Gareth’s oldest sons, Halford and Buckley, didn’t seem to mind the cold the night he died as they duct taped a pleading and terrified Benny Jordan to the birdhouse post in the yard, and went to work on him like tag-team boxers on a heavy bag. They didn’t say much either. They just whooped and hollered, high-fiving each other between blows. They circled that helpless bastard like turkey vultures around road kill, each of them swooping in from the left or the right to steal a peck of flesh. Each hit was meaner and harder than the last. Their coats and heavy flannel shirts hung unbuttoned and loose, their chests heaving, the adrenaline surges making them even more oblivious to the cold. Gareth had already taken a few shots at the man on the pole himself. In fact, Gareth threw the first haymaker once ol’ Benny was good and taped up. He was pretty sure he cracked the young man’s cheekbone before stepping back to let his boys take over. Dishing out the hits winded the old man early, so he backed off to let the young’uns have their fun. He walked over and sank his forearms down deep into the frigid water in the rain barrel, punching through the thin crust of ice already forming on top, to rinse the blood from his raw knuckles. He tried to remember what this idiot did to deserve the beat down. Buckley had told him right before they taped the guy up, but Buckley also lied about damn near everything. The truth was it didn’t matter anyway. It was done now.
He left his arms submerged as long as he could take it and stared at his reflection in the water and floating shards of ice. How long had he been doing this, fighting, killing, surviving?
His whole goddamn life is how long.
Gareth dug his first grave when he was nine. He murdered two grown men on his front porch just a few years later. He remembered his father’s eyes swelling with tears of pride that night. Gareth grew accustomed to the killing. Hell, he used to revel in it, like his boys were now, beating on that dip-shit Jordan. He used to look forward to the bloodletting, to the whole outlaw bit. Now it was just tiring. It just took his breath and left him sore, and most times it would be for nothing. Every time he put down some ambitious up-and-comer, there was always another one to take their place. Just one asshole after the other, waiting in the wings to take a shot at the crown. The tedium of it was maddening. It was similar to waving flies off a pile of dogshit. There just wasn’t any sense in it. They’d just keep coming, sniffin’ that shit and thinkin’ its ambrosia.
Gareth cupped the water and rinsed his face, taking some of it down his throat to wash away the chalky grit. He couldn’t feel his fingers. He didn’t care. They were just the latest part of him to go numb.
“Deddy,” Buckley hollered over to his father. “Look, I think he’s still breathing.” Buckley propped Jordan’s head up by his chin and turned it toward his father. The man’s face was so mangled and distorted that it didn’t really qualify as a face anymore, just a lump of hamburger meat with patches of hair in all the wrong places. “You want any more of this, Deddy, before he’s off to meet his maker?”
“Just get it done, son.”
Buckley dropped the man’s chin and it wobbled down to his chest as if the only thing connecting it to the rest of his body was a length of string. Buckley pulled his knife out and howled like a coyote directly into his brother Halford’s face. Halford was over this scene, too. He’d begun to look bored and was feeling the cold. The heat in his blood had been released, and he was ready to let the festivities come to a close. He was ready to get warm by the fire in the house.
Gareth was pretty sure Benny, the hamburger man, was already dead when Buckley went to carving on him, but there was no point in trying to stop him. He hated to admit it, but he knew his middle son was a goner. The way he jittered and bounced around like an idiot. Not just in the middle of a killing like this one, but all the time. Around the supper table, or trout fishing off the creek bank, those jaws never stopped jackin’. It seemed like he never slept and he never ate. He just talked, and talked, most times about nothing, or about shit that made not a lick of sense. There was never any point in trying to answer or talk back, because his crank-riddled brain had already moved on to the next irrational thought. He was a full-blown junkie and everyone on the mountain knew it. Gareth knew it. He’d failed the boy. And now he had allowed that shit pumping through his son’s veins to be manufactured in his own backyard, not twenty feet from the rusty swing-set Gareth used to push him on when he was a boy. Now the old man could add shame to the long list of crimes he’d perpetrated against himself.
“Cut him down, Buckley.”
Gareth didn’t repeat himself. He stared at Benny’s lifeless sack of broken bones and thought about the last son of a bitch they’d strung up to that pole. Gareth had been in Covington for a while dealing with some other business, and Buckley had left a man to hang there as a warning to anyone else that might’ve thought about stepping up. That damn thing stank like hell when Gareth got home, even after the crows had picked it clean. Those hoisted bones hung up there so long they dried into wind chimes.
