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Escape

I’d said barely a word to anyone all the way from New York to Santa Fe, but the cowboy’s toothy grin disarmed me. “Where you from, miss?”

“New York,” I murmured.

He squinted and shook his head. He couldn’t hear me over the rattle of the stagecoach and the clatter of the horses’ hooves.

“New York,” I yelled. “Mott Street.”

His grin widened. In twill trousers, angle-heeled boots and dented black Stetson, this fellow was a city boy’s dream of a New Mexico cowboy. So I gaped when he said he’d grown up on Stanton Street, just down the block from my late grandfather’s shul on the Lower East Side. He knew Semmel’s on Orchard. And the candy store on Delancey.

“Billy McCarty, miss.” He raised his big white hat an inch.

“Shulamit Pelz.”

The man beside him— stout, red-faced, traveling with a metal strongbox tucked between his feet— leaned forward. “T.F. Coburn,” he barked. “You one of those mail-order brides, Miss Pelz?”

I blushed and defiantly raised my chin. Tall, bony, and sharp tongued, I was nobody’s idea of a bride. But tonight I’d step off this stage in someplace called Lincoln in the New Mexico Territory and meet a fiancé I’d never seen. At my feet sat a carpetbag stuffed with my not-very-worldly possessions and on top of our stagecoach a massive trunk held my golem. Zayde Kupperman’s golem. The golem was why I was fleeing New York.

As our stage jounced through the sweet-smelling high desert on this hot, sunny afternoon I found it difficult to believe that two crazed Kabbalists from New York were on my trail— well, on the trail of my slumbering golem. Could those two schnorrers even ride horses? I’d probably lost them back around Kansas— it was quite a large place. My worries now focused on New Mexico: heat and snakes— and the stranger who would become my husband. I was beginning to doubt my grandfather’s judgment. And my own.

My eyes slid over to Billy. Now this was one handsome chacham: tousled brown hair, long jaw— and that mischievous grin! I couldn’t help staring. So I noticed when Billy and Coburn all of a sudden sat up straight and exchanged nervous looks. Billy peeked out the stagecoach window and pulled his head back in fast.

“Get down!” With a quick nod to Coburn, he shoved me to the floor. Coburn landed beside me with a grunt, clutching his strongbox. Shots rang out, hooves thundered, and our stage sped up, swaying and tossing us from side to side— Coburn, hot and tweedy and most unwelcome against me. Above us Billy leaned out the window and fired a gun at our pursuers. S horse neighed in terror.

The coach slowed to a ragged trot, and then…stopped.

This couldn’t be good. My heart pounding in my ears, I raised myself to my knees and peered out the stagecoach window. At the side of the road, two cowboys were reining in prancing brown horses. Red paisley bandanas tied across their mouths muffled their shouts. They waved guns that glinted in the bright sun.

But Billy and Coburn apparently understood all this fuss. They opened the stagecoach door and jumped down, awkwardly, heavily, with their hands up over their heads.

“Miss Pelz?” Billy beckoned.

I clambered after them, clutching at the door, stumbling on the flimsy steps and nearly falling onto the dusty trail. No one noticed. Billy and Coburn eyed the gunmen. Their pistols pointed at us, but they were looking back down the road. They seemed to be waiting for something.

A songbird swooped overhead, trilling. The sun beat down hot, but I shivered. A one-horse buggy appeared in the distance and we waited as it trotted up and stopped behind the coach. The driver was a wiry man, his face disguised by a blue paisley bandana. He jumped down and strode past us to the empty stage where he reached in and pulled out Coburn’s strongbox. Coburn grunted angrily, and grunted again as the wiry man walked over and reached into Coburn’s waistcoat pocket, snatching a gold watch and slipping it into his own jacket.

“Hey!”

Ignoring Coburn’s indignation, the wiry man handed the strongbox up to one of the riders. Then he set about unbuckling the straps that held our luggage on the stage. Our trunks tumbled onto the road. The man shot off the locks and started opening the lids. When he reached my grandfather’s dome-topped trunk, the lock refused to yield.

The man swore and kicked it. Behind him, the horses danced nervously and the riders brandished their guns. Coburn and Billy looked at me.

“Shulamit!” Billy’s lips barely moved. “Unlock the trunk.”

I hurried over, fumbling in my reticule for the key. The sun beat down on my back. The heat and the silence of the desert enfolded me like a rough blanket. Time slowed. I am trapped in a bad dream.

