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Robert B. Parker

Brimstone

For Joan: Well worth the pressure

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IT’S A LONG RIDE SOUTH through New Mexico and Texas, and it seems even longer when you stop in every run-down, aimless little dried-up town, looking for Allie French. By the time we got to Placido, Virgil Cole and I were almost a year out of Resolution.

It was a barren little place, west of Del Rio, near the Rio Grande, which had a railroad station, and one saloon for every man, woman, and child in town. We went into the grandest of them, a place called Los Lobos, and had a beer.

Los Lobos was decorated with wolf hides on the wall and a stuffed wolf behind the bar. Several people looked at Virgil when he came in. He wasn’t special-looking. Sort of tall, wearing a black coat and a white shirt and a Colt with a white bone handle. But there was something about the way he walked and the way the gun seemed so natural. People looked at me sometimes, too, but always after they looked at Virgil.

“Think that wolf might’ve exprised of old age,” Virgil said.

“A long time ago,” I said.

“Exprised ain’t right,” Virgil said. “You went to West Point.”

“Expired,” I said.

“Means died,” Virgil said.

“Uh-huh.”

Virgil believed in self-improvement. He read a lot of books and had a bigger vocabulary than he knew how to use. He sipped his beer.

“Mexican,” he said. “Mexicans know how to make beer.”

“How much money you got?” I said.

“Got a dollar,” Virgil said.

“More than I got,” I said.

Virgil nodded.

“Guess we got to get some,” he said.

I grinned at him.

“We got sort of a limited range of know-how,” I said.

“Least we know it,” Virgil said.

“Lotta saloons, lotta whores,” I said. “Not much else.”

“Railroad station,” Cole said.

“Why?” I said.

“No idea,” I said.

A tall, thin young man in an undershirt stood up from a table near us and walked over to us. He wasn’t heeled that I could see.

“Excuse me, sir,” he said to Virgil. “Boys at my table got a bet. Some say you’re Virgil Cole. Some say you’re not.”

The young man hadn’t shaved lately, but he was too young to have much of a beard. His two front teeth were missing.

“I am,” Virgil said.

The boy looked over his shoulder at the others at his table.

“See that?” he said. “See what I tole you?”

Everyone stared at Virgil.

“Seen you in Ellsworth,” the kid said. “I was ’bout half growed up. Seen you kill two men slick as a whistle.”

“Slick,” Virgil said.

The others at his table were all turned toward us.

“How many men you figure you killed, Mr. Cole?”

“No need to count,” Virgil said.

Most of the room was looking at us now, including the bartender. The boy seemed to have run out of things to say. Virgil was silent.

“Well, uh, it’s been a real pleasure, Mr. Cole, to meet you. Can I shake your hand?”

“No,” Virgil said.

The boy looked startled.

“Virgil don’t shake hands,” I said to the boy. “He don’t see any good coming from letting somebody get hold of him.”

“Oh,” the boy said. “A’course not. I shoulda known.”

Virgil didn’t say anything. The boy backed away sort of awkwardly. When he got to his table, his friends gathered in tight and whispered together.

“No need to be explaining me,” Virgil said to me.

“Hell there ain’t,” I said.

Virgil smiled. The kid at the next table got up and went out without looking at Virgil. A fat Mexican girl in a loose flowered dress came to the table.

“Good time for joo boys?” she said.

“Sit down,” Virgil said.

“Buy drink?” she said.

Virgil shook his head.

“Nope,” he said. “You know a woman named Allison French?”

The woman shook her head.

“Probably calls herself Allie?” Virgil said.

“No.”

“Plays the piano?” Virgil said. “Sings?”

“Don’t know nobody,” the Mexican woman said. “Round the world for a dollar. Joo friend, too.”

Virgil smiled.

“No,” he said. “Thanks.”

“No drink?” she said. “No fuck?”

“Nope,” Virgil said. “Anybody knows Allison French, though, they get a dollar.”

The woman stood up and went back to the other girls in the back of the saloon. She was too fat to flounce, but she was trying.

“Think she gets many dollars?” I said to Virgil.

“Nope.”

“Easy to turn down,” I said.

Virgil shrugged.

“She probably don’t like it, either,” he said. “Just doing what she gotta.”

A group of four men came into Los Lobos and stood at the bar and looked at Virgil. Each of them had a whiskey. Pretty soon two more men drifted in, and then three, until the bar was crowded with men.

“Looks like that kid been spreading the alert,” I said to Virgil.

“ ’Fraid so,” Virgil said.

“All of ’em look like town people,” I said. “Don’t see no cowboys.”

“Nope,” Virgil said.

“I’m feeling a little left out,” I said. “Nobody’s looking at me.”

“That’s ’cause you’re ugly,” Virgil said.

“Wait a minute,” I said. “Senorita offered me round the world for a dollar.”

“She included you second,” Virgil said.

“That’s just ’cause I ain’t famous like you,” I said.

“Also true,” Virgil said, and drank the last of his beer.

2

“I GOT ENOUGH CHANGE,” I said, “I can buy two more beers. Save the dollar for a room.”

“Maybe sleep in the livery stable,” Virgil said. “I’ve slept in worse than a hayloft.”

“We been sleeping in worse for most of the last year,” I said.

Virgil nodded. He was looking at the bartender coming toward our table carrying a bottle and three glasses. With him was a short, wiry man. Not thin, exactly, but lean, sort of hard-looking, with a scraggly blond beard.

“You’re Virgil Cole,” the wiry man said as he reached the table.

Virgil nodded.

“Like to buy you a drink, if I can,” the wiry man said.

“Sure can,” I said, real quick, before Virgil could be unfriendly. You never knew with Virgil.

I gestured at an empty chair, and the wiry man sat down. The bartender put three glasses on the table and poured a useful amount of whiskey in each one.

“Name’s Cates,” the wiry man said. “Everybody calls me Cates.”

Virgil nodded and sipped his whiskey.

“Whiskey clears the throat,” Virgil said. “Considerable better than beer.”

“It does,” Cates said. “You boys been traveling?”

Virgil nodded.

“This here’s Everett Hitch,” he said.

“By God,” Cates said. “I heard a you, too.”

“See that,” I said to Virgil.

“You been with Mr. Cole for some time,” Cates said.

“I have,” I said.

Virgil grinned.

“Well,” Cates said. “I’m proud to meet both you boys. Especially you, Mr. Cole.”

“ ’ Specially,” Virgil murmured to me.

“The great Virgil Cole,” Cates said happily, “right here, in my saloon.”

Virgil looked at me without expression.

“With his friend,” Virgil said.

“Of course,” Cates said. “With his friend, Mr. Hitch.”

“Everett,” I said. “And he won’t mind you call him Virgil.”

Virgil nodded. Cates nodded. And we all drank. Cates picked up the bottle and poured us all some more. Cates looked around the room.

“Look at the crowd,” he said. “Got to say you’re a big attraction, Virgil.”

“Like a geek show,” Virgil said.

“No,” Cates said. “God, no. It’s respect. It’s like a hero has come to town.”

Virgil looked at me.

“Hero,” he said.

“That’d be you,” I said.

“Maybe you boys don’t take it serious, but I’m here to tell you that we do.”

“ ‘ We’?” Virgil said.

“Everybody,” Cates said. “I got a proposal for you.”

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