RED RIGHT HAND


Will all great Neptune’s ocean wash this blood
Clean from my hand?
No, this my hand will rather
The multitudinous seas incarnadine,
Making the green one red.

—Shakespeare Macbeth, II, 2

Claire held the gun in her left hand, the blood in her right.

“You ready?” Arson wanted to know.

She just sat there. Arson was always like that. Impatient. He never stopped moving. Like now. His fingers tap-tap-tapping against the steering wheel of the Ford Roadster he’d stolen up in Bakersfield, gun-oil gleaming on fingernails that danced in the afternoon sunlight.

Arson’s fingers were scarred. He wasn’t worried about any blood. As far as he was concerned, any blood spilled today would belong to someone else.

And that seemed more than a likely possibility. They’d stopped to talk about the job one last time before they pulled it. There was a little town up ahead called Fiddler, and in that town was a bank that Arson had cased a couple days ago. He said it would be easy pickings, because the town didn’t have any law worth worrying about.

But Claire wasn’t worried about the law.

She was worried about something else.

Something that was worth worrying about. Something red, and wet, and hot. Something she couldn’t seem to stop, no matter how many times she snaked the needle through her flesh, no matter how tight she drew the stitches—

“Claire?” Arson said. “You ready, hon?”

The idling Ford purred like a kitten. A cricket sang among the withered cornstalks. But Claire didn’t say a word.

In the backseat, Arson’s brother and sister-in-law picked up the slack.

“I don’t think she’s ready at all,” Hank said.

“Yeah,” Pearl chimed in. “If you ask me, we oughta left he behind. She ain’t up to snuff.”

“You two shut up,” Arson said, and he didn’t have to tell them twice.

Arson’s right hand closed over Claire’s left. She thought about that. The gun in her left hand, and Arson’s strong scarred fingers wrapped around both. It felt so good, so safe.

“That’s better.” Arson gave Claire’s gun hand a gentle squeeze. “I promise you, hon— it’ll be a piece of cake.”

Claire’s eyes found his. “It’ll be okay?”

“Yeah.”

‘You’ll be with me?”

“Every step of the way.”

“Always?”

Arson’s gaze was sharp, unflinching.

“Until they put one of us in the ground,” he said.

Claire’s breath caught in her throat. She clenched her right hand, fingers closing around the gash. Every muscle, every tendon, every bone ached.

If only the her skin would scab over, and scar, everything would be okay—

The stitches popped one by one, threads slipping through the tiny holes the needle had made. A thin trickle of blood snaked between her fingers. It was quiet in the car, so quiet that she was sure she’d hear the first red drop as it rolled off her knuckles and pattered against the leather upholstery.

She prayed that Arson wouldn’t notice the blood.

He didn’t. He gave her other hand a pat as he let it go. “That’s my girl,” he said, and his voice was warm as summer sunshine.

And then Claire heard that first drop of blood fall, pattering the leather upholstery like a tear raining down on the cold face of a corpse.

She shivered. She couldn’t help it. Another drop of blood welled up in her palm and traveled the trench of her lifeline. Another drop of blood rolled across her knuckles. Another drop, and then another.

Claire almost started crying.

Instead, she bolted from the car.

Into the cornfield.

* * *

Thunderheads bumped around up in the mountains, threatening rain. Officer Tate Winters sure enough wished the clouds would blow his way. Without them there was only the unbearably muggy heat, sandwiched between the parched summer earth and the unblinking sun above.

Tate sat on his motorbike. As far as he was concerned, it was too hot to be sitting on a motorbike. Too hot to be wearing a highway patrolman’s uniform, too. Too hot to be doing anything that didn’t involve a tall glass of cold lemonade.

Besides that, Tate should have been off an hour ago. But the couple had flagged him down, and then the boy started talking, and now Tate was stuck.

Stuck under the California sun, in a uniform, on a hot and muggy afternoon.

The couple, they weren’t quite so hot. That was because they were damn near naked. The boy didn’t have any pants. And the girl wasn’t wearing nothing but a little bit of a slip. It was black and it was silk. Hell, the girls Tate knew wouldn’t wear anything like that, not even under their clothes where other folks couldn’t see it.

The boy wasn’t at all embarrassed, though. His name was John Wallace Johnson. Pants or no pants, he was obviously the type of young man who felt that accompanying a girl in a black slip reflected well on his manhood.

Which, truth be told, wasn’t much to reflect on at all.

But reflection seemed to be John Wallace Johnson’s game. Meaning the kid was a talker, even on a hot afternoon devoid of lemonade. The kid talked in a voice that pinched like a fat man’s shoe. Without prompting, he started telling Tate the story for the third time, how he and his girl had been down by Fiddler Creek having a little picnic when these folks came out of nowhere toting guns like they were ready to take on a phalanx of G-men or something, and then the bandits made John Wallace Johnson and his girl strip damn near naked, and pretty soon John Wallace Johnson and his girl were standing there watching his Ford Roadster disappear down Old Howard Road without John Wallace Johnson behind the wheel.

