Issue 20: "The Reckoning" Oct 26, 2010 16:56:37 GMT -5
Post by markymark261 on Oct 26, 2010 16:56:37 GMT -5
Weird Western Quarterly
Issue #20: "The Reckoning"
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Rik Mertens (with deepest thanks!)
Edited by Mark Bowers
Issue #20: "The Reckoning"
Written by Susan Hillwig
Cover by Rik Mertens (with deepest thanks!)
Edited by Mark Bowers
It hurt to ride. Getting into the saddle had been no great pleasure, either, but the steady rhythm of the horse’s movements as it galloped along caused fresh waves of agony to shoot up Jonah Hex’s spine every few seconds. He did his best to ignore it, though, and kept his eyes on the tracks laid out across the snowy ground. Cochrane had made no attempts to hide them as he fled, which made Jonah think that the man was either very stupid or very clever. Most likely the latter, considerin’ whut he’s done so far, Jonah mused. He’s probably hopin’ thet Ah think him a fool so’s he kin lead me straight into an ambush. Well. let him try! It’ll just give me more skunks tuh take muh anger out on fer whut he tried tuh do tuh Mei Ling an’ the boy. The thought of that caused Jonah a different sort of pain. For close to a year now, he’d done his level best to protect Mei Ling from anything that could possibly hurt her (including his own infidelity, he was sad to admit), only to have a specter from his past rise up and sic a bunch of hired guns on him and his family, all in retaliation for something that wasn’t even Jonah’s fault. If’n Ah live through this, Quentin Turnbull’s gonna get whut’s comin’ tuh him as well.
Cochrane’s trail led Jonah up to the foothills, where it veered off the established paths and towards rockier terrain. Now he’s tryin’ tuh throw me, Jonah thought, but it’ll also slow him down. Hex and his mount picked their way across icy scree, following the vague signs of Cochrane’s passing, until he heard the wail of an infant echo through the foothills. “Jason,” he gasped, then he spotted movement through a stand of bony trees about fifty yards away. Jonah spurred his horse in that direction, trusting in its instincts to find the best footing across the loose rocks as he concentrated on not losing sight of Cochrane.
The distance between the two men began to close, and soon Cochrane took notice. He yanked on his horse’s reins to turn it further under the cover of the trees, but Hex wasn’t about to let him slip away that easily. The bounty hunter reached down to his waist and drew his revolver, a brief moment of serenity washing over him as he felt the familiar weight of the Dragoon in his hand, its smooth ivory handle resting so comfortably against his palm. Some people probably thought it strange that a rough-and-tumble man like Jonah Hex would possess such beautifully-crafted weapons, and truth be told, he did come by them in a strange way. It involved an unexpected trip to Brazil via a hot-air balloon, and not of his own volition, either. While down there, Jonah became acquainted with a plantation owner who lent him the matched set of Dragoons for the duration of his stay. Not long after, Jonah discovered the plantation owner was a rather unscrupulous sort, and once he’d squared things up with the man in his usual fashion, Jonah decided that the Dragoons were better off in the hands of someone honest and hardworking like himself, as opposed to some no-good, lying, greedy skunk. Since that day, those Dragoons had become as much a part of Hex as the Confederate coat on his back, which made it difficult for him to lay them aside when he’d promised Mei Ling that he would give up his violent ways. But that promise became ancient history the moment Cochrane threatened Jonah and his family, and now that fine Colt revolver was back in his hand where it belonged, and he was glad for it.
Jonah pulled his horse up short so as to steady his aim, then drew a bead on Cochrane’s back. A spilt-second before he pulled the trigger, however, he recalled Mei Ling’s earlier concerns about him accidentally hitting their child instead. Since it appeared that Cochrane was holding little Jason against his chest as he rode, a bullet through the man’s back would almost certainly go through the baby as well...so Jonah twitched the gun barrel over just an inch or so and shot Cochrane’s horse instead. The bullet smashed into its skull, and the animal immediately crumpled to the ground. Luckily for Cochrane, he was smart enough to jump out of the saddle instead of letting himself be pinned beneath the horse’s massive bulk. Despite the urgency of the maneuver, he kept a tight grip on the baby all the while, even going so far as to twist about and land on his back to protect the wailing infant from harm -- the irony that he’d been threatening to kill that same infant roughly an hour ago was lost on him. As soon as Cochrane’s horse went down, Jonah had set his own horse back into motion and galloped over to where his quarry had fallen. But it was too late: Cochrane had already gotten to his feet and drawn his pistol, and now the two men were staring at each other from behind the barrels of their respective weapons, Hex on horseback and Cochrane standing about fifteen feet away.
“It’s over, Cochrane,” Jonah said. “Just put muh boy down an’ Ah’ll let yuh live.”
“Do you really think I’m stupid enough to believe that? I’ve boned up on you, Hex: You don’t let nobody live if you think they’ve done wrong, especially to you personally.”
“True enough, but Ah’m willin’ tuh make an exception in yer case if’n it means yuh’ll leave me an’ muh family alone. Tell Turnbull yuh slaughtered the whole lot of us if’n yuh like. He’s all the way over in Virginia, so he’ll never know the dif’rence.”
“Sorry, I can’t do that. I’m a man of my word, and I promised Turnbull that I’d torture you ‘til you were beggin’ me to put a bullet in your brain.” He shifted his grip on the baby so that his tiny body was laying over Cochrane’s heart. “And seein’ as how both your wife and son are still breathin’, I reckon I’ve got a long ways to go on that.”
“Keep talkin’ like thet, an’ Ah’ll show yuh how tuh really torture a man.”
“Is that so? Funny, you don’t seem like you’re very eager to do so.” Cochrane pressed his grizzled cheek against the baby’s. “You’ve already got me in your sights, so why not shoot me? Go ahead and pull the trigger, Hex. Maybe you’ll get lucky and you won’t kill your little yellow brat as well.”
