John Steinfeld was a genius. There was no questioning that, and Oakley knew it before John even said a word.
But what Oakley also knew was that geniuses didn’t behave how people think geniuses behave. The trouble with genius is that it neither shines nor glows, but rather flickers helplessly, and at times whimsically, never working consistently enough for anyone to rely on it. And the other trouble with genius was that it also came with the price tag of insanity.
People were better off with constant mediocrity than occasional genius, that’s what Oakley thought as he stepped into the saloon.
The place was dark, and the light that filtered in through the two windows was dull after passing through the thick layer of dust that rested on the glass. Men sat at small tables with their hats on and heads low, half-finished drinks and poker cards in their hands. The bar lady glanced up at him for a moment, then went back to drying the mug in her hands with an old rag.
Oakley saw John in the corner. There was no mistaking the man, whose short hair was not cut as much as it was hacked off, and whose voluminous beard spilled to his chest in tangles of grey and white. John’s good eye rolled to look at Oakley as he limped over. His other eye, the one that was clouded over and yellow where the whites should be, didn’t move – ever looking off to one side.
“John Steinfeld,” Oakley called, sitting down on the other side of the small wooden table. “How fares ye?”
“I could be better,” John replied. “That depends on what you came to tell me. I expect it to be bad news, looking at your leg, and seeing that we’re met here, not out on the sheriff’s porch.”
There was no point in beating around the bush with the man. Oakley reached into his pocket and brought out the two black tin stars, then laid them on the table before John. John looked at the two objects with what appeared to be fascination, and his hand moved to touch the bullet hole in the middle of the stars, feeling their jagged edges.
“I told you to bring them back alive,” John said.
Oakley shrugged. “Things got messy,” he said. “Big Billy pulled his gun on me first. Ain’t nothing else I could do, except take his bullet in my chest. And I knew there was no way around Nasty Dan, either, if I’ve shot Big Billy. So there you have it.”
John looked like he had swallowed something sour.
“That’s a big, fat lie,” he said. “And that makes you a liar.”
Oakley’s face twitched. “Why do ye say so, John?”
John’s bad eye rolled around and looked straight at Oakley. Or maybe it looked straight through him. There was no telling what it could do. In that moment, Oakley saw John Steinfeld’s genius flash like the light of the midday sun.
“A pretty lady,” John said, seeing into Oakley’s past, “A bag full o’ coins, and a handful of sweet words. She didn’t even service you, and you went and jinxed up our operation for her. Was it worth it?”
Oakley’s jaw became tight. There was a smart retort to be made here, but the words wouldn’t come to him. John closed his good eye, and he raised his empty hand, making the shape of a gun with it. He pointed it over Oakley’s shoulder.
“Bang. Bang. Bang.”
He vocalized the gunshots slowly, each one of them gravely low, and punctuated by silence. Oakley didn’t dare move. Maybe God knew what went on in the strange man’s mind. Maybe John Steinfeld’s mind was as much a mystery to God as it was to everyone else.
John leaned back and laughed a mad, cackling laughter. “She dies tonight, Oakley,” he said in between chuckles. “Beneath the light of the waxing moon, and her blood will paint the boards of her own house.”
Oakley shot up to his feet. The wound in his left thigh burned. His hand reached across the table, and his fingers caught a fistful of John’s shirt.
“You called guns on her?” Oakley hissed.
John laughed some more. Oakley gritted his teeth and shoved the man back, and John fell off his stool and onto the ground. There he rolled around, pounding the ground with his fists as he laughed.
Oakley put on his hat and bolted out of the saloon. Within the hour, he was already racing out of town.