If it was crisp cool February instead of cotton-mouthed July, Tate might have worked up some sarcasm, asked why in the world a bandit gang would want to steal a fellow’s pants along with his car. But it was too damn hot for sarcasm. Tate didn’t have to ask any such questions anyhow. He knew what kind of picnic these two were having down by the creek. He wasn’t that old.

Yeah, he knew, all right. Hell, any idiot would know. What had happened was that the boy had left his pants in the back seat of the car. Him with his damn Clark Gable moustache and his ten dollar mouthful of a name. He’d left his pants in the back seat because that was where the girl pulled them off. And her with that black slip...who the hell knew what had happened to her dress. Could be it was flying from the flagpole in the town square, for all Tate knew.

Why, if this gal wasn’t a flapper then Tate Winters had never seen the like. Still, he kind of liked the way she looked at him. He’d never had a woman look at him quite that way, especially not a woman in a black slip. He didn’t know what the look was, exactly, but he knew it was the kind of look that made a man stand tall on a hot day when he really wanted to crawl under the porch and catch a nap with old Rover.

It was the kind of look that made a man look right back, and the same way, too.

All of a sudden, Tate Winters wasn’t thinking about lemonade at all.

The girl batted her eyelids in some kind of semaphore signal that Tate wished he could read. “Can you help us out, Officer?” she asked, cutting John Wallace Johnson off in midsentence.

‘You sure it was Arson and Claire?” Tate asked, because it was the only question worth asking.

“I’m absolutely certain,” John Wallace Johnson said. “I’ve studied their pictures in the paper, and these two were dead ringers. Only the woman wasn’t smoking a cigar.”

“That was just a gag, J. W,” the little flapper said. She almost sounded mad. “Claire Ives doesn’t really smoke cigars.”

“Hell if she doesn’t. That girl’s a vixen. Acts like she’s a man. Why, if I’d had a chance—”

“You did, J. W.,” The girl winked at Tate. ‘You had your chance, and you ended up losing your car and your pants.”

“Now wait just a minute—”

“Cigar or no cigar, it makes no difference,” Tate interrupted, kick-starting his bike. “I’ll put out a bulletin on your stolen vehicle as soon as I get to Fiddler.”

“That’s fine,” J. W Johnson said. “But what about us?”

“What about you?”

“Well, we need transportation back to town. Imogene can’t go about in her underthings. And I’m a young man with prospects. In September, I’ll be attending Stanford University. I certainly can’t go walking into town without my pants.”

“Son,” Tate said, “this is a Harley-Davidson motorcycle, not a limousine.”

“The officer’s right,” Imogene said. “There just ain’t room for you, J. W.”

Before Tate could protest, the little flapper slipped into the saddle behind him. “Thanks for the picnic, J. W,” she said. “If you get your Ford back, you can call me any old time.”

The girl’s thighs pressed against Tate’s ass. It was a plain fact that there wasn’t much room in the Harley’s saddle, just as plain that Tate Winters was quite suddenly glad of that.

“What am I to do?” J. W Johnson asked. “I am a long way from anywhere. And I am without my trousers.”

“There ain’t no Woolworth’s out here,” Tate said. “So you might as well start walking.”

“Or look for a clothesline.” Imogene giggled. “You’d look awful cute in some sodbuster’s overalls, J. W.”

Tate Winters didn’t know about that. He only knew that the world was a much more interesting place than it had been twenty minutes before.

He twisted the throttle.

The Harley roared and the flapper squirmed.

Tate geared up and took off.

* * *

Running hurt. Especially Claire’s hip, which hadn’t healed right after the crackup. And the way her skin pulled where she’d been shot in the shoulder bothered her, too, the scars tugging like she was wearing a tight sweater that didn’t fit right at all.

Sometimes just moving made her feel like she was coming apart at the seams. But she had to run. For Arson’s sake, if not her own. He couldn’t see her this way, and that was a natural fact.

Because, this time, she was coming apart at the seams, and she knew it.

She clenched her right hand. There was no denying the blood on it. There was no washing it away. It was there, weeping from her palm through busted stitches.

Wash it away and a fresh trickle would only well up along a lifeline that was much too short. Stitch it closed and those stitches would sure enough bust like all the others.

Sure enough...somehow...no matter what she did....

The cut just wouldn’t heal.

The fear tried to rise up in her, but Claire pushed it down. She wouldn’t think about it. She’d think about running. Running with a gun in her hand. Running and breathing and being alive.

