THE HOUSE OF USHER
By Andii Valo
An almighty crash brought Cort rudely to his senses and he spat out a blasphemous curse. Groggy and disoriented, his words were automatic, unthinking, out of his mouth before he’d really registered what he’d said. But a couple of smart-looking middle-aged ladies, passing in the street below the hotel porch got an earful; two pairs of distinctly unimpressed eyes swivelled in his direction.
“Well, I never heard a preacher use language like that!”
She said it loud enough for anybody else passing to hear and Cort felt his face redden slightly. While he was certain they’d both heard a lot worse, probably from their own husbands, the part of him that had once been a priest was embarrassed at having taken the Lord’s name in vain so easily and so crudely. He inclined his head slightly towards the women.
“My apologies for the outburst, ma'am, but I’m not a preacher any more.”
“More’s the pity, young man! You should keep your manners in mind, ‘specially when there’s ladies around!” She eyed him severely for a moment then grabbed her friend’s sleeve and they shuttled off towards the general store.
Cort watched them go, knowing they’d spread their latest unsavoury findings all over town, then glanced around for whatever had woken him from his unplanned evening siesta. It looked as though somebody had thrown a heap of wood down from the roof of the blown-out building opposite and he relaxed slightly. It was nothing that needed his intervention right now. He took a reflective sip of beer from the bottle beside him on the porch and rubbed at the scabs on his wrists, the dream still clear in his mind. He could remember every damned detail of that interminable journey, when all he wanted to do was forget, but it didn’t look like that was going to happen anytime soon. It had taken the best part of three weeks but his body had pretty much gotten over the damage inflicted by Ratsy, Foy and the varied ugliness associated with the shooting contest. His mind, though, didn’t seem to be mending so quickly. Cort flexed his right hand, his gun hand. It still hurt a little but he could use it just fine, which was fortunate. Redemption was currently an oasis to every outlaw, drunk, undesirable and opportunist for miles around. With John Herod gone they figured it was open season, but they’d reckoned without the presence of the new, able but not entirely willing Town Marshal.
Cort thought about going inside the hotel to get another beer. He’d been drinking too much lately and he knew people were starting to gossip. Well, if they didn’t like it they could shove it. It wasn’t stopping him doing the job – in fact sometimes it helped - and it wasn’t as though he was actually getting paid for it anyway. Sure he’d been promised a decent wage, eventually, but right now the town was flat broke and he was living on the charity of the people, reliant on them for meals and a bed while running up sizeable tabs in the saloon and liquor store. Cort wasn’t even sure why he’d agreed to become marshal, sometimes it seemed to him an act of certain suicide. He was totally on his own here; no backup, no deputies, not even a cell to lock up the worst offenders, and more of them seemed to arrive with every passing day. He’d gotten by so far on reputation, rapidly revived and heavily exaggerated following Herod’s death. ‘Cort the Killer’, John Herod’s most ruthless deputy, still the fastest gun in the state, currently masquerading as a lawman… It was like a rallying cry for every desperado within earshot to come try his luck. One day Cort’s own luck was going to run out.
The jailhouse was in the process of being rebuilt – having lain in ruins for the longest time – and Cort looked forward to the day it was done. At least then he’d have a home of sorts. Then perhaps he might stop feeling so restless, disjointed and abjectly alone. It was like everybody in Redemption was keeping him at arm’s length, afraid to let him go but even more afraid to accept him into their society. He supposed he could understand it – the people of this town, the decent ones at least, had lived in terror for so long they found it difficult to trust anybody who hadn’t suffered the extended reign of tyranny alongside them. While Cort had visibly suffered, too, and the whole damned town had watched it happen, nobody had lifted a finger to help him then and nobody really wanted to know him now, except when they were in trouble. He supposed he understood that, too.
