Gareth left his sons to clean up the mess that used to be Bennie Jordan and crossed the yard to what was left of the fire in the burn barrel. He tossed in a stack of newspapers to kick up the flames and watched an advertisement for State Farm Insurance slowly blacken and burn to ash. He warmed his arms and tried to get the feeling in his fingers back. The wind was biting into his cheeks as the temperature dropped another ten degrees. He was being hard on Hal by sending him out in this shit, but hard lessons were the only lessons worth learning. Still, he hoped they made it back before the rain. He pulled a wad of tobacco from his cheek, tossed it in the barrel, and set a fresh plug. The embers from the burned out hardwood branches and blacked beer cans twirled about him like lightning bugs and occasionally stung his face and chest. He rubbed at the scar on his chest that ran through the tattoo of his wife’s name. Memories of Annette, their life together, and the night he carved her name off his chest like some kind of cancer, passed through him like a school of ghosts, each of them leaving a chill in his bones. As Halford’s taillights disappeared down the ridge, Gareth walked around to the front of the barn to fetch a jar of hooch. That was Gareth’s typical remedy for dealing with ghosts. He fumbled around in his pocket for his key to the chain barring the door, but the chain was already loose, hanging from the door’s handle and the padlock lay there in the dirt. He sighed, picking up the lock, and hanging it back on the chain. “Damn you, Annette, if you would’ve been here to help out, maybe Buckley wouldn’t be the fuckup he is.” Gareth had started talking to Annette out loud like that about a year ago. It was normally to blame her for something, but the truth was it made him feel less alone.
Gareth’s Grandfather had used this barn to store crates of corn whiskey during prohibition. His father had been using it as a dry house for weed for over forty years before Gareth built the dry-houses they were using now. He doubted either of the old-timers would recognize the old barn now. Gareth reached into the dark and put his hand exactly where the light switch had been for forty years, but felt the new modern fixture. He clicked it on. Lengths of pale blue electric bulbs popped on one row at a time, flooding the barn with the wrong kind of light. It wasn’t the warm yellow light from oil lamps or general store light bulbs. It was sickly blue hospital light that made everything in the building even more alien to him. New stainless steel tables, plastic jugs, military grade jerry cans full of shit Gareth new nothing about were packed into every corner. Strange glass and metal contraptions covered the tables and reminded him of old black and white science fiction movies. He wasn’t a fan of that stuff either. He was feeling like his father again—older, dumber, outdated. Florida was sending a cook up here in the next few days to get them schooled on this new poison, but Gareth wasn’t interested. This was the boys’ deal. If this was what they wanted then they could do the learning that came with it. Buckley had done enough learning for everyone. He should be a lesson for them all. Gareth had done his share of killing on the mountain but had never felt like he was in the killing business until now. This was going to be a death factory.
“It never should’ve come to this, Annette.”
He took a seat on a stack of wood pallets that had been pushed up against the barn’s wall and pulled a jar of shine from a crate on the floor. He unscrewed the lid and took a deep pull of the corn whiskey. The chill inside him dispersed like a tree full of sparrows. He sipped again, and spit, his bottom lip gone numb from the hundred and fifty proof white lightning. That uncomfortable burn always brought him somewhere better than where he was. He rubbed the remnants of shine and tobacco spittle from his beard. He closed his eyes and took a moment to let the whiskey finish disposing of his ex-wife’s ghosts as the wind whistled outside. Every few seconds a faint slap from a loose shutter banged over at the main house. If his timing had been off during that moment of cleansing, or the whistling and banging outside weren’t aligned just right, then he might have missed the soft scuffle from behind the huge boxes of supplies across the barn. But Gareth didn’t miss it. He heard it clear as day. Annette wanted him to hear it.
He shook his head.
More flies on dogshit.
He thought back on the padlock and the loosed chain, and how it only took Buckley a few seconds to get those tools. It must’ve already been jimmied before he got the shovels, and that fool didn’t even notice. Halford or Clayton would never have let that detail slide. Without setting down the jar of shine, Gareth eased his other hand toward the ’71 Colt on his hip.
“Please don’t do that, Mr. Burroughs.” Twin barrels emerged from the shadows. “Just toss that pistol over here real slow-like.”
“Not gonna happen, son.”
“Then you picked tonight to die, old man.”
“Nope, that was you who already decided what’s what. You knew the minute I came in here you had a decision to make, and you done made it, so you’d best go on and get to it.”
Nothing but silence came from behind that barrel. Whoever it was hadn’t come here to kill, or the killing would have already started. Gareth eased up some and kept talking.