The good side of Jonah’s mouth curled up in a sneer as he cocked the hammer...but the same fear as before soon stayed his hand. Had he not been in so much pain, perhaps he could have counted more on his normally-deadly accuracy, but not at that moment, not when the mere act of holding his gun arm steady was such a chore. With an air of dejection, Jonah eased the hammer back down and lowered his gun.
“I’ll be damned,” Cochrane said breathlessly, “the great and mighty Jonah Hex is human after all. Let’s keep this little act of humility going, shall we?” He made a slight downward gesture with the barrel of his own gun. “Why don’t you climb off’n that high horse of yours? I want to see you grovel.”
“Do it! Or so help me, I’ll bash this kid’s head in!” the man yelled, briefly drowning out little Jason’s cries. The baby had been wailing for so long now that it had degenerated into a hoarse, shuddering mewl, as if he could no longer draw sufficient breath to really let loose. The pathetic sound was enough for Hex to muster up the strength to swing himself out of the saddle. Once that was done, however, there wasn’t enough strength remaining to keep his legs steady, and they immediately buckled. Both of his hands clamped onto the saddle horn in an effort to stay upright, to which the horse responded by sidestepping away from him. That only made things worse, and Cochrane let out a guffaw as Hex finally dropped to all fours. “Ah, now this is a peach! It’s a damn shame them other boys ain’t alive to see this,” Cochrane said.
Cold sweat beading on his brow, Jonah replied huskily, “Yuh kin tell ‘em...when y’all meet up in Hell.”
“Says the man who can’t even stand on his own two feet. By the way, while you’re down there, you mind tossin’ those fancy guns of yours thisaway?” Jonah made no objection to this, and the Dragoons landed by Cochrane’s feet seconds later. “Very nice. Now, I want you to face me in the right proper manner...on your knees, of course. No need to overexert yourself.” Slowly and with teeth clenched, Jonah did as he was told, even going to far as to place his hands behind his head as he knelt on the ground in front of the other man. “You know,” Cochrane said, “for somebody who betrayed his entire regiment, you take orders quite well.”
“Ah’m gonna give yuh one last chance,” Hex grunted. “Set muh boy down an’ walk away, or else.”
“Or else what? You ain’t got one bit of leverage here. I’ve got your guns and your boy, not to mention the fact that you’re beginnin’ to look like death warmed over.” Cochrane laughed as he centered the sights of his pistol directly between Jonah’s eyes. “You ain’t got nothing left that can trump me.”
Jonah didn’t respond, at least not with words. Instead, he slipped his left hand beneath the collar of his Confederate-gray coat and took hold of the knife he kept hidden there. Ironically, this was a trick he’d started doing not long after the Fort Charlotte Massacre, when he vowed to never let himself be completely unarmed ever again. In one fluid motion, Hex whipped out the knife and lunged forward, letting out a scream that was half rage and half agony. Cochrane fired his gun the moment he realized what was happening, but since the target had moved, the bullet that was meant for Hex’s skull caromed off the bounty hunter’s right collarbone instead. Jonah didn’t even feel it -- his mind was focused solely on plunging the knife into Cochrane’s lower abdomen and ripping it viciously to the side. Fresh blood spewed forth as Cochrane let out a scream of his own, and soon both men were on the ground. In an effort to fight off Hex, Cochrane let go of the baby, the precious bundle tumbling into a drift of snow a few feet away from them.
Now the battle began in earnest. Cochrane did his best to bring his pistol to bear again, but he and Jonah were too entangled for him to do so. Meanwhile, Jonah continued to plunge the knife over and over again into whichever chunk of Cochrane’s flesh happened to be closest. Soon, Cochrane had taken too much damage to even hold onto the pistol anymore, much less fight back, yet Hex didn’t ease up. For five long, horrifying minutes, he went to work on Beau Cochrane’s body, slicing and carving and gutting the man in a very precise manner, one that ensured maximum torment without killing him outright. Eventually, though, the shock and the blood loss did him in, but that didn’t stop Hex from taking the full measure of his rage out on the corpse, until the increasing pain from his own injuries forced the bounty hunter to quit.
The foothills were eerily quiet, save for Jonah’s ragged breathing and the whimpers from his son. Like before, the sound of those cries made Jonah dig deep within himself and find one last shred of strength. “It’s okay, little man,” he croaked as he pushed himself away from Cochrane’s mangled corpse and crawled to where the baby lay, “Ah’m here...yer Pa’s here.” His hands were slick with blood, so he did his best to cleanse them in the snow before picking up Jason. “Let me look at yuh...see if’n thet bastard did yuh any damage.” The sound of his father’s voice soothed the troubled child, and he smiled and cooed as Jonah checked him over. Miraculously, the baby had only sustained a few scratches. Thank Yuh, Lord, Jonah thought, kissing his son on the crown of his tiny head. Thank Yuh fer protectin’ him when Ah couldn’t.
Now came the hard part: trying to stand up and get back on the horse. After unbuttoning his coat and tucking Jason inside, Hex coaxed the horse over to where he sat. He then wrapped a hand around the dangling reins and used the horse’s own strength pull himself upright. He lasted about three seconds in this position before the intolerable pain from doing so made him fall flat on his back -- both Jonah and the infant cried out when he impacted with the ground. Try it again, Jonah told himself as he lay there, staring up at the darkening sky, his breath coming in and out in short bursts in time with the stabs of agony up his spine. Yo’re gonna try it again an’ again until y’all get on thet damn horse an’ get yer boy home!
