I’d built myself a refuge in this town – a stranger, but not the strangest one. The bronze star blazed, errant, shrouded in the falling dust beneath the wooden promenade that ran down main street. I didn’t know why I’d taken the job – I’d been so long retired from the Pinkerton Detective Agency that I’d forgotten what it was like. Forgotten that the glamour was only temporary, that the truth meant sighting through a rifle scope at three in the morning, watching the last, whispering embers of a fire burn low, choosing your moment and hoping you’d chosen the right man. Meant scanning bounty posters, trying to decide which price was worth the effort of snatching away another man’s life. I forgot that you forget how much a man is really worth, to his children, to his wife – forget it until after the flash and bark out the muzzle of your gun and the spray of black-red blood fireworks into the sky, how the new widow collapses to the ground, weeping, as if only to remind you. I’d travelled to escape my previous life, fleeing from the towns, each covered in blood I’d shed, from New York to California. To Australia, to the red-dirt and spinifex forests. I still saw spilled blood.
Black storm clouds threatened rain. I stooped, grabbed at that icon of law and order forgotten, felt it cold in my hand. Almost before I realised what I’d done. In the eyes of the townsfolk, just claiming the badge made me the law.
I looked into the whore’s twisting, chameleon eyes, and I told her I could help.
That was my first mistake.
Trevor’s Rest squats, like a thirsty toad, between the watering tower of the railway and the endless, windswept desert. Wood and horseshit and dirt, the lowing of cattle and the ignored ranting of apocalyptic churchmen – that’s the truth of Trevor’s Rest. It’s on the graziers run, from the monsoon swept north where the cattle winter to Melbourne, and then on to the shipping lanes back through the Empire. There was gold here, once. The people who found it are long gone, back to what passes for civilisation, either further West, through that long desert to the far coast, or back East, passed the Great Dividing Range. Beyond the Black Stump. Nowhere.
A few grizzled prospectors, a handful of roaming, hard-drinking ranchhands, the occasional corroboree of Aboriginals. There’s the Bank, and the long-abandoned Constable’s Office. Three pubs, one of which served as whorehouse.
The girls were always busy.
The Aboriginals came to the area to follow their songlines, their Dreamings. The dronings of didgeridoos and the sharp beating of clapsticks came out of the desert. So did the shrieking.
Not long after the gold diggers left, the ground opened up, a bottomless ditch, a chasm down to the centre of the earth. The new townsfolk came up, their bedraggled feathers and bloodstained armour-plates marked them as outsiders, but so were we all. Most shrugged it off, eager to welcome the incursion of new gold and fresh whores. The click-clack of talons joined the stamp of leather boots, and keeping the peace became a harder prospect.
I’d only just pushed open the door of the Constable’s Office, had only just pocketed the badge and picked up a broom when she came bustling through the door, her eyes wild and ragged, bird-of-paradise feathers stuffed beneath her cloak, as though she were trying to hide herself. As though it wasn’t obvious what she was. As though anyone cared.
She was looking for someone. They always were. The shadows chased her into the room, swirling, threatening. They danced, with the dust motes.
“I’m really not interested,” I said, as she walked in from the street, “just looking for somewhere warm, somewhere empty, to hang my hat.”
“I’m not in the detective business, not anymore.”
She convinced me otherwise.
So there I was, against my better judgement, on the one day of the year that it rains in Trevor’s Rest, staring at the bowels of the abandoned gold mine. Listening to the thwack of bullets into the drowning mud, feeling the heavy gaze of a frill-necked lizard, drunk on the early morning sunlight. I’d already seen enough, enough to know I was too late to save him, the whore’s – Gillian’s – little boy. Cultists, here in a place where Heaven met Hell and decided on an uneasy armistice. Hadn’t they noticed nobody cared about their little rituals? That the pit was already open, and those that spilled out just wanted the same things that we did? You didn’t need a sacrifice to bring back up the demons.
They were already here, and were whoring and gambling and drinking, just like the rest of us.
I worked up some magic of my own.
Gunsmoke is an incense of its own, an offering.
The voice of their guns was muted, a whisper rather than a shout.
My own gun spat venom, and flames.
I was too late to save the little boy.
We buried him, in the hard, red earth.