Because she was alive.

She was. But it was hard to think of that in a place like this. Everything here was dead. Cornstalks withered and yellow as parchment. Dry roots that tore up from the ground when tall girl rushed by with a loaded gun in her hand.

Harvest time had come and gone, and there wasn’t anything left to reap in the cornfield.

Only Claire. All of a sudden, she stopped running, her heart pounding in her throat. The sky had gone the color of iron, but it still held the heat of the day like a skillet.

She stared at the dark thunderheads boiling down from the mountains, and that was when she saw the birds. They circled in a black ringlet, coming closer and closer, and their cries rode the whispered hush of the wind as the circle spun on black wings, a circle unbroken like the one in that song her mother sang when Claire was just a little girl.

But her mother never sang about a circle of vultures.

Claire couldn’t run anymore. She stared at her hand.

In her palm welled a red oasis.

Above her, the sky came alive with a chorus of thirsty screams.

* * *

Clouds churned in the sky and a hot wind whispered low, rustling the dead cornstalks like a deck of cards that had been dealt one time too many.

The three of them sat in the car. Arson was done yelling at Hank and Pearl. They should have known better than to push Claire that way, especially after all the hell she’d been through. The two of them sure didn’t have the stomach for that kind of hell.

Claire did, though. Arson was sure about that. Claire was damn near healed up. Sure she had a few more scars than she’d had before their last run-in with the law, but she wasn’t one bit less pretty for ’em, not to him anyway. Soon enough she’d get her gumption back, too. She always did, and then things would be just the same as before.

“If we’re gonna do this thing,” Hank said, “we’d better get to it.”

“Hank’s right,” Pearl said. “That bank’s gonna close in an hour. We ain’t got no money. And I don’t care how much you holler, Arson Pike, I sure as hell ain’t gonna sleep in this cornfield tonight, not with all these damn vultures around. Why, just look at that sky. If the buzzards ain’t bad enough, just take a look at them clouds. Any fool can see that it’s gonna storm but good and I ain’t gonna get struck by lightnin’ sittin’ out in a cornfield in a stolen Ford Roadster. Christ, these days even folks on relief got decent roofs over their heads while we ain’t got a pot to piss in or a window to—”

“Shut up, Pearl.” Arson whispered the words, eyeing her in the rearview. Boy, did she give him a look. The floozy bitch made Arson’s blood boil. She was just the kind of trash his brother would bed. Just the kind—

Pearl opened her mouth. Red bee-stung lips on that fat little face of hers. Arson couldn’t hardly believe it. Hell’s bells and buckets of blood, he’d told the little floozy.

She started to mouth off again. “Shut up,” Arson said, but it was like she didn’t even hear him. So he told Hank to shut her up, but it was plain that Hank wasn’t the kind of man who knew how to do that or Pearl wouldn’t be talking in the first place.

Well, fair warning was warning enough.

Arson climbed out of the car and reached through the open window and took hold of Pearl’s peroxide blonde hair and gave it a pull that made her scream. Then he dragged her out the door and kicked her in the ass and she gave out with a startled cry as she went face first into the dirt and then Arson yanked her to her feet and slapped her up but good.

And, boy howdy, did the cure come over her but quick, like Arson Pike was one of those tent show miracle men. It was something to see. First Pearl was gabbing like she actually knew what she was talking about and then she was screaming like some she-goat taking a rutting and when it was all over her nose was bloody and her eyes were red with little girl tears.

Sitting in the backseat, Hank didn’t say a word.

He knew better.

He didn’t want some of the same.

Arson made to slap Pearl again, and she cowered like a whupped dog. “And you think you’re tough.” Arson laughed. “Well, you ain’t tough. Sister, I’m here to tell you that you ain’t half the woman my Claire is. She came through bullets and fire and car wrecks, and she didn’t crawfish half as bad as you do from a little old slap.”

Pearl couldn’t look Arson in the eye, but she nodded, and she did it damn quick.

“That’s better,” Arson said. “Now you get your ass out in that corn and find my Claire. You apologize for the way you been treating her, and you tell her that you ain’t nothin’ but a dimestore floozy who can’t keep her trap shut.”

Again, Pearl nodded. And then she glanced around her, at all that corn, and she puddled up like she was all set to cry again.

Pearl was scared to say anything, but Arson knew that she would. Teary-eyed, she waved her painted fingernails at the cornstalks and asked, “How am I gonna find her in all this?”

It was a damn fool question. Arson didn’t have time for it.

Again, he kicked Pearl in the ass.

She got to moving.

Arson climbed into the car and slammed the door. His fingers went tap-tap-tap on the steering wheel. He stared at his brother in the rearview, and Hank looked away.