“Okay,” he gasped aloud. “Okay, Ah’m gonna...gonna...” But he couldn’t even sit up this time, no matter how hard he tried. Every last ounce of energy within him had been spent. “Don’t...don’t worry, little man,” he said as he felt his son’s body wriggling against his chest. “Y’all just let me rest a spell, an’ then...then we’ll get a move-on.” He continued to stare up at the sky, and he noticed that black clouds were rolling in from the edge of his vision. At least he thought they were clouds. It was also getting much colder all of the sudden. “Just let me..let me rest...then...ruh...res’...”
Hex’s eyes rolled up to the whites, and he said nothing more.
* * * * * *
Mei Ling sat quietly in Doc Pedersen’s office, wishing that she didn’t have to think anymore. She’d been assaulted far too much today, both mentally and physically, and was overcome with this tremendous desire to shut down. But she knew that she couldn’t, not until she knew her son and her husband were safe.
Her husband...at that moment, Mei Ling wasn’t sure if the man she saw today was her husband. He was Jonah Hex, that much was certain, but what had happened to the Jonah Hex that promised before God to love and obey her, and provided her with a beautiful child? All she’d seen today was a liar and a killer, and she was beginning to wonder if the man she’d fallen in love with had ever existed at all. She couldn’t bring herself to voice any of these concerns to Doc Pedersen’s wife, who’d been sitting with her ever since she and the doctor had escorted Mei Ling into town. It’d been hard enough to describe to Constable Hart the traumatic events that occurred back at the homeplace, and the thought of airing such personal problems like Jonah’s affair with Emmylou Hartley was too much to bear at the moment.
There was a sound of boots clomping up the stairs outside, then the office door burst open and one of the townsfolk shouted, “The posse’s riding up the street!”
Doc Pedersen grabbed his medical bag, asking, “Is Hex with them?” Mei Ling had told him about Jonah being shot.
“Didn’t see him, but I think Hart had the baby,” the young man at the door replied.
Mei Ling nearly leapt out of her chair at the last part, and soon she and the Pedersens were heading downstairs, Ironjaws right behind them -- the wolf hadn’t strayed more than two feet away from Mei Ling since it had caught up to her. As they reached the street, they caught sight of Hart and one of his deputies bringing their mounts to a stop in front of the building. Mei Ling stepped over to Hart and looked up at him, the expression on her face saying it all. “He’s all right, Mei Ling,” Hart told her, then handed her the bundle he’d been carrying.
Though there were bloodstains on the blanket, it was quickly evident that little Jason was indeed all right. Tears of joy began to roll down Mei Ling’s cheeks as she hugged the baby tight, speaking words of love and comfort to him in Chinese. After Hart dismounted, she asked him, “What about Jonah? He’s not...is he...”
“I’m not going to lie: Jonah’s in real rough shape.” Hart looked back the way he’d come, and Mei Ling saw another cluster of deputies riding towards them, flanking a horse dragging a travois. As it passed by the other townsfolk lining the street, many of them shook their heads or turned away. Placing an arm around Mei Ling’s shoulders in a gesture of comfort, Hart led her over to the travois. Lashed to it beneath layers of blankets was Jonah Hex, his face as pale and cold as alabaster, and his gray uniform looking almost black in the waning light from all the blood upon it. “We found both of them up in the foothills,” Hart told her. “Jonah was unconscious, but he’d had enough foresight to protect the baby from the cold. Otherwise, they both might’ve froze to death.”
“What about the man that took Jason?”
“Cochrane? Dead ten times over.” Hart shook his head in disgust, saying, “If I’d known what that bastard was planning when I met him three months back, I would’ve killed him myself right then and there.”
Mei Ling slipped out from beneath Hart’s arm and bent over Jonah, gently brushing her fingers across his cheek. To her surprise, his eyes opened halfway, and she said to him, “Can you hear me, Jonah?”
His lips moved soundlessly for a moment, then he rasped, “Save...the baby...”
“Yes, you did.” Mei Ling smiled at him. “The baby’s fine.”
“Ah saved the baby,” Jonah repeated, more strongly this time, but Mei Ling realized that, while his eyes were open, they were unfocused, seeing nothing...or at least he wasn’t seeing Mei Ling. “Our baby girl...she’s safe, Tallulah.”
Fresh tears came to Mei Ling’s eyes, now brought on by shock and sorrow. Just how many secrets was Jonah keeping from her? As Doc Pedersen stepped forward to examine Jonah’s wounds, Mei Ling turned away from her husband, hugging the baby more tightly than ever. She soon noticed the sight behind her was no better: standing on the boardwalk across the street was Emmylou, who was looking at Jonah with the sort of concern that was usually reserved for a loved one.
Mei Ling glared silently at the woman, then followed Doc Pedersen and the others as they carried Jonah up to the doctor’s office.
* * * * * *
Due to the severity of his injuries, Doc Pedersen insisted that Jonah be kept in the bed at his office for the time being. There were concerns that the bullet lodged near Jonah’s spine (which the doctor had removed with painstaking care) might have done permanent damage, so the less jostling about Jonah had to suffer though, the better for his long-term health it would be. His other wounds were mended as well, and generous amounts of laudanum were administered to help him cope with the pain. Because of this, Jonah spent most of his recovery time sleeping, with brief periods of wakefulness peppered throughout.
