Sheridan Hayes had not seen Donnie’s new hat. There was a great deal of loud talk and extended debate about whether he had sat down on Donnie’s black Stetson on purpose, and how could he not see such a fabulous and not-small hat and how could he not see the shine of the silver hatband which alone had cost Donnie $23 cash, which was more than a week’s pay at the Rising H. Sheridan Hayes complicated the discussion deeply by saying—after the excitement subsided and Donnie was in the one-room clinic behind Doctor Wattel’s bungalow on Back Street and Sheridan himself was in the one cell in the jail, his nose still dripping blood—that he hadn’t seen the blinking hat, and further that if he had seen Donnie Gumson’s stupid blinking hat, the blinking hat of a main-street cowboy if there ever was one, he would have not only sat on it on purpose, he would have stood on it marching in place for the rest of the night. He did not use the word blinking. As it was, he did not see the black hat in the dim barroom of the Enterprise Club and he sat on it and then jumped up before any real damage was done, except the insult that results from sitting on someone’s hat, someone who had been sitting by Rowena Balfour, a young woman who had after one year resigned her post as the only schoolteacher in Rootine, an outpost on the Manditory River consisting of almost a thousand souls.
It was June 3, the last day of school, and Miss Rowena Balfour, after being shipped to Rootine, Wyoming from Probity, Massachusetts almost one year before to teach the children of the village, had found that Rootine was not a village at all but 33 buildings, some of them lean-tos, at the foot of the San Blister Mountains, and that the children were actually small untutored savages, and that the Rootine Unified School was a platform tent with a malfunctioning barrel stove and a two-hole outhouse it shared with the jail. Just that noon, Miss Rowena Balfour had pinned her notice to one of the two tent poles in the sour structure and it read, in her gorgeous loopy cursive: “Good luck with your blinking ABCs. I hereby resign. R.E. Balfour.” She did not use the word blinking. She had told her one confidant, Mrs. Slater, with whom she boarded, that she had been stalling in her life long enough and was going to set out for something new, something that her father, 2,000 miles away, could not stop her from doing. Miss Balfour had saved all her money except for the $7 a week she paid Mrs. Slater for room and board and she was going to use this bankroll of almost $400 to see the world or some part of it beyond the claustrophobic hills of Probity and the sage flats of Rootine. She was young and ready for adventure. At least two cowboys in the Enterprise Club, the injured parties on the night in question, would have said she was beautiful. She was the most pulchritudinous female in the hamlet of Rootine, and she did have two form-fitting apron dresses that made it difficult to speak to her, and the days she wore those gowns she saw no one on the street but felt the curtains parting all along her way.
She had learned to ride a horse this spring with the help of Donnie Gumson, who had given her his sister’s old saddle, which was still in good shape, and he also volunteered the horsemanship instruction gratis, and she had learned camp skill and shooting from Sheridan Hayes, who volunteered his services and gave her his old six-shooter Colt pistol, calling it old when it was not old and still quite valuable, but more valuable to him as a gift to her than as a sidearm. He had other guns. And he gave her a canvas tent and its five piñon poles and necessary sisal rope.
After a shooting, I always like to dance. A partner, please.
All spring long she had ridden on Wednesday and Friday in the muddy corral of the Rising H, just a mile from town, under the guidance of Donnie Gumson, and on every other Saturday she had gone into the San Blister Mountains with Sheridan Hayes to learn how to select the best campsite and how to set up a tent and then how to shoot her bone-handled pistol at targets close at hand and then some at a farther range. These were day trips always, and twice Mrs. Slater went along as a chaperone, but it was apparent to the town and every love-struck pup, both the schoolboys and their fathers, that a chaperone was not necessary. Miss Rowena Balfour did not need a chaperone. She learned to ride without allowing Donnie to board the horse behind her regardless of how necessary and dangerous the instruction seemed to be, and she learned to shoot her Colt without allowing Sheridan to stand behind her and guide her arm. She erected the tent in 15 and then 10 and finally six minutes and when it was right and tight, she had Sheridan go inside and see that it was square. She was never in the tent with him and everyone in the town knew it. By June, Miss Rowena Balfour was ready in the ways she’d wanted to be. Now she needed someone to give her a horse or sell her one at a charity price, and she would leave Rootine, going north or south or west. “Not east,” she’d say every time. “Never east again.” Just this week, Donnie Gumson had given her a horse and she’d stuffed his reluctant hand with $11, which is quite a markup on what he wanted to be a gift.
