Irwin “Deadly” Malpus didn’t take no shit. He stood four feet three inches tall, had the hands of a woman and a thin hard face. A gray, narrow brimmed, child’s Stetson sat atop his head. He wore little boys’ clothes — pants, shirts and boots. A Colt pistol hung from the gun belt on his hips. At twenty-seven years old, his voice cracked and broke like an adolescent’s, but nobody dared laugh. Deadly Malpus killed for a living. Not troublesome neighbors or sworn enemies — Deadly killed what people loved and couldn’t bring themselves to end: the life of an old blind dog, the suffering of a good horse gone lame, their old lady after she’d run off with some cowboy or their old man after he’d run off with some cowboy. Deadly charged two cents a pound, estimated. He had an honest eye. A baby was less than a dog. A husband or wife less than a horse.
Deadly rode ponies because it was easier to get in and out of the saddle. He pulled a string of four ponies through a circuit of three small towns — Rios, Noches and Plank. The towns lay just west of the Little Pearl River. Dun colored sand and stone filled the land between them. Rios and Noches were Mexican towns, part of the old mission trail that ran north toward Canada. Both towns were laid out around a central square, bordered by a mission church and two story adobe buildings. Noches was reportedly the sight of a miracle. The Bishop in Santa Fe said he’d rather hear a dog speak Latin than any reports of a miracle in Noches, ending all further discussion. The Town of Plank had been settled by Brevet General W. J. Plank of the Army of Northern Virginia. Plank lost his left leg at the battle of Sharpsburg. He carried it with him through war’s end and had it buried beneath Plank’s first and only building — a long, one story wooden structure — the Plank Saloon.
On the eve of his twenty-eighth birthday, Deadly Malpus rode into Plank knowing it was time to settle down. He had grown weary of his nights on the trail: shitting out in the desert — jerking off next to his camp fire. It was no way to live. Sometimes he’d gotten so horny the ponies looked good. That was a problem. He had fucked one, once. A real cute Appaloosa marked mare. Afterwards, she nickered at him every time he passed. It made him blush. Eventually he sold her.
Deadly tied his mount and the string of ponies to the hitching post beside the water trough in front of the Plank Saloon, pushed open the swinging doors and strode into the empty tavern. The saloon was as plain as a railroad freight car. The raw wooden bar stood against the wall directly opposite the front door and ran the length of the building. Three label-less whiskey bottles sat on a raised shelf behind the bar. Each held a cloudy amber liquid. Five round tables, with four chairs each, were scattered about the barroom. A print of Robert E. Lee’s horse, Traveller, hung on the far left wall. A bullet hole marred the far right. A ray of sunlight shot through the hole, tracing the bullet’s past across the room. Dust particles drifted about the beam. Deadly Malpus passed through the ray of light, grabbed a chair, dragged it to the bar and hopped up on it. “I rode forty miles today,” he cried, his voice modulating like a cat in a wringer, “killed things somebody loved and now I’m parched. If somebody loves you, you better serve it up quick, because I’m Deadly Malpus and I don’t take no shit.”
A heavy set man rose up, stretching behind the bar. He wore a dusty, yellowed white shirt and a blue cravat. Thinning gray hair hung to his shoulders. He yawned and rubbed his eyes. “Afternoon, Deadly,” he said. “Just catching a little cat nap.”
“Kind of slow, Frank?” Deadly replied.
“I don’t know where the ‘kind of’ comes in, Deadly. It’s just slow.”
Frank placed a shot glass in front of Deadly and filled it with whiskey. The little man drank it down, put the glass on the bar and nodded. The bartender poured another. Deadly drank it and said, “One more, Frank.”
“Kill today?” the bartender asked, as he poured the shot.
“Hardly nothing. An old blind dog for a Mex named Juarez. Skin and bones weighed about twenty pounds. Forty cents ain’t much of a day.”
“No, I guess it ain’t.”
“Any business in Plank today?”
“None that I’ve heard of.”
Deadly nodded. He was glad for a slow day. Killing was not as easy as some believed. Most times what you killed didn’t want to die, so you had to sneak up on it or trick it. Sometimes the people who hired you weren’t too sure either; then there was a lot of crying and carrying on. He’d turn twenty-eight the next day. Deadly needed time to think — time to work through the idea of settling down. “You know, Frank,” he said, “I been thinking lately it’s time to settle down.”
“Uh huh,” the bartender said.
“Yeah, you know. Build a place.”
“Good for you, Deadly.”
“And Frank,” Deadly leaned close to the bar and looked the bartender in his eyes, “I’m looking for something to love.”
