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Prologue: Oklahoma 1889
High summer night in Oklahoma. Warm winds that smelled of apple blossoms. Now and then a lightning bug winked on and drifted through the air. Quentin Ross caught one in his fist and held it there, its radiance leaking between his fingers and reflecting in his shallow eyes. For a moment he rolled the lightning bug between his thumb and forefinger, and then he crushed it, smearing himself with its luminescence, and he smiled, wide and empty.
The Winter Family was camped in a stand of blackjack oaks. There was no fire but the moon was up, pushing the stars back into the darkness of the sky. Charlie and Johnny Empire lay on their sides, playing cards and bickering. Fred Johnson wrote in his little book and drank whiskey from a cup not much bigger than a thimble. Quentin wandered from tree to tree, humming to himself, soft and tuneless. The others tried to sleep, tucked between tree roots or curled in bedrolls like pill bugs. All of them, except for Augustus Winter.
He sat astride a pale horse, like Death, leaning back in his heavy saddle and smoking a cigarette in an ivory holder. The suit he wore was well tailored but growing threadbare. His straw-white hair was cropped short and he had an extravagantly waxed mustache. His eyes were very light amber, almost yellow, the eyes of an eagle or a cat. Occasionally he would remove a watch from his pocket and glance at it, turning it in the pale moonlight, watching as the second hand marched around, and around, and around.
It is often observed that murderers do not look like murderers. No one said that of Augustus Winter.
A little after midnight Winter cocked his head. “They’re coming.”
“I don’t hear anything,” Quentin said.
But soon they all did. The sleepers were kicked and prodded into wakefulness, the lantern shuttered, weapons drawn, instructions whispered.
O’Shea and two of his hands came around the bend and rode up to the camp. Everyone relaxed. O’Shea pulled up his horse, unstrapped a bag tied to his saddle, and tossed it to Quentin.
“I’d be grateful if you count it now,” O’Shea said.
Quentin knelt down, opened the sack, and rifled through the bills quickly. Then he stood, his knees creaking.
“Yes, it’s all there, as we agreed.”
“Good,” O’Shea said and began to wheel his horse around.
“Now just a moment, Mister O’Shea,” Quentin called out. “Please, just a moment more.” Quentin’s voice was very deep, melodious. He spoke slowly, as if he were thinking very carefully, or reciting poetry.
O’Shea turned back to him, reluctantly. Both men were around fifty, but O’Shea was a tall man with a healthy mane of gray hair, while Quentin was small and fine boned.
“We’ve run into some unexpected expenses . . . ,” Quentin began.
“Oh god damn you,” O’Shea said.
Quentin continued as if O’Shea had not spoken.
“. . . which were not included in the initial estimate of our”
“Estimate?” O’Shea shouted. “We had a deal, you thieves.”
“Yeah,” Winter said. He did not speak loudly but all the men fell silent, and the bugs too, and the wind seemed to die down to nothing. “Yeah. Thieves, Mister O’Shea. And worse.”
O’Shea looked at Winter and bore his gaze. That was something not every man could do. O’Shea was not like every man. Willpower radiated from him. And he was angry now. He looked at the dirty mob of killers under the trees, white trash and blacks and Mexicans, in their muddy boots and sweat-stiff dusters, thin and poor and dumb as nails. One of them was using baler twine as a rifle strap. He thought: Am I to let these men get the better of me? But then, it was only money.
“How much?” O’Shea asked. Quentin told him. O’Shea nodded and said, “The money will be ready when you get back. I trust that is all.” Not a question.
But Quentin said, “Just one more thing, Mister O’Shea! Please! One more thing. A member of our band has taken ill. He needs a doctor. We would be grateful if you could bring him back to town.”
“Oh for heaven’s sake,” O’Shea snapped, but they were already bringing the sick man forward, surprisingly small, wrapped up tightly in a stinking bedroll. O’Shea stood up in his stirrups and looked down. He frowned. The man was an Indian, but his skin had gone gray and seemed thin, as if his bones were likely to poke through at any moment. Greasy foam flecked around his lips and nose and the whites of his eyes were jaundiced, the color of egg yolk.
The little Indian regarded O’Shea with piteous weakness. O’Shea frowned in disgust.
