Eye for an Eye
THE WAY THE HANGING man’s eye sockets had been pecked clean, Bill figured he had been strung up for some time. It always perplexed Bill when a town’s sheriff left a body up like that, no matter what the dead man’s crimes were. And what was this man’s crime, wrong place at the wrong time? Hell, how was any of it—stealing, whoring, killing—justification to let a body rot at the end of a rope at the edge of town? Just didn’t make no sense. But, then again, figuring out the rationale for such things wasn’t high on Bill’s list.
The sun was high when Bill rode his horse, a simple beast named “Chuck”, through the dusty town of Casper, Montana. Casper had the usual trappings of a frontier town. The wooden sidewalks creaked under foot, and the clapboard buildings sported signs advertising “Casper Apothecary” and “Brown’s General Store.”
Bill secured Chuck to the hitching post outside the Silver Dollar Saloon. Two swinging doors opened in comforting uniformity as the town drunk, or what Bill took for the town drunk, came stumbling out. The man was dressed in a white shirt, that had not been white for some time, and a leather vest that was also severely scuffed and stained. His skin had a yellow pallor, which was a shade lighter than his stained teeth. The smell that emanated from the inebriated miscreant was akin to that of the eyeless hanging man.
“Liquor and the noose make slobs of us all,” thought Bill, as he side-stepped away from the drunken man’s stumbles.
The drunk burped loudly, then cast his bloodshot eyes up at Bill.
“Say, fella,” the drunk said, “you wouldn’t happen to have a few extra coins, would ya? I could—”
The man interrupted himself with another uncouth burp, the stale fumes practically visible in the hot sun.
“I’m afraid I don’t,” said Bill, tipping his hat up, so the brim moved away from his ice-blue eyes. “But I hope you find the help you need.”
Bill turned back toward the saloon doors, leaving the drunk to totter down the wooden sidewalk. Bill pushed the two doors back and entered the dimly lit bar.
To no surprise of Bill’s, the Silver Dollar was practically empty. He had heard that Casper was a small town with quiet folks. A quick scan of the room showed three people. Behind the bar was a man with a striped shirt, greasy comb-over, and smudged glasses. Bill figured he’d been pouring whiskey and cleaning up vomit at the Silver Dollar his entire life. The other two were a well-dressed man and a scantily dressed woman.
The well-dressed man, outfitted in a black coat, black hat, and gold star on his lapel, was sitting at a round table, feet up on an empty chair. A half-drunk beer was in front of him and beads of sweat clung to the curves of the glass. The woman, wearing a black and red corset, black stockings, and a lot of rouge, was leaning against the player-piano tucked in the corner. She played solitaire while a fan slowly spun above. Bill noticed on her left eye a dark purple bruise that was concealed poorly with make-up.
All three heads turned toward Bill. Outwardly ignoring the man in black and the woman by the piano, he strolled to the bar.
“Well, hello there, Mister,” the bartender said. “What can I get for ya?”
Bill smiled, showing rows of gleaming white teeth.
“Just a beer, if it ain’t too much trouble,” Bill said. “Cold beer on a hot day, just what the doc ordered,” the bartender laughed, causing his dirty spectacles to slide down his nose.
He adjusted them and grabbed a heavy mug off the shelf. Bill turned to face the room and leaned back with his elbows on the bar. The two patrons were still watching him.
“Here ya go, fella,” the bartender said. “Now, I never caught where you—”
Beer in hand, Bill stopped listening to the bartender and made his way over to the table where the man in black sat. The man tilted his black hat up and regarded Bill with cold, dark eyes.
“Howdy,” said the man in black.
“Hello,” said Bill with a smile. “Mind if I join you?”
The man thought about this for a second or two, sat up and removed his boots from the empty chair. Bill nodded his head in gratitude and took a seat, placing his beer on the table.
“Seeing as I was here first, I’ll begin the introductions. I’m Sherriff Moody, and who might you be?” Moody stuck out his hand.
“Name’s Pete.” Bill reached out to grab Moody’s hand.
“Pleased to meet ya, Pete,” Moody said.
Moody picked up his half-full mug and hoisted it in Bill’s direction. Bill did the same, and the two glasses met with a high-pitched clink. The two men each took a swig and produced harmonious sighs of content.
“Not too bad,” Bill said, eyeing the golden liquid.
“Sure beats a glass of horse piss,” Moody said, then slapped his knee and produced a loud laugh.
Bill chuckled along, but kept his clear blue eyes on the sheriff.
“So, Pete,” Moody said, “What brings ya to Casper? Other than the scenery?”
“Oh, just passing through. Have some family up by the Yellowstone River that I thought I might pay mind to. It’s been a while.”
“You don’t say. Well, family’s important. Out here, you gotta rely on who you can, and family’s about as good as any, I reckon.”
“I reckon the same.”
Both men took another drink. Bill’s eyes flicked to the woman by the piano. She had not stopped looking at him since he’d arrived.
“You said you’re the sheriff?” Bill asked.
“That I did,” Moody said with a grin. “The long ‘dick’ of the law.”
Another burst of laughter from the sheriff, followed by two more knee slaps. Bill, again, chuckled along, watching as Moody wiped away a tear from his weathered face.
“Say, this seems like a sleepy little town,” Bill said. “It got enough to keep a lawman busy?”
Moody smiled under his black hat.
“Oh, it can get ghost-like from time-to-time” he said, “but I’d say my wages are earned.”
Moody leaned forward and smiled again. The smile reminded Bill of a crocodile, with gaps between each tooth. Some teeth seemed filed to a point.
