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Lefty Sings The Blues

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The bank robbery in Deming goes off with only one or two hitches.

There are more guards and sheriff’s deputies hanging around the building than they expected, thanks to one of the wealthier ranchers making an unanticipated visit to check up on his deposit box, and that complicates things just a little. And while they’re on their way out with the cash some wet-behind-the-ears kid too dumb to know better takes a pot-shot at them and clips Lefty through the shoulder. They’ve pulled better jobs.

But they’ve also pulled worse, and the important thing, Lefty reminds himself, riding through the scrub-brush with blood seeping through his shirt and dripping down his arm, is that they’ve got the money. Whatever else happens to them, they’ve got the money.

Ahead of him Pancho rides like he and his horse were carved out of the same stuff. None of the deputies’ bullets ever came close to touching him. He’s too good for that.

They ride half the night through the desert in aimless, dizzying circles meant to throw off the sheriff’s men. They haven’t seen a sign of anyone since the first mile out of town, and their pursuers probably think Pancho and Lefty are making their way north toward Albuquerque or east to Las Cruces, but it doesn’t hurt to be cautious. Neither one of them is keen on waking up with a revolver in their face.

When they are so exhausted that staying in the saddle is a matter of instinct rather than effort, and the pain in Lefty’s shoulder has faded from a sharp clean throb to a worrying numbness, the two of them stop to make camp in a small hollow sheltered by a ridge of rocks. Pancho unsaddles the horses and tethers them to a sturdy-looking piñon while Lefty strips off his shirt to examine his wound. He pokes at it gingerly, but the bleeding’s mostly stopped.

“Always the same damn arm,” he grumbles, inexpertly bandaging it with it a length of stained cotton from one of the saddle-bags. “Remember that drunk in Houston went after me with a lead pipe? Or the time in Lincoln I got stabbed? Just once I’d like to see some schmuck aim for the right instead. Just to shake things up a little.”

Pancho is bent over one of the bags, digging out jerky and dry bread for their dinner. He doesn’t bother to look up. “You going to be okay to ride tomorrow? I want to make it across the border in the morning, if we can.”

Lefty snorts. “A scratch like this? You shouldn’t even have to ask. It’ll hurt like a son of a bitch, that’s all.”

They eat in near-silence and nearer-darkness, unwilling to risk discovery by lighting even a well-concealed fire. The moon is nearly full, though, and in the silvery light Pancho’s black hair gleams like an oil slick. Lefty catches himself staring, when he should be concentrating on drinking from his canteen right-handed without slopping water down his chest. He’s too tired to stop himself.

“Tell me the plan again,” he says when they’ve finished. Pancho leans back against a rock, arms crossed behind his head, long legs stretched out in the sand in front of him.

“We’ll lay low in Mexico for a while,” he says. “Puerto Paloma’s just across the border and it’s tiny, no one’s gonna bother looking for us there. When the fuss dies down in a few weeks we’ll head back to the states and catch a train north. They’ll have given up on finding us before we hit Missouri.”

“And then we’ll be done.” Lefty barely trusts himself to say it out loud.  Pancho’s toothy grin isn’t reassuring.

“And then we’ll be done. Living on easy street with our ill-gotten gains until the end of our days, if you won’t let me talk you out of it.” He laughs like he expects Lefty to laugh along with him. He’s been making the same joke since Lefty first starting talking about maybe saving up a stash and retiring for good. Lefty still doesn’t think it’s all that funny.

“Nah, I got plans for my half of the money. First thing, soon as we get off that train in Chicago, I’m finding the finest cathouse in the city and hiring a whole roomful of pretty little blondes to do whatever I tell ‘em.”

Lefty slugs him hard enough to make him flinch. It’s mostly a friendly punch.

“I’m sure we can find a couple of strapping young redheads tucked away in the back room for you,” Pancho says, leering at him. “And when they wear us both out we can go out to the bar and get so drunk together we can’t even see. And then we can go back and do it over again.”

“Some of us aren’t stupid enough to piss away all our money on booze and whores,” Lefty replies.

“Yeah? What are you gonna do with it, then?”

Lefty shrugs like he hasn’t thought about it before. “Dunno. Get a place of my own, maybe. Little house with a plot of land. I could raise chickens or somethin’.”

“I can just picture you a farmer. Dressed up in overalls, going to market on Sundays. And I bet you’d make me shovel all the chicken shit, wouldn’t you?”

