Character: Cort “The Quick and the Dead”
Disclaimer: The following story has been written with no intention of claiming ownership or solicitation, nor does the author claim the movie character(s) as his/her own. The movie character(s) have been borrowed solely out of a love of the particular movie and is not intended for any other purpose but amusement and entertainment.
Henry Wallace’s first encounter with Redemption was a spot on a map.
“Who can be as nuts as to name a town Redemption?” Henry thought aloud thinking about his new assignment.
“A sinner?” his daughter Heather retorted.
“Whatever. We are headed there. Be sure you have fresh clothes. It looks like this place is going to be hot. *Hopefully just because of the weather*,” he added to himself.
They arrived at Redemption in the late afternoon. The town seemed to have had a nasty venture. There were few empty spots between the buildings and some were under construction. Luckily the Hotel-Saloon seemed to have avoided the same fate and looked pretty in shape, so Heather and her father headed there for an accommodation. The owner was puzzled to see them asking for two rooms, but since they paid two weeks in advance, he didn’t raise objections. Henry and his daughter went to their room to wash, change and get prepared for the next part of their plan.
The cook of the Hotel was quite good and they dined chatting, while many patrons looked at them with ill-concealed curiosity. Henry hid a smile while his inquisitive eyes scanned the place. The marshal appeared after the sunset, when things usually got interesting. He was a big man in his late 20s, with collar length honey-brown hair and bright aquamarine eyes. He greeted the owner and some of the patrons. He asked for a beer and while he drank, his eyes took in the whole room, resting a little longer on the two new faces.
Henry felt the man’s gaze on him and silently smiled. The local enforcer seemed smart and attentive and this was a good sign. He decided to introduce himself and Heather. The younger man was chatting with the bartender, but turned to face them as soon as he saw their approaching in the mirror.
“Good evening Marshal let me do some introductions. My name’s Henry Wallace and this is my daughter Heather.”
“Good evening,” the marshal replied observing the gray-haired burly man and his slender daughter, with dark hair kept in an elegant bun. “I’m Cort Crowe, glad to meet you. Which are your businesses in town?”
“We’re honest gamblers and we would like to know if there are rules in Redemption against a fair game.”
“Should I try the enforcement of such a rule, I’d likely cause a riot. Just keep the game clean and you’ll be welcome.”
“Of course, Marshal. Do you play?”
“No, I don’t, but thank you for the offer, if this was an offer.”
“It was. Never mind. From your words I think it won’t take a long time to find someone to play with.”
“I’m sure. Good evening to you both.”
“Good evening, Marshal”, father and daughter replied returning to their table.
The man was fairly drunk and really angry. He hadn’t won a single round and he was starting to think that he had been cheated. He hadn’t a clue about this, but he simply could not believe he was so ill fated.
“You are cheating, fucking bastard,” he yelled at the man in front of him who had lots of money piled up in front of him.
“No, I’m not. It’s you the one who doesn’t know how to play,” the other man replied to the accusation, preparing himself for the up-coming trouble. The man who had shouted moved his right hand reaching for his weapon, but was stopped when he felt the cold touch of the barrel of a gun against his neck.
“Don’t make an ass of yourself. Get the fuck out of here while you still can,” the marshal whispered in a frightening honeyed voice and the man nodded. Grabbing the little money he had left, he got up hastily, heading for the door.
The man had just reached the darkness of the street as his intoxicated mind chastened him for having given up so easily, spurring him to take revenge for his bad luck. He turned toward the threshold, the gun in his hand and drunken hatred in his brain. His boots made little noise on the wooden tables while he armed the trigger, aiming at the marshal, decided to get rid of him, before shooting the supposed cardsharper. Heather’s gaze was on the marshal. He was talking to a man, when something in him changed all of a sudden. His eyes became ice stones as soon as he turned toward to door, the gun in his hand before she could even perceive the movement. The shots were simultaneous, the effects different. The man outside collapsed with a bullet in his head, while the marshal stood stock-still, a terrible sadness veiling his expression.
Cort put the gun back in its holster and walked to the fallen man. He kneeled next to him, saying a prayer for the soul of the man he had to kill and for his own.
“Someone GIVE a voice to the undertaker,” he said then, before leaving the saloon.
Without knowing exactly why, Heather followed him. She nearly lost sight of him as he moved fast in the shadows. He walked without making noise, like a spirit of the Indian legends she loved so much. To her surprise, he stepped into the small chapel on the western end of the main street. She walked next to him, then asked: “Is there anything wrong, Marshal?”
“Of course there is, a man has died and I was the one who put an end to his life. That’s something really wrong,” Cort hissed, his voice hoarse with anger and unshed tears.
“He wanted to kill you,” she objected.
“He was just a fool with too much booze in his guts. Why he just didn’t get out, without turning back?” he nearly yelled and his voice echoed in the church. “Why are you here?” he asked realizing for the first time that she had followed him from the saloon.
