---------------------------- Eldon Quint ----------------------------
I COULDN’T SEE THE hand in front of my face but I knew they were back there, clawing at my heels like a pack of devils. They’d been on me since the river. Winged my horse. I had to go afoot. Thank heaven that blizzard kicked up. Was blowing so heavy I lost ‘em for a tick. But they sniffed me out and were on me again. I was running—much as one can in powder that deep—and then the forest dropped away and the wind shot up like a fist. I cleared frost from my eyes and craned over the lip of a cornice that dropped into a swirling grey nothing. Could be a ten-foot fall, could be a hundred—who could tell in zero visibility. A shot let off behind me and a branch above my head exploded. I saw their shapes; six of ‘em on horseback. I knew one thing for sure: I wasn’t getting Dick’s hatband standing there thinking on it—so I jumped.
There’s that feeling of falling when time stretches out. Then it stretches too long and you know you’re in for a hurt when you meet the ground. But in that moment I was floating like a child in the womb. Until the attack of a million snowflakes brought me back to earth.
Snow—the bane of my existence since that first storm in October. We hadn’t seen the ground in nearly five months. And it was no uncommon sight to find the telegraph wires completely buried. But now that snow, which I had so fervently disdained, would save my life.
I hit the slope in an explosion of white and tumbled down into a deep swale. Above me, lost in the vortex, shots let off in different directions. They couldn’t see me I guess. I doubted they would follow my path.
WIND WAS BLOWING SO hard I could barely make progress through the scrim of trees. Come out the other side and the terrain was familiar. An unmistakable white plain cut by a tongue of snowbent pines. I was at the rim of Big June Lake, which meant I was less than a half-mile from home. I looked back into the woods, and my obvious tracks through them. Figured on two options. Confuse my tracks, hunker down and hope they ride past—though if I hunkered and they stumbled on me, what then? Shoot it out against half a dozen mongrels? I’m not cut out for that. Or two: Cross a quarter mile of ice right now and pray I make it to the other side before anyone spots me. If I did get spotted I’d be one big ol’ brindle-jacketed target in a whole mess of white—the turkey in the turkey shoot.
My shoulder ached and for a moment I thought I might’ve got winged—until I realized I still had the stock of rabbits lashed to it. Those rabbits made me think of my boys. I couldn’t leave them in a winter like this, not with these maniacs ravaging about—especially not over something as tomfool as a case of mistaken identity. See earlier that morning I was on my hunt, saw five or six of ‘em riding through the cottonwoods down by the river. I could see they were armed so I changed course but they surrounded me, calling out a name that was not mine. Seems they’d mistaken me for a fella name of Jack Foss. It wasn’t the first time I’d been confused for that bunko sonofabitch either. In fact I’ve heard it mentioned a number of times that we hold an uncanny resemblance. I surely don’t see it. So I tried explaining the mistake, told ‘em my name’s Eldon Quint. I’m farmer. But they just wanted to get to killing, right man or not.
The right man, Jack Foss, was known as a four-flusher, a shyster and a paid killer. He also happened to be my brother, though you’d hardly know it other than we look the same. I could only assume he was back and headed my way. Those mongrels saw me and figured I was him. He likely bilked ‘em outta their grubstakes back in Yankton. Or worse. But I was speculating. Truth was, I hadn’t seen him in a years. Last I’d heard he was down in San Saba. Anyway, whatever he did worked up enough heat in them bastards to mount a posse in the middle of a blizzard and hunt his ass down. And now I was stuck in his jackpot.
My boys’ faces flashed through my mind and it was like a digger in my flank. Like that I was up and running, breaching the Big June shores, moving fast as my jellylegs would carry me. Wind whipped up shoulder-high drifts, scraping snow off the lake ice, her blue surface showed like bone through a wound. I was cramping up but something kept me on. I didn’t dare look back.
The outline of the opposite shore materialized and it got closer and closer until I was inside the trees and I shit you not right there waiting for me was a rib-skinny grey wolf with yolk-colored eyes and black blood speckling his muzzle, gnawing a fleshless deer carcass. We scared the pants off each other. He broke one way, I went the other—and wouldn’t you know it: I fell head first into a damned tree well. Sucked right down into it. I remembered what my father’d taught me. Put your hands out in front so you can dig an air pocket and not suffocate. I felt the anger bubbling up. All that running and shooting and this is how I meet my demise? Swallowed up whole and suffocated in a godforsaken tree well? I did my best not to panic but I was huffing like a fool and all the blood went rushing to my head and I just couldn’t stand it. Tried to wriggle out, get hold of a branch or anything to heave myself free but the snow just hardened up around me. My eyes went heavy. Was getting harder to breathe. I was done for. Then I saw my boys, waiting on me for Sunday breakfast and some strength came back. I calmed myself and began to wriggle side to side until I created enough space between the snow and my body and was able to back myself out, inch by inch. Took a good fifteen minutes. Free at last, I flipped on my back, panting, and found myself staring up at the cold hazel eyes of my big brother, the one and only asshole Jack Foss. He sat atop a bay, cradling a rifle, smirking. “You was in their tighter than a nun’s cunny,” he said.
