The Eternal Life of the Cottonmouth Kid

I.

It was 1880 or thereabouts when I happened upon the Fountain of Youth somewhere along the Oregon and California border. I can't remember which side I was on. I don't care too much about the cartographer's lines and neither did the posse with me. It’s called the Fountain of Youth but I liken it more to a fountain of muck. We had not come looking for it, but the California patrolman had come looking for us, and so we all ended up in that same little knoll.

I wasn't the first to fall and I shoulda brought ol' Tutti Frutti to a halt all the quicker. Sometimes I wonder iffin it was best of me to hit her as hard as I did. I was sending my whip back and forth more rapid than any metronome you've ever seen, running her raw across the cascades. The knoll was obscured by a right thick canopy; it looked as the ground, but when the fastest of our group disappeared into the wouldbe-ground, I shoulda had the good sense to stop my horse.

But I didn't: and into the treetops we went, the snow-patched ground suddenly out from beneath us. By sheer luck we landed in that ancient thing; the rest of my posse didn't have the good Lord on their sides that day. That is not to say they have not been the subject of my ungodly envy on more than many occasions, but their ends were not a pretty sight to any but the four officers followin' us keen. That is, of course, not to say that any of my posse deserved any mercy. They didn't, and they didn't receive it.

First it was ol' Ryan "Viper of Valencia" Vanderpool, then Darrell "Big Witless" Whitner, and Katherine "Cold Kitty" Wakefield, then me, then following me was Oral "Ol' Dogger" Poynter. Names were good, then. Back in those times we had people called with good names, names that means what they says. Now we got great names like that but they are no longer in service to character but to currency. They call themselves like "Wheeling Dealing Darrell of Ford's Honda" and so forth. I was very fond a' mine.

Two of my posse died direct upon diving their horses nose-and-spine first into the stone below. The other two fell on their horses' sides. I think Wakefield's leg got crushed, but I couldn't be sure. The most notable of these fellows, and the best with a horse, was furthest back.

She was a special leader, that Lorena Ross. I can't choose even one layman name for 'er cause she had so many: The Queen of California, Boss Ross, the Mexican Tiger, but perhaps the one I most enjoyed was La Llorona de Oro. Did she wail like a wolf for her cubs? Course. Did we join her? You bet your hat; we howled and hooted cross the desert till she decided to take us up to Portland to settle our debts. Were her wails for her children and their ilk, the little ones lost to us? Not a chance: we hollered for gold and wherever we went we got it.

She spoke of her debts as one does the sacrosanct prayers, mumbled with a pinch of God-induced collywobbles, but never to us. It was always into a tin cup or her last round of drinks. "Coldwell's gonna pay for everythin' one of these days. We're gonna show up in Portland and we're gonna take what was taken away. Then we'll take more." None of us could ever reckon what rightfully she was talkin' about; but it sounded liked Coldwell owed her some massive sum, and for massive sums we'd ride damn well anywhere.

Boss had a habit of running us from the back; she liked having all her eyes on us when we was riding. "Y'all are finnickier than cats," she'd say, "but y'all don't got the instinct to land on your feet." She proved correct. These lawmen been pursuing us for days and we already killed a few of 'em, but a hidden crevice where the plains begin to become mountains? Count us all dead. Another reason she'd take up the back—and I remember her stature, bold and noble, as she squared her shoulders and spake, "Besides, if I ain't close to our pursuers, how's I going to go about shootin' 'em for ya?"

She carried with her a pair of six shooters she used to good effect; I heard them goin' off as I collapsed into the hidden alcove, and I heard too the thunder of the horses as she changed direction and took the rest a' the lawmen with 'er. Then I heard nothing but water. I wanted more than anything to follow her, but my attention was right booked out with all that drownin' business.

When your mouth is open and it fills with water, you drink it as you attempt to breathe. It creates a natural animal-panic, and in that way, me an' Tutti-Frutti were doin' just the same, flounderin'.

I do not know the lawmen's names but one. Three of them was wise enough to turn their horses and get oriented toward my boss in flight. The other one, though, was too young to know any better.

The lawman thought to take a jump with his horse down below but the horse mislanded and its front leg was twisted and mangled where it fell over the rank fount, splashing him in with me along its way. I will admit, before I knew the man, that there was some anger within me: Everyone says you'll be dying alone, thought I, and yet even now I don't know peace from the law.

It was a foolish thought, to be frank, but you ain't worrying about how your thoughts sound when you think you're dying.

That fountain's got hundreds of little viney plants all growing haphazard and waywardly. A damn good chunk of them decided to insert themselves where they don't right belong, in my mouth and my nose. They felt near to my lungs.

It should come as fairly obvious that I ain't never drowned before then, so I wasn't quite sure when it was supposed to stop.I kept drowning and drowning and never dying when I thought the last bit of air was sapped from my lungs. Then I pushed up, and took air. It was the most violent baptism ever taken in church or out.