“I saw you walking away and you seemed so upset. I didn’t think that you were headed here.”
“Because I don’t think you should ask forgiveness for what you had to do.”
“I didn’t ask forgiveness for what I did tonight. My worst sins date back years ago. I came here to think about what I am.”
“And you got an answer?”
“A man too good at staying alive for the other people’s sake.”
“Would you have preferred to be shot and lie bleeding on the saloon’s floor?”
“I’d have preferred not to be forced to kill that man. I tried to change my life, but my past came to me with a vengeance.”
“Now I’m not following you, Marshal.”
“Don’t bother. These are just rambling thoughts of a sinner. Return to your father, he could be worried.”
“I don’t think so, maybe curious. Marshal, if you need someone to talk to, you know where to find me.”
“Thank you for the offer.”
“It’s only for the sake of Redemption.”
“Redemption, what a stupid name for a town.”
“You speak like my father, but you have a whole lot more hair,” she added grinning.
Despite of himself, Cort chuckled at her words and followed her, with a small smile as she left the church.
“Did you find him?” Henry asked as she returned to her room.
“Yes, he had gone to the church.”
“Yes, he seemed so upset. He told me something about being a sinner. There’s something in his past haunting him. Something bad.”
“He’s really fast, isn’t he? It seemed as if he had evoked the gun instead of drawing it. Now I know why most of the men around are so polite and well-mannered when he’s around.”
“Not bad, if this helps to keep the peace.”
“Of course, especially in such a God-forsaken place. Now let’s sleep. We’ll have to work tomorrow. Good night.”
Father and daughter began their research in different directions, Henry probing with the male population, Heather with the female one. The result of their efforts was a rather colorful biography of the town marshal. They had lunch in Henry’s room, to confront the news.
“Remind me to apologize for saying that gossiping is a women’s thing. Redemption’s men folk are a bunch of old hens,” Henry said laughing. “Cort arrived six months ago, being dragged here shackled by the henchmen of the former owner of this town, John Herod. He was dressed like a church minister and some said he had a mission in Mexico. Herod wanted him to participate in his shooting contest and when Cort refused he had him hanging from a rafter in the saloon’s main room. He was saved by a woman gunslinger that wanted to be part of the game. For a week or so, during the contest, Cort was treated like a dog, chained to the fountain that used to be in the middle of town. He apparently seemed not to mind about the treatment, until they made him fight to death with the woman. Some said that there had been something between them the night before the duel. After his victory in the fight, Cort’s anger exploded and he accepted to fight Herod. As the day came, Herod was royally pissed off because one of his men had injured Cort’s right hand, thus ruining the contest. He killed the man and proceeded to fight with his left hand. He never had the chance to prove his speed against Cort, because half of town exploded, literally. Cort had partnered with the mysterious woman, only pretending to kill her, meanwhile preparing a plan to stop Herod and his men. The woman challenged Herod and killed him. Then, she gave Cort the marshal’s badge and rode away, never returning. Cort remained to help rebuilding the town and was appointed as the new marshal. Most of the men are in awe of his prowess and speed with a gun, but they admire his honesty. The whole situation seems far better now.”
As her father stopped, Heather began to explain what she had discovered. “The women I talked to, think something similar. They admire him, but they’re not scared, because he’s always gentle with women. He doesn’t have a wife or a sweetheart, at present. Not for lack of candidates, I might add. They say that he’s always very kind and polite, though he doesn’t smile often. There’s a deep sadness in him that many would like to help to erase. Personally if young, through a daughter if not. Then I questioned the girls at the whorehouse. Don’t look so astonished, Dad, I couldn’t have asked only God-fearing women. The marshal is quite popular there, too. He’s tough with those playing rough with the girls and the customers have become models of politeness. From time to time, he pays visits for personal reasons and he never takes advantage of his position always paying, though some of the girls would be more than willing to offer their services for free.”
“Because he’s the marshal?”
“No, because he’s handsome and a considerate lover, too. And…,” she paused blushing slightly. At her father’s puzzled expression, she explained “because it seems as if he’s very good at making a woman happy.”
Harry began to laugh. “Nothing else about this winsome model of man?”
“He has great patience with children. When the teacher had a bad cold and a fever, he replaced her for a week and the pupils miss him.”
“He’s just to good to be true. There must be something else about him. Something about his past. I wonder who could know something about it. I’m afraid that those who could give us an answer are currently lying flat on their backs for a very long long time. Wait a minute, someone mentioned the doctor. I’ll go and ask him.” Henry decided, unaware of his daughter’s pensive expression.
Henry went to the doctor feigning some undefined symptoms and while he was being visited he tried to coax him into talking about the marshal, but unlike most of his fellow-citizens, his mouth was pretty sealed. “Mr. Wallace, why you don’t ask what you want to know, without beating around the bush? Could you just begin explaining to me why you are interested in our marshal.”