I got to my feet, teeth like a chatterbox. “T-Thanks f-f-for the h-help...”
“I j-j-j-just rode up, j-j-j-j-just now,” he said, mocking me. “Shit, ain’t you surprised to see me? How long’s it been?”
I coughed, lungs burning. "Actually no, Jack, no...I’m not surprised in the least...seeing as those bastards back there shooting at me...called your name when I came up on ‘em."
He nodded, unsurprised. Scanned the snowbit terrain. Then pulled a flask from his pocket, took a long pull.
“You heard what I said?”
He spat a phlegmy chunk. “Yer diggings still just over yonder?”
“Oh no, you’re off your chump if you—”
“They ain’t gon’ quit lookin’ fer ye.”
“They’re looking for you!” I yelled.
Jack peered down from his mount, eyes as pitiless as the winter wind.
“You’re not bringing whatever shit you’re in to my house.”
“You already brought it, little brother. Now get up on this mount and point the way to your diggings."
I felt ten years old again. Like I wanted to punch him.
“Look, Eldon, them bushwhackers is coming one way or another. You gonna need my help to protect yer sprouts. So quit yappin’ and climb yer no-horse-havin’ ass up on this mount and let’s get to yer diggings. Or do you wanna set here arguin’ while they get there first?”
---------------------------- Minn Barker ----------------------------
NOT MANY FOLKS KNOW about the real Bert Sinchilla, even though he owns half the state of Kansas. He was under arms in the early days. Ran with the Ruffians, smuggling vote-killers in from Missouri. You don’t believe me, check the muster rolls and you’ll see his name firmly etched in blood. He purports to be a Southern Gentleman with his booze-red nose and generous paunch. But it’s a charade. He’s a slaughterer like the rest. Started killing young, too. Gunning down in Cross Timbers, clearing the Comancheria of its native infestations. Then it was north to the bandit country of Kansas to drive a stake of civility through its bleeding heart. Decorated his cantle with scalps of Union men or Arapaho or Comanche or whatever prairie nigger stepped in his way. He kept a hundred slaves in Baton Rouge. But he’ll sell it to you that he’s been decent to blacks. Spending his wiser years helping Negros pave their way to glory, putting them to work in his factories and his tanneries. ‘A civilizing force’ is what the papers called him. Well let me tell you something: that is nothing but a skein of lies designed to bamboozle folks into forgetting there’s a demon inside Bert Sinchilla.
Yes it’s true; after the war he started hiring Negros to work skilled positions—at a quarter of what he paid whites mind you. Though raise that gripe and he’ll be first to point out that a quarter is a damn fine wage for one of them. The papers have taken to labeling him ‘Saint Sinchilla’ on account of all the black girls he’s adopted over the years, me being one of them. Makes me laugh. Anybody with any sense knows that man’s about as altruistic as a buzzard circling carrion. That’s why I knew I had to hide it from him. If I was to have any hope of leaving for Harris-Stowe University he could never find out that I was carrying his seed.
I could trust most of the girls to keep quiet. But there were a few who’d be itching to turn me in. So, when it was time for my monthly, I went out to the coop before sunrise, slit a chicken’s throat, collected the blood and used it to dab my undergarments and wet my menstrual sponge. It was a necessary subterfuge, of course, for Bert required all the girls to put their names on their unmentionables. I’d been doing it for two months, just trying to make it to spring, when the worst thing that could of happened, happened.
I was going about my usual routine. Collect the blood then off to the jakes on the backside of the big house—a stone Victorian megalith like you never seen—lock myself inside and take to ‘soiling’ my underclothes. But that morning I noticed the lock on the stall was broke off. Bert’s sons, Andy and Clive, were always prying them off just to put us servant girls out on our ear. But it was still early and I paid little mind to it and set about finishing my business. And wouldn’t you know it—someone slapped open that door, bumped my rear and nearly sent me headfirst into the latrine pit.
“Jake’s occupied,” I croaked.
Abigail looked at me, groggy and half asleep, which gave me a chance to slip the cup of blood under my shawl. But she hardly missed a fly farting in the wind and I could not be sure what she saw. She was a couple years older. Twenty-two or twenty-three. Not many of us knew our true ages. She was pretty, but like most a life of toil had sanded those comely features right down to the bone. She showed me the ropes back when I first came from Mort. Told me my job was to make daddy Bert happy. Then the rest of ‘em would leave me alone and life would be tolerable. So I did. I became Bert’s favorite girl. And the other men left me be, just as she predicted. But life was nowhere near tolerable. It may have been comfortable, but I was not planning to just survive. I was going to be something—an actress or a writer or a doctor. Anything but that man’s concubine.