After a time I managed to grab hold a' Tutti's mane and she pulled me out. Stubborn, but loyal, that old horse. 'Cept she wasn't looking so old; she looked more energetic than the day I stole her some 11 years previous. I immediately fell by the wayside, waterlogged, but when I finally stood I felt downright spunky, like I could run a million miles and never stop. But I wasn't happy then, cause I found that the young lawman had sprung from the water and was shootin' at corpses.

With a rattle of my skull I'd pulled out my gun, but it was wet and wouldn't ignite. Tossing it aside, I grabbed the lawman and shoved him away. He had already left holes in my posse, but it looked the bullets didn't bother 'em and the fall had done the hangman's job.

When he stood and finally I got a good look at 'im, he was not but a youngster, barely a man. His hair was curled and rich with color like the soil and horse's manes, and his eyes seemed almost too fine for his position; their grey-and-green seemed better suited to an actor or a showman. As it trembled, his lip betrayed its raw-skinned warmth, pink and peach in equal parts.

"What the hell you doin' out here playing lawmen?" said I. "You ain't but a sprout."

He unloaded a bullet into me in a panic, the little trail of smoke leadin' into my chest. It hit and it hurt; that metal burned right through me. Yet I stood. I like to think I got a solid stature, and when that stature ain't affected by a bullet, I imagine it gave the young man good reason to turn to fear.

"Jesus and Mary!" cried he.

"Ain't neither of 'em here, it's clear to me. Why don't we—"

He discharged the gun again and through my gut it went. "Damn it! Stop!"

"What's wrong with you?!" His accent was like the ones from the bay. "Why aren't you dying? Why aren't I dying? I broke my whole back, I felt it!" He dropped his gun and sobbed into his hands. It was a bad habit 'a his. "I ain't never died before," wept he.

"Neither I, lawman. Regrow yourself a spine right quick or I'll give you one." I went to checkin' my posse, but they were already offerin' coins to the riverman. I hear the riverman don't cost much so I took what coins they had. I harvested from them for a while, while the lawmen wept aside.

"Well," finally muttered he, "which one were ya?”

"Outta what?"

"Outta the ones in your gang. I know all your names. One of your's ransom was to be my meal ticket."

I took a rare opportunity. "Which one do ya think I was, then?" I sat beside him at the base of the crevice. His uniform was just startin' to dry along the cut of his shoulders.

"I know the one's still riding's Ross," the lawman recites, "and there were five others, you included. Hmm. You were a smidge taller than your average, so you… you Darrel Whittaker?"

"A smidge? That all? I ain't Darrell. That's him." I pointed to a monstrous man half-crushed beneath his dead horse. I had taken his bed roll for its width.

The young lawmen nodded his response. "Yeah, alright. Then you—you ain't Vanderpool, are ya? You don't look like you can draw a gun quick."

"First ya tell me I look like someone called Big Witless, then you tell me I look like I can't draw a gun quick?"

"Should I be concerned with how you're feelin'? What risk runs I of offending you? If ever you did get around to shootin' me it wouldn't do nothing. Sir, offending you's the least of my worries." He gave me a smile, then I realized how I was feeling. His disregard charmed me.

"Pff. Fine. No, I ain't Ryan Vanderpool, though I admire the cut of his jaw and thanks you for relating us in terms of aesthetics. That's him o'er that way." I pointed out a lovely corpse strangled in the vines and a hole in his chest.

After a moment of keen eyein', the lawmen says, "He's got the wild hair and clean face all the best outlaws got. He's better lookin' than you."

"Nah, he ain't. Death ain't flattering on any outlaw no matter how rugged the face."

"Suppose that's true. Give me a better look at you." I turned to face him, and tracked his eyes with mine. My ego still swells when I think a’ his reaction.

Wide-mouthed, he said, "I know you right well! You're Simon Cottonwood! The one they call the Cottonmouth Kid!"

"That's I. Now I hope you'll forgive me, but I don't get to talk to lawmen too often. What am I known for nowadays?"

"Well, I figured it's right where you got the name." He shook his head and narrowed his eyes. I had watched him grow increasingly vibrant, more life-fond, cleaner and stronger. That fount was doing a number on us both. Spake him, "You poisoned the well in Virginia City ten some years ago, didn't ya?"

"Hmm. That was a good one," said I.

"Ignoble, that."

"Ignoble, but effective. Would've been more effective iffin I knew their water systems more thorough."

"Effective?" asked he. "You count it effective killin' children and their mothers? Their fathers and the soldiers? People who had nothin' to do with you?"

"Not my concern. Boss told me to do it so I did it, and the goods a’ that town were ours. Now you'll have to forgive me, but I don't think I know your name from sight."

"I ain't been a lawman for very long," spake he, "but I think I'll have a proper name for myself in the next two years or so. Bellamy Norlander, Officer of Mendecino County." He reached out his palm and shook mine. His warmth gave me a start.

"I always find that the amiability of a person comes disproportionate to the amount of time they've been enforcing the law," said I. "There's hope for you yet, I'd say. What bounty has Mendecino got for me, Mr. Norlander?"

"400. Most of your posse's was round 300 or abouts. Vanderpool, 600. Ross? 1200."

I stood and completed fillin' up Tutti with the goods of the fallen. "That price is low for Ross. But well," I looked to the top of the crevice, "now you know how your other officers feel about ya, suppose."

