“We kill them in the morning.”
The woman let the lace curtain fall back across the window, obscuring the view of the family waving before climbing onto their horses. Finally.
The sky had turned from indigo to the black of leather, a red moon settling over the plains.
“I thought we weren’t going to do that anymore,” answered the man. He sat on the edge of the bed, his boots still on, his travel dust flecking the checkered coverlet. He pulled his head from his hands. She was momentarily taken aback by how old he looked and she had to remember he was only a handful of years older since they’d started their journey. Creases clung to the weathered skin around his eyes, his mouth. His dark hair was thinning, balding, and the curls that remained seemed to carry a constant film of dust. Faded was the field green his eyes had been when she first met him that day outside the saloon, eyes fierce with reckless dreams.
A shock rippled through her. When had she stopped loving him? When had it happened? She couldn’t tell if it had been a moment in a day or the unwinding in a string of many hard days, one after the other. Hot valleys and wet roads and starless nights, the fingers that used to intertwine in her hair and trace her lips as he whispered promises were now curled into fists and holding only tighter to the gun.
It was the fear. Maybe. It’d been romantic once, before. Idealism had attracted them to each other but it was desperation that tied them together. Once, she had prided herself on her man—hers alone—and that there was nothing they couldn’t do together.
“Don’t do this,” the man said.
The woman closed her eyes, repulsion riding through her at the begging in his voice. She couldn’t remember when he’d started that, too. She turned back to the window. She couldn’t face him like this.
“It’s too late to want out,” she replied, her voice brittle. “You know that.”
“They don’t deserve this,” he went on. “Leave them be. They’re good people.”
He was right, of course. Thanks to them, they had a roof tonight, a place to sleep that wasn’t the dust pit of the valley or the foot of a snake tree. She could still smell the fresh corn bread they’d brought wafting through their house, could feel the after warmth of it in her stomach.
It’d been a long while since anyone had cooked for them. Hell, since anyone had opened their door and their homes to them without slamming it first. Once, they had slept in hotel beds and crisp sheets and hand stitched coverlets like these. Before the money had run out.
She was tired. Bone tired. Her body ached from riding the country roads, her neck was stiff from always looking over her shoulder, and her eyes pained from wincing into the smoky horizon waiting for trouble.
“You don’t know anything about them,” she heard herself saying. “You don’t know they can be trusted.”
She hated having to explain herself, to spell it out for him like numbers. Had he grown soft, or was it stupid? Or had she just grown harder?
“They let us sleep in their guest house,” the man pointed out, gesturing around the room, to the red rocking chair, the bear rug on the floor, the quaint stack of books and the water jug on the bedside table. It almost looked too pretty to touch. “They gave us food to eat. Sure, they didn’t say much, but they didn’t ask questions, neither. ‘Aint that a good thing? You always say so yourself—'The less they know, the better’?”
“How do you know they ‘aint riding over to the sheriff right now to spread the news? Huh?” The woman crossed the room in two strides. She stood over the man, glowering down at him. “We’re on every Wanted poster from here to San Francisco, along with a reward sweet enough to make a brother kill his own sister. They could be thinking they just won the goddamn lottery. Has that not crossed your mind?”
He shrank back a little on the bed, something in his eyes turning, something she couldn’t quite pick out. He was quiet a moment, quiet until she stepped back and out of his personal space.
Then he said, “If we’re going to kill them, we might as well do it now.”
She stopped to stare at him, assessing. There was a little of the old him she had known. The unexpected, the surprising. That man with the cocked hat and the suspenders who’d kissed her outside the saloon before he swung up on his horse with the entire sheriff’s posse chasing after him, firing wild shots into the air.
But then her eyes wandered to the bed and she wondered how soft the pillow was, if it smelt like soap, and just how long it’d been since she slept in a bed at all.
If the sheriff was coming, surely he wouldn’t be here too quick. Surely he had a ways to travel.
Her eyes swiveled back to him. “Tomorrow morning,” she concluded with a single nod.
The man watched her carefully. Was she truly tired, he wondered, or was the bravado of the road washing off of her the longer they stayed in the comfort of the room? He knew she hadn’t expected him to rise, to pass her test, she tried to hide it but it was too late. He’d seen the flash of shock in her eyes. He wanted to laugh, to tell her so. Darling, don’t you know the man you’re riding with by now?
Instead he took her hands, feeling her callouses beneath his own. She stiffened, standing straight as a boardwalk, but he knew what his touch did to her. He’d known from the first kiss outside the saloon that they were pinned together, whether she liked it or not. He tucked a strand of flyaway hair behind her ear, his fingers coming away dusty. The dust that sat in their shoes and clung to their skin, the dust that they were, and would always return to.
He pressed his lips to her ear. “Get your gun.”