Henry thought over it for a while, then resolved to answer honestly. “If I tell you the reason of my curiosity, would you give me your word what you won’t talk to the marshal?”
“Why should I? I know and respect him, but I don’t know you.” The piercing gaze of the slender old man convinced Henry to tell him the truth, anyway.
“I am an inspector appointed by the Governor himself to control how the law is administered in the wildest part of the State. The voices coming from Redemption were just too odd not to deserve a visit. No one knew a thing about the man appointed as a marshal and I came here to investigate. The more I know about him, the more I’m puzzled.”
“Come with me,” the doctor said dryly, heading to the door. Henry followed him to the cemetery where the man stopped near a fairly new cross with a date of death of many years back. The name was Gary Willet, Marshal.
“He was the marshal, before Herod’s arrival. He was a good man and a friend of mine. When Herod and his men arrived he was their first target. They had him hanging from the entrance of his own house. His daughter Ellen escaped from my grasp and went to him. Herod gave her his gun telling her that her father would be safe if she managed to cut the rope with a single shot. She was nine at the time and she ended up killing her father. Many years afterwards, she returned to avenge that death. She saved Cort’s life when Herod tried to do to him what he had done to her father. They established a connection. I don’t know on what grounds, desperation perhaps. At the end he helped her to have her vengeance and when she rode away she gave him her father’s badge. From that moment he never failed his duty.”
“Did you know him before his arrival?”
“No, but Herod has something to do with Cort’s past that upset Ellen at first. She didn’t talk to me about how they managed to get over it, but she trusted him with her life and he never gave me any reason to think otherwise.”
Henry pondered the other man’s words.
“Are you going to tell him about this conversation?”
“Yes. Prepare yourself for a good explanation.”
“All right, you promised me nothing. Thank you, anyway.”
“Don’t harm him. This town needs him. He has been the first ray of hope in a pure living hell.”
“I’ll remember your words. Goodbye Doc.”
Cort was talking to a man in front of his office when he felt his jacket gently tugged. He looked down seeing a baby girl of six or seven watching him.
“Mr. Marshall, I need your help. My sister’s cat climber on top of a pole and he’s not able to come down. She told me to watch over him and she’s going to kill me if he gets hurt.”
The child seemed so concerned that Cort hadn’t the heart to tell her no. “Show me where the cat is.”
She extended her tiny hand for him to take. Cort was led to a house nearby where on the top of a pole a red-cat was meowing weakly. The marshal assessed the situation before asking.
“Do you have a tall ladder?”
“Yes, on the back side of the house.”
The child showed him what she meant. After he had positioned the ladder, Cort began to climb it without frightening the animal. A scared cat wasn’t the nicest thing to face when you’re standing a few feet above the ground. Luckily the pole wasn’t too much taller than the ladder, so he didn’t have problems to reach the top. The cat stared at him puzzled, while Cort talked to him in a soothing tone. After a while the animal stretched a paw in his direction and Cort was able to take him and put him on his right shoulder to climb down. As he put his feet back on the ground, the cat was purring loudly near his ear. Petting him, Cort handed over the vibrating mass of fur into the baby’s arms and she gave him a shy smile.
“What’s his name?”, he asked.
“My sister named him Marshall because she says he’s big, fast and the other males are afraid of him. And he has beautiful eyes, too, to charm the females.”
Cort nearly choked at her words, but managed to smile. “I think that now everything’s all right. Give my regards to your family. And you, Marshal, promise me to behave.” The cat looked at him yawning.
Cort stepped away laughing. On his path to the main street, he met Heather.
“Marshal, I’m happy to see you laughing. May I know what you find so amusing?”
“You’d better not.”
“It couldn’t be such a shameful secret if it made you happy.”
“Embarrassing. But nothing really important.”
“I’ll take your word for this.”
“It’s a good thing trusting the marshal.”
“A safe thing,” she added going away, followed by Cort’s smile.
The next time Heather met the marshal was at the Sunday’s function. While the service went on she observed him, half concealed in the shadows of one of the most hidden places of the chapel. She saw his lips following the preacher’s words as he read the Holy Bible. As the sermon began dealing with guilt and forgiveness, Cort lowered his eyes. When the celebration was over, Heather followed him outside. He was walking slowly, lost in his thoughts, but turned to face her as her foot hit a stone.
“Good morning, Miss Wallace. Are you following me?”
“No, just following the same path. Are you going home?”
“To my room at the hotel, I don’t have a home, never had for a very long time.”
“We’ve something in common, I used to travel with my Dad, since I was a child. My mother died at a young age and my life has been a very long journey.”
“Doesn’t this bother you?”
“Not really. The alternative would have been being dumped somewhere to be raised by distant relatives, seeing my father every now and then. And I love traveling. One of these days I know I’ll have to stop, but for now I’m enjoying my life.”
“You were lucky. My parents died before I could remember them. I ran away from the orphanage when I was ten.”