Gareth came back to the moment and gave a hard impatient stare to Halford.
“Hal, I want you to put two holes in this,” he motioned toward the hanging dead man. “And get rid of it. Somewhere up the ridge. Somewhere it won’t turn up. You know where I mean?”
“Yeah, Deddy, I know where you mean.”
“Not just a dump, either. I want him in the dirt.”
“All right, Deddy.” Halford cupped a lighter and lit a smoke. He looked just like his long-gone mama. He was olive skinned with dark wavy hair that started low on his forehead. Gareth could never look at him for that long without thinking on her. It had been that way ever since Halford was a boy. He tried sometimes to force himself to stare at his son and see the man he was and not the woman who birthed him, but he couldn’t, and he hated her for that.
“Buckley, you help him, and then the two of y’all get back here and clean yourselves up. I got a roast and taters in the kitchen, been cooking going on six hours. By the time y’all finish I’ll have the table set.”
“Hell, Deddy. I ain’t hungry.”
“Well, that don’t surprise me none, Buck, but you’re gonna eat anyway. Don’t worry. I simmered the butt extra tender on account of that shit that’s rottin’ your teeth out.”
He waited for an argument from the boy but didn’t get one. Buckley just flashed a big brown and yellow toothy smile, as if to rub Gareth’s nose it.
Goddamn kids would rebel against oxygen if their parents told them they had to breathe.
“Now get a few shovels out the barn for you and your brother and get it done.”
Now came the argument. “How the hell are we gonna dig a hole in the tundra out there, Deddy? The ground is frozen solid. We ain’t got no fuckin’ icepicks.”
Gareth took a step toward Buckley. The paper-thin red head went to scratching at his arms, leaving pink tracks on his pale skin, but he was standing his ground, a Burroughs through and through. Gareth took another step, and this time Buckley caught the look on his father’s tired face. A beat-down normally followed that look, so this time the boy moved a step back.
Gareth spoke slowly and paused briefly between each word. “Get this body gone, and get home.”
“Yessir.” Buckley said. He might’ve liked to press his father’s buttons, but he still feared him and he was right to.
“When you’re done, I want you to have one of our boys down in Waymore check on your brother.”
“Clayton?” Halford looked mildly surprised. He rarely looked anything, much less surprised.
“Because I said so.”
“Halford, I don’t need any lip outta you, too. He’s your baby brother, and despite what he is, or what he’s done, this storm is bad, and I want to make sure he hasn’t wrapped that dumb-shit sheriff’s car around a tree somewhere. I want to know he’s safe.”
“It’d serve him right,” Buckley said.
Gareth ignored Buckley and narrowed his eyes at his oldest son, Hal. He pointed toward the hamburger man. “Do what I ask with that, before I beat that fidgety idiot to death and you have to do it by yourself.”
Halford tossed his smoke, and took a small pistol out of his coat. He fired two shots—the head and the heart—insurance shots. He used the palm of his free hand to block the spatter of blood, but it speckled his face and beard anyway. Buckley jumped at the shots, but more from delight then surprise. He howled again and scratched at his neck like a dog would fleas. Hal shook his head.
How was it that he always got straddled with all the responsibility, while his two brothers, the junkie and the cop, got to do whatever the hell they pleased?
He tucked his gun back into his coat, and then used a folding pocketknife to cut lose the duct tape. The body slid down the pole and toppled over onto its side. Buckley just stared at it—mesmerized.
“Git!” Hal barked at his brother. Buckley jumped again, and then bounded toward the barn. He returned almost immediately with two spade shovels and a thick plastic tarp. He tossed the shovels into the back of Halford’s pick-up and spread the tarp on the ground. “Well c’mon then, big brother.”
Halford eyeballed his younger brother and curled a shivering hand into a fist, but after a curt glance from his father, he just wiped the blood from his beard and grabbed the dead man’s feet. Together they rolled the hamburger man into the six by twelve navy blue tarp. They bought the reinforced sheets of plastic in bulk from Dollar General, and were as precise about their use of them as soldiers were at folding a flag. Neither brother spoke as they flipped the body in unison and heaved it into the truck bed. There was no need to talk. They’d done this a few times before.
Buckley slipped into the cab of the truck and Halford caught his Deddy’s eyes for a second time. There was no way either of them could know this would be the last time they’d see each other, but if they had, the hard look of expectation and the weight of the world that hung on both men’s bearded faces, wouldn’t likely have been any different.
No different at all.