1867 – Clay County, Missouri
My horse, One-Eye, was tiring as we arrived at the outskirts of town. It had been a long and rainy day’s ride across the crooked plains and One-Eye’s flanks were steaming in the late afternoon sun that had peeped out from behind the slate-gray storm clouds. As we cantered down the main street, One-Eye’s hooves making rhythmic splotching noises in the thick mud, curious heads poked out through the doorways and windows to take a look at me. They quickly lost interest when they saw that ‘the legend’ looked little more than another aging, grizzled ex-Confederate guerrilla, no different in appearance or demeanor than the scores of others who had passed through the ramshackle streets in the aftermath of the war.
Some of the young children even laughed when they noticed that One-Eye was half blind and walked with a skewed, compensatory gait. Ignoring them, I approached Walker’s saloon, unimaginatively named ‘The Tavern’, with considerable trepidation. Walker’s men had been tracking me for the past five days, ever watchful, to ensure I obeyed the summons. I could have easily killed them all and fled north, perhaps even to Canada, but it would have been pointless. However far I ran, and no matter how carefully I covered my tracks, Walker would soon find me. I had resigned myself to my fate and, as I reined in One-Eye by the tethering post, it was both sad and liberating to know that the end was almost certainly near.
I dismounted and stroked One-Eye’s sweaty mane. “You’re a good boy, One-Eye,” I said, feeding him a carrot from one of the saddle bags. “A faithful friend you have always been to me.” The horse, also no longer young, neighed softly, shook his head and looked sideways at me with his good eye.
Sighing, I walked into The Tavern and immediately exposed the two colts on my hips in case anyone had the notion to gun me down before I even had a chance to speak to Walker. Nobody made any move so I closed my coat and walked to the bar. “Whisky”, I muttered to the sweaty, nervous-looking Chinaman.
“Yes, sir,” said the Chinaman. “Bottle?”
“Bottle, of course!” boomed Walker, not un-cheerfully, from his solid oak booth raised up in the corner of the saloon where he could see everything, a gunman lurking to one side. “Franklin has had a very long day’s ride by all accounts. Come on over and sit down. Let’s have a quiet chat, you and I”.
I slumped into the chair in front of Walker and poured myself a long one. I drank it in two large gulps and poured myself another before meeting Walker’s steady gaze. He had the most piercing, Pacific blue eyes. They had the uncanny ability to look simultaneously mirthful and deadly when he was sizing up a man. Well into his fifties, his hair was raven black without a strand of gray. His neatly trimmed beard, on the other hand, was as white as freshly fallen snow. The contrast was so disarming it was almost harrowing. He was wearing one of his finely cut, tailor-made suits and he twirled an ivory cigarette holder between his long, manicured fingers. Thin wisps of smoke escaped from his nostrils at regular intervals. He had an expensive bottle of French brandy in front of him and he was drinking from a large balloon-bottomed crystal snifter.
“Do you know why you’re a killer, Franklin?” he asked blithely.
“No,” I replied, sullen about the meaninglessness of the question.
“Is it because your Daddy used to put cigarettes out on the back of your neck after he came home drunk and beat up your Mamma?”
“No,” I said, dumbfounded. “My father never drank and never hurt anyone as far as I know. He was a good man.”
“Alright then, is it because you were bullied at school when you were a boy? An outcast the other boys didn’t really like?”
“No,” I said, barely able to mask my irritation.
“Is it because, way back in the past, a man grievously wronged you and then had the discourtesy to die before you could exact your revenge?”
“Is it because you like killing, Franklin?” asked Walker, leaning over the table and lowering his voice conspiratorially. “Do you enjoy watching men die? I mean you are just about the best goddamn killer of this generation.”
“Then tell me why!”
“For the money,” I said bluntly. I could not have been more honest but I certainly harbored no pride in the honesty of saying it.
“That is exactly right!” exclaimed Walker, slapping his hand on the table, almost upsetting the bottles and glasses. “You are not just the fastest off the hip. No, no – your judgement is also never clouded by any emotional interference. You kill men for the money. For lots of money! Lots of my fucking money!! Ah, there you are finally, Anthony,” he said, calming down and gesturing to a figure making his way through the crowd behind me. “Come, please, and sit with us. We were just talking about killing so your arrival is very timely indeed.”
My heart sank into a pool of cold dread as the surgeon took his place at Walker’s side facing me. He had a round, slightly portly face, short-cropped black hair shaved down to the scalp above the ears and a wispy mustache above hard, thin lips. Wire-rimmed spectacles, perched on his hooked nose, magnified disinterested fish-like colorless eyes and, in his non-descript clothes, he looked as harmless as a middle-aged local chemist or bank clerk.
