This story has been drawn from Vol. 1 No. 1 of The American Reader, available here.
My brother was the first man to come for me. The first man I saw in the raw, profuse with liquor, outside a brothel in New Mexico Territory. He was the first I know to make a promise then follow on through. There is nothing to forgive. For in the high violence of joy, is there not often a desire to swear devotion? But what then? When is it ever brung off to the letter? When they come for our blood, we will not end, but go on in an unworldly fever.
I come here to collect, my brother said from the porch. If there was more I did not hear it for Uncle Bill and Aunt Josie stepped out and closed the door. I was in the kitchen canning tomatoes, standing over a row of mason jars, hands dripping a wat’ry red when in stepped a man inside a long buckskin coat.
I’m your brother, Jackson, the man smiled, holding out his hand.
I did not know him. And he did not in particular look like me.
I’m Lavenia, I said, frantic to find an apron to wipe upon.
I know who you are, he said.
I put my hands up.
Dudn’t matter, he said, and the red water dripped down his wrist, We’re kin.
With the sun behind him, he stood in shadow. Like the white rider of the Four Horsemen come to conquest, and I woulda cut my heart out for him then.
Jackson walked to the stove and handed me down an apron from a hook, saying, I reckon we got the same eye color. But your shape’s your ma’s.
I couldn’t not go. Uncle Bill and Aunt Josie saw me fed but were never cherishing. I did not dread them as I did their son, Cy.
What comes in the dark?
Always I heard his step before the door and I knew when it was not the walking by kind. I would not move from the moment my cousin came in, till the moment he went out, from when he took down my nightdress, till I returned to myself to find how poorly the cream bow at my neck had been tied.
In the morning, when Cy was about to ride into town and I was feeding the chickens, we might joke and talk, or try. I had known Cy all my remembered life. We had that tapestry of family to draw upon.
That night Jackson came for me, I heard Cy’s step. My carpetbag, which I had yet to fill, fell from my hands. Hush said the air, like a hand in the dark comin for your mouth. Cy came in and went to my bedroom window, fists in his pockets, watching the ox in the field knock about with its bell. Drunk. Not certain how, since no one at dinner had any spirits but Jackson, who’d brought his own bottle and tucked in like it was his last meal.
You gonna go with him, huhn? Cy spoke through his teeth, a miner having once broken his jaw.
He is my brother, I said.
Half-brother, Cy said, turning toward me.
He’s older’n me so I guess I best listen, I said, suddenly dreadfully frightened that somehow they would not let me leave.
Jackson an me’re the same age. Both born in ‘50. You remember when he lived here? It was you and Jackson and your ma.
I don’t remember Ma and I don’t remember Jackson, I said.
It were a real to-do: your Pa joining up to be a Reb, leaving us his kids and squaw. She was a fine specimen of Indian tho. A swacking gal. They lost you know… Cy sat me down on the bed by my wrist. …The Rebs. His hands pinching the tops of my arms, he laid me back. You know what kind of man he is? I heard Cy ask. He was a damned horse thief. Old John Cochran only let your brother off the hook cause of my pa.
You done? Jackson leaned in the doorway, whittling a stick into a stake.
I jumped up. I’m sorry I’m just gittin started, I said, kneeling to pick up the carpetbag.
Get a wiggle on, girl, Jackson said, coming in.
Cy walked out, knocking Jackson’s shoulder as he passed.
Jackson smiled, saying, His existence bothers me. Hey now, I don’t wanna put a spoke in your wheel, but how in hell you think you are gonna load all that on one horse?
I’m sorry. Is it too much? I whispered and stopped.
Why are you whispering? he asked.
I don’t want them to think we’re in here doing sumthin bad, I said and lifted open the trunk at the bottom of my bed.
Look here, Jackson said, You’re gonna come live with me and my best pal, Colt Wallace, in New Mexico Territory. And Sal Adams, if we can locate the bastard, so pack only your plunder.
