Joey Storm heard the thud of hooves first. He wheeled toward the oncoming black stallion and its rider, recognizing Birdy Wolfe from the patch over his right eye—an injury given by the arrow of a Shoshone back at the beginning of the Snake War. He also recognized the barrel of Birdy's Colt Paterson between the pricked ears of the stallion, and Storm knew his old pal wouldn't think twice about using it. "I'm stoppin'," he called back over his shoulder. "Hold your fire—you hear me, Bird?
"What in the name of the devil's hot ass's got into you, boy?" Birdy Wolfe threw back. "You might bamboozle Jubal Gore and One Hand—you jus' might—but you ain't gonna get any goddamned lever on me. We fought under Cady at Harney Lake, fer Crissakes. We ain't gonna let two saddlebags of Idaho gold come between us."
"What you sayin', Bird?" Storm asked without turning toward his old army buddy.
"I'm sayin', boy, we both rat-runnin' deserters," came Wolfe's response, "and that gold you nabbed from Jubal, One Hand, and me is rightly to be split between us.'
Joey Storm flexed his fingers against the grip of his Colt Navy. "You reckon?"
"If'n you don't agree to me stickin' my thumb in the pie, boy," Wolfe responded, "then I jus' might have to—"
Joey spun on his heels and raised his Colt Navy and shot Birdy Wolfe twice—the first cartridge embedded itself in Wolfe's good eye whilst the second slammed square into his neck. "I ain't givin' up one ounce of this gold, Bird," he said.
Wolfe fell away from his rearing stallion like a bottle tumbling off a fencepost, his startled face painting a nearby rock with a sizable stripe of blood. "Goddamn you, boy," he managed to spit out.
"I ain't lookin' fer God," Storm threw back.
Then he made his final shot.
* * *
A curl of smoke drew Joey Storm's attention. It rose like a beckoning finger above the surrounding treetops and reminded him of warmth and food, of good and prosperous things. He'd ridden from early morning to dusk with no break, and he was beginning to grow saddle-sore crotchety—and that even though Birdy Wolfe's stallion was a better ride than his own lacklustre mare. He was a good distance from the Snake River Valley right now, and a stop-off would be no bad thing.
Looks righteous, he almost said as he rode along the off-road track. The lone pioneer-style house stood to one side of a cluster of trees and looked neat and tidy, with a single stone chimney, a thatched roof, and a well-disposed veranda. The sight of the accompanying barn and horse paddock made him smile as he fixed the preacher hat against his head—the 'saddlebag preacher' look was the most fitting cover when venturing into the domain of any emigrant settler.
"You!" a woman's voice called from somewhere up ahead. "Jus' hold it!"
Storm squinted toward the house and saw the woman's lone figure stationed behind a water butt. She wore a grey cotton dress with an apron tied across it, and her brown hair was worn pinned back beneath a straw hat. In her pale hands she held a Springfield rifle—and she holds it like she's meant to hold it, Storm thought.
"I don't take kindly to uninvited strangers," the woman called again.
Storm pulled back on the reins of Wolfe's stallion and raised his hands toward the crown of his wide-brimmed hat. "I'm evangelizing, ma'am, and my circuit riding brought me to you. I am Abel Crane of the Church of Latter-day Saints, and I bring you a wealth of joy from the holy empyrean. I bring—"
"Hang it," the woman interrupted.
"Beg your pardon, ma'am," Storm murmured in response.
The woman edged forward, limping slightly on her right leg, her rifle still held in front of her. "If you bringin' such wealth of joy, Reverend," she began, "then why we seein' so much darn trouble in the world right now? We got the War of Secession, the Snake War, an' emigrants gettin' their wagons all torn up by Indians. Then there's the Union an' the Confederacy—they sure as hell ain't got time for God these days. They got time for the Gattlin' gun, sure, but God, the Lord of Lords, the High an' Mighty—you kiddin' me, Reverend Crane?"
"I wouldn't kid you, ma'am," Storm said, and he began to lower his hands. Then, with a bow, he continued, "May I trouble you for a scoop of Adam's ale?"