The Enterprise Club was the biggest room in Rootine, having previously been a warehouse for raw foodstuffs for the roughnecks working on the railroad. It had a crude lumber floor and at the time the walls and roof had been gray waxed canvas erected with piñon pine. When the railroad finally came this far west, they ran it 90 miles to the south and after a month there was nothing but the great wooden emporium floor out in the weather. Miles DeLock bought it for $40 figuring the lumber was worth $80, which it was. That very month Mr. DeLock was shot in an accident with a scatter gun during a poker game, and in an evil coincidence his own plank cabin, famously known to have been assembled without a nail, burned to the ground that same night and the group of Portuguese shepherds with whom he had been playing cards marched through the town chanting his name in foreign slogans that made all the citizens of Rootine nervous. It was an entire town with thin walls, many of them fragile. Mr. DeLock had no place to go except his gargantuan wooden floor, and Mrs. Slater and Givern Borkel, her Swedish cousin, carried the wounded Miles DeLock along the rutted main street and onto the dry lumber floor and erected Mr. Borkel’s cotton travel canopy as a tent. It served for several days, wearing hard in the increasing weather until it was consumed in total by a northeastern wind that swept through town in three cruel strokes, carrying the flimsy shelter into the Manditory River, which held the raw town in one loopy oxbow.
Fortunately, Mr. DeLock was able to invoke his fortune, which he had installed in Rootine’s First Thrift, money he had garnered from two years of gambling with his own deck of playing cards in his first wooden shelter, a place which before its demise came to be called the Red Tower and then, before it collapsed, Cheater’s Tower, Cheater’s Palace and sometimes Cheater’s Hellhole. Everyone knew Miles DeLock was cheating at cards, but no one could catch him, and, as they say, it was the only game in town, not that Rootine in those years was even a town. Despite its reputation, the round table was always full, never an empty seat. There will forever be a call in the rushing sound of a deck of cards being shuffled—even a deck of cards marked perfectly for the practiced cheater—that is irresistible to a lonely traveler at the end of a day, especially travelers who found themselves camped along the Manditory River near Rootine, Wyoming. Even those who had been warned could not stay away. Those who were warned were sometimes the worst, marching with their doomed money into the nasty A-frame eagerly with the certainty that the common fate would not capture them too. Miles DeLock prospered.
He bought the railroad warehouse and had as his original plan the idea of taking it apart and building a proper saloon where he might be able to cheat at as many as four tables, but then he was shot by an unhappy shepherd and the bird shot that entered Miles DeLock’s torso and arm served as a vivid and permanent epiphany for the middle-aged gentleman who saw, and felt deeply, the wages of sin. He vowed as Mrs. Slater, who had been a nurse for one year as a young woman in Virginia, pried steel BBs from his epidermis in his makeshift recovery clinic on the biggest wooden floor in the county to build a hall for wholesome entertainment, and if not wholesome, honest—in other words, a dance hall—and make his living as a legitimate businessman. As he heard the steel shot tink-tink one by one in the pan Mrs. Slater was dropping the BBs in, he knew he would call it the Enterprise Club, a name that felt to him rich with respect and possibility.
The Enterprise Club was the only saloon of its size west of the Mississippi River that was built floor-first, and Mr. DeLock lay in his cot all that summer as the outer walls were erected around him and the two massive ponderosa poles were installed in the middle to hold up the roof, and the sweeping stairway and the second-floor balcony, all with pine struts and beams. When the windows arrived from St. Louis that October, they were installed in the front and witnesses swear that when they were fitted in the sills and tapped tight with wooden mallets, that was when the wind started to blow again. By the time it snowed, Mr. DeLock was captain of this ambitious manor, his bedroom on the rear of the second floor with a balcony from which he could see over the many shacks lining the Manditory River and out to the great gates of the two ranches that dominated that world, the Rising H and the Bar Bar, both with a dozen hands—sometimes more—who would all become loyal customers of the Enterprise Club. The long sign reading the enterprise club arrived by wagon the next week, a varnished masterpiece with the one-foot-high letters burned into the beautiful oak. They hung it with four-inch chains, and Mr. DeLock stepped backward down the two front steps and held his arms up to the sign and read it aloud to the assembly, the name of his proud establishment, though for years throughout the West it was referred to as Floor First.