Jackson made like he was gonna sit on the bed, but instead picked my bustle up off the quilt. I got no notion how you women wear these things, he said.
I don’t need to bring it, I said.
You know, Lavenia, you weren’t afraid of nothing. When I was here you was a game little kid. He spun the bustle up and caught it.
I disremember, I said.
He looked at me, the tip of his knife on his bottom lip, then went back to picking, When I’m with you, I won’t let no one hurt you. You know that? he called back as he walked towards the kitchen.
Jackson threw me up on the horse, saying, Stay here till I come back. An don’t get down for nuthin. Promise me.
Yessir. I promise, I said, shooing a mosquito from my neck, I swear on my mother’s grave.
Don’t do that, he said.
Why? I asked.
Cause she weren’t a Christian.
The dark of the Texas plain was a solid thing, surrounding, collecting on my face like blued dust. The plain and I waited in the stretched still till we heard the first gunshot, yes, then a lopsided shouting fell out the back of the house. The chickens disbanded. A general caterwauling collapsed into one dragged weeping that leaked off into the dogs the stars and the cool.
The horse shifted under me.
Please, I asked, What did you do?
Jackson tossed the bloody stake into the scrub and holstered his pistol. I killed that white-livered son of a bitch, he said, jerking my horse alongside his.
And the others? I asked.
You know they knew, don’t ya? Aunt Josie and Uncle Bill. He let go and pulled up ahead, They knew about Cy. Now you know sumthin, too, he said.
Through the dark I followed him.
A few mornings after, we rode into a town consisting of a general store, two saloons, and a livery. We harnessed the horses round the back of one of the saloons. Jackson dug a key out from under a barrel and we took the side door. He went behind the empty bar and set down two scratched glasses.
You used to be more chipper, he said, Don’t be sore. An eye for an eye is in the Bible.
There’s a lot of things in the Bible. Thou shalt not kill, for one, I said, sitting up on a stool.
Waal, the Bible is a complicated creature, he said, smiling, You and I’re living in Old Testament times. He poured me a double rye. I can’t warn a trespasser not to rustle my sheep with no sugar tongue. I have to make it so he don’t come back and you don’t go bout that cordially, mindin your manners. I have to avenge harm done ‘pon me. Yes ma’am, what you witnessed t’other day was a vendetta cause I can tell you that I don’t kill wantonly.
And I don’t drink liquor, I said, pushing the glass back across the wood still wet from the night.
Truth is, he clinked my glass, I shouldn’t have left you. When I run away I mean. It’s jest bein you was a girl, and so little, a baby almost, I figured Bill an Josie’d take to you like you was their own, especially after your Ma and our Pa went and died. But those folks didn’t do right. They didn’t do right at all. We can agree on that much, can’t we?
I don’t know I guess we can, I said and a rat run under my feet.
Those folks, they weren’t expecting me to come back. Naw. But no one’s gonna hurt you when I’m around—that there is a promise.
I picked up my glass. We’d run out of food on the trail the morning before and as we broke camp, Jackson’d made me a cigarette for breakfast.
But I didn’t know what you were fixing to do, I said, runnin my tongue over the taste of ash in my mouth.
You didn’t? Let me look about me for that Bible cause I’d like to see you swear on that.
Can you even read?
Enough. Cain’t spell tho. He refilled my glass, Look, it ain’t your fault this world is no place for women.
But us women are in it, I said.
Have another, he said. Don’t dwell.
A bare-armed woman appeared in a ribboned shift, breasts henned up; she went into Jackson and said Spanish things. He smiled, givin her a squeeze, Go on then, he said to me, Go with Rosa, she’ll take care a you. Imma go get a shave and a haircut. Should I get my mustache waxed and curled like an Italian?
I laughed despite myself. The whore held out her hand, Come with me, Labinya.
Upstairs, she poured water in a washstand. Some slipped over the side and spilled onto the floor; she smiled then helped me take off my clothes heavy with stain. Her nose had been broken and she was missing two top teeth on either side. I stood there while the whore washed me like a baby. I wondered if this was somethin she did to men, lingering on their leafless parts for money.
