He rode into town with nothing but the frown on his face for company, carried by a broken-down grey mustang. The two mules that followed were dull-eyed and obedient, laden with possessions from another life in another town.
He wore a chuppalla, so different from the Stetsons men usually wore, and he was bull-necked and broad shouldered. The wind was restless that day, whipping up his fine black three-quarter-length jacket, showing the deep scarlet of the lining. He dressed well, travel stained and dusty as he was. No rancher or cowpoke was he; there was something dignified about him, and solemnity followed in his wake.
But it was his hands that Chrissie Miller noticed.
A man could strangle the world with hands like that.
He rode past the house, turning the corner of the street, heading into town. Chrissie let the drapes fall back across the window and wondered if her lack of grief was sinful. But there wasn’t much to grieve for. Her husband had been a mean son of a bitch, and closed-mouthed to boot. He was not a man who enjoyed friends, only the men he worked alongside, and the employment of Rep Calhoun. Jack Miller had been known as Calhoun’s Hound, and he’d been a rabid one at that. Calhoun himself had coined the name, and was all too keen to sic him on any that caused his displeasure.
The funeral was in three days’ time, but Chrissie didn’t expect more than a handful of mourners. She gazed into the empty hearth, and succumbed to the gentle pleasure of self-pity.
A knock at the door sounded, loud as a gunshot. She let out a startled cry before regaining her composure.
“Nearly shook the glass out of the damned windows, you knocked so hard,” she complained. She often muttered to herself. There hadn’t been anyone worth talking to for many years. Chrissie approached the door, then at the last moment remembered herself, smoothing back her hair and pinching color into her cheeks. Jack Miller was sixty-seven when the Lord had seen fit to take him. ;Chrissie was just thirty-two and sure as shit didn’t intend to waste any more time on the old bastard. The door boomed again, setting her teeth on edge. “I’m coming,” she shouted. “Don’t you know death has visited this house?”
Damned people in this town got no respect.
She threw open the door as anger soared in her veins. The stranger on the grey mustang stood before her, blocking out the weak light of the January sun.
“Pardon me, ma’am. I knocked real quiet before, but I guess you didn’t hear me on account of the wind and all.”
For a big man he spoke soft, and he was big. Bigger than even Sheriff Paine, and he was six feet if he was an inch. The stranger’s handlebar mustache was neat and trim beneath an aquiline nose. Deep brown eyes. Crow’s feet etched in the corners of his face. The man took off his broad-brimmed hat and held it to his chest. Chrissie Miller blushed to the roots of her hair.
“I heard you might have room for a boarder, ma’am.”
“Is that so?” replied Chrissie, pulling her black shawl tighter. Her eyes narrowed.
“That’s right, ma’am. I got to talking with a gentleman called Scroggins at the Silver Dollar. He told me about your situation.”
Chrissie gave a dismissive snort.
“My situation?” I’m widowed, not expecting.
“What with your husband passing on and all.”
She eyed the stranger a moment, and a wry smile creased her lips.
“Well I’ll be damned, Praisegood Scroggins doing me a good turn.”
“It’s not nice for lady to cuss, Mrs. Miller,” said the man.
“And what should I call you, mister?”
“Hot,” he said and immediately looked abashed, “That is to say, Hot is my nickname. I prefer Red, my given name.”
* * *
And that was how Chrissie Miller got herself a boarder, just thirty-six hours after her husband passed away.
“What’s your trade?” she asked at supper that night.
“I make coffins, ma’am” he replied, barely looking up from his stew. He ate with a measured pace.
“Really?” Her prayers had been answered. “I asked the undertaker to send someone but...” Chrissie set down her cutlery and laced her fingers thoughtfully.
“Could you make a coffin for my husband?
“I could give you a reduction on the rent.”
Red nodded slowly. After supper he set off to the undertaker’s. Augustus Deeds was tall and thin and had the pinched look of a starving dog.
“Can’t it wait til morning?” asked Deeds tersely, but Red would brook no refusal. He set to the task at hand, wondering if Mr. Miller had been as fierce in life as he was dead.
