“Phaedra” by Kenneth Mark Hoover

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Phaedra

The last time I saw Phaedra was when she had a gun on me.

I was walking out of the Haxan Hotel and headed for my office when I noticed her riding into town. She came across the empty plaza on a piebald mare, dragging a hackberry travois that left parallel tracks in the white gypsum sand. Lashed to the rickety frame was the body of a man with a red blanket swathed around his face.

I ran up and caught the rope bridle of her horse. Phaedra’s head was down, her blank eyes fixed on the pommel horn. She wore tattered tent canvas around her shoulders like a Mexican serape. Her feet were bare and dirty and her red, blistered hands hung limp at her side.

“Phaedra? What happened?”

She blinked as if coming out of a sleep. Her disarrayed hair was white-blonde and needed a curry comb, but her lips were red as pokeberry juice. She looked much older than her twenty-five years. I wasn’t surprised. Living with a man like Abel Finch on a mean plot of land above the timberline for six years would sap the youth out of any woman.

“Phaedra? Can you hear me?”

“It’s Abel, Marshal. He’s dead.” Her voice was like tired water dribbling over worn stones. The morning sun was in her face. She fought hard to swallow back tears. “I brought him to Haxan to be buried. He never thought we had a real home. I guess I was never much of a wife, anyway.”

“How did he die, Phaedra?”

“He went riding yesterday. Came on a rattlesnake, I guess. His horse threw him and his foot caught in the stirrup. The horse dragged him and his head hit a rock.”

I didn’t say anything for a long moment. “You found him?”

“Clayton did.” Clayton Finch was her stepson.

“Where is Clayton?”

“At the homestead. He doesn’t care to see his daddy buried. I had to do it.”

“Come down off that horse. I’m going to take you to Doc Toland.”

“I don’t need a doctor, Marshal I want to bury Abel.”

I took her arm and said soft, “Come on, Phaedra. You need help.”

She slid off the saddle, half falling into my arms. She felt most like bones under that canvas than a person.

“What happened to your hands? They’re blistered.”

“I don’t remember,” she murmured.

I helped her limp across the wide plaza. “My horse,” she said, trying to turn out of my arms. “Abel.”

“I’ll have my deputy take care of them. Don’t worry.”

Doc Toland’s office was two doors down from my office and upstairs. I had to carry Phaedra up the steep steps. I propped her against the wall and banged on the door with my fist. “Doc!”

The door opened. Rex Toland was a spindly man with salt-and-pepper mutton chops and rheumy brown eyes behind a pair of steel-rimmed spectacles. He wore a black frock coat with dusty cuffs and often wiped his mouth with the back of his hand.

“Marshal Marwood, why are you hammering on my door at this ungodly hour?” He saw Phaedra limp against the outside wall. Her face was stoic. Only her tears left tracks on her dusty face.

Doc Toland sighed heavily. “Oh. Well, I guess it’s been a time coming. All right, Marshal, bring her inside. I’ll see what I can do.”

* * *

I left Phaedra with Doc Toland and went down to my office. Magra was sweeping the floor while Jake Strop poured fresh coffee.

“Good morning, Marshal,” Jake said with a bright smile. “Care for coffee?”

Magra stood her broom aside. “Hello, John.” She waited a beat for my answer. When one wasn’t forthcoming her face changed. She knew my moods. “John? What is it?”

“Trouble. There’s always trouble in Haxan.” I felt like kicking one of the chairs. Or hitting somebody. But there was nobody good to hit. “Phaedra Finch rode into town a few minutes ago. Her dead husband is strapped to a travois. Jake, get the body and hold it for Doc Toland so he can autopsy it. She’s up there with Doc now. He’s examining her.”

Both Jake and Magra fell silent. People often became quiet when Phaedra’s name was mentioned in polite company.

“Better do it now, Jake.”

He put down his coffee cup with exaggerated care. “Yes, sir.” He walked out of the office. I watched his broad back and green suspenders pass beyond the window and out of sight into the street.

I sat behind my desk. Collapsed was more like it. I wasn’t looking at anything. I didn’t want to.

“John.” Magra.

“Yeah.”

“It’s not your fault.”