“His name is Bill Bread,” Quentin said.
“One of you take him,” O’Shea said to his hands.
“Farewell, Mister O’Shea,” Quentin called, and tipped his hat. “Take good care of Mister Bread!”
The Winter Family laughed as the hands threw Bill Bread over the neck of one of their sturdy ponies and rode off, holding their noses. They all laughed, except for Augustus Winter, who watched O’Shea’s horse in the dim moonlight, until it was lost in the trees.
The next morning, Bill Bread was awoken by a strange, high laugh like the call of an asthmatic loon. When he opened his eyes he did not know where he was. A small, clean room with a glass window and wallpaper printed with rocking horses and flowers. The bed was high off the ground and soft.
A crippled boy stood in the doorframe, wearing short pants and suspenders and a shirt with a collar. Large, thick spectacles were strapped to his face with a black cord. When Bill looked at the boy, the boy averted his gaze to the ground, then the window, the foot of the bed, anywhere but Bill.
“Where am I?” Bill tried to say, but his throat was dry.
The boy let out that distinctive laugh again then limped away, leaning on a pair of canes.
“He’s awake! Yes! He’s awake now. Awake!” the boy said.
Heavy footsteps. A tall man appeared in the door, bald, with shaggy white sideburns.
“Mister Bread, was it?” the man said.
“I’m Doctor Simpson. Do you pretend not to know what has made you ill?”
Bill closed his eyes.
“If it is a lecture you fear, let me set your mind at ease. I don’t waste them on men like you. I will only urge you to stay away from the Keeley Institute. Their ‘gold cure’ for drunkenness is fraudulent. You will be dead in six months anyway; in the meantime, stay away from them.”
“If you want to live, you know what to do.”
“Yeah,” Bill said. “I just don’t know how.”
“Oh, you know how,” the doctor said. “If you’ll pardon me for saying so, there is nothing complicated about how to stop pouring whiskey down your throat. You know how, of course you do, but you don’t know why. Do you, Mister Bread?” The doctor regarded Bill as if he did not entirely consider the question to be rhetorical, or perhaps simply to admire the effect of his own words. Either way he was disappointed. Bill said nothing.
“Sleep and water,” the doctor said. “Mister Bread, good morning.”
The doctor tromped out of the room. Bill heard that queer laugh one more time, and then the house was quiet.
He lay still but he could not sleep. Despite the pounding in his head and the terrible painful nausea radiating through his stomach, a strange energy, a lightness, was swimming through his limbs. He swung his feet around and pulled himself out of bed. At first he thought he might be sick, but it passed.
It was darker in the hallway without the dim light from the window. Bill made his way down the corridor, taking small steps and leaning against the wall. The rug felt good on his stocking-clad feet. Small bedrooms lined each side of the corridor; he was in the servants’ wing.
When he reached the end of the hall he went down the stairs into the foyer and then made his way to the parlor, where he sat down in a rocking chair. He rocked back and forth and watched the early morning light come in through the window.
Bill rocked back and forth, and perhaps it was only light-headedness from the walk down the stairs, or dehydration. Perhaps he was still drunk, but it seemed to him that everything was beautiful here. How long had it been since he had slept in a grand house like this? As a guest? Instead of in dirty hotels, hasty camps, dark sheds. Life on the run, as an outlaw, hunted by the army and the police and, worst of all, the Pinkerton National Detective Agency. Now here he was, in a nice house, with lace on the tables and family portraits on the walls, the smell of furniture polish and warm wood. It was nice. It felt right.
Six months, he thought. It wasn’t so long.
The Winter Family crouched on the top of a hill about two hundred yards to the west of the Indian camp. They were all low to the ground, their dirty greatcoats pooled around them like skirts, speaking in whispered tones.
A fine mist hung in the morning air. The rising sun was poking through the trees, dimly illuminating the little lean-tos and sheds. One skinny mule paced restlessly back and forth. Otherwise the camp was still.
“They are a ragged bunch, aren’t they?” Hugh said, pushing his spectacles higher on the bridge of his nose. “I kind of thought old O’Shea might have been laying it on a bit thick, but they look more like the Sioux or Cheyenne rather than a civilized tribe.”