“Goddamn city girl,” Arson said.

* * *

The vultures circled low in the concrete sky. Claire studied the sharp talons that tore dead flesh, the black eyes that gleamed with hunger.

She knew that vultures only ate the dead.

A fresh gout of blood filled her lifeline and spilled over her fingers. She was bleeding, but she wasn’t dead yet. Not yet.

The wound wasn’t anything, really. She’d had a lot worse. Bullets had ripped through her shoulder and legs, flames had seared her flesh when the law set fire to one of their hideouts, and her hip had been busted and skinned clean to the bone when their getaway car went off the road.

Oh, how she’d bled. Claire had her share of scars and then some. But she never complained, and she always healed up. Always. Arson said he’d never known a woman like her. He’d never wanted another woman the way he wanted Claire, who could stomach as much pain as a man. She made him proud, the way she didn’t complain, the way she always came back for more.

Claire wore her scars. She didn’t try to hide them. Her scars were like mortar between the bricks in a dam, holding back a river.

Her skin was the bricks, her scars the mortar.

The river was her blood.

She needed scars to live. But this time, she couldn’t seem to scar. No matter how hard she tried, she couldn’t heal the cut in her hand. She didn’t even know how she got the cut. One morning she woke up and her hand was weeping blood on the pillowcase. First she bandaged it, but it didn’t scab over. No matter what she did it just kept on bleeding, just like the hand of one of those religious nuts you sometimes read about in the papers.

So she’d stitched the wound, stitched right along a lifeline that was deep but short, and blood had seeped between her needlework. She’d stitched it tighter, and still the blood had come. She’d squeezed her hand into a tight fist, her fingers straining to hold back the red river within, and the stitches had only burst, and the blood had surged, filling tributaries in the lines of her palm.

Claire didn’t want to show it, but she was scared. She tried to scar over the fear the same way she tried to scar over the wound, because she didn’t want Arson to sense it. If he caught scent of her fright, he might stop loving her. And if she kept on bleeding, if she bled right out—

Then she’d be cold. Dead. Arson wouldn’t hold her in his arms anymore. He wouldn’t kiss her and tell her how brave she was.

He would leave her. He’d said as much. When she died, he would put her in a hole in the ground. He would cover her over with dirt and leave her forever.

Claire knew one thing—a body could only spill so much blood, and then there wasn’t any more to spill.

The vultures circled lower, their clawed talons brushing dry corn tassels.

Circling...circling...circling….

Circling Claire. Shaking, she held tight to her gun. Something was wrong with the birds. Had to be. Vultures only ate dead things. Any fool knew that—

And Claire was alive.

The birds came after her.

Her heart was pounding.

A wave of ripping beaks, tearing talons.

She was bleeding.

Wings beating a black rhythm in a granite tombstone sky.

But she was alive.

They came after her and didn’t stop.

* * *

There were lots of things Tate Winters should have been thinking about as he sped toward Fiddler. The road, the outlaw gang prowling his territory, the local bank that was ripe for the plucking. Lots of things.

But all he could think about was the little flapper who sat behind him with her arms around him tight and her thighs pressed against his.

Her name was Imogene, and there was something about her that just plain lit Tate up. He’d heard it was like that with men and women sometimes, but it had never been that way for him. Until now. Because there was something about Imogene that made him feel like a wild colt, all hot-blooded and—

“Hey!” Imogene yelled in his ear and he damn near dumped the bike. “Pull over!”

Tate braked hard and parked the Harley under an old oak at the side of the road. “Don’t ever yell like that,” he said as he got off. “I nearly lost it.”

She apologized. Tate barely heard her. Damn, but she was pretty. Maybe he should just go ahead and get it over with. There was a James Cagney picture playing at the theater in Visalia. Tate thought that James Cagney was top-drawer. He could ask her out to a picture show, and then —

“Didn’t you see it?” Imogene asked.

For a moment, Tate thought she was talking about the picture show, but then he realized he’d missed something. “See what?”

“Back there.” She pointed down the road a piece. “I saw J. W.’s Ford parked on that side road between those cornfields.”

Tate sighed and thought for a minute. Try as he might, he couldn’t find a way around the thing he knew he had to do.

“Well?” she said finally. “What do we do?”

“You wait here while I have a looksee.”

“Are you kidding?” Imogene grabbed him by the arm. “This is Arson and Claire we’re talking about. You know they go armed, and they got two others with them. I’ll bet those folks have guns, too.

“I got one of those myself.” Tate patted his holster. “Now, I want you to promise me you’ll stay put. If you hear any shooting….” He paused, thinking it over. “Damn, if you hear any shooting I guess you’d better make yourself scarce.”

“I hear any gunplay, I’ll head for Fiddler on your bike and bring back the cavalry.”