To hell with it! He was getting another beer. He brought it back out to the porch and resumed his evening vigil. He liked to see who was coming and going in town, and it was usually around sundown that anybody intent on causing trouble would head towards the saloon. The hotel porch was a good vantage point, offering clear views to both ends of town, and if things stayed settled he could sit out here, quietly drinking until he was sure he could sleep, then it was only a short stagger to his room upstairs.
His peripheral vision caught movement in the street and he tensed, his hand moving instinctively to the Colt 45 on his right hip, but it was only Foy, slinking over to the bordello. He turned his head and saw Cort watching, then scuttled inside even quicker. Cort scowled after him. He’d known that bastard was still in town but, with his boss and best buddy in the ground, Foy had been keeping a low profile, avoiding the new marshal like his life depended on it. Seeing him again reminded Cort of something he needed to do…He’d just finish this beer then maybe he’d go do it.
His mind returned to the dream, always the same one over and over; half dead in the desert with only the promise of more pain and humiliation to come. The man in the dream, that stranger with the piercing blue eyes, had pretty much saved his life that night, but Cort wasn’t even sure he was real… He was convinced he hadn’t imagined it, though, because that final threat had put the fear of God into Ratsy and Foy, over-riding even John Herod’s grip of iron. They actually did treat him better afterwards, too. They’d let him sleep that second night, all of the night, and in the morning they’d fed him properly and given him water, again at noon, and they'd let him actually ride his horse rather than dragging him behind it. Of course it all went straight back to ratshit as soon as they hit Redemption, but he was at least better prepared to deal with it.
Was that recurring dream some kind of warning? Or premonition? The man had known his name and it bothered Cort, though the fact he seemed respectful of the church bothered him more. Is that why he saw those eyes every time he closed his own? Was he being accused of something? Or summoned? Was he being called to account for his many failings, crimes and murders? Is that why the man offered to pray for him? Was he some kind of earthbound collector and was ‘Cort’ the next name on God’s list?
He wouldn’t be surprised. God had every reason to bring down punishment on the loyal and devout subject who’d casually turned his back on religion as soon as somebody put a gun into his hand again. The man who’d watched his own mission burn but hadn’t bothered praying as it happened; who'd only bothered praying once since that day. Even out in the desert, nearly dead, all he could think about was himself. The Old Testament of the Bible had more resonance for Cort than the New because he feared that God, and surely that vengeful God was seeking him now. He could almost hear the plague of locusts buzzing on the evening breeze…
Cort was no preacher. He knew that, and the past three years of his life had been nothing short of a lie. Worse was the fact he’d lied to other people, to his congregation, and God surely despised him for that. At least as much as Cort despised himself. The blood, fire and screaming which defined his other dreams, when he wasn’t passed out dead drunk, were showing him something fundamental. Cort was headed for purgatory, and there wasn’t a single thing he could do about it.
Except maybe one.
He jerked back to here and now and sighed. He’d need to get royally drunk tonight!
He stood up and made his way over to the bordello. He’d not set foot inside since Ratsy had dragged him there nearly three weeks ago, and he wasn’t entirely comfortable going in now. He’d been no stranger to this kind of place back in the bad old days with Herod and the gang, but afterwards there had been the three year vow of chastity... It had slipped now and then for sure, and he wasn’t proud of that, but each and every time had been with honest, clean, decent young women who always came to him first and he’d always been too weak to resist. Those experiences had pretty much put him off ladies of easy virtue but Madam Rachelle seemed pleased enough to see him. She greeted him with a huge, knowing smirk and poured him a glass of whisky.
“Well, if it ain’t our new marshal dropped by to pay his respects. The girls been taking bets on how long they’d wait before the pretty preacher showed up!”
Cort’s face was burning with embarrassment and he lowered his head, looking through his hair to scan the room for other occupants. Fortunately it was empty. He headed over to the bar and drained the whisky in one shaky draught. Rachelle filled him up again.
“I’m not a preacher, ma’am, uh… not now, and I’m not here for, um, services or… I’m here because, er…”
She misunderstood him, took his mortified stammering for coyness. She flashed him a wicked grin.