“You’ve been on your own since then?”
“Not always, but sometimes it would have been better.”
“You don’t have time enough to listen to the story of my life and it’s not going to be a nice one.”
“Is it your past that makes you so sad?”
Cort stopped, his gaze fixed at the horizon.
“You ask strange questions, you know? Most people seem to be interested in me just as long as I can manage to keep the bad guys out of town. Nothing else matters, as well as it didn’t matter that they were so eager to join Herod’s men in mocking me and treating me like a dog.”
“Don’t feign ignorance, Miss Wallace. You know what I’m talking about. You’ve been asking questions about me since your arrival here? Why? Am I so interesting?”
“You should ask this to my father.”
“I’m asking you.”
There was a pause, as Heather pondered her answer.
“All right Heather, as soon as you’ll be in the mood to talk to me honestly, you know where to find me,” Cort replied coldly and walked away. She couldn’t help staring at him.
“Father, the marshal knows that we asked questions about him. What now?”
“We’ll wait and see. As far as I’ve been able to discover, he’s a good marshal, but something doesn’t fit.”
“May I suggest that you ask directly? I think that this could be more useful for your task.”
“What if he lies?”
“Since when have you become so humble? You’ve always told me how good you are at uncovering lies?”
“You feel something for him, don’t you?”
“I’m not sure about this. He’s such a mystery that I don’t know how I feel.”
“I know he’s handsome, but that’s not enough.”
“Don’t treat me like a silly girl. I know he’s dashing, but this is not the point. He’s not just a pretty face with a nice body. There’s so much more. I just don’t know what to think about this.”
“For the first time, I’m sorry of having involved you in my job. It has never been my intention to upset you.”
“You never did. Neither now, nor before. Don’t bother, go on with your job. I’m going to think something about this,” she concluded letting her father speculate about her true feelings, something that he had never been forced to do.
The man was sipping his beer, sitting in front of the saloon. The news he had heard had been accurate and that made him quite happy. Herod had been shot and until now Redemption didn’t have a new owner. He would have been more than ready to apply for the job. John Herod, fast as light and fearless as a devil. It was kind of strange thinking that he had found someone actually faster, especially because the rumors said it had been a woman. He had thought that Herod would have ended up killed by the young man he was talking about a night when they both had been nearly drunk. Herod’s eyes were shining as he was speaking of this lad he had seen working in a stable in a God-forsaken town close to the Mexican border. He was determined to teach him to shoot and being just as fearless as him. If he hadn’t known better, he would have thought that Herod had something for the young man. He used to say that he moved with the grace and the reflexes of a mountain lion. While he was still thinking of the mysterious guy who had piqued Herod’s attention so long ago, the stranger saw the marshal walking down the main street. The local enforcer was a big fellow, with broad shoulders brushed by honey-brown hair. The man was a little concerned when he saw that the holster was kept in a fashion speaking volumes about the marshal’s skills in handling a weapon. And despite his size, he moved without clumsiness.
“No, it couldn’t be the same man,” he thought, rejecting the absurd idea that had crossed his mind, yet puzzled at the thought.
Cort’s instincts told him that he was observed and he was quite sure that the gaze fixed between his shoulder blades belonged to the new guest of the saloon, a stranger who had signed as Guy Weatheral. The man had money, a fine horse and a gun, together with a cold countenance that Cort disliked. It reminded him of a vulture waiting for its victim to stop moving to have its lunch. It reminded him of Herod.
Heather was watching her father playing with three other men, two locals and a newly arrived stranger. Despite his love and dedication to the law, she knew that her father loved the thrill of the game, the challenge in the look of another gambler’s eyes. She turned her gaze toward the marshal. Cort was sitting on a bar stool, apparently unaware of the surroundings, but she knew that he had chosen a place from where he had a clear view of the whole room. She got closer, careful not to hinder his sight.
“You don’t play tonight?” Cort asked.
“No, there are few players and I don’t want to play at the same table with my father. We don’t want people to get the wrong impression.”
“What a kind thought,” he replied with heavy sarcasm in his voice; “You both reserve your cheating ability for me?”
“We never cheated you.”
“Are you telling me that your father was just joking when he told to the doctor that he’s an inspector appointed by the governor, while he introduced himself to me as a gambler?”
“No, he wasn’t joking. He was telling the truth. We never meant to cheat, we needed answers.”
“Why didn’t you just ask me?”
“Would you have answered?”
“Why not? Try and judge by yourself.”
“Is it true that you’ve been dragged here in chains because of John Herod?”
“Because he wanted to challenge me. He was basically fearless and not knowing if he could have bested me, gave him the thrill he longed for.”
“How did he know?”
“That I was so fast? Because he taught me how to use a gun.”
“And why did he have to threaten you with death to convince you?”
“Because meanwhile I had tried to change my life and I wanted to give up violence. At that time I ran a small mission near Hermosillo. When Herod’s men came for me, they burned and destroyed everything. Years of work gone wasted for a cruel man’s itch to scratch.”
