Authors: Tim Pratt
Tags: #Fantasy, #award winners, #stories, #SF, #Science Fiction
Hart & Boot & Other Stories
A collection by
Table of Contents
For Scott and Lynne
Hart and Boot
The man’s head and torso emerged from a hole in the ground, just a few feet from the rock where Pearl Hart sat smoking her last cigarette. His appearance surprised her, and she cussed him at some length. The man stared at her during the outpouring of profanity, his mild face smeared with dirt, his body still half-submerged. Pearl stopped cussing and squinted at him in the fading sunlight. He didn’t have on a shirt, and Pearl, being Pearl, wondered immediately if he was wearing pants.
“Who the hell are you?” she demanded. She’d been sitting for hours here on the outskirts of a Kansas mining town, waiting for dark, so she could find a bar and a man to buy her drinks. She was in a foul mood lately, as her plans for a life of riotous adventure had thus far come to nothing. She’d fled a teenage marriage in Canada after seeing a Wild West show, complete with savage Indians and lady sharpshooters, and come west to seek her fortune among such fierce characters. Her career as an outlaw was not going well so far. The problem, of course, was men. The problem was
men, and the fact that she enjoyed many male qualities didn’t change that fact. Seeing a man now, uninvited and interrupting her brooding, made her angry enough to spit in a sidewinder’s eye. “What’re you doing in the ground?”
“I’m not sure,” the man said.
Pearl couldn’t place his accent. New England, maybe? “What the hell’s that mean? How’d you end up in a damn hole without knowing how you got there?”
He considered that for a moment, then said, “You swear a lot, for a woman.”
Pearl dropped the remains of her cigarette to the ground. “I swear a lot for anybody. Are you a miner or something?” She couldn’t think of any other reason a man would be underground, popping up like a prairie dog—and even that didn’t make much sense, not when you thought past the surface.
“A miner?” He chewed his lip. “Could be.”
“You have any money?” Pearl said. She didn’t have any more bullets, but she could hit him on the head with her gun, if he had something worth stealing.
“I don’t think so.”
She sighed. “Get out of that hole. I’m getting a crick in my neck, looking down at you.”
He climbed out and stood before her, covered in dirt from head to toe, naked except for a pair of better-than-average boots. Hardly standard uniform for a miner, but she didn’t get flustered. She’d seen her share of naked men during her eighteen years on earth, and she had to admit he was one of the nicest she’d seen, dirt and all, with those broad shoulders. Back in Canada (after seeing the Wild West show, but before deciding to leave her husband) she’d had several dreams about a tall, faceless man coming toward her bed, naked except for cowboy boots.
Apart from the dirt, and the lack of a bed, and her not being asleep and all, this was just like the dream.
She finally looked at his face. He seemed uncomfortable, like a man afraid of making a fool of himself, half-afraid he already has. “Nice boots,” she said. “What’d you say your name was?”
“Uh.” He looked down at his feet, then back at her face. “Boot?”
“I’ll just call you John,” she said. This could work out. A handsome man, big enough to look threatening, and clearly addle-brained. Just what she needed. “John Boot. I’m Pearl Hart.” She stood and extended her hand. After a moment’s hesitation, he shook. Soft hands, like a baby’s. No way he was a miner. That was all right. Whatever he was, he’d have a new trade soon enough. He’d be a stagecoach robber, just like in the Wild West show.
“Not on my account, honey,” she said, dropping a hand below his waist and smiling when he gasped, “but we ought to find you some clothes. If I lured a fella about your size out behind a bar, you think you could hit him on the head hard enough to knock him out?”
“I suppose so, Pearl,” he said, as her experienced hand moved up and down on him. “I’ll do whatever you want, as long as you keep doing that.”
Hart and Boot robbed their way west. Pearl had tried to hold up a stagecoach once on her own, without success. She’d stepped into the road, gun in hand, and shouted for the driver to stop. He slowed down, peered at her from his high seat, and burst out laughing. He snapped the reins and the horses nearly ran Pearl down, forcing her out of the road. A woman poked her head out the window as the stage passed, her face doughy, her mouth gaping. Pearl shot at her, irritated. The recoil stung her hand, and she missed by a mile.
Clearly, she was not a natural lady sharpshooter. She needed a man, the right
of man, one who could be tough and do the necessary, but
do as he was told, a man for the look of the thing, so people would take her seriously, and it would be best if he was a man she liked to fuck. She didn’t believe such a man existed, except in her dreams.
Until she met John Boot.
They had a simple, and, to Pearl’s mind, amusing method of robbing coaches. Pearl would stand weeping and wailing in the road wearing a tore-up dirty dress. There wasn’t a stagecoach driver in the West who’d drive past a woman in need, and when they stopped, John Boot would emerge from cover, guns in hand. Pearl would pull her own weapons, and they’d relieve the coach of baggage, money, and mail. John Boot was always very polite, but what with Pearl’s cussing, the bewildered victims seldom noticed.
Despite her insistence that John Boot always pull out, Pearl got pregnant once during those wild months. She didn’t even realize she’d caught pregnant until the miscarriage. After she’d passed it all she just kicked dirt over the mess, glad to have avoided motherhood. John Boot wept when he found out about it, though, and Pearl, disturbed, left him to his tears. John Boot had depths she didn’t care to explore. He mostly did whatever she told him, and didn’t argue back, which was all she wanted, but it was hard to think of him in terms of his simple usefulness when he cried.
One night after Pearl came back from pissing behind a rock, she found John Boot staring up at the stars. Pearl sat with him, drunk a touch on whiskey, feeling good. She liked the stars, the big Western sky, the first man in her life who wasn’t more trouble than he was worth.
“We have to stop robbing coaches,” Boot said.
This display of personal opinion irritated Pearl. “Why’s that?”