The night that Sheridan Hayes sat on Donnie Gumson’s new black Stetson in one of the huge red leather banquettes in the back of the Enterprise Club, thinking he would take the opportunity to sit next to his camping student Miss Rowena Balfour, a woman he had taken on a dozen day trips into the beautiful San Blister Mountains and a woman for whom he bore overt affection, was the first time a gun had been fired in that place. Sheridan had not seen the hat where Donnie had left it to keep his place while he went out back to the men’s privy, and Sheridan sat and stood quickly, but not so quickly that Donnie Gumson did not see him commit the act. Donnie grabbed Sheridan by the collar and yanked him into position for a crushing blow to the nose, which did in fact break Sheridan’s nose but not enough to deter what followed: Sheridan, who suddenly found himself inverted and stunned, instinctively drew his six-shooter and fired a .45-caliber bullet into Donnie’s chest at that close range, where it struck his heart-rib and angled out under his arm, lodging finally in the lush red leather of the booth. “Goddamn it, Dave, you’ve shot me now!” Donnie said, still standing and examining the blood that kept appearing on his palm. Then Donnie folded onto the floor, sitting up with his hand pressed to the wound. “You sat on my hat,” he said. Doctor Wattel had been shocked out of his deep study of two red sevens in his hand and whether they merited a raise at the poker table, and he arrived in time to catch Donnie as he fainted onto the biggest barroom floor in Ardent County. Sheridan Hayes himself was also sitting on the floor with his handful of bloody nose. “I didn’t see his blinking hat,” he exclaimed in a nasal moan, “and my name is not Dave and he knows it.”
The doctor quickly made a makeshift compress for Donnie’s injury and enlisted his card partners to carry the young man across to his clinic. He knelt briefly at Sheridan, whom the sheriff already stood over, and the doctor reached up and reset Sheridan’s nose with his hand, making a wet snapping noise that put half the drinkers in the big room off their drinks and the other half deep into them. Sheridan had been explaining that the bullet was one of a box that he himself had reloaded with half a charge and he was surprised it even broke the skin. When the doctor moved his nose that way, Sheridan passed out and thereby missed his transference to the jail.
The portrait of beauty itself, the newly retired schoolteacher Miss Rowena Balfour, had witnessed the proceedings without moving her chin. Her calm and sumptuous appearance was a formidable obstacle to overcome, but seeing her two young mentors hauled from the room, both bleeding, several cowboys orbited closer to her table, and Griffin Boatright and his newly trimmed mustache lifted Donnie Gumson’s hat, pressed his hand inside to right the dents, set it on the table out of the way of the bottles and glasses, and then sat down and removed his own hat with a modest sweep and a smile.
“Are you all right, young lady?” Griffin Boatright said. “What a horrid exchange.”
“And now you cover my hand with your hand as a comfort and a surety?” she said.
“And later you walk me home with your arm around my waist and attempt to kiss me in the weeds outside Mrs. Slater’s house? But then you imagine that I invite you in, shocking Mrs. Slater completely, and I draw you into my boudoir, Mr. Boatright, that is what we call it: boudoir. And there in my boudoir you help me with the difficult buttons on this old dress.” Here, Miss Balfour leaned forward so the gentleman beside her could see the line of buttons down the back of her form-fitting garment.
Griffin Boatright’s face was a pale blank slate. He had never in his 29 years, 12 of them as a livestock auctioneer, ever been so confused. To his credit he cleared his throat and asked the young lady how he might be of any service at all, given the rough interlude she had just witnessed.