To assure that no complications arose, a watch detail was set up. During the night, it was comprised mainly of patrons from the Roundyard Saloon (all stone sober, though not without complaint), while the daylight hours were reserved for Mei Ling. Constable Hart would ride out to the Hex homestead every morning to provide escort for her and the baby -- Ironjaws would follow as well, still obeying its master’s last orders -- and throughout the day, Mei Ling would sit at Jonah’s bedside, doing her best to play the dutiful wife though her heart was still in pain. The things she heard Jonah mutter in his sleep didn’t help with that. He would call out to this mysterious Tallulah, or to his long-lost fiancée Cassie, each name said with a measure of sorrow. Once he spoke in a language Mei Ling couldn’t understand but presumed was some Indian tongue, which led her to believe he was dreaming of that other girl he once told her of, White Fawn. There were also times where his hands would ball into fists upon the bedsheets as he screamed Jason’s name, yet even then, Mei Ling never heard her own name come from the lips of her husband. The only consolation she had was that she never heard him call out for Emmylou, either. On the occasions when Jonah was awake, she remained silent about all of this, and instead they would talk of mundane things. Not once did she bring up the subject of his infidelity nor any of the other concerns that weighed upon her, for whenever she looked into Jonah’s tired eyes or heard the rasps of pain in his voice, she couldn’t bring herself to do it. When he is strong again, we will discuss these matters, she told herself. It would not be right to confront him further about such things when he is still struggling to live. Let him rest, and wait for the proper time to come.
She had no idea that those were the same sort of excuses Jonah had made to himself whenever he considered telling Mei Ling the truth about himself and Emmylou Hartley.
* * * * * *
Roughly two weeks after the attack by Cochrane and his men, Mei Ling arrived at Doc Pedersen’s office to hear a commotion taking place inside. Constable Hart, accompanying her as always, drew his gun and carefully cracked the door to the office open. Inside, he saw Mrs. Pedersen standing alone in the waiting room with a fretful look on her face. “Oh, thank the Lord you’ve arrived,” she said upon seeing Hart. “They’ve been holding him back so far, but I’m not sure how long that will last.”
“Who’s holding whom back?” Hart asked. He opened the door wider, and Ironjaws ran into the office, heading straight for the room Jonah was laid up in. The door was shut, but it did little to muffle the shouts coming from behind it. “What the Hell’s going on in there?”
“My husband and that young man...Loy, is it? They’re trying to keep Jonah from leaving.”
Mei Ling, still standing at the office entrance and cradling Jason in her arms, said to Mrs. Pedersen, “What’s wrong with Jonah wanting to leave? The doctor said yesterday that he should be able to come home soon.”
“He doesn’t just want to leave the office,” Mrs. Pedersen replied. “He wants to head to the train station and leave town.”
As that bit of information was sinking in, they all heard Jonah bellow, “Ah warned yuh, boy!” Then the other door slammed open from the force of Loy crashing into it. The young man sprawled out on the floor before them, a bruise already forming on the right side of his face. As Hart helped him up, Loy groaned, “Hex may be wobbly on his feet, but his left cross is a dilly.”
“An’ yo’re gonna see how good muh right cross is if’n y’all get in muh way again.” Jonah was now standing in the doorway, his hands braced against the frame while Doc Pedersen stood behind him, well out of striking distance. He was dressed in his Confederate coat again, which still bore a few dark stains from blood that just wouldn’t wash off, and his gunbelt hung from his hips. A look of pure rage filled his eyes as he surveyed the people blocking his way to the door outside, though Ironjaws didn’t seem to take any notice of that, sitting down by its master’s feet as if awaiting new orders.
“Hex, have you gone crazy?” Hart said, stepping up to him. “You’re finally able-bodied enough to get out of bed, so the first thing you do is assault your friends? And what’s this about you wanting to leave town?”
“Ah’ve got a score tuh settle. The man thet sent Cochrane here might do the same again, an’ Ah aim tuh make sure thet he don’t.”
“Who, that Turnbull fella? Hex, I haven’t found a lick of evidence that connects the two men, and I’ve...”
“Tuh Hell with evidence! Ah’ve got Cochrane’s word, not tuh mention Turnbull’s own threat still ringin’ in muh ears from all them years back! He swore that he’d dance on muh grave one day, an’ he got awful close tuh puttin’ me in it a couple of weeks ago. So whut in blazes makes yuh think thet Ah’m gonna let him get away with thet?”
“Because the word of a dead man won’t stand up in court,” Hart replied. “We need tangible proof that Turnbull gave the order to kill you and your family.”
“The last time yuh waited around tuh find yer vaunted ‘proof’, Windy Taylor ended up dead by his son’s own hand. Remember thet, constable?” When he saw Hart blanch, Jonah nodded in satisfaction and said, “Glad Ah made muh point clear.” He reached out, pushed Hart aside, and made his way to the door leading outside. No one else dared to stand in his way...except for Mei Ling. She remained in the doorway, back straight and feet firmly planted. Had she not been holding the baby, she probably would have put her hands on her hips for good measure. Jonah paused, staring her down with the same sort of intensity that he’d used on Hart, but Mei Ling didn’t budge. After a few seconds of this, Jonah said to her, “Step aside.” No sugar. No darlin’. Just a plain, unfeeling order.
“You’re not leaving,” Mei Ling replied in the same tone.
“Thet a fact?”
“Yes, it is.” She squared her small shoulders as she told him, “I want my husband back. The one who promised to be a good man, not the one who thinks that killing is the best way to solve every problem. I want to love you again, and I want our child to have a father. But if you leave...” Her voice broke as she struggled to get the words out. “If you leave, I will mourn you for the rest of my life, because it will be proof that the man who was once my husband is dead.”
“Ah ain’t dead, an’ Ah ain’t gonna die, so quit talkin’ nonsense like thet.”
“It is not nonsense. It’s the truth. My husband is a man who loves me deeply, and would do whatever he could just to see me happy, but you...you are an animal.” With each breath, all the awful thoughts and feelings that had been building inside of her for the past two weeks came to the surface and tainted every sound that came from her mouth. “You’re a bloodthirsty, selfish animal that seeks out every opportunity it can to satisfy its urges. You murder, and you rut...”