"Reverend—do you believe in charity for nothing?" the woman responded. "I've got a whole barrowful of potatoes and cabbage plants out back. How 'bout you put 'em in for me? I offer you vittles, a bed in the barn, and all the water you need in return. Do we have a deal?"
Storm smiled and shifted his weight on the stallion. "Isn't the garden your good husband's domain, ma'am?"
The woman looked askance and then dropped her rifle to her side. "My husband, William Garrison, was killed in the Great Revolt."
"Sorry to hear it, ma'am," Storm said.
"That's as may be," came the response. "Do we have a deal, Reverend?"
Joey Storm tweaked the brim of his preacher hat between his fingers and made a slight bow. "We have a deal, ma'am."
* * *
The pieces of gold shone like bursts of sunlight on Joey Storm's palm, and he smiled as he tipped them back into the closest of the twin saddlebags and stowed the bags away behind a water trough, the latter unused and demoted to a junk-filled corner of Geneva Garrison's barn. The horses—Geneva's mare and Wolfe's stallion—were kept at the other end of the building. Nobody, not even a rat or a racoon, had ventured near the battered trough in an age. Satisfied, he left the barn with a spring in his step.
Geneva Garrison was waiting for him alongside the raised patch of soil in her garden. She'd positioned herself beside a plant-filled wheelbarrow and was holding on to a fork and a spade instead of a rifle. "When you finish up, Reverend," she began, "there'll be vittles waitin' for you inside the house."
He clamped his hat back on his head and nodded. "Fine, ma'am. Thank you."
Geneva Garrison edged forward and passed the fork and spade to him. Then, with a nod, she began to move away.
"May I ask, ma'am," Joey Storm called after her, "how did you injure yourself—your leg?"
"Not that it's any of your business, Reverend," she answered, "but I had an army career. I enlisted in a Pennsylvania regiment with my husband at the beginning of the Civil War."
"But you're a woman, ma'am."
"I should hope so."
"But the Union don't allow the enlistment of women."
"My name was Tom Lawes."
"You disguised yourself, ma'am, that what you mean?"
She removed her straw hat and looked down at the ground a moment. "I disguised myself, Reverend. I was Tom Lawes, my husband's friend. I was born and raised in Susquehanna County."
"Jesus," Storm responded. Then he remembered himself, saying, "Forgive me, Lord."
"Thing is, Reverend," Geneva Garrison continued, "I was shot. The musket ball lacerated the kneecap on my right leg. I was lucky to avoid the Caitlin knife and the saw."
Storm had seen the piles of amputated limbs for himself. He'd heard the screams as the surgeons drew their bloody saws through the pale arms and legs of the unfortunate injured. He'd puked up his rations on seeing the broken, dismembered corpse of the Oregon Cavalry's commissary sergeant. He remembered, too, the way they'd cut off Chief One Arm's left arm after they'd taken him prisoner. Jubal Gore, he knew, was guilty over that one—it was Gore who had incited the men to do it. Worse, it was Private Storm who had held One Arm against the ground, an action that had driven him to negotiate One Arm's inclusion in the group when he, Gore, and Wolfe deserted for the Idaho gold mines.
"It's a bloody business," Geneva Garrison was saying now. "It's like I say, Reverend—if this land is God's land, then I do believe God is mightily upset with our doings on it."
"Amen to that, ma'am," he said, thinking: It's a strange thing, though, 'cos even guilt disappears when a man digs up a shining gold seam.
* * *
"Thank you, ma'am, for your hospitality," Joey Storm said. "It's a long time since I last sat to table."
Geneva Garrison smiled as she spooned coffee into the cast-iron saucepan on her range. "You worked for it, Reverend," she said.
Storm was thinking about the gold—seeing it on his palm, smelling it, tasting it. It was going to become all the things he'd never had since he'd slopped out into the unruly world, killing his mother—a brothel whore in Cheyenne—with his sudden birth. His life as a railroad worker's brat and a cavalry picket was all done. The war could rage all it liked. Joseph H. Storm was going to drink the finest whiskey, kiss the finest honeys in town, and wear the finest tailoring he could lay his hands on. What do you think about that, Reverend Crane?