Abigail hated that Bert got on with me, which was perplexing as I was only following her instruction. Yes, it’s true, she and I had a minor dalliance, but it was short lived. She was so damned bitter about everything I just couldn’t take it. I told her when I turned eighteen I wanted to go to a university and she laughed in my face. So I ended things, which did not suite her well at all. She’d been hassling me ever since. And now she caught me red handed carrying out my ruse.
“What are you doing?” she asked, eyes painting my every inch.
“Knock next time,” I growled. “You know Clive and Andy like to rip off the locks.”
I barged past her, hiding the blood, and headed for the washroom. When I got there I tossed my soiled underwear in the laundry basket, hid the blood under the basin and washed up. I felt her behind me, her shape in the mirror. She was holding up a chicken feather that must’ve come off me in the stall.
“He gonna find out,” she said. “He always find out.”
I dried my face, betraying nothing. Felt a tickle across my back—it was that damned feather. I wanted to shove it up her nose but I kept calm.
“And you can kiss your li’l college plans goodbye,” she continued. “His eye gonna be fixed upon you now...But ain’t that what you wanted? Been aimed at it since day one.”
I gave her the meanest look I could muster.
“Oh darlin’ you can’t but wrinkle my tail feathers with a look like that,” she said as I shouldered past. “I’m just tryina’ save a chicken’s life!”
---------------------------- Shane Quint ----------------------------
THEY SAY LIFE WAS harder in past times; more people perished and such. My grandpa got killed at Birch Coulee. Grandma followed a year later when she got bull-necked from the diphtheria. Pa doesn’t like to talk about it. He was seventeen at the time. Managed to keep the land and hire hands to work it. He was the first to hire Negros and pay them the same as whites. But then the white men found out and got mad I guess. And daddy had to fire everybody and start fresh. Still, he turned that dirt patch into one of the most prosperous farms in the territory.
A week after his twenty-third birthday, he married my mother, Hattie Wilder, prize of Missouri. Nine months later I was born. Four years after that came Ian. That’s when the discouragement settled over momma like a storm cloud. Pa spent every last copper cent trying to find a cure. Then the rain stopped coming, three seasons and counting.
Last summer momma found out her aunt died in her sleep. She decided she needed some time to herself and went off to settle Aunt Cassie’s affairs back in Springfield. Pa wanted us all to go together but momma insisted on taking the stage alone. We got word in August she crossed the Missouri safe and sound. But a few weeks after that came another telegram. I’d just come home from my first day at school when pa received the notice. Said momma perished in a barn fire. I didn’t believe it. Pa didn’t either. But after corresponding with the sheriff there it turned out to be true. Momma was gone. I cried for a week straight. Ian stopped talking altogether. Not that he talked much before but he went silent as a stone. And pa, well, it was like someone scooped out all his insides and replaced them with sand.
He wanted to make the 650-mile trek to Springfield right then and there so we could bid momma a proper farewell. But the farm needed tending. Plus, after all those crop-less seasons our savings was almost gone. Pa took to selling fire mats for extra money. I know I should’ve helped him out but I just felt embarrassed. But I knew he felt worse ‘cause he couldn’t afford to take us to visit her right off. But hell or high water, he said, we were going to make that journey the day the snow melted. But it seemed like the snow would never melt.
He thinks I’m all messed up behind it. And I mean I am sad but still. I just can’t stand it when he treats me like a baby. I’m nearly thirteen. And I’m on the Tenth Reader at school. Everyone else is on the Eighth. Plus I read the Chicago Inter-Ocean every week when he’s finished with it. Still, he acts like I can’t fend for myself. But I do most of the cooking; I watch Ian when he goes to town or off on a hunt; I stoke the fires; sweep out the barn; feed the goats and horses and beeves. We used to go hunting every Sunday. Now he goes alone. Won’t say why but I know it’s ‘cause he’s scared something’s going to happen to me. Or maybe he thinks I’m going to run off like he did when he was my age to go fight. Whatever it is, he’s always scared.
Sometimes Mr. Cottersman comes over with whiskey. Pa says he doesn’t drink but I found three empty bottles behind the springhouse. And I can tell when he’s drunk ‘cause he starts crying in his room late at night. Tries to keep real quiet but I still hear him. I wish he’d get over it. Why do we need to go six million miles to some rock in the dirt with her name on it? I suppose we have to please God. Don’t see why though—God hasn’t done much pleasing for us.
Sometimes I don’t even feel sad about it. Ian cries here and there. But he takes it pretty well. We he gets real upset I sing him one of the songs momma taught us. Sometimes he sings along. It’s the only time he opens his mouth really, when we do one of momma’s songs. Otherwise he’s a mute. I guess he’ll talk to me some—but no one else, not even pa.
I still talk to momma at night sometimes. Close my eyes and picture her like she was on her sunny days when her head wasn’t a ball of yarn. Thing about momma was, when she smiled you knew she meant it ‘cause she didn’t smile much. But when she did it was like God’s light shining on your face. I remember she wore this big carnelian ring her mom gave her. Said if we were born girls one of us’d get it. Fire got it instead.