Jonah’s hand shot out, fast as lightning, and slapped Mei Ling across the face. A split-second action, made without thought to its repercussions other than the immediate ones, namely making Mei Ling shut up. “Y’all have no idea of the things Ah’ve done with yer happiness in mind,” he growled, “so don’t yuh dare stand here an’ lecture me ‘bout not bein’ a proper husband. Yo’re important tuh me, so much so thet Ah’ll kill anybody thet tries tuh take yuh from me. Understand thet? Ah’m doin’ this fer yer sake, not muh own. So get the Hell out of muh way so’s Ah kin finish this.”
Casting her eyes down to the floor, Mei Ling stepped out of the doorway. Before Jonah walked through, he said to her, “Ah don’t know how long Ah’ll be gone...couple of months, probably. It’s a long way from here tuh Virginia. When Ah get back, though, Ah’ll put muh guns away, same as afore. Ah promise.”
And with that, Jonah left the doctor’s office, closing the door behind him. He didn’t see Mei Ling fall to her knees, nor did he hear her hysterical sobs as the other people present tried to comfort her.
* * * * * *
“Richmond...end of the line...Richmond...” The conductor walked down the aisle of the passenger car as he called out the location. Many of the people had already disembarked, but it was his job to make sure that there were no stragglers or baggage left behind. At the far end of the car, the conductor spotted a man in an old Confederate uniform, his hat pulled low over his face and his feet propped upon the seat directly across from him. A half-empty bottle of whiskey lay beside him as he snored. “Sir, we’ve reached the end of the line,” the conductor said, nudging the man’s shoulder.
Jonah Hex grunted, then pushed back his hat to look at the conductor, who jerked away at the sight of his scars. This was fine by Jonah, as he wasn’t in a sociable mood. Though his wounds were mostly healed by now, there was still a bad ache in his back, which he’d been self-medicating during the trip with the aforementioned whiskey. Of course, now that he’d finally reached his destination, Jonah would have to sober up a bit, and the thought of that just made his mood worse.
Grunting again, Jonah stood up, making sure to grab the whiskey beforehand. As he turned toward the exit, the conductor said, “Sir, didn’t you bring any baggage?”
“Ah’ve got everything Ah need right here,” Jonah replied. At first, the conductor thought he was referring to the bottle dangling from his hand, then he saw that the former johnny-reb was patting his other hand against the Dragoon tucked under his belt. This caused the conductor to move away even further.
Jonah paused for a moment on the station platform and looked about. It was hard to believe it had only been seven years since he’d last set foot in Richmond. Seven years since he thought the War had been laid to rest. But now it was obvious that, for one man at least, the horrid wounds brought on by the War were still fresh and bleeding, and the pain of them had deluded that man into thinking only the spilling of more blood -- innocent blood -- could soothe them. And now Jonah Hex had come back to the place he’d briefly called home in order to show Quentin Turnbull the truth of the matter.
After borrowing a saddle horse from a nearby livery, Jonah rode out to where the Turnbull plantation lay. The sun had set by the time he reached it, but even in the twilight, Jonah could tell that the house and the grounds surrounding it had regained most of their antebellum glory. He’s livin’ in the past in more ways than one, Jonah thought. He dismounted out of sight of the house and left the animal in a stand of trees just off the road, then went in the rest of the way on foot, creeping from one shadow to the next. Recalling the layout from memory, Jonah moved along the perimeter until he reached the parlor. It had been Turnbull’s habit to spend many hours there, and as Jonah carefully peered through the half-open window, he saw that his instincts were correct: Turnbull was sitting in a chair next to the fireplace, and across from him was a one-armed man that, after a moment or two of thought, Jonah recognized as a member of his old regiment, Rufus Temple. Luckily, neither of them were facing the window, and they were too deep in conversation to notice the sash moving up just a little higher to admit a new guest into the dimly-lit room.
“All this waitin’ is tearin’ my guts up,” Temple was saying. “I keep expectin’ the law to come a-poundin’ on my door any day now.”
“Calm yourself, my boy,” Turnbull replied. “We took all the necessary precautions, and despite his...colorful resume, I believe Mr. Cochrane to be a man of his word. Even if he was arrested, he swore to never divulge our little secret. Besides, who would believe such a man? No one of authority, I assure you.”
“It ain’t just the authorities I’m worried about, an’ you know it.” Temple rubbed a hand over his face. “What if Hex took out Cochrane instead of the other way around?”
“Doubtful. From Cochrane’s report, Hex has degenerated into a drunk and a womanizer, not to mention that he was already a soft-bellied traitor. A man like that couldn’t hope to last long against a true patriot like Cochrane.”
“Then Ah reckon Ah must be a ghost come back tuh haunt y’all,” Jonah called out as he straightened up beside the window. “Better yet, maybe Ah’ve come tuh drag yuh down tuh Hell with me!”
Both men nearly leapt out of their chairs to stare at Jonah with jaws agape, then Turnbull found his voice and spat out, “You...you Judas! How dare you break into my home and...”
“Ah dare tuh do so ‘cause y’all dared tuh send a hired gun after me! Whut’s the matter, Turnbull? Too damn yellow tuh get them soft little hands of yers dirty?”
Before Turnbull could make a reply, Temple made it for him: the former solider stepped forward, then reached beneath his coat and drew a single-shot derringer, meaning to finish the job Cochrane started. Unfortunately, he’d forgotten that Jonah Hex had been the fastest, deadliest shot in their entire regiment. One of Hex’s Dragoons went off before Temple could even take aim, and the man cried out as the bullet ripped through his bicep. “Try it again, Rufe, an’ Ah’ll make sure yuh lose thet arm, too,” Jonah told him with a snarl.
