Artwork by JOHN LANGFORD
The smell of burning wood. The endless desert. Her face looks crisp. The man leans over her. His name is Wild and he’s a former soldier. His troop was attacked by a group of Tigua or Pueblo Indians. They attacked in response to an army raid on their tribe. Wild happened to be out scouting when the attack occurred, so he had a ready made excuse when he explained to General Sipley why he was alive. He still found himself discharged, partially because his entire troop was dead and partially because there are some preexisting questions about Wild’s honesty – this was a man who told his commanding officer that he had encountered “ghosts” near the Rio Grande, which turned out to be Pueblo Indians covered in dust. This incidence, which almost caused a small battle, and Wild’s convenient survival – in truth, the man was stealing money from his troop and chose this time to desert, only to forget his gun. Wild wasn’t the most convincing soldier and now it looks like he won’t be the most convincing bounty hunter either.
He was supposed to recoup on a bounty for a woman named “Calamity Jane,” but the picture looks nothing like the face in front of him. Even if this was Calamity Jane, no sheriff would approve of a transaction involving this body. Wild didn’t know much about bounty hunting, but he assumed that you needed eyes and a nose to be certified as the body. This face had neither.
“DAMN IT” Wild stamped about in a circle, cursing everything under the sun. She was worth $5,000 and he needed money. His canteen of water was feeling perilously empty and he had only three more bullets for his pistol. A likely story could be that he carried three bullets because Sipley trusted him so little that he would not extend him a full barrel’s worth of bullets, but it would be truer to say that he had simply lost all of his other bullets with his pack one night and this was the reward. His pistol, soiled yet death-dealing, banged against his right thigh over and over again.
Wild gazed around the burnt ranch. Whispers of Calamity Jane had echoed throughout El Paso and Wild, fresh from his first victory as a bounty hunter – he killed a no-legged man named “Shorty” – felt that this bounty had his name scrawled all over it. A wild man chasing a calamitous woman. The newspapers would love it: “Former soldier captures rabid woman.” The lady probably wasn’t rabid, but she was dead.
The sun slowly set in the west behind him, as Wild sat astride his horse. He had been contemplating burying Calamity Lady for a time and was no closer to a decision. She was a woman, but she also was dead. Touching dead people cursed the living, or so Poppa had told Wild in his childhood.
Wild began to make a fire. This was probably his best skill and the one that got the most use in the army. He even made fires for General Sipley. It was unfortunate for Wild that he wasn’t any good as a marksman or as a tracker, but Poppa always said that, “God gave you the gifts he wants you to have.”
As he stared into his masterpiece of a fire, thoughts swam back into his head, his perceptions of the encounter from a few hours ago. He arrived at this run-down ranch around midday. He had heard word that she was camped at a ranch in the southwest of Texas. The sun-burned, dark-haired bounty hunter rode slowly down towards this seeming mirage, until he discovered that it was as solid as he. Venturing through the gate, a shadow passes his eyes in the window farthest to the right. The window whips open and a small, angry head emerges. Her eyes burn him, in an entirely different manner to the sun. Pain, resentment, fury, and hopelessness gathers there. Out follows her hand, the woman brandishing a lit candle.
But Wild does not stew over the matter of a lit candle during a sunny day, his fear grabs him and he pulls off a perfect shot, one any Texas Ranger would be jealous of. He knows that killing her will not cost him the bounty, as it calls for her dead or alive. But killing always sits strangely in his stomach so he shoots her in hand.
His reasoning, while sound in theory, proved fatal in practice as she dropped her candle onto her dress. He would never know why she had a candle or why he shot at it. But the flames licked up her leg and then up her hide-out as she did not come out to surrender. He could not understand why she hadn’t surrendered. But an unrecognizable voice cut his ponderings short.
“Oi, mate! You seen a woman, goes by the name of Calamitous Janice?” A tall man looked down from his tall horse at Wild.
“Well, suppose I had, but she has no face and the bounty wants her to have a face, which she very much does not,” Wild replied. “Her name was Calamity Jane, not Calamitous Janice.”
“Sheeeit, thought I was gonna make me some dinero today,” the tall man looked towards the west. Wild thought he saw the beginnings of a storm, far, far off in the distance, the only God he will ever see in life.
“Who are you?” asked Wild.
“My mother named me Jesus. She thought’d that make me a good Christian man. But I don’t think the woman knew I’d end up as a bounty hunter. Killing man is one of those commandments I think,” the tall man responded.
“Are you here for this bounty as well?” Wild wondered if this man would join him, he could make fires and Jesus could kill the bounties they came across.
Jesus looked at Wild with an amused smile. “You speak awful formal for a bounty hunter. Did you go’ta school?”