I WAS THINKING ABOUT that ring around dawn. It was so perfectly smooth. Sometimes she’d read me a story at night and run her hands through my hair and I could feel it scratching against my scalp. I miss that. I truly do. Then I was thinking: It’s the dang Sabbath; pa probably went out early for his hunt and I have to fix his coffee. I tried to rouse Ian but he was being a pain so I started singing. He hates my singing and that pried him out of bed quick. We stoked the fires then got to fantasizing about what pa might’ve snagged for breakfast. I wanted roast turkey. Ian wanted duck of all things. But we both figured it’d be rabbit again. Pa says that’s all that’s hopping around in this kind of weather. But I think maybe he doesn’t want to venture out too far to actually find something worth shooting.
Outside the snow was blowing something fierce. Couldn’t even see to jake, let alone the tree line. I got the pot on the cookstove. Ian set about doing his drawings. He’s gotten pretty good I must admit. Once I got everything going, I settled down to do my writing. I’ve been trying to write everyday. I’m going to be a great novelist one day. I promised momma I’d dedicate my first book to her.
I was just getting to the good place in my head when I felt Ian tug on my sleeve. He pointed at the window. Through the bluster I could make out a big fella on horseback approaching the barn. I took one look and knew it wasn’t pa. Wasn’t Mr. Cottersman neither. And we certainly weren’t expecting any visitors in the middle of weather like this. So I told Ian to stay put and went to my father’s bedroom and got the box down from the high shelf. It was lighter than I remembered. I set it on the ground, opened it up and took out one of the S&W Model 3 revolvers. It was shiny as a new nickel. I checked the cylinder even though I knew it was empty. Pa refused to keep loaded pistols in the house. But damn it was a pretty thing. He won’t let me shoot it of course. In fact I don’t think it’s ever been fired. Army gave them to my grandmother after the squaws did in grandpa. You’d think at least pa would display them as a tribute. But he doesn’t like guns so they just sit in a stupid box on the shelf collecting dust.
Back in the kitchen I dug around for that old box of .44 shells. Might even be duds by now for all I know. I found them then joined Ian at the window, locked and loaded. He looked worried so I told him: “Probably just some fella needs to shelter his pony.” He didn’t say anything as usual. I watched the big man dismount at the stable and realized it was in fact two men on one horse. And one of those men was my father. Shit.
I unloaded the pistol, ran back to pa’s room and stowed everything just how I found it. Heard the front door slap open and someone come in with a burst of wind. Heard pa ask Ian where I was so I ran back in.
Pa looked half-frozen and scared. It was like in Yankton that time, when some crazy bastard took momma’s hand and started dancing her around all rough. Pa told him to screw off and the son of a bitch pulled his iron. I thought pa was gonna take it away and show that bastard who’s boss. But he just hauled us all outta there quicker than hell. I was only nine back then, but if I was bigger I’d have taken that Colt and stuck it right up that man’s bung.
Pa plunked three dead rabbits down on the table. I gave Ian a look. Rabbits. He giggled. Then I realized something and asked pa where Delilah was since he rode up with that other fella and he told me she was gone. I was shocked. I just rode her yesterday. How could she be gone? I asked what happened but he just told me to get to work skinning the rabbits.
The front door slapped open again and snow blew in and then the other fella entered. I couldn’t believe my eyes. It was Uncle Jack. Everyone knew Uncle Jack in these parts. I heard he killed a hundred men as a longrider. People tend to exaggerate these things but looking at him still gave me the chills.
He looked at me and smiled. “Is that little Ian all grown up?” he asked.
I corrected him. “I’m Shane, he’s Ian.”
He gave me an icy look and a thunderbolt shot through my chest. “Ain’t that what I said?” Then he smiled. “You remember yer uncle Jack?”
Pa butted in. “I’m gonna talk to your Uncle Jack in back for a minute. You and your brother get working on those rabbits please.”
He motioned Jack toward the back bedroom but Jack just stood there looking around the house.
“Ain’t this place about as tidy as an Alsatian furrow,” he said. Then he winked at me. “He must keep you busy.”
I wanted to laugh and tell him: Damn right he does! But I kept shut up.
Pa was staring at Uncle Jack until finally they went into the back. I knew something bad was afoot so after a moment I crept up to pa’s bedroom. The door was about three quarters shut but there was a gap between the jamb I could peek through. I saw Jack looking out the window. Couldn’t see pa but I could hear him:
“Storm like this, they might just ride on past,” he said.
“What else ye got fer weapons here? ‘Sides that Winchester?” Jack asked as a peeked into a closet. A stack of fire mats nearly toppled on him. “What the hell?”
Pa walked into my line of sight and pushed the mats back into the closet. “Or we could load up, ride for Yankton,” her said.