“We could have some fun with that gal if she wasn’t so goddamn homely,” one of the riders brayed.

That broke my trance. My fingers closed not on a key but on a little twist of paper in my bag. I summoned the Hebrew words my grandfather taught me and whispered them through dry lips. The trunk’s locks snapped open. I lifted the lid, reached into the dark, hot interior, and slotted the twist of paper into the sleeping golem’s ear. “Protect me from these men,” I whispered before the holdup man grabbed my arm and pulled me away.

I had no idea how, or if, the creature might respond. I was as shocked as everyone else when the golem uncoiled to a height of seven feet. He seized the wiry man by the neck. There was a brutal crack. Then gunshots, shouts, more shots, and screams of pain.

I’d like to say, like Billy did when he later told the story, that I “dove for the dirt,” but the truth is that I just collapsed.

***

I woke up propped against my carpetbag at the side of the trail. Four bodies— our driver, Coburn, and two of the hold-up men— lay sprawled in the dust. Not moving. My grandfather’s trunk stood in the middle of the road, lid hanging open. The naked golem crouched beside it, staring into the distance with glowing red eyes.

Billy’s voice in my ear: “Do I take it you know that big fellow? I’d sure appreciate it if you’d tell him I mean no harm.”

I clambered to my feet, shook out my dust-streaked traveling skirt, and slowly approached the creature. The clay figure raised its bald head to regard me, a motion that reminded me unpleasantly of the brown desert snake we’d seen coiled at the side of the road the day before. I shuddered. I didn’t tell Billy how little I knew about the magical creature that lived in my grandfather’s trunk. The golem had obeyed me once that day and I had to think it would do so again.

“Return to the trunk,” I said in my awkward Hebrew. I repeated it in Yiddish.

My hand flew to my heart in relief as the great creature stepped clumsily into the box. It knelt as if in prayer. When I plucked the rolled paper from its ear, it slumped forward, the fiery eyes going dark and cloudy. Billy and I closed the domed lid over the folded golem and the locks snapped shut.

Billy looked down at the trunk. “Clay.” He sounded stunned, and not used to being so. “Damned if that big fellow isn’t made out of clay.”

“It’s a golem,” I said. “My grandfather was a rabbi. He made the golem to protect his village in Russia. When we came to New York, he brought it with him.”

“A go-lem? Can’t say as I’ve ever seen one of those.” Billy took a few steps back and regarded the dead bodies around us. “But I can see as how it would come in real handy.”

Billy’s tone, too casual, suggested to me that he had some ideas about how he might put the golem to use. I shook my head and gave a quiet groan. Not again! The golem wasn’t handy at all. It was dangerous. In our tenement in New York, Rebbe Kupperman had given lessons to yeshiva buchers during the day. Some evenings he’d taught Kabbalah— what some call Jewish magic— to a shadowy group of older men. Two of them found out about his golem and pressured him to sell it. My grandfather refused.

Woken one night by noises in the rebbe’s study, I’d caught the pair of aspiring Kabbalists struggling with the heavy trunk that held the creature. The sight of a towering woman clad only in a red silk dressing gown proved too much for their delicate sensibilities. They’d dropped the trunk and stumbled down the tenement stairs, screaming “Dybbuk!”

I chased them as far as the second-floor landing. And, yes, I may have cackled ominously, once or twice.

“I should destroy it,” my grandfather muttered when he found me shoving the trunk back into place in his study and heard the story. But instead he set about teaching me— a woman!— the Hebrew words to open the magical locks of the trunk, and the Hebrew letters to write on a slip of paper that, inserted into the golem’s ear, would animate the creature. And then he’d made me promise to get out of New York— taking the trunk and the golem— when he died. “Forgive me,” he’d murmur to himself at the end of each lesson.

Now, on the trail from Santa Fe to Lincoln, my grandfather’s golem had at last justified its troublesome existence. It had killed the holdup man, and Billy had shot one of the riders dead. The other rider had killed Coburn, Billy told me, and galloped off with the strongbox.

“This is a regular massacre. I’m lucky that go-lem fellow knew I was on your side.” Billy was luckier than he knew. My grandfather had warned me again and again about golems that had run wild, misunderstanding commands and destroying entire villages. As it was, the landscape around us, with four dead bodies, a stagecoach with a broken wheel, and luggage strewn along the roadway, seemed destruction enough.

