Cole massaged his aching neck.
The moon slipped away.
He was deliberately avoiding going into the Cody place.
The realisation struck him like a blow in the face and he grimaced.
While he stayed away the kid could still be alive.
Or Ma Cody could be weeping for a lost child.
Cole inhaled slowly.
He could face a gun. Face killing another man.
He could stand proud and face his own death, no problem.
This was wrong. More, this was a faceless wrong, a motiveless wrong.
Then, desperately trying not to think, he walked towards the door.
Cole sat on a rock some way from the Cody place. Lamplight still burned in the window, a brighter yet more ethereal yellow washed by moonlight.
That kid could be dead by now, he thought, and this touched him more than he was prepared for. His throat tightened and he slammed his fists down onto his legs.
"Not in my fuckin' town," he growled.
His thoughts retreated back to McGinley.
The hand killed the women. McGinley killed Bowen. McGinley tried killing Anna - and that there's the dealbreaker! Whatever the motivation for the first three murders, why kill a young girl?
It may have been close to midnight, but it was easy walking to the Cody place under the full moon.
Everything was illuminated with a silver light that gave a sharpened and precise edge to every object, whether it be small rock, boulder or the dancing skeletons that were the stunted and gnarled trees that somehow kept a grip on life, provided they weren't too far from a river or stream.
But why kill anyone?
McGinley's a Minister. A man of God.
Would McGinley really sacrifice his own son?
Abraham would have.
What in hell was McGinley's motivation?
Why an axe?
Two women had been hit, stabbed.
Hit, then stabbed.
So why an axe?
Simple. Because people were very near. It's quiet.
Is that logical?
So if McGinley killed the two women, maybe Bowen wasn't down to him or his hired hand.
McGinley's hired hand! Shit! McGinley's hired hand is back in Roylsden. Must mean just one thing. There could be another killing.
Or maybe there's just been one.
Oh, Shit! Shit! Shit!
Sheriff Cole leapt out of his chair. It teetered. By the time it fell over he was out of his office.
It was Zeke's eyes that disturbed Clint the most. Bloodied, red and sunken, they looked at Clint imploringly, as if Clint knew every answer and could solve everything.
"No!" Clint heard himself shout angrily. It sounded callous and unfeeling, borne from his own inability to cope with anything more than this situation. How could he help Zeke when he didn't know how to help Anna and couldn't even help himself?
Without warning Zeke staggered up and fled out of the house.
Perplexed, and because there was nothing else he could think of doing, Clint opened Zeke's rifle.
It was loaded.
He felt awkward, standing there holding someone's rifle, unsure if Zeke was a danger to them or to himself. He glanced at Anna. When he looked back at Zeke, he saw that Zeke too was staring at her. There were tears in his eyes.
"How is she?" were the words Zeke tried to say, but they came out as a meaningless, guttural sound which burned his throat. He tried again, pointing at Anna
Old Ma Cody tried to answer him, but her tears returned and she hid her face in her hands. Zeke looked at Clint and wailed loudly.
Clint passed Zeke the cup of water and reached out to take the rifle. For a second Zeke's one-handed grip on it tightened... but, sighing, he let it go.
He downed the water in one go, much of it running over his face and clothes. Clint poured him another, then another, both of which went much the same way.
"Sit down, Zeke," Ma Cody said quietly "If you want."
He didn't answer, but sat down on the floor where he had been standing.
"There's food- " Clint began, but stopped himself, suddenly aware he was in someone else's house.
"Or it could be the same..."
Later, Sheriff Cole sat alone and spoke into the cold night air of his empty office.
"...the same motivation."
Zeke did them. All three murders.
Nope. That's not what happened. Not Zeke. Not Samuel, either.
Or, McGinley murdered the women? Left his son to take all the blame? That is possible. But is it very likely? Is McGinley capable of that?
Or, McGinley got his hired hand to murder the women? Hand leaves, job done. Son gets the blame because he just happens to be there? Possible.
But why John Bowen?
Why an axe?
Mickey O'Donohue nodded pointedly at Cole's empty glass.
Mickey grinned. "Learned all you need to know, huh?"
"Learned all I don't know, maybe."
Mickey's grin dissolved.
Cole smiled "Forget it."
"Tell me about Bowen. Why's he different?"
"Zeke wasn't there."
"Clint was," Mickey offered.
"You think Clint killed Bowen because he was there?"
"No. He wouldn't have - "
"And that's exactly what I'm thinking about Zeke."
"No, John Bowen is different precisely because Zeke wasn't there. So maybe the motivation for the murder is different."
"So, what's the motivation?"
"You tell me," Sheriff Cole said thoughtfully.
"Well, I got something for you, Sheriff." Mickey leaned back in his chair, smiling. He would have liked to have drawn this moment out much longer but figured this was a serious business and anyway every fibre of his being wanted to tell
His arms shot onto the table, fingers pointing at Sheriff Cole.
"Barman says those strangers are working on the McGinley 'stead. Hired hands. That other man worked for McGinley, only temporary, a few months back."
"Around the time of the murders?"
"Left before Mr Bowen got killed. But yeah, mostly around the time of the murders."