“I don’t know what to tell you, Deadly. Love’s a strange and beautiful thing.” Frank waved his hands in front of his face. “Wait. Wait,” he cried. “Who am I to tell Deadly Malpus about love? Who knows more about love than you, Deadly?”
“Plenty, Frank. I know pained love. I know love when it hurts you. When something or someone you hold precious is dying or leaving, and you see their love draining out of your life. But I don’t know LOVE love, Frank. I don’t know happy love. I don’t even know how it happens.”
“Love,” Frank said, looking toward the ceiling, “just happens. It could sneak up on you out on the trail. Come to you when you’re in Noches or Rios. Why, it could come through that door — right now.”
Deadly glanced over his shoulder at the saloon’s entrance, then back to the bartender. “Pretty funny, Frank.”
“Well, you don’t know, Deadly. You never…” Frank’s eyes shifted back the door.
Deadly looked over his shoulder again. A kid peered beneath the saloon’s swinging doors. Frank said, “Little girl, you’re too young to come in here.”
“I don’t want to come in your shit bucket saloon,” she said. “I want to know if that short drink of water at the bar is Deadly Malpus?”
“Who wants to know?” Deadly asked.
“Annie,” she said.
Deadly winked at Frank, and asked, “Annie Oakley?”
“Yeah, buddy, I’m Annie Oakley,” the girl said. “You’re none too bright, are you, shorty?”
“If you weren’t a kid, I’d come out there and slap you silly,” Deadly replied.
“You better bring help, cause I don’t take much to slapping.”
Deadly pulled the Colt from his holster and pointed it at the door. “Deadly Malpus don’t take no shit,” he said, and pulled back the hammer.
“Deadly,” Frank cried, “she’s just a kid.”
“I’ve killed plenty,” he said.
“But how many customers have you killed, shorty?” the girl asked. “I got business with you, Deadly Malpus. When it’s done we can settle this any way you’d like.”
Deadly eased the hammer back down on the Colt and slid it into his holster. “What do you got?”
“I got a cramp in my neck from talking to you under this damn door. Why don’t you hop down off that booster chair and come out here where we can talk man to man.”
Deadly grinned at Frank, said, “I’ll be right back,” hopped off the chair and walked out the door.
The girl stood facing Deadly’s saddle pony, poking the animal’s eye with a piece of straw. She stood a head and a half taller than Deadly. The back of her hair was matted and dusty like she’d been sleeping in the desert. She wore a man’s blue shirt and skirt made of burlap. She’d busted out of her boots — grimy toes poked out in front, calloused heels hung out in back. “Yeah?” he asked.
“How do you do it?” she asked.
“How do I what?”
“How do you kill?”
“With my Colt or my Sharp’s rifle. Depends.”
“Is it quick or slow? Does it hurt? Do you enjoy it?”
“It’s quick. It could hurt, but they’re dead. It’s my business. A body needs something.”
“What do you get?”
“Two cents a pound, estimated.”
“How much for someone like me?” she asked.
“What do you weigh — sixty pounds?”
“Okay,” the kid said, and started down the street.
“Hey,” Deadly shouted after her. She turned around. Her face was as dirty as her feet. A hot looking scar ran up from her neck across her chin and lips past her right eye.
“How old are you?” Deadly asked.
“You don’t look it.”
“How old are you, dummy? Eleven?”
“I’m twenty-seven, and don’t call me dummy or I’ll kill you.”
“You’d lose a customer.”
“And who would a piss-pot kid like you want killed?”
The girl walked up to him, put her face in his and said, “Me, dummy.” She turned and disappeared around the end of the saloon.
Deadly stood for a moment watching where the girl had gone. He smiled, pushed through the saloon’s doors, crossed the bar and hopped up on the chair. He drained the shot glass, and said, “Pour me another, Frank. I’m in love.”
“Annie,” he said.
“Deadly, that might not be right.”
“Why the hell not?”
“She’s a kid.”
“Oh,” Frank said. “She looked younger.”
Deadly nodded and threw back the shot. “You know,” he said, “a girl like that could bring me the happiness I’ve never known. Could bring me peace.”
“A girl like that could also bring you a funny little drip on the end of your pecker.”
“What are you saying about the future Mrs. Deadly Malpus, Frank?” Deadly asked, hand resting on his Colt.
“Nothing, Deadly. Nothing.”
“That’s good,” he said. “Cause Deadly Malpus don’t take no shit. What do I owe you?”
“It’s a funny life, ain’t it Frank? I just drank up more than half the day’s profits.” Deadly lifted a quarter piece from his pocket and slapped it on the bar. “And Frank, I’d be careful what you say about a man’s true love. Dead is dead, there’s no denying that.”
“Thank you,” the bartender replied. “That’s good advice.”
