too. He placed himself between the old man and the woman. Dust motes floated in a stray sunbeam and the ozone smell of anger and fear overpowered the scent of baking. Cullen started around the table, boot heels hard on the bare plank floor until he met Rodriguez's eyes.
He tried to sidestep Rodriguez, but the younger man stayed with him.
"You can't—" Rodriguez said, and Cullen went for his gun.
They were too close. Rodriguez hit Cullen with a big, work-hardened fist, hit him hard enough to split a knuckle on one of Cullen's jagged yellow teeth. The old man went down, flat on the floor, still scrambling for a six-gun that was held in place by a leather loop around the hammer of the gun. Cullen staggered up to his knees and finally made it to his feet, though he was listing badly to one side. Blood poured from a broken lip and pattered against the rough wood floor. He stared at Rodriguez with eyes that blazed like blue fire and touched his fingertips to his lips, the blood nearly glowing in the gloom.
"I'll kill you for that." Cullen spat more blood onto the floor and walked toward the batwing doors of the restaurant. His feet were loud. "I'll see you in the street, you goddamned dog."
"I'm not heeled. I'm not fighting you in the street. Those days are over. They've been over for a long time. Everyone knows it but you."
Rodriguez flexed his fist, watching the dribble of blood flow down the back of his hand. He picked up a napkin and absently wrapped his knuckles with it. Cullen paused at the door and turned toward him.
"I don't give a goddamn. I'll be in the street. Gun, no gun, I'll kill you on sight."
"Cullen, I said I'm not armed."
"I am." Madge didn't raise her voice. She didn't have to. Cullen turned to look at her standing there behind the bar and Madge was already shooting, the big Dragoon Colt braced in both hands. She fired once and the recoil of the big revolver knocked her back against the shelving where the good white plates sat stacked and waiting for a lunch and dinner crowd that would never come tonight as long as Cullen Grayson was there. A stack of them hit the the floor and shattered, but Madge didn't notice. She brought the Dragoon down once more and centered it on the thin old man silhouetted in the doorway, cocked, and fired again.
Cullen Grayson lay face up, the hot blue fire of his eyes faded to the color of worthless flawed sapphires. His boots scraped the hard wooden floor and he died looking up into the nothingness from where he could not return, with no word on his lips, no thought in his mind, and no breath in his lungs. He was dead before he knew it, the punctuation mark at the end of the long sentence of twenty or more men who had fallen by his gun.
* * *
Rodriguez approached Madge carefully, as though she were a newborn fawn. He took the gun from her hand gently, loosening her grip one slim finger at a time. He slid an arm around her waist. She looked up at him, dazed at what had happened, at what she had done. They stood there looking at the body for a long time until a young cowboy who could no longer stand the suspense sneaked up the boardwalk by crawling on his belly and eventually poked his head under the batwing doors. His eyes widened as he took in the sight of the legendary Cullen Grayson dead on the floor and Rodriguez with the gun in his hand. The cowboy yanked his head back as if he'd nearly been struck by a rattlesnake.
They could hear him yelling as he clopped away through the dusty street, screaming his fool head off for everyone to hear that Sean Rodriguez had up and killed Cullen Grayson. The old man was finally dead and they were free.