Lefty’s folks had a place like that. An ugly patch of dirt in the middle of nowhere, a sod-roof house, a couple of scrawny cows. For all he knows they’re still there, breaking their backs trying to scrap a living out of it. He hasn’t been back – hasn’t wanted to go back – since he was sixteen.  Back then farm life had seemed like a punishment for his unspoken sins, and when he worked in the field next to his father all he could think about was running away.

And then Pancho, with his rattler-skin boots and his gun slung low on his hip and his grin like he was in a pissing match up against the whole damn world, had ridden into town one day and Lefty knew with the certainty of a sixteen-year-old boy that the rest of his life was on the back of that horse. He’d sat in the corner of the bar, drinking watered down beer and listening to Pancho tell improbable stories about the men he’d shot, the poker games he’d won, and the women he’d had sex with until the bartender finally threw him out.

The next course of action had seemed obvious. He snuck back home, filled a pack with a change of clothes and some food out of the cupboard, and tracked Pancho to his camp outside of town.

He still doesn’t know why Pancho, waking up from sleeping off his drink to a skinny farmboy warming his hands on his fire, didn’t send him straight home again. Doesn’t know why Pancho let himself be talked into using him as a look-out a few days later when he held up a passing stage coach. Doesn’t know why Pancho let him stay.

Pancho gave him ten dollars out of the hundred they stole from the stage, rode him into town, and left him in the saloon while he disappeared into the brothel next door. He came back the next morning reeking of perfume and cheap whiskey, but Lefty had ignored the marks on his neck in favor of the new horse he was leading.

If Lefty made it a whole month without getting his idiot self killed, he’d said, he’d buy him a gun of his own and teach him how to use it.

In two years’ time he was calling himself the second best horseman and the second sharpest shooter in the West. There were wanted posters for ‘Pancho and Lefty’ in dozens of towns between Texas and California. He wasn’t the look-out anymore.  He couldn’t imagine another life for himself, and he hadn’t wanted to. Being partners with Pancho was everything he could’ve dreamed of.

He’d never dreamed about what it would be like to still be doing this when he’s forty.

But it’s been twenty years, and here he is, and for the first time he’s starting to feel – old.

He’s sick of it, sick of all of it. Of the bad liquor and the girls who were getting younger and younger every year, of sleeping on the ground with the coyotes howling on the other side of the hills, of men trying to kill them, of his shoulder and his knees that ache in the cold and keep him up at night from too many old wounds to count, of being on the run.

Lefty’s tired.

 And he doesn’t know how to explain to Pancho that more than the farm – the farm is just a dream, just a cheap lithograph postcard he keeps folded in his coat, the farm doesn’t matter – he wants a life for the two of them where they don’t have to do this anymore. Because he’s tired, and he can’t.

“I’ll drag you out of bed and make you milk the cows,” Lefty says instead.

Pancho nudges his shoulder. “Slop the hogs.”

“Fill the woodbox.”

“Paint the goddamn fences.”

“I’ll make an honest man out of you yet, you old horse thief,” Lefty says.

It’s cold in the desert at night, the heat of the day leeched away from the air with the fading sunlight. Pancho doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask, but he only unties one bedroll from the saddles and spreads it out on the sand. Lefty doesn’t say anything, doesn’t ask, but he stretches his aching limbs out under the blanket and falls asleep pressed against the warmth of Pancho’s back.

 

Pancho isn’t kidding about Palomas. The town’s barely half the size of Deming, and Deming’s small enough that Lefty could spit across it if he wanted to. There’s a main street, marked out by the imposing grey stone edifice of a church and the brighter stucco fronts of a general store and a trade outpost. There’s a cluster of red-plastered houses, and further back smaller, older houses with the adobe exposed and crumbling. There’s not much else.

Lefty isn’t all that surprised when Pancho stops in front of the town’s smaller saloon.

As it turns out, the saloon has a second floor where they rent out space to wayward travelers, and when Lefty walks into the bar Pancho is standing at the counter haggling with the bartender in Spanish over the price of a room.

After all these years working on one side of the border or the other Lefty speaks Spanish well enough to get by, if he has to, but it’s never felt natural to him; his tongue fumbles on the liquid syllables, his syntax tangles up in knots, and he knows his accent is inexcusable. He asked Pancho once how he got so good at it. Pancho said he learned it from his mother and Lefty knew better than to ask for any more than that.

The room upstairs is small and bare, most of the space taken up by two narrow beds with striped wool blankets, barely room left for the wooden wardrobe standing in the corner. The mirror on the wall is set in a frame of beaten tin, well-worn and badly tarnished. But the floor looks like it’s been swept recently, and the beds are cleaner than Lefty’s come to expect from the kinds of places they usually stay.