“All right then, son, since we got us a minute, let me tell you something about what you’re holding. I’m thinkin’ from the make of that barrel and the shape of the sites, that’s a Remington 12-gauge—pumper most likely. Am I right?”
“Well, we can at least agree it ain’t no pussy’s gun. That fucker kicks like a mule, and if it’s filled with buckshot then it almost guarantees you’ll put me down without a lick of talent. No skill required. You ain’t got to do shit, but point in my general direction and squeeze, but it sure makes one hell of a big boom.”
“You damn right it does.” The voice was timid. “You best hope you don’t hear it.”
“You best hope my boys don’t hear it, is all I’m saying.”
“Who you fuckin’ wit’, old man? They gone. I sat right here and listened to both ‘a them high-tail it out of here.”
Gareth slowly lifted the shine to his lips and sipped. He still couldn’t see the gunman’s face, but he guessed it was a kid by the voice—all pitchy and whiny.
“You hope it was ‘them’, don’t you?”
“I ain’t takin’ the bait, old man.”
“I’m just sayin’. Are you sure they both took off, or is one of them still right outside keeping warm by that burn barrel? Maybe wondering what’s taking me so long?”
The man with the shotgun stepped out of the darkness and Gareth was not surprised at all that he didn’t know him. He was right about the voice, too. It was just some kid, unremarkable in every way. His dirty face, all cocky and full of false confidence, was no different than the hundred others that come before him—just another fly to swat off the shit-pile.
“Stop tryin’ to bullshit your way outta this, old man. I done already heard y’all. You told them both to go and they both went. Besides, you being you and all, wouldn’t have trusted a tweeker like the one that just come in here to do anything by hisself, or you’re even dumber than I thought.”
Gareth considered that and almost nodded in agreement. “Well, I reckon you got it all worked out, then.”
“I reckon I do.”
“So, what’s your name, son?”
“Don’t matter what my name is, but you wanna know what does?”
“How about how easy I got into this barn? Or how easy I got this gun in your face? I thought you was supposed to be untouchable. That’s what people are always sayin’. Gareth Burroughs is some kinda boogie man around here, but shit, look atcha’, sitting there sippin’ hooch, and talking to yourself. You don’t look too scary to me. Annette? Is that your old lady? She run out on you and you’re still pissin’ and moanin’ about it? Damn, that’s pretty sad. Some clam leaves you, and you gotta be Deddy to two complete psychos. Game over, Mr. Boogie man. Your time is up.”
He’d said worse things about Annette himself, but this punk talking about her like that fired Gareth’s blood. He kept it in. Anger wasn’t the way to play this either. Chatty ones almost always hang themselves. “You may be right, boy.”
“You’re damn right, I’m right.”
“But you got one thing wrong.”
“And what would that be?”
Gareth took another sip from the jar and this time kept a nice firm grip on the glass, “I’ve got three,” he said.
“You said I was Deddy to two boys. I’m sayin’ I got three.”
“And I suppose next you’re gonna tell me the third is waiting right outside. Is that it?”
“No, he’s not. He’s over at the house.”
Silence behind the gun, and there it was, that flash of doubt that separated players from the played. Gareth smiled. No one ever does all their homework.
“So go ahead. Pull on me, son. I’ll be dead, but I can promise you that you’ll never leave this barn to tell the story.”
The boy just stood silent. Gareth knew he was trying to remember what he heard them talking about a few minutes ago. They mentioned another brother.
The loose shutter outside banged against the house again, and the noise paired with the kid’s doubt gave Gareth the opening he was waiting for. He flung the jar of whiskey at the kid who instinctively swatted at it with the barrel of the shotgun. That’s all the distraction a draw like Gareth Burroughs needed. His Colt was out and cocked before the kid even knew what had just happened. The boy froze solid. Now he really looked his age—sixteen, younger maybe. He slowly lowered the shotgun.
Gareth’s eyes sank back in his head, and turned coal black. “Are you afraid of the boogie man now, son?”
“Oh, it’s Mister Burroughs now. Why don’t we skip the ass-kissin’ and get straight to the part about who sent you?” For a second, Gareth thought the boy was going to spill it without being asked a second time. He was as soft as a coon’s tail, but that’s when everything went white—and then full black. The scoop shovel hit the old man hard across the back of his skull. He dropped to the floor, two hundred pounds of deadweight. His head hit the fresh poured concrete slab with a hollow knock, and his shiny revolver slid across the floor, disappearing under one of the new galvanized steel tables.