On the bed, divested, I could not care what next would befall me. There was no sheet only a blanket; I covered my head with the itch of it and cried. I cried cause as sure as Hell was hot I was glad Cy was gone, cause I could not understand why when first Jackson took my hand I had known he was not good but bad, I knew that right then I was good but would be bad in the days to come, which were forever early and there as soon as you closed your eyes.
The whore was still in the room. But when I grew quiet, the door shut, and I could not hear her step, for the whore was not wearing shoes.
Since I was between hay and grass, my brother dressed me as a boy. It only needed a bandana. I’s tall for my age and all long lines so it was my lack of Adam’s apple he had to hide if I was gonna work with him and not for the cathouse, since my face was comely enough tho never pleased him, it looking too much like my mother’s (he said and I do not know).
In the back of the saloon, the bandanna Jackson was tying bit the hair at the nape of my neck. Lord, I think you grew an inch these last few months, Jackson said then turned my chin to him. Why’re you making that face?
Cause it pulls, I said, playing with my scabbard. Jackson had gotten me a whole outfit: a six-shooter, belt and cartridges.
Waal, why didn’t you say so? Needs to be shorter, he whipped the bandanna off, Hey Rosa, gimme them scissors again. Gal, what d’ya mean no no por favor? She said you got pretty hair, Lav. Rosa, why don’t you make yourself useful and get us some coffee from the hotel—Arbuckle if they got it—and have that barkeep pour me another whiskey on your way out. Lavenia, I am gonna cut it all off if that is alright with you.
I shrugged as Colt Wallace of the white-blonde hair who could speak Dutch and play the fiddle came into the saloon with Sal Adams who always wore a big black hat and had told me when he taught me three-card monte that his father in New York City had but half a stomach and lived on raw onions and sugar.
Hey boys, you feeling ready for a hog-killing time tomorrow? Sit down here, honey. See Rosa, Lavenia don’t mind! Jackson shouted to the whore who was going out into the night and across the street in her tinsel and paint.
Jackson, said Colt, dragging a chair to our table away from the games of chance. What are you doing to the fair Lavenia Bell?
Keeping her from launching into a life of shame, an helping her into one of profit, Jackson said, and my black hair fell down around me. Sal, gimme her hat. Lavenia, stand up. Go on. There. She looks more like a boy now, don’t she?
Sal smiled and said, Tomorrow Lavenia will be a woman of masculine will.
Colt gave an old-fashioned Comanche yell, then laughed, Sure cause she’s flat as an ironin—
Jackson had both hands round Colt’s throat. The table tipped and Sal stepped in the middle of them, steadying it. Fall back, Jackson, Sal said, Colt misspoke. Didn’t you? You understand, Colt, how such words might offend?
Choking, Colt tried to nod.
Please don’t, Jackson! I ain’t hurt none by it. Truly, I said. Listen, I don’t even want tits.
Why not? Jackson turned to look at me.
I don’t know—guess they’d get in the way of shootin?
Jackson laughed and let him loose.
Sure Sal, coughed Colt. I mean, yessir, I-I didn’t mean nothing by it, Jackie. I meant to say yeah they’ll think Lav’s a boy long as they don’t look her too long in the eyes.
What the hell you mean by that now? Jackson asked, rounding on Colt again.
He means she’s got long eyelashes, Sal said, taking our drinks from one of the whores.
Shucks Jackie, ain’t we friends? Here, Colt toasted, To good whiskey and bad women!
It was a day’s ride. Sal stayed to guard the town square and watch for any vigilant citizens with guns, while Colt and I went with Jackson into the bank, the heft of worry in my bowels. There was only one customer inside, a round man in spectacles, who Colt thrust into and said, Hands up, with his loud flush of laugh, as Jackson and I slid over the counter, six-shooters out, shouting for the two bank tellers to get down on their knees.
