Savage, p.33
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       Savage, p.33

           Richard Laymon
 

  In short, she looked wet and fresh and altogether splendid. She looked so fine it put a lump into my throat.

  I could see it wouldn’t be an easy task to keep my wits and not take a powerful liking to her.

  The gleam in her green eyes and how she smiled didn’t help at all.

  Sitting up, I said, “You could get yourself shot, you know, sneaking about in such a manner.”

  “Bunkum,” she said.

  “There was a lawman I heard about, he ventilated his best friend when the bloke walked up behind him unannounced. It happens all the time, actually.”

  “This must be my lucky day.”

  “I’m quite serious.”

  “Well, next time I find you sleeping, I’ll be sure and pelt you with a stone.”

  “I wasn’t asleep.”

  “Then you should’ve heard me coming. Ears no better than that, it’s a wonder you’ve lasted.” A drop of water slid off one of her curls. It trickled down her eyebrow, so she wiped it away with the back of her hand. “So then, you were playing possum.”

  “Not at all,” I protested.

  She narrowed her eyes. “You were up in them rocks having a gander at me. Saw me coming back, so you scampered on down and let on like you’d spent your time dozing.”

  A blush heated my face.

  “Ah-ha!” She didn’t seem angry, but pleased with herself for finding me out.

  “I did no such thing,” I said.

  “No call to fib about it.”

  “It’s the truth, Jesse. But you go ahead and think what you wish. I’d be quite a wealthy chap if I had a dollar for every time I’ve been wrongly accused of this and that. It’s as ordinary as daylight.”

  “Liar. I seen you.”

  “Did not.”

  “Did, too.” She pointed a thumb over her shoulder at the rocky height behind her back. “Right up there. So you might just as well fess up.”

  All of a sudden, the bottom seemed to drop out of my stomach. I jumped to my feet, pulled a Colt, rushed past Jesse and went charging up the slope.

  “What in tarnation?” she called after me.

  I paid her no heed, but raced upward, leaping higher and higher, my mouth gone dry, my heart thudding fit to bust. I wasn’t so much scared as outraged. Some bloody scoundrel had gone and spied on Jesse. He’d watched her bathe in the creek. No telling why he hadn’t gone on down and attacked her. Maybe he aimed to bide his time and take us by surprise later on. Well, he wouldn’t get the chance.

  I bounded over the top of the rocks, all set to shoot him dead.

  And that’s just what I would’ve done, but he wasn’t there.

  I wandered about, searching behind every rock, peering into crevices, circling around the few tangles of mesquite thick enough to hide a man. By and by, I judged he must’ve skedaddled.

  From my perch, I had a mighty fine view of the creek. Anyone up here would’ve had just such a fine view of Jesse. I was in a fit to shoot him. But he wasn’t down by the creek, nor hurrying down the slopes. I studied the low land all around us, but couldn’t spot him or any horse other than General. There were hiding places everywhere, though. Dry washes, boulders, jutting heaps of rock, cacti and bushes and a few stunted trees. Not many places for concealing a horse, though a man on foot could disappear in any of a thousand places.

  I might’ve stayed up there longer, hoping he’d show himself, but then it came to me that I’d left Jesse alone.

  What if he’d circled around?

  What if he’d jumped her?

  Quick as I could, I hurried along the top of the rocks till our camp came into sight. There stood Jesse, arms folded across her chest, gazing up at me. And wasn’t I glad to see her!

  Before starting down, I scanned the area. Nobody appeared to be lurking about. I could see the wagon trail off in the distance, but nobody was in sight on it.

  “He got away,” I called, and commenced to make my way toward the ground.

  “Who got away?” Jessie asked.

  “The bloody cur that spied on you!”

  She frowned some. “He wasn’t you?”

  “Certainly not. Did he look like me?”

  “Well, I didn’t see him up close. He was only just peeking down outa the rocks.”

  “We’ll have to keep a careful watch,” I said, and leaped to the ground in front of her. “I shouldn’t have let you go off by yourself. That was a bad mistake.”