“An itch to scratch. Herod told me so just before challenging me. He had groomed me to have the chance to fight me. Attempting to change my life had vexed him, so he did his worst to ruin everything I had worked for.”
“And the children?”
“Luckily they managed to escape the fire. After my departure, assuming that I wasn’t going to come back, some people decided to find them a new family. It’s funny but my supposed death was much more useful for them that my life and efforts.”
Heather scanned Cort’s face. His eyes were cold, but she could see the inner turmoil, sense the anger and the pain and she couldn’t help herself hating the late John Herod for the wounds he had left upon the heart and soul of the man in front of her.
“And what made you wish to change your life so drastically that Herod had to have you chained to bring you there?”
“I killed a man, a priest who had helped us. Herod made me kill him with the threat of a gun against my head. I didn’t want to die, so I pulled the trigger. Does this answer your question? Are you satisfied now? Now you can tell your father that I’m not worth to be the marshal because I’m a murderer with a dark past,” Cort said getting up. “Ah! I was forgetting. I used to be also a bank-robber. Add this to your tale.”
Heather was staring at him dumbfounded, not knowing what to say or do. He turned away heading to the upper floor where his room was, without further words. She was shocked but his narration, but even more by the hurt and the pain she had seen in his eyes. She was going to tell everything to her father, but she couldn’t help asking herself why she felt so sad.
Henry went to the marshal’s office early the next morning. Cort was working on some papers and didn’t lift his head hearing the door creak.
“Are you here to arrest me, Inspector Wallace?” he asked emotionlessly.
“Do you think I should?”
“Why not, isn’t this the reason why you and your daughter came here for?”
“Not exactly. We came here to investigate the odd stories about this town and the new marshal. It resulted that the truth is even odder than the tales.”
“Do you think so?”
“Yes. I’ve seen a self-declared murderer and sinner, administering justice better than most of those whose life is as white as pure snow. Is it true that you were a preacher?”
“Why you aren’t a preacher anymore?”
“Because I had broken my promise to give up violence. Perhaps it was just foolish to think I could keep it.”
“Maybe, but for what I see it was for good.”
“Maybe, but it didn’t help to lift the weight from my soul.”
“Have you ever been accused of something? Is there somewhere a poster with your face on?”
“I don’t think so. Herod and I used to run our business mostly on the other side of the border. Should there be someone looking for me, it would be in Mexico and it was a long time ago.”
“Partners in crime?”
“The only one I partnered with was Herod. His men in Redemption knew my story, but their present accommodation at the boot hill, prevent them to affect my reputation, but why are you asking?”
“Technically I have nothing against you. You spoke to me of your past, but I have no evidence that you committed crimes of whatsoever nature. As far as I know you could have just invented a scary story to frighten my daughter, or to impress her. I’m quite sure that you told the truth, but on the other hand you did such a great job with this town that I’m not sure about what to do next.”
Cort looked at him, puzzled, and Henry countered with a blank gaze, giving nothing away.
“I must think about this. I’ll let you know soon,” the older man added before leaving the office.
“May I ask you something?”
“Should you decide to arrest me I won’t fight, but could you please do this when we’ll be out of town and find another marshal, soon? I wouldn’t want to see this town returning to what it was under Herod.”
“This could be done.”
“Thank you, Inspector.
“*This town owes you big time*,” Henry thought, nodding a goodbye on his way out, sensing the marshal’s blue eyes on his back.
Heather had just come out of the hotel, when she met one of the girls working at the brothel, that she greeted with a smile.
“How are you, Beth? You look tired.”
“It’s nothing, just an annoying cold. And you? You look sad.”
“I am, but how can you say that?”
“Last time I saw you, your eyes were shining, now they’re just, well, eyes.”
“It’s really nothing important.”
“An aching heart is important. Did he reject you?”
“No, probably because he hasn’t a clue about my feelings.”
“Someone I know?”
“Quite well, I’m afraid.”
Heather blushed profusely, but nodded.
“You could be a good match. Both stubborn and honest, probably too much for your own good, but I think it could work,” Beth said smiling, then continued “It was time for him to find someone like you. He cannot go on with women like me, he needs a wife.”
Heather looked at her puzzled and Beth laughed.
“Don’t look at me this way, Heather. I may not be a respectable woman, but I have feelings and eyes to see. And I’ve been observing both of you for quite a while. You belong to each other. You just have to decide.”
“Thank you for your words, Beth. I’ll think about them.”
“You’re welcome. It’s a rather nice feeling when someone is interested in my words, instead of my body.”
“If this can be a consolation, it happens with most men when they deal with women. They seem to think as if we were dolls, without brain or soul.”
“Too true. Talking of men, I must return to work. Money coming this way,”
Beth replied watching a group of cowboys heading straight to the whorehouse, with huge grins on their faces.