A cold wind swept along the trail. I shivered, looked up to the hills, and for the first time saw the purple sky of a high desert dusk. Billy was dragging the trunk with the golem over to the holdup man’s abandoned buggy.

“We need to go,” he said. “That rider who took the strongbox— he’ll likely come back with some others. They don’t like witnesses.”

I looked at the black buggy, at the broken stagecoach, and back at the open buggy again. Its single seat was little more than a padded board. But what choice did I have? Billy was struggling to lift my trunk onto the back. I helped him secure it with leather straps and settled my carpetbag in beside it. Billy handed me up to the seat.

“We need to notify the police.” I realized as I spoke that I’d been looking around for an officer, as I would have on the street in New York. When Billy guffawed, a chill ran down my spine.

“They don’t call ‘em ‘the police’ out here,” he said. “They call ‘em the Law. Sometimes it’s hard to know who’s the gangs and who’s the Law. It has a lot to do with who’s doing the paying.”

Billy laughed again. Then he drew the gun he’d used to shoot the holdup man and spun it on his index finger. A grin split his thin, sun-tanned face as he slipped the weapon back into the hand-tooled holster that rode low on his hips. He clamped one hand on the rail of the buggy and looked up at me. “You might not believe it, Miss Shulamit Pelz, but sometimes the Law around here is me.”

G-d help us, I thought, but for once I kept my big mouth shut. Back in New York I might have sneered at his bravado, but out here, on the darkening trail, it frightened me.

As we drove off into the gathering purple dusk, the back of my neck prickled. It was the dust, I told myself. Heat. But I couldn’t help sneaking looks back along the trail in the direction we’d come from two hours before. And I noticed Billy eying the ridges to either side of the trail.

“Are you worried Even though you’re the Law?”

“Yep.” He gave me a sidelong glance, as if measuring me. “That’s because I’ve never seen a holdup before where someone comes driving up in a buggy. Fellers ride up on horses, take money, watches, jewelry, put it all in the saddlebags. But this gang brought along a damn buggy, pardon my French. I’m thinking they were after you, Shulamit. Or maybe your grandfather’s trunk with that go-lem in it. You think?”

Sharp man. Too sharp. I kept my face expressionless and shrugged. I’d had years of experience helping my grandfather keep the golem a secret from my father, my stepmother, and my brothers— I wasn’t going to stop now. When my grandfather lay on his deathbed, I’d overheard my family’s plans. They’d sell the rebbe’s library (his dreck, they called it) and rent out his rooms. They’d send me to work in a garment factory. There were already generous offers for my grandfather’s old trunk, my father said.

“Can you imagine?” I heard him say. “That heap from the old country?”

“So, ask for more!” my stepmother snapped.

The next morning I contacted a shadchen my grandfather had told me about and she quietly set about arranging a new life for me in the New Mexico Territory— a place I imagined to be slightly west of Chicago. Even as we made the plans, fleeing New York with my grandfather’s golem seemed fantastic and unlikely— even stranger than becoming a bride, mail-order or otherwise, of a shopkeeper named Morris Saperstein.

But when Zayde died, I was ready. Family and neighbors walked from the services at the shul to the cemetery, leaving me to prepare the house for shivah. Instead, I called a carter and left with the trunk. Sure enough, the two Kabbalists appeared as we neared the train station. But they’d underestimated the strength of the burly Irish carters I’d hired and my own determination to honor the strange promise I’d made my grandfather. And now, as Zayde would have said, here we are.

Billy slapped the reins and the buggy sped up, jolting me back to the present. “Does Saperstein know you have that go-lem creature?”

“Certainly not.” My plan was to hide the trunk, telling my husband-to-be that it held bed linens and such. Ideally, it would be forgotten by everyone— including me— and my pact with my grandfather would be honored. Of course, now Billy knew…

“But Saperstein knows you’re arriving?”

“Of course he knows,” I snapped. “A shadchen— a matchmaker— in New York answered his ad on my behalf, and he sent her the money for my travel.”

“Beg pardon, Sorry. It’s just that I never imagined Morris Saperstein sending off for a mail-order bride.”

“And why not?” I bristled. “He wants someone to help with the store, to do the accounts. I did all of that for my grandfather’s yeshiva and for my brothers’ tailor shop.”