“Y’know, little brother, everybody always said Eldon, he’s a nice, honest fella—but I’m starting to believe that’s just code for dumbass. You don’t think they got people watching the road to Yankton?”
“Well maybe if you stop talking out of the side of your face and tell me what I’m up against.”
“Maybe I shot some fiddlehead fer callin’ me a cheat. I cain’t be sure. Last few days is all a bit foggy. A man drinks on the road.”
“Were I what?”
“Brother, you must be dumber than a birthday cake. I just told you I kilt a man for asking me that same question.”
Pa grit his teeth. He never did talk good about Uncle Jack.
“Lighten up, little brother,” said Jack. “I just shot Sonny Bender in the face is all. Right through the left eye.”
“You better be lying,” pa growled, the color flushing from his cheeks.
“He walked in just as I was having my petit mort. That’s what the French call shootin’ yer goo.”
“You shot Sonny Bender,” pa repeated, like he still couldn’t believe it.
“Man catches you nuts deep in his honey pot you best take up yer iron ‘fore he takes up his. They call it self-defense. That’s a legal term.”
“You know, you think people change. But they don’t,” said pa.
Jack walked over to the dresser and lifted a framed picture of momma. “I was sorry to hear about Hattie. I meant to send—”
I was so caught up in what Jack was saying I didn’t notice pa staring at me through the crack—
“Shane!” he barked.
I skulked into the room.
“Didn’t I tell you to work on those rabbits?”
“Bender boys is coming?” I asked, trying to get the attention off me.
“I need your help keeping an eye on your little brother. Can you do that?”
“Don’t leave his side.”
“Okay but pa—”
“Just do as I ask.”
“I just wanna tell Uncle Jack we got two Model 3s and a whole mess of cartridges for the Winchester!” The words singed up the back of my throat. I don’t know why I was so rankled but I was.
“Fine. Now go check on your brother,” pa ordered. “Now.” He turned to Jack and said, “We need to get these windows and door barricaded.”
As I went I heard Jack say, “Round up them guns, boy.” I could do that.
“I’ll get those,” pa yelled. “Just worry about your brother.”
I ignored him.
---------------------------- Minn Barker ----------------------------
EVERY MORNING, SINCE I was thirteen years old, I’ve served the Sinchilla family breakfast. And every morning I’ve considered the myriad ways I might poison them. How good it might feel to watch Bert blubber and die face down in his eggs. Of course I’ve never followed through. But this morning I seriously considered it. Abigail was on breakfast duty as well and she wouldn’t stop shooting me nasty little looks like she owned my ass. She had another thing coming if that’s what she thought.
We started off the meal with ham steaks and gravy—Bert’s absolute favorite. I slopped three ladles of sauce over his meat, just how he liked.
“Thank you, Winifred. That smells heavenly,” he said, showing me his usual affections.
I, of course, always returned a warm, loving smile. It took me some time to perfect it but soon it came as natural as the tide. I moved on to Bert’s wife, Penelope, a frigid, equine-featured wet poodle of a woman. She certainly earned her nickname: Pippy Horseface.
Meanwhile, Abigail kept shooting me looks as she served Bert’s repugnant sons, Andy and Clive. Andy was brawny and vain. Thick as an iceberg he was. Clive was pudgy and oily. His only function in life was to torture stray cats. I imagined one day I might do the same to him.
“Watch it!” Andy yelled suddenly.
Abigail, busy giving me the stink-eye, had spilled hot butter on his crotch.
She tried to clean it up, much to Clive’s amusement, but only worked Andy into a lather, until finally he shoved her into the wall and she ran out of the room in a huff, making sure to serve me a shoulder bump on the way out, spilling gravy down the front of my dress. I kept my cool and Bert motioned me over.
“Oh dear, come here darlin’, let me help you with that,” he said.
I WAS TAKING MY break, chewing my leaves, reading ‘Vashti’ by Augusta Jane Evans. Another one of her pedantic tomes, though it was mildly amusing. I was using as a bookmark my college acceptance letter from Harris-Stowe University in St. Louis, Missouri. I could not help but peek at it again. One line in particular: ‘To be eligible for the winter semester, all incoming students must report to the Office of Student Services no later than January 5th, 1883.’ I glanced at the calendar on the opposite wall. It was December 14th, 1882. I noticed young Liza hovering in the doorway. “What is it?” I asked.
“I just saw Abigail up on the third floor with Pippy Horseface, askin’ to see daddy Bert. Heard your name mentioned. Twice.” She looked at me but I did not respond. “What’s that about?” she asked eagerly.
I consulted my watch—I do not engage in gossip; that is one of my strictest policies—then dug the hunk of tobacco out of my cheek. “Come on,” I said. “Time for this meeting.”
IN THE KITCHEN I stood before the girls as I had a million times before, leading the morning servants meeting.
“And we’s low on laundry blue,” said Constance.
“We are low on laundry blue,” I repeated, correcting her for the umpteenth time.