Wild stared back and replied, “No, sir, my mother made me learn the alphabet and write with her every day.”
Jesus cackled and said, “Mother sent me out to work the field when I was smaller than most’th horses. I can’t write my own name.”
Wild continued to plan, now with the understanding that he could teach Jesus the alphabet and how to write his name. He also noticed the storm that just minutes ago seemed hours away was now right on top of them.
“G’damnit! I hate water. Except t’drinking kind. I like that water,” Jesus was looking towards the burnt house, now being doused by the spring from the sky.
Wild smiled. “Well, Jesus, I’ve been lodging at this little spot not too far from here, if you want to bunk with me.”
Jesus’s eyes peered out from under his hat. His hand drifted back to his holster. For a brief second, Wild thought Jesus might shoot him. Instead, a little piece of gold flew into Wild’s chest. He picked it up off of the ground.
“Appreciate it, mate. Tonight’s lodging fare,” Jesus gestured at the piece of gold. He reached into a bag sitting on the front of his horse. “Always keeps paint wit’ me. Sheriffs are ignorant bastards, they are. My mother liked my paintings so I keep the paint. I’m bout t’paint Calamitous face back on.”
Wild stared at Jesus, looking for any hint of humor. But Jesus’s eyes were serious and he had his hand in front of his face, making weird shapes around the deceased head of Calamitous Jane.
He begins to paint and in an a few instants, he is finished and a portrait rested in front of Wild. She’d look almost human, if it was not for the paint. “Those 5,000 dollars are ours. But g’damnit I hate being wet. Haven’t bathed in bout 15 years when Mother couldn’t hold me down anymore,” Jesus cackles again. If Wild wasn’t so lonely and bored, he might try to slip away. Jesus appears to be legitimately deranged.
The two move toward the body, place in on the back of Jesus’s horse, and push off.
A couple of miles onward, Jesus turns dramatically towards Wild. “Time t’stop, mate. The sun is lookin’ tired and I’m lookin’ tired as well.” Wild gazes down the hopeless terrain, it isn’t even wholly dark yet, but Wild is in no mood to argue. He’d rather sleep for a while.
Each man rolls out his pack and curls up. Jesus reaches into his boot and pulls out a long, blunted knife. He must have noticed Wild’s wandering eyes, for he immediately jumps into another explanation. “T’is the knife of my Auntie Gracie. She used t’pick her teeth wit’ it and someday I will use it t’pick the teeth of the wolf that killed her. I poked one of it’s eyes out so I could ‘member which wolf it was. And I know t’wasn’t a coyote because coyotes are humans dressed as coyotes.” With this last statement, Wild lets his head fall back against his pack, utterly bewildered but amused by his companion’s bizarre behavior.
A dull snarl wakes Wild. In his state of sleep, he first assumes it to be the wind, dancing through the desert on its way to the next party. But another snarl follows it and this one rushes Wild up from his sleeping roll. A one-eyed coyote stands in front of him, the shadows from the fire playing of its fur. The coyote snarls one more and Wild’s hand begins to drift down towards his holster, when an arm grabs him on the shoulder. “Quiet, mate,” Jesus cautions, “My knife has been calling out t’this one for many days.” Jesus adjusts his left leg, to the point where he almost looks like one of those silly Europeans about to duel with their silly swords.
The coyote flickers and is upon them. Jesus’s arm shoots backward and then forward, followed by a loud yell. The knife beats the coyote away but it does not cut. Once more, the two foes clash, snarls and yips mixed in a dance of life and death. Jesus stumbles over his canteen and the coyote leaps towards him. But a noise like a firecracker sounds out and the coyote’s leap does not reach him. Jesus sits there, looking ruefully, a smoking revolver in his right hand.
“Sometimes you eat the b’ar, sometimes the b’ar eat you” Jesus says to himself. He’s staring downwards at the broken knife, a somber look plastered into his yellow teeth. “Sometimes the damned b’ar breaks your knife. Auntie Gracie’d be rushing out of her grave if she knew I broke her favorite knife.” He looks at Wild evenly, who returns this stare with a perplexed head tilt that Jesus does not understand. Jesus eyes the blackness over his head and decides that it is about rain. “Time t’be moving on, mate, the rain’s chasing us and the paint on Calamitous ain’t dry yet.”
The two silently load their packs onto their horses and begin to ride once more alongside the stars with the accompaniment of thunder above. Jesus draws out an umbrella and holds it over the head of Calamity Jane. “She ain’t easy on t’eyes even in this light,” Jesus cackles merrily and thus breaks out whistling. “I like my women with long, curly, dark hair,” he states but soon turns silent as if contemplating his statement. They ride on, quietly, but comfortably.
The storm follows them like a puppy, turning the arid into muck.