See It There
He’s been at this hotel for two weeks now. Ephraim Lee came to New Bethlem on his way to the Pacific coast, he tells folks, to scare up some money shoeing horses and cleaning hooves, but he hasn’t visited a single ranch or stable yet. He mostly holes himself up in his room, lying on his cot, staring at the ceiling where he’s damn certain he can see Lester Finn’s face scratched into the wood, glaring back at him.
Or he holds vigil over the barroom from the gallery. Nobody much cares for him and he’s had a few rattles with the more pugnacious boys, but mostly he’s left alone.
It’s one-thirty in the afternoon and Ephraim is in the saloon, at the bar, drinking an anti-fog. His head is drooped over his glass and his hat is pulled down low over his brow. He raps the spur of his boot on the brass foot rail, slipping in and out of time with the player-piano with a dead tik–tak–tik-tak. Outside is dark—the sky is a solid cobalt and there’s a devil of a wind kicking up dust—he can hear the grit rasping against the tin roof. Inside is so hot with bodies that a film covers everything. Sawdust is sticking to his skin and he worries about being able to breathe—he tries to wipe the particles of wood from under his nose, but they only get pushed up into his nostrils. And with the thick haze of smoke, everything in the room feels too close. He sticks his fingers into his glass, picks out a stone and puts it in his mouth. He rolls the stone over the back of his teeth, but it’s lost its chill, so he spits it back into his drink. In its holster, his revolver sweats too, but the nickel plating stays cold—always.
Ephraim looks up and down the bar at the other drinkers—same motley bunch as usual. Some are like him, solitary and dark, poring over their glasses of beer or whiskey—ruminating, divining, searching the dregs like tea-readers without sight. Others are turned on their stools, commiserating in low tired husks: “‘nother uh my cattle’s dead las’ night,” and “dust storm done ripp’d the roof right off m’ barn,” or “lightnin’ split m’ cottonwood.”
Their faces are scorched and their eyes are washed a pale blue. Behind him gamblers and nannies are piled at the card tables clambering all over each other—hollering and fighting and laughing and fornicating—spilling barleycorn and pasteboards across the tabletops. He hates this place, but Ephraim hates Lester Finn more.
He figures Lester ought to have been here by now. Ephraim knows Lester’s way— he starts wide at Sault Bay in the East then circles gradually inward like he’s riding around the walls of a twister, spitting and snarling like a wild dog. Eventually he stops over in Utopia, just across the hills, and then, by boot and spur, Lester heads towards the inevitable eye of his storm, which is at this spot: New Bethlem.
Lord only knows what a bastard he’s been and to whom.
Ephraim has borne witness to a good many of Lester’s appetites. Weird things. Things to twist yer guts. And that’s why, at this terminal point, Lester Finn will die.
Ephraim’s bones are burning with fright and fury—his lips stick to his teeth and his eyes have begun to sink into their sockets. He knows Lester Finn is close. In the wake of the heat and the scouring winds Ephraim can sense Lester’s cold meanness. He empties his glass, fills a blanket, and steps out.
The weather has calmed and the sky has broken, giving way to a baleful orange. Ephraim lights his cigarette and scans the wastes surrounding New Bethlem. Save a thin, sinuous stream and some scrub, the only thing out here is low lying hills that are disappearing on the horizon.
“I can damn-near smell yeh.”
He drags long on his smoke and squints into the distance. A shot of icy wind pierces his frame. There, no bigger than a fly on the ceiling, approaches Lester Finn. Ephraim’s neck muscles tighten and his nostrils are fired by jets of smoke as he exhales. He unclips his holster and with an uncertain hand he clasps the handle of his six shooter—cold and patient.
He makes no advance.
He only waits as the fly nears, grows bigger, takes up more space, and becomes a man.
But not the man that he’s expecting. This is an ancient thing, bowed and feeble looking. Ephraim chucks his cigarette and buttons his holster. The old man pauses at the bank of the stream, takes a drink, and struggles back to his feet.
“Where yeh comin’ from feller?” Ephraim steps a little further out on the porch.
“Nowhere you’d know. Out East, long way from here. What business is it o’ yers anyway?”
“None, I reckon.”
The man steps to the porch and looks up at Ephraim with blackeyes, wide set like a bull hound.
“Ain’t yeh got no sense o’ propriety? Help an old man up.”
Ephraim reluctantly offers his hand and is caught at the wrist by a scalding, frigid grip. He heaves the body up onto the porch. So light. No heavier than a child.
Once up and steadied, the old man adjusts his hat, nods his head, and without a word, passes close to Ephraim and into the saloon. Ephraim swoons from the man’s fetid, earthy aura—he takes a deep breath through his mouth and follows.
He don’t know me from Adam. But I know it’s that damn Lester Finn.
Once back inside, Ephraim briefly loses sight of the man in the pall of blue smoke but then spies him propped up against the bar.
“Buy yeh one?”
A bit startled, the man steps aside.
“Never turned down a drink in all my years.”
“Bar dog! Two red eyes for me n’ grampa!”
Ephraim turns back to his company. “You got business here? Or yeh jus’ passin’ through?”
“I done told yeh it ain’t none o’ yer concern. So, keep yer nose on yer face!”
The bartender sets the whiskeys down in front of them.