I looked at her. I had come a long way to love Magra Snowberry. We never talked about it much. We didn’t have to. Maybe it was because she knew who and what I was and why I had come to Haxan. Or maybe because when two people care about each other they don’t have to speak a lot of words.

I can’t explain it. I don’t understand everything about the world. I just know I loved her and it didn’t matter one whit to me that she was half-Navajo and all desert wild.

“People are going to say Phaedra got what she deserved.” My voice sounded brittle to my own ears. It ran up the walls and got stuck in the corners of the room.

“John!” Magra’s voice was full of reproach.

“I’m not saying I believe that. It’s what the people of Haxan are going to think. That’s all.”

Magra moved closer to me. The air in the room was still. She said soft, “Since when do you care what the people of Haxan think?”

I put an arm around her waist. It wasn’t proper conduct for a government office, but I didn’t care right then.

“This is going to be bad,” I told her. “The people of Haxan aren’t going to stand having Phaedra in town even for burying her husband. Especially for that. Not with Clayton Finch waiting back at the mountain. All open like, if you know what I mean.”

“What Phaedra and Clayton do is their own affair,” Magra said. “Abel learned to live with it…in his way. Everyone else should, too.” The world was often basic to her. She lived in the desert. For her the desert was simple. It was sun and wind and life and death. There wasn’t much else, except survival.

“Yeah, private.” I got up from my chair and went for the door. “But the people of Haxan aren’t going to see it that way, Magra.”

I went back to Doc Toland’s and met Jake on the way. He waved at me as he loped across the plaza. “I put the horse in the livery stable, Marshal. Abel Finch is lying in the grain warehouse. People saw me carry him inside.” He made a helpless gesture. “They’re already starting to talk.”

“That’s fine, Jake. You see Magra gets home all right, will you?” Every morning she walked three miles into town to sweep out our office and make coffee. Most days we had breakfast together. There wouldn’t be time for breakfast. Not today.

“Yes, sir, I will. You want me to hang around after?”

“No, she’ll be all right. You come on back to town. I’ll likely need you before the day is out.”

He glanced at the shuttered windows of Doc Toland’s office. “Yes, sir, I figure so. See you later, Marshal.”

“Take care.”

I mounted the stairs to Doc’s place and walked into his office. The examining room was in back but he was sitting out front behind his desk, writing something in a big black book.

“Hello, John,” he said without looking up. “I guess you want to know how she’s doing.”

“That’s right.”

“Well, she’s in a bad way.” He sat back with his hands thrust into his coat pockets and his face crumpled with infinite sadness. “She’s been hurt, John. Badly hurt in both mind and body. I guess you know why. Most people know the gossip.”

“What can you do for her, Doc?”

“I gave her laudanum for the pain and put salve on her bruises. Tried to get her to sleep. But it’s like her mind is racing in a thousand directions at once now that she’s free of Abel Finch.”

“I can imagine.”

“She told me how Abel died.” His eyes found mine. “I just let her talk. I didn’t pay it no heed.”

“Yeah. But I have to, Doc.”

“I don’t envy you, Marshal.” He meant it and I was a little glad for that.

“Can I talk to her?”

“Won’t do any harm. Not anymore than Abel Finch did to her.” He looked like he wanted to slam his fist down. I had never seen him so angry.

“Doc, did she say how she got those blisters on her hands?”

“She said she was boiling water for the wash and slopped it on her.”

“You believe that?”

“I’m telling you what she said, Marshal Marwood.” His forced, professional tone let me know I wasn’t going to find a sympathetic ear with him. Not with this. There was a life in that back room he was committed to saving. As far as he was concerned nothing was more important, not even the law.

“Doc, I don’t want to fight you. Listen, Abel Finch is lying in the grain warehouse. Will you take a quick look at him?”

“Of course, I will. I’ll do it now if you’ll stay with her. She shouldn’t be left alone, John. Not for one minute.”

“I’ll wait until you get back.”

After Doc Toland left I stepped through the curtain into the examining room. Phaedra was lying in bed, her blonde hair spread across a tasseled muslin pillow. Her eyes were fixed on the open window where a hot breeze moved the curtains back and forth.

“Hello, Marshal.”

“Phaedra, we need to talk.”