The very idea of a woman on a motorcycle, especially one in a black slip, made Tate laugh. “This ain’t no toy, darlin’.”

Imogene stiffened. “It just so happens that I got a boyfriend who’s got one.”

“Not J. W.?”

“Hell, no. J. W. can barely handle that goddamn Ford.”

‘You like this other fella better?”

“Not much....” She grinned. “Well, maybe a little.”

“I’ll remember that.” Tate couldn’t figure out what else to say. He felt like a fool, asking Imogene about the other fellow. A jealous fool.

Well, he just couldn’t stand there like some lovesick idiot. He had to do something. He started walking. He wanted to look over his shoulder, get one last look at the little flapper because he knew damn well that he might never get another, but he didn’t.

Imogene called after him. “You better not get yourself hurt.”

“Why’s that?”

“Because I’m cooking your dinner tonight.”

Tate smiled, but he didn’t look back.

“Steak?” he asked.

“Steak,” she answered.

* * *

Pearl shivered. Ahead in the corn, the vultures were going crazy over something.

All that cawing and screeching raised her hackles. God knew what the buzzards was making a meal of. Pearl didn’t want to know. That was the God’s honest truth.

She figured she’d better go the other way. She didn’t have the stomach for that kind of stuff. That was one of the reasons Pearl didn’t like Claire Ives. Claire never flinched when it came to spilling folks’ blood. Even Pearl had to admit that Claire sure had the stomach for bad business and then some. That’s what the newspapers said, and they were right.

Still, it burned Pearl the way the writers played up that little tart, like she was a movie star or something, when they hardly ever mentioned Pearl at all.

If they only knew the truth. Just lately Pearl had noticed a thing or two that made her think that deep down Miss Claire Ives was just as nervous as your old Aunt Bessie. The little tart was sure enough full of piss and vinegar when it came to spilling other folks’ blood, but she had sure gone and lost her nerve when it came to spilling a little of her own.

Like with the cut on her hand. Stitching it up like that, when it was just a little old cut. Squeezing it all the time and busting the stitches. Why, if Miss Claire Ives didn’t leave that hand alone, it was gonna get all infected and blow up like a damn circus clown’s.

Pearl would like to see that. She’d like to see—

Just ahead, someone screamed in the tall corn. A woman. The sound was something awful. Pure misery.

Maybe it was Claire. Maybe she was hurt—

Oh, lord, but the sound of that scream turned Pearl’s stomach. She didn’t want no part of a scream like that.

For a second, she stood frozen, too scared to run away. Then the sound of gunfire cracked at her like a whip, and she took off like greased lightning. Her goddamn corset was too tight and she could hardly breathe but she sucked the sweltering afternoon air as deep as she could and kept on running as fast as her feet would carry—

* * *

Claire fired at the birds. Feathers flew and stray bullets whipped through the corn as the gun bucked in her hand.

She pulled the trigger again and again and again.

Until the gun was empty, and the only sound that remained was her scream.

* * *

A tumult of screams and gunfire and black wings erupted from the corn.

“Jesus!” Hank said. “It’s the law!”

Arson didn’t say a word. He grabbed the Thompson machine-gun and tossed the Browning Automatic to his brother, and together they started into the corn.

Arson’s heart pounded like a goddamn drum. If some cracker cop had shot up his Claire while he wasn’t watching....

If the bastards had stolen her from him....

If that had happened there was only one thing Arson Pike wanted.

Blood.

* * *

Pearl ran for all she was worth. Oh, lordy, but she hurt. A bullet had knocked her down and another had clipped her when she struggled to her knees, but she had known that she had to get up, even when a third bullet nearly blew her left hand clean off.

Two fingers were gone from that hand, along with her wedding ring. Pearl was hit in the side. And there was something wrong with her neck, which was gushing blood like a garden hose. She didn’t even remember getting hit in the neck.

The woman’s scream chased her through the corn. The gunfire stopped for a moment, but the scream didn’t. It was everywhere, all around her, like the corn and the sky and the clouds and the air that seemed as heavy and hot as blood.

God. Pearl knew they’d done desperate things. They’d killed honest folks. She knew the law hated them. But what the bastards must have done to Claire to make her scream like that...

Pearl didn’t want to know what that was. But she knew one thing—she had to keep moving or she’d end up screaming too. She didn’t know which way to go, but she had to go somewheres. She couldn’t slow down for a second. Else the law would get her as sure as sunshine.

Behind her, the gunfire started up again.

The screaming hadn’t ended.

Pearl ran.

Now she was screaming, too.

* * *

By the sound of it, all hell had broken loose.

