Finally! The conclusion of my Western short story “Blood Quantum”!
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Everett peeled a blackred paste from his lips as he sped through the trail. His groin excruciated in waves and he knew it was lead poisoning. He pushed through the hurt further and eventually slowed his pace, confident that his attacker took to rummaging through his belongings back at the cabin in an attempt to look for the silver, still tucked away safely in his shirt. He ran a hand through his hair and coughed a bit and the path eventually opened up into the flood plain, dotted with lone cottonwoods and sweeps of greenbrown desert grasses. He stood briefly to navigate and spied the Rio Grande about a mile out, gray and loud. Mesilla was still further south but he noticed a road on the far side of the river that would take him there and he smiled crookedly.
He trotted down the steep slope and across the range, passing monuments of salt cedar and sagebrush and croppings of bouldered limestone and sandstone. Everett marched on, glancing back to the pass like clockwork. His vision began to blur and he mistook shadows of dashing clouds overhead as armies of villains bent on doing him harm. He crept on as his headache worsened and soon he forgot his sentried errand. He kept low to the ground and stopped himself twice from collapsing completely, bracing himself on passing man-made edifices of rock and earth. His limp had worsened and he stumbled upon wreckage of some wrecked wagonette and used a long timber from the wagon-bed as a crutch until it snapped in half ten minutes later. The sun was hot and without his hat or coat he felt the full effects of it on the nape of his neck.
Everett had been walking for three quarters of an hour in an unintentional crisscross route through the plains and had been stopping every few minutes to realign himself amid his worsening condition, finally stopping at a large and rounded granite stone at the bank of the river. He gently lowered himself into the damp mud and his body throbbed all over as he arched his back along the boulder, the bullet buried in his shoulder shouting in pain. The rock gave him significant cover and a cool draft washed over him. He began another succession of coughing fits and spit up blood at the conclusion of each. His hands were shaking from his wounds and the hunger that plagued him and he took out the last acorns and chewed them skins and all. They were rubbery and sour and he felt puke come up in his throat but he managed to keep them down. He untwisted the canteen from his torso and drank the rest of the water. Some of it spilled down his chin and felt cool against his skin.
The river sat before him and bubbled and called loudly and the opposite bank seemed forever away. He had to squint to keep it in focus and mulled on his original intent to head further south, of finding a bridge or a shallow sandbank closer to Mesilla that he could easily negotiate, but he knew he no longer had the strength for this kind of exploration. He blinked his eyes and slapped his face twice and felt a bit of refreshment from the acorns. He took out the silver ore from his shirt and unwrapped it, caressing the jarred surface with his sooty hands. He placed the rock next to him and then with the bowie knife he sawed off the left sleeve of his shirt, tugging at the threaded remains until it ripped free at the seams. He then sliced the fabric down the center which opened the shirt up as a large piece of fabric and then he cut the leather strap off the canteen. He rested for a moment and breathed hard and then cut a small hole at each end of the sleeve, placing the ore at the center and wrapping it. Once it had been covered fully and wound tight he needled the leather strap through each of the small holes and knotted it at each end. He tested if it would hold by putting weight on it and it held up fine and looked like some sort of vulgar swaddling. He placed the strap around his neck then tucked it back into his shirt. He fastened his gun into his holster with a small leather buckle that buttoned and he stood and braced himself on the rock. He looked back to the steep slopes behind that ran up to the mountains and then to the pass that sat thick and dark with shadows and ran a hand through his hair.
He crutched along the riverbank until he found a downed cottonwood limb bleached white from the sun. It was dry in parts and he broke off the rotted and chipped end and hiked it up slowly under his arms, cradling it tight. He stood and peered into the river and couldn’t see the bottom but stepped in slowly anyway, his high-leg laced boots filling with the cold water, chilling him violently. He waded further out and he felt a sharp pinch when the water hit his leg-wound then groin. He tested the bough and it floated and he again secured his gun and the parcel in his shirt. He then took handfuls of water and splashed it lavishly onto his shoulders in preparation for the looming immersion.
Everett could feel his boots sink in deep to the sand of the riverbed and knock against stones half-buried and continued on until the bottom slipped from him altogether. He hooked one arm over the branch and paddled until he hit a strong current that began to lead him south and he angled his legs out in front in such a way that if he did happen upon any submersed obstacle, he’d be deter any major damage.
