The creek was thirty feet across here. Depth was indeterminate toward the unsurveyable middle, but for ten feet off the bank the clay bed could be easily seen through no more than three feet of water. The water’s surface was unblemished, and they saw no debris to dodge save the swirling red sediment stirred up with every step. The Lawman coaxed his horse in, and Junior followed. At the halfway point, where from the bank it had been impossible to judge the depth or swiftness, the water came to just below the horses’ shoulders and they pushed through steadily. At the very center of the crossing Junior felt his horse stick and he feared quicksand, but the beast lumbered on without a twitch of its ear, even. Ahead of him, the Lawman rode low over his own horse, almost hugging it. It seemed an odd posture to Junior, given the ease with which his horse was forging the creek.
“All’s well?” Junior shouted to clear the creek’s din. There came no reply but the swishing horse’s tail and the splashing reports of its hooves. “Penrose? You talking to God up yonder?”
The Lawman reached the far bank, untied the rope from around his waist and dismounted. He reached into the creek to draw out cupped handfuls of water and splashed his face. He drank of the creek. Junior joined him on the bank and dismounted, untied the rope from his own middle, rolled it and stowed it on his saddle. He put a hand on the kneeling Lawman’s shoulder.
“You’re not well,” Junior said. The Lawman just shoveled water into his mouth. “Rayado is a day’s ride north. Be prudent to stop there and have you seen to.”
“Fuck your own ass,” Sterling said between swallows. “I’ve just a flu.”
“I needn’t the expiration of a damned Marshall added to my bounty,” Junior said. Sterling stood and walked past him and climbed astride his horse carefully–finally and gingerly coming to rest in the saddle.
“On your horse or I’ll execute you for escape,” The Lawman said. Junior remounted and the pair rode on quiet as quarreling lovers, north toward Rayado. The country here was ugly to them both. The wind was full of the brown that was everywhere. They rode through fields of dead thistles and yucca, and past dwarf mountains that even to an Easterner’s easily impressed eye looked humbled and broken and nothing like magnificent. The dust only aggravated Penrose’s condition, and he hacked consistently into his sleeve, and by the time they rode into Rayado an hour past sunset his sleeve was painted red from elbow to wrist.
The town was little more than an impediment for dust. The tavern had a light in the window, but it was alone in congeniality. There was no fire at the jail, nor the infirmary. Sterling rode on.
“The tavern beckons,” Junior said. “Lacking a quack’s potions, settle at least this night for a warm bed and meal.” From their vantage in the thoroughfare, Sterling looked through the tavern’s window while the horses plodded on. He shook his head.
“There’ll be none for us in Rayado,” The Lawman advised. “We camp outside the village, and you fucking cook this night.”
The men left town and made a camp. Penrose slumped glossy-eyed with his elbows in the dirt and his back against a log while Junior heated water for the broth. During the day the boil under the Lawman’s scrotum felt to have ruptured, and worse than pain it just itched and felt stuck to the inside of his trousers. There was shame in his mind at even acknowledging the sensation, and he held fast in his resolve not to scratch at it. Toward sundown he’d begun to experience tingling tendrils from about the perimeter of his anus, and he feared some fresh protrusion malingered, it too aching for fingering. Once supper was cooked, Sterling took his portion and left the fireside. Junior sat sipping his broth and gnawing on bread and talking to the darkness:
“The circumstances don’t demand you hogtie me again,” He said. “I will nest by the fire and promise in sincerity to abstain from choking you.” There was no answer, and he kept his word and slept by the fire without killing the Marshall.
In the morning the Marshall was up first, and he prodded Junior with his boot.
“On it,” Sterling said, and mounted. The camp had been broken, and Junior had only to dress and mount his waiting horse. The ride continued north, the Lawman always in front—coughing and slumping a little more with every hour, Junior thought. If the Marshall died, it really didn’t matter. There was no escape from Westman’s pursuit, thus Junior Darby intended to march to Red Junction, escort or not. The bloody emittance accompanying the Lawman’s hacking concerned Junior and was the genesis of some trepidation as to its contagiousness, but he had made peace with his eventual dismemberment at Rex Westman’s hand and no longer feared death. He meant to at least give Westman as little hunt-thrill as possible, and a tuberculosis death by trailside seemed anti-climatic enough. The men trudged on, to higher country, and the rush of the Cimmaron River echoed from over the next hill.
“Stop,” The Lawman said. “The crossing’s imminent.”