“I’m off to find my true love, Frank.”
“Good luck, Deadly. You deserve to be happy, too.”
The little man leapt from the chair and strode through the door in search of his true love. He unwrapped his pony’s reins from the hitching post, put a foot in the stirrup and swung up into the saddle. The whisky impaired his judgement and he continued past his seat. He grabbed the saddle horn and righted himself. The pony spooked and danced sideways. “Deadly Malpus don’t take no shit,” he shouted. He pulled the Colt from his holster, put the barrel between the pony’s ears. “You whoa up there,” he cried, jerking the reins. The pony whinnied and reared. Deadly Malpus said, “I don’t take no shit,” as he pulled the trigger. The pony collapsed in the dust beneath him.
The ponies on the string spooked and strained back away from their unfortunate partner. “Whoa up there,” Deadly shouted, legs straddling the dead pony.
“Well ain’t you the dumbest pile of shit God poured into boots,” said a voice behind him.
Deadly wheeled around, arm outstretched, pistol cocked. “I don’t take no shit.”
“How could you?” Annie said. “You already got a head full.”
“I’m Deadly Malpus,” Deadly said. “I don’t take no shit.”
“Well, take this then.” Annie walked toward him, right arm outstretched, hand curled into a fist.
“What do you got there?” Deadly asked pistol pointed at her head.
“What the hell for?”
“For me,” she said.
The pistol rested against Annie’s forehead. The scar on her face looked red and hot.
“What happened to your face?” Deadly asked.
“I tried hanging myself with barbed wire. Something slipped.”
“Eee, God. Why’d you do that?”
“For the same reason, shit for brains, that I’m giving you this dollar twenty.”
“Yeah, but why?”
“I’ll make this simple as possible, I want to be dead. You sure you ain’t Dummy Malpus or Stupid Malpus?”
Deadly lowered the pistol from her forehead. “You’re just a kid. Only fifteen. Why would you want to die?”
“I got my reasons.”
Deadly nodded. She had the bony look of someone who’d never had enough food. The grit on her face — the scar. She must have had a horrible life, and Deadly loved her all the more. He imagined hunger — deep unrelenting pain in your gut hunger. A big family living in a dirt floor shack. Lazy drunken men — father, uncles, brothers — chasing his beloved Annie, trying to take advantage of her. He’d kill them for nothing, if she asked. Maybe he’d kill them anyway. Deadly looked into her eyes, hoping to see her returning his love.
She wiped her nose with the back of her hand, then scratched her underarm.
“What’s your name?” he asked.
“No. Your full name.”
“Annie Barrow, my full name is Irwin Malpus. They call me Deadly because I don’t take no shit. My people come from Tennessee. I kill for a living, and it’s a good job. I’ll be twenty-eight years old tomorrow, and I have enough money to buy a little place and settle down. Annie Barrow, will you be my wife?”
Annie Barrow narrowed her right eye at Deadly. “Did you just propose?”
“Yes, Annie. I did.”
The left side of her face rose; blackened teeth showed between her lips. Deadly took it for a smile. “You don’t have any idea what you’re talking about.”
“Just now, Annie Barrow, when I came out of that saloon I was on my way to find you, to ask for your hand in marriage. I know exactly what I’m talking about.”
Annie’s face broke into a full smile. She reached down and hiked her skirt.
“What the hell are you doing?” Deadly shrieked, looking up and down Plank’s empty main drag.
“Take a good look, Deadly Malpus. See the sight that shocked the Pharaoh and made God peek over his shoulder. See what makes them that sees blind and them that’s blind see. Is she? Is he? A heshe, a hermaph. See her shooter and her cooter. See her. See him. See IT, live. See IT, now.”
Deadly stared down at Annie’s crotch. Thin, wispy hairs, like an old lady’s beard, whirled around a limp penis lying beside a woman’s folds. Deadly gasped at the sight. He’d been with whores and knew what everything was supposed to look like. This wasn’t right. This was… “Do they work?” he cried. “Do you stand up or squat to pee?”
Annie Barrow waved away the questions. “People paid good money to see me. Extra to talk. Why should I tell you for nothing?”
“If we’re going to get married,” Deadly said. “I should know that stuff. And put your damn skirt down before someone sees you..”
“Don’t worry. More people have seen me than have seen the sun set.” She let go of her skirt and shimmied her hips a little. The burlap slid down, covering her thighs to her knees.
“You want me to kill you cause of that?” Deadly gestured toward Annie’s crotch with his chin.
“No. I want you to do it because I keep screwing it up every time I try. I want it done professionally. I want it done right.”