“I won’t keep you here. Have a nice day.”
“It will be,” Beth replied before shooting her best smile to the approaching young men.
Cort had been observing the new arrival for some time. He was a lucky gambler, too lucky, considering that he hadn’t lost a single buck since his arrival in town. And he smiled too damn much. There was something about him that he disliked. Turning his gaze he saw Heather walking down the stairs and he had an idea.
“Good evening, Heather,” he said getting closer. “May I ask for you help?”
“Of course, provided that it’s not against the law.”
“How could I? I’m the marshal here,” he joked. “Do you see that man playing at the table near the window, the older one?”
“The one with the dark blue jacket?”
“Yes. I suspect that he’s cheating, but I’d like to be sure before raising an accusation. I cannot play with him because I’m sure he’d play nice. You should go there and keep your eyes open. Would you do this, please?”
“Yes,” she replied, pleased that he had asked for her help and eager to test her skills with another gambler. She moved gracefully toward the table, waving to those she already knew, and then she was introduced to the new ones. She smiled and took a seat.
It was quite late that evening as she left the game with a heavier purse and a few answers for the marshal. Heather met him on the porch outside the saloon. Hearing her steps, he turned and smiled, a question in his eyes. He was so different when he smiled that Heather’s heart nearly skipped a beat. “You’re right, he cheats. He’s very good, but I got him. He uses to serve the others with rather good cards. Three 10 or 8 in order to make them place their bets, then he serves himself with something slightly better, but never enough to raise suspects. And he does so only every now and then. He’s good enough not to need to do it frequently. I don’t think anybody noticed.” She said sitting on a chair close to him.
“Thank you very much, Heather, you helped me very much. Now I have a reason to get rid of him and if he’s AS smart as he seems to be, there won’t be any problems.”
“Be careful. That man is dangerous. His eyes are cold.”
“He reminds me of Herod, a cold-hearted snake with a disdainful confidence.”
Sensing the hatred in Cort’s voice, Heather dared to ask: “If you felt this way, why did you follow Herod?”
“Because I was very young and A fool. People used to treat me like shit since the day I was born and he treated me like a man, instead. He was respected and feared and for a while I thought I wanted the same thing. I had to sin my soul beyond salvation to realize where he was driving me. I hated him for what he did to me and myself for having been so stupid to listen to him.”
“Why you let that woman kill him?”
“Ellen had deeper and older reasons to exact her revenge. I was just happy to help her.”
“She didn’t return?”
“Did you love her?”
“No, I don’t think so. We needed each other for a while. She saved my life and I returned the favor. Now we’re even.”
“Was she really faster than Herod?”
“She was fast, but she took him by surprise. I guessed it would have been different if she had challenged him under different circumstances.”
“I could have killed both. Herod was right being afraid of me. When he had me dragged here in chains he asked me if I was still fast. I answered *faster than you* and I wasn’t bragging. My best and my worst quality is being so fucking fast.”
“You’d have preferred otherwise?”
“Yes, if I had been nothing but a stable boy, Herod would have never singled me out and my life would have been a lot better.”
“Or a lot worse. How can you be so sure about this?”
“I’m sure about nothing.”
He looked so lost that Heather decided to throw caution to the wind and kissed him full on the lips. His eyes widened in surprise, but it lasted only a heartbeat, as his right hand reacted by instinct, positioning at her nape, putting her closer. They were both breathless as the kiss ended.
“Why did you do this?” he whispered.
“Because I thought you needed it and I wanted it so badly. Are you upset?”
“For having been kissed by a beautiful woman? Astonished perhaps, never upset.” Cort answered smiling.
“You should smile more. You have no idea how incredibly handsome you are when you do so.”
“You plan to see me blush, don’t you?”
“That would be nice.”
“No, it wouldn’t. I’m the marshal, law enforcers aren’t supposed to blush when someone pays them a compliment, even if undeserved.”
“I’d object to the last word.”
“You’re just too kind and I don’t deserve neither your compliments, nor you. Too bad that I love you so much,” Cort added sighing.
“..You love me?” Heather stammered.
“Yes, guilty as charged. Of this and other crimes.”
“Do you feel this is a crime?”
“Not because of you, because of me. You’re a wonderful woman and you deserve something better than me.”
“What if it’s you that I really wanted?”
“I couldn’t be happier but your father is still considering to arrest me, so I don’t think he would think of me as the right match for you. Your father is a lawman. I am the marshal, but my past is not exactly respectable as you are well aware of.”
“I’m in love with you, not your past. You told me about it and I still haven’t found reasons to hate you. What you did was wrong, but I think you paid for your mistakes,” she added pressing her finger on his wrists where the skin still bore the marks of Herod’s chains.
“Are you sure of what you said? Aren’t you kidding me?” Cort asked, his voice full of hope.
“I could not, not about this.”