"Suppose so. They didn't like me much. You woulda been my first bounty, my first proper meal ticket."

"Shame you died, then."

He rolled his shoulders. "Shame."

I felt around and fingered for the holes he blew in my chest, but they'd closed up. The clothes, though, revealed the mark of the minutes-old injuries. He was off starin' at nothin', hoping to get some sorta meaning from the detail of soil. Indeed, he was polite to me, and indeed, he was quick comin' to terms with his newfound immortality. I'd call his look winsome.

Takin' a lean against Tutti, I tells him, "Listen, Bellamy. You mind if I call you by your Christian name?"

He still was lookin' away, the gears in his head turnin' hard. "Most friends call me Bells."

"How old're you?"

"23, sir."

"You're right polite for a bay kid."

He shrugged. "What choice has I of being anything but amiable? Seems we'll have quite the overabundance of time together. Depending…" Turnin' his eyes toward the fountain, he took a swallow. "You don't suppose there are others what drank from this?"

"I don't do much supposin' any days. It imperils the future."

He bent his brow. "You don't look too much a thinker."

"Weren't you just sayin' you had no choice but t' lean toward amiable?"

"Look, Mr. Cottonmouth, I haven't got the slightest idea how to make my way out of here. I ain't from here. This's the furthest north I ever been, so you must forgive the chill in my heart."

I should've given the possibility more thought, then, but the insidious warmth of infatuation in my gut dominated what little figurin' I allow myself. "I'll still be your meal ticket, if it ain't too offensive to ya."

"What you plannin'?"

"I'm meetin' up with Ross. She ain't a leader you just leave, and I hear this Coldwell had done our boss and our posse mighty wrong. I was just figurin' it'd perhaps be best for us to stick together, figure out limits 'n all that. I'll get ya to Portland. Turn me in, if ya like, but Ross'll break me out. Besides," I fastened the last of my material bounty to Tutti, "we've got enough to last us a season. Find us some fur trappers before winter and we can charge any price we like for this gear. And these unfortunate others, well, they ain't needing their heads anymore. The winter'll keep 'em recognizable till you make it to an office and you can get as much cash as y'need."

The thoughts churned behind his eyes as he looked over the dearly deceased. Then he blinked. "If I brought in all these outlaws… I bet I'd even get my name in the paper."

This whole arrangement would be easier than I thought. "I bet you would, boy."

II.

In all matters of business and pleasure and thought, Bells was a vigorous man. When he made love he made it fierce, when he made discussion he made it deep, when he made work he made it fruitful. As I waited outside, he took the heads of my posse to the Marshall of the Eugene Police Department and made a claim so bombastic—that he had killed and caught all of them with the help of his lawmen's posse, and they required additional fees—that he came out with enough funds to buy us more than a few fine horses.

Once he'd settled into the front spot on ol' Tuttie, we joked and laughed our way outta Eugene. I says to him, "Half that's mine, ain't it, Moneybags?"

"Half of everything I got is yours," spake he, over-affectionate as oft as he was standing.

I had seen a lot a' things, and seen a lot a' scary things, but a shock like that takes time to settle. Never had I shared anything with anyone. Never had anyone shared anything with me. Too quickly he'd taken to me. I had expected more reluctance, more impureness, more conniving conflict-mongering. It's what I'd been used to, anyway, and this man, in his pureness and joy, left me blindsided in more ways than one. I came to wonder, that fall and winter, if he hadn't been playing me from the moment he knew my name. But I have yet to see signs of his enthusiasm fading. In the cold mornings he kept me close, and he made me coffees from stolen beans. Never had I thought such joy and playfulness could be contained in one person. We took our travel toward Portland as a meandery joyride. He almost made me forget all about Ross and her efforts in pursuing Coldwell.

But for a while, it was me, Tutti, and Bells. He reckoned up names for the ol' mare like Rooty-Tooty Tutti Frutti and more as we went along: Tuttankhamun Fruttankhamun, Lady Tuttie of House Frutti, and Two Fruit Suit. He'd call her somethin' different every time he referred to her good name. To this day his wit keeps me right amused.

We were so close those days letting him sleep was a chore; we were driven to each other in such a way that being without one another lent itself to a frothing impatience. Yet we knew, we both knew, deep in our hearts and in the front of our heads that we'd have an awe-inspiring and terror-inducin' amount of time together across the cascading cosmos that only age alone can render. We were locked together forever, we felt, our minds questioning the reality we had entered. When there are no more people, what then? When there is no more earth, what then? When even galaxies fold and collapse what left will there be for us? Me, Bells, and Tutti Frutti? A horse and two men in nothingness for the rest of nothingness? Seems mighty lonely.

At the time I hid my thoughts. What'll happen when this all burns and there is nothing but cosmos and more stardust of the dark beyond? And when that, too, folds up, where shall I be then?

I asked Bells all these things one morning in a cabin roundabouts Eugene. He kept his attention on a frying pan spittin' with the grease from our breakfast. Quiet lawmen always unnerved me.