“Bastard,” Temple gasped. “You no-good, traitorous bastard!” He ran at him, still holding the derringer but now swinging it up to club Hex with it. Jonah blocked it easily, then brought up his own gun and cold-cocked his former comrade-in-arms. Temple fell to the floor, unconscious, but that didn’t stop Hex from training his Dragoon upon him once more.
Before Jonah could pull the trigger, however, something cracked against his own skull. He managed to keep on his feet, though, and turned to see Turnbull brandishing his eagle-headed cane with both hands. Turnbull swung again, but Jonah ducked this time, diving at the older man’s legs and sending them both down onto the carpet. Their respective weapons were knocked free from their grasp, so the two men resorted to bare hands, punching and clawing at each other like savages. Despite his age, Turnbull held out fairly well, but youth won out in the end, with Hex pinning Turnbull to the floor and wrapping his hands around Turnbull’s throat. “Yo’re gonna die fer whut yuh tried tuh do tuh muh family,” Jonah said through gritted teeth, “an’ whut Ah do on yer grave won’t pass fer flowers, Ah guarantee it.” His muscular hands squeezed tightly, and Turnbull’s face began to turn an alarming shade of purple, but Hex couldn’t see it, for his mind’s eye was filled with the image of his infant son crying in Cochrane’s grasp, and of Mei Ling kneeling on the barn floor as Granger held a knife to her throat. They had nearly died because of Turnbull; it was his fault, all of it, and the only way to prevent such a thing from ever happening again was by killing Turnbull. It was the only way...
Then the image in his mind changed. He saw Mei Ling when she was only a few months’ pregnant with their child, and she was looking up at him with a mixture of tenderness and sadness as she laid a hand upon his chest. I love the good man that resides in here, and has blessed me with a child, she was saying to him, but I do not love the killer that walks about in the world. Then he saw Mei Ling as she was right before he left, on the verge of tears as she said, You’re a bloodthirsty, selfish animal that seeks out every opportunity it can to satisfy its urges. But Jonah knew that wasn’t true. He wasn’t an animal, he was just a man trying to protect his family, that’s all. He could be a good man, dammit, he wanted to be, and he would be again just as soon as he killed Turnbull. After that, he’d stay a good man...until the next person forced him to revert back to his old ways...and the next person after that...and the next one after that...
Slowly, Jonah loosed his grip upon Turnbull’s throat as the meaning of Mei Ling’s words finally sank in. He could either be a good man, or he could be a killer...there was no way for him to be both, no matter how hard he tried. How often had he gotten blood on his hands during the past year, and how often had he told himself that it would be the last time? He had to stop this, right here and right now, or else he’d spend the rest of his life trying to justify to himself all the corpses left in his wake.
He let go of Turnbull, who drew air into his lungs in long, wheezing gulps. Standing up, Jonah said to him, “Ah’m gonna let yuh live, old man, an’ Ah want y’all tuh keep in mind thet Ah showed yuh mercy, even though Ah had the perfect opportunity tuh kill yuh. Remember thet the next time yuh start thinkin’ Ah done yuh wrong.”
“S-s-suh...suh-still a truh...traitor,” Turnbull choked out as he lay on the floor.
“Just ‘cause y’all keep sayin’ it don’t make it so...maybe someday yuh’ll learn thet.” Jonah picked up his Dragoon, then walked to the parlor door, intent on leaving the house in the proper manner. When he opened the door, however, he was confronted with a surprising sight: Turnbull’s colored manservant, Solomon, was standing in the foyer with a shotgun leveled at Hex. Lines of worry creased the man’s sweaty brow, but his eyes held a look of determination.
They stood like statues in the middle of the foyer for a full minute, neither man moving nor saying a word until, finally, Solomon lowered the gun with an air of defeat. Jonah made no attempt at retribution, he simply approached the man and gave him a gentle pat on the shoulder, then made his way to the front door.
* * * * * *
The train trip back home seemed to take longer than the one to Richmond. It was the same distance both ways, of course, so Jonah chalked it up to his eagerness to see Mei Ling. He wanted to hold her again, to kiss her, and to tell her that the good man within himself prevailed in the end. He’d stayed his hand at a time when blind rage nearly consumed him, all because he remembered what she’d told him. Jonah hoped that she would be proud of his restraint, and that they could put behind them all the bad things that had been polluting their marriage. He would make amends for his infidelity. He would be a proper example for his son. No more lies. No more gunfights. No more blood. Just peace.
When Jonah finally arrived back in Cheyenne, he stepped off the train a changed man. His uniform and guns were stowed away in a carpet bag, and he’d cleaned himself up proper so as to show Mei Ling his new attitude. He’d sent a telegram from the train’s last stop to let her know he’d be home soon, but as his eyes scanned the platform, Jonah realized she wasn’t there. This put a pang of worry in his heart, and he headed over to the livery so he could borrow a horse. Before he reached it, however, Constable Hart appeared upon the boardwalk to block his path. “I was just on my way to the station to meet you, “ Hart said. “Didn’t know that the train had arrived early.”
“Not early enough,” Jonah replied. “Now, if’n yuh’ll excuse me, Ah’ve gotta get home.”
Hart grabbed his arm. “Not yet. Come on over to my office first.”
“Whut’s goin’ on? Is Mei Ling okay?” But Hart wouldn’t answer, he just led Jonah down the street to the constable’s office. Once inside, Jonah could hear an animal howling in the back where the cells were located -- after a moment, he recognized the howls as belonging to Ironjaws. Jonah walked over there to find the wolf pacing round and round a cell, whining the way he did after Windy died. “C’mere, boy,” Jonah said as he reached through the bars. Ironjaws slinked over to Jonah’s hand with its head down and its tail between its legs. As he petted the wolf, Jonah said to Hart, “Yuh mind tellin’ me whut this is all about?”
“I’m sorry, Hex, but it was the only way I could keep him under control. He damn-near tore my arm off when I tried to chain him up.”