“They’re on to us anyway,” he said, not looking at her. “There’s not a coach left that’ll stop for a woman in distress anymore.”
“Hasn’t failed us yet.”
“Next time.” He paused. “I know. They’ll come in shooting, next time.”
Pearl considered. John Boot didn’t talk much. Most men talked all the time and didn’t know shit. Maybe with John Boot the reverse was true. “Damn,” she said at last. “Well, it couldn’t last forever. But we don’t have to
, just change our style.”
After that they robbed coaches in the traditional manner, stepping from cover with guns drawn. That worked pretty well.
One night in Arizona, Pearl had trouble sleeping. Seemed like every way she rolled a rock stuck in her back or side, and the coyotes kept howling, and the big moon made everything too bright. She figured a good roll with John Boot might tire her out, so she went to wake him up. No man liked getting roused in the middle of the night, but when they got sex in return, they kept their complaints to a minimum.
Pearl didn’t believe in ghosts, but when she saw John Boot lying on his bedroll, she thought he’d died and become one. He held his familiar shape, but she could see the ground right through him, as if he were made of smoke and starlight.
Pearl didn’t faint away. She said, “John Boot, stop this goddamn nonsense
His solidity returned as he opened his eyes. “Pearl,” he said blearily. “What—”
“You’re going like a ghost on me, John Boot, and I don’t appreciate it.”
His eyes took on a familiar pained, guarded look—the expression of a dog being scolded for reasons far beyond its comprehension. “Sorry, Pearl,” he said, which was about the only consistently safe response in their conversations.
you,” she said.
“And I need you, Pearl.” He sat up. “More than you know. Sometimes, when you aren’t paying attention to me, or you’re not nearby, I get so tired, and everything gets dim, kind of smoky...” He shook his head. “I don’t understand it. It’s like I’m not even strong enough to be real on my own. I want to stay for you, I think I have to, but I get so damn
John Boot almost never cussed. Pearl took his hand. “Don’t you dare go away from me, John Boot.”
“Do you love me, Pearl?” he asked, looking at her hand in his.
Most men, she’d have said yes just to keep them quiet. But after these past months, she owed John Boot more than that. “I don’t know that I love you, but I wouldn’t want you gone.”
He nodded. “How long do you intend to live like this?”
“As long as it’s fun,” she said.
“When it stops being fun, Pearl... will you let me go? Let me be tired, and just... see what happens to me then?”
Pearl sighed. “Help me get these clothes off, John Boot. We’ll figure this out later. All this talking makes me want to do something else.”
He smiled, and a little of the sadness and weariness receded from his eyes.
The next day a posse caught up with them, and once Pearl and John Boot were relieved of their weapons it became clear that they were being charged with stagecoach robberies
murders. Someone was killing lone travelers in the area, and Hart and Boot were convenient to take the blame for that, though they had nothing to do with it. Pearl declared their innocence of all crimes, but she’d taken a pearl-handled gun in the last robbery, a distinctive weapon, and when the posse found that, it settled all questions in their minds.
Pearl and John Boot never robbed another coach, and neither did anyone else. Stagecoaches and stagecoach robbers, like lady outlaws and wild Indians, were dying breeds. Hart and Boot were the last of their kind.
The lovers were taken to Pima County jail in Florence, Arizona, a depressingly dusty place with no accommodations for women. For propriety’s sake the authorities decided to leave John Boot in Florence and take Pearl to a county jail in Tucson. She argued against that course with a blue streak of profanity, but they took her away all the same, and Pearl was separated from John Boot for the first time since he’d crawled out of the ground in Kansas.
Pearl sat in her cell, looking at the rough wooden partition that divided the “women’s quarters” from the other half of the cell. She was wishing for a cigarette and thinking about John Boot. What if he just went to smoke and starlight again, and disappeared?
She wanted him with her, wanted him fiercely, and around midnight a knife point poked through the thin wooden partition. Pearl watched with interest as the knife made a ragged circular opening, and a familiar head poked through.
“John Boot,” she said, not without admiration. “How’d you get out? And how’d you get here all the way from Florence?”
“I’m not sure,” he said. “You wanted me, and I came... but it made me awfully tired. Can we go?”
Pearl crawled through the hole. The adjoining cell was unoccupied, the door unlocked, and they walked out together as if they had every right in the world to leave.
We can be caught but we can’t be kept
, she thought, elated, as they stepped into the starry night.
They stole horses and rode farther southwest, because they hadn’t been that way yet.
A week later they blundered into a posse in New Mexico. The men were looking for cattle rustlers, but they settled for Hart and Boot. Pearl offered the men sexual favors in exchange for freedom, and called them every nasty name she could think of when they refused. John Boot just stood unresisting, as if the strength had been sapped out of him, as if he’d seen all this coming and knew how it would end.
The lovers were taken back to Florence (Pearl was beginning to hate that place), where they were put on trial immediately. The officers didn’t want to keep them overnight and give them a chance to escape again.
The judge, a bald man with pince-nez glasses, sentenced John Boot to thirty years in the Arizona Territorial Penitentiary, a place famed for its snakepit of a dungeon, tiny cells, and ruthless guards. John Boot listened to the sentence with his usual calm, nodding to show he understood.
Then the judge looked at Pearl and frowned, clearly undecided about how to deal with her.
, she thought,
and a woman, so he thinks I got railroaded into this, that I’m John Boot’s bedwarmer, a little girl led astray.
Pearl couldn’t abide that. “What the hell are you waiting for, you silly old bastard?” she asked.
John Boot winced. The judge reddened, then said, “I sentence you to five years in the same place!” He banged his gavel, and Pearl blew him a kiss.
She’d never been to prison before. She figured she wouldn’t like it, but she didn’t expect to be there for very long.