Finally, he spoke. "Reckons I that's best a thought for another time."

* * *

When I first arrived in Portland, there were no bridges along the Willamette and no firs in the valley. There were no trams and no downtown to speak of, and Washington Park was little more than a wide pack of trees. The city—barely born—was caught between several forces: its police (still a might tightly-curled what with the automated officers here in 2097, if you ask me), its populace—a hearty folk—and the underbelly types. I fit us in well among the underbelly types, makin' sure Bells didn't go stickin' out his pinky too often and Bells fit me in well among the populace types, making sure I didn't go stickin' out my gun too often.

Findin' Ross was my first priority, but the grip of affection does funny things even to the most logical-minded of outlaws. Between a fresh city and a fresh lover, I had my schedulebook right packed. If patience is a virtue then I am a saint. I got all the time in all the world and nothin' to do with it. We kept to our task diligent-like, but Ross had a lotta rumor and myth spread about her. It took us several months of talkin' and eatin' to find 'er trail.

We weren't runnin' low on cash cause Bells enforced a strict use a "his" "hard-earned" "honest" money. I mocked him for it on more than one occasion.

"And why can't I go gamblin'?" I'd ask in the evenings on our porch. Northwest Marshall street was a bastion of peace and it has remained that way for two hundred years.

The lawman had a habit of readin' these little artsy pamphlets. "It's against the law."

"It's just poker, Bells."

He set down his little pink papers with a slap. "It's my money, Simon."

"Yeah, that you got cause a me."

"Receipts are under my name fair and square. I can produce the paperwork for you."

"I can't read the paperwork so it don't count. Besides, the day I recognize paperwork's the day I walk into the Pacific. I'm stealin' your money and goin' gamblin' with it, Bells. I'm gonna break every law I can. Maybe someone'll call the police and they'll show up and you'll be there."

"People in Portland ain't gonna call the Mendocino police." He didn't move as I reached into his bag.

"You underestimate the Portlanders."

I eventually lured him into comin' drinking with me, but he was much too soft for the whole endeavor. Insteada gettin' rowdy, he started singin'. He was much too good at it, leading a song and movin' the entire place to chorallin' and dancin' and drinkin'. Made me feel like the worst drinker in the world, but also a happy man. Life's a balance between being a happy drinker and a happy man, after all.

I did not feel a particularly happy man the next morning, where I woke with too much poison in me still and too bright a’ sun outside the saloon. There was a little note in my waistcoat with familiar handwriting. I could tell it was Bells without even bein' able to read the words.

I paid the old bartender to read it to me. "I heard a rumor about your girl. Investigating outside of town along the track. Estimates I it's the 9:43 that your girl's on."

I took Tutti and rode to the train stop—it was nothin' more than a bundle of tripcocks and scaffolds at the time. Ridin' further on, it was not an hour before I encountered one of the long, steep plains of Shadowood. Trees there flanked the open yellow meadows and the railroad striped through it clean and straight. As the sun rose, I followed the glimmer of the polished steel all the way toward a flies-thick meadow overlooked by a little ridge, no taller than I.

On that ridge was a good-lookin' man with a better-lookin' breakfast and a fine camp. When I dismounted, leaving Tutti to go wherever the hell she'd like, he smiled up at me. "You're just in time. Come give me a mornin' kiss."

"What in the hell are you doin' out here?"

"I found Ross. I gotcha coffee." He offered me a tin cup filled with sludge. He treated the entire endeavor as though it were some casual outing on a Sunday afternoon.

The man never fails to surprise me. "Where's she?! How'd you find 'er?!"

"I heard a man talkin' about her after you'd passed out and paid him handsomely for his rumors. Anyway, she's out there." He motioned with his own cup toward the vast plain a' wildflowers interrupted by a cut of train track. A woman stood between the tracks. It overwhelmed my heart to see her again. Only then realized I; last I saw her I looked a good decade older than I do now. Would she even recognize me?

She wasn't lookin' toward me at all; she watched the sun and the tracks.

"What's all this'?" I asked Bells. "You campin' and eatin' here?"

"We had breakfast." He sipped from his coffee.

I looked over the scene. A bedroll, a doused fire with still a heavy fryin' pan above it, a few cups and aged cutlery. "Did you."

Bells had a bad habit a' given me some kitten-mouthed face that encouraged in me both affection and discontent. "You're not jealous, are you?"

"Course not." I took a seat beside him and took bread and beans from the pan. "What in the world's her plan?"

"The train's comin'." Indeed, in the distance a tar-spewin' engine approached.

"Doesn't answer anything I asked."

He bit into stale toast, then pointed with his elbow toward the mighty engine. "She plans to pull a gun on that train."

"It's goin' full-speed. How's she plannin' to get on it?" asks I.

He narrowed his brow. "That ain't what I mean."

The metal beast rushed along its trail, spewing charcoal smog in twining cumuli. We watched Ross meander over to the tracks and stand on them squarely, disturbing the cut of the horizon. Sideward came the train; approaching no quicker than my heartbeat.

Proclaims I, "Of all the lousy ideas, this is the one that'll kill 'er."