“I know. I knowed all along this was coming. But I had to bring him to Haxan to be buried, Marshal. It’s what he wanted. He never liked Haxan which is why we lived in the mountains. But he hated that homestead and he hated me and Clayton more for what we done.”

“Phaedra, there’s no easy way to put this. You’re in a lot of trouble.”

“Maybe you measure trouble by a different yardstick than I do, Marshal.” She turned her face away and pressed it into the pillow. “I’m sorry. I don’t mean to joke about it.”

I couldn’t say anything. She wiped her face with the palms of her hands and then held a fist against her mouth. When she spoke her words were real and had frightening weight to them.

“He beat me, Marshal. He beat me bad. For five years Abel Finch beat me. When I was pregnant I lost that baby because of him.” She squeezed her eyes shut, trying to hold back the tears. Maybe the bad memories, too. “But now he’s dead. He ain’t going to beat me no more. Not ever again.”

“Phaedra…did you kill Abel Finch?”

“No. But he got killed and that’s fine with me.”

“It’s not fine with the law, Phaedra. I can’t turn a blind eye to murder. Your story how he got killed is too pat. You couldn’t possibly know all those details if you weren’t there.”

“It don’t matter now.”

“That’s where you’re wrong. Tell me how he died.”

But she wouldn’t say anything else. She just lay there, watching the curtains move back and forth in the hot breeze.

I gave up and went back to the front office. Doc Toland had left his record book open. I read the entry he had written for the Phaedra Finch case. There was a list of bruises over her entire body and an old fracture he had found in her left wrist that had never healed properly. When she lost the baby she wasn’t able to have any more. Beside the entry Doc had prescribed diluted laudanum to rest her mind and body, and sunflower salve and cold packs for her bruises. Underlined was the single word: REST.

The door creaked. It was Doc. “That didn’t take long,” I said.

“How is she?”

“Resting. I couldn’t get anything out of her.” I watched him move around the room. “What did you find?”

He rummaged through his medicine cabinet. “About what you would expect. Abel Finch’s face is a parboiled mess. The skin is hanging off his face.”

My stomach felt as if it were sucking air. “Like he was pushed down and held in a pot of boiling water?”

“That’s correct. I also found a lump on the back of his head. It’s likely he was hit from behind and while he was unconscious, or too groggy to fight back, he was drowned. A messy way to die, John.”

“I don’t know any good way, Doc.”

“You may be right.”

He didn’t have the shutters open and it was way too hot in this room. “Doc, d’you think Phaedra killed Abel Finch?”

Doc Toland studied me with his rheumy eyes. “After what she suffered? I’m surprised it took her five years.”

“But Abel was a heavy grown man and she’s no bigger than—“

”Doesn’t matter, Marshal. Anyone, pushed to that limit, can find the strength he needs to do murder. John, you don’t understand murder the way I do. You view it through the intractable lens of the law. I see it as a human response to uncontrollable stress factors. When those stresses get to be too much then anyone is capable of killing. Even a broken girl like her.”

“All right, Doc. Thanks for your help.” I turned to go.

“What are you going to do, John?”

I paused with my hand on the doorknob. “I don’t have much choice. I’ll ride out to the Finch place and talk to Clayton. See what he says. Then I’ll arrest Phaedra for murder.”

“I don’t envy you.”

“Yeah. But you said that already.” I slammed the door when I left.

* * *

I wasn’t halfway down the stairs when four men marched across Front Street in my direction.

“Marshal,” one of them called, “we need to talk.”

I waited for them to walk toward me. No sense in meeting them halfway. I already knew what they wanted.

I leaned against a wooden post, letting my grey duster fall open so I could reach my Colt Dragoon. These men weren’t armed, but I might have to open up their heads with the gun barrel.

They stopped on the street below me. One was August Wicker of the Quarter Moon. He had a whip-cord lean body and a face rimmed with whiskers. The other three were Hew Clay, Micah Slattery and Seth Choate. All were reasonable businessmen. Or so I thought before that day.

“Good morning, gentlemen. Nice day we’re having.”

