Disclaimers: Not mine, not making any money.
Warnings: Some mild adult themes.
Acknowledgements: Jimmy Nail for the inspiration, see end of story.
Thanks to Gloria for agreeing so generously to proof read for me.
I noticed him the moment he walked in. Well, we all did, us girls. Even under all that dust you could see he was handsome one. I watched him go up to the bar and order whisky. He looked so sad, almost hunted. He took the shot of whisky and walked to the very back wall, and sat himself down in the corner.
I didn't notice him much after that. The saloon was busy and I had quite a few gentlemen to entertain, not that any of them could be called 'gentlemen,' not by a long stretch of the imagination. Eventually things got quiet and Hank kicked the last drunks out. He was one of the last to go. He just got up silently and walked out, still looking sad.
It was my turn to put up the shutters. Hank reckoned a storm was coming, and he's usually right about these things. I went outside to find him sitting there in one of the chairs. He had it tilted back on two legs, leaning on the wall. He didn't look up at me as I stared at him, just looked down onto his glass, swirling the liquid around. I realised it was the same drink he had bought when he came in over six hours ago, don't think he'd even had one sip all night.
I'm kinda short, and I can't get the shutters shut and bolted without standing on a chair. I had just clambered up on the first one when I realised someone was with me. The man had gotten up and was beside me. He smiled, his teeth picking up the moonlight.
"Can't have a lady like you, doing this." He held out his hand for me to step down. Then he began to close and bolt all the shutters. "Why 's a little thing like you doing this?" he asked me without looking down from his self-imposed task.
"It's my turn," I explained. "Hank, he 's the owner, he says there'll be a storm tonight."
I watched as he looked over his shoulder at the clear night sky. He seemed to sniff the air.
"Probably right." He commented.
He made me show him all the windows and did all the shutters, even the little one over the pantry window.
"Is that all?" he asked.
"I have to shutter the main doors." I explained.
"How will you get back in?" he asked looking genuinely concerned.
"Down the alley and around, there are steps up to the bedrooms." I told him as I was locking the main door.
After that he went back to the chair and picked up his drink again. I wanted to say something, to somehow make him feel better. I had no idea what was wrong but something sure was. I can't explain it, I just wanted him to be happy; unhappy didn't suit him. It was like a coat that didn't fit right. It hung on him but wasn't part of him.
There were a couple of cowboys in the alley, relieving themselves against the wall. They had that look, the too drunk to get it up but not too drunk to try and then get mean when they can't, look. I didn't fancy going down on my own. For some unknown reason I knew I could trust the man on the porch to help me. After all, he helped me with the shutters and was a perfect gentleman.
"Excuse me," I asked. "Could you assist me?"
That smile was back, as he stood and tipped his hat.
"Of course, what do you need?"
He offered me his arm and we strolled down the dark alley. One of the cowboys did make a move, and my escort growled, actually growled at him. I almost laughed, but it had the desired effect, and the drunk backed off. When we got to the bottom of the stairs, I did something I've never done before. I asked a man to come into my room, not for money or because I desired him, although I did, do, but because he needed some place to be that was better than a lonely hotel room.
"Do you have a room for the night?" I asked.
He just smiled and told me not to fret about him, he could take care of himself. But you can't, I found my self thinking, as the sad look came back.
"Look, it's going to rain," I went on. "Hank was right, there is a storm coming. Look at me." He did. "I got a huge bed up there just for little me. I only take up a quarter of it. Come and keep safe from the storm."
He was still dusty from the trail.
"I've got a bath." I offered.
I could see his resolve waning, so I took his hand and gave it a gentle tug as I started up the steps. He followed.
I bathed first, and then I put on a nightgown, something I haven't done in a man's presence for years, but it just seemed right. I refilled the tub and got the biggest fresh towel I could find, and put it over the screen. I have to admit that when he came out from behind that screen, still damp, water dropping from his hair, nothing on but that towel around his waist, I gasped. I actually gasped. God I hope he didn't hear me. Now I have to point out, it wasn't just this vision of manhood that made me gasp, it was the bruises.