The train let blow its monstrous whistle, but still Ross did not move. She tugged from her pants a long, fat revolver. Along the earth's curve came the train; her shot fired and a long twine of smoke followed it. She brought up a languid arm and shot another line of smoke across the sky.

The smoke crisscrossed from her dark form toward heaven. Now I know rightly that trains ain't capable of thought, but this train was as frightened a jackrabbit as I ever seen. It came to a sluggish halt with a great metallic squealin' that split the meadow's soundscape to burstin' like a ripe pomegranate.

Our boss stood on them jangling tracks nice and relaxed. She didn't have to go anywhere—she let her prey approach. The train came to rest ten feet or abouts away from her, and as the engine lay hissin', her voice rang out o'er the plains. "Get off the train, Coldwell! Let me see your pretty face!"

A United States Federal Officer popped out his head. "Ain't no Coldwell here. You're delusional."

"That what you been paid to say, hmm?"

The officer cleared his throat and slipped back in. All was silent for a time. Then a posse of officers popped out their heads, and their guns. "Coldwell ain't comin' out! Be on your way, outlaw, or we'll bring you in!"

She kept both her guns pointed toward the sky for the same reason a cat arches its back. "You can tell Coldwell I'll be real nice."

"Move out a' the way or the train'll run you over! We won't hesitate!"

Ross stayed her ground. "Real nice." The train whistle blew unexpectedly and it gave Bells a start. Ross didn't move. "I ain't spooked a' loud noises, gentlemen. Bring me Coldwell."

The stand-off remained silent for nearly two minutes, everyone's guns pointed every which way.

"Should I help her?" asked I to Bells.

He watched the scenario as one does a theatre show. "Does it looks like she needs help?"

The officers returned to their steel turtle-shell. Nothing could be heard from within over the hiss a coal. The door from the first train car opened. One of the officers jumped out and held out his hand to a debutant a’ the laciest caliber, who balanced her high-heeled boots along the rusted iron ladder. She wore a purple n' gold dress that puffed along the sleeves and a corset laced so tight Ross coulda put her hands all the way round her waist. The lady looked like she coulda' stepped straight out of havin' tea with the Queen.

Bells elbowed my side. "When's Coldwell gonna come out?"

"That there is Coldwell. You've been with too many men for too long."

He stirred his coffee. "... Hm."

Ross called out, "I think we got some debts, sweetheart!"

"I own this train, chikorita! Best get out its way!" I liken Coldwell's voice to church bells both for their beauty and their strength.

"Half of all you've got belongs to me. We can make this easy and quick; give me half your goods legally with our lawyers' involvements or I'll take it from you illegal." She waved her guns.

Coldwell approached, flanked by several officers. "Come now, is that all you want?"

"Sweetheart, I welcome you into my bed any day."

"Stop sleeping outside like a damn animal and I may consider it."

Ross pointed the side a' her gun toward the officers. "You tell these fine working men that you stole half of my loot from the Virginia City job? Didya tell them that you lied to me in perfumey letters for years and years, makin' me think you'd share the wealth between us?"

Coldwell brushed the wayward thistles from the frill a her skirt. "These fine gentlemen don't care what I've done. They care that I pay them."

"You owe me half your little business empire and I'm here to take it. No matter how much time you spend in or outside a' Portland you're gonna find my wrath waiting for you."

"Admit it," Coldwell replied, "you were too head-over-heels for me to realize that I never promised you anything. There was plenty of warmth between us for a few years, then I moved on. You've lost too many years to me already, and outlaws like you don't have very long lives. I have a world of wealth laid before me. Now quit doggin' me and do somethin' better with your short life."

"Doggin'?!" Ross responded. "You dogged me for years! You wanted me back with your pequeñas tea parties estúpidas y tus vestidos incómodos, y tus familia mas torpe!"

Coldwell scoffed. "You are in no position to smear my family, pendeja!"

"When Ross speaks Spanish," tells I to Bells, "you know she's real worked up."

The two got into a shoutin' match that carried over the plains. All the yellin' made me want to holler along with them. "The two a' you ain't fit to share a horizon!" I called out. "One of ya's a thief and the other… " I didn't know what to say. "... A nobler thief!"

The two kept at their shouting. Bells shook his head. "You sound like a clod."

"I got caught up," mumbled I.

Eventually Coldwell threw her handkerchief on the ground and got back up in her train, Ross yellin' after her. Coldwell let Ross climb the ladder to the door then shoved her off with her heeled boot. She slipped the door shut and immediately the train hissed and the massive couplin' rods began to spin the wheels below. I heard Ross cursin' all the way to our little camp.

I watched the entire scenario dumbly. "This has got to be a ruse," said I to Bells.

He shrugged. "Women got them deep emotions. Real deep emotions. When they love each other it's even deeper than the sea."

"So she came all this way so she could fight her lover?"

"As I tells you, oceany emotions."

Rollin' my shoulders, said I, "She was a fool for fallin' in love with some rich prick. The rich'll always take from you even though they got enough."

His hand twitched a bit as he awkwardly cleared his throat. "The rich ain't all bad."