“Easy, Marshal, we all heard how it is right now. Anything you need is on the house, y'hear? Anything you like! Now Kittys a sweet young thing; she’s sure had her eye on you a while…”
Cort blushed deeper and tried to find a way to dig himself out of this hole. This time his silence sent another errant message.
“Kitty!” Madame Rachelle’s voice almost deafened him as she bellowed up the stairs. “Get down here now, sweetheart. Somebody here to see you!”
He chugged the second glass of whisky and finally managed to pull himself together long enough to explain to her.
“Ma’am, I didn’t come here for a lady. I’m here because I need to speak to Foy and I know for a fact he’s up there in one of your rooms”.
Her face dropped, clearly disappointed.
“It’s Room Four, Reverend… er… Marshal. But he’s busy right now. Might not take kindly to being…”
Cort interrupted her, smiling.
“I’m counting on it, ma’am.”
He took the stairs two at a time, just needing to be out of her sight. One of the whores was waiting for him on the landing. Rachelle was right; she was a sweet little thing, but he wasn’t interested. He brushed past her with a rueful grin.
“Sorry, honey, maybe some other time.”
Room Four was just along the passage from the staircase and he stood outside the door for a moment, listening to the sounds of action inside. Foy was making enough noise that Cort had no trouble following the story. He waited for the pace to quicken, for Foy’s unintelligible grunting to raise in volume, waited until just before the crucial moment before banging on the door with all his strength, shaking it in its frame.
“This is the marshal, Foy. Get out here right now and talk to me.”
Foy’s groan of utter frustration was unmistakable and Cort grinned. Perfect timing!
“For Christ’s sake, Marshal, I’m right in the middle of something now! Can’t you come back later?”
“Now, Foy, or I’m coming through that door!”
A few moments later the lock turned and Foy was standing there, a sheet wrapped around his midriff, glaring at Cort like he was about to kill him.
“You sure got lousy timing, Preacher. I sure hope nobody ever comes calling on you like this when you’re entertaining.”
“Stow it, Foy!” he retorted. “I’m here for some answers and I figure three weeks is long enough to be waiting on ‘em.”
Foy’s bravado evaporated and he suddenly looked ready to crap himself. Cort spotted the whore through the open door, watching the scene with wide, curious eyes and he motioned her to get out. He pushed Foy into the bedroom and closed the door. Foy obviously thought he was about to die because he started babbling.
“C’mon, Cort, you know I didn’t mean none of it. I was only doing what Mister Herod said and if I hadn’t he’d have killed me for sure anyways… I read the Bible once and it said how you should turn the other cheek and you being a preacher and all I figure you should know about forgiving me and since I ain’t even got a gun right now I reckon you'd be…”
Cort had heard enough. He shoved Foy in the chest, hard enough to send him stumbling back onto the bed.
“Shut up, Foy. I’m not here to kill you and I’m not here to listen to your excuses, either. All I want to know is who that man was, out in the desert that night.”
Foy’s eyes narrowed and he looked shifty.
“Don’t you remember him, Marshal?”
Cort shrugged. “I thought I might have imagined him since I couldn’t see or even think straight. You know why that was, don’t you, Foy?”
Foy at least had the grace to look ashamed.
“I can’t take any of that back, Marshal, but you didn’t imagine him none. He was real enough.”
Cort’s pulse quickened. He didn’t know if this was good news or the absolute worst he would ever hear.
“Who is he, Foy?”
Foy’s brow wrinkled in confusion.
“That’s Henry Usher. Don’tcha know him?
Cort shook his head. He’d never heard the name, never even seen the face until three weeks ago and then only briefly..
“I’ve been out of circulation for three years, Foy, remember? Who is he?
It seemed Foy still couldn’t quite believe his ignorance.
“Hell, he’s only the most powerful preacher in the state, and he sure wants to get his hands on you, Cort!”
ON TO CHAPTER THREE
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