Blackie sat alone in a far corner of the saloon. He didn't like the isolation, but he had grown accustomed to it long ago. In those days, the few black men in the territory were dreaded--and routinely quarantined by settlers, wranglers, and drifters alike.
Black people, lore held, killed people for fun. Not out in the open where honorable men engage in gunplay, but in dark alleys--even outhouses. And black women killed more gleefully than the men.
Tainted by the covert glances tossed his way, Blackie thought, Sometimes I'd like to kill y'all. Think ya know ever'thin'.
Suddenly a chill swept the barroom, heralding a wild-looking man at the swinging doors. Recluse himself had come down from the mountain. Eyes were diverted temporarily from Blackie. Recluse commanded attention: He was colored with furs, muted with felt boots, and scented with sweat and rancid animal fat. His brown color had given him his nickname--nobody in town knew his real name.
Recluse surveyed the barroom with eyes keened from his years as master of the wilderness. Neither hunter nor hunted now, he made no effort to hide from view. But instinctively avoiding unnecessary danger, his eyes found a sanctuary to secure his frame. Gracefully, in a single movement, he slipped across the room and perched on a chair. That Blackie was already at the table didn't deter him; Recluse often shared quarters with other creatures. Besides, he was in a sociable mood.
"Hate towns," he announced.
"Huh . . ." Blackie was frozen, instinctively expecting to be shredded and swallowed by the beast that measured him from behind a thicket of hair.
Like Blackie, Recluse knew that his lethal reputation was undeserved, but unlike Blackie, he exploited it. Recluse could kill a man as efficiently as a wolf could--and with as little feeling. But, like a wolf, he would kill only to eat or to save himself. Now, he stalked Blackie. "Heard you're a killer!" he bellowed mockingly.
"Not me," Blackie said under pleading eyes. Blackie didn't know Recluse, but he knew the species. He hoped to mollify the bear that sat within an arm's swing of breaking his neck.
"Thought not. Yallar!" Recluse laughed, sounding more like a flesh-eating bird than a man. He hadn't spoken this many words aloud since last spring when he had come to town. And, feeling very much in control, he was enjoying this conversation.
Recluse's joke assured Blackie that the mountain man hadn't seen him as a threat. Still, he hoped Recluse wasn't hungry.
"Why ya here?" Blackie asked.
"Ruttin' season," Recluse explained. "Come to have me a woman."
Blackie was startled by this information. He had never imagined that a wild man would think of a woman. When he had considered retreating to the wilderness, it was to avoid his feelings for women--or, rather, to avoid his frustration with never finding one. Black women were even more rare than black men in these parts. And white prostitutes didn't trade across color lines.
"Ya know a woman here?" Blackie asked.
"Don't have to. They know why I'm here."
Blackie pondered this, thinking it remarkable that white folk--even wild ones--take for granted what he considered so precious. He remembered his mother's sweet smell, and yearned to settle with a woman of his own. Aloud he said, "The whores won't have me."
"Nope," Recluse confirmed. "Ya tried the widder?"
"Black woman. Lives in a woodpile." This was as helpful as Recluse ever got--to another human. He was generous today, anticipating flushing his balls.
"Outside town. South. Across the creek."
Excited at the prospect of finding a woman for himself, Blackie set aside his fear of Recluse. "Ya know her?"
"Nope. Heard she's a killer, though." Recluse cackled again, savoring the dilemma he had handed Blackie. He wasn't cruel. He just needed to control his environment.
Blackie couldn't help weighing the lore. He knew that he was an exception to the common wisdom--despite his episodic rage, he had never hurt anyone, much less killed. But he wasn't sure about black women. After all, he hadn't known a black woman since he left his mother last year when he turned fourteen. Sorting his thoughts, he remembered trusting his mother. And she was a widow--like the woman in the woodpile. Sometimes Blackie wished for a father to counsel him.
The hot afternoon was dissolving into a long summer evening when the first woman appeared on the staircase. Recluse whooped. Marta flashed a smile in return, knowing that Recluse would pick first--the ordinary men would defer to him. She wafted to the table and, leaning forward, touched Recluse gently on the shoulder--a maneuver designed to display her breasts and to broadcast her perfume.
