I ride south, morning sun to my left, head tilted so my stetson keeps away blindness. A weeping willow stands along the dusty path, its shadows reaching toward me like skeletons in silhouette. A rabbit clears the road and hides in a briar patch. The six-shooter on my hip feels heavier than normal.
Old Sally trots along leisurely, ignorant of her owner’s demise, pleased to be out of the stable and in the sunshine. I pat her gently and urge her on towards Tulsa and away from the ghosts of Kansas City.
* * *
The first time I saw Sally, my sister Beatrice was riding her side-saddle. We’d had a good year of sales and she’d asked me for the money to buy the old mare. A gift to herself, she’d said. But she’d earned it. All those laces and frills behind the counter made the pioneers more likely to restock at our shop than any other in town. Seeing Beatrice on top of that black Quarter Horse always brought a smile to my face.
Jimmy came along shortly after Sally became part of the Callahan family. Like most of our customers he was looking to restock his wagon before setting back out on the Oregon trail. He was a young lad, barely twenty, over six feet with a curly black mane down to his shoulders. He was as clean-shaven a pioneer as I’d ever seen, not a whisper of whisker on his porcelain face. Jimmy ordered his breads, beans, and grains before buying a Journal-Post and leaving. He was just another face that I assumed I’d see once more when he picked up his supplies and then never again.
I shut down shop at seven and ambled over to the saloon for some whiskey. Jimmy was at a table alone with his paper and a bottle of Jim Beam. I called for a second bottle and sat down next to him.
“Any good news?” I asked.
“Looks like the cholera’s slowing down out there.” he replied.
“Rick Callahan.” I said and stuck out my hand.
“Jimmy Pickens.” He gripped my hand strong, but his skin was cool and smooth instead of the callous, sweaty palms I was accustomed to.
By the time those two bottles were empty we’d discussed every topic from the weather to the meaning of life. It’d just been my sister and I for going on five years. Having someone else to talk with was a pleasant change.
“Rick, come on up to my room. I got another bottle up there and a couple nice cigars I picked up in St. Louis.” Jimmy said and stood up.
“Nah, I got to get back to Beatrice. She’s likely got dinner waiting in the oven.” I slid my chair back and stood up, too.
Jimmy hesitated a moment. “Beatrice?”
“Guess she weren’t there when you came by. Beatrice is my sister. All I got left. My folks were claimed by the land ‘bout ten years ago.” I explained.
Jimmy smiled. “Beatrice probably knows how to take care of herself, then.”
“Well, I reckon she could use a little time alone to rest. She’s been riding all day long, anyway. Got her a black mare a few days ago and she’s been saddled up ever since.”
“Sounds like it’s settled, then.” Jimmy said and shot off to the staircase.
“You drive a hard bargain, son.” And I shot off after him.
I felt like a ballerina as I entered Jimmy’s room above the bar. The whiskey had me light on my feet and even lighter in the head. The room circled slowly around me like the stars moving across the night sky.
Jimmy had the bottle and cigars on his night stand. He stumbled and fell into his bed before sitting up and looking me square in the eye. “I’ve got something to show you.” he said.
“What is it?” I asked.
Jimmy ripped his shirt open exposing a smooth chest and muscled abdomen.
I never thought myself a queer and I still don’t. Then again, I aingt never been much for chasing women, either. Mostly I just left people alone and they left me likewise. But my veins burned hot that night. I don’t know if it was Jimmy or the whiskey. But my body seemed to think it the former.
I fell into his arms and the rest of the night was a blur of wet lust and soft flesh. I slept like a babe and woke before sunrise. My head and stomach hurt like hell. Hangover and guilt was a nasty cocktail. I slipped out of bed and ran the mile to our homestead while Jimmy and the rest of Kansas City slept.
I had bathed and made breakfast before Beatrice woke. After she finished her eggs and biscuits I informed her I weren’t feeling well and would be staying home. When she asked me what was wrong I reminded her she’d been out galloping for the last few days while I’d been keeping shop. She acquiesced and went about making herself pretty. I drew a big breath of relief knowing I wouldn’t have to face Jimmy when he came to pick up his supplies.
I sat there all day trying to figure out what happened, who I was. My momma raised me a Christian and I aingt never heard no preacher say that what I’d done was okay. But it felt okay. I realized I weren’t feeling guilty, but scared. If one of them old-timers in the saloon new what I’d been doing with that boy they’d laid us both out on a slab. Probably wouldn’t even give us a proper Christian burial.
