A lot had been said about Wade Sutherland, and yet he had never been accused of being a poor listener. You could suppose that such a thing had landed him in his current situation, sat opposite a man in a tavern who had just confessed to the murder of no less than four souls.
Wade sold cleanliness throughout the West. He carried soap on either side of his horse, the packs swinging and clacking together in finely scented little bricks. He recalled how once he had woken hazily from a heavy night’s drinking. The smoke lifted still from his campfire and beyond that, his horse chewed down another block of soap. Wade had hastily gotten to his feet and scorned the animal; the ire taken out from his boot-swing by the humour he found in the lather gathering around the animal’s gums.
He had visited New Georgetown in a bid to sell the remainder of his stock and return home to visit a woman named Ella who had promised him her hand. This woman’s father, a man who went by Hatherstone, had made the soap. Such was the old man’s hilarity when Wade asked to marry his daughter that he foolishly opened the situation up to possibility.
‘Sure, son,’ he had guffawed. ‘Why not? I tell you what – you sell all these bricks…’
His hand rose to point out the creamy containments of cloud that ascended the walls of his barn.
‘… and I’ll even pay for a cake. How’s that?’
Hatherstone’s laughter had carried on in Wade’s ears until he’d reached his horse. Yet the next day he had returned and packed as much of the soap as he could. At first, the girl’s father had been about to notify the town sheriff, thinking the boy had taken offence at what he deemed merely horseplay. Not more than a few weeks later though, Wade returned, the sacks empty but for the smooth, greasy lint that littered their corners.
‘You sold them?’ Hatherstone asked Wade.
Wade answered with the face of George Thomas, several times over on green dollar bills.
‘I even took the money to the bank, to arrange them in bills such as you might prefer.’
The old man didn’t know whether to hug the boy or shoot him. Instead, he decided that promising the hand of his youngest might not have been such a folly after all and drove Wade further on into the bargain; this time helping him pack the soap himself.
Wade returned throughout the months that followed, each time noting how Hatherstone would replenish the pile. He never drew the old man into an argument though, hopeful that his determination in the ordeal might win out; a lesson the good book assured him was a possibility.
The last time he had returned to Hatherstone, he had done so with two horses bestride his own. He had packed more soap than the old man might have hoped and had set out determined to sell it quicker than the old man could make it. Trade had been steady at first, and then slow, before becoming worse than that.
‘So how come you’re almost done?’
The question came from a man who called himself Barbary Jones. Wade failed to believe this was his actual name though as even in the low light of the tavern he saw the initials CJ on the man’s belt.
The whisky had begun to have its effect on Wade and he asked the man to repeat himself.
‘The soap. You had a lot, sales were poor and now you’re telling me you’re almost done?’
Wade nodded and the world moved about as in a dream – oily and filled with mischief.
‘I met some men,’ Wade began, clearing his throat. ‘They were returned from the war. Filthy faces.’
‘The war?’ Barbary asked. ‘What war?’
‘The big one.’
Wade shook his head. ‘Bigger!’
‘The Civil War?’
Wade clicked his fingers and banged a hand on the table. Barbary only laughed and held a hand to someone passing.
‘Coffee for my friend,’ he said.
‘Huh?’ Wade heaved.
‘Coffee for you,’ Barbary said. ‘I’ll need you sober.’
‘I am sober!’
‘Then I’ll need you soberer.’
Wade blinked in a daze and lifted his empty glass to his lips.
‘You’ve returned to me,’ Barbary said, some time later.
Wade fixed his gaze on the man opposite and saw him now, clearer and possessing features he’d hitherto failed to see. He tried to gauge where he was.
‘Where did I go?’ Wade asked.
Barbary laughed and poured him more coffee from the pot. They sat in the same booth as before but with a thin cloth curtain hiding them from the rest of the tavern.
‘You were lost to the whisky,’ Barbary said. He placed a finger on the side of Wade’s mug of coffee, trapping the unfurling climb of steam like a cat’s tail.
‘What time is it?’ Wade asked.
‘Time for there to still be time left.’
‘Left for what?’
‘For me to finish my story.’
Wade racked his brains to recall what story it was he found himself someway into hearing. He caught glimpses that eagerly resisted his mind’s grip, as though freshwater fish in a hungry man’s hands.
‘So, let me see. What number are we at …’ Wade stared at Barbary perplexed, fearing he’d fallen asleep. ‘Oh yes, number three. Ms Letitia James.’
Wade supposed the man had chosen to regale him with accounts of the women he had slept with. Whenever he talked about his love for Ella, it prompted such recollections in men. As though love were a high-value chip placed in the centre of a gambling table and they sought to match his bet through an overabundance of lewd stories.
Wade decided to hear Barbary Jones out and then be on his way.