She responded directly in Mr. Boatright’s face without hesitating, “The rough interlude I have just witnessed was in fact the interminable school year among the cretin children and troglodytes who came to this hideous school, their only intention to insult me and rob me of my native optimism, but I am free of that lingering malady and would most appreciate another big glass of the Raw Rain rye and a beer back, or so I think it is termed.” No one within earshot of the former teacher’s remarks understood what she had said in the word troglodyte, which she meant as nasty hyperbole, but in fact seven of the 43 students who had attended Rootine Unified School did live in caves at the southern end of the San Blister Mountains, aborted and abandoned old silver mine shafts really, which provided more complete cover and protection from the elements than many of the frame houses near the center of the hamlet. Some of her cave dwellers had been among the most docile and teachable of her students.
Mr. Boatright, sensing in her ardor an opportunity he had never sensed before, sprang up like a rider for the Pony Express and returned a moment later with an entire sealed bottle of the aforementioned rye whiskey, its yellow label like a warning for poison, and his other wrist bathed in spilled beer from the pint glass of soapy lager he carried.
She immediately raised her glass of rye and said, “Here’s to the blood of the cowboys, Donnie and Sheridan, and the great luck that none got on me or this dear old dress which is almost impossible to launder!” She examined herself for errant spots of blood. With her mention of the dress, all the cowboys in the larger circle of her table, including the eager Griffin Boatright, felt free as they raised their smeared glasses with her to let their avid eyes fall upon the contours of the dress. There was an audible sigh, a moan like the letter N, from the small masculine assemblage. Seeing glassiness in her eyes, which Griffin mistook for worry and sadness and fear, he now pressed his fingers on her forearm and said, “It’s going to be all right, Miss Balfour. There’ll be no further violence this evening.” She elbowed him and shifted so he would stand and let her out of the booth. “Well, that’s too bad, Mr. Boatright. I was hoping you might shoot somebody next.”
Before the confused auctioneer could respond, Rowena Balfour crossed the great lumber floor to where Ludwig Yarborough was picking out a repeating melody, some soft carnival ditty, on the shiny black Seethinghammer, a piano that Miles DeLock had purchased in Chicago the year before. It had been shipped in six pieces and assembled and strung by Mr. Yarborough as the first terms of his employment at the Enterprise Club. It was whispered that the elderly musician had killed a man in Boston or Richmond or Albany, or maybe it was a woman he had killed. Regardless of his legend, he was a success in Rootine for he knew 400 songs. Early that spring, Rowena Balfour had marched the entire school on a field trip into the Enterprise one morning before it opened and Ludwig Yarborough had demonstrated how the piano worked. For two hours he played music for the students and they were pacified almost into slumber and Miss Balfour rued not knowing how to play the instrument by which she might have tamed her raw minions.
The kiss lit the color in his cheeks, started his heart anew.
In the Enterprise Club, Rowena Balfour now placed her hand upon the worn suit-coat shoulder of the ancient musician and asked if he could play something lively. She had had four powerful beverages already in celebrating her new freedom from employment, but she spoke without letting a word be squashed or shortchanged and she said, “After a shooting, I always like to dance. A partner, please.” She lifted a hand and displayed an empty palm while she turned a circle and then another for the barroom crowd, so that the compelling shadows of her bosom were cast in a rollicking turbulence and echoed by the turbulence within every cowboy’s heart, or not heart but close enough, until Griffin Boatright was pushed forward and he took the bold young creature in his arms in a posture as stiff as the sepia funeral photographs that were becoming popular that year. They danced, or moved herkily and jerkily together for the six bars of a waltz that Ludwig Yarborough played at double time. The picture of such a sterling beauty in the stiff arms of a man who danced exactly in the manner that many people take their last mortal breath, pushing the pitcher and china teacup and kerosene lamp and its glass chimney from the bedside table to the floor, struck Glornina Soft so deeply that she stood from the lap of Tim Grush, who was inebriated into a smiling rictus. She straightened her red satin dress as well as she could, tucking herself or most of herself back into the puckered elastic bodice, and she stepped to the dancing pair and pulled Griffin Boatright away from the schoolteacher, an act which relieved everyone and drew a brief laugh before Glornina replaced herself in the man’s position, leading Rowena smoothly through the fluid machinations of the waltz, which turned out to be one of Ludwig Yarborough’s own compositions, titled “The Orphan’s Return.” There were three women in the entire grand room of the Enterprise and now two of them were dancing together. When the night was retold, this terpsichorean event many times outshined the shooting as the highlight of the evening. The third woman was Lorraine Dinner, called Lorrie, and as Ludwig played the last note of his sweet song and the dancers stopped and bowed at each other, their smiles like lamps in the wilderness, Lorrie Dinner raised her glass of sparkling grape wine and from the second step to the balcony she said, “It’s a tough world and we’ll take tenderness when we find it. Bless this young woman! We have only been dance hall girls, which is to say whores,” a word which received its own warm ovation, “but she has been a schoolteacher and for almost a year. It is a wonder she’s alive!”