“Guess you’re one of those hard workers,” said Deeds.
“If you ain’t working hard, you’re barely working at all.”
“Reckon we’ll get along just fine,” said the undertaker, and shuffled off to bed.
* * *
Chrissie Miller survived the following months on the rent she charged her taciturn boarder. Red set up business in a lean-to behind the undertakers and attended church each Sunday. He always sat at the back, taking off the moment the sermon was over. He was early to bed and early to rise and never said more than a dozen words to anyone. Including Chrissie. The men of the town thought him queer, on account of how he never set foot in the saloon after that first day.
* * *
“Do you have any family?” she asked one night, as she served him his evening meal. Weeks he’d been her boarder, and never said more than ten words to her.
The scrape of cutlery on china was a poor accompaniment to the fine suppers she prepared.
“A brother,” said Red, not looking up from his plate.
“Where is he now? Is he a coffin-maker too?”
“Texas. Man of God,” he said, but the words were barely more than a whisper.
Chrissie nodded. The silence crowded in around them.
“Is that where you come from? Texas?”
Another nod of that huge head.
“Ever been married?”
Red set down his cutlery and looked at Chrissie Miller with an expression she couldn’t read. Her husband had been a volatile man, full of whiskey andfury. Chrissie couldn’t be sure what she was seeing now, though. The thought occurred that she was looking at a stick of dynamite with a long fuse.
“Was married once.” His voice was like gravel underfoot.
“Well, these dishes ain’t going to wash themselves,” smiled Chrissie, and stood to gather their plates. In the kitchen, it took a few minutes for her hands to stop shaking. She blinked back tears as she washed up, trying to forget the rages of her dead husband. And the beatings. Trying to forget that, for a moment, she’d seen the same in Red. She wiped down the counter with a cloth, wondering at how she’d gone from being married to one closed-mouthed sonofabitch to being a landlady to another. Pandemonium wasn’t a town known for its choices. They usually ran from ‘hard’ to ‘difficult’, and there was little in between.
“God damn,” she breathed and dried her hands on the towel, noting how the skin was creased as it hadn’t been when she was younger.
“It’s not nice for lady to cuss, Mrs. Miller.”
Chrissie near fainted on the spot.
“I’m sorry for startling you.” His voice had returned to the velvet baritone. “I came to apologize for being so unfriendly over supper and all.”
Chrissie looked up at the big man, barely contained by the kitchen doorframe. His eyes were full of regret. No one had apologized to her in over a decade.
“I shouldn’t have pried, Red. It’s just… my husband wasn’t much for talking. And I was hoping you might be a little different. You’ve been here four months and I barely know you.”
“Thank you for apologizing,” she added.
“I was thinking,” he said, one hand straying to his chin, thumb and forefinger tracing his mustache, “we could attend church together this Sunday. If you’d like.”
Chrissie struggled to keep the smile from her face. There were many things she disliked about Pandemonium. Pitching up at the church house without a man was perhaps the greatest of them.
* * *
Sunday arrived, ushering in a beautiful morning. The promise of a long hot summer hung in the air. There wasn’t a cloud in the sky. Red found Chrissie in the kitchen, fixing pancakes and bacon. A large pot of coffee stood ready. She’d done up her hair different and was wearing a dress she’d spent the whole week altering.
“Good morning, Red,” she said brightly.
“Mrs. Miller,” said the coffin-maker in his soft, deep voice.
“I think I’d like you to call me Chrissie from now on, Red.”
Red nodded once and a ghost of a smile appeared at the corners of his mouth.
They ate the food and drank the coffee, which was particularly good. Red waited on the porch, squinting into the distance while Chrissie washed up. She came to join him in time to see three riders approaching Pandemonium, their mounts kicking up small clouds of brown powdery dust.
“Do you recognize them?” asked Chrissie.
“Too far to see,” rumbled Red, stepping off the porch, eyes still fixed on the riders.
“Looks like they’re coming in from Lamesa or Midland.”
