I don’t know what drew me back to Sioux Falls - The Big Lazy, I always called it. I guess I figured that a burg like this was the least likely place for my sins to catch up with me, since most tend to avoid a joint like the Falls at all costs. In any case, I blew in through the swinging doors of Darb’s on the crest of a warm summer wind and remembered just how bad a dive it really was. I shook the highway dust off of shoes that were more than a little caked with blood, wishing I could shake the memories off just as easily. I went straight for the bar past a host of regulars I recognized once I took away fifteen years and just as many pounds. I didn't suppose any of them knew me from a hole in the wall, which was just as well, but I felt like tempting fate. I ordered a whiskey, straight up, shot it back and asked for another before the bartender could draw back the bottle. After the second I asked for a glass of milk to cool my raging ulcer – I usually never touch the hard stuff, but I had just gotten away with murder, and I felt like celebrating.
I had finished half of the glass and popped a couple of bismuth tablets in my mouth when she walked in.
She wasn’t a townie – at least, I had never seen her before, which admittedly didn’t mean much considering my lengthy displacement. She walked through the joint like an Egyptian queen, dragging the eyes of the rough and rowdy clientele along with her. She was aces from top to bottom - from a set of legs hot enough to set a man on fire and a pair of lips wet enough to put him out. I was so busy giving her the once-over that I was the last one to notice the pearl-handled revolver in her hand, fixed straight on the barkeep. The rest of the patrons scrambled for the exits, but I held my place. I had been walking a long time and had earned a rest.
“Beat it, Mister,” the woman ordered without looking at me. “Can’t you see me and the barkeep have some personal business to attend to?”
“Sure, sweetheart, I think you’ve made that pretty clear. But you see, I’ve already paid for this here glass of milk, and I intend to get my money’s worth. Now, whatever there is between you two, I figure I got no part in it, and therefore no need to stop you or dime you, so I don’t think my being here is gonna spoil anything.” I sipped my drink and turned away. I felt her eyes turn on me, burning hotter than a pair of .38 slugs into the back of my skull.
“Hey, pal, I got more than one bullet in this thing, you know, so beat it.”
“I would hope so, honey, because judging from the way you handle that piece you’ll need a lot more’n one shot to finish the job.”
“Well, I’ve got enough to finish the both of yah and make up for any mistake I may or may not make, so amscray.”
“Nothing doing, sister; I’ve had a long day’s worth of walking, and I figure a bullet may be about the only thing that’s gonna get me offa this stool. I ain’t going.”
I felt her eyes move from me to the jittery bartender, who immediately began blubbering and begging for his life. There was such a long pause that I didn’t actually expect her to go through with it, but sure enough came a pop-pop and he fell flat on his back behind the bar, taking several bottles with him. I took a swig of milk through a slight grin.
“Looks like I was right,” I commented on her marksmanship.
“And what’s to say I didn’t give him two just for the hell of it?”
“Lady, I’m willing to lay good money on the assumption that this is the first time you’ve ever handled one of those things. Five’ll get you ten it’s the first time you’ve ever seen one.”
She put the gun on me now, a lot steadier.
“Well, in any case, I’ve got four more tries and I’m a lot closer to you than him. Seeing as I’ve got a taste for it now, how’s about I give yah all four real slow-like, and you tell me which one hurts the most?”
“Not that I suspect it’s any of my business, but might I enquire as to what he did to get you so riled up?”
“It’s not, and I’d just as soon not inform a disagreeable stranger like yourself of my personal business.”
“Not even if it’s inversely tied to his own fate?”
She didn’t answer immediately. “Looks like you chose the wrong day to wander into this place.” She sounded genuinely regretful.
“Looks like it,” I answered.
I heard the hammer click back and knew she meant business.
“Look here,” I said, “The way I see it, the guys that rushed outta here knew what you were up to right off, and odds are they went right to the proper authorities with it because, if I know drunks - and boy do I - the person who’s well-being they’re gonna be most concerned with is the man who gives ‘em their juice. Now, even if my assessment ain’t spot-on, I’m more than certain that in a town this small the Sheriff’s department ain’t more than a roll of dice away from the front doors.”
“You get pretty gabby when you’re under the gun, don’t you, Mister?”
“All I’m saying is that you don’t have enough time to get in four shots and get out of here before Jim Law shows up. You can maybe squeeze off one round and hightail it outta the vicinity right quick, but I’m willing to stake my life on the guess that killing an innocent bystander is gonna make you less of a shot than with a guy you’ve clearly got the mark for and, darling, you don’t have the time to be sloppy.”
I felt her waver just a little bit. “Suppose I do fly out of here, what then? Between you and the barflies, I’ll get made pretty quick. Won’t do me much good to run, especially when everyone in this town knows my face.”
“I ain’t gonna say nothin’. Just leave the gun and get lost.”
“Why does a guy like you wanna go ahead and be so nice to a doll like me then, huh?”
“I figure a girl as green as you would have a pretty good reason for coming into a joint like this and plugging a guy. Guy like me knows a thing or two about killing folks what deserve it. I don’t figure I wanna see you fingered for something you’re more’n likely justified in doing. Not when a sonuvabitch like me is gonna be free to watch it happen. And I know damn well that you don’t want that, either.”
“Are you on the square with this?” She was understandably dubious. I nodded.
“You can always try me and find out. What have you got to lose?”
She waited a long time to make up her mind, but then she set the gun down on the bar next to me, laid a gloved hand on mine tenderly.
“If you beat it, feel free to look me up sometime.”
I gave a laugh. “Honey, no offense, but judging from the way you handle the men in your life, I think it’d be just as well if I didn’t.”
She didn’t say anything. I could hear the rapid-fire click-click of her heels on the wood floor and then the swinging of the doors as she rushed out into the warm summer day. I downed the rest of the milk and wiped my mouth. I knew I had been wrong in coming back here, but I figured this was Fate’s way of catching up with me and making sure my balance was paid. She’s a fickle dame, Fate – just when you think she’s gonna let you off the hook, she gets a second wind and reels you in. It was funny, that after all I had done and gotten away with I was coming back here to answer for someone else’s crime. But, when it got right down to it, I didn’t really mind. It was all the same to me anyways, in the end. I pushed back from the bar and began rolling a cigarette. I expected any minute to hear the approaching bustle from outside as the boys from City Hall made their way down to assess the scene. I figured they’d be pretty quick to pin the wrap on me and carry me down to the county lockup. I wondered if any of them would recognize me. Probably not right off the bat, but I was sure that after a while it would come to them. Lord knew they would have plenty of time. I wasn’t going anywhere.