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A Promise or a Debt

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The thunderstorm was over, the only sign of it a lingering moisture in the air, a distant blur of gray clouds that receded even as Greider rode toward them. He had only been away two days and a night when the boy from the telegraph office found him, on a hilltop outside Waco, Texas. He had been trying to photograph the cattle drives there. But unless the animals were asleep, or dead, it was impossible, so he photographed the cowpunchers instead, the buildings in town, the fences running east into the rising sun. The bare lines of the new bridge stretched out across the river.

He made the trip back to Austin in under eight hours. Arrived early in the evening to find the doctor smoking outside with blood on his hands, a pale, exhausted look on his face. "You shouldn't go in just now," the man said. Behind him, the house: small, strong, possessing few luxuries and little of value, aside from what photography equipment Greider had not taken with him and his mother's silver locket. The photography equipment was cumbersome and difficult to carry, the locket small enough to escape notice.

"Is she—" Greider stopped. He couldn't get the word out.

"She's alive, but just barely. I'm sorry. She's not going to make it, son."

The word boiled in Greider's chest; his hands trembled. "What happened."

"Shot," the doctor told him, "chasing after a horse thief. Like that's any kind of woman's business."

A week before, Greider had bought a rifle. A new Winchester repeater, in shining red brass and wood with a clean little hole at the chamber for the rounds. The man who sold it to him said it was like the Henries Greider had seen during the war. But it was inside, under his bed. He pushed the doctor aside instead, and went into the house, where the air smelled of animal fat and sage, of fresh-cut wood and blood. His mother's face against the sheets was very pale, but her grip was strong. 

"Da ist Geld, auf dem Regal. In der Dose," she said. If she had ever been anything but practical, the valley had cut it out of her. Or Brenner had.

"Ich weiß," he said. The money would be where it always was.

The doctor checked her wound, then gave her something that made her eyes roll back in her head and her voice get slow and sloppy. She would not speak English, after that. Greider held her hand and listened to her talk about the immense silence of the mountains in winter, about how she’d learned to dance the two-step with Franz when she was young and how, even then, she had felt Brenner’s dark eye on her. Those were the things she had carried with her all her life. Not the work. Not the horse thief. She'd come to Texas, she told him once, because it was so hot, because it was so different from Austria. It did not remind her of anything that had been done to her, except when everything did.

“Er hat frisches Blut gebraucht,” she kept saying. She said, “Und manchmal hat der Brenner die Jungen ermordet. Die zweiten Söhne. Die dritten Söhne. Nicht seine.”

The doctor leaned forward, bringing a strong smell of tobacco smoke with him. “What’s that? Is she saying something about the sun?”

Greider turned his head, looked at the doctor until the man pulled away again. He couldn't do anything, this doctor. The new rifle was under Greider's bed. His mother squeezed his hand. "Mein Schatz...."

“Mach du dir keine Sorgen,” he said, and stroked her clammy forehead, her hair. He brushed it every week when he was home, long strokes as she sat in her chair and hummed herself to sleep. “They’ll pay for it," he said. "I swear.”

The doctor leaned forward again. "Son, you know this close to death they only ever talk nonsense—"

Anger propelled Greider up like a gunshot, swinging him up off the edge of the bed to grab the doctor by the front of his shirt, and then his neck. The man kicked and struggled like a wild dog shoved up hard against the wall, scrabbling against the wood and Greider's hand. Again the smell of tobacco smoke and now, closer, sweat and whiskey. Greider's blood sang in his ears. His mouth was dry and he wanted—he wanted—

"Get out," he said. "If you can't help her, then leave."

The doctor put a hand to his throat when Greider released him, but said nothing. He had brought nothing with him but his big black doctor's bag and his coat, and when he left he slammed the door so hard the house rattled. And after that: stillness. Silence. The square of sunlight over the bed, spilling onto the floor just shy of Greider's boots.

His mother's hand was cold when he finally let it go.