"Fifteen years. . ., best roper in the outfit. Only horse doc they got," he thought, "I still sit my tired butt out here at night. No damn appreciation in this world for any man."
The stars twinkled above Devil's Butte, as he stepped down off his pony. The midnight hour well past, Bill decided he could afford a little comfort. He ground-tied his reins to a knee-high mesquite tree, dug out his oil cloth and opened it. Selecting a couple of kitchen matches, he re-wrapped the remaining items, then carefully tucked the small bundle back in his side pouch.
The small fire crackled; the shadows of the cattle dotted the low swell of prairie, and Bill had began to feel better about the night when he heard a scuffle of boot. The tell-tale sound of shoe leather gritting across pebbles alerted him, but he didn't stir. He was part Indian, part white. The Indian part included his nerves. A slight adjustment of his left arm exposed the handle of a ten inch Bowie knife to the frosty night.
"Come on in, have a sit." Bill invited.
"Don't want to be a bother, saw your fire. Sure you don't mind?"
"Naw. More fire than I need. Won't miss what you use. Come ahead. Mind the creek, though. Too cold to get wet, tonight."
"Thanks, I didn't notice the stream. Is there any rocks?"
"A log, 'bout twenty feet to your left."
The sound of crunching steps faded, then the scrambling sound of a missed step on the log. Bill saw the shadow loom suddenly, a shadow against the star-filled sky.
"How d'you come to be walkin' around out here, late at night? Lose your cayuse?" The man had approached near enough to the fire that Bill could begin to pick out some details. There were few to see, outside of the Montana crush of the man's hat and a rough-out leather coat that reached to his mid-thigh.
"I'm lookin' for you, Kiowa Bill."
Bill curled his fingers around the handle of his knife. "Yep. Reckon you are. What kin I do you for?"
"Tell you in a minute. Let's talk a bit first. You know how you come to be ridin' herd tonight?"
"Sure. Big Mex tol' me to. No mystery there."
"He's your straw-boss, right? Well, any straw-boss on this outfit ever told you that you had to night-ride? No? Thought not."
The stranger leaned forward, produced a tailor-made cigarillo and stuck his finger into the fire. Bill sat quietly and watched, as the man's finger caught at the tip, a small yellow flame sprouting from it. He brought the tip of his finger to the tip of the cigarillo, and puffed.
"Thought, hell. You knew not."
"You recognize me now, don't you?"
"Yep. You're Lucifer. I been knowin' you all my life. Don't expect I ever thought to meet you though. Howdy do."
"You been knowin' of me, maybe. I've been knowin' of you, too. Seen you cut up Rose Esposito with that big ol' sticker you pack."
"You talkin' about that whore in Mescalito? Yeah, come to think on it, they did call her Mescalito Rose. I cut her cause she was gonna shoot me dead. I saw that hide-out gun in her hand. It was when I was puttin' my pants back on. She prob'bly catches a lotta drovers out, like that. Not no more, though."
"No, not no more. You think that was a fittin' Christian thing to do, do you? She never had a chance. Stuck her clean through the breast bone."
"I did, for true. You wanna see the scar her .32 left on my gut? Too cold to show you tonight, but drop around the shack sometime. I'll show it to yeh." Lucifer took another deep drag on the cigarillo, expelled it and watched the smoke spiral up.
"You're wrong, you know." Lucifer's tone was matter-of-fact.
"How's that?" Bill looked across the fire with a level gaze.
"There is appreciation, somewhere, for any man. I appreciate you, for instance."
"What do you appreciate about me? I never did anything you might be interested in. Not that I kin remember, at the present."
"Oh, sure you have, Bill. You remember when you beat that drover to death, just because he was too slow to get out of your way?"
"Charlie Simms. Meanest man I ever met. He didn't die. Got on his horse and rode away."
"He died, Bill. He got as far as the first fork outa town, before he bled into his belly enough to pass out. He was cold before his horse reached the barn."
"Well, I guess I know why I never heard of it. He weren't no loss to nobody. He prob'bly didn't even have a Christian burial."
"No, he was pretty well eat up by the hogs, when he was found, the next morning. The boys that found him just drug his remains around back, and stuffed 'em in a shallow hole. You ain't proud o' that are ye?"