Billy shrugged. I reddened and sat silent. I suspected Billy had assessed my looks and thought Saperstein might regret buying goods sight unseen. We rode on in the dark and growing cold of the desert evening. I’d taken my shawl from my carpetbag and now I pulled it tight around me. Outcroppings of rock beside the trail loomed over us. It was all too easy to imagine someone leaping down from those boulders onto the buggy. I shivered.

“Cold?”

“No,” I said. “Frightened. Do you think…we should wake the golem?”

“Might not be a bad idea.” Billy’s voice rang loud in the empty desert. His drawl had grown slower, and he swallowed in a way that made me doubt his courage. He was awfully young.

As I turned on the bench to open the trunk, Billy swore softly. I spun back to see two dark figures ahead on the trail. They wore long black beards and wide black hats, and the little that showed of their faces gleamed pale in the light from the rising moon. Our horse shook its head violently and balked. Billy reached for his gun. “What the—?”

My grandfather’s students— or creatures in their form— rose up on columns of dense black smoke, swaying like snakes about to strike.

“The golem! Open the trunk!”

I stammered the words to spring the locks and then grabbed my reticule. Where was it? As I rummaged desperately for the twist of paper, tendrils of black smoke embraced me. I smelled tobacco and Russian Caravan tea and wool. The warmth of the coal fire in my grandfather’s study in Manhattan. How lovely! I closed my eyes and breathed deeply.

“Shulamit!” Billy’s shout brought me back to the present. My fingers closed on the twisted paper bearing the Hebrew letters that spelled Truth. I threw back the trunk lid, leaned in and stuffed the paper into the golem’s ear.

“Protect me,” I mumbled, fighting the hypnotic smoke. “No! Protect us!”

The golem awoke, eyes gleaming like rubies. I sank down as it rose up to confront the two dark figures swooping above us, long arms outstretched, hands grasping. One of the figures caught the golem’s arms. I lunged for the creature’s sturdy legs. I held on tight, anchoring the golem to the buggy, my eyes squeezed shut against the enchanting smoke.

A whip cracked. The buggy jerked into motion. Soon we were tearing down the trail, Billy shouting at the horse, me clutching the golem’s legs, the golem battling with dark smoky creatures above us.

An explosion sent us flying into the air. Sand stung my face and wind nearly ripped away my shawl. We landed violently, the buggy tipping on two wheels before settling upright to resume its jolting path down the trail. Billy cursed as he fought to rein in the horse.

I opened my eyes. Great, dark leaves of greasy ash came drifting down through the night. The Kabbalists were gone. The golem had collapsed and sprawled over the side of the trunk.

“Return to the trunk,” I ordered as the horse slowed to a ragged trot. To my relief, the golem quickly rearranged itself, settling into the trunk as if exhausted. About to closed the lid, I paused. I placed a trembling hand on its bowed head for a moment. “ A dank. Thank you.”

I extracted the twist of paper from its ear, returned it to my bag, then closed and secured the lid of the trunk. I saw Billy watching me closely. Too closely. He wants to use the golem for himself, I realized. I can’t let that happen.

We drove in silence. A few miles on, we turned off the main trail onto a narrower, winding roadway. Before I could ask where we were going, a low adobe building, its courtyard aglow with lanterns, appeared in a stand of Ponderosa pines. I assumed it was a rustic inn and though how wonderful it would be to bathe and crawl into a real bed.

“I have friends here,” was all Billy said. Two grey-haired, dark-skinned women came out to greet us. The elder of the pair showed me to an outbuilding and an adjoining washhouse. The younger one argued with Billy, the two of them speaking a language I thought must be Spanish. When I returned, the older woman had set out food. We tore into it. I’d never tasted chili verde or tortillas before but was too hungry and tired to care if I was eating was treyf.

“What we saw out on the road,” Billy said to me in a low voice after the woman left the room, “the locals out here would have called them demons or spirits. You knew what they were.”

I swallowed a forkful of the spicy stew and coughed, wondering how much I could tell him. “My grandfather taught…what you’d call magic. Those were his students, but bad ones. I’m supposed to be taking the golem where people like them they won’t find it.”

People like you, either, I thought.

“Magic?” Billy shrugged. “Figured it to be something like that. Those two men looking for you must have hired the boys who held up the stage. Coburn’s strongbox would have been their payment for finding your go-lem.”