Pancho takes the bed closest to the door; Lefty leaves his bag on the bed next to the window. That’s the way they’ve always done it.

“Did you see the piano down in the bar?” Pancho asks after a few moments of luggage-shuffling silence.

Lefty had. He wouldn’t expect a tiny saloon in the middle of nowhere to even be able to afford a piano, let alone bother with the expense of having it shipped out from one of the larger cities in the south. He’d done a double-take when he’d seen the narrow up-right shoved into the shadows along the back wall, keys and bench draped in canvas.

“They had a piano player for a while,” Pancho says. “Until he went west for work a few months back. I asked the bartender, and he said he didn’t mind if you messed around with it a little. Might draw a better crowd in the evenings, if word gets out.”

“I thought we were laying low, not drawing attention to ourselves,” Lefty replies evenly.

Pancho snorts. “Just trying to be nice.”

But he drops it, and Lefty knows that he’s right. Even if the marshals aren’t looking for a piano player –and he wouldn’t put it past them – they don’t need to put a sign up in the middle of town about the two mysterious strangers staying over the saloon.

Lefty lasts almost three days in the hotel room before the boredom drives him down to the bar. He tries, he really does, because this is supposed to be a hide-out and not a vacation, and he can see from the tense look on his face that Pancho’s trying too. But after three days his gun is cleaned and his shirts are patched, his saddlebags and boots are as polished as they’re ever going to be, and the door is badly scarred from all the time he’s spent practicing his knife throwing.

There’s only so many times he can count the cash in the leather bag hidden under the bed.

So early in the evening he checks the money one last time, locks the door behind him, and goes down the stairs into the saloon. The room’s half-full, mostly laborers come in on their way home and the serious drinkers who never leave, not too rowdy yet. He avoids catching anyone’s eye as he makes his way across the floor to the piano and settles himself on the bench, hands falling easily into the familiar positions.

Lefty’s only a passable piano player, but he loves to sing the blues.

A few years back Pancho broke his leg trying to ride through a storm in the mountains, and the two of them were stuck for a season in Grand Junction while he healed. It had been a few months since an opportunity for a job had presented itself, and their funds were just about dried up, so Lefty offered his services as a musician for fifty cents a day and free room and board.

It had been a middling place, nice enough to want a piano player to liven things up but not nice enough to afford a piano player who wasn’t Lefty, and the owner had told him to set his own program. It had taken him about two weeks to cobble a list of songs together – bawdy, fast-tempo-ed songs, for the most part, songs intended to keep people drinking and dancing and throwing their money away, songs he’d learned around fires and in camps and other, dirtier bars.

But whenever he could get away with it he’d sung the blues. Late in the evening, while the crowds thinned out and most of the poker players left, while it was just him, the drunks, and the bartender, he’d crooned low to his piano keys about the woman who left him and the cities he’d left behind and the lonely roads ahead of him. Sometimes he’d sung all night long, until his voice was hoarse and his lips cracked and bleeding, and the bartender had guided him away from the piano and back to the room he shared with Pancho.

It had been the happiest three months of his life since he was sixteen. It had been the first time he’d thought about stopping somewhere and just – staying. And then Pancho’s leg had healed up and they’d moved on to rob a rancher in De Beque and he hadn’t thought of it again.

He thinks about it now, playing the opening bars of a blues song in a saloon full of farm workers in Puerto Palomas. He can’t go back there, Colorado’s too close to New Mexico to be safe for a long while, but he remembers what it felt like to sit in front of a piano and think about nothing but the blues.

When he turns around to look at the room after he finishes the first song, Pancho’s sitting at one of the tables. There’s a glass of tequila in front of him, but he’s not drinking it. He’s just watching Lefty.

He always watches Lefty when he sings.

The next song comes easily to him. He doesn’t have to think about it, doesn’t even have to look down as he plays. He keeps his eyes fixed on Pancho the whole time, and wonders if anyone else can tell.

“I got to ride a lonesome train,” Lefty sings. Pancho smiles at him, and raises his glass.

Later, much later, they stagger back to the room together. Lefty can feel the tequila buzzing in his skin, all the drinks the bartender brought him as the night went on. Pancho is pressed up against him, one arm wrapped around his waist so neither of them falls, and he can feel the whole hot length of him through his clothes.

He doesn’t know whose bed they fall into. Doesn’t suppose it matters.