He put both hands under her chin and kissed her very lightly on her nose, her eyelids and finally her lips, then he made her raise and sit on his lap. She cuddled up on his chest; her head against his shoulder, letting the night air brush her hair and skin.
The moon was quite full and the porch of the Saloon was in plain sight. From her windows Beth had a clear view of the two lovebirds and smiled. “*It was about time!*” she thought before returning to the young man in her bed, eager to know the joys of sex in her welcoming arms.
Cort and Heather parted without really wishing to do so, but aware that they couldn’t just get caught that way. He kissed her hand and she smiled returning to the saloon and her room. He remained on the porch a little more, thinking.
After the game, Weatheral went on the porch to breathe some fresh air, before heading to bed. The marshal was still there.
“Mr. Weatheral,” the younger man said, “You’ve been lucky tonight.”
“Yes, Marshal, a good evening for a gambler.”
“Too good to be due to chance, more likely to the skills of a cardsharper. Don’t put that outraged look on your face, it doesn’t suit you. Just let me tell you something if you aren’t able to keep your game clean, you must leave Redemption. There’s no place here for you.”
Weatheral didn’t answer at first, pondering the no-nonsense tone in the marshal’s words.
“Is there anything I can do to make you change your mind? Something you want or need?”
“No. If you’re thinking to buy me, you’d better can it.”
“Buying you? What an awful idea. I was thinking of something more valuable, such as a partnership in leading this town. There could be interesting possibilities for skilled men like you and me.”
“I’m not interested. Mr. Weatheral, the ice you’re walking on gets thinner with every word you add. Show me that you’re as smart as you look and leave Redemption while you still can and everything would be just fine.”
“You’re too honest for my tastes and a town like this.”
“I’m doing my best. Then, will you go quietly?”
“I can wait until tomorrow morning at 8. After that, I’ll come looking for you.”
“At 8,00 you said. All right. This town isn’t really important for me.”
“Glad to hear this. Let’s see you tomorrow at 8.00” Weatheral returned to his room without another word. Cort looked at him wondering if this hadn’t been too simple. He would have to keep his eyes open.
The following day Cort witnessed Weatheral’s departure. The man even doffed his hat, before heading westward.
Weatheral hadn’t really meant to give up the idea of being Redemption’s new owner. Yes, the marshal had proved to be a pain in the ass, but he was the only one so fast and the town had already showed a lovely tendency to appreciate a strong hand. He just needed some time and a plan.
Meanwhile there was someone else pondering about Redemption’s marshal. Henry quite liked Cort, but he wasn’t going to be emotional about this. He wanted to be sure to take the right decision for a town that had already had its fair share of trouble. Heather had told him how the marshal had dealt with the cardsharper and Henry approved his methods. It went at Cort’s credit, given his past that his preference laid on using his words instead of his gun. Henry was going to take a decision soon.
It was mid-afternoon when Heather saw Cort exiting his office and she hurried to meet him. She was decided to talk to him as she heard the cocking of a gun. She turned to the direction of the sound seeing the man she had played against the evening before aiming at Cort. She shouted at the top of her lungs. Cort heard her scream from the other side of the road and turned startled. The move saved his life as the bullet meant to reach his heart, caught him in his left biceps. He staggered but didn’t fall. He drew his gun, instead, aiming at his attacker. Guy Weatheral felt on the ground without a sound, his life sliding away with the blood flowing from a hole in his chest.
Heather ran towards Cort who had lowered the gun and was steadying himself leaning against his office wall with his uninjured arm. His left sleeve was red and he was breathing heavily. When the girl was close to him, she helped him to sit on the ground and assessed his conditions.
“How are you? How do you feel?” She asked worried about his blank stare.
“Not bad. You saved my life,” Cort replied wearily. He was struggling to remain conscious but the blood-loss was sapping his strength. Other people came across and Heather told them to call the doctor and her father. As a young boy ran to do what she had asked, a couple of men helped Cort to stand and led him inside of his office and made him sit down on a chair. The doctor, who was in town for supplies, arrived a couple of minutes later.
“Bring some whiskey. This is going to hurt,” he commanded after having checked Cort’s conditions. As a bottle of booze arrived, the Doc served a good measure to the marshal who accepted it absentmindedly, coughing slightly when he gulped it down. The Doc saw Cort’s eyes getting unfocused and began his treatment. He used some of the liquor to clean the wound and the marshal flinched. When he went on with his ministrations, Cort clenched his teeth, trying to ignore the pain running through his body.
“Don’t be so damn bold, shout if you need it.” Heather blurted out watching his face growing paler in the effort not to scream. Cort attempted to laugh, but he choked instead. Heather gave him more whiskey and he closed his eyes, half drunk, half passed out. Darkness got him as the doctor began to remove the bullet.
Cort woke up in his room at the hotel. His arm was sore and he wasn’t sure if this was the worst thing, or the hangover that was acting like a sledgehammer on his head. He opened his eyes just a little and closed them against the sun invading the place. As his senses cleared, he felt a presence with him and reopened his eyes. Heather was watching him from a chair near his bed. She was smiling and he replied with a smile of his own.