“Or Odessa,” said Red, and it was at that moment Chrissie saw the dark clouds on the horizon. She opened her parasol and took his arm humming “Just As I Am Without One Plea.”
* * *
The church service was not the most passionate or instructive that the Reverend Mason Gallows had ever given, but Chrissie Miller thought that morning was as perfect as could be. Even the growing heat couldn’t wilt her contentment. She cooled herself with a white lace fan that matched her gloves. Sunlight shone though the transept window, illuminating motes of dust, making them burn yellow-gold. It made her think of dancing angels.
Chrissie knew that she had caused a stir this morning. Red always sat at the back, a position he occupied with the undertaker and Conway Elm, on the occasions the saloon-keeper bothered to attend. And here he was, Pandemonium’s newest resident, three rows from the front, as if it were themost natural thing in the world.
Chrissie caught Mayleen Jenkins looking over. She was still something sour since her old man had upped and left in the night, taking the undertaker’s wife with him, no less. Mayleen nodded politely, but there was little warmth to it. Chrissie flashed a bright smile at Mayleen and turned her attention back to the service.
Finally, Reverend Gallows reached his droning conclusion. The congregation shuffled to its feet and ambled out into the sunshine, many taking note of Chrissie’s escort as they went. Red wandered toward the vestibule of the church. He went through his pockets, searching for coins.
“I forgot to put something in the collection plate,” he said.
“No you didn’t. You put in right before I did.”
Red continued to search his pockets. The Reverend appeared and offered his hand.
“We’ve not had the chance to meet. You’ve always rushed off before I’ve had the chance to welcome you. I’m Reverend Gallows.” The older man smiled warmly. Red took the offered hand and shook, eyes shifting to the church doors and the people outside.
“Thank you, Reverend.”
“Are you in difficulty?” asked the priest.
“Oh, no, just a mixup is all,” smiled Chrissie brightly, “He said he forgot to contribute when the plate went around, but I saw him put in.”
“The church is always grateful for any help, Mrs. Miller.”
“I’m sure it is.”
Red fished a coin out of his pocket and handed it to the Reverend before offering his arm to Chrissie.
“Can we go now, Red?”
They stepped out into the street. She noticed he’d put his hat back on with the brim real low. Many of the congregation clustered about in small groups chatting amiably. Mayleen tutted and confided something to Martha Philpott, shooting a none-too-subtle look toward them. Chrissie smiled sweetly in response, Red tipped his hat to Augustus, and the couple turned homeward.
Just like Mayleen to try to rain on my parade. Maybe Orvil would have stuck around if she could see straight to smiling once in a damned while.
She held tight to Red, who looked lost in thought. She guessed it was the wind, which had whipped up fierce and driven dust into the air.
“Would you like to stop for a drink?” she asked as they approached the Silver Dollar. Ordinarily Chrissie would have no time for the place, but she wanted to draw what she could out of that perfect Sunday.
“No, ma’am,” replied Red, “Saloons are only good for whiskey and wickedness, and I turned my back on those.”
“Red, I asked you to call me Chrissie.”
“Sure,” he said, and they continued on their way.
The three riders were waiting for them when they returned to the house. Red growled for Chrissie to get inside, which she did in a rustle of skirts, almost dropping her parasol. She stood pressed flat to the wall, peeking through the sitting room window, straining to hear what was said. The riders all carried shotguns and none had seen a wash or a shave in a week, at least.
Don’t go shooting nobody outside my house, least of all my boarder.
The eldest of the three men talked some and then Red replied, or at least she thought he did. It was difficult to tell. One of the younger men spat in the dust and snarled something. Red crossed his arms and shook his head. The eldest of the riders, muttered something low, a cruel look on his face. Chrissie felt a wave of panic surge through her.
The riders mounted their horses and took off at a slow trot, heading toward town. They glanced over their shoulders at Red, who watched them go, not entering the house until they were out of sight.
“What the hell was that all about?”
“It’s not nice for a lady to curse.”
“What did they want?”
“My brother is dead.”