"Some of 'em are philanthropisten' up and down the coast but it's all just for looks. I'm sure you're familiar what with your parentage." I'd never heard direct about his family, but his face n' demeanor showed all the symptoms of a costly upbringin'.

"Suppose I am." He steered us toward a different topic. "Judgin' by Coldwell's dress, she seems to have done good with whatever she stole."

I understood the words but not the sentiment. "What?"

With his coffee still in his grip, he circled his hand toward the departing train. "That dress is silk and taffeta. It's custom-made. That don't come cheap out here."

"How do ya know? You had a lady before?"

"Nah. Those emotions get too oceany for me." He waved his riding gloves. "I just got hobbies more interestin' than yours."

I recall few moments of such offense. "What! I don't think so!"

As he watched Ross return to our perch, he did one of them upper-class sneers. "What're yours, then, bucko? Drinking and smoking and shooting? Mine's seamstery and poetry and law enforcement. You tell me which is more interesting."

He thought he was smarter than me. "Seamstery ain't a word. It's seamstressery cause it's a woman's job."

"That's where you're getting confused. Women's jobs can be men's hobbies and everyone's nonetheless impressed."

Lookin' tired an' displeased from the hike up, Ross set herself down beside us as she spake, "The term you gentlemen are looking for is tailoring."

"Right, tailoring," spake Bells, "haven't had much time for it these days. I was just telling your comrade here, Miss Ross, that Miss Coldwell's dress is right costly."

"That it is. Her pride's gonna cost her more though. I'll make certain of it. You still in, Simon?" She eyed me close, and I saw in 'er a growin' suspicion. Her show was subtle, but she knew there was somein' dubious about my look.

"Course I am. I'll follow you to the ends of the Earth."

Finally laying herself down and tossing her belt aside, she says to me, "You're a loyal outlaw. Ain't enough of you out here. Where's the others?"

"They died in the fall," said I, too fast-like.

"Certainly a tragedy," added Bells. We both failed to mention what we did with their bodies and their gear.

She licked her lips in thought. "... Is that Vanderpool's scarf?" She referred to the silk rag around my neck, a fine specimen of black and gold paisley. I saw her transfer her anger from Coldwell t' me, an' I cleared my throat.

"I couldn't tell ya where I got it," lied I. Bells kept his nose in his coffee.

She narrowed her dark eyes. My entire time in the gang was spent avoiding that glare. "And them's Darrell's boots?"

I cleared my throat again, a tad too loud-like. "Last we bought shoes we did it together. Perhaps a similar cut."

"You always were a vulture." She brought a pipe from her bag and started packin' both of 'em in turn. "They'll be plenty a' monetary pickins for you after we find where Coldwell is keepin' her loot. I'll be needin' you and Tutti—is that really ol' Tutti? She's lookin' spry. What've you been feeding her?"

Bells looked to me as he bit his lip. I told her only the truth. "... Carrots, apples… hay..."

"Anyway!" announces Bells, "I've got a question for you, Miss. As I understand it, and I ain't an outlaw so don't go judgin' me too harsh, but didn't a lot of things happen to you since you last seen Simon?"

She let smoke twine from her nose and lips. By the bend of her brow, I judged her right discontent with my actions and Bell's distraction. "Nothin' different than tryin' to find her. I'm more concerned with what happened to you. Dios no hace a los ángeles más hermoso que tú." Though it was a kind statement, she rendered it with a bit a harshness.

"Tampoco los hace con tan poco cerebro," Bells spake in the way they call gringo.

"I didn't know you were a man of two languages, Mr. Norlander." She smiled at him. Now they was smilin' at each other, but she was angry at me? I should've given them both a proper piece a my mind, but at least according to Bells, I didn't have much mind to spare.

"All my family's servants speak Spanish. I figured it was nice to talk with them," spake Bells.

The statement roused in Ross a new flush a' discontent. "That's what I forgot to punish you over, Simon! Don't think you're just gettin' away with cannablizin' our group and then this one. He's right amiable, but what're you doin' going and getting cozy with policemen? I didn't expect you to misinterpret my teachin' so thoroughly."

Bells put in, "For what it's worth, I haven't showed up to my job in months. I'd be surprised if I was still on the ledger. Besides, I have no reason to bring anyone in."

"You had breakfast with him. You know he's a charmer," muttered I. "Besides, we've got… something of a special circumstance. One that I think you'll wanna hear about. Something that'll make my scavagin' seem a little more noble."

She took off her gloves. "You're tellin' me you got a fair excuse for stealin' gear from your dead gangmates, leavin' em to rot, then going an' fuckin' around with the law and not in the way you're suppose to?"

"It's…" Bell started, not quite sure where he was goin', "... actually much bigger than alla that."

"It really is. We, uhm…" I cleared my throat. "We… found this fountain, y'see… well, fell into it is closer to the truth…"

III.

The fountain fascinated Ross. We took her to it once, twice, thrice, over the next year, then once a' summer for the next two decades. She watched herself reflected in the muck-thick water for hours at a time, thinkin'. Sometimes she braided n' rebraided her black hair over an' over as Bells and I explored the area. We found no pipes in the soft dirt, no means a' the fount refilling itself.