“Yes, miss, we are.”
“I have some on order,” I replied. “Thank you.”
Just then, Abigail entered with her usual smug expression.
“Anyone else with morning business?” I asked.
Abigail smirked. “Daddy Bert wanna see you in his office.”
I nodded then said to the room, “Love yourselves second only to the Lord.”
The girls filed out until only Abigail remained.
“Best not keep daddy waiting,” she said. “He’s already quite upset.”
The rat bitch sold be out. But I refused to give her a drop of satisfaction and offered only a dead-eyed smile.
“Thank you, Abigail. You may go.”
She snickered, trying to save face, then sauntered off.
I could feel the fear knocking at my heart’s door and repeated my mantra. “Those who walk in darkness shall one day see a great light.” And I felt better.
WHEN I ENTERED, BERT was sitting behind his desk, sticking a wedge of petty cash into an envelope.
“You called for me, daddy?”
He placed the envelope in a drawer, locked it, and then set the key back in a cup atop the desk. “Shut the door,” he ordered.
I did as told and when I turned back he was coming around to the front of the desk.
“Is there something you want to tell me?” he said.
“Nothing to burden you with today, daddy.”
“When have you ever been a burden to me?”
He brushed aside my hair revealing my disfigured ear. He liked to look at it for whatever reason. Never asked how it happened though. Maybe he already knew that the rats gnawed it off.
“Are you trying to hurt me?” Bert said.
“Hurt you? Of course not,” I replied, trying to act as confused as possible.
And yet you’ve undertaken such calculated subterfuge to conceal this blessing, this miracle we should be sharing together.”
My lip began to quiver. An expertly subtle performance I have perfected over the years.
“Why the skullduggery?” he prodded.
“I was... I was worried.”
“Worried? Poor child, worried about what?”
I let the tears come.
He pulled me into his greasy embrace. “From now on you sit at the big table. You hear me? ‘Eat and relax.’ That is your mantra. ‘Eat and relax.’”
I smiled through the tears as his clammy hand slid into my gown and cupped my naked belly.
“All we have to worry about now is what to name this little bugger.”
----------------------------- Jack Foss -----------------------------
LET ME TELL YOU: All men got a bit of devil in ‘em. I don’t care if yer a schoolteacher or the President or the damned Nazarene—we all got dark corners dealt on us by our primogenitors. Man’s most common gift to his kin is misery. But he who accepts misery as the true nature of existence—he is the one who prevails, ‘cause he don’t turn from the slaughter, he don’t turn from the blood; he licks it right off his fingers. And he knows that just beneath the fleshy membrane of humanity runs a savagery that cain’t be reckoned. Yessir. Was ten years gone I had that realization. Right around the time me and Sonny partnered up runnin’ beeves. Then he went and purloined my stock. Now let me tellya: you goldbrick me, you best shoot me down ‘cause I’ll go to the end of the earth to deliver yer comeuppance. And to his credit, Sonny tried to shoot me down. Tried real hard. But I am the truth and he is the lie, and justly I prevailed. As I always do.
I WAS TELLING SHANE ‘bout the time I faced off with that sonofabitch Sheriff Don McGill back in ’69. Boy was hanging off my every word. It occurred to me why a man might want a son. They actually listen to ye.
“Yeah McGill, he was one well-protected turd. A dozen or more toadeaters orbiting his person at all times. But I come to find out he got this pretty half-breed living outside Beatrice. So I rode down there last spring, cozied up on her. This Lakota blue hair. Or maybe she was half greaser, I dunno—she spoke no Spanish to me. Anyhow, ‘fore long she was waving that fancy quim my way and, well... Y’ever sniffed a woman’s quim before?”
Shane looked up from his pad—he’d been scribbling down every word I said, but I could see I’d mortified him with that inquiry.
“They don’t all smell the same,” I said. “I can tellya that. In this particular instance I plum near couldn’t go through with it. But I knew McGill had eyes ‘round that place and if I took her upstairs he’d be assured to catch wind. And when he did he’d be itchin’ to peel my topknot so bad he wouldn’t wait fer no posse. You ain’t old enough to know it yet, but passion befuddles the mind.”
I realized my glass was dry and tipped up the whiskey bottle and there was but a drop left. This was a problem. It was far too early in the day to dip into my personal supplies. “You got whiskey here, Shane?”
“Hell yes,” he said. “Pa hides some in the springhouse.”
“Fetch us a glass and I’ll give you an exclusive on what happens next.”
He lit up like a branding iron and then grabbed his coat and scampered out the back just as Eldon and his youngest come into the room. He was carrying a crate, which he set before me.
“Dug up a hundred rounds for the Winchester. But I’m short on .44s for the pistols.”
“I got plenty of those.”
He opened a box within the crate revealing two brand new nickel-plated Model 3 revolvers.
“You ever fired these?” I asked, examining one.