“Oh.” Chrissie looked at the giant of a man standing in her hallway. The flat line of his mouth, the regimented neatness of his mustache, the powerful shoulders and arms beneath his coat. She realized she didn’t know him at all.
“Are you upset?”
“Oh,” she said again. How foolish she must sound.
“Were you upset when your husband died?”
She blinked a moment and then considered the question.
Red nodded and removed his jacket.
“I guess that makes us like for like, then.”
“You’re a bad brother,” she said with a smile.
“And you’re a lousy widow,” he said coming close to her, “How long until supper?”
“A few hours yet, at least.” She straightened his tie and smoothed down his collar. “Why don’t you come upstairs until it’s ready?”
* * *
If Jack Miller’s funeral had been poorly attended then Chrissie Miller’s second wedding was doubly so. Her enthusiasm was not diminished by the lack of guests or the weather. However, she was less than thrilled with her married name.
“Are you sure you wouldn’t mind changing your name to Miller instead?” she asked over dinner a few days before the wedding. The coffin-maker actually considered it a moment before shaking his head gently.
Red had summoned Elgin Drake to be his best man. Elgin was a scarecrow of twenty-three years with pitch-black hair and not more than a ten words to say to anyone. It came as no surprise to Chrissie when Red told her he’d taken on Elgin as his apprentice. The young man had at least dressed neat, and looked the part of best man, despite being nervous.
Reverend Gallows had been hesitant to marry the couple so soon after Jack Miller’s death.
“Surely waiting a year would be appropriate, Mrs. Miller?” said the reverend when approached by the couple after service one Sunday. “Seems no one who gets married in November has much luck afterwards.” A small contribution to the church seemed to soothe his concerns. “It will go toward the new roof,” he’d said, with a weak smile, but no one believed him.
Sheriff Paine consented to give Chrissie away after some sweet talk and an apple pie. But the sheriff managed to sour Chrissie’s moment in church by bringing Mayleen as his guest. This conspired to make things awkward, seeing as Red had invited Augustus. The undertaker stood alone saying nothing, but the sight of Mayleen must have reminded of his wife him something sore. They nodded politely to each other but said nothing.
Sheriff Paine walked Chrissie down the aisle and favored Red with a rare smile. Elgin produced the rings at the right moment, and Reverend Gallows remained sober enough to conduct the ceremony. Even Red, who was usually unreadable, looked content. A deep calm had settled about him and Chrissie took comfort from it. They stood in the church as the wind shook the windows. Chrissie could not stop smiling. It had taken her just nine months to find herself a man.
Not bad. And he’s a great deal kinder than Jack Miller, that’s for certain.
The vows were made and Red gave his wife a chaste kiss in the nearly empty church. The wind even quieted down for a half-hour, which Chrissie took to be a good sign.
That night was a strange one. The storm intensified, and Red’s mood became increasingly dark as it did so. They had lain together many times but Chrissie couldn’t help but think her new husband was unduly rough with her. Their coupling was not the pleasant lovemaking it had been before. She drew the sheets up afterward and tried to ignore the shrieking of the wind.
It was close to three in the morning when she woke to find her husband sitting up in bed muttering to himself. Red held his hands out, palms up, as if he were inspecting every whorl and line of his fingerprints even in the dark.
“So much blood,” he whispered, and his voice cracked in a way she’d never heard before. It was a tiny sound but it seemed like Chrissie Miller’s world broke clean in two at that moment.
“So much...” and the giant beside her shook silently.
“Red, are you unwell? Red?” She laid one hand on his shoulder and he jolted violently in response. That was when Chrissie felt those huge hands close around her throat. For a big man he moved awful fast. Chrissie choked, clawing at his forearms, trying to call out.
This can’t be happening. Not again.
She dug her thumbs into the soft flesh of his elbows, pressing hard even as darkness began to cloud the edges of her vision. It was a tactic she’d usedagainst Jack Miller on more occasions than she cared to count.
“Red,” she rasped. The darkness became total. And then nothing.