We always let Ross to her ponderin' no matter how long it took. On those long trips Bells would bring a little chalkboard in his pack and he'd make me write out them letters. He told me how to pronounce each a' them, makin' me move my mouth in all the peculiar ways this miscreant language demands. It seemed a mite unnecessary. What good was it to my brain to look along the Willamette and see the reeds? Or to know that Tutti needed beeswax for her saddle? What good did it do me to look across the land and see the word horizon in my mind? I asked him as such over the gurgle a' the rank fount.

Bells kept one a' his hands on my little lesson book. "Y'know that building on Stark out 'twixt Park and Broadway?"

"Aye. It's a bank."

He looked like his patience was runnin' low. "Nah, think about it. What does it say above the door?"

"... Bank."

"Don't go makin' up lies."

"I really reckon it's a bank," said I, "I was plannin' on robbin' it."

Bells sighed and closed his little ABCs book. "It's a library, Simon, you don't gotta rob it. You just go ask 'em for books and they give 'em to you."

This information set me to ponderin' almost as hard as Ross. "That don't sound like how it works in this here country."

"Well, you gotta give the books back. Otherwise you can take them whenever you want."

Bells reckoned I had learned to read quick. He said it'd take my brain a while to catch up with the words, but I know my mother tongue better than he thought. The Portland Public Library proved to be, in fact, not a bank. Bells lent me his card an' I took glances at the proper books while I read through the children's endeavors. I'll always thank the likes of Alice and the foolish Mr. Rabbit for their help. I read alla' Black Beauty to Tutti, who snorted along whenever I got to a part that talked about her kind's sufferin'.

I read all the ol' books between jobs with Ross. She never made a new posse; she stayed in Portland, robbin' banks and payin' off the police every which way. I figured she was tryin' to build an empire to rival Coldwell, but she lacked the demeanor for it. She met with Coldwell more oft than I woulda; it was clear to me the two a' them were troublesome toward one another, but I figured it was somethin' about them oceany emotions I didn't quite know. The two a' them almost seemed to be playin' a round of sport; one would fill up the banks or a rich merchant, and Ross would empty the bank or capture the merchant, and together for years they tugged Portland back an' forth.

She asked us to see the fountain at least once a month, an' we always went, though she never drank from it. She got more polite as she got up in years. Said she on more than one occasion, "I hope you don't mind me keepin' you fellas goin' back. Your predicament has left me plenty to think about." I expected I'd be watchin' her fade, but with every year she seemed to turn more toward her own preferences than those a' others. She had always been that way, but her resolution sharpened with every iron year that struck her.

"Don't you mind us," Bells would say. He was just as pristine as the first day I saw 'im. "It's not like we're gonna run outta time."

Ross ran out of time; she got sick. She got rock fever, which nowadays is called somein' different. I can't remember how it's called. Somethin' or other pasta-soundin' typa name all the diseases got nowadays. Ah, brucellosis. I don't know how doctors keep tracka all them names nowadays. I'd have a much easier time rememberin' the likes of privinil or metphormin if doctors named themselves after their most bountiful perscriptin'. I ain't never seen a doctor 'sides bein' born but I'd respect the hell outta one if he was called Dr. Victor "Vicodin" Frankenstein. I have realized I know the names of no real doctors.

Brucellosis left Ross constantly sweatin', feverish and angry, which was like she normally was, but with more sweat. The old lady knew her time was comin'. As with everythin' she had, she knew how to render it inta a weapon. "As a leech draws out the sick," spake she, "so shall the sick draw out the leech."

She made a show a' her sickness to the old maid Coldwell, whose attitude turned from prissy to perturbed, and she offered the most expensive doctors you could conjure for the old outlaw. The year was 1918; she pulled even from the East Coast the finest doctors they had, but they all were insufficient in the face of Ross's stubbornness. The illness wasn't even the matter; Ross refused to ever let a man touch her, even to heal her.

"She's gonna die a' stubbornness," spake Bells one fine mornin' after providin' me with breakfast.

I rarely disagreed with the man. "If she's gotta die somehow, then that'll probaly be it."

"'Cept she don't gotta die. She doesn't have to. Why don't we just, on one of our fountain trips—"

Somethin' in the idea offended me deep. Ain't never thought I of makin' Ross do somein' she didn't want to do herself. "Are you sayin' we force Ross inta drinkin''? The work that water does lasts longer than God."

"Well, it'd be for her own good, y'see, her own health…"

"That's the problem with you rich types," spake I, "you always go 'round thinkin' you know best for everyone." Though my instict soured me to the idea, I couldn't deny that it compelled me.

"You ain't in a position to criticize the rich anymore, Simon." Bells waved with his silver plate butter knife all inlaid with patterns a' grapes and vines toward our porch, attached to a fine house made a' 3 floors and an attic, attached to the Alphabet District.

I took the butter knife from him and scraped it along my toast. "That's cause we've gone about unfairly accumulatin' wealth with our unnaturally long lives."

Bells considered me as 'e might some exotic statue. "What've you been readin'?"

