Josh Northrup shoved through the saloon doors, his heart as heavy as a bag of water. Jolty piano plinked from the Victrola. Behind the bar, Orville Samcaster polished a glass. Old Man McCreedy and Silas Cray laid down their cards on a round wooden table.
Silas peered at Josh from under the brim of his oily hat. "Smells like you been rolling een death."
"Whiskey," said Josh to Orville. Orville poured him two fingers and slid the glass down the length of the bar. Josh threw back the whiskey, wiped his mouth on his sleeve, and Orville wrinkled his nose.
"That's a mighty powerful stench on you, Josh," Orville said, "if you don't mind me saying it." He backed up a few steps.
"It's Mabel," Josh said. "She's gone to higher pastures."
Orville pulled the brake lever on the old Victrola. Silence.
"I been laying with her for two days straight." Josh set his empty shot glass upside-down on the bar, as though trying to trap something under it.
"God bless her in heaven," said Old Man McCreedy, crossing himself. Silas leaned back in his chair and adjusted his hat with a finger, exposing the pale line on his forehead.
"I mourn for you, Josh," Orville finally said. "She was real pretty, with them big blue eyes -- God takes the good ones first, you know." He reached for the whiskey. "Listen, you take the bottle. It's on the house."
Josh leaned weighty on the bar. Mabel's smell was all over him, attracting flies. "My onliest, truest love." Every man in the room had a dearly departed, and now even Silas bowed his head.
Then footsteps clacked on the back stairs and down sauntered Lizzie, all red ribbons, black garters. "Is the Victrola busted again, or . . ." she noticed Josh and patted her ringlets. "Why Josh Northrup, isn't this a pleasant surprise." She stopped abruptly at the bottom step, one small hand on the bannister, the other pinching her nostrils.
"You run along now, Lizzie," said Orville. "Mabel passed away, and Josh has spent the last two days doing his duty to what's left while her soul rises up to heaven."
"About that tradeetion of ours," Silas said, "ees eet really necessary?" Lizzie shot him a look of reproach so fierce that Silas hushed up, picking his teeth with a match.
"Oh, Josh!" Lizzie's eyes went soft. She fished around in the top of her dress and pulled out a vial of lavendar toilet water.
"Take this," she said. "It's imported from Kansas. Use all of it. And then you come visit me, if you need to." She left the vial at the foot of the stairs and clacked back up to her quarters.
A moment passed and soon, everyone's eyes started to water.
"Josh, I don't mean no disrespect," Orville said, "but could you go out to the well and wash up?" Josh settled on Orville's concerned face, then Silas slouching lean as a greyhound, then Old Man McCreedy in his Sunday best. Under the weight of his sorrow, Josh staggered out the door. Everyone breathed.
* * *
Plain well water didn't work, so Josh scooped a fistful of sand and scrubbed until his hands bled. But he couldn't clean away the scent of his Mabel any more than he could forget her. He thought of the the time Mabel saved him from drowning in the river. And the time Silas ended up with a slug of lead in his thigh for trying to steal Mabel away. Those cold winter nights made so much warmer, lying up against Mabel -- warmer then, when she was still warm.
Out on the horizon, over a grove of cottonwoods, four buzzards spiraled down, down, down. And there she rested with her blonde hair, her blackening tongue, her massive shoulders, the bloated corpse that was once his Mabel, gone, gone, forever gone, replaced by something putrid.
Josh pulled the tattered Bible from his shirt and threw it in the well. "Mabel!" he shouted, kicking tumbleweeds and tufts of grass, blasting the air with sand.
And under the Cottonwoods Mabel smoltered away, old store cheese, her hooves erect as bedposts. Buzzards pried her flank with their beaks. A dry wind played in her mane, whispering, "Mabel, darling."