"Never give it no thought. This is the first I heard of the outcome. I don't see how I coulda done anything diff'rent. I just wanted to get past him to go t' the outhouse, but he wanted to fight me. Charlie was about six foot six, and had me by a hunnert pounds, or more."
"You belly-kicked him, Bill."
"He was gonna pull his hawg leg. You ever see what a Colt Walker will do to a man? It's got a .44 caliber ball with forty, fifty grains o' powder; blow a man's arm clean off."
"Just the same, Bill. You killed him --sent him straight to hell-- and I appreciate it. He'll be toastin' up nicely, bout now."
"Ever a man deserved it, it was ol' Charlie Simms. You're welcome."
"You an' me, we could make quite a team. How bout it Bill? Wanna team up with me? I can make yeh a purty good offer. Better than this here two dollars a day and beans, leastwise."
"And you get my soul?"
Lucifer lifted his head, leaned back and roared with laughter. Bill saw his face for the first time that night. It was the face of every mean-spirited white man he'd ever seen. The peals of laughter built, crested in a tide of reverberating echos, then subsided to a series of gasping chuckles.
"I'm sorry. I always get that response, and it tickles my funny-bone every time. It's your power, I want. Not your soul, whatever the hell that is. Just do what you do, but do it meaner. You can have some of the best tutorin' a outlaw ever had. I know everything that ever happened. I know where the gold is, in every bank, right now! I can make you rich. You hook up with me, and I'll show you everything you need. That--is my end of the bargain."
"I still need to see what you're gonna get out of it. Don't trust no bargain that I can't see both sides to." Lucifer sat quietly, for a moment, then shifted. Bill thought he was a bit uneasy.
Well, I guess it's all right to tell you. You are a straight shooter, and true. I get misery, Bill. And pain, and sufferin', and human degradation. I get all the fear and hurt you can bring into this creation. I got an appetite for that stuff, Bill. I can't get enough of it. I've been watchin' you a while, and I think you can haul the freight."
"I see your profit now, but I have just one more question, if you don't mind."
"I don't mind at all, cowboy. What is your question?"
"All right then, what I want to know is, what are the penalties? What if you don't like the way I'm carryin' out this agreement? What you gonna do about it?"
"Don't worry about that, Bill. You will do just fine, by me. I guarantee it."
"Can't accept that for an answer. You say you know all about everything that ever happened. I can see that. You must surely have powers, or you coudn't be Lucifer. But you can't see the future, can you?"
"Uh, listen Bill. I don't see what that has to do..."
"Has everything to do with the bargain. If I throw in with your scheme, then I become a wanted man. You can't tell me what's gonna happen, only what already has happened. That's enough to keep me one jump ahead of the law. You stop tellin', I start dyin'. Right?"
"You don't know I can't tell the future! Of course I can tell the future. I have all the powers of God A-mighty."
"Nope, You don't. You are a spirit, an' I know spirits. My mother's father was a spirit man. He taught me about the good ones, and the bad ones--like you. If you knew what was gonna happen, you'da seen that creek over there. You'da seen the log you was gonna use to cross it, without no help from me. An' you'da seen my spirit, mountin' up on the wind, high above yours.
"I got an answer fer ya. One word: Y'ett teh hay. I know you understand it. My grandpa made sure I knew it. It's my guide through the spirit world: Y'ett teh hay. I am here!"
Lucifer braced, as though struck across the face. He drew himself up, erect and looked deep in Kiowa Bill's eyes. He saw the steel there, he felt the temper of the drover's will.
"I see you have made up your mind. You have wasted my time and a great opportunity for yourself, Bill. You will be seein' me again, you know."
"Yep, I reckon. Been knowin' you all my life."
The cold breeze turned hot and flashed past the cowboy as he hunkered just a little closer over the fire. The spirit was gone. Bill looked out across the darkened prairie, silvery highlights were picked out by the full moon just rising, blood red, above the horizon.
"Folks call this an Indian Moon," Bill thought to himself, "An Indian Moon and Kiowa nights, when the spirit is strong. The spirit is strong and I am here Grandpa."
Robert Marcom: Writer - Researcher - Photographer - Illustrator
Author of "A Voyage Through The Cosmos" (ISBN 1-930430-03-5)