He passed parts of the river that became shallow again and he tried his best to be closest to the east shore, but found himself pulled back to the center. Water splashed in his mouth and it was cool but tasted dirty. His headache had retreated some and his wounds seemed to be puckered shut from the sudden temperature change. After drifting half an hour he began to kick wildly, his hurt leg biting with the movement, and he began paddling with one arm, eventually digging his boots into the ground. He hauled himself up onto the muddy bank and collapsed on his back while the branch floated on. His chest raised and lowered in great peaks and recesses and he coughed again, turning his head to side and letting loose a thick stream of blood and phlegm.
He cradled a hand over the ore which sat bunched along the side of his abdomen and he abbreviated his breathing to again avoid further ache against his ribs. He sat up and felt dizzy and looked behind him with both palms plastered in the mud. A lip of greenbrown grass oversaw the sloped riverbank behind where he sat, the dirt road just beyond and out of sight. He felt confident he had outmaneuvered his attacker and rested for a while then pressed himself up and climbed the rise behind, pulling himself onto his knees along a thick patch of the tussock. He looked back to the river and saw his tracks in the bank and his handprints sunken in the mud as he coughed and spit blood again. Twin grooves ran along the road, worn by wagons and schooners, and he looked south and saw a house about a mile away. He put his hand along his brow to shade from the sun and could just make out Mesilla about a quarter-mile beyond the lone structure. He clutched the ore closely at his side and began shuffling along the side of the road, the enduring pains of battle swallowed down again at the prospects just ahead.
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Everett reached the lone house but it was little more than a converted storehouse. He stumbled up on the porch and unclamped his gun in the holster then took the collar of his shirt and wiped a circle clean in the thick dust that sat along a sectioned window. Inside sat heaps of crates and sacks of grains stacked like pyramids. His coughing had worsened during his walk and it felt more cavernous now, as if his body was trying to eject something deep from within.
He stepped off the porch and left the shade of the eave and he crept on toward Mesilla. He could make out a sidewalk running alongside the hotel and a livery at the rear. Everett smiled at the prospect of civilization and ran a hand down the center of his shirt as if pressing the wrinkles out. Two buttons had been shorn off in his march and their absence exposed his drawn pectorals, matted with dark hair and clinging to the ribs beneath. His boots had dried some but his feet felt damp and waterlogged and he could feel the skin on his toes begin to peel away from the saturation. His limp was extreme now and as he hobbled into Mesilla he came upon two middle-aged men conversing, gesticulating wildly as if they were traipsing over a tale of mythic proportions. The first man was bloated and fat and his charcoal waistcoat seemed to be ready to burst. He wore a .36 caliber Pocket Navy revolver slung in a small holster at his left side. The second man was tall and thin and wore a dark Prince Albert double-breasted frockcoat with abbreviated lapels and carried no gun. The tall man blushed and stopped mid-speech at the sight of the tramp approaching and an awkwardness settled between the pair. Everett eyed them back and waved with one hand while pinning his torn shirt closed with the other.
“Can we help with you something, friend?”
“You gotta color mill here?”
The skinny man thought hard and licked his lips.
“What you mean is an assay office, right?”
The fat man pointed to Everett’s leg and to his missing sleeve, highlighting the wounds he was already conscious of.
“Land sakes, son. Are you alright?”
“If you’ll allow me, maybe yeh should go see the doc, get yerself all fixed up.”
“Just the assay office, please.”
“Son, there aint no point cashing in if you aint gunna be healthy to spend it.”
“Yes, what’s the hurry, friend?”
“Just the assay office.”
The fat man exchanged a wayward look with the tall man and then motioned behind to a shop a block down and on the right with a small sign stenciled with lettering too insignificant to read from their position.
“Yes. Charlie Lamb’s place. It aint official, but he’ll take care of you, give you a fair price.”
The fat man tugged at his ear and tried hard to attempt any form of civility and then coughed into his fist.
“You uh, you been mining?”
“In the Organs, day’s ride or so.”
“Where you from?”
“North or south?”
“You with Sibley?”
“The rest of you left last year.”
“Well, just sayin we aint aiming for any trouble, things have settled here now. You aint trouble, are yeh, boy?”
“No, sir. Just needin to get cashed in is all.”
“I thought yall went east to San Antonio, anyway?”
Everett kicked the dirt a bit and bit his lip and folded his arms about his chest, his bare arm thick with dried blood and caked soot and mud.
“I parted ways after Glorietta.”