There was now applause anew and Ludwig commenced a challenging drinking tune which many of the cowboys knew a version of, the lyrics being a long, grinding ballad that inventoried all the things the wind steals from a cowboy in a year. It was a song that was open-ended. If the singers were young enough and drunk enough they could go through spring to summer and enter the fall again and the wind was renewed in its pernicious quest to get hoof, hide and bone. A cowboy’s hat, kerchief, last dinner plate and own true love. The list was long.
After that melody, Mr. Ludwig Yarborough wiped his forehead with the only monogrammed handkerchief in the town of Rootine, Wyoming, the ornate initials in black silk thread reading FNQ and being a prime part of his mystery. People who had seen the thing remarked that it was taken from the body of the man he had killed so long ago. Or woman. The musician stood from his instrument and went back to his small table in the back, where he sipped plum wine from a small jar of the stuff and rested for his midnight set. In the vacuum created by the lapse of the music, the craps-table stickman, Wendell Phardo, rapped his stick on the worn green felt with a smart snap and called to the room, “Coming out. Your dice next. We’re playing craps right here.” A cluster of men tightened around the table and the dice began to roll.
Miss Rowena Balfour had stepped up to Lorrie Dinner, who was the unofficial queen of the Enterprise Club and Mr. Miles DeLock’s highest-paid employee, and delivered her a sisterly hug in thanks for her toast. “I’m not long for this town,” Rowena told the older woman, “but I’ll stop in before I depart for my adventures.” “Please do. You can dance here anytime you’d like, dearie.”
“Now, I’m off to see my injured friends and offer them my condolences, good-byes and this one black hat.”
Rowena threw the blue shawl her mother had knitted her over her shoulders, picked up Donnie Gumson’s big new black cowboy hat and walked across the big board floor and out the beveled doors of the Enterprise Club. The room reacted to this loss by growing suddenly louder and more animated, and as if her presence had forestalled it, a fistfight began at the bar over nothing at all and the raw edge of bellicosity emerged as it does sometimes when the teacher has left the room.
The biggest danger in the cluster of sheds known as the town of Rootine was the footing in the street where ruts had begotten ruts, some of the mud dried to a stony blade and some of it still greasy and wet, ready to swallow a shoe. In the light from a few window lamps, Miss Rowena Balfour lifted her skirts and stepped along the worn path between the unpainted plank buildings until she arrived at Doctor Wattel’s hovel marked by a painted board above the door that said: m.d. There was a candle working in the window and Rowena peered in and saw a man in a black suit coat sitting over the body of the young cowboy. She knocked lightly and entered the room and found her nose, which had been lulled by the corpuscle-loosening molecules of rye whiskey, suddenly stunned and chastened by the powerhouse astringent of rubbing alcohol. The man whispering to the young cowboy, however, was not Doctor Wattel of course, as the young former schoolteacher had just come from seeing that medical doctor about to throw the dice in search of a nine. Donnie Gumson sat propped on a pillow, pale with bright eyes, and his consultant was Miles DeLock, who had come calling to see if Donnie’s wound had served the same kind of life-changing blow that Miles himself had received some years before when shot by the righteous Portuguese shepherd. Miss Balfour could hear the older man’s pleading questions. “Did you feel, when the bullet traversed your body and turned away when it struck the bone over your heart, that you wanted to renounce your evil ways and choose a new path?” Rowena could see Donnie consider the question.