There was no use waiting. Imogene kick-started the motorcycle. It was a heavier brute than the one she’d learned to ride, the one that belonged to that wildcat of a boy she’d met at the county fair. But then again, the cop outweighed that boy by a good bit, so it was only right that he’d ride a bigger machine.

None of the cop’s weight was what you’d call misplaced, though. Imogene sure hoped that he’d stay in one piece.

Fiddler was ten miles away.

Somehow, Imogene knew they’d be the longest ten miles she ever traveled.

She put the bike in gear and didn’t spare the horses.

* * *

Tate moved along the edge of the cornfield, heading toward the road where Imogene had spotted the stolen Ford.

The screams and gunfire had set him on edge. Who knew what the hell was going on in the cornfield. It could be almost anything—a police ambush set up by the local sheriff that no one had bothered to tell him about, or a crazy-brave farmer gunning for reward money, or a thieves’ quarrel turned deadly.

Whatever it was, Tate knew he had to be ready for it. His gun was drawn and he was sweating bricks, trying to fix the newspaper photographs of Arson and Claire in his mind’s eye as he hurried along, trying to remember the descriptions of their accomplices and at the same time get a handle on the situation—

And then the scream came right at him, slicing through the cornstalks a second before a woman emerged from the field. Tate whirled to meet her with his finger tight on the trigger, but he saw right off that the woman was both unarmed and injured.

Which was another way of saying that someone had already shot her and done a damn thorough job of it. Still, her wounds didn’t seem to slow her down any. She charged right into Tate, and it was all he could do to keep from going down.

Panic flared in her eyes as soon as she saw his pistol, and she took hold of the barrel with one hand and begged him, “Don’t shoot. Don’t shoot.”

Her blood was on his gun, and on his shirt. Already, it had soaked through to his skin. Tate tried to keep his wits about him. He knew he had to size her up and do it quickly, because whoever had pumped her full of lead had to be close by.

She had platinum blond hair and bee-stung lips. She wasn’t a farmer’s wife. That was for sure. She didn’t belong in a cornfield.

She had to be part of the gang.

The woman coughed and a stream of blood made a mess of the little Cupid’s bow painted on her lips. “I don’t want to scream no more,” she said, her fingers trembling around the barrel of Tate’s gun. “Don’t do nothing to make me scream.”

Before Tate could say a word, the woman let go of the gun and slumped. Instinctively, Tate caught her before she fell.

Another second and she was dead.

Tate looked over her shoulder just in time to see the man with the Browning Automatic.

One look at the corpse cradled in Tate Winters’ arms and the man’s eyes went wild.

Then he started shooting.

* * *

Fat droplets of blood rolled down Claire’s face. Four vultures lay at her feet, scarlet caverns burrowed in nests of black feathers courtesy of several .45 slugs.

The birds that only ate dead things were quiet now. Not one of them managed a scream. They had tried to make a meal of Claire Ives. They might have done it if Claire hadn’t had a killer instinct that would shame Jack Dempsey.

She had a gun, too. And a handful of bullets, cupped in her right palm. The bullets were slick with her blood. She could hardly feed them into the clip.

Claire almost laughed. She was covered in blood, her body painted red as a five-alarm fire, and here she’d been worried about a little cut on her hand.

Gunfire raked the cornfield. Claire slammed the clip home and started toward the ruckus. It sounded like Hank’s Browning, and maybe a pistol. Arson always used the Thompson, so the pistol probably belonged to a lawman. But if Arson was out there, Claire expected she’d hear him open up soon enough if the law was around.

Claire hoped she’d hear that sound, and soon.

If she didn’t hear it.... If the cops had chopped Arson down before he fired a shot.... If they’d shot her man in the back...if they’d done that....

Claire refused to think about it. She moved down a corn row, her pistol ready. It was quiet now. She listened for a familiar voice, or an unfamiliar one...but there was nothing. She tried to remember where the car was, but she was all turned around. The sun was gone from the sky so she couldn’t gauge direction at all. Besides that, blood flowed into her eyes from the cuts the vultures had inflicted on her forehead, nearly blinding her.

Wiping her eyes, she took a chance and stepped into the next row.

She gasped and opened fire on the man she saw there. Her bullets tore through him, but he didn’t so much as flinch.

And then Claire saw why.

The man wasn’t a man at all.

He wore a skeleton’s face.

And he was grinning.

* * *

Gunfire rocked the woman’s corpse, and she danced in Tate Winters’ arms as only the dead can dance.

Tate shielded his body with the corpse. Still, he felt the lead pound into him. Once...twice...three times. Hard punches that stole his wind while stray bullets sang in the dead corn.

The moist air ripened with the smell of gunpowder. Tate held the woman with one arm, her skin still warm to the touch, his blood pumping between them. He held her close, the way the man with the Browning must have held her on cool moonlit nights.