“Love it when you sing,” Pancho mutters into his neck. Someone’s bed is rocking underneath him and his skin is burning everywhere they touch and Pancho’s heart is right there next to his and this. This is what he wants.

 

Lefty wakes up alone. He isn’t surprised. He knows Pancho too well for that.

He figures he’s down in the bar, like he always is, but he doesn’t come back.

Lefty goes back to polishing his boots and sharpening all his knives until they could carve a chunk out of the Sandias. There are more scars on the door and the wall around it.

He doesn’t come back on the second day, either.

When Lefty wakes up on the third day Pancho is sprawled out on his bed, his boots smearing reddish mud on the blankets. His hat is missing and the smell of cigarette smoke and tequila is clinging to his clothes. He doesn’t look like he’s awake, but when Lefty shifts on his mattress he sits up.

“I think we should head out today,” Pancho says abruptly. “The marshals are catching on faster than I thought they would. If we stay here much longer we’re going to have the federales breathing down our necks.”

Lefty glares at him, eyes narrowed against the bright morning sun. “That’s fine. Gonna tell me how you know that?”

“I thought we’d head west,” Pancho continues, ignoring his question. “I heard a rumor from a reliable source that there’s going to be a train heading into Juarez next week from one of the mines down south – they’ll have company profits for the whole quarter. Hell of a heist if we could pull it off.”

When Pancho left Lefty hadn’t checked under the bed for the bag. He hadn’t needed to. But knowing he was right hurts all the same.

“What did you do?” he asks quietly.

Pancho won’t meet his eyes. “It’ll be tough, no doubt about it, but we’ve handled worse. There was that train job in Yuma, you remember that? Or the bank robbery in Salt Lake City, god, we almost hung for that one. This ain’t nothing. “

“What did you do?”

“It’s just one more job, I promise,” Pancho says. “We’ve got money left to get us to Juarez, at least a couple of nights in a hotel, and we’ll make a killing on this job, earn it all back and then some. You can buy yourself an entire villa out in California, how’s that sound? But we’ve gotta leave for Juarez today.”

Lefty can feel his hands shaking. “You lost it all,” he says. “I knew it, I – what was it, pool? Dice? Bad hand of poker? You stupid son of a bitch, you know you never win at poker.”

It had taken Lefty a long time to realize that the stories Pancho told about killing men and loving women were mostly true, if broadly embellished. It was only the poker he’d ever lied about. He didn’t understand why the same luck that kept bullets from striking their target and sheriff’s deputies from wandering into his hide-out deserted him at the card table. So he just kept playing, expecting it to change, and it didn’t.

This isn’t the first time he’s lost big. Lefty shouldn’t be surprised. He knows Pancho too well for that.

“I’m sorry,” Pancho says. He’s standing in the middle of the room in his muddy boots, and he still won’t meet Lefty’s eyes. “I’m sorry. But it’s just one more job in Juarez, and then we’ll really be done.”

Lefty wants to punch him more than he ever has in his life. He knows that won’t fix this – nothing can fix this – but he really wants to try.

“Right,” he says hollowly. “One more job in Juarez. Just like it was one more job in Deming. And one more job in Amarillo. And one more job in Kansas fucking City. And then we’re done. Then we’re really done.”

“Lefty–” Pancho grabs his arm, and Lefty shrugs him off.

“Go to hell, Pancho,” Lefty says.

Lefty doesn’t punch him.

Lefty leaves.

 

When he passes the wanted poster in the front window of the police outpost he’s so far past drunk that at first he doesn’t recognize the picture.

It’s an old one, taken ten years ago when they were arrested in Salt Lake City. Pancho’s hair was longer then, with none of the traces of gray that have started appearing since. His face was thinner, his cheekbones standing out more sharply under the skin. It was one of the few times Lefty ever saw him with a beard. It’s probably the only decent picture of him they have. Seeing it now is like seeing – a dream. A memory.

It swims into focus in front of his eyes, and as the face becomes clearer so do the words underneath it. It’s been a few years since the last time they were wanted in Mexico too. They’ve raised the reward again.

He shouldn’t even think about it and he knows that, he does. But – nothing’s ever going to change.

The tequila is buzzing in his skin and he’s tired, he’s so tired and he doesn’t want to do this anymore, he can’t, and there will always be another Juarez, there will always be another job.

He remembers the way Pancho looked at him in the bar when he sang.

Nothing’s ever going to change.

 

He isn’t there when it happens. They tell him about it, afterward.

 

It’s snowing when Lefty gets to Cleveland.