They ate together that night, and Penrose seemed better. He didn’t hack, but his skin was snotty-yellow in the firelight. His eyes looked full of veins. He ate fast, though, and quiet, and then he went into the dark to sleep, leaving Junior unbound once more. Junior slept well, aided by a rolling lullaby of the river in the next valley over.
It rained in the morning, and the trail turned muddy. They crested the hill and the valley sloped softly before them, finally pouring into the Cimarron. The river was unlike Ocate, which had been a mere creek. Here the far bank was five hundred feet away to look at it. The river was shallow, thankfully, and sandbars dotted the crossing like intermittent flag stones. Still, there were dark places, too, and the water made faster and deeper by the rain made fat those shadowy pools. A wagon had begun to cross from the other side, forging bee-line across and on course to traverse several of the sandbars. Sterling and Junior watched for a time, as the wagon came steadily nearer, once teetering just a bit when the oxen hesitated and it sunk on one side. Then the oxen were spurred back into action at the kiss of a whip and the wagon drove forward.
“To hesitate could this day be fatal,” Junior said. “We’d best keep the horses in perpetual ambulation. Do we tie off to one another at the waist, again?”
The Lawman didn’t answer and stared out across the water at the wagon while it forged its way. The lead ox staggered as it topped a sandbar, and its leg buckled, sending the beast snout-down into the mud. The wagon lurched precariously, but its driver spurred the ox on vehemently and they regained momentum.
“I’ll cross naked,” The Lawman advised. “To preemptively ease the hindrance my sopping clothing would present should I topple in.”
“Not bound together, then?”
“No, fairy,” Sterling barked. “Just lighter.” He removed his shirt, and Junior saw green and purple bruises on the Lawman’s ribs and under his arms. He dropped his trousers, and Junior observed a fetid, oily discharge had leaked down the Lawman’s thigh and crusted like rancid porridge. It wasn’t uncommon to cross a river unclothed, and for the very reason the Marshall had provided, but to Junior the water appeared shallow enough that disrobing seemed frivolous. Sterling secured his clothes in a saddle-bag.
“Offended if I practice modesty?” Junior asked.
“Less than a fuck can I muster,” The Lawman answered. “Just get ye across.”
Nude save his boots, Penrose waded off bank into the knee-deep water. He stooped briefly and dunked his nethers, barely breaking stride. He pawed at himself and Junior tried not to gawk, shook his head and urged his horse forward with a swift spur. The water deepened to waist-high on Sterling, and his hands dashed below its surface, scrubbing and pinching.
“You’ll poison the Mexicans,” Junior laughed. “Gadzooks! What beasts have you lain with?”
The water was chilling on Sterling’s ragged genitals. His hemorrhoid had become a constant expression of what he feared was pervasive internal rotting. The previous days he had felt a gradual sinking in his chest and bowels and his fever had persisted for over a week. He stopped mid-river, water waist-high, and had to dig his heels against the current. His horse pranced past him, reins trailing. The Cimmaron slid through the archway of the Lawman’s legs, and it cleansed him. He bent and submerged his whole face, and then his whole self. Junior rode on, aiming for a sandbar he approximated at the point of mid-crossing. The Marshall stood up straight, arched his back against the push of the river and remained dug-in, letting the flow lap at him and carry away his virulent deposits. While he reveled his steed started to trot, and then half-galloped as it went crazy the way a horse is prone to and broke for the far bank, still a hundred yards away.
“Halt!” Sterling called out, but his voice was too wild due to the ecstasy wrought upon him by his impromptu enema and he only spooked the horse further. It crashed through the water, roiling it into a froth with its stomping hooves. “Whoah! Whoah Whoah!”
Junior saw and guided his own mount upstream, taking an angle to intercept the runaway. The Lawman’s horse scrambled atop a sand bar and cleared it but when the first step on the far side sunk beneath its hoof the water rose to its shoulder. Its snout hit the water and the horse jerked its head back and shrieked skyward like a falcon. It’s hind legs slid forward off the bar and the entirety of the beast lurched forward. Junior slowed his horse as he came upon the sandbar, and swung over its slick back holding white-knuckled to the saddle’s pommel while bracing in his lone stirrup. He reached his free hand out for the sinking horse’s reins, and caught them from the water’s surface, and the Lawman’s horse went under with a bouquet of bubbles. Junior’s grasp on the pommel failed and he was dragged from horseback, thudding like a bag of flour on the sandbar. He scrambled and made his feet in time to catch the submerged horse’s reins, planting his feet and pulling like an ox to the far end of the bar—where there had been no quicksand—but the horse plunged deeper into the muck. It dragged him back again across the sandbar and he fell on his side and slid to the water’s edge where he finally relented and released the reins, and the horse was lost to the abyss. Junior pushed his palms into the wet earth to take a knee and regain his feet, but it melted between his fingers and he fell forward. He twisted to prevent going into the water face first, and landed instead on his shoulder. For an instant he was grateful that his face was still above the surface, but then the momentum of his fall set him sliding into the water, still dark with the horse’s tumultuous death-throes.