“What direction you come into town from, Pete?” Moody asked.
“East,” Bill said.
“Then you saw my work on display,” Moody said.
“You talking ’bout the man on the rope?”
“Why, yes, sir, I am.”
“I was wondering about that. Why keep him up for so long? The birds have gotten at him.”
Moody’s eyes narrowed at this. “You suggesting I do my job different?”
“Not in the slightest, just curious is all,” Bill said, his gleaming smile returning, seeming to cool Moody.
“Well, I keep him up as a warning, I suppose. A man is less likely to act up when he’s reminded what acting up might get him.”
Bill nodded his head, considering Moody’s point.
“Fair enough,” Bill said, “Would you mind if I asked what the hung man did that constituted ‘acting up’?”
Moody pursed his lips at Bill’s question, then smiled his crocodile grin.
“Oh, I suppose not, considering it’s a hot day and you’re my only drinking companion.”
Moody turned his attention to the woman by the piano. “Charlotte, darling, come over here,”
Bill turned and watched the woman in the red corset walk over and take the last remaining seat at the table. She had a shakiness about her, like she was having trouble warming up. She didn’t make eye contact with either man, her hands resting on the tabletop.
“See, Pete,” Moody said, “Charlotte here is our resident…now, what would you call yourself Charlotte?”
Charlotte did not reply, just continued to sit like a scared mouse, hoping the heel of a boot wouldn’t come down. Up close, Bill could see that Charlotte was prettier than he had initially surmised, the abundant rouge on her cheeks and the dark bruise on her eye only marginally detracted from her beauty.
“Hmm, Charlotte?” Moody went on.
Again, Charlotte did not reply. After several quiet seconds, Moody slapped the table hard with his hand, causing the beer mugs to rattle and Charlotte to flinch like a beat dog. Bill did not make a move, other than slowly bringing his right hand to his hip.
“Cat got your tongue,” Moody said with a laugh. “See, Pete, I don’t know what you call em’ in your hometown, but here, Charlotte is known as a ‘whore.’”
Bill looked at Charlotte, who now seemed on the edge of tears.
“And a whore’s sole purpose is to make money for the establishment,” Moody said. “So when Charlotte finds herself tying up her corset but her purse is empty, then someone’s getting cheated. But, hey, maybe the fella was too good looking to charge. Was that it Charlotte? Were you taken by his blue eyes? Tommy Holt did have pretty eyes, didn’t he?”
Finally, Charlotte replied in a low whisper. “I loved him,” she said. “
What was that?” Moody said.
“I loved him,” Charlotte repeated, this time a decibel louder.
Moody looked at her for a split second, then burst into another fit of laughter. Fat tears rolled down his cheeks. “Love! Love, she says. By God, that is funny. Pete, you ever hear of a whore in love?”
Bill did not chuckle along this time. His mouth remained a cold, hard line across his face. Charlotte noticed the absence of mirth. Moody did not.
Bill turned to Charlotte and placed one of his calloused hands on hers. Her skin was soft. Charlotte looked up, and their eyes met. She was still scared, but there was a look of recognition now on her face.
“Did he love you, too?” Bill asked.
Moody, clearing his throat, noticed Bill’s hand on Charlotte’s. “Now, Pete. You know you’ll have to pay for the pleasure.”
Bill ignored him. His ice-blue eyes stayed locked on Charlotte. “Did he love you, too?”
Charlotte nodded her head.
“Now, hold on,” Moody barked. “What’s the meaning of all this? The man didn’t love her. He just got into her cunny for free! As far as I’m concerned, in my town, that’s theft. And thieves hang!” Moody’s voice was getting louder. His face was turning crimson.
Bill’s eyes went from Charlotte to Moody. He stared at the man in black for a good long time.
“Look here, Pete—” Moody began.
“My name ain’t Pete,” Bill said. “It’s Bill. Bill Holt.”
When Sherriff Moody heard Bill’s real first name, followed by his last, and stared into his ice-blue eyes, the same eyes he watched go wide at the end of a noose, everything clicked for Sheriff Moody. A look of recognition, not unlike the look Charlotte had sported just a few moments ago, flashed across Moody’s tanned face. But by that time it was too late. Bill had drawn his gun and pulled the trigger. Moody’s crocodile teeth blew out the back of his head.
Charlotte kicked back from the table and released a high-pitched scream, loud enough that Bill could hear Chuck whinny outside. The greasy bartender, who was previously cleaning a glass with a dirty rag, reached for the shotgun he kept by the moonshine, but his reach was cut short by a bullet to the head, completely removing his comb-over.
Charlotte kept screaming.
“Hey,” Bill said.
Charlotte cowered on the floor.
“Hey!” Bill repeated.
Charlotte’s eyes snapped up at the gunman.
“I’m not gonna hurt ya,” Bill said, reaching into his pocket. He took out a small leather pouch and tossed it on the table. A metallic rattle sounded from the bag.
“There’s enough in there for a new life. You hear? One far away from here. You don’t need to be doing what you’re doing no more.”
Charlotte’s breath came in hard, sucking sobs and her body shook.
Bill holstered his gun and turned back towards the saloon doors. He walked out into the harsh bright sun. Chuck, still tied to the post, was clearly agitated. Bill put a comforting hand on his nose.
“Easy, buddy,” Bill said.
Bill untied the horse and hopped on. With a pull of the left rein, he spun Chuck back the way they’d come.
“Let’s go cut him down.”