“It hurt like nothing,” Donnie said. “I knew instantly that I wish it had never happened. I haven’t felt anything like it since I lost my little finger in an accident with a bad barn door when I was just six years old.”
“Do you play cards?” Miles DeLock asked the cowboy.
“We play in the bunkhouse, some poker and some catfish.”
Mr. DeLock quickened at the news. “Did you feel as the bullet entered and exited your body that you wanted to renounce your card playing and the questionable techniques you employed while playing with your friends?”
“I’ve been shot, Mr. DeLock,” Donnie Gumson said. “I’m glad I’m alive and I can still move my arms and legs and that the doctor has sewed me up the way he did so that I’ll see my horse Caliber again as well as my friends and maybe, if I ever make any money, my dear mother, back in Tuscaloosa.”
“Are you going to change your life?” DeLock continued. “Tell me.”
“I’m going to have to get back to you on that,” Donnie said. “But thanks for asking.”
The older man stood up from his inquiry and looked at the woman, his expression fresh frustration, and then a new idea printed itself on his face and he said it: “It’s the difference between bird shot and a bullet. Bird shot will change a man’s life.” With that, he departed and Donnie Gumson looked into the beautiful face of his riding student Rowena Balfour. She held up his hat and handed it over.
“It don’t look too mangled,” he said.
“No, it’s good for the next rodeo, I’m sure.”
“Thanks for bringing it over.”
“I’m glad to. I’m glad you’re not going to perish from the earth because of being gun-shot,” she said. “I wanted to thank you for the lessons and for that saddle which you’ve given me and that horse, and I wanted to say good-bye, for I am leaving this town very soon, tomorrow or the next day, and I will remember your advice as a rider for a long time to come.”
“Did you decide where you are going?”
“Not really, but generally,” she pointed out the western window in the little clinic, “that way.” She was still standing, and now she bowed and kissed Donnie Gumson on his cheek. “I’m sorry we did not get that dance. Perhaps on another day.”
“On another day,” Donnie Gumson said, though he was whispering. The kiss had lit the color in his cheeks and started his heart anew. “I’ll be the guy who was prevented from dancing with Rowena Balfour by being shot.”
“You are,” she said at the door. “But you’re the guy who taught me how to ride a horse.”
“It’s an honor,” he said, closing his eyes on the first tear since his injury.
In the dark of the town now, Rowena Balfour could hear the syncopated clip-clop of Ludwig Yarborough’s horse-racing song rising and falling in the summer air and she walked past the glowing facade of the Enterprise Club, the only painted edifice in town, and behind it to the jail and stepped up two steps to its uneven porch, the creaking of which had woken the sheriff to visitors on more than this occasion. The sheriff of Rootine was Red Hannigan, known for his colorful neckerchiefs and the fact that he never wore or carried a firearm of any type. He considered his post as constable to be a sinecure that paid for his daughter’s tuition ($45 a semester) at Youdrew Academy at the southern tip of St. Louis. Red Hannigan had heard the porch yowl and was already standing when Miss Rowena Balfour pushed open the crooked door and entered the small office. It was the only room in Rootine with a wall calendar. The oversheet on the calendar featured advertisements for Wonder Powder, a glowing green vial that had conveniently 12 uses, one for each month (including January as a frostbite preventer, June, a blister cure-all, and October as a vitamin and vitality enhancer). The calendar, which was two years out of date, gave the law officer’s quarters an official air, along with the two handmade signs that hung beside it: no spitting and repent!
“I have come to see your prisoner,” Rowena told the official.
Red shrugged off the nap he’d been involved in and swept his arm to the open rail doors of the one-cell jail. Sheridan Hayes lay on the cot, his knees up, his fist on his nose. He became aware of the young woman and swung his legs over so he could sit up.
“Is your beautiful nose crushed?” Rowena said.
“I didn’t see him swing at me or I would have ducked,” the cowboy said.