“I believe you know my associate, Anthony?” Walker asked me, clapping his hand on the surgeon’s shoulder.
“I know he hangs your enemies from meat hooks,” I said, doing my level-best to ensure my voice did not waver, “and then performs surgeries on them for hours while they are still alive and conscious. After all my years with you, are you really going to give me to him?”
“Ha! Ha! Ha! Don’t be ridiculous, Franklin. Anthony’s services are currently being put to work on a project that is fully engaging his energies. He’s not here for you. He’s just here to take a break and have a drink. Isn’t that right, Anthony?”
“As you say,” said the surgeon, the faintest of smiles passing momentarily across his face as Walker poured him a large brandy.
“Now,” said Walker, lighting another cigarette and frowning, “I want you to tell me, Franklin, why my man in St. Louis is not only alive and well but is also, to make matters significantly worse, in custody. Federal custody.” Walker had been a dyed-in-the-wool, slaveholding secessionist back in ’61 and he spat out the word “federal” with such venom it was as if he was ridding himself of something rotting that had gotten stuck in the back of his throat.
“I got waylaid,” I said weakly, lowering my head.
“No shit you got waylaid. And all that money that was owed me is now indefinitely waylaid in St. Louis. If you would be so kind as to tell me just how you got so waylaid while working for me on just about the most important job I’ve ever given you, I’d be very much obliged.”
“I met a girl,” I said and could almost hear the smirks on the faces of all the eavesdroppers.
“Well, fuck me,” said Walker turning to the surgeon in mock astonishment. “Franklin here met a girl! A little nigger wench by all accounts too. Young one at that, so I’m told. Tell me, Franklin, did those horrible scars criss-crossing the flesh on that young black back turn you on? Or was it love?” he asked, leaning over the table, his eyes boring holes into mine. “Was it love?” he repeated slowly, his voice full of volcanic menace.
“It was,” I said, meeting his gaze and holding it. “Her name is Annabelle.”
“Well, I’ll be,” said Walker, sitting back in his chair and smiling again. “I do believe you, Franklin, my waylaid Odysseus. But you’re no good to me now, are you son? You’ve been corrupted by the weakness of emotion, not to mention nigger blood. Your killing days are behind you. I will make every man across the land who counts aware that I am putting you out to pasture. Now get out of my sight and make damn sure you stay out of it”.
“Are… are you serious?” I stammered in disbelief as I rose to my feet.
“It would be inelegant of me to kill you, Franklin, after nigh on 20 years of outstanding service. You run along to your nigger wench and attend to your matters of the heart. Go on now, before I change my mind.”
I tried not to run to the exit as the relief and elation coursed through me. As I walked slowly, the crowd parted and looked at me with bewildered astonishment in their eyes. Walker had not even confiscated my guns. One-Eye neighed happily when he saw me coming and we beat a hasty retreat from Clay County just in case Walker did, indeed, change his mind.
Over the next days, as anxious as I was to see Annabelle, I took my time with the ride for One-Eye’s sake. I had left her at my modest homestead with $200 and had told her that if I didn’t return in two weeks, I was almost certainly dead and she should take the money and leave. I also had the better part of $1800 hidden in a dummy stovepipe. Annabelle and I would not have to work again for the rest of our lives if we did not want to. I thought about her a lot on the cold nights huddled bivouacked by the fire. I could not remember the things I used to think about when traveling alone through hard country in all those years before I had met her, a lonelier existence I would not wish upon any man.
It was just after dawn on the sixth day when I finally turned onto the narrow lane that wound absently through dew capped fields to the doorway of my homestead. I was lighthearted as I tethered One-Eye at the entrance and was looking forward to a hearty breakfast. “Annabelle?” I called as I opened the front door. Walking across the creaking floor boards of the salon I called again a little louder but I was worried about startling her if she was still sleeping. I was about to call again when I saw it. A small box, about the size of a large fist, was perched at the end of the dining table with a sheet of paper lying next to it. Suddenly ill at ease, I strode across the room and immediately saw that leaking from the bottom of the box, in an almost imperceptible trickle, was a viscous, black-red liquid. With trembling hands I picked up the sheet of paper and began to read:
I learned a very valuable lesson when I was a young man just beginning to navigate the intricacies of attaining power. It is this – when you are betrayed by the man you trust the most, the greatest revenge is to inflict as much harm as possible, not on the man himself, but on that which he holds most dear. So you see, Anthony had been working on your nigger wench while we were having our little chat at The Tavern the other night. After you left, I ordered him to perform the final surgery – the removal of her vascular organ. I thought it only fitting that I return it to you seeing as you are now guided by matters of the heart.
PS- my men searched your house and found all the money. I have relieved you of it as compensation for the financial losses I sustained in St. Louis.