“Uh, morning, Marshal.” August Wicker was chosen, or had chosen himself, to be their spokesman. He hooked his thumbs under his orange galluses. “Marshal Marwood, I’ll get down to brass tacks. We know Phaedra is upstairs in Doc Toland’s office.”

“That’s right.”

“We want her run out of town. We’ve got no truck for her like.”

I didn’t say anything. I was doing everything I could not to hit his smarmy face. And then maybe stomp his head against the wooden boardwalk to make my morning just that much better. I liked the idea a whole lot so it was hard to fight down the impulse.

When I had myself under control I said slow, “You listen to me, Wicker, and you other men, too. That woman is sick and is under Doc Toland’s care. I don’t want her bothered.”

“A woman like that mars the moral probity of this town.”

“What is it you do for a living, Mr. Wicker?”

His face closed down hard. “You know full well I own the Quarter Moon. But that’s no reason—“

”How many soiled doves you employ?”

His face was suffused with anger. But for the moment I had him backed into a chute and the gate closed.

“Marshal,” Seth Choate said in a reasonable voice, “I’m a family man. It’s not good business to have a girl like that in town. It looks bad after what she’s done—and I’m not talking about killing Abel Finch, either.”

“That hasn’t been proven, Mr. Choate.”

“Oh, come on, Marshal, we’re not stupid,” one of the other men shot back.

“You could have fooled me, Mr. Slattery. She hasn’t been arrested yet.”

Hew Clay owned the Haxan Hotel and was one of the men I counted for a friend. “Then what are you waiting for?” He pressed on. “Marshal, some of us have wives.” A couple other men nodded at this.“They don’t cotton to the idea of someone like Phaedra, who’s done what she’s done, being around our families.”

Before I could answer August Wicker found his voice again. “A man like you probably wouldn’t understand, Marshal. That’s plain.”

“Why is that, Mr. Wicker?”

“Now who’s being naive?” His sour smile was meant to wound. “Everyone knows you ride out to see that half-breed night after night.”

The other men fell silent. One or two stared at their shoes in an embarrassed way.

“Come again?” I was full of ice.

“You don’t scare me, Marshal,” Wicker said in a challenging way. “You may have these other citizens buffaloed, but not me. I’ll write Washington and complain.”

“Make sure you ask them about owing me two weeks back pay.”

“I won’t be bucked and thrown by a civil servant like you, Marshal Marwood. We don’t work for you. You work for us. We’re citizens of Haxan.”

“No, Mr. Wicker, I work for the United States government. I’m a federal officer and I won’t have anyone interfering with government business. And that woman upstairs in Doc’s office is government business. Like it or not.”

I stepped off the boardwalk, slow. The other men backed up several paces. I singled out Wicker.

“One thing more. And you’d better take this to heart and hear me plain.” I tapped the star on my vest. “I don’t have to wear this badge to kick the rat venom out of you, August Wicker. Say what you will about me. But don’t ever believe it applies to Magra Snowberry. Understand?”

He licked his pale lips. “Are you threatening me, Marshal?”

“Yeah. I guess I am.”

“Well, you’ve gone too far, sir. I will definitely write Washington D.C. and lodge a complaint. I won’t be pushed around in my own town by the law.”

“Get out of my way, Wicker, I have work to do.” He didn’t budge. “I said get out of my way. Or I’ll move you myself.”

He opened his mouth to speak, thought better of it and closed it fast. “Okay, Marshal. Your time will come. I hope I’m there to see it happen. Come on, men, we were wrong. We can’t talk to someone like him.”

They turned as one and walked down Front Street toward their various businesses and establishments. I watched them go. They weren’t bad men. They were scared because of what Phaedra represented.

I started for my office when Jake slipped out of the alley ahead. “I heard it all, Mr. Marwood,” he said. “I thought I should hang back unless you really needed me, though.”

“You did right, Jake. Too much loose powder can be set off with just one spark.” My heart was hammering. I hadn’t liked what Wicker said about Magra. He didn’t know how close he came to dying. I admit it scared me a little.

I was supposed to be the law here.

Jake grinned that easy grin he had. ”They backed down quick. Not much spleen for a real fight.”

We walked side by side toward my office. “They didn’t want a fight. They just needed to blow off steam. Once I recognized that I figured it best I let them do it.” I cut a glance his way. “Did you see Magra home all right?”

