Rogue Pardew rode his horse along the main street. Nothing much had changed during the twenty years of his absence. Old Jem’s Mercantile stood where it did, with tin baths and buckets displayed on the porch, shovels standing in a pail like flat-headed flowers in a vase. Brindley’s Funeral Parlour looked as grim as ever – if things were truly the same in Coyote Creek, old man Brindley was most likely the richest galoot in town. Undertakers never went short of business; it was the same all over, Pardew had found during his decades of exile.
But now I’m back right enough, he set his square jaw, to right a wrong that ought to never have been done in the first place.
But first, a drink. What the preacher man would call a libation suckled straight from the devil’s teat.
He hitched the horse to the post outside the Scarlet Woman and pulled his hat down over his brow.
Twenty years is a long time, he reflected. Folk come and go. Some of them most likely gave old man Brindley some business and were pushing up the daisies on Tombstone Hill.
Even so, Pardew didn’t want to take chances on being recognised, least ways not afore he’d done what he’d come back to do.
He pushed the saloon doors inwards and stepped over the threshold. Jake was on the piano, tinkling away just like the old days. Card-players were grouped around tables, intent on their hands.
And there behind the bar, Frankie was polishing a glass with his apron. The barkeep’s hair was still slick with a centre parting, Pardew observed, but there were streaks of white at Frankie’s temples, the only concession to the passage of time.
Frankie raised a luxuriant eyebrow as Pardew approached.
“Whisky,” Pardew kept his voice to a soft growl and the brim of his hat shadowing his eyes. He slapped a five-dollar bill on the counter. If Frankie recognised him, he gave no sign; he just poured the drink and asked no questions. Professional discretion, Pardew reckoned. Even so, he didn’t want to risk being spotted. He tossed back the whisky shot, feeling it burn the back of his throat and the subsequent kick to his belly. He turned to go but found himself face-to-face with a fella in a red shirt. The fella had a beard now but Pardew recognised the close-set eyes at once as those belonging to his old acquaintance, Wyatt Bell.
Bell was jawing tobacco. He looked Pardew up and down and, with a contemptuous sneer, spat on his boots.
“Well, look what the cat drug in.”
Pardew tipped his hat. “I don’t want no trouble, Wyatt. I ain’t here for that. I ain’t here for you.”
“Plenty folk round these parts got scores to settle with you, you lowdown rotten snake.”
“I don’t want no trouble neither,” the barman interposed, patting the trusty rifle he kept within reach.
“Tombstone Hill, afore sundown,” Bell spat again. “I got me a bullet with your name on it.”
“Well, well, well, if it ain’t Rogue Pardew,” said a hoarse but decidedly female voice at Pardew’s shoulder. “I knew you couldn’t keep away from my womanly charms indefinitely.”
Pardew barely glanced at the buxom showgirl, but it was enough to show him Miss Liza had gained quite a bit of weight and quite a lot of tattoos since he’d been gone.
Pardew didn’t respond other than to tip his hat – Miss Liza was still a lady, after all.
“I knew you’d come crawling back, Mister!” the ageing showgirl called after him, her crumpled feathers bristling. “Show your face in here again and you just might find yourself gelded.”
Pardew pushed his way out of the saloon, aware that every eye in the place was upon him. Word would get round like wildfire. Guess who’s back in town, folk would nudge each other. I figure I might not live long enough to make that appointment with Wyatt after all.
He strode along Main Street, ignoring the faces at the windows he passed and the folks who pulled their children indoors when they saw him approach. I ain’t here for that, I ain’t here for you, he wanted to tell them, but he had no time to shoot the breeze and put folk in the picture.
At the end of the street, surrounded by a neat little yard and a prim picket fence, stood Coyote Creek’s schoolhouse, red and proud with white around the door and windows. It was just as he recalled it all those years ago and it made him feel like a child again.
Quit that, he scolded himself. You’re a man now and you must do what’s got to be done.
Steeling himself, he went inside.
And there she was, behind her desk, the schoolmarm, Miss Clementine, not looking a day older.
“School’s out,” she said without looking up. The cocking of his pistol got her attention right enough.
“My, my!” she rose from her chair. “Ethan Pardew as I live and breathe.”
“Don’t you say a word!” Pardew kept the gun trained on the teacher and hoped she couldn’t see how his hand was shaking.
“Finally come to turn in your homework assignment!” Miss Clementine laughed and it was all Ethan ‘Rogue’ Pardew could do not to piss his pants.
“Somebody should have done this years back,” he stammered. “Maybe then the kids of this town would have stood some kind of a chance. Maybe I would have stood a chance and wouldn’t have turned out so bad, like I did.”
Miss Clementine arched an eyebrow as though waiting for a child’s tantrum to blow itself out.
“Dear, dear, still making up your stories, I see. Still letting that imagination of yours run wild.”
A shot rang out and Miss Clementine spoke no more. Her eyes rolled up trying to see the hole that had appeared in her forehead and then she crumpled over her desk.
Rogue Pardew blew on his gun barrel before he re-holstered the weapon.
He walked slowly back to the saloon, feeling lighter as though a great weight had been lifted. Maybe I’ll get myself shot or lynched or tarred and feathered – Perdew was beyond caring. Or maybe folk’ll give me a second chance; hell, it was worth the asking.
One thing he was sure of, as sure as eggs, that Clementine witch would be putting her hands on no more little boys from now on.