‘I bet you’re thinking Letitia might have worked in the bar where Charlie died or else was a woman keeping the company of rich men’s pockets. She was neither though and there as a customer. She had been sat in the corner of the place, sipping from a glass as delicate as it was tall. Strange green liquid climbed up in its body. She drew my attention at first because she kept resting a spoon on its rim, a sugar cube was sat in its curve, bubbling away in the flame of a fancy man’s match.
‘It’s funny to think how I could notice such a thing given the situation. But I did.’
Barbary took a drink from his glass of whisky and then, without asking, reached across and drank from Wade’s mug of coffee.
‘In partnership, they help my telling,’ he said to Wade, clinking the glass and the mug together.
‘In many ways, Letitia was the hardest one to track down,’ he continued. ‘Men track men and women track women, but the tongues of men are freer to give out details. I am certain in another world, and given enough money, I might have been able to persuade my father to betray my brother Charlie. My mother however? She would not have said a word.
‘Not being able to return to the tavern was a problem. I stalked it at night, hopeful that Letitia might return but she never did. Whether it was out of fear or just indifference to the place, I know not. The night Charlie died might have been the first time she had ever gone there. Although, had she been a fresh face, I find it hard to believe that the proprietor would have tolerated a request for such a strange drink as the one she held in her hand that night.’
Wade drank more of the coffee and scratched the back of his neck. He was beginning to step out from the whiskey swamp and grow tired of Barbary Jones’s story. He scratched at the corner of his eye and noted the man’s belt again, the CJ there.
‘That’s your brother’s belt,’ Wade said, interrupting Barbary as though he meant to win a prize. Barbary looked at him blankly and Wade pointed at it, replaying the words aloud in his own mind.
‘Yes,’ Barbary said plainly. ‘I told you as much – are you listening to any of my story?’
Wade hesitated for a moment, grateful when Barbary continued with his story, a weary exhale preceding his words.
‘The moment that led me to her came from out of a dream. I recalled a sweet smell from that night. Again – something impossible to pick out from the bigger things and yet there, like a star in the night sky; clear and unavoidable. Such remembrances were so vital and yet so subtle, I felt as if I was being guided along. Prompted, you might say.
‘The smell stayed with me to the effect of me having it in my nostrils. I tried to decide on its scent throughout a day and a half before I struck upon it – figs.
‘Well then, all it took was a visit to the nearest perfumery and some story about wishing to court a lady who wore a fig-smelling perfume on our first meeting and how I intended to surprise her with a bottle. The woman behind the counter said she knew the scent and the woman. She was so touched she said how a bottle was due to be delivered and would I care to do so myself? I said I would and settled the outstanding bill.
‘That was how I found out her name – a finely written label clinging to the neck of the perfume. I walked down the streets of the town, looking on the address the perfumer had written down for me. I would tilt my head to street signs and double back in that maze of a place, not once resorting to talking to someone who might later remember me. And then I found her.’
‘And you fucked her?’ Wade asked, surprised at his impatience.
Barbary looked shocked and Wade was suddenly fearful he had misinterpreted the story and instead interrupted a man’s tale of obsessive love. He had tracked her down with more than a casual determination after all.
‘No Mr Sutherland, I did not fuck her.’
‘I am sorry,’ Wade rushed out.
‘Might I continue?’
‘I rang the bell of the house as it was one that possessed such a thing – a tall white structure cleaner than most things I’d seen. The door was answered by a manservant who said Mr James was out for the day.’
‘She was married?’ Wade said, his mouth’s corners turned up out of scandal.
‘The manservant let me in and I stood in the hall of the house waiting for Letitia. He watched me for a while before he was drawn into the kitchen by a rabble and a clatter of pots. I took the opportunity to walk about in the confines of the house, climbing the stairs and noting the blank walls that ran everywhere. If a family lived there, it was one of little or no history.
‘When I came to the top of the stairs, I was greeted by a young boy named Kip.’
‘Who are you?’ the boy asked. ‘I’m Kip.’
He held a wooden train car in his small hands. The front of his blue jacket was flaky with something spilled.
‘I’m … here to see your mother,’ said Barbary.
Kip only nodded and stepped back from the top of the stairs, walking into his room. Barbary heard him talk with someone there and the voice came back, not keen to listen to his stories. Barbary took it to be the nanny’s.
Barbary walked up the remainder of the steps and down the hall, eager to keep quiet. From an open door he heard a voice singing and leaned closer to listen. From the crack he saw her, Ms Letitia James, stood in her pantalets and corset. She stood before a green dress on the bed – a dress, Barbary noted, as green as the drink she had supped that night.
She called for the maid to help her into it but her voice was still clammy with sleep. She raised a hand to her throat and coughed gingerly.
Barbary stepped inside the room and closed the door behind him.