* * *
When Chrissie awoke she thanked the Lord she was still alive. It was still dark outside and the fury of the wind had diminished. There was no sign of Red at first. Then she spotted him in the corner of the room, folded in on himself. Her shock at the violence he’d committed against her was undone by seeing her husband so reduced.
The man stood slowly, taking a long time to reach his full height, the shadows exaggerating his strange frailty
“Red? I don’t understand.”
But he was already moving, out the bedroom and down the stairs, feet thundering down the wooden steps. Chrissie heard him fling the door open, making it rattle on its hinges. She lurched out of bed, struggling into undergarments and snatching a shawl, before following her husband out intothe street.
* * *
The three riders were waiting for them beneath the cold stars of that cruel night. Sheriff Paine had seen fit to accompany them on foot, his jacket pushed back from his holster. The moonlight glinted on the filigree handle of his longbarreled Colt. The riders brandished shotguns, looking down the length of the weapons from up on horseback. Red had at least had the sense to kneel on the ground with his hands held out.
“You keep away from him,” said Chrissie, “He’s done nothing wrong.”
“Is that so, ma’am?”
“Steady now, Chrissie,” said the sheriff.
“Don’t you know what time it is? Who are you, to do such a thing at this hour?”
“I’m Federal Marshal Daniel Keyes, and I would say it’s the early hours of November thirteen in the year of our Lord, eighteen fifty-three. I’m here to arrest to Hot Haight for the murder of his wife and his brother.”
“No…” She stumbled from the porch and approached the men with her arms wrapped around herself. “Red, tell me it ain’t so.”
“I... I can’t” he said, and she could hear the way pain broke his voice.
“I don’t understand, Red.”
“Tell her,” said Marshall Keyes, “You owe her that much”.
Chrissie looked at Sheriff Paine, but he turned his head, unwilling to meet her eyes.
Red stood and took Chrissie’s hands in his own.
“I’m so sorry,” he whispered, “My brother always took a fancy to anything I owned. Ever since we were kids. I figured he’d stopped when we grew up. Seems I figured wrong.”
“Oh, Red,” sobbed Chrissie.
“I brought her flowers one afternoon as a surprise. We’d had a fight the previous night. She said I was too quiet, spent too much money on drink. So I picked her some flowers.” He paused a moment and drew in a breath. “I could hear them rutting from the kitchen. The language that was coming out her mouth. I swear I’ve never heard its like. I fetched upstairs real quiet-like. I saw them there and I couldn’t control it. I shot my brother, like the low-down dog he truly was.”
“But, your wife, Red? Tell me you didn’t kill your wife.”
“He was slipping around like a landed fish, bleeding all over. She begged me not to finish him but I did.”
Red tapped his temple with two fingers.
“She was trying to stop me but I was raging hard. I wanted out, was trying to leave the house. She wouldn’t let me. And somehow I ended up choking her to death.”
“Confessions don’t come much cleaner than that,” said Sheriff Paine, nodding at Keyes.
“Cuff him, Zeke,” said the marshall, and Chrissie pressed one hand to her mouth as tears tracked down her cheeks.
“I’m sorry, ma’am,” said the marshall’s deputy, as he pulled her away.
Sheriff Paine drew close and put one arm about her shoulders protectively.
“Hell of a thing,” was all he said.
The handcuffs clicked around the coffin-maker’s wrists.
A man could strangle the world with hands like that.
Zeke helped Red “Hot” Haight onto the horse and spared Chrissie a last pitying glance.
“Goodbye, Chrissie,” said her husband, and then they rode out of Pandemonium.
Den Patrick is the author of The Boy with the Porcelain Blade, out this month from Gollancz. His short stories have been published by Jurassic London, Fox Spirit and NewCon Press.
"Red Hot Hate" first appeared in A Town Called Pandemonium (2012). A finalist for the British Fantasy Award, Town features ten stories all set in the same small town in the New Mexico Territory in the year 1853. (Amazon UK / Amazon US / Kobo / Spacewitch).
Image credit: Adam Hill.