  “Well, nothing come of it.”

  “Not this time. From now on, we’d best stay together.”

  “I need me some private times, Trevor.”

  “What you need is me standing guard. No telling where this fellow might be, or what’s on his mind. I don’t aim to see you attacked or killed for the sake of your modesty.”

  “I can take care of myself, I reckon. Just let me take along your Winchester, I’ll get along dandy.”

  I couldn’t see a good argument against that. She ought to be fairly safe, armed with the rifle. “Perhaps that’ll do,” I told her. “We ought to stay together, regardless, unless you’re fixing to…bathe or the like.”

  “Sounds good to me.”

  She got into her socks and boots. Then we roamed about the area, gathering stray bits of wood and roots for our fire. I kept my eyes open for the stranger, and also for game. Neither appeared.

  Jesse seemed uncommon quiet the whole time.

  After we made our fire, she kneaded some flour into dough, jammed wads of it onto sticks, and cooked them over the flames while I heated up a pot of beans.

  After we finished our meal, we took the pot and spoons over to the creek. That’s when I noticed how still and quiet things seemed. The air had a yellowish cast to it. Looking off to the west, I saw that the sun was gone behind somber mountains of cloud.

  “Do you suppose we’ll have a storm?” I asked Jesse, who stood nearby with the rifle.

  “Could be. Just as likely not. Doesn’t appear as how they get much rain in these parts.”

  We didn’t pay it any more mind. I cleaned off the pot and spoons. Afterward, we spent a while scouting about to gather more fuel. When it got too dark to see, we quit that. We led General back to camp, and I hobbled him so he wouldn’t go wandering off too far during the night. Then we sat down by the fire.

  Jesse still wasn’t talkative. Pretty soon, I asked, “Are you worried about that chap you saw in the rocks?”

  “You might say that.”

  “He hasn’t shown himself yet. Why, I suppose he dodged off long ago. All the same, we’ll need to take turns standing watch. Can’t have him sneaking up on us while we sleep, you know.”

  “Oh, he ain’t likely to sneak up on us.”

  “One can’t be too careful. It’s when you’re least expecting trouble…”

  “I never did see him, Trevor.” She flung a stick, rather briskly, into the fire. It hit and tossed up a spray of sparks. “I didn’t see nobody. I only just let on.”

  I gaped at her, flabbergasted.

  “That’s the way of it. I’m right sorry I went and got you so worked up about him.”

  “He wasn’t there at all?”

  “Nope. I figured sure you must’ve climbed up top to goggle at me and you’d fess up once I claimed I saw you.”

  “I told you I’d done no such thing.”

  “Well, who’d admit it?”

  “I’m not one to go about lying.”

  “Me neither. Not as a general rule. But I wanted to catch you out.”

  “Why should I care to goggle at you?” I blurted.

  “You know why.”

  I certainly did know why, but I wasn’t about to admit it. So I kept mum.

  By and by, Jesse said, “I seen how you look at me, Trevor Bentley.”

  My face heated up, but I doubt it was noticeable in the firelight. “Malarkey,” I said.

  “I don’t blame you none for it. You’re just a feller. They can’t help that sort of thing.”

  “You’re roa
ming up the wrong trail, Jesse.”

  She narrowed her eyes at me, and a corner of her mouth turned up. “Why, you can go on denying it till your face turns blue, I know what I know.”

  “Seems to me that you hold quite a high opinion of yourself.”

  “I sure do. That’s a fact. A mighty high opinion. That’s how come I don’t allow myself to get jumped on by every lowlife sidewinder that takes a fancy to me.”

  “I’ve not taken a fancy to you.”

  “Sure have.”

  “Am I a lowlife sidewinder, then?”

  “Don’t reckon you are.”

  “Thank you kindly, ma’am.”

  “That don’t mean I’ll let you jump on me.”

  “I’ve no intention of jumping on you, actually. You’re the one who’s done all the jumping on folks, so far.”

  She let out a soft laugh. “Long as you leave the jumping to me, we’ll get along fine.”