“Oh, yes, sir. Safe and sound. Mr. Polendina was out there, too, working on her cabin.” Polendina was Haxan’s carpenter working off a debt he owed me.

“Good.”

We clomped into my office and I lifted my Sharps rifle from the gun rack. “I’m riding out to the Finch place, Jake. You stay close to Doc while I’m gone. I don’t think those men will cause any further trouble, but you never know.”

“I’ll keep an eye out. Good luck.”

I saddled my horse and rode out of Haxan. I rode west and hit the foothills before dinnertime. By late afternoon I was high in the San Andreas Mountains.

The range was between me and the sun so it was getting dark by the time I rode on Finch property. It wasn’t much to be proud of, if truth be told. There was a wooden cabin built around a natural rock chimney that served as a fireplace. They had a corral and shed for Phaedra’s piebald mare, but no other animals were on the place.

I knew from gossip Abel got what little money he needed from hunting and trapping. It was by all accounts a mean, cold place for anyone to live.

I got down from my horse and stood on a narrow rock ledge. Far below the lights of Haxan glittered white and yellow. I was so high up their tiny pinpricks twinkled like stars. It made me feel small.

I let a shudder go through me. I didn’t like this place. It had a bad feel to it that scraped your heart like a dull skinning knife. How many nights had Abel Finch stood on this very ledge hating the town below him? The cold desert wind ruffled my hair and flared my duster. How many nights had the lights from Haxan twinkled up into the night like a lost constellation whenever Phaedra was beaten?

How often were her pitiful screams scrubbed clean by the cold wind until only the mountains remained?

I turned and walked toward the squat cabin. In the center of the yard stood a big iron pot full of water. The coals underneath were dead. Rumpled clothes lay on the ground as if they had been thrown there and forgotten.

The high wind moaned across the broken mouth of the rock chimney. There wasn’t a porch or a place to sit outside and enjoy the sweep of land below. This wasn’t a home. It was a place to hide while your fear scrabbled like a rat around you.

The door was unlocked. I hit the latch and went inside.

I froze fast. I could smell the gun oil. I stood letting my eyes adjust and waiting for my heart to get back to normal.

“I could shoot you now,” he said, “and not blink.”

I told myself if Clayton wanted to kill me he would have done so. He was sitting at the table. I couldn’t see much detail except for a formless grey shape against other geometrical shapes that might have been a bench, a cabinet, a churn. The ceiling was low; I had to watch I didn’t crack my head on the rough-hewn beams.

“Sit down, Marshal. You’re outlined good against the open door. I won’t miss.”

I sat down at the table, moving slowly.

“Phaedra took Pa to Haxan, didn’t she.” It wasn’t a question. I got the impression he was mostly trying to find out where he fit in the world now that both of them were gone.

“That’s right. He’ll be buried on Boot Hill tomorrow.”

“Best if they burned his carcass and fed the charred remains to rabid dogs.”

“Clayton, put down that gun.”

“Got no reason to do that, Marshal. I have no intention of going back to Haxan and hang. Anyway, I don’t want to see him and I don’t want to see her.”

“I thought you loved Phaedra.” The quiet yawned between us like a bottomless gorge. “That’s what people say down below.”

“I still do.” His chair made a small sound when he moved. “She was pretty when Pa brought her to live with us. We were alone after my real Ma died of the chokes. But this ain’t a fit place for a woman, especially one as young and pretty as Phaedra. Hell, it’s barely livable for a man. I watched the mountain sap all that was good from her, all that was savable, you might say. I couldn’t stop what happened. When you’re trapped like that you look for escape. We found it in each other. When Pa found out…well, he went a little crazy. He didn’t have far to go. He never did walk down the center of the rail anyway.”

“Don’t you have any light? Candles or a lamp?”

“No. Pa figured a man should live by the natural rhythm of the day. Oh, sometimes he would light a tiny fire in the chimney and Phaedra would read from the Bible. She was so pretty sitting over there with the red glow in her hair and the light from the fire dancing happy on her face. She was nice, Marshal. Nicer than Pa or me deserved and that’s a fact.”

“Why didn’t you leave, Clayton, if things were as bad as all that?”

