Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams rode into town for a drink, but he stayed for the pretty boys. He was as mean as they said but not so tall: a lean, hard man with a rocky face and a broad mustache, slicked at both sides from a tin of fat he kept in a satchel round his waist. That first night he broke a man’s jaw for cheating him at poker. I didn’t just hear the story, I saw it—how Wild Bill clocked the fucker upside the face, emptied the last of his drink, and knocked out half the man’s teeth with his mug. Then he stood, one hand on the sword ’round his waist, and spat when he tossed the man out onto the street.
Everyone knew Wild Bill liked pretty boys, but he seemed to like me something special. I never seen a man kick so hard when I went down between his knees, one foot (almost, but not always, the right) stomping the ground like a horse getting ready to ride. That’s how he fucked too, bucking and growling—though sometimes he cried afterwards, and you never seen such a rough face cry, like some hidden, awful river bursting out the side of a cliff (the sheer granite cliffs I rode between when I was young, when I came out into this Bad Country with my father), only it seems more like the earth itself started to bleed.
“I come to die here,” he said, one hand round my waist so I felt like some sweaty, bruised flower, “or kill a man. I killed men before but I never had days to think about it. When a man fights, he draws his sword and finishes the thing, or he doesn’t. This is something else. I don’t like it.”
The talk was all up and down the town, of course. Wild Bill had met Wyatt Yarbury “Pink Lightning” Elton McHugh three times, and the two had exchanged unkind words by any standard. That year, McHugh had killed fifteen men to Wild Bill’s eight—and, two weeks ago, McHugh put out a challenge to Wild Bill that he would like to make it sixteen. Two of the most famous fighters in the country. Word would spread wherever they went, and it was sure to reach him soon enough.
“I rode a few towns over after I heard,” Wild Bill told me, “but a man can’t go too far before he’s called a sissy. And I’m no sissy.” Rough fingers gripped my thigh; a soft snort and he was crying again. Wild Bill stayed at the Emerald for five days and four nights, and I never did learn whether he was afraid, or if he was just the kind of hard man who’s also very soft inside, syrupy like a cactus, but somehow rank and sour, the way all soft things get when you leave them in a dark place.
Wild Bill slept late every morning, snoring with one arm over his mouth, but every night he slept with me. They were terrified of him on the gambling floor, though he never fought anyone after that first day—it must have been a show, to put them on their toes. He wanted them afraid of him, and it worked. He gambled all day, holding a drink he didn’t finish as often as you’d expect, but he never went near any other pretty boy.
He was the kind of man who slept after he fucked. Sometimes we say the faces of sleeping men are tender, but Wild Bill scowled while he slept—or maybe that was just the set of his lips beneath the mustache. (Every morning I washed the oils of it away from my mouth, so that a faint film clouded the basin.) I’ve never been much good at sleep, so I left him just as often as not.
The Emerald closes late, but after a whole day inside it calms my mind to walk. This town is barely more than a street, but I’ve always liked how the moon glows at night, big and heavy as a stone pretending to be a jewel. Sometimes you can see the Burning Men in the dark, like riders on tall horses—only, when you look closely, you realize the legs look more like stilts, and they stand almost nine feet tall, the faces like masks on a body outlined with fire.
This far west, Wild Bill might have hoped the Burning Men would take care of McHugh. There’s a reason so few come so far into this Bad Country, into the far deep places where men made of fire wander across the plains. They don’t hate us, but the Burning Men punish those who need punishing. No one rides carelessly across those plains. The Burning Men come out of their burrows even during the day.
There are nights I want to wander out onto those plains. The Burning Men don’t walk like horses. Every step is a lurch, almost a stumble. Their torsos are so lean you can see the ribs beneath them, their eyes like fiery points of terrible light. There are many things I wonder about them. I wonder what thoughts exist behind their masks; I wonder if they feel sadness when they look up at the stars, or whether they desire companionship, or whether they have cocks. What’s odd is that when you look at them, you don’t always feel afraid—sometimes you just feel lost. You feel like you’ve come into the wrong country, and perhaps you would like to leave, but you can’t imagine how.