Open up that vault, said Jackson.
We can’t do that, sir, the older teller said. Only the bank manager has the key. And he’s not here today.
Get the goddamn money. Damn, this whole town knows you got a key.
Sir, I would if I could but—
You think I got time for this? Jackson hammered the older teller in the face with his pistol, and the man thrashed over, cupping his nose. He straddled him as he lay on the ground, saying, Now you open that vault right quick.
The older teller blinked up at him through bloody hands, I won’t do that for ya…. I refuse to be…
Jackson thumped the older teller’s head with the butt of his right pistol and that older teller began to leak brain. There was a sting in my nose as I watched him drip into the carpet. Until then, I had no notion that blood was child-book red. Jackson turned to the younger teller, who looked frantic at me.
Son, you wanna live? Jackson asked.
I willed him to nod.
Hurry it up back there! hollered Colt, forcing the customer to his knees and peeking out the front door, Sumthin’s up! Sal’s bringin the horses!
Me and the younger teller, Jackson’s pistol cocked on him, stuffed the burlap sacks as Jackson climbed backward through the bank window. That’s enough. Now get on your knees, he said.
As I tossed Jackson the first sack, the young teller rose up and grabbed me from behind, snatching my gun, waving it at us, shouting, You yellow-bellied bushwackers, attacking an unarmed man! You a whore herder—this girl is a girl!
Jackson shot the young teller in the chest, dove through the window and got back my gun. He slapped it into my stomach, Shoot him, he said.
Who? No, I pushed the gun away.
Hey! Colt shouted, What in hell is going on? They’re gonna have heard them shots!
I looked to the young teller rearing in his blood. Please Jackson, don’t make me do that, I said.
Put him out of his misery, honey. He’s gonna die either way.
I raised the gun then just as quick lowered it. I cain’t, I said.
You’re with us, ain’t ya? Jackson was standing behind me, the warm of his hand went on the meat of my back, After all Lavenia, you just done told that boy my name.
Colt’s gun sounded twice from the front.
And so I shot the young teller dead through the eye and out of that bank we rode into the bright forever.
Alone, jest us two, in what I had by then guessed was her actual room, tho it had none of the marks of the individual, the whore put the whiskey between my fingers.
Èl no debería haber hecho esto, she said, locking the door and loosening my bandana.
Leave it, I stared in her mirror. Make me drunk, I said. I want the bitter of that oh-be-joyful.
Drink. She put the glass to my lips, then took it back and topped it off, asking, How old you?
Fifteen. Sixteen in June, I said. The whiskey tore a line down my stomach to let the hot in. Wait. If you can speak English, then why don’t you?
She shrugged, handing me back a full glass, Is more easy for men to think the other.
And I ain’t a man, I said.
She nodded. Why you brother dress you like one?
So when we ride no man messes with me and I don’t mess with my bustle. Is it hard bein a—a soiled dove? I drank, It’s awful hard on one bein a gunslinger.
She smiled with her missing teeth, took off my coat and shirt then sat down inside the bell of her ruffled skirt, My husband die when I you age. I make good money this place.
Money… I repeated, and took the whiskey off her bureau where it sat next to a jeweled dagger and a small bottle of Best Turkey Laudanum. I got money now I guess, I said and laid a few dollars down, If you don’t mind, I said and droppered laudanum into my whiskey, I hope this will stupefy me. I drank it and flopped back on the bed.
Where you mama?
Died. When I was three. My pa’s sister raised me. Aunt Josie.
I shook my head, Dead from the war.
Solo Jackson, she said.
Hey Rosa, what if somethin bad happened that I did?
The door handle turned, then came a knocking and my brother: Hey Rosa, lemme in there. I gotta see her. Lavenia?
I scrambled up.
Rosa put her finger to her lips, Lavenia no here.
She’s gotta be—hey, Lavenia, Lavenia! C’mon now. Come out and jest let me talk to ya for a minute, honey.