“Government gave ‘em to momma after Birch Coulee. Otherwise I wouldn’t keep ‘em in the house.”
I chuckled over that one. My brother’s pacifist delusions were mindboggling. “You ain’t changed a bit,” I said. “But let me enlighten you. All yer praying and wheedling ain’t gonna save you from them savages out there. Only one thing can do that.” I picked up them shiny pistols. Eldon sneered at me, damned fool that he was. The back door went and Shane slipped in, bottle under his coat.
“Didn’t I tell you to stay inside?” Eldon squawked.
“He’s bein’ neighborly,” I said. “Unlike someone I could mention.”
Eldon’s eyes narrowed. “When you were telling my son your little tale about Sheriff McGill, did you happen to mention how you orphaned his three kids? And that you killed that poor girl he was with?”
Shane came back with a nice three-finger pour. That’s when I knew the boy had potential. My brother, on the other hand, was getting on my nerves.
“I told her not to pick up that rifle,” I said, then nodded at the boy. “Thank you, son.”
Eldon snatched the whiskey out of my hand. I laughed; didn’t know the granger had it in him.
“Quit flappin’ your gums and get to barricading this kitchen,” he said. Then he turned to Shane. “And finish those dang rabbits. Your brother’s hungry.”
I jumped up and saluted Eldon. “Right away, Captain Granger McGee, I’ll just get that trundle bed from in back and hide under it. How’s that sound?”
I winked at Shane. The boy laughed.
Eldon grumbled then stomped off into the keep.
“Uncle Jack, how come you and pa got different last names?” Shane asked.
“A man makes his own name,” I said.
“You can do that?” he asked.
Eldon chirped from the other room: “He thinks he’s famous and famous people got made-up names. Like the fools they are.”
I shook my head at the boy. He grinned. I had him pour me another whiskey and sat enjoying it. “Why don’t you boys push that cookstove in front of that door there.”
I watched them muscle the stove off the wall. Something fell out the back. A rusted can of Argonaut tomatoes bundled in cloth. I peeled off my chair and went over and picked it up. Had a strange weight to it.
Suddenly Eldon rushed in like someone set the house on fire and snatched the can from me. “What are you doing?” he demanded.
The way he was clutching that can I knew there could be only one thing contained in it. Only one thing makes a man move that fast. He went back to his business and disappeared it somewhere in the other room.
I looked at Shane. “Yer pa’s always been a bit touchy.”
The boy smirked.
“You was plannin’ to stew them rabbits?” I asked, noticing that each one of them bunnies was shot dead center in the chest.
“Had a sofky in mind,” he said.
“Sofky? No thank you. Army cured my desire fer that concoction long ago. You done a turnspit rabbit before?”
He shook his head.
“Finish cleanin’ them hares, have us some proper grub.”
I STOOD AT THE window and looked out at the snowfield. Was a good spot for a fight, I reckoned. Anyone comin’ our way would hafta cross a hundred yards of no mans land to get within range. Add in three feet of powder, they ain’t gonna be moving too fast. See, people assume I’m some dingus what don’t know how to read. But I done my share of traveling. When you travel you got time on yer hands. Me, I like to read all sorts. Just about everything interests me. But I don’t tell people. I like to be underestimated.
Back in the kitchen, Shane was turning the spit. Was starting to smell damned good.
“In the olden days men roasted the meat,” I said. “All day in front of a fire, turning that spit, just like you is now. Then some fancypants come up with a system so a dog could do it. And so dogs started roasting the king’s meat. Now there’s a lesson in that. Don’t never enter a profession that can be performed by a pet.”
Shane laughed. He was a good boy.
I looked across the room at Ian. “How come he don’t talk?” I asked.
Before Shane could answer, Eldon yelled for me from the keep.
“Keep turning that spit,” I said. “And don’t burn my bunnies!”
I met Eldon at the north window, which he’d done a fine job of turning into a reinforced firing port with boards a furniture.
“In the trees,” he said, pointing out the window.
I stuck my face to the glass. The squall had let up some. But I still couldn’t barely make out the tree line. “What am I lookin’ at?”
“Saw something. Horse maybe?”
We set there a few minutes. I didn’t see shit. “You happen to see if there was there a man attached to that horse?”
Shane walked in, little brother in tow. “Ian’s gotta use the jake,” he said.
“Use the pot,” Eldon replied.
“He’s gotta shit.”
“Hey. Language,” warned Eldon.
I said, “I’ll take him if yer feelin’ skittish bout that mystical unicorn you seen out there.”
That pissed him off something good and he grabbed the boy and started dragging a dresser away from the front door.
I looked at Shane. “Who’s minding my rabbits?”
---------------------------- Eldon Quint ----------------------------
I MARCHED IAN OUT to the jake. Snow was up to my waist but the wind had stopped whirling. Took a minute to dig out the drift and get the outhouse door open. I set Ian up to do his business. Shut the door. Looked across the field to the tree line. Something didn’t feel right. The whole mess didn’t feel right.