Deadly Malpus stared at the girl. He wished he hadn’t drunk so much. He needed his mind clear. What did he know? I’ll be twenty-eight tomorrow. That pony would begin to stink pretty soon. This girl, Annie Barrow, could be his wife. She wanted to die. Maybe, maybe I could give her a reason to live. He’d drunk too much. He shook his head. “Is there anything I could do to change your mind? Anything?”
“Change it about what?”
“Dying,” he said.
“I don’t imagine so,” she said.
“Well, Annie Barrow, I love you and want you as my wife, but I will not kill you for money. Not for two cents a pound, not for a hundred dollars a pound. My services aren’t available to you. Now, if you’ll excuse me, I need to move that dead pony before he starts to stink.”
Deadly turned his back on Annie and listened to her feet scuff the ground as she walked away. He wiped some tears from his eyes, rolled the dead pony over, uncinched the saddle and pulled the bit from between its clenched teeth. He rinsed the blood off the bridle in the water trough, saddled another pony and dragged the dead one out into the desert using a rope stretched between his saddle horn and the dead pony’s rear legs. Buzzards circled in the distance, and Deadly knew it wouldn’t be long before they’d have the pony’s carcass picked down to bones.
Buzzards worked quick, damn quick. They picked over what he left behind. Deadly considered them business associates, but he didn’t wave and bid them good day as he had in the past. On the eve of his twenty-eighth birthday, Deadly Malpus’s heart ached with love for Annie Barrow. Ached with a pain he’d never known.
He untied the rope from the dead pony’s legs, coiled it around his arm and climbed back into the saddle. There had to be something he could do. Annie Barrow. Annie Barrow, my true love. He wished there was tree to carve their initials in. Or a store where he could buy her something nice. New clothes. Shoes. Get her a bath. If they were in Noches or Rios he could get her a bath and some Mex stuff to wear. But there was nothing he could do in Plank to show his love for her.
He rode back to the saloon and knew that his happiness was dependent on capturing Annie Barrow’s love. Deadly didn’t care that she had a shooter and a cooter, or that she had been seen by more people than the sunset. All he cared was that he loved her and wanted to make her happy.
Deadly rode a circle around the Plank Saloon, but didn’t see Annie. His heart sank. He wasn’t gone that long. She couldn’t have gotten far. He tied off the pony next to the three remaining in his string and pushed back into the bar. Annie sat up on the bar, legs crossed, talking to Frank. They both turned to Deadly.
Deadly stared at them across the bar, then shouted, “You showed him, didn’t you?”
“Showed me what?” Frank asked, smiling at Annie.
“You know what, goddamn it,” Deadly cried. “She showed you, didn’t she?”
“No, I didn’t show him,” Annie yelled. “But I could if I wanted to.”
“Showed me what?” Frank asked again.
“Don’t you lie to me, Annie. I hate a woman that lies.”
“I don’t care what you hate or don’t hate. I didn’t show him. But I might right now.”
“Show me what?”
Annie stood up on the bar and smiled at Deadly. “I’ll show you, Frank, why some believe in God and some in the devil. I’ll show you the cross roads of the universe, where up is down, right is left and man is woman. I’ll show you what God did on the eighth day, and I’ll show you the only thing in this world that’ll get the great Deadly Malpus to work for free.”
“You’ll show him nothing,” Deadly cried. He drew up the Colt, aimed and squeezed the trigger — black powder exploded, releasing a plume of white smoke from the gun. The bullet flew from the barrel. Deadly tracked its progress across the room. Frank dove behind the bar. Annie Barrow smiled at the bullet’s approach and turned slightly to aid Deadly’s aim. She closed her eyes as the bullet breached her chest, then cried, “yes,” when it pierced her heart. Annie Barrow opened her eyes, smiled at Deadly, mouthed the words, “I love you,” then collapsed on the bar.
Deadly Malpus heard a man sobbing. He thought it was Frank crying until he tried to tell him not to worry. That he wasn’t going to kill him. Then Deadly discovered the sobs came from his own mouth. He looked at the Colt in his hand. Annie’s body on the bar. The first drops of blood falling to the floor. He holstered the Colt, pushed a chair to the bar and jumped up beside Annie’s body. He touched her for the first time. “God, Frank, I loved that woman. I really did.”
“You must have, Deadly. You killed her for nothing.”
“No, Frank,” Deadly said, “I killed her for love.”
That night Deadly lay atop his bed roll beside the heap of rocks marking Annie’s shallow grave. He’d lit no fire, nor eaten a meal. The ponies, tethered to a short picket, snorted and stamped, their hooves scuffing the dry ground. Twenty eight tomorrow; the stars uncountable pin points of light overhead. Twenty-eight and ruined; his life was not among the stars, but the darkness in between.