The fat man placed a hand on his hip and coughed again. He saw hunger in the stranger’s eyes and it shook him cold. The wound on Everett’s leg started to pound with hurt again and his shoulder began to rack and spasm and pump thickblack blood. He shifted his weight uncomfortably and then heard the trill and familiar kereekereekeree of the rock wren again. Everett smiled and stared up to the sky and the afternoon sun was heavy and glaring in his eyes as he saw the small bird whoop and twirl and dance. Everett hooted in place, genuinely amused by the happenstance.
“Well I’ll be, gentlemen. I believe that bird there’s been following me for miles. You fellas ever seen anything like that before, a bird taking to a man like a dog?”
The fat man squinted his eyes and followed the bird in the sky and the tall man did the same then smiled a bit.
“I saw a man, oh, some twenty years ago with a tamed magpie. Louder than hell, that thing was, but smart. Could even make it talk when he wanted.”
“But this bird aint tame, though. I’ve never seen a wild animal like that take to someone before, is what I’m saying. It’s queer.”
“Yes, it is queer.”
The fat man clicked his teeth and Everett felt he had had enough of their company and he palmed his jaw in quick strokes, the skin coarse on his fingers.
“Alright, then. Thanks to you both for the directions.”
“Good luck to yeh, son.”
Everett nodded and limped along and studied the buildings as he passed. A woman dawdled out of a general store with her young son and then saw the rough and beaten man and scurried back in. He smiled and passed the doctor’s quarters and made a note of its location. Laughter emerged from somewhere nearby and he heard the muted harmony of a piano being played. Thick piles of horse manure settled in the street and twice he saw deputies on the far end of the main boulevard circle one another and talk and motion. Everett kept to himself and bundled his shirt shut, keeping his eyes to the ground as he stepped up on the boardwalk connecting Charlie Lamb’s to a fancy-type restaurant. He came upon the small door of the assay office and there was a sign nailed to it and he traced the words with his fingers, straining to keep the letters cohesive between thuds of his beating headache. He then rapped his knuckled on the small glass window set in the door and waited.
“Yes, come on in.”
He pushed the door open and the room was spacious with a significant lack of décor. In one corner sat a small adobe furnace corroded and dirty next to a long table with a handful of small molds laid out. Everett hobbled up to an ornate desk near the far wall and an elderly man emerged from a back room wiping his hands clean on a soiled cloth, a white apron strung about his waist. He looked up through a pair of small and round glasses at the wretch before him.
“What…uh, what can I do for yeh?”
Everett reached in his shirt and took out the swathed silver ore and peeled the leather strap from around his neck before setting it on the desk. He carefully took the wrapping off and then took a lurching step back, presenting the rock like a proud parent might a child.
“That’s a nice piece.”
“It’s going to take me, uh, going to take me a while to process it. You know, to tally it up? I aint usually processing pieces this size.”
“That’s fine. I’ll wait.”
“Yes, alright. Let me go grab some papers in the back for yuh to go over. Can you read?”
“Alright. I’ll be right back, then.”
The old man creaked into the back room and Everett stood erect and ran a hand through his dried hair. His shoulder ached furiously and his groin felt as if it had been set aflame but he stood proud with his chest puffed out triumphantly. A quick draft raked against his naked arm and he heard the door push open and yet he held his affixed gaze to the silver ore on the desk, smiling crookedly and placing a hand along it again, molesting the surface with great tenderness.
Then Everett Root felt the steel of a rounded aperture wedge into the back of his skull. He smelled a familiar tang of heavy musk and black tobacco and his face washed over white and harrowed as he heard the hammer of the gun click back. He moved his hand slowly to the stock of his Dancer and his thoughts turned to the grove of creosotebush and the girl Erin whose life he ended with a single shot. He heard the man’s lips part with a smack as if he had planned the next words with great and meticulous detail.
“Happy New Year, Root.”
And then a shot thundered out like drums. The bullet tunneled through the dented blue-steel barrel of the revolver and it crushed through Everett’s skull and back out through his cheek, chipped bone and teeth and strings of fluids springing out, his body falling to the ground heavy like stone.
George Lynn Hany holstered the .44 caliber Colt Army revolver. A significant ring of dark and dried blood sat at the right shoulder of his shirt and he wiped his ebony hands clean on his worn galluses then smiled. He stepped over Everett’s pretzled body and grabbed the silver ore from the desk and tucked it back into the fabric and under his arm. The old man peeked sheepishly from the back room and George tipped the stunted brim of his derby then swiveled toward the door. His jackboots echoed on the puncheoned floor as he cleared his throat and the air smelled like sulfur.