So Elim stood there where they'd tied his hands to the two posts of the main street promenade, leaning into the dwindling shade as the sun climbed higher. The rest of the dust-choked street was long since deserted.
Which left just Elim, standing spread-armed between the beams, struggling to keep his aching head shaded and his sluggish thoughts pious as his bare back and shoulders roasted in the sun.
That was a tall order.
It was powerfully difficult to let his gaze rest on the walkway without thinking of the people it had been built for. The raised wooden walk had kept their genteel boots out of the mud; the open sloping roof had guarded their reverend heads from the rude heat of the day.
They would have been fine, decent folks. They wouldn't have left even a bastard like Elim strung up like this. But they had long since passed on to their reward, and left him at the mercy of their brutal heirs.
He was close, though – so close his sweat dripped onto the weathered gray planks. If he could just get past the pain in his arms and the tightness in his chest and lean in far enough to get his head into that heavenly shaded space – just for even a minute – he would surely breathe in some of their deathless grace, and understand how to account for himself.
That kept him busy enough that the slow, rhythmic thud of hooves took him by surprise. Startled, Elim glanced back over one shoulder –
– just as an enormous brown face hung itself over the other. There beside him was Molly Boone: unbridled, unsaddled, and apparently having liberated herself from the corral. Elim’s mouth cracked in a smile.
"Miz Boone," he declared in a parched whisper, "you are a brazen hussy. Is this you flauntin' yourself around town without your bonnet on?" Elim closed his eyes as her lips anointed his face with a streak of sweet green slobbers. "And dolin' out your affections to any man in the street, I see. Ain't you 'shamed?"
No, not hardly. Shame was for people – for creatures who could sort right things from wrong ones, and hold themselves accountable for the difference.
By that reckoning, Elim was shamed enough for both of them. He breathed in the smell of her sun-warmed coat, and steadied his resolve. "Don't listen to any of what they said about me, now. You know I ain't like that."
He had to get himself sure on that point as well. Back home, he could have said it as a certifiable fact: he did not and never had hurt anyone.
Elim glanced down the empty street, past the adobe walls shimmering in the midday heat and the burnt-out ruins of the church, to the black-iron manor at the end of the road.
He was just a boy.
Maybe this place had changed him into a murderer. Elim couldn't have said whether it had that power. But it certainly was fixing to change him into a dead man.