  We went quiet after that, and just sat there watching the fire for a spell. Then the wind kicked up, so Jesse fetched my blanket. She brought it back, sat down beside me, and wrapped it around both of us. I scooted closer to her and our arms touched. That earned me a wary glance.

  “Quite sorry,” I said.

  “Oh, never mind. It ain’t your fault I’m touchy.”

  “Whose fault is it, then?”

  “Chester Frank and Charlie Gunderson and Jim Dexter, I reckon. Bobbie Joe Sims and Karl Williams, Bennie Anderson, Danny Sayles, Hank Dappy, Ben Travis, Billy ‘One-Eye’ Cooper.” She took a deep breath, then went on, “Randy Jones, Ephram and Silas Henry, Reverand Haymarket, Jack Quincy. Did I mention Farley Hunnecker?”

  “I don’t believe so.”

  “Well, then, Farley too. And Gary Hobbs, Dix Talman, Robert E. Lee Smith, a dimwit called Grunt—I never caught his real name. Then there was ‘Sweet Sam’ Bigelow and…”

  “By Jove,” said I. “How can you recall such a string of names?”

  “You ain’t likely to forget the names of such swine.”

  “What did they do to you?”

  “It ain’t what they did, it’s what they tried to do.”

  “Every one of those chaps?”

  “There’s more. You didn’t let me finish.”

  “They all tried to…have a go at you?”

  “One way or another. See, I didn’t have no one to look out for me. I reckon that was partly the trouble. My ma, she passed on when she gave birth to me, and my pa was a damn drunk. He tried me a few times himself, but I learned him better.”

  “Your own father?”

  “He was just as low as the rest of ‘em. Lower than most. But it was Clem Catlow that was the last straw. Clem was big as a tree, a boxer. He rode into town to fight Irish Johnny O’Rourke, one of our local boys, and KO’d Johnny in the first round. Same night, he followed me when I went to walk home. I worked in the kitchen there at the Lone Star Steak Emporium on Third Street. Anyhow, he stumbled along after me and sweet-talked me some. I gave him a piece of my mind, but he wasn’t one to be put off. Finally, he took hold and hauled me into an alley. I says to myself, ‘It’s him or me.’ I’m a mighty tough scrapper.” She looked at me and hoisted an eyebrow.

  “You are that,” I said.

  “But I knew I weren’t no match for Clem Catlow. One good whack, and he’d likely knock my head crooked. I yelled and begged, but it weren’t no use. He threw me down and took to ripping off my duds, so I had no choice but to kill him.”

  Just when she said that, thunder rumbled through the night. It sounded some ways off, but we frowned at each other.

  “You killed him?” I asked, whispering as if to keep the storm from hearing my voice and coming after us.

  “Tore him up with my Bowie knife. Let me tell you, it was no easy job squeezing out from under him afterward, either. But I managed it. Then I ran on home and got my things together and saddled up Pa’s horse and lit out.”

  CHAPTER FORTY-ONE

  The Gullywasher

  “I stabbed a man myself,” I told her. “It was in an alley, too.”

  Jesse looked at me. “No,” she said.

  “Yes, indeed. He and others had a go at robbing me. Then I was pursued by a mob and…Why, I would be in England yet if not for that.”

  “Ain’t it strange? I’d still be in El Paso, I reckon, except for taking my knife to Clem in that there alley. Looks like you and me are two of a kind.”

  “I suppose we are.”

  Smiling, she bumped her shoulder against me.

  Along came another grumble of thunder. It sounded closer than the last.

  “Tell me more,” Jesse said.

  “I should hardly know where to start.”

  “Start at the start. We got all night.”

  I gave it some thought, then commenced my story where it rightly began, with Mother bringing the drunken Rolfe Barnes into our flat. When I told about him laying into her with his belt, Jesse let out a hissing noise. “I know just his kind,” she said. She seemed quite pleased about the way I’d bashed him with the fireplace poker, but allowed as how I should’ve finished the job.