“Phaedra wouldn’t quit Pa no matter how rough he treated her. Even after she and me….” He cleared his throat. “Even after she lost the baby she felt she owed Pa her life. In a way she was right. Her family was starving in Texas when Pa bought her as a bride. I remember the day we rode down to Haxan to meet her train. She was so fragile with nothing but a little carpet handbag clasped to her breast. We had apple pie and grape soda at the Haxan Hotel and then we rode together up into the mountains and never left.”

He didn’t say anything after that. He was talked out.

“I have to take you in, Clayton.”

“I’ll never leave this mountain.”

“You have to stand trial for killing your father.” I paused. I had to find some way to reach him. “Phaedra would want you to do the right thing. That girl you remember, and loved, sitting by the fire.”

I couldn’t tell if the sound he made was a sob or a snort of derision. Perhaps it was both. “He hit her, Marshal. He hit her all the time and she took it. I never could understand that. I asked her about it. She said she was more afeared of going back to Texas than she was to stay and die in these cold mountains. Taking a beating every day wasn’t so bad, she told me, compared to what she suffered in Texas. She was a little girl after the war. They ate raw cactus pulp and lizards what they could catch, when they had anything to eat at all.” He made that sound again. This time it sounded like a cry for help. “Marshal, is Doc Toland looking after her nice and proper?”

“Yes. She’s being taken good care of.”

“I told her not to do it, but she shoved her hands in that boiling water afore I could stop her. She said she didn’t want to see me hang and so she was giving me an alibi. I suppose I got a little crazy myself when it happened. Pa was about to go after her with an axe handle. I wrestled him down and pushed him in that boiling pot.I held a wooden lathe across the top of his shoulders to keep his head down in the steam. When I knew he was good and dead I ran off. I was free. It felt good, like when you see a hawk falling out of the sky on a cottontail. I was falling, too. When I got back Phaedra was gone. That little girl got on her horse and rode down to Haxan all by herself. Took her most of the night, I reckon.”

“Who built the travois? And who put your father on it? She couldn’t have done that. Not with burned hands.”

“Huh. I guess I did. I don’t remember none too clear, Marshal. Maybe I came back after I ran that first time and took off again. I don’t see it too straight in my head. I only see spots and fragments that rise from the bottom and then disappear again like pond scum.”

“I can’t leave you here, Clayton. I have to take you back.”

“Ain’t going, Marshal. Anyway, I got the drop on you.”

“Clayton, listen to me. It’s dark in here and you can’t see. My gun is out of its holster and under the table. You shoot me, I promise I’ll gut shoot you if it’s the last thing I ever do. You’ll scream the last inch of your life away. That’s as bad a way to die as there is. And every time you scream Phaedra will hear it.” I couldn’t tell if I was reaching him or not. “You really want to do that to her?”

He didn’t say anything. I think he was weeping silently.

“Hasn’t she suffered enough, Clayton?”

His gun thumped on the table. I reached for it and drew it toward me. It was a Colt with the hammer cocked. A few ounces of pressure on the trigger and I would have been dead.

When you see something like that the chill always starts in your hands and feet and draws in to the center of your body.

I rolled the cartridges out of the cylinder. They clacked and skittered on top of the table. I put the gun in my belt and got up.

“All right, Clayton, let’s go.”

He rose from the table. I followed him outside. There was more light out here. The stars were shining and there was a slice of yellow moon rocking to sleep along the top of the mountain.

Clayton passed my horse and kept on walking. He said over his shoulder, “I want you to tell Phaedra I loved her, Marshal.”

“Stop, Clayton. Stop!”

I pulled my gun but it didn’t matter. He was on the ledge. He came around. The light from the moon and stars was full on his face. It was a good face, except it a little confused and bewildered by life. The same way I look every morning when I stare into a mirror while shaving.

“I loved her bad.” He stepped out into space and disappeared.

There wasn’t any sound afterward. I walked carefully to the edge but there was nothing but black down there. The wind from the abyss sheered off the side of the mountain and hit me in the face.

There was no sense trying to find Clayton’s body. The mountain and the night had swallowed him whole.

I got my horse and started leading him down the steep face of the cold mountain.