‘Help me into this, would you?’ Letitia said, not turning. ‘How is Kip this morning? I was hoping we might take a stroll to the waterfront so he can gaze on the boats. You know how he–’
As she turned, her voice stopped dead and her hands dropped by her sides. She looked at the perfume in Barbary’s hand and smiled weakly.
‘If I screamed?’
‘Nothing would come of it but a struggle in death.’
‘Then you will keep your word?’
Letitia went to say something more but Barbary charged forwards and placed a hand around her throat. Her eyes bulged as he squeezed and her legs kicked from below her, sending the perfume bottle out from his other hand and smashing against the floor.
He swept her sideways and brought her lying down on the rug beneath her. She looked beside him, up towards the ceiling. Keeping his hand on her throat, Barbary looked over his shoulder but saw nothing other than the lamp that hung with fine crystal for company.
When he turned back, her eyes were bloodshot and her tongue had slipped from her mouth. He squeezed harder, hearing a faint click, and then withdrew his hand.
It is done, he thought. Number three.
With the smell of figs rising in his nostrils, this time for real, he pushed Letitia’s tongue back inside her mouth with the smallest finger of his right hand.
‘Which brings us to number four,’ Barbary said.
Wade searched for an answer in the stained tavern table between them.
‘You are not serious?’ he asked.
‘About the figs?’
‘About all of it!’
Barbary moved his head to the side.
‘Of course I am.’
Wade looked at the curtain hiding them from the rest of the tavern. ‘You killed a woman?’
‘Wade. Have you been listening to a god damn word I’ve been saying?’
Wade nodded furiously.
‘Then you know I’ve killed one woman, three men and have but one left.’
‘I am lost to this telling,’ Wade said and placed his fingers at his temple.
‘Would you care for a recount?’
‘No I would not. I fear your words would only serve to incriminate me when it comes to the day of your hanging.’
‘It won’t come to that,’ Barbary said dismissively.
‘Why did you kill these people?’ Wade asked desperately.
‘Because they allowed my brother to die.’
Wade brushed at his face as though it might be reshaped in the process. The coffee sat unsteadily atop the whiskey in his gut and he thought back; back to earlier that evening.
‘Now I have told you what it is I do, you do the same friend.’ Wade’s words were mixed and ran upon one another like a train suddenly halted.
Barbary looked at him and drew the curtain across the booth they sat in.
‘It is not for others’ ears?’ Wade asked.
Barbary shook his head.
‘I have some duels to fight.’
‘Like a quick-draw?’
Wade nodded, satisfied, and exaggerated a motion with his hands as though to say continue.
‘Why is that?’
‘See this here belt?’ Barbary asked, pointing at the initials on the buckle. ‘It’s my brother’s. He was killed by a bear.’
Wade sobered up some and sniffed awkwardly.
‘We were on our way to town to collect some groceries on my mother’s behalf. He was some years younger than myself. Owing to my suggestion, we took a shortcut through the woods and started on the track down to town. A grizzly, not yet fully grown, hurtled out of the trees and knocked him down. It bounded up over him in such a way I never would have expected. As if a pet, happy to be reunited with its master. I am not proud to say I almost laughed, it was so ridiculous.
‘The air huffed out from Charlie and blood too. The hit must have broken his insides. I carried a rifle with me and swung it down from my shoulder and shot the bear in the side. The animal jolted before returning to Charlie. You’ll forgive me if I do not dwell on the uglier parts of the story. They remain up here as clear as they were that day and any retelling gives unwelcome life to them.’
Wade nodded. ‘I’m sorry,’ he said, confused at his own phrase.
‘I went to reload the gun but found the cartridge had remained in the chamber, fused to the sides by the flash. I swung the loading arm back and forth but it stuck there still. So I took to swinging it into the bear and cracking the butt against its head. It only turned to me as if to declare my actions a nuisance.’
‘What did you do?’ Wade interrupted.
‘I bent down by my brother’s bloodied body and pulled his pistol from his holster, the bear raging over him and me. Standing, I drew back the hammer and placed the barrel behind the animal’s left ear. I fired and the shot burst out from the back of its skull. I drew back once more and fired again. It slumped a way but remained on its legs impossibly. I kicked its side and heaved it over, sending it rolling down and off the side of the track. So steep was the path that the thing rolled out of sight and, to my ears, kept rolling for some time.
‘I turned to my brother’s body and it was broken and bloody. I heaved him up and carried him into town. By the time I had managed to bring him there, night had fallen and the only door answered was that of the tavern.
‘When I walked inside, there were few people there. One man behind the bar, another playing at a piano, a woman drinking from a strange glass and a younger man beside her. Help me, I said.’
‘Help me,’ Barbary said. ‘Please. Do you have a town doctor?’
The piano playing ceased and the man turned on the stool to look at Barbary and his brother. He set Charlie down onto the floor and the woman drew in her breath at the sight of him.
‘Christ,’ the man behind the bar said.