And then the privy door exploded.
Bullets ripped and splintered the outhouse. I tore open what was left of the door. Ian was hunched over, confused. I grabbed him, pants still around his ankles, and ran like hell back toward the house.
We crashed through the side door as bullets poured in from every direction. Shane was huddled in the kitchen. I ran straight into him, knocking him to the ground, and heaped my body over both boys.
The air quaked, the world coming down around us. Jack crawled up to one of the firing ports and pumped a few rounds out the window to keep the shooters from advancing. A bullet slapped the rifle out of his hand, shattering the stock, rendering it useless.
Shane started squirming, trying to pull free.
“Stop fighting me!” I said.
“They’re shootin’ up our house!”
A bullet slapped a hanging frying pan from its high perch and it came down smack on top of my head, knocking me for a loop. Shane got free and aimed to cross the room where the Winchester was leaned, but I lunged at him and dragged him back to the floor.
I shoved him up against the heavy cookstove and placed him next to his brother. “Don’t move,” I ordered.
He gave me a nasty look, but when he saw the state his brother was in, flinching at every shot, he took to minding him.
The shooting dwindled and then stopped all together.
Jack crawled to the northern firing port and hugged up beneath the windowsill. He raised his eyes over it and peered across the field. “I count three in the trees. The rest might be tryina gulch us around back. We can’t let ‘em get close to the house as they’re likely carrying dynamite.”
“Check that south window,” he demanded.
I crawled to the window and saw three men on horseback riding along the pasture line. They halted in the trees behind the springhouse, fifty yards away.
A voice boomed from the north side of the house: “Foss! Stop wasting my damn bullets and show ye self!”
Jack sneered. Then crawled across the keep to where I sat. “I’mma pop up so they think I ain’t mindin’ my backside. That’ll prompt Tricky to send them boys—”
“Shit, I knew that was Tricky Bender!” said Shane, a little too excited.
“What I say about language!” I barked, more out of habit than anything.
“We’re in a damned gunfight!” Shane barked back.
“As I was saying,” said Jack, “I’ll show myself, and that’ll prompt Tricky to send those boys in to gulch me. What they don’t know is there’s gonna be a gun on ‘em.” He turned to Shane and Ian. “You boys stick behind that cookstove. They’re gonna start shootin’ again. Shane, keep that ammo ready, son.”
“Just mind your brother,” I said.
“I am minding him!” Shane growled back.
“Foss! I’m giving you ten seconds to settle up with the Man then I’m coming in there with my scantling and I’m gonna lambast your ass to death with it!...Time’s up! Show yourself!”
I balanced the barrel on the sill and hugged the stock to my shoulder. I could feel Shane’s judging eyes on the back of my skull. He hated me. My own son thought I was nothing.
My brother loosened his belt, stood up in front of the window, dropped his britches and mooned those boys with his hairy rump. That was the brother I remembered. “Kiss my browneye!” he taunted.
I expected a hail of bullets to ensue but nothing came except that same voice from the trees: “That your face or your ass? We cain’t none of us tell the difference!”
I took a breath as the three-man war party spurred their horses and galloped across the pastureland toward us. The lead rider hugged something cylindrical up into the crook of his arm. My first thought was a roll of dynamite. I centered on him and fired, striking him in the shoulder. I would not kill these boys if I didn’t have to. He dropped what he was holding and wheeled his horse toward the cover of a peat mound behind the springhouse. I fired at the second rider, striking him in the arm. He fell off his horse, vanishing into the deep powder. I could’ve finished him off but I didn’t. The third rider leaned down and grabbed him just as I fired. The shot grazed over top of him. He pulled the second man up on his horse and rode him to safety behind the springhouse.
“Who else ya got in there with you?” demanded Tricky. “Whoever you are, do yourself a favor and kill that murdering fop! Snuff his lights out and I will personally reward you one thousand dollars!”
“You ain’t got no thousand dollars ya low-born lilly-livered scrofulous poxy bastard!” Jack retorted, emptying his guns into the trees. He turned back to me. “How many you drop?”
“Winged two,” I said, proud of my precision shooting.
“Winged?” he replied with a snort. He handed Shane his peacemakers to reload and then slid up beside me and took possession of the Winchester. Without hesitation he swung up over the sill and emptied the rifle into the peat mound. Then looked at me. “You hit every one of them bunnies dead center, yet you can’t pin a single dickchafer in the chest? Goddammit, little brother.” He peeked back over the sill his eyes lit up. “Shane! Toss me that box of shells!”
“I got it,” I said, and crawled over and grabbed the shells.
Jack loaded the magazine tube and cocked the lever. He glanced at the boys, “Y’all keep yer heads down now.”
“What’re you fixin’ to do?”
He shouldered the rifle.
I lunged into the kitchen and shielded the boys with my body. Out of the corner of my eye I saw him fire. There was a flash. I felt pressure inside my ears and then the world went black.