* * *

“He’s dead, isn’t he?” Phaedra asked.

It was next morning. It had taken me most of the night to get back the mountain without breaking a leg or my horse’s leg. I was exhausted. It had been a long twenty-four hours.

“I’m sorry. I tried to bring him in alive.”

“I’m sorry, too. I know he confessed everything. That’s the kind of boy he was.” She gave me a tired smile. “He was always trying to save me.”

She stood by the open window. Her blistered hands looked ugly in the orange light from an oil lamp on top of a dresser.

“We have to go now, Phaedra.”

“I’m ready.”

We walked together into the front room where Jake and Doc Toland were waiting. “I don’t want you to worry, Phaedra,” I was saying. “I’ll speak on your behalf at the trial. I’ll do everything I can to see you get clear of this trouble.”

“I know you’ll look after me, Marshal. I know I can count on you.”

Something about the way she said it should have alerted me. If I wasn’t so exhausted I would have seen what she was planning. She couldn’t hide a thing like that in her face.

I blame myself. I am responsible.

We were moving for the door. Doc Toland held it open when we accidentally sort of crowded together. Phaedra grabbed Jake’s pistol from the holster and ran down the steps, her bare feet kicking white under the hem of her dress.

“Mr, Marwood, I’m sorry, I never thought—“

”Out of the way, Jake.” I ran down the stairs after her. Fool girl. I was more angry than surprised. She should know she couldn’t escape this way.

When I reached the bottom she was already halfway across the plaza.

“Phaedra!”

She skidded to a stop. Good. At least she had some sense left.

She raised the gun in my direction.

“I know you’ll look after me, Marshal.”

I stopped. My mouth was dry. “Don’t do this, Phaedra.”

“I know I can count on you.”

“Don’t make me do this, Phaedra. Please.”

She smiled. Her lips were red as pokeberry juice and her hair was like spun gold spilling soft on her shoulders in the morning sun. “No other man can do what you’ll do for me.”

“Phaedra, listen to me. Put the gun down. Right now.”

She cocked the hammer back. She had to use both hands. “You’ll have to do it, Marshal. You’ll have to shoot a woman. If any man can do it, you can. We both know that.”

“Phaedra, no.” My hand was already moving for my gun. I couldn’t stop it.

“Help me.” She fired. Wild shot, but my nerves were working on their own accord and my gun cleared my holster.

My first shot hit her in the center of the breastbone and my second was three inches to the right of that. She went down on her knees, dropping the heavy pistol in the dust. Then she sort of folded backward with her legs trapped under her body.

I ran toward her and knelt swiftly beside her.

“Phaedra.”

Her eyelids fluttered. “Clayton.”

I took her blistered hand in mine.

“I love you. I love you bad.”

“Phaedra?” She was gone.

I got up and stood by myself in the middle of the plaza for a long time. When I walked out of there I was aware of a lot of people in the street watching me. Someone touched my arm. I don’t remember who.

“Marshal, that was a bad thing. No man…I’m sorry for what I said earlier.”

I went into my office and closed the door. Later, I heard a stray dog licked her blood that soaked the white sand. But some little kids threw rocks and chased it away, laughing.

That afternoon four men buried Phaedra next to Abel Finch on Boot Hill. I never did see the grave.

THE END

About the Author
Kenneth Mark Hoover is a professional genre writer and an active member of WWA. He has sold over 60 short stories and articles to professional and semi-professional magazines. His first science fiction novel, FEVREBLAU, was published by Five Star Press in 2005 and sold out its first print run. His short fiction has appeared in Ellery Queen’s Mystery Magazine, Beneath Ceaseless Skies, Strange Horizons, Challenging Destiny, Destination: Future, Zero Gravity, Frontier Tales, and many, many others. He is at present working on dark/horror western short stories and novels set in the mythical town of Haxan, New Mexico, circa 1874. His novel HAXAN was published by CZP/HarperCollins in 2014. His next novel QUATERNITY was published in March, 2015. Mr. Hoover currently lives in Dallas, TX. He often visits and researches the places he writes about. You can find out more about Mr. Hoover and his work at his blog kennethmarkhoover.me or by visiting his website: kennethmarkhoover.com.
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