  I plugged along with my tale. Jesse seemed mighty interested, and asked questions about this and that and made comments. All the while, the thunder got noisier and closer and lightning sometimes brightened up the sky. Still, the rain stayed away.

  I came to the part about Sue, but didn’t let on that she was a whore. According to me, she was simply a stranger who offered to guide me to Leman Street. I told how she’d led me into the alley.

  “And you went along with her?”

  “I hadn’t any choice, actually.”

  “What’d you suppose she aimed to do in there?”

  “It might’ve been a shortcut, you know.”

  “Sounds to me like you were looking to have yourself some good times.”

  “Not at all!”

  “You got no call to lie, Trevor.”

  Right then, the sky lit up bright as noon. Thunder crashed. Rain came pouring down on us. We leaped to our feet, hoisted the blanket over our heads to keep us dry, and rushed over toward the rocks. Along the way, I snatched up my saddlebags and Winchester.

  Earlier, I’d spotted a place where a big flat slab jutted out. We raced up a bit of a slope to get there, ducked under the overhang, and huddled down with our backs against a rock wall. I propped up the rifle by my side, hugged the saddlebags to my chest. I was wearing my six-guns. Jesse was wearing my hat. What we’d left out in the weather was my saddle, bridle, bedroll, water pouch, and some other odds and ends that we shouldn’t be needing till after the storm.

  With our feet pulled in, we were out of the rain. But it gushed down on both sides of us, and in front. Our campfire flickered a few times. Then the last of the flames were pounded out, and all I could see were a few pale wisps getting whipped away by the wind. After that, there was nothing to see except shades of darkness.

  There sure was plenty to hear, though. Water splashed down from the overhang so loud we might’ve been hunkered behind a cataract. The wind wailed and howled like a banshee coming for the dead. Somewhere out in the darkness, General was stomping the ground and letting out frightful squeals and whinnies.

  I purely ached to help him. There was no place to give him shelter though. He’d just have to get by the best he could. The rain was only water, after all, and not likely to hurt him any. He ought to survive if he didn’t get struck by lightning or panic so bad as to hurt himself.

  Still, it pained me to hear him carrying on. He was mighty spooked.

  In a lightning flash so bright it stung my eyes, I saw General rear up on his hind legs. The way I’d left him hobbled, I feared he might pitch over. But he came down safe just as the blackness shut him off from sight.

  A roar of thunder came next, so heavy and loud it shook the air.

  I gave some thought to rushing out and cutting General loose. I could borrow Jesse’s knife, or dig my own out of the saddlebag. But th
en I judged he would run off and we might never see him again.

  Jesse stirred beside me. I looked at her. She was just a dim shape, but I could see enough to watch her take off my hat and set it atop her upraised knee. Just about then, a flash lit her up. She turned her head and smiled at me. She rolled her eyes upward. She said something, but a cannonade of thunder killed her voice and the dark came back.

  After the thunder stopped, she shouted, “Don’t this beat all!”

  “I do hope it doesn’t last!” I yelled back at her.

  It wasn’t much use, trying to talk.

  By and by, she snuggled closer against my side and slipped an arm down low across my back. She rested her head on my shoulder.

  If it hadn’t been for the horrid noises of the storm and knowing General was out there scared half witless, I might’ve found myself rather pleased to be huddled with Jesse in such a fashion. As it was, I couldn’t work up much interest. I was just too nervous about the chaos raging around us.

  But she did feel good and warm where she pressed against me. I put an arm around her, and that felt even better.

  As bad as the storm was, we were safe and mostly dry. Lightning couldn’t hit us. Nothing at all could hurt us, I judged.

  Except for what might happen to General, there was no call to be fidgety about our predicament.

  Much as I tried to tell myself that, however, I couldn’t get shut of a nasty feeling of dread that had me cold and shaky inside.

  “Are you scared, Trevor?” Jesse asked. Her face was near enough to mine that I could hear her plain in spite of the noises.

  “Are you?”

  “I asked you first.”

  “What’s to be frightened of?”

  “You’re all a-tremble,” she said.

  “Not at all.”

 
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