“An’ why in blazes would yuh do a stupid thing like thet? Ah left him here tuh protect Mei Ling, an’ he cain’t do thet if’n...”
“Jonah, Mei Ling’s...” The constable took a deep breath. “Mei Ling’s gone.”
“Whut do yuh mean, ‘gone’? Yuh don’t mean she’s...”
“No...no, she’s not dead. She’s just...she left, Jonah. About a week after you did. She packed up and took the baby with her to San Francisco. She asked me to look after Ironjaws, and I’ve got your horses stabled over at the livery...” There was genuine note of sadness in his voice. “I’m sorry, Jonah.”
Jonah gave Hart a cold look. “Yo’re lyin’.”
“I’m afraid not. She...she left a letter for me to give to you. It’s in my desk.” He walked to the front of the office and produced an envelope from a drawer. “I told her she should wait until you got back, but I think she was too scared.”
“Whut in the blue Hell are yuh talkin’ about?” Jonah followed after Hart, then snatched the envelope out of the man’s hand. He didn’t open it, though, he just turned it over in his hands. “Ah’m her husband, dammit. Why’d she be scared of me?”
“Hex, you weren’t exactly acting very sane the day you left here. You beat the Hell out of Loy, you struck Mei Ling right across the face, and I heard about how you treated Izzy and his wife right before Cochrane...”
“Them backstabbers deserved tuh be treated like thet! They came into muh home an’...dammit, they stuck their noses in where they didn’t belong! Thet whole thing with Emmylou wasn’t none of their business!”
“So the rumors are true, then?”
Jonah’s face reddened, both from anger and embarrassment, then he said, “Yo’re wrong about Mei Ling. She may’ve left, but she’s probably just gone tuh visit her brother. Ah told her Ah’d be away fer a couple of months.”
Hart shook his head. “I wish that was true, for your sake, but believe me, she’s not coming back, Jonah. She said all her goodbyes to everyone...and I think that’s yours.” He gestured to the envelope.
“An’ Ah say yo’re wrong!” Jonah stalked over to the office door and banged it open, not giving a damn that Ironjaws was still howling inside a cell. He had to get home and see for himself that Mei Ling was really gone. He went to the livery and, sure enough, his horse was there. Don’t prove nothin’, he told himself as he drove the horse up to a full gallop, making the miles between Cheyenne and the homeplace fly by. The moment he got there, he jumped out of the saddle and ran up to the house. A warm spring breeze blew across the yard, but he couldn’t feel it, all his attention was focused on that closed front door and the shuttered windows. He ran up the porch steps, flung the door open, and stopped.
The house was bare of life. Many of the personal touches Mei Ling had put upon the front room were gone, either put away or taken with her. The pot-bellied stove was cold and empty, as was the fireplace. Somehow, Jonah got his legs to carry him forward, down the hall to where their bedroom was, and even that place of intimacy now looked sterile. The cradle still stood in the corner, but the blankets that usually lay within it were gone. All of the items the ladies of Cheyenne had given them for the baby had also vanished, along with Mei Ling’s clothes. Jonah’s few belongings remained, neatly folded in the chest of drawers which was now only half-full. There was nothing left of his wife at all. It was as if she’d never been there.
“No.” It was all he could think to say. Simple denial. But saying the word couldn’t undo what lay before him. Jonah wandered around the room, searching for some scrap of her that might accidentally have been left behind, then sat down heavily upon the bed when he found none. After a while, he remembered the letter, which had been crushed in his fist as he rode home. He smoothed out the envelope, opened it, and forced himself to read what it contained:
I wish I didn’t have to do this, but after all the things that have happened recently, I feel it’s for the best. I still love you, and I always will, and I am sure that, somewhere within you, there is a part that still loves me and our son. But it is because of that other part of you, the part which is so full of anger and hate, that I have chosen to leave.
I realize now that we never should have married. You felt obligated because of the baby, and so you tried to suppress your true nature in order to please me. I take blame for that. I thought my love would be enough to tame you, but it’s not. You have to want it as well, and I don’t think you ever will, not completely. So I’m letting you go before you accidentally destroy what little love remains between us.
Please, do not follow me. I want to be able to raise our son in a safe and peaceful environment. I want to do for him what I could not do for you, and teach him to be a good and loving person, free of the violence that consumed you at such a young age. As I do this, I shall pray for you, in the hope that you will someday embrace the goodness within yourself and abandon all your hate. Perhaps if you ever succeed, we can be together again, but until that happens, please stay away.
“No.” The word came out with more conviction this time, more like an order. Jonah stood up and took a few steps forward, his hands balling into fists to crush the letter once again. He leaned on the chest of drawers in front of him, as if there was not enough strength in his legs to keep him upright. “No.” Now the volume of his voice was rising, and he braced his hands on either side of it. “NO!” It was a full-blown yell now, one that caused spittle to fly from his lips as he threw the chest of drawers violently to the side. It crashed to the floor, drawers popping out and clothes spilling like woolen guts, but that wasn’t good enough for Jonah, so he began to kick it until the wood splintered. Once that was done, he stalked about the room, grabbing what little remained in there and throwing it topsy-turvy. The cradle shattered in the corner. The mattress flipped off the bedframe. The sheets shredded into ribbons. During all this, his eyes had taken on a shine of madness, and who could blame him for that? He’d finally become the so-called “good man” that Mei Ling always wanted him to be, and what had she done? She’d left him for not doing it fast enough! That fickle bitch!