I heard Tutti scrapin' at the dirt. Along Marshall came a sputterin' automobile operated by a silent chauffeur.

The old Miss Coldwell, herself faded, and a jaundice-skinned Ross sat in the back. Somehow Boss carried herself with more strength than the other lady, who looked downright depressed. "Simon, Bells, we got business," spake Ross. "Miss Coldwell here has agreed to accompany us to our favorite waterin' hole. Care to guide us along?"

"Aye," said I, pointin' to the machine, "but I don't trust that thing. We're takin' the horses."

* * *

With the ol' maids, the four of rode slow. Ross refused to believe she was too sick to ride, so she got a' couple a' Coldwell's fine horses and led Coldwell's horse. As usual, Bells and I used ol' Tutti's strength to carry both of us along.

We returned to the fount an' the ladies got to talkin' quick as Bells and I took care a' the horses. "I've known about this fountain for a long time now," Ross told Coldwell. "It's what's made these two gentleman maintain their look for as long as they have. I think this here's the Fountain of Youth. I was gonna drink from it myself, but I… well, I think you've noticed I got a certain fondness for ya."

Coldwell took a long look at us, then at the rancid water. "You're telling me you knew about this the entire time and never told me?" Impatience and bitterness brimmed in her speech.

Ross smiled a smile I knew not to trust. "We'll do it together. I wanted it to be special, t' be ours." She approached the fountain, pullin' along Coldwell by the hand.

"Well…" Coldwell took off her lace gloves. "Who am I to say no? This sorta thing's priceless. No harm in givin' it a try." She leaned down and dipped her hands in the water, watchin' as Ross did the same.

Together, they pulled up their palms. Ross lifted 'er head to watch Coldwell drink, then spake in near silence. "Your world will fade from you. Already we see it happening. Already our world is gone; it's only going to get worse from here, you dumb bitch." I noticed a trickle of water leavin' her hand and back into the fountain. "You thought I was an idiot this entire time. You always thought me crude and stupid. But you're the one who's fooled. Pendeja."

Coldwell stared at her reflection in the water. Her lipstick had smeared against her palm.

"You goddamn fool," Ross went on, stepping away from the fountain. "You got all caught up in us. In us! Old women. Old problems. Old fools. You've bound yourself to this heavy bitch of the earth that lays with untold horror in its belly; that's what you've done." She laughed again loud and hard. There was never a happier person beneath god's grey sky. Starin' at the basin, Coldwell trembled at the frizzle of her hair fading, her skin smoothin' and her eyes growin' bright.

"Think of these coming wars," continued Ross, "and the wars before 'em. The Great War ain't gonna end. Think of the death people have wrought by their own hands! And think that you'll never escape it. This here is Hell. You'll be here to suffer forever and ever until at last… until at last nothin'! The same! Every day until the end of time! And even then, if time comes to an end, where will you be?"

Coldwell's eyes went glassy. "You didn't drink." She was, by then, young; her back straightened.

"I didn't. But you did. This is the final thing I'll let you steal from me: a curse. I curse you now to an eternity of pain and suffering. And worst of all?" Ross pulled up one of her six shooters from her belt in a smooth motion and set it square beneath her jaw. "You're goin' to have to do it all without me. Happy trails, fuckers."

She squeezed the trigger.

* * *

Bells, Coldwell, an' I all set to burying Ross. Coldwell took her horse and left. She wept the long way home.

We walked and talked for a while down the crevice, to the light of the fadin' sun just over the trees and plains above. I took up a stalk of a heavy weed and munched it, chewin' and ponderin'. The Pacific couldn't'a been too far from us. Bells set 'imself beside me in the soft dirt.

He always had a way of knowin' when I was plottin'. Keepin' his eyes on mine, asks he, "What's got you knotted?"

"After all that's happened… I'm thinkin' of Virgina City."

He leaned his shoulder on mine. He still does it. "Most ignoble thing anyone ever did."

"And you still love me?" asked I.

"Against my higher judgement." He seemed to 'ave misunderstood my curiosity for playfulness.

I churned my hand in the air to demonstrate the revolvin' nature a' my thoughts. "Would you love me if I did something like it again?"

"I'll admit I don't like all the robbin' and scavengin' you do. A host a' things I don't like." The man shrugged.

"I'm thinkin' of doin' a follow up to Virginia City. Somein' bigger. Somein' bold. Somein' worth the decades a' wait. I think I can get it to alla' Oregon and California. Maybe the entire world if what I'm thinkin' works."

"You think poisonin' the entire world's gonna make me love you more?"

"Aye." I took him by the chin with a firm touch. But instead of pulling him toward me, I tilted his head toward the fountain. The water burbled up and splattered against the earth.

As he realized my plot, he smiled wide. "... Noble, that."

 

Sydney Meeker (he/him) is a Portland, Oregon-based writer of interactive fiction, short stories, and poetry. His work has appeared in Zoetic Press, Entropy Mag, and others. When he's not writing, he can be found playing video games, getting lost in the woods, or sometimes doing both at the same time. You can find him on Twitter @SydMeeker.

Sydney Meeker