"Where is the Church of Latter-day Saints taking you next?" Geneva asked after a while.
Storm looked up, his expression blank. Then he said, "Wherever God's work takes me, ma'am, I'll be there."
"What about a family—your wife?" she asked.
"My work is my family, ma'am. It is, if you like, reward in itself."
"You are a dedicated man, Reverend Crane."
He was about to answer when he heard whinnying and neighing sounds coming from the barn. It was, he knew, Birdy Wolfe's black stallion. Maybe a prairie dog or a bear had decided to look over Geneva Garrison's homestead. Or—goddamn it—maybe worse, he thought. "I'll go take a peek," he said.
"You sure?" Geneva responded.
"God is with us, ma'am," he said.
"You sure 'bout that, Reverend?" she responded again.
He edged outside without a reply. Then, with a sigh, he placed his hand against the grip of his Colt Navy and started toward the barn, pausing only to look across the yard and the neck of the narrow track. Everything seemed calm; there were no hoof prints in the dirt.
Then he saw it.
Blood. A dark, thick reel of it. In the dirt.
Wolfe's stallion lay in a useless heap on the ground. The beast's eyeballs were no longer in their sockets, Storm saw, and the shiny black napkin of flesh under the animal's throat showed a large slick of blood. "Jesus H. Christ," Storm whispered under his breath.
"He ain't gonna help none," a familiar voice answered from behind Storm's right shoulder as the nub of a revolver greeted his back.
Storm froze. "What d'you want, Jubal?"
"Easy," Jubal Gore said as he grabbed the Colt from Storm's hand and dipped his shoulder against the meat of Storm's back. "One Arm and me bin lookin' over every settler's place last twenty mile or more. Sumthin' told me that you'd go to ground. You's soft, see. You ain't got no core, Private. A good neighbour tol' me all about Miss Garrison's place." He paused and laughed. "One Arm, see, he smelled the sweat of that there horse." He laughed again. "What do I want? You's don't even need to ask, Private."
"Wolfe took it all," Storm threw back. "I ain't got no gold."
"Strange thing," Jubal responded, "you havin' Wolfe's horse an' all."
Storm narrowed his eyes and saw One Arm looking back at him from the recess of the barn. The long-haired Indian was cleaning the blade of his Bowie knife with a handful of straw. His lean face was spotted with blood from the dead stallion's jugular.
"I know you's think you's tough and your conscience been gouged outta you by the war an' all," Jubal Gore was saying now, "but I also know that's nothin' but a lie you's like to feed on. What we gonna do, Private, is get this whole mess sorted. I'm gonna get the truth outta you. You's ain't like me, Private, 'cos I cross lines you's never dreamed of."
Joey Storm didn't want to think about it—but he couldn't help thinking about it. He saw again the way Jubal Gore had carved his way through One Arm's flesh; saw again the crazy, lopsided smile on Gore's face; saw again the relish with which Gore approached the task; saw again—though he didn't want to see it—the blood.
* * *
Geneva Garrison had seen them through "the gap"—the slight hitch in the wood struts at the barn's rear. She'd met many men like them. The Pennsylvania regiment she'd served in didn't lack for its fair share of blood-lusting cutthroats. It was something to do with the way people responded to the battlefield. The sight of blood and the stink of death permeated the soul of a person. If you douse a sponge with poisoned water, she'd once thought, then the sponge—no matter how much you wring it out—will never be clean again. Sometimes, mainly in the middle of the night, she couldn't help thinking about her husband, his guts splattered across his Union uniform.
"Coming in," a voice called from the doorway.
Swallowing, she about-turned toward the sound and saw the man who'd called himself Reverend Crane as he tumbled into the room, his hands bound, his right trouser leg torn and blackened with a fresh bloodstain. The Indian and the beast-faced man—the man Crane had called Jubal—stepped into the space behind him. The one-armed Indian held the knife he'd used to kill Crane's horse whilst his partner toted a pair of Colt revolvers, one of which—as she'd seen through her peephole—was the gun taken from Crane.