But the woman was dead now. She belonged only to Tate, and he wasn’t going to—

“Let her go!” yelled the man with the Browning. “Fight like a man, goddammit! Let my Pearl go!”

Anger and horror flared in the man’s eyes. The barrel of the Browning jerked in Tate’s direction again, but this time Tate’s pistol traveled a determined arc that mirrored it.

Both men opened fire, and the man with the Browning bucked in his boots as Tate’s bullets sank red wells in his chest. The rifle fell silent and tumbled from the man’s grasp and he dropped to his knees just as Tate’s last bullet trenched the top of his skull.

The man didn’t say another word.

Tate released the woman’s corpse and reloaded quickly, staring into the bandit’s clear blue irises. A wave of blood spilled from the trench in the man’s head and washed his face. He blinked, watching as a scarlet puddle spread across Tate’s left shoulder, and then he smiled, wet red breaths whistling through holes in his chest that pumped dark blood like gushers in a Texas oil field.

Tate kicked the Browning into the road and moved on, never taking his eyes off the fallen bandit.

The man took the longest time to topple.

The longest time to die.

* * *

Claire emptied her pistol.

Red tears burned her eyes. The skull swam before her in a scarlet sea of blood. She wiped her eyes clear, wiped again at the cuts on her forehead. She blinked, and stared, and the skull stared back, hollow eyes over a leering grin.

Claire lowered her gun. It was only a scarecrow. She realized that now. Just a straw-stuffed suit and a rusty white bucket of a head with a skullface scratched on the dented side.

She’d shot it full of holes, but there was no blood at all. That was the funniest thing. No blood, only straw and cloth and rust. Rust around the slashing hole that formed the laughing leer, and flaking orange teeth that had powdered to nothing when her bullets ripped through the bucket.

But still the scarecrow smiled, despite its wounds.

Claire smiled too. The scarecrow would grin long after she was gone. Under the hot summer sun and the freezing winter moon, the gentle rains of April and the angry sleet of October. The scarecrow would grin through all of it, and it wouldn’t bleed a drop. It would just hang on its cross laughing at the funniest joke of all, laughing until its brittle leer rusted clean away.

Nothing could hurt it.

It couldn’t bleed.

It couldn’t die.

But it couldn’t live, either.

Claire didn’t know if she could live anymore. She didn’t know if she could die, either. But she knew that she could bleed. And as long as she could do that—alive or dead or consigned to some hell in between—why then, that was something, anyway.

Even with all the blood, that was something.

Claire jammed the last of her bullets into the .45 clip. Arson was out there somewhere. All she wanted was to find him. She’d do it.

Even if it took her last drop of blood.

* * *

A scarlet woman hurried through the corn.

Tate glimpsed her between the rows. There and gone, cutting her own path, never pausing. Tate tracked her from the road, sometimes ahead and sometimes behind.

He couldn’t see her face at all, only a mask of red, but he knew he was shadowing Miss Claire Ives, a cold-blooded killer wanted by every lawman from J. Edgar Hoover on down.

Covered in blood, she sure as hell looked the part to Tate. Like some kind of nightmare. But Tate was bleeding, too. God knew he was leaking bad enough to start seeing things. Angels or devils, as the case might be. But somehow he knew that this vision was real, just as he knew that he had to confront it before he could worry about his own wounds.

He was hurt, sure. Tore up in the shoulder, missing most of one ear, blood from some other wound making a sticky mess of his left boot. But the woman was bleeding too, and the blood didn’t seem to slow her down none.

It was crazy, that’s what it was. Crazy for the both of them. Why, if they had any sense they’d both sit down and hope to hell that a certain young lady in a black slip was on her way back from Fiddler with an ambulance.

Hell, two ambulances.

But neither one of them sat down at all. Claire Ives rushed on, and Tate Winters followed.

The Ives woman neared the road where the stolen Ford was parked. Tate glanced ahead, at the spot where the field ended and the two roads met.

That was where he’d make his stand.

At the crossroads.

* * *

The gunfire had stopped.

Arson heard movement in the field.

Pale cornstalks parted like a wound. Claire came to him.

Christ, she was all torn up. But Arson didn’t care. He swept her into his arms. He couldn’t get the words out fast enough.

“It’ll be okay, baby,” he said. “Don’t worry. I’ll take care of you.”

“Always?” she asked, looking at him hard.

“Yeah. Until they put one of us in the—”

She pressed her fingers to his lips and stopped his words. “No,” she said. “Always.”

Arson nodded, and Claire smiled under all that blood. He helped her into the Ford and climbed behind the wheel. It was still dead quiet—no sound but the wind combing through the corn.

Dead quiet. Yeah. That’s what it was.