“Horse-drowning cocksucker!” The Lawman shouted as he splashed to the scene, penis swinging mischievously. “What savage’s hole delivered a malevolent fiend such as you!”
He stumbled upon reaching the sandbar and fell to his knees in the doughy mound. The bar was losing integrity in the face of their thrashing. Junior again pushed down into the expanding depths to try and find some purchase, but the edge gave way and sucked at him leach-like till his face slapped the water and went under. Terrified, he tried to shout and the river rushed into his mouth and too much down his windpipe where it emptied into his lungs. He choked and coughing seemed the thing most prudent, but as his reflex acted even more water was drawn in and he thrashed and his whole torso slid under the water. The there was only darkness; soil stirred up at the horse’s—and now his—final expense. His body slid forward, compelled by some will of the river, and now even the sound and cold of it all was coming from a distance, like it had the night before when the river sang him to sleep, and it felt like a night before—someplace else.
Then he was puking and Sterling was panting and kneeling over him with a wet beard and nothing else. He had a palm on Junior’s chest and he pressed down hard. Darby spit out a quart of water, followed by another and then some retching in the wet sand. It hit him immediately: He was alive, and he had Sterling Penrose in all his nude glory to thank for it. Not only, but he was at once indifferent to the concept of his own death. He thought of it even without benefit of retrospection as something not as horrific as it had been before this half-crossing. And that was the reality again; the crossing was only half-complete, and they were a mount down.
“Thank you Sterling,” Darby said gasping, and was surprised at the dry, burnt feeling in his throat. “Indebted eternal-like.” He panted and rolled to his knees and curled up the way a fetus does there on the sandbar, spasming and expelling more water from his mouth and stinging nose.
“Wait now, Junior,” Sterling put a hand on Junior’s shoulder to keep him from standing. “Get yourself again.” The wind coming in was finally started to feel dry, and when Junior exhaled he didn’t have the same, soggy, saturated feeling in his lungs—like a thick chest cold. Sterling took a blanket from their lone remaining horse and put it over his prisoner. “My steed is fish-food.”
“Thank you Marshall,” Junior said, shivering now.
“Mention it to fucking no one,” The Lawman said. “Merely guarding my bounty.”
After a brief repose there in the center of the Cimarron, the Lawman lifted Junior onto the horse, and Darby wrapped his arms around its neck while Penrose led the remainder of the crossing. They reached the northern bank and Sterling fell to his bare ass in the muddy clay. Junior climbed down from the horse and it reared up once and neighed, then shook itself dry and dipped its head low to drink. Penrose just sat, staring back across the river. Something glinted in the lapping undulations of the water.
“The sum of my provisions sets sail for El Paso,” The Lawman said. “I am naked and without tack for horse nor man, all consumed by the vortex,” Junior stood beside him now, surveying the river with reins in hand. “Without n’even blanket nor currency nor pistol.” The shining thing floated on the river’s surface.
“You see that?” Junior pointed and asked. “Metallics in the river? Gun or gold, I’ll make recovery, Marshall.” And Junior dove into the shallowness of the river. He swam to intercept the shimmer on the water. He snatched it—and it was metal, but it was not the pistol nor was it gold. Junior stood in the knee-high water and sloshed back to Sterling.
“Your star, Marshall,” Darby said, and handed the badge back to the Lawman. “Weep that you’ve nowhere’s to stick it.” Darby grinned and slapped the Marshall on his shoulder, and in the nude he trembled with a wheezing cough. “I’m possessing spare trousers and a flannel, but it’s fucking hot for flannel still.”
“You’ve fire, too,” The Lawman said. “Make with it ‘fore we shiver off these husks.” He seized again with whistling, whooping coughs spit into his cupped hands. He pulled his palms away and gave them inspection, and there was no blood, so he shrugged and smiled wryly at the river.
Junior Darby made the fire just twenty feet inland. The horse laid at the end of its tether, well short of the river, but faced it anyway and flapped its lips. Not even bubbles surfaced in answer. Sterling took the trousers and flannel, and warmed himself near the fire while Junior heated more broth. The sun was still high overhead, but they had gone far enough today, just crossing those five hundred feet of Cimarron.