Billy’s voice had risen. He lowered it before going on. “Hell, Coburn may have been in on the plan, hiring me so Olinger could have me killed. Those fellows who held us up? I used to ride with them. You’re not the only one who has a long story.”

So Billy has his own enemies. I wondered why he didn’t just move on to another place, but I was too tired to ask. I thought we’d stay the night at the ranch, sleep, and change into clean clothing, but Billy insisted we push on to Lincoln that night. In the ranch house courtyard, our buggy waited with a fresh horse, a solid-looking bay. But grandfather’s trunk was gone from the back. I whirled on Billy. “Where is—?”

“Don’t ask, Shulamit,” he said. “I’ve put it somewhere safe, and I think we should both forget about it for a time.”

“No!” As much as I depended on Billy to get me to Lincoln, I couldn’t trust him with the golem. I flew at him, fists raised. He clapped a powerful hand on my shoulder and held me at arms length, shaking his head. In the flickering lantern light, I saw his smile tinged with regret.

“We need to get on into Lincoln tonight,” he repeated.

I dropped my fists, turned, and let him hand me up into the buggy.

“You can’t use the golem, you know,” I warned him as we drove away from the ranch. “You don’t know the proper words. And the golem— they say it only works to protect people.”

Billy shrugged. “We’ll see about that. For the time being, it’s safe. And I’m taking you to Kate Flaherty’s boardinghouse. You can stay there before you…before you meet Saperstein.”

I was sure he’d try to open the trunk and use the golem. On the other hand, I was sure Billy had put it where it would be safe from the two Kabbalists— if they’d survived tonight’s battle with the golem, which I hoped they had not.

We swung back onto the trail. The near-full moon rode high over the desert and it lit the way surprisingly well. Coyotes howled. An owl swooped across our path. I didn’t trust Billy McCarty, but the cold reality was that he was my only friend in the New Mexico Territory.

“What’s he like?” I asked. “Morris Saperstein.”

The ad in the New York paper had read: “Handsome, observant Jewish bachelor, 37, doing a good business in dry goods, seeks Jewish maiden or childless widow, 18 to 30, who would like a good home and is willing to assist in the emporium.”

“A businessman.” Billy adjusted his shoulders in a way that suggested he wasn’t telling the whole story.

“Do you think he’ll be satisfied with me?” In the darkness, I bit my lip. As my stepmother had missed no occasion to remark, I was no prize: tall as a man, thin as a broomstick, with a sharp nose and a sharp tongue.

“I will be more interested to know if you’re satisfied with him,” Billy said.

Did I have any choice? The money the shadchen had given me for the trip was almost gone. The closer the buggy got to Lincoln the more I wished I’d stayed in New York. We rode on.

“Do you miss New York?” I asked Billy.

A low chuckle. He flicked the reins across the horse’s back. “New Mexico Territory suits me just fine.”

***

It was well after midnight when we reached Lincoln. It didn’t appear to me to be much of a town. Rough adobe buildings lined the main street. Behind them, dirt alleyways gave access to barns, warehouses and stables. We turned into one of those back alleys, Billy stopping the buggy behind a two-story building with lights on downstairs.

Billy slipped up the back steps, light as a cat, stood close to the kitchen door, and knocked softly. When the door opened, he beckoned for me to join him.

“You heard about the holdup?” I heard him say in a low voice as he bundled me into the house.

“Heard there’s two of the gang dead and the other one barely got back to town.” The woman in the hallway closed the door behind us and threw the lock. “What the hell happened out there? Were you riding with them? Who’s this?”

The hallway was dark, but Billy’s voice told me that his grin was gone from his face. “I changed sides. Coburn hired me to escort him and his papers to the bank. He’s dead.”

“What?”

Billy brought me forward. “Shulamit, this is Kate Flaherty. Kate, this is Shulamit Pelz. She’s—” Billy hesitated “— she’s a mail-order bride for Saperstein.”

“You’re having me on.” Kate pulled me into kitchen to see me in the lamplight. She was nearly as tall as I was, but there any similarity ended. Kate was a beauty. Her skin was pale and her thick black hair, worn in a bun, was shot through with silver. She had an upturned nose, high cheekbones, and ice-blue eyes. She wore a crisp linen apron over a dove-grey dress. “Billy?”

But he was already down the hall and out the back door.

“Well, would seem that I’m stuck with you, Miss Shula—?” The woman glared.