Hank’s screams echoed in Arson’s memory. Pearl’s, too. But they were only echoes. Arson knew that his brother and sister-in-law were dead.

He wasn’t, and he was damn glad of it.

And he had his Claire.

That was all that mattered.

That, and getting the hell out of here before the law finished them, too.

Claire reached out and took his right hand. Their fingers knotted around her blood. He raised her hand and kissed it, her fingers still locked in his.

“Always,” he said.

His lips shone like rubies.

Wet with her blood.

* * *

The engine roared to life, and the Ford started coming.

Tate stood at the crossroads and raised his pistol. Straight on, the Ford came at him. Faster now. Black as a hearse, it came, its engine geared high, bearing killers who paid their way in blood.

Their own, and the blood of many others.

Tate aimed his gun and waited. He was bleeding bad. The car was thirty feet away, and in a couple of seconds it would be on him.

It wasn’t going to slow down. It wasn’t going to stop.

Neither was he. Blood leaked from his head and shoulder. Blood filled his boot. But he could bleed for at least another thirty seconds or so.

He could stand his ground.

He could pay his way in blood, the same way these two had.

Hell, he had already done that.

He’d already paid the price.

And now he’d pull the trigger.

* * *

Claire opened fire.

The lawman stood his ground and did the same. His bullets tore through the windshield like angry hornets, and Claire closed her eyes in spite of herself, but it didn’t do any good because windshield shards sliced through her eyelids and stung her eyes. Still, she fired blindly as the car raced forward, fired until her gun was empty, and then another staccato blast exploded from the cop’s pistol and Arson grunted hard.

The Ford bucked and rolled on one side. Arson lurched against her and her door came open as the car kept rolling. The gun flew from her grasp and then she felt it, hot on her face, a spray as warm as summer sunshine and she knew it was her lover’s blood and Arson’s scarred fingers brushed her breast so lightly so tenderly as they tumbled from the car.

Together they hit the hard dirt road.

They rolled in a red tangle.

And when they came to a stop they didn’t move at all.

But the blood did. Arson Pike’s blood washed Claire Ives, filling her wounds, and what she felt was the warmth of it, and the life in it.

The busted windshield had blinded her, but it seemed she could see clearer than ever now.

As her heart beat its last, and Arson’s did the same, everything Claire Ives saw was red.

* * *

Tate’s feet were cold.

He opened his eyes. Raindrops splashed his face. The gray sky had opened up, and thunder boomed, and lightning flashed.

Tate saw a vision. At least he thought it was a vision. An angel reaching down for him from above.

And then the angel tugged at Tate’s belt, and the lawman noticed that the angel didn’t have any trousers.

“Steal my pants and I’ll shoot you dead,” Tate said.

“Sweet Jesus!” John Wallace Johnson gasped. “You’re alive!”

‘Yeah.” Tate sat up. “Now give me my belt.”

John Wallace Johnson turned sheepish, handing the belt to Tate. “I was going to use it for a tourniquet,” the kid explained. ‘You’re hit in the leg, you know.”

“How about my goddamn boots? What were you gonna use them for?”

John Wallace didn’t answer. Tate got to his feet and grabbed his boots. He looked up into the sky, and raindrops pelted his face, and he took a step and nearly toppled over.

‘You ought to sit down, you know,” John Wallace Johnson said.

“Shut up,” Tate said. He took a couple more steps, and then a couple more, and pretty soon he was where he wanted to be.

The battered Ford lay on its side in the cornfield.

Arson Pike and Claire Ives lay in the road at Tate’s feet.

“They got what they deserved,” John Wallace Johnson said. He snatched a handkerchief from Arson Pike’s pocket and brushed Claire Ives’s bloody cheek with it.

“Souvenir,” he explained.

Tate glared at the young man, but the sound of sirens rose in the distance before he could tell John Wallace Johnson exactly what he thought of his souvenir.

Tate heard those sirens and thought of one thing and one thing only.

Imogene. Damn. The little flapper had gone and done it. She really could ride an Harley.

A woman like that...well, she just had to be a real sweet slice of something. Tate closed his eyes and thought about it while warm summer rain washed his face.

“You really ought to sit down,” John Wallace Johnson said. “You’re a mess.”

“Yeah,” Tate said. “But I clean up real good.”

Then he turned his back on the dead bandits, and John Wallace Johnson shrugged and did the same, and together they started for the main road. The sky above held only clouds, and rain poured down on the corpses as they lay all alone in a twisted red tangle, their blood washing away in braided rivulets that left pale trails on dead flesh.

And when they were washed clean, the earth puddle darker than earth should.


THE END

 

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Copyright © 1998 Norman Partridge.
Artwork by Kevin Nordstorm. Reprinted with permission.

Copyright © 2007 Norman Partridge