“What do you think, Augustus?” Quentin said. “If we come up on them with knives, we could kill some without awakening the others. Perhaps Charlie and Johnny could”
“We’re not going to do this,” Winter said.
Quentin blinked. “Pardon me?”
“We’re going to go back to town,” Winter said. “And kill them instead.”
Johnny Empire laughed, honking, and his brother shushed him. The other men simply stared. It sounded like a joke, but every man knew Winter never joked.
“Did you lose your damn mind?” Fred Johnson said. He was tall and broad across the shoulders, a fifty-year-old ex-slave with silver streaks running through his dark, curly beard.
“When Quentin asked for more money O’Shea didn’t even blink,” Winter said. “That means he don’t have to go to no bank for it. He’s got it in his house somewhere. And that shitsplat of a town don’t got any more people in it than that little Indian camp down there. Why should we kill Indians when we can kill white men for twice the price?”
The men were silent. They tried to think of something to say. None of them had the courage, except for Fred Johnson.
“Winter,” Johnson said. “You done lost your goddamn mind. We can’t just go kill a whole town full of white folks. It’s”
Winter exhaled, sharply, and his eyes caught fire and turned to gold in the dawn light. Johnson’s words all dried up.
“You’ve come with me this far,” Winter said. “You’ve come all this way, and now you’re going to start to tell me there’s some things that just ain’t done? That what you’re telling me, Freddy?”
“They’ll hunt us down,” Johnson said.
“In case you ain’t noticed, they’re already hunting us,” Winter said. “We got a whole fucking army of Pinkertons combing the woods for us, led by the same son of a whore that killed Dusty and Chris Neville and Manny and the Old Battle Ax. And he’s not going to quit till he kills us too.”
“You think that’s as bad as it can get?” Johnson asked.
At this, Winter smiled, hard and tight.
“You’re the one that don’t get it, Freddy. This ain’t nothing compared to how bad it’s gonna get. Ten years ago if the law was on you, why, you’d just run into the woods. There was always more country. Wasn’t there, Freddy? You remember that feeling right after the war? Like you could just keep moving forever? Now it’s just Oklahoma. And after the big land run in April, Oklahoma’s not even Oklahoma anymore. Nothing but towns and railways and asshole Sooners like O’Shea. We’re fucking done. We need to cash out. And this is it. Right now.”
Winter stood up. A woman, a girl really, had come out of one of the shanties. She looked up and saw Winter silhouetted against the bruised sky. They looked at each other. She was unafraid.
Winter turned his head and spat.
“Do what you like,” he said to them. “I’m going with or without you.”
As he always would. But as always, they did not put him to the test.
O’Shea’s household stirred into activity. First the servants rose. Despite the ambitious size of the servant wing, there appeared to only be two: an elderly black man and his wife. The man sniffed at Bill Bread in his rocking chair, but his wife smiled and asked Bill if he wanted coffee. Bill accepted.
Not much later O’Shea plodded downstairs, coughing and snorting like an angry bull. He went straight out into the fields and Bill could hear him through the windows shouting at his hired hands. After an hour he clomped back inside to the kitchen. The high-pitched laugh of the boy. O’Shea’s gruff responses.
Bill held the mug of coffee in his thin fingers. He could not drink iteven the smell of it made him sickbut he liked its warmth. By now, Bill thought, the little Indian village had been wiped out. The Family would be miles away. Perhaps they were drinking; perhaps they were sleeping it off. Tonight he would ride to the rendezvous point with O’Shea or his men. Bill wouldn’t receive a share of the night’s profits, but they wouldn’t leave him behind. Of that much he was sure. For now he could enjoy this interlude of domesticity.
One of the hired hands came in the front door, went into the kitchen, and spoke to O’Shea. Bill did not hear what the hand said, but he heard O’Shea’s reply.
“What do you meant it’s been cut? Where?”
The hand spoke.
“Well, those telegrams need to go out today. Someone will have to carry them to a different telegraph office.”
Bill dropped his mug of coffee on the carpet. He felt like his entire body had turned into glass. Hard, inflexible, transparent. And as if the room around him was not real, but instead a painting or photograph. The moment stretched on, and to his surprise, he found that he knew exactly what he had to do.