I swallowed more whiskey’d laudanum. Hey Rosa, I whispered, holding out my free hand.
No now, Jackie, Rosa said, taking it.
If you did a bad thing but you didn’t mean to? Cause he was gonna die anyways either way. I pulled till her head went under my chin. But he was alive and then he wasn’t and I did that, I said, I did.
Jackson no good.
No, no good, I said.
You have money? You take and go away. Far.
But I’m no good, I said.
Open this damn door! Jackson pounded, Listen gal, your pussy ain’t worth so much to me that I won’t beat your face off.
Hush up! I shouted, Shut your mouth! The shaking door stilled. I don’t want you, I said.
Lavenia, I heard him slide down the door, Hey gal, don’t be like this.
I leaned my forearm and head onto the wood. Why? I asked.
Baby girl, he said, don’t be sore. Not at me. I cain’t.
Why did you make me? I asked.
Darlin, those men done seen our faces. What we did we had to do in order to save our own skins. That there was self-defense. Necessity, sure, it’s a hard lesson, I ain’t gonna falsify that to you.
But I’m wicked now, I said, feelin a wave of warm roll me over. I slid.
Hey, I heard him get to his feet, Hey you lemme in there.
Rosa put her hand over mine where it rested on the lock. The augury of her eyes was not lost on me. As soon as I opened the door, Jackson fell through, then tore after her.
Jackson don’t, I yanked him by the elbow as he took her by the neck. You—she didn’t do nothing but what I told her to!
He shook me off but let her go. Go on, get out, he slammed the door and galloped me onto the bed, tackling me from behind and squeezing until I tear’d. I did not drift up and away but instead stayed there in what felt to be the only room for miles and miles around. He spoke into my hair, saying, We’re in this together.
Jackson, I sniffed and kicked his shin with the back of my heel, Too tight.
He exhaled and went loose, The fellas are missing you down there.
No, they ain’t.
They’re sayin they cain’t celebrate without the belle of the Bell’s.
I rolled to face him, pushing the stubble of his chin into my forehead, Why do you want to make me you?
Would you rather be a daughter of sin?
I am a daughter of sin.
You know what I mean. A-a… Jackson searched his mind, A frail sister.
I could not help but laugh. He whooped, ducking my punches till he wrestled me off the bed and I got a bloody nose. You hurt? he asked, leaning over the edge.
Lord, I don’t know, I shrugged in a heap on the floor, sweet asleep but awake. I cain’t feel a thing. Like it’s afternoon in me, I said.
Jackson glanced over at the laudanum bottle and back-handed me sharp and distant, Don’t you ever do such a thing again, you hear?
My nose trickled doubly but I said, It doesn’t hurt. I tried to peel Jackson’s hands off his face, Hey it truly truly doesn’t!
I laughed and he laughed and we went down to the saloon drinking spirits till we vomited our bellies and heads empty.
The next night two deputies walked into the saloon and shot out the lights. In the exchange of dark and flash, a set of hands yanked me down. I’d been drinking while Jackson was with Rosa upstairs. I got out my six-shooter but did not know how to pick a shadow. A man hissed near my head and I crawled with him to the side door.
Out of the fog of the saloon, Colt stood, catching his breath, saying, There ain’t nothing we can do for Jackson and Sal. If they take them to the hoosegow, we’ll break them out. C’mon.
I cain’t, I said, getting up.
A couple bystanders that had been gawking in the saloon were now looking to us.
Lavenia, Colt took me tight by the shoulder, and swayed us like two drunkards into the opposite direction. In the candlelight of passing houses, Colt’s hand, cut by glass, bled down my arm.
At the end of the alley, Colt turned us to where three horses were on a hitch-rack. We crouched, untying the reins, and tho my horse gave a snort, it did not object to the thievery, but we were not able to ride out of town unmolested. There, our ingenuity had been anticipated and the sheriff and his deputy threw us lead. Buckshot found my shoulder, and found Colt too, who slid like spit down his horse and fell onto his back, dead.