All down his left side he was black and blue. They disappeared under the edge the towel, and I dreaded to think how far they went.
Considering he hadn't exactly resisted the idea of coming to my bed, he showed no sign he was interested in any way in anything other than sleep. Just as he got in beside me, lying on his back, hands interlocked behind his head, the first flash of lightning illuminated the room. I started to count, like I always do to see how far the thunder is. As I did, I noticed his lips moving silently; he was counting too.
"Twenty-one," I said.
"Twenty-two," he corrected. "It's a big one, reckon it'll be a noisy night."
He continued to stare at the ceiling, while I stared at him. Washed he was even more handsome, but still sad. I propped my self up on my elbow, so I could see his face better.
"I don't even know your name. I'm "
But he instantly put a finger on my lips. "No names, not tonight."
"Why dont you tell me all about it?" I suggested.
"Whatever it is thats making you sad, 'cause I don't think you're a sad person really, but you sure are tonight." His eyes never left the ceiling, as he replied to that.
"You talk too much, anyone ever tell you that?"
I let a small laugh slip out, as I assured him plenty of people have told me that, then I went on. "Come on tell me. Barkeeps, priests, and whores, we all make good listeners."
For the first time he looked at me. He had such kind eyes. Even sad they were kind.
"Don't call your self that," he said angrily.
I asked him why, because I've never been ashamed about what I do. It's my job, they call it the oldest profession. He said a whore didn't respect herself and I should. I told him I certainly did respect myself, but what else was I going to call myself? He said I was a courtesan or a 'lady of the night,' or even a 'working girl,' but never a whore. Then he went back to studying the ceiling. But I wasn't about to give up.
"Tell me. It is why you came up here, isn't it? I mean, if you really wanted continue in solitary misery, you'd still be out there staring at an undrunk whisky."
His eyes looked at me briefly and I knew I was getting through.
Just then another lightning flash lit up the room. We both counted to the thunder; 'twelve' we said in unison, as the thunder rolled around the room. For a moment I thought I'd lost him, because he rolled over, presenting his back to me. It was broad and (but for some interesting scars) smooth. Then he spoke. And what he said took my breath away.
"I killed a little boy today," he said quietly. "Or maybe it was yesterday."
I should have been scared. I was alone with a strange man who wouldn't tell me his name, who's just confessed to child murder, and whose gun was hanging on my bedpost not one foot away. But I wasn't, not even for a moment.
"Tell me," I encouraged.
And he did, in between the thunder, and raising his voice above the torrential rain, he told me.
It seems he is a lawman in some town north of here, I don't know how far. There are seven of them altogether. There was a fight in the saloon, and he and the others broke it up. I think thats where he got all the bruises. Only when it was almost too late did they realise that the fight was a diversion. Outside, the bank was being robbed. In the confusion one of the masked bandits got the drop on one of the other lawmen. He was about to be shot in the back. Just in time he had shot the bandit in the chest, killing him instantly, and saving his friend.
He explained. "When I went over to him I could see he was dead. I pulled down the bandanna, and he was so young. He was just a kid. Then the leader of the gang, who was being lead to the jail, started screaming at me, that I'd killed his brother and how he was just fourteen. I never killed a kid before."
After that he was silent. I put my hand on his shoulder and pulled a little. You couldn't say I pulled him over, because he was too big for me to move if he didn't want to move, but he allowed me to roll him over onto his back. Then I used the back of my finger to wipe away the trail of tears that rolled from the corner of each eye.
"You didn't know. He was trying to kill your friend. There was nothing you could have done differently," I reasoned, lying my head down on his shoulder.
"I know all that, but it don't help," he said bitterly. "I've been earning my living with my gun, but I never killed a kid. I can't risk doing it again, I just can't."