Blackie watched in awe as Recluse scanned the woman's body with his eyes and hands. His breathing quickened as Recluse stroked her hair, squeezed her breasts, and fondled her buttocks. Blackie watched as the wild man sniffed her, and he listened as the woman sighed receptively. Drawn into the rising passion, he could almost feel her himself.
"Y'll do," conferred Recluse. Reaching under her skirt, he fondled her thigh. Blackie wanted him to take her right there on the table.
"Let's get you a bath, then we'll have some fun." Marta took charge, relishing her power. She moved toward the staircase with Recluse in tow, coupled to her by an arm groping for her crotch. The mountain man who needed nobody had become a baby who needed this woman more that life itself.
Transforming his sensory experience into a reverie, Blackie constructed the next scenes from remembering his mother bathing him. His body responded to the fantasy as though he were being caressed by loving hands. He felt warmth flowing into his pelvis as pressure began to assert itself. Though excited, he was at ease, reassured by Nature herself that reaching this state was his reason for being.
Blackie's trance was broken when two more women announced their presence with rustling skirts and musical giggles. But no black woman. He was disappointed--but not surprised. Resolutely he arose from his chair and set out to find the widow who lived in the woodpile. Outside town, south, across the creek.
Twilight was turning to moonlight when he found the woodpile. He found no sign of life. His excitement turning to rage, he cursed, "Shit! There's no widder here--nothin' for me!" With the passion he had built for entering a woman, he invaded the woodpile.
Then he saw her. Crouched silently on the web of straw that was her bed, she watched him with alert, but fearless, eyes. He realized that she had been watching him ever since he had crossed the creek.
He spoke first. "You the widder?"
"Wha'cha think?" she replied tauntingly, nodding toward a niche in the woodpile without averting her gaze from him.
"Young 'uns!" It hadn't occurred to Blackie that the widow might have children--or that having children was her reason for being.
"Came t' see ya," Blackie said stupidly.
"Bess." She introduced herself simply.
"Nolan." Without wondering why, he used the name his mother had given him.
Nolan didn't know how to court, but he didn't need to. Bess followed her own agenda--as she demonstrated by removing her garment and showing her body to him.
Lit by embers of moonlight, she was beautiful! Nolan's world brightened. He wasn't isolated. He wasn't lonely. And he wasn't going to be unfulfilled much longer.
Ignoring the children, Nolan dropped to the straw beside the widow. Wasting no time, Bess guided his grasping hand to her breast and pushed her body against his.
Relishing the aroma of the widow--it was far sweeter than the perfume worn by Recluse's woman--and feeling her wetness against his thigh as she writhed, Nolan was captured by the life-giving process. Instinct told him that Bess wanted to share his whole life.
As he rose to his knees to mount her, she lay back and spread her legs. Nolan wouldn't have stopped if the woodpile had caught fire. But he did stop, startled by seeing a crimson hourglass-shaped stigma on her belly above her pubic mound. Pointing, he asked, "What's that?"
"Birthmark. Fam'ly mark."
Reassured by the tone of her voice, Nolan lunged forward and slipped deep into her body. He didn't need experience to indulge himself, instinctively plunging in and out of her. He rose quickly toward his discharge, and she milked him dry.
Spent and wholely content, Nolan fell on top of the widow, panting to restore the air he had foregone during his passion. Gently, she maneuvered him aside to rest on his back. "It's good for a woman to take care of me again," Nolan reflected privately.
Eyes closed, Nolan felt Bess gently explore his body with her fingers. She traced the contours of his chest and stopped at moments to nestle in the spaces between his ribs. Spellbound and pacified, he fell into a deep, gratified slumber.
Bess did not share in Nolan's abandon. To her, men were useful only for providing seed. And in providing seed, they made themselves expendable. Knowing that Nolan's slow, deep breathing meant that she was unobserved, she grasped the hunting knife concealed beneath the web of straws that was her bed.
Nolan was jolted alert by a searing pang--exactly where her fingers had applied their tender touch. Instantly, he surveyed the scene and instinct told him everything. He saw the knife's handle protruding from his chest, wagging playfully with each of his remaining heartbeats. He saw the children--and imagined seeing his father. And he saw Bess, sitting now, gazing dispassionately at him. Waiting.
The coyotes would feast that night.
The frontier is primitive. It allows no illusions about death. If questions arise at all, they are "When?" and "How?" Never "Why?" To Nolan, this was the best possible when and how.