“Show me your injury,” she said. Sheridan was still cross-wired by her appearance at the jail and then her question to him; in all their camping tutorials they had not exchanged a personal note, what is sometimes called an encouraging word. And now, he seemed to have heard her say “beautiful” in regard to his nose.
He looked at her through the top of his eyes and then he removed his hand from his dark rosy proboscis.
“Oh relief,” she said. “You look just fine. Doctor Wattel has put the pieces back together.” The former schoolteacher turned to the sheriff. “What will become of this young man?”
“He’ll go on trial for murder and all of its legal cousins when the regional magistrate visits our fair town in seven weeks. Until then, he’ll eat his beans exactly where you see him now.”
She nodded at the benevolent official. “Sheriff, I have recently called upon the victim of this crime, the shooting in the bar, and found him somewhat improved, in fact, by its occurrence.”
“I understand that Mr. Hayes was shooting with diminished payloads, but still in many cases this is considered deadly force.”
Sheridan Hayes spoke, his hand still on his nose, “Oh my God, with all due respect, Sheriff Hannigan, everyone knows the diminished potency of my powder loads. I am the cheapest of the reloaders in the state of Wyoming. I load to make a caseful, not a killing. I knew my shot might discourage my rival, but I also knew it would not kill him dead.”
“Your rival?” Rowena Balfour said suddenly. “Rival in what?”
“Oh my dear Rowena,” the anguished cowboy moaned. “I have fallen in love with you as you must know, and I know that I am not alone in that condition. This has not befallen me before and I have been paying attention. This signal event has altered my plans. Please do not depart Rootine until my legal problems are at an end.”
“What in heaven,” Rowena said, looking at the cowboy as if for the first time. “I’m going. I’ve come to say good-bye. I thank you for what you’ve taught me about camping and my gun, but I must head out for parts unknown, or at least unknown to me. There is a plenitude.”
“You say good-bye, but I’ll tell you right now, Miss Balfour, I will find you again and not be so slow then to show you my true heart.”
The sheriff was unaccustomed to hearing whispered sincerity or hearing the word plenitude, and he was stilled by this strange moment and he sat down again as the young woman went out the front door, lifting her skirts toward Mrs. Slater’s boarding house and her travels beyond.
Rowena Balfour, her real troubles ahead of her, did leave Rootine even sooner than she’d planned. Stirred and shaken by the loud and sanguinary episodes of her evening at the Enterprise Club, she packed her kit in an old canvas mailbag that had been left in her shabby schoolroom by one of the children of an unemployed rider for the defunct Pony Express. She went to bed in her little room, but it didn’t take. She understood that to stay even for half an hour more would only lead to further noisy doings in the morning. She did not want to recount the history of Sheridan Hayes shooting Donnie Gumson, regardless of the reason; it was all atangle and she wanted done with it. She pulled on her denim trousers under her teacher’s dress, and she secured the canvas carry to the back of her saddle with knots she’d been studying all spring, and at five minutes to midnight in a breeze that was cold but run with the warm scent of prairie grass, Rowena Balfour mounted Necessity, the horse who was six years old that year and whom she’d bought for a dime on the dollar from Donnie Gumson. She walked quietly back between the careless shelters of Rootine and headed west or more northwest, but it would do. Her fatigue vanished at being astride a horse in the significant dark and at the prospect of whatever world awaited. She’d had a feeling some many months before when she embraced her mother and said good-bye to her father and climbed on the Western Limited, a narrow-gauge rail carrier whose standard-class seats were boxes and trunks they were shipping, and sitting on a box of ammunition destined according to the stencil to Fort Payne she felt her heart fill with what…hope? No, she decided, room. It was room and she wanted it.
Necessity was a stolid horse who whenever bitten by the great horned Western horsefly just lifted his head in annoyance and quiet suffering and blinked his eyes as if to say, Feel free, you tiny man, you can’t eat all of me. It was a good trait for a horse stepping steadily forward on a night trail of uncertain provenance and destination. Rowena Balfour snugged herself in the saddle and slept the way any person would sleep on the largest animal she had ever encountered as it paced into the unknown. The night figure of the two of them climbing up and through the desolate hills was a fantastical caution to the nocturnal critters jostling in the sage.