“Shulamit. Shulamit Pelz.”

Shaking her head, Kate picked up a small lamp from a side table and I followed her up the stairs. At the first landing she opened the door to a small room. There was a bed mounded with comforters and pillows. A flowered china basin and a pitcher of water stood on the dressing table. Tears welled in my eyes.

As I walked through the doorway with my bag, she caught my arm. “Someone’s going to ask you about what happened out there, Miss Shulamit. Whatever it was, you’ll be better off if you forget about it. You just tell them that someone brought you here, unconscious, and I found you on the porch. You don’t remember anyone’s face, or name.”

Kate’s grip on my arm tightened. “You never met William McCarty. You never heard of any Billy the Kid. You understand that?”

I dropped the carpetbag and stood with clenched fists. Kate stepped back. She told me later that she was prepared for anything, and was as surprised as I was when I began to cry. Tears filled my eyes again and again, but they didn’t wash away images of the day. I made no protest when Kate undressed me, stood me on a towel, and sponged me clean. She tucked my hair into a ruffled cap and dropped a linen gown over my head. She must have led me to the bed as well, because I woke up there in the morning.

Voices were coming from downstairs. I heard Kate’s voice and a big booming voice that meant Police. I cracked the door and listened as I dressed, donning a plain cotton blouse Kate had set out and my travel-weary wool skirt.

“Three men out there dead, and it looks like this Miss Pelz is the only witness we have,” the man was saying as I came down the stairs.

“What do you think happened, Deputy?” Kate’s voice, sweet as honey.

“My guess?” His coffee cup rattled on the saucer. He nodded to me as I entered the parlor. “We know Coburn had hired Billy as a bodyguard. I think Billy double-crossed him, brought in some of his friends. There was more of a shootout than they expected, but Billy made off with the loot.”

Now I knew why Kate wanted me to play dumb. When she saw me standing there, she made introductions. She insisted on taking me to the settee and bringing me a cup of fragrant tea and a thick slice of fresh-baked bread.

“What this poor woman has been through!” she said. “Deputy Olinger, do take care with her.”

Kate sat close beside me; close enough, I suspected, to be able to give me a quick nudge if my answers strayed in the wrong direction. I did my best convince Olinger that I was a sheltered Jewish spinster. I knew only that I’d been sharing a stagecoach with a businessman and a ranch hand when a terrible holdup had occurred.

“Do you know Billy the Kid?” he asked.

“No, sir, there weren’t any children, no,” I said, making a show of earnest helpfulness. Kate looked up at the ceiling as if inspecting the chandelier for cobwebs.

The deputy’s tanned brow furrowed with puzzlement and frustration. “Did one of the men ask you to open a big trunk?” He spoke slowly, as if to a child, and held his arms wide to indicate the trunk.

I felt Kate stiffen beside me. So the man who rode off with Coburn’s strongbox, the survivor, had told someone about my golem. I furrowed back at Olinger. “No, sir. When there were guns, I fainted. Someone brought me here, to Miss Flaherty’s boardinghouse, for which I am of course so grateful.”

I turned and smiled at Kate, who beamed approvingly at my stilted English. Olinger gave a muffled snort, stood up, clapped his big hat on his head, and muttered a perfunctory thanks.

“Oh, Deputy,” I said, brightening. “When will you get my trunk back?”

He glared, assured me they’d do their best to recover the baggage, and left, stomping into the hallway and out the door.

“Nicely played,” Kate said. “’There weren’t any children,’ indeed. We must remember to tell that to Billy.”

***

Four years went by. My accounting skills proved the perfect asset for the boardinghouse and the two other properties Kate owned in town. I even took on Morris Saperstein as a client.

For, as it turned out, Morris had never advertised for a mail-order bride. The ad and the money that brought me west were the work of his mother, Etta Saperstein, a formidable widow who lived in an apartment over his dry goods emporium. She’d hoped Morris would marry a nice Jewish girl, but now would have to content herself with a grandchild from Morris’ girlfriend Juliette, recently retired from dancing in the Two Pines Saloon.

It took a few months of wrangling, but Kate and I talked Billy into bringing us the trunk. He realized he’d never be able to wake the golem, much less teach it how to ride and shoot.

“Couldn’t even open the damned lid,” Billy confessed. He delivered the trunk, in the dead of night, to the back porch of the boarding house and the three of us lugged it upstairs. When he left, Kate and I hid it deep in the linen closet.