I cried myself tired most of that day until I finally realized there was only one person I could talk to. Jimmy. Who else could I go to about this topic without getting beat up, shot, or stabbed?
I strolled slowly toward town. On two occasions I turned around and walked a fair distance before gathering my courage again.
I went around the back side of the saloon, hidden from Callahan’s Supply so my sister wouldn’t see, and snuck in the side door.
I took a deep breath and let it out slowly. I pushed Jimmy’s door open and there he was. On his bed in nearly the same position I’d left him.
Except that he was lying nose-to-nose with Beatrice.
Jimmy woke slowly with a flutter of the eyelids. He stared for a few seconds, I figured he must have thought he was dreaming at first, then his eyes got wide and he made a half-hearted plea for his life. “Rick, it’s not what it… I’m sorry, Rick.” He looked like a man who felt deserving of death and I didn’t disappoint.
The sound of the gun ripped Beatrice from her slumber. She saw Jimmy first. He’d fell back to his sleep position so she woke to the same face she’d fallen asleep with. Only now her lover’s skull was hanging by a jagged hinge of flesh, flapping like a flag in the wind.
She leaped from bed screaming with her hands clutching her head while never taking her eyes off Jimmy’s sweet, torn body.
“Bea, get a grip.” I said, but she couldn’t hear me over her own screams. “Beatrice!” I yelled and smacked her on the shoulder.
That got her attention. She turned to me and fell silent but the scream still contorted her face.
“D’you know who that man is you bedded?” I asked.
She nodded. “Jimmy.”
“He know your name?”
“Yeah. I ain’t no whore.” Beatrice said.
”Then how‘d you end up in bed with a man you just met?”
”He came in the shop to pick up an order. Asked if you was there. I told him no and that I was your sister. His eyes got real big and he asked me if he could take me out for a drink.”
“He tell you about us?”
“He just said that you and him were friends and that he owed ya one for the other night. Didn’t say nothing else.”
“Did he tell you about him and me?”
She sighed as if having a revelation. “Dammit Rick, I don’t need no one to tell me about you. I done knew it for years. You was the only one ain’t figured it out ‘til now.”
“What do you mean the only one?” I demanded. My gun started raising in my hand. It wasn’t by choice, though. It was like the gun moved on its own.
“Everybody in this whole damn town knows you ain’t got an eye for no child-bearin’ hips.” she said.
“How do they know? How do you know they know?”
“They ask me. The ones who got the nerve, anyway.”
“You tell ‘em I ain’t no queer, though. Right?”
“Aww Rick.” She put her hand on my arm and softened her voice. “Ain’t no sense in lyin’. Can’t fool nobody anyway.”
She was standing so close she didn’t even see me pull the trigger. I threw one arm around her to catch her and hauled her back into the bed. My sister was always a tough broad, even in death. Didn’t scream a lick.
“Turn me over.” she grunted. “I wan’t to see a pretty face ‘fore I go.”
I turned her to face Jimmy. It was the least I could do.
“I never believed it, you know?”
“Believed what?” I asked.
“I never believed you’d go to hell just for being a queer.” she said.
“That’s nice of you to say, sister. Now you go on to sleep.”
“Now I figure it don’t matter what you are. You goin’ to hell for sure.” She closed her eyes and the rise and fall of her chest came to a stop.
“I reckon I’ll see you soon, then.” And the was the last words I ever spoke to her.
* * *
There ain’t much in the way of lawmen out this way. I convinced the townsfolk that Beatrice and Jimmy had been stealing from the shop and were fixing to run off together.
Beatrice saved me some trouble. I didn’t have to deal with any rumors about my relations with Jimmy since they found him in bed naked with my sister. They figured my motives were only business-related. It gave me time to sell the shop and contact an oil man in Tulsa. Working the fields had never been a dream of mine but Kansas City was haunted for me.
I tell all of this to Sally but she doesn’t give a damn. If I can get a good price for her in Tulsa I’ll sell her. If not I’ll send her to be with Beatrice. The two of them can gallop through fields of Heaven, if they manage to make it there. But something tells me they’re both deeper than the crude in the fields of Oklahoma.
The shadows of trees recede into strange shapes; laughing ghosts, cheering skeletons. Somewhere in the distance a coyote howls.