Rose Althea walked faster. Her legs shed weariness in long, lithe strides. It was as if all the miles of the past week since the stranger's horse died were slipping off, slipping away. She kicked out of one too-big boot, then the other like she had practiced it. Her hands, nerveless at her sides since her arms had got too tired to swing, suddenly found purpose - undoing the man-sized buckle of her gunbelt, loosing her man-cut pants, and walking faster. She had found the river.
She kept her shirt on. It was clean white and brand-new a week before. She and the stranger Lido, presentable for once, had sipped whisky from champagne glasses at the county courthouse. It was his shirt. Now its front was a dried wash of blood, a deep brown puddle, like midnight in a sepia tint picture.
She let her hat drop last. Her mama's sombrero. About the only thing left to her; the only thing she owned that was her own.
Rose Althea was in a stumbling run.
Rose Althea splashed in, pushing in strong, running into the water. Past its current like gravity gone diagonal, she was leaping or falling flat, and almost senseless as the water plunged over her. Underwater, her eyes were sealed tight. Turned over heavily, slowing, her back found the bottom as the water kept pulling past her, dragging her long hair up and streaming, unplastered from her face. Not even concerned to hold her breath, she was gulping in impossible amounts of water. After days of deadly thirst, she was punishing her parched, tormenting throat with blissful, cold, excruciating relief. Her stomach felt like a numb balloon. Rose Althea was going to be sick.
She knew she was, and she didn't care. Breaking the surface, standing now with the water to her hips, coughing, hacking, gasping for air - she was sick. She didn't care. Heaving, she let the river run out of her. She stood there in that ruined shirt, stuck cold and to her skin, its clinging wrinkles like long wet lightning-shaped fingers, like watery fingers caressing her. She let the river's clean water run through, past, and around her lower body, her waist, her ribs, her chest, her shoulders as she sank again to her knees. The river was at her lips again, running around her head from behind, and she drank. Slow and deep. This time, she wasn't sick.
In the back of her mind, far back of her brightening, clearing eyes, the stranger Lido came on. He walked slow now, as ever. Conserving his stubborn strength, and in no hurry. She'd never be far enough ahead of him now to leave him behind. He came on. He was wearing what had once been a ball gown. It had been rudely torn, reshaped, and was now - almost - a poncho. In the shade of his hat's wide brim, his eyes were unconcerned.
"Oh God!" Rose Althea was laughing hysterically, now, clambering, taking huge jumping strides out of the shallowing river, back towards her clothes. The sun's brutality returned, soon as she'd got free of the water. Fingers, hands working, she pulled her shirt off, and wrapped it sopping wet around her head, like a bandage. She looked like she needed one. Her eyes were crazy. A part of her mind had detached, and was beginning to worry. She wasn't sure she could stop laughing. She threw herself on the grass verge, under a scrawny scratch pine, and tried to focus on breathing. On that mat of grass, under that tree it was heaven, with scary laughter in place of angel choirs. The laughter kept coming. It sounded like it wasn't coming from her. Like it was coming from the river.
Like it was coming from behind the tree.
"Oh God, I should've killed him!" She laughed, then laughed faster, then stopped shock silent, throat strangled, listening for echoes. Then laughed again, at herself. Her dumb, doomed self! "Oh god I should have killed him," she spoke the words unmeaningly, like the memorized prayer it had over this past week become.
Terror tickled her, terror and relief. She was not going to die from thirst after all. She was breathing with effort, ragged, tears streaming, deep forced breaths. Her laughter became less painful. The part of her mind that was detached had begun to hum haunted snatches of a lullaby. The sun was setting high overhead. The blue sky was falling dark.
In the back of her mind, under the shade of his hat's wide brim, the stranger's eyes were unconcerned. He had not stopped walking. He was humming a snatch of a lullaby.