"We ain't gonna keep you long, lady," the man called Jubal said as he pushed Crane toward a chair. Then he paused and looked at the Springfield rifle behind Geneva Garrison. "Get that there rifle, Chief, an' bring it to me."
She watched as the one-armed Indian pushed past her and retrieved the rifle from the windowsill and took it across to his partner. The man called Jubal bent forward and scanned the rifle's hammer; there was no musket cap beside it.
"Take it out, Chief," Jubal hissed, "an' throw it in the butt."
"It's not loaded," Geneva said.
"Did I ask you's?" Jubal threw back. Then, with a lopsided smile, he continued, "All polite-like, lady, I'm gonna ask you's to come sit down next to Private Storm here. I know he gave you a different name an' all, but his real name is Joseph Henry Storm. He's an army deserter, a no-good bastard thief, an' a liar. He kicks up more corral dust than any goddamn banker or governor in any state you's care to mention."
Geneva watched the one-armed Indian as he sauntered back into the room and positioned himself beside Joey Storm. She held herself in place as he raised his horse-killing knife and placed it against Storm's right ear.
"Over here, lady," Jubal said then. "I got questions to ask your new pal here."
She began to move toward them. She directed herself toward the right-hand side of the table—Joey and his chums being on the other side. It took her no more than a split second to lift the saucepan of hot water from the range and no more than another split second to fling the pan's contents into the faces of Joey Storm's captors.
"Goddamn bitch!" Jubal exclaimed, at the same time flinging back his head and firing off a gunshot. "I'll kill you's, you's goddamned bitch!"
The aimless shot, Geneva Garrison was glad to note, slammed into the floorboards, cussing up no more than a few splinters. One way or another, she was quick to dismiss it as she grabbed the table and switched it over—just in time for the top to deflect the glittering blade of the Indian's knife.
"You can have it, Jubal," Joey Storm moaned as he dropped forward, his chair going with him. "You can have the goddamned gold. I'll give it to you. You can have it all. It's in the barn. You can have—"
Geneva Garrison didn't hear him as she plucked apart the top of her dress and removed the single-action Paterson revolver from her chemise. She made two shots within the space of two seconds: the first bored a hole through Jubal Gore's forehead, and the second speared straight through the centre of Chief One Arm's right eye. They both fell to ground like kicked sacks of flour.
Another pair of shots followed. For good riddance.
* * *
"Forgive me, ma'am," Joey Storm said, his head sagging forward against his chest as Geneva Garrison eased his bodyweight back against the wall. "I didn't mean to bring this trouble to your doorstep."
"The war is not your fault," she interrupted him, "and it's the war that's brought us together. We're the scarred corn from Bull Run and Philippi." She paused and smiled. "We're the bad blood."
"I hear you," Storm whispered under his breath.
"You ever look at the ants under your feet?" she threw back. "War and killin' is in their nature. We ain't so different, I guess. We use words to justify our need to draw blood. The powerful folks call it 'politics' or 'religion' or 'Union' or 'Confederate.'"
"I hear, ma'am," Storm whispered again.
An' I watched you when you stashed your gold in my barn, she almost said. But she slammed the cast-iron pot against Joey Storm's head instead—with every ounce of strength she could muster—and followed this with two final shots from her revolver.
With her heart beating full for the first time since childhood, Geneva Garrison retrieved Storm's gold from beneath the old water trough in the barn and saddled her mare. Then she returned to her kitchen and sprinkled the floorboards—and Storm's and his partners' bodies—with gunpowder, leaving the powder keg and the attached paper-twist fuse at the door. Her final act was to retrieve an oil lamp from the barn, put a flame to the wick, then place the chimneyless lamp below the paper fuse.
It happened less than a minute or so later—
Geneva Garrison didn't flinch as she rode away from her blazing home. She didn't give a second thought to the burning bodies of Joseph Storm, Jubal Gore, and Chief One Arm. She'd seen enough bodies— just like them ants—to last a lifetime.