• • • •
Wyatt Yarbury “Pink Lightning” Elton McHugh rode into town around noon the fifth day. He was a tall man, much taller than Wild Bill, with long hair down nearly to his waist. He wore a fine, wide-brimmed hat over a lean face with its thin mustache. His vest was trim and neat, and I never seen a scabbard so nice as the one he wore ’round his waist. Wyatt HcHugh stood tall and straight, a gentleman, and behind him followed two pretty boys, one to either side: the finest, fairest creatures I ever seen.
“Wild Bill Williams,” called Wyatt HcHugh, striding into the Emerald on long-toed, freshly polished boots. “I’d heard you came to this town, but I thought you’d have the good sense to run.”
“I never ran from no man.” Wild Bill still sitting at the bar, and me next to him. “Especially not a sissy.”
“Every man who ever called me a sissy is dead.”
McHugh’s face was powdered, I noticed, and he wore white gloves so that his skin appeared astoundingly pale.
“I called you a sissy before,” said my Wild Bill, “and I’ll say it again.” His mug fell so hard it rattled the table. “You’re a sissy and a chicken.”
“Those are brave words, coming from a chicken.”
Wild Bill scowled, reaching down for his sword. But before he drew, McHugh lifted one arm.
“Wait. We ought to have a drink. I like to drink with a man before I fight him.”
“There’s nothing for us to say.”
“Perhaps we’ll find a few words.” McHugh nodded toward the bartender. The whole Emerald was silent for the first time I can remember. Everyone with their faces turned, mouths hanging open. That day, no one finished their game of cards. No one drank until long afterwards.
“Whiskey for myself and my friend,” said McHugh. “On me.” He indicated a nearby table. “Shall we sit?”
“Can’t say I’m happy about the idea,” said Wild Bill. “But I’ve never been known to turn down a drink.”
The elixir was poured. Two of the most infamous men in the country threw back their heads and let out strong sighs.
“That’s the stuff,” said McHugh. “I’ll have another.”
“You drink better than I expected,” said Wild Bill, “for such a delicate man.”
“I have many skills. My pretty boys can attest to that.” McHugh paused to run a hand down one’s face—but next his eyes fell on me, and I flinched. “That one there. Is he yours?”
“I suppose you could say that.”
“Well then.” McHugh’s palm turned up, gesturing me forward. “Come here, pretty boy.”
Suddenly my neck went cold, and the tips of my fingers tingled. I thought of lifting one foot from the ground but I felt like a tree rooted down in the earth.
“What are you waiting for?” said McHugh. “Come here.”
I stuttered when I spoke, and my voice cracked.
“How did you know it was me?” I asked.
“It was obvious,” said McHugh. “You’re standing so close. And there’s the way you look at him.”
“How’s that?” said Wild Bill. “How does my pretty boy look at me?”
“Like a snake cuddling with a lion.” McHugh beckoned again. “Come here.”
It was hard to step forward, but eventually I did it. McHugh’s eyes were on me—steely blue like rivers so cold I would never swim in them. His fine-boned hand in its silken glove touched my face: high on the cheekbones beneath my eye, down to my lips. It had been years since I’d seen a river.
“He’s soft,” said McHugh. “Too soft for you.”
“You don’t know nothing about me,” said Wild Bill. “Least of all my pretty boy.”
“I know all I need to know just by looking at you.” And when Wild Bill scowled—“Another round, then!”
Again, the two threw back their heads, like terrible beasts wrenching at the end of their chains.
“My god,” said McHugh. “I do like a good drink. It’s only proper for a man to relax before he fights. Don’t you think so, Wild Bill?”
“I’m plenty relaxed.”
“That’s good to hear.” McHugh leaned back, lifting both arms above his head in a stretch. “On my way here, I thought about many things. I don’t often come so far into the Bad Country, or look so deeply into the faces of the Burning Men. I haven’t seen so clearly in many years.”
“Seen what, you think?”
“I’ve seen how all men deserve to punished, including myself. How absurd it is that we live in this Bad Country, though it does not belong to us. I’ve seen that, in the end, all this world will become ice, and we’ll be memories frozen in it, burned to grains buried somewhere in these sands.”
“If you want punishment,” said Wild Bill, “you’ve come to the right place.”
“But what about you?” said McHugh. “Do you not want to look into their eyes and see them looking back, and in that moment they will see you more clearly than you have ever seen yourself, those Burning Men? And it will be like the very grains in your core—those secret, hidden grains—have finally been allowed to speak.”
“I speak all I need,” said Wild Bill. “I say all I need to say.”