Hey there Deputy, said Jackson through the bars, How much for a clean sheet of paper and that pen?
The men outside the jail began shouting louder. The silver-haired sheriff sat at his desk, writing up a report, ignoring us all.
This un? the deputy stopped his pacing.
I’ll give you twenty whole dollars, Jackson said, I’ll be real surprised if I make it to trial, so least you could do is honor my last request.
There were a few scattered thumps on the door.
Won’t we make it to trial? I asked.
Well darlin, there’s a mob out there that’s real loco’d about me shooting that bank teller and that marshall and that faro dealer and that one fella—what was he? A professor of the occult sciences! Yes that’s sure what he looked like to me!
I laughed. The men kicked at the door. The sheriff checked his Winchester.
Jackson chuckled, I’m writin against the clock. The windows smashed as if by a flock of birds. Jackson didn’t look up from writing.
Now sheriff, you won’t let them hurt my baby girl will ya? You gotta preach to them like you was at the gospel mill before Judgment Day. Gotta tell them that this young girl here was jest following me, was under a powerful family sway. Here, Deputy, would you kindly give this to her.
The deputy took the letter.
The sheriff said, Son, there are about forty men out there with the name of your gang boiling in their blood. By law the two of us must protect you and that child. I jest hope we don’t die in the attempt.
dremP’T i, wAS, with YoU, Lav,
Near Your BrEAth, so DEar:
id, neVEr, saw, none, so BeAuTiFull,
And I, wisht You Were NEar:
No Angel, on eaRrTH, or, HeAven,
CoUlD rivall Your HeaRT,
no DeaTH, or distancE, can uS PArt
if, Any, should TelL You,
They Love You eTerNAly,
There, Is, no onE, You tell Em,
Who Loves You like Me
Fare! Well! My Dear SisTer..anD FrIEnd
Al.So. My Belle oF The Bells
The forty exited the street and entered our cells.
They dragged Jackson and I into the dogs the stars the cool and the night. Their hands in what hair I had; my hands underbrush-burned and bound together in bailing wire.
In an abandoned stable somewheres behind the jail, they made Jackson stand on a crate and put the noose hanging from the rafters round his neck. They were holding down the deputy and the sheriff, who looked eyeless cause of the blood, having been beaten over the head.
I was brought to Jackson and saw the rope round his neck weren’t even clean.
Hey gal, my brother said, Guess what? This is my final request. Now honey, what do you think? Don’t you think I kept my promise? You’ll be alright. If you cain’t find Sal, Rosa will take care a you.
I nodded and the men pulled me back.
Hey you ain’t cryin, are ya? Jackson called out, swallowing against the rope, C’mon, quick—you got any last little thing to say to me?
The men brought me to a crate and tied a noose around my neck.
What the hell’s goin on? Jackson asked.
You all cannot murder a woman without a fair trial, the sheriff started up.
No now fellas, it ain’t s’posed to go like this. Listen to the sheriff here— Jackson said and the men walloped him in the belly.
Lavenia Bell, the men asked, crowding me, What is your final request?
Sometimes I wish I were just a regular girl, not a whore or an outlaw or playactin at man. I had a father for two years and a mother for four, but I cannot remember what that was like, if they care for you better or hurt you less or if they keep you no matter what it costs them.
The girl first, the men said.
I am not afraid. You kept your promise good. Thank you for you, I said.
Have you no wives, no sisters or daughters? shouted the sheriff.
I felt the thick of hands on my waist.
Wait! Don’t y’all see? She would never done nothin without me not without me—
The noose tightened.
The sheriff was struggling to get to his feet, hollering. Boys this will weigh heavy on your souls!
Hey I’m begging you to listen, boys—look, it weren’t her that killed them tellers it was me—only me!
Up on the crate, it was that hour before sun, when there was no indication of how close I was to a new morning. I waited for the waiting to break, for the dark of the plain in my face to bring me to dust.