Billy, of course, could not stay out of trouble. Arrests, escapes, more arrests, and always, the headlines: “Billy the Kid Escapes Again!” Then the Law reneged on its promise to pardon him on a murder charge in return for testimony. He was convicted for the murder and sentenced to hang. Of course, he escaped.

But in April he was re-captured and jailed at the Lincoln County Courthouse. One of our boarders, himself a deputy, related with some distaste how much Deputy Olinger relished making the arrest.

“ I knew you’d slip up,” Olinger had taunted Billy. “We haven’t even taken down the noose. Kept it all ready for you.”

Kate and I tried to visit Billy in jail, but Olinger was taking no chances. “You two weird sisters can see ‘im when he hangs, just like everyone else.”

Kate threw him a withering glare. We walked slowly back to the boardinghouse. She went upstairs to the linen closet while I fetched a small twist of paper that had sat in my desk drawer for nearly four years. We stood for a long while, staring at the dome-top trunk. Kate sighed. “Shulamit, my dear, do your New York magic.”

***

That evening, Kate and I watched as Olinger herded the other prisoners across the street to the saloon for their dinner. That left Billy alone in his cell on the jail’s second story with a deputy alone in the office downstairs.

I stammered the words, opened the old trunk, and slipped the twist of paper into the golem’s ear. Helping him out of the trunk, I brushed some ash, from that night four years ago, from his shoulder. He straightened up, and I thought I saw his small toothless mouth take the shape of a grin. I guided him down the stairs and together we slipped out the back door of the boardinghouse.

“Follow me.” I tiptoed down the alley between the bank and the dry goods store, the golem behind me, shuffling barefoot on the hard-packed dirt. Light from the setting sun flooded the alley and threw our shadows on the adobe wall of the bank. The golem loomed two stories high. A monster. “Stop here.”

We’d reached the mouth of the alley. I looked over at the jail. A sigh of relief: Billy stood at his window, fiddling with the close-set iron bars as if he expected to find a way out. I shook my head. Apparently solutions came to Billy as easily as trouble. And here we were.

I whistled. Billy saw me and slowly raised one hand. He watched as I turned and reached up to take the hand of the golem. I pressed the loaded pistol into creature’s sun-warmed clay paw.

“Throw this—” I patted the pistol “— up to that man.”

I pointed at Billy. Then I dropped back, leaving the golem to shuffle forward on his own, the gun dangling awkwardly at his side. Whatever would my zayde have thought? I wondered as I slipped back down the alley and entered the back door of the boardinghouse. Kate waited for me at the front window. She grabbed my hand, and her slender fingers squeezed. “He’s there.”

Sure enough, the golem had reached the courthouse. I could see Billy reaching his hand out through the bars. The golem tossed the six-shooter up to Billy just as the deputy emerged from the courthouse door and took a shot at him. The golem shattered into thousands of pieces, leaving the deputy gaping. Above them, Billy had caught the gun and vanished.

The deputy ran back into the jail. Two shots rang out. I gasped with relief as Billy burst from the jail, gun in hand, and ran to the hitching post. Freeing the reins of a small black gelding, he swung up into the saddle. Then he paused.

“Go, go, go,” Kate muttered, stamping her boots in a gallop.

But Billy, astride the horse, gun in hand, waited until Olinger burst from the saloon across the street. Then Billy took aim and fired two shots. Olinger toppled face down in the street.

Billy the Kid turned the horse, spurred it, and galloped away into the purple twilight.

By then men were pouring into the street, calling for horses and guns and the town doctor. A posse formed in front of the courthouse, trampling the shards that had once been a golem before whirling and clattering north after Billy.

Soon darkness fell on the empty street. The wind swept in from the desert. Kate went upstairs after a while and I heard the lid snap shut on a hollow, empty trunk. She came down again, and led me gently from the window. But not before I’d watched a twist of white paper go swirling off into the night.

A bit about the author:

K.G. Anderson is a Seattle journalist and technology writer. Her short fiction appears in anthologies including Second Contacts, Triangulation: Beneath the Surface, The Mammoth Book of Jack the Ripper Stories, Triangulation: Appetites, Alternative Truths, More Alternative Truths, and After the Orange, as well as online at Metaphorosis, Ares Magazine, Every Day Fiction, and Far Fetched Fables. Visit author page