As Clint moved, Zeke jumped, suddenly startled. Sunlight flashed dimly off the gunmetal as he pointed it at Clint. Clint put his palms up in front of his face as Zeke pulled the hammer back with a trembling thumb.
"Okay, okay Zeke!" His heart pounded in his chest. He took a deep breath. "I'll get you water."
Zeke took a step back. The barrel's black eyes followed Clint's head.
"Nobody's gonna hurt you." The barrel spun towards Old Ma Cody.
Clint held out a cup of water.
"Want it? Or not?" he asked calmly.
Zeke nodded, still gripping the weapon.
Clint gaped, confused and disbelieving. Old Ma Cody's hands shot to her mouth and she stared, horrified.
Zeke stood before them, mouth and head muscles twitching. His wild, staring eyes were struggling to come to terms with the change of light and he blinked them often. They were dull and lifeless, and dark skin fell from them down his cheeks. He looked like he hadn't slept for weeks and stared blankly ahead.
Clint made to move towards him but stopped when he saw Zeke's hands tighten on his rifle.
"Get the boy some water, Clint," Old Ma Cody said softly.
The shadow stood unmoving.
Clint was upright, stamping his feet to get life back in them. The dread he felt hadn't left him: he was sure he'd get the first barrel and Ma Cody the second. Plenty of time, then, to reload for Anna.
"If you aint Zeke McGinley, you git right now. But I knows you're Zeke McGinley and you be welcome, boy."
The shadow entered and Zeke followed it, taking uncertain steps into the room.
Clint gasped and, simultaneously, he heard Old Ma Cody cry out in shock
"Oh God protect us, whatever has happened to you, Zeke?"
The arms of the shadow moved, its right arm positioning whatever it carried so that it was held diagonally across its body. To the right of the shadow's waist, a thicker silhouette evidenced what could have been a rifle butt; to the left, at the shadow's shoulder, a thinner rifle barrel pointed along the ground.
Clint pulled himself up to his knees, waves of paresthesia like a weird electricity powered through his numb legs.
"You allas bin welcome here, Zeke McGinley," said Old Ma Cody from behind a bewildered Clint, "Aint nothin' bin done that's changed that, boy. Come in."
Mickey slid Cole's drink across the table.
"What did you get from that, Sheriff?" he asked.
Cole's eyebrows rose and a smile flashed across his face. "Whaddya mean, Mick?"
"Sheriff, you didn't send me to the bar cause you'd suddenly lost your legs, did you? You always get your own liquor, but not now. So... what you get from it?"
"Mick, it's good to have you around," he said. "I wanted to see their reaction to you, and I got something. Trouble is, I don't rightly know what I got."
And with that he knocked his Redeye back.
Mickey shared a joke with the bartender and laughed loudly when the bartender laughed. Instantly the mood changed. Eddie Sherman smiled, the strangers reached for their drinks and the third man, who had turned ready to walk away, turned back to the bar.
Sheriff Cole's eyes narrowed as he turned his head from the bar. He knew eyes would follow Mickey back to his table and he didn't want to be seen staring at a group of strangers. Two strangers. That third man, he'd seen before. But where? His mind ran through the "Wanted" pictures on his office wall. Nothing.
Conversation at the bar changed; postures altered. The blanket of background noise in the saloon distorted slightly, becoming a barbed intertwining of jagged sounds. Loud voices became more reserved, faces darkened, lips closed, hands moved from open-palmed and reaching out to take up sentry at their side, closer to their holster. Some faces looked around, concerned.
None of this happened to those who knew Mickey well. But it did happen to those who knew him only by name. And to the two strangers, and the third man who stood with them. And to Eddie Sherman who stood close by.
"What about Mr Bowen, Sheriff?" Mickey asked. The lawman had been quiet for a few minutes, analysing the relationships and studying the dynamics of everyone at the bar.
"Yeah, John Bowen," Sheriff Cole muttered, then slid a few coins over the table to Mickey. "Get a couple more Redeye, Mick. Thanks, I appreciate it," he added as Mickey rose and strode to the bar.
A big man like Mickey always garnered attention, and the group dynamic around him changed when he made himself space at the bar,. Sheriff Cole watched with interest, waiting to see what clues changed dynamics offered.
"He didn't kill anyone Mick, you remember that. Didn't kill Mr Bowen, neither."
A commotion at the bar distracted Sheriff Cole. Three men, two of them strangers, were arguing loudly and a circle of space had formed around them. The cause was unclear but it would soon blow itself out, Cole decided after a cursory glance. It was a typical early evening squall. And sure enough bonhomie was soon restored and the three men were slapping each other on the back and insisting on buying each other drinks again.
Cole continued: "But John Bowen's different, Mick, John Bowen's very different."
"Seems to me neither Zeke nor Samuel have ever been the kind of kids to be violent. I've seen 'em grow, Mick, they're solid. Leastways, they were. People change. Kids that age can jump the fences, can't they? Go a bit wild. They're walking into a man's world, and it's so different they got no idea what direction north is. Leaves 'em angry sometimes. But kill? No. Can't see it at all. But hell, he was there. Both times. Zeke was there."
Mickey's eyes were wide.
"Sure points to him, Sheriff, whatever you think. Did he kill Mr Bowen too?"