It wasn’t long before Jonah left the bedroom so he could turn his attention to the rest of the house. The kitchen was first: he grabbed a chair and swung it about until every last dish in the cupboard was smashed to bits, then broke what was left of the chair against the wall. The rocker by the fireplace suffered the same fate. Jonah’s breathing sounded like heavy growls by then, and he was baring his teeth, but he didn’t care. Mei Ling had dared to call him an animal before, so dammit, he was going to act like one! He’d tear this entire house apart just to spite her! He grabbed a wooden box that had been left on the mantel and threw it into the empty fireplace -- the box burst apart on impact, sending its contents flying all over the room. Jonah didn’t notice at first, his rage having rendered him blind to anything that wasn’t directly in front of him, but when he finally ran out of things to destroy, he caught sight of all the little spots of red and blue on the floor, and now it was all he could see.
“No.” Back to denial again, but of a different sort. He knelt on the floor and scooped up a handful of what had been inside the box: the toy soldiers he’d bought at Christmastime for his son, once pristine but now bent and broken. The boy was far too young for them yet, but Jonah wanted the boy to have them, since they resembled the ones Jonah himself had as a boy...until his father had thrown them into the fireplace in a fit of rage.
“No.” The word trembled in his throat as Jonah looked around the room at the destruction he’d wrought. How many times had he witnessed his father go on similar rampages while growing up? And how many times had he wished his father didn’t exist because of such incidents? But he wasn’t his father. He loved his son and his wife, and he never, ever wanted to hurt them...but he had. He’d slept around and killed and done whatever he felt like, all the while hiding every indiscretion from Mei Ling in a misguided effort to “protect” her. He could say he’d changed all he liked, but the truth of the matter was, deep down, he’d always be just as wicked in his heart as his father. Unfortunately, he’d learned that fact far too late. For just like his mother had walked out on his father, now his wife and son had done the same to him, because monsters like Woodson and Jonah Hex didn’t deserve to have families.
There were no more words that could be said, not even that single negative. The only sound Jonah could manage was a mournful, choking sob as he curled up on the floor amidst the mess he’d wrought, his arms locking over his head as if to ward off the blows he’d been enduring his entire life.
* * * * * *
Emmylou Hartley primped herself in front of the mirror in her hotel room. It had been three days since Jonah had come back to Cheyenne, and though Emmy desperately wanted to see him, she thought it would be best to give him a little time. She knew that he loved Mei Ling as well, and it wouldn’t be right to show up on his doorstep immediately after he’d lost her. But that didn’t mean Emmy wasn’t ready to step into Mei Ling’s place and become the wife he truly deserved. She’d never leave him, no matter what. And so, after three whole days of patient waiting, Emmylou decided that she’d given him enough time. She fixed her hair just how Jonah liked it, and clothed herself in her finest-looking dress, all the while imagining the way Jonah would sweep her up in his strong arms and ravish her until Mei Ling became a distant memory. It would be a perfect life, filled with love and happiness...and children! She’d bear Jonah’s children gladly, now that his son was gone as well. Oh, what a wonderful life she would have with him! It was going to be everything she ever wanted!
Emmy positively floated down the staircase as she exited the hotel. There were a few people in the lobby, and she gave them her warmest smile. How she wished she could share with them the joy she felt, but it was impossible to put into words. Perhaps they would get an inkling of it the first time they saw her and Jonah walking down the street arm-in-arm. She imagined doing just that as she made her way to the livery, eager to rent a buckboard so she could begin her new life. When she passed near Constable Hart’s office, however, she saw that there would be no need to go any further, for Jonah was just stepping out with Hart at his side and Ironjaws at their heels. She stood across the street from them for a moment, admiring the fine figure Jonah cut in his Confederate uniform. Her heart beat faster than ever at the sight of him, and soon she was crossing the muddy street to be with her new beau. As she got closer, she noticed the haggard look upon his unshaven face. Perhaps she shouldn’t have waited so long, it was obvious that he needed comfort. Well, now he would have it, forever and always.
“I’ll keep an eye on the house, I promise,” she could hear Hart saying to Jonah as she approached. “Whenever you decide to come back, I’ll have it in perfect order for you.”
“Yuh’d damn-well better,” he replied. This snippet of conversation confused Emmy. Jonah was leaving? She must have misunderstood. But then she saw Jonah walk over to the hitching post, where his saddle horse waited with another tethered behind it, loaded down with various bits of gear. Whatever journey Jonah was about to head out on, it was obviously going to be a long one.
“Jonah!” she called out as she ran up to him. “Jonah, where are you going?” She saw him turn towards her, and she expected him to smile at her like always, but instead he scowled, and his eyes were dark and narrow, much like the way Eagle Who Stands used to look at her. This shocked her so badly that she never saw Jonah’s hand come up, but she certainly felt it when he backhanded her across the face. Emmy fell down in the middle of the street, muddying her pretty dress. What did I do wrong? she thought, just like she’d always thought after Eagle Who Stands would strike her. Cautiously, she lifted her head, and Jonah was glaring at her.
“Yuh ever come near me again, an’ Ah’ll kill yuh,” he said. His tone was so venomous, so unlike anything she’d ever heard him say, that she could think of no other reaction than to cower at his feet, just like she used to do when Eagle Who Stands acted like that. Jonah didn’t seem to pay any mind to Emmy’s submissive posture, and turned away from her so he could climb into his saddle. “Soon’s Ah make some bounty money, Ah’ll send a little along tuh pay fer the upkeep on the place,” Jonah said to Hart. “Thet sound like a good deal?”
“Sure.” Hart’s voice was tight, for his mind was more on kneeling down to help Emmy. The girl immediately latched onto the constable, and together they watched Jonah ride out of town, the wolf trotting alongside its master’s mount.
Tears began to run down Emmy’s swollen cheek as she asked Hart, “Why...why did he do that? I love him.”
“I know you do,” Hart answered. “A lot of us do, and I’m sure there’s a lot of people he loves as well...but I don’t think he’s capable of holding one ounce of love for himself.”
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