But then I thought again of how Wild Bill cried each night—that strange melancholy in his eyes, distant and brown, looking off toward the ceiling as he dredged into an uneasy sleep. And I thought that McHugh was right. No man comes so far into this Bad Country without a reason. No man comes so far who does not somehow desire punishment. And when he desires it enough the Burning Men will give it to him, if he does not give it to himself.
All at once, Wyatt Yarbury “Pink Lightning” Elton McHugh kicked back his chair, and Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams did the same. It was the kind of moment that happens only once: a rare instant, like we hear about in stories but never see ourselves. Time seemed to slow, but also to expand. An awareness of the weight of what would soon happen, of two paths crossing but only leaving one.
“Well then.” McHugh’s voice was calm but measured, his eyes still as the air in that silent room. “I suppose there’s nothing more to say.”
It was impossible to see it, they were so fast. I blinked and Wild Bill’s sword was in his hand. Hints of motion, a flash of light reflected between blades—and a soft sound, like wind blowing over the town at night. McHugh’s sword finished high, the arm up over his shoulder. Wild Bill finished low, near to McHugh’s stomach.
Then Wild Bill’s hand fell, severed at the wrist.
“A sissy,” said Wyatt Yarbury “Pink Lightning” Elton McHugh. Strident, clear laughter in the silence of that room, the echo of a motion so quick I hardly realized it was over. “You called me a sissy and chicken, and that’s all you have in you!”
McHugh flicked the blade of his sword so that blood flecked the ground. Wild Bill’s eyes stood open like canyons nobody would ever pass through again. He gasped (the sound more like a cough or a whine) and reached to clasp his forearm as a heady stream of blood spat from his wrist.
“I think that’s all,’” said McHugh, and returned the sword to the jeweled sheath at his side. “It’s not fair for a man to appreciate his victory over an animal. That’s why they call you a ‘buck,’ I suppose.”
McHugh raised one arm toward his pretty boys, who fell into step at either side.
He walked toward the door with long, deliberate strides, but turned back before he left.
“I meant what I told you about punishment, and about seeing clearly. There’s one outside, if you’d like to speak to it.”
• • • •
For a long while, Wild Bill held the stump of his severed hand, dark blood leaking down to cover his fingers. The deepest scowl hooked like a broken moon beneath his mustache. His eyes were dark, rimmed in cold hollows. He called for a drink: whisky, which he threw back from the same glass. He lowered his head and began to cry.
The tears lasted perhaps a minute in a silence so intense I felt it stretch around us. Wild Bill “The Buck” Williams would never fight again. They would tell stories about this night, and they would be like other stories but very different. Wild Bill, one of the most feared fighters in the history of this Bad Country, would be laughed at and forgotten. They would remember these tears, as I remember them, but they would not mean the same as they did to me.
“Well then, pretty boy,” said Wild Bill. “I suppose I ought to speak to it, if a Burning Man has come. I’d like someone to see. Will you come with me?”
I nodded, and told him I would.
Wild Bill’s steps were heavy, tired, his shoulders slumped. Blood leaked down both his hands and stood out prominently on his chest. Another faint trace of red marked the corner of his lips where he’d bit them.
“I never thought I might end my life in a place like this,” said Wild Bill.
“You’ve only lost your hand,” I told him.
But when he heard what I said, Wild Bill only laughed.
• • • •
It was waiting for him in the street: a Burning Man, all wreathed in ribbons of flame. In the distance, I’d never noticed the length of their necks: two, maybe three feet. Its head looked down from a leaning stalk, the mask like a raging mirror staring out. Its torso was a cramped, angular mass at the height of those tall legs. McHugh was already gone, though crowds had formed at either end of the street. The Burning Men never came into town. But somehow I knew this one would leave as easily as it had come.
“Look at that,” said Wild Bill. “It’s beautiful, like he said.”
Wild Bill stepped forward, eyes angled up, closer into its shadow of unbearable flame. The Burning Man lowered its head, inching awkwardly, as if there were bones somewhere in its neck but not jointed properly. Wild Bill didn’t flinch as it pressed close—even when his mustache caught fire, and I smelled the charring a few steps away as his skin began to melt.
“He said you had something to tell me,” said Wild Bill.
And when the Burning Man spoke, it sounded like a man crying out in the midst of a terrible dream.