‘Please,’ Barbary repeated. ‘Please help me.’
He placed his hands hopelessly on the body of his brother and felt the shreds of skin slip about beneath them. He began to weep and said please over and over, his eyes never lifting.
‘A doctor will not be able to help,’ the man behind the bar said.
‘What did this?’ the woman’s beau said.
‘A bear,’ Letitia James answered.
‘Was it a bear?’ the pianist asked. ‘My goodness.’
‘Will no one help?’ Barbary screamed, turning his enraged face upwards.
The man stepped out from behind the bar and placed a hand on Barbary’s shoulder.
‘The doctor will be asleep my boy. In any case, it is too late.’
‘You have lost him,’ the beau said.
Barbary turned towards him.
‘I have lost him?’ he returned.
‘I–’ the beau began.
‘He did not mean it in that fashion,’ Letitia James confirmed.
Barbary looked back at Charlie and noted how his face was now fixed. He bowed his head and blinked, confused at the loss.
After a moment, he undid his brother’s belt and slid it free of the belt loops. He then fixed it around his waist, letting his own belt fall to the ground.
‘You do not bow your heads?’ he asked the room.
The barman did so whilst the others remained fixed.
‘Do not insist this tragedy on us,’ the beau said.
‘Howie–’ Letitia James cautioned.
‘No, Letitia. It is his sorrow and not to be forced upon us.’
‘You’re a cold-hearted son of a bitch,’ the piano player said.
The barman looked at him in shock.
‘You all are,’ Barbary said. ‘I’ll kill you all. You have my word.’
He stepped from his brother’s body and wiped the blood on his shirt.
‘Wait a second,’ the barman said, rising and walking after him. ‘What did you mean by that?’
‘This is not the West, sir,’ the beau called out.
‘He’s bluffing,’ Letitia James said calmly.
Barbary walked from the door and left his brother’s body, bleeding still, on the tavern floor.
‘Is this story true?’ Wade asked, fresh from the recollection of it.
‘Why do you ask such a thing?’
‘It seems too fantastical to me.’
‘Did I ask the same of you and Hatherstone’s soap?’
Wade shook his head.
‘What of the fourth?’ Wade asked.
Barbary tugged the curtain open and slid out from the booth.
‘I no longer care to tell it,’ he said. ‘It was the piano player. He died messily. I wish that could have been avoided.’
‘And the fifth?’
‘Walk with me,’ Barbary said.
Wade stood and followed Barbary to the door. The tavern was quieter but still full enough that Wade felt safe in the man’s company. If his story had been true, he didn’t know whether to fear the man or pity him. The night’s story had intruded on Wade’s mind more than he’d expected; he was drawn up into a fever of another’s experience, tied limb-by-limb to its sorrow, fear and otherwise.
‘Where’s your horse?’ Barbary asked.
Wade pointed down towards where his white mare was tethered. Outside a hardware store, closed for the evening. Above it, there came a light where he figured the storeowner sat with his wife. He imagined his and Ella’s future and how, soap sales permitting, it would soon become his present.
‘Where’s yours?’ he asked Barbary back.
‘That way too. Let’s walk.’
The two men trod together down the silent street and the clouds moved sheepishly across the moon as though hoping to go unnoticed.
As he approached his horse, Wade heard the click of Barbary’s revolver. He let his head drop and brought his hands up in the air.
‘I thought I was the fifth,’ he said, turning.
He raised his eyes and saw Barbary held the loaded gun out to him, the barrel pointing back to his body.
‘What?’ Wade said.
‘I’m the fifth, Wade. I’m to blame. Didn’t you listen to my story?’
‘Well I’m not killing you.’
‘You ask such a thing?’
Barbary stayed silent.
‘I will not.’
‘There’s a place in hell for those who end their own life. That I remember from church.’
‘Is there a place in hell for those who kill women and piano players?’
Barbary studied Wade’s face.
‘Just hold the gun,’ he advised. ‘Set your finger on the trigger and I’ll do the rest.’
Wade shook his head. ‘I won’t.’ He turned and unhitched his horse from its post when Barbary swung the gun into his back. He fell to his knees and arched backwards in pain.
‘What in the hell?’ he asked.
‘Do it or I’ll shoot you here and you’ll never return to Ella.’
Wade stood and Barbary drew his arm back to hit him once more.
‘Stop,’ he said, raising his hands. ‘Just stop.’
‘Please,’ Barbary said.
Wade studied his face and saw a longing in his expression. A determination to, in some way, be forgiven. Over Barbary’s shoulder he saw a man watch them from an open window.
Regardless, Wade nodded slightly and Barbary spun the gun around in his grasp. Wade placed the wooden butt in his palm but kept his finger from the trigger.
‘What will I do,’ he asked, ‘when I kill you?’
‘You’ll go sell your soap, Wade Sutherland.’