“Jus’ makin’ conversation, grampa. Here’s to a good long life. I sure hope I make it far as you”
Ephraim rests his hand on the butt of his pistol and gulps down his shooter. He eyes the withered face as it puckers from the whiskey. Yer a feeble coot. Not at all the ol’ Scratch of yesteryear. But it makes not a damn sight of difference—things you done. He takes a draught of air and almost chokes from the man’s reek. His head buzzes like a fly and that old fire in his bones flares up. That settles things—this broken down sonuvabitch is his man and he aims to make good on his covenant with hisself and with god.
“Lookin’ like ye seen better days, gramps,” Ephraim smiles.
The old man shifts from one foot to the other and props himself up on the bar top.
“I been walkin’ a long while. Hadn’t seen man nor beast since yonder hills. First drink I had in a stretch was at that there stream outside.”
Ephraim steps in closer and settles his boot on the foot rail.
“Yeh must be tired, eh, grampa? I got a room here: a chair and a cot. Got a pint o’ red eye and good tobacco up there too. Yer welcome to it long as yeh don’t get funny on me.”
Ephraim winks slyly and shoves his trembling hands into his armpits.
“An’ who the devil’re you? What yeh fixed on that yeh want t’be so hospitable to a rovin’ ol’ stranger like me fer?”
The old man puzzles over Ephraim’s face looking to find an angle.
“I got no ace in the hole, grampa. Ain’t tryin’ to dust y’up. Jus’ lookin’ fer a bit o’ company. Been here a fortnight and hadn’t got on with no one ‘til you showed up.’”
The man searches the floor in silence. His legs are leaden and his feet can’t be felt at all. His clothes are clad in white dust and his hands ache with arthritis.
‘C’mon. We’ll have a nice jaw and you can rest yer bones afore yeh get to doin’ what it is yeh got to do.”
He looks up at Ephraim and, leery though he is, he’s awfully tired, so he accepts the charity. They quit the saloon and head upstairs.
Ephraim closes the door behind him and locks it.
The old man stops and stands with his back to his host. He inspects the room. It’s bare, but clean and has the smell of fresh pine. Ephraim steps over to the small square window by the bed and pulls the curtain closed. Outside the clouds have long receded and the sky is a block of heavy orange caught in the frame of the window. He pauses for a moment and looks down at the street below. Empty and still. He chews the inside of his cheek and knits his eyebrows. This is Lester Finn. The rotten devil’s sowed a lot o’ pain an’ misery all over this country, includin’ the very thing that lighted flame in Ephraim Lee’s own heart. He pulls two cigarettes from his shirt pocket and hands one to the man, pops a match and lights both of their smokes.
“Two Bible rolls fixed with one match.”
Ephraim chuckles grimly.
The old man moves to sit on the chair by the bed, but Ephraim catches him by the shoulder.
“Not there. Yer gonna sit down on that there bed. But, not afore yeh strip the skins from it.”
The old man freezes. He drops his cigarette on the floor. Ephraim unshucks his pistol and points it. He thrills at the way it feels in this moment. It’s cold. It’s heavy. It’s undeniable. He is scared. He sees the dread deed done. Almost as clear as he had seen Lester’s mocking face staring at him from the ceiling.
Ehraim’s voice trembles, “You near had me grampa. Feeble and plain though yeh look, I ain’t a sap-head and I can smell yeh. You look at me with them black eyes and know that god had me find you to do what needs gettin’ done. You know that Ephraim Lee Mars is the one handin’ down the retribution for yer transgressions. This here is where you die.”
“You listen here, son. I don’t know who yer thinkin’ I am, but whoever it is, yer wrong. I’m nothin’ but a widower and wanderer. I’m not here, but to ply my trade-mendin’ fences and whate’er else this old body o’ mine can suffer.”
“Yer Lester Finn. I can smell it. Now strip the skins off that cot, then strip yerself skinny, and then yeh can sit down and we can finish our smokes.”
Ephraim straightens himself and retrains his gun persuasively.
The old man quietly obeys. He removes the sheet, then as methodically as in preparation for a sacrament, he disrobes and sits on the edge of the bed. He peers at the floor as though transfixed by some unseen thing. Ephraim lowers his pistol and bends over to recover the cigarette the old man dropped. He places the cigarette in the old man’s mouth and lights it for him. Ephraim sits down beside him and with heavy eyes also looks at the floorboards. They sit in silence. Smoking.
Ephraim takes one final haul from his butt and crushes it with his boot.
The man is looking straight ahead at the door, with his gleaming obsidian eyes, as if trying to muster the will to save his skin, but sits stock-still.
“Lay down on the bed with yer back to me, Lester Finn.”
Without a word, the man did what he was told. Ephraim’s brain is afire like a hive of insects as he too lies down, placing his head beside the old man’s and reaching one arm gently across his shoulder to pull him as close as he can. With his other arm pressed into the mattress, he raises the nose of his six up and in between the old man’s shoulders.
Ephraim never takes his eyes off the back of the man’s head and, a final time, inhales of his man’s skin, cold and sour before he clicks the hammer and, with a jerk, spends a single bullet into the old man’s back. It tears like a fiery missile through his heart, out his chest, and gets lodged in the corner wall.
Ephraim rolls over onto his back, his chest is soaked through in the old man’s blood. Only after a long moment does he finally exhale and the panic in his head ceases. Ephraim lies, dazed, facing the ceiling and, scratched into the wood, is the face of Lester Finn mocking him.