I just knew this man was not a killer. He had told me he was a lawman of some kind, and lawmen help people. Well, the good ones do. I tried to tell him he wasn't a killer, that he helped people. That his friends, the other six, needed him, but he wasn't having it. He just kept saying that killing children, even legal killing, was no job for a man. I have to confess I was at a loss as to what to say. So we lay there for a long time listening to the storm. Eventually it moved away, leaving only the rain. My room has a door that opens out onto the balcony. I got up and pulled on my wrap before I went to the door and opened it, then I just stood there with my back to him. I love the smell of fresh rain. It was about half an hour before he joined me, the blanket wrapped around him like one of them Romans I seen in a book once.
"Tell me about your friends," I encouraged.
He spoke warmly and quite eloquently about the six men he worked with. He warmed to his subject as he told me stories about their adventures together, some happy, some sad, some funny. And as I listened, I realised this is not a man telling me about six men he works with, but a man telling me about his family, his brothers. I found I could picture them in my head. I felt if they rode into town right now, I would know them all instantly. Their voices, mannerisms, dress, weapons, and even their horses. The affection and even love he felt for them was so evident, I couldn't believe he would ever, could ever leave them.
"You didn't kill that boy," I said when the conversation died. "You pulled the trigger, but you didn't kill him. His brother did. He took him with him to rob a bank, he gave his fourteen-year-old brother a gun, and he probably taught him how to use it. He was going to use it to kill your friend, or perhaps I should say, kill your brother?" I looked over my shoulder at him, and he looked down at the floor, his cheek blushed with embarrassment. "Yes I think 'brother' would be more accurate. Don't punish yourself for someone else's crime. Youre a good man, I know that, your friends know it, and you know it. You're not a child killer, just a lawman, friend, and brother doing his job. I don't say you'll forget it, but you can live with it."
There was now another silence when we said nothing, just stood and listened to the rain, watching it cascade out off the overflowing gutters above us.
"When I was little," I explained. "My mama told me that the rain washes the world. It cleanses everything it touches and everyone. It takes away our sins, our doubts, our mistakes, our fears, so we can start fresh. The trouble is, in this damn desert, it don't rain enough for all my sin."
With that I dropped the wrap and stepped out into the downpour. I knew damn well that as soon as my nightgown was soaked, it would be see-though, but I didn't care, I just enjoyed the rain. As I spun around, arms reaching skyward, I caught sight of him still in the doorway watching me, not leering, not ogling, just watching and smiling, sharing my joy. Eventually he dropped the blanket and, clutching the towel to keep it up, joined me in the rain, as it washed us both clean to start over. Suddenly he wrapped his arm around me and pulled me close.
"You only need one single drop to wash your sins away," he said. "Because they are so few and so small."
I tried to point out he didn't know me, and did he understand how I made my living? But he insisted that was no sin, that was just how the world was and always had been. We dried off and got back into bed.
Just holding each other, two strangers washed clean of their sins until the next time. In the morning he was gone. I know he went home.
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This story was inspired by the song Show Me Heaven by Jimmy Nail. Jimmy Nail is (I suspect) best know out side the UK as the tango singer in the film Evita. This song was, he says, inspired by a documentary about WW1.
|There's a moment in the mornings when the birds refuse to sing,
When the wind blows in it's cargo and the eyes begin to sting,
And you can't see these Elysian Fields for the bodies on the ground,
So you grope the dead for souvenirs that are lying all around,
Lay your head down on me pillow and show me heaven,
Lay your head down on me pillow and show me heaven,
I killed a little boy today; I put a bayonet in his breast,
They said I was a hero and pinned a medal on my chest,
But I will not kill another for now I know it to be wrong,
That young man had a mother and for her I must be strong,
So lift your skirt up a little higher and show me heaven,
Lift your skirt up a little higher and show me heaven,
In the morning they'll be waiting and before the day is done,
I will make my peace with Jesus, I will walk toward the sun,
And they'll take me to the bloody war, where the ones before me fell,
And I'll go to meet my old friends, yes and my enemies as well,
So put your sweet lips against my body and show me heaven,
Put your sweet lips against my body and show me heaven,
Show me heaven, show me heaven,
Show me heaven, show me heaven.
From The Nail File - The Best of Jimmy Nail