“Welcome back, Cort. How do you feel?”
“Misused and giddy.”
“That’s quite normal. You were shot and I must say that you don’t stand the booze that good for a man of your size.”
“What makes you say so?”
“Because you drank only two glasses of whiskey and you got blind drunk.”
“Well, let me put it this way, it’s a good thing that I’m not an impressionable girl, because you cursed like a sailor when the doctor came to check your wound and thereafter, every time someone tried to touch you. I didn’t know you had such a vocabulary of expletives. You made the preacher run away shocked.”
“I really did?” Cort asked blushing furiously.
“No, the preacher didn’t run away, but I think that you ruined your image of soft-spoken lawman with the few that came here.”
Cort didn’t know what to do and ended up laughing, soon followed by Heather.
“I’m sorry. I don’t remember of having done something like that but I’m sorry.”
“Don’t bother, it’s not important.”
“Where is Weatheral?”
“The cardsharper? He’s found his place at the boot hill. Nobody will mourn him, I guess.”
Cort waited for a moment before speaking.
“You saved my life, you know?”
“I’m glad I was there. Just like I’m glad I’m here, now.”
“Don’t you think about your reputation?”
“I know who I am, what other people may think doesn’t bother me that much.” Cort was going to add something, when there was a knock at the door.
“Come in.” Heather said and her father stepped in.
“I’m glad to see you awake, Marshal. I hope the hangover isn’t bothering you that much.”
Cort grimaced at the news that so many people had witnessed his alcoholic outburst. He wished he could remember something. Or, maybe, it was better this way. He shrugged but a stab of pain in his arm made him desist from going on. There was silence for some moments, and then Henry resumed talking.
“I think you might like to know that I’ve taken my decision” he said without further beating around the bush and Cort straightened his back on the pillows for the words to come that were his future. “This town needs you, as well as you need it. You did a good job and I see no reason to change this situation. You paid for your deeds and now it’s time for you to get over it once AND for all. I won’t arrest you and I’m going to report to the governor that the situation in Redemption is under control, your control. The lady was right giving you her father’s badge.”
Cort listened to his words holding his breath. As Henry finished a low sigh escaped his lips and he felt the tension slipping from his body. He took a deep breath and blinked before speaking.
“Thank you, Mr. Wallace. Thank you very much. You don’t know what this means to me.”
“I know what you mean for this town and that’s enough for me.”
“Now that I’m not risking to be arrested, I have a question for you.”
“Would you mind if I married your daughter? Provided that she wants me, of course?” Cort added watching Heather.
Henry looked at his daughter in amazement and the wide smile spreading on her face was the answer he needed.
“I wouldn’t doubt about this, Cort, and I wouldn’t mind,” he replied smiling.
Cort grabbed Heather’s hand and brought it to his lips for a light kiss. She went closer and kissed him on a cheek.
Henry walked away in silence.
It took a while for Cort and Heather to register that her father had left the room.
“When would you like to get married?” Cort asked smiling sweetly.
“As soon as you’re better. I see no reasons to wait.”
“Neither do I. So people who had already started gossiping about me and you being alone here will have something else to talk about.”
“Talking about gossiping, would you mind if I’d ask Beth to be my chief bridesmaid?”
“You are you kidding, right?”
“No, I’m not. I don’t have female friends and I would like to have her at my side. But if you don’t agree, we could do without bridesmaids.”
“No, I just didn’t realize you knew her. This is no problem for me, she’s a good girl. You like stirring up things, don’t you?”
“What makes you think so? Just because I’ve been a gambler, I’m going to marry a handsome gunman who happens to be the marshal and I will have a saloon-girl for chief bridesmaid?”
“Something like that.”
“Does this bother you?”
“Not at all.”
“Good,” Heather said and kissed his eyelids that were growing heavy with weariness. “Sleep now, my Love. You must be in shape soon so we can get married.”
“This sounds like a fine good reason,” he replied with a smile in his voice. His eyes were fixed on her face, until he softly fell asleep. She brushed some stray lock from his forehead and just observed him sleeping.
Nearly the whole town was present at the wedding. To the respectable people’s dismay, all the girls of the whorehouse had been invited and one was the chief bridesmaid.
Notwithstanding this, all the voices and remarks stopped abruptly as the bride entered the small church at her father’s arm. She was radiant and she had a really sweet smile fixed on her bridegroom-to-be who stood near the altar waiting for her. Few women’s (and men’s for that matter) eyes remained dry as they saw his rapt expression following her slowly walking toward him.
Cort looked so different and so happy.
“You made the right move, my friend,” the doctor thought, addressing a silent thank to Ellen that had saved the marshal’s life and bestowed a gift on him that was what he needed to start a new life, after all that he had been through.
After the fire.