When Lester returned to his land after the twelve-hour ride back from re-burying his daddy, he found his house vibrating with emptiness. His voice echoed off the wood floors, off the tin dishes sitting in soapy water in the ceramic sinks, off the bare wood walls adorned with only two photographs. He stood in the kitchen, looking around as if his wife and son might be hiding beneath the folded Navajo blankets on the deacon bench. Faintly, he could smell burnt coffee and cornbread.
The funeral man had sent word two days earlier. Seemed the gravediggers hadn’t buried his daddy’s body deep enough and the coyotes caught scent. Lester was only supposed to be gone until sundown—the next morning at the latest—but coyotes have a tendency to scatter their food. He wasn’t happy about having to ride from the Navajo Nation down to Mexico but it was his father’s wish to be buried there. Even though his daddy was a mean bastard, Lester was still a son, and it took him damn near a whole day to collect and account for the bones to make sure everything would be interred within blessed ground.
Outside, he heard feet scuffling. He walked outside and was surprised to find one of the local Navajo boys, standing in the dirt at the edge of the porch with his back toward Lester. The boy kicked his toe at the ground and wouldn’t meet Lester’s eye. He glanced over the boy’s shoulder to the machine barn and the heavy rusted chains hanging through their eyelets, all the motorcycles and cars still safe inside. His Indian sat untouched beside the porch, the engine clicking as it cooled from the ride.
‘You need help, son?’
The boy backed up a hair but still refused to face him. Lester heard the boy mumbling but couldn’t understand. Whether it was volume of voice or origins of words, he couldn’t tell.
‘Speak up, son. You can turn around. I’m not one to raise a hand.’
He swore he felt the sun dimming, the boy moved so slow. Down in the town, all the Navajo boys ran after each other too fast and they were covered in similar amounts of dust so that faces blended together, and Lester couldn’t say he recognized this one. But he was pretty damn sure that boy didn’t normally sport a weeping gash on his cheek nor a rock-sized welt on his forehead. He spit in the dirt and stepped off the porch, then pulled the handkerchief from his pocket and handed it to the boy, nodding toward his cheek.
‘What’s your name?’
‘Benny.’ He squinted when he pressed the cloth against his face.
‘You got a good sense of direction, don’t you?’
‘Then why are you on my land?’
Benny looked to the side, then up, finally, at Lester. His eyes reminded Lester of the color this dirt used to be when he was a boy, back when his father raised actual horses, before Lester converted the family business into horsepower.
Benny mumbled something. Lester knelt before him. ‘Tell me, please, before I lose my temper.’
The boy looked over Lester’s shoulder then met his eyes. ‘Mister Hank said your daddy took his land, so he take your family. He gets land, you get family. He doesn’t, you don’t.’
Lester pressed a hard clump of dirt between his thumb and forefinger, watched the dust blow away in the wind. ‘He the one to give you those scrapes?’
Benny nodded. ‘Said he kill me, I don’t tell you.’
Standing up straight, Lester looked out over the fields. The mesas and boulders cut stark black shapes in the setting sun, throwing shadows across the scrabbled fields where cattle used to graze. Dots of light shone through the holes in the old water tower, a speck for each errant bullet Lester had put through it when he was learning to shoot doves and crows. Lester’s daddy had turned the leather strop on Jacob, Lester’s brother, and blamed him for spilling the water and causing the land to dry up, the steer and cattle slowly withering to dust. When Jacob stood tall against him, he went at Jacob with the bowie knife itself, and would have bled him dry if his mother hadn’t put herself in the middle. Jacob ran out of the house and kept running. While his father killed another bottle on the front porch, Lester buried his mother on the edge of the fields, and he had always held tight to the notion that it was her blood that poisoned the crops. Truth was, though, that if his daddy hadn’t been so intent on keeping his throat wet with whiskey, he might’ve noticed the grasses drying up long before. Turning to engine repair was the only thing Lester could do to keep the land, but sometimes he wondered if he should’ve just let the government take his half-acre of hell and moved to California like Marnie had asked him to.
Lester looked down at the boy drawing shapes in the dirt with a stick.
‘I don’t have a helmet for you,’ he said, ‘so you’re just going to have to hold on tight.’
Lester kicked over the Indian’s engine and hoisted Benny up behind him then set off toward Ningunita.
Benny hopped off and scampered around the back of the drug store as soon as Lester parked. The streets were covered in sand and dust on account of the wind, making it look almost like there never was any asphalt to begin with. A thread of smoke twisted over the top of the butcher’s shop. Smelled like someone was burning tires in the back, and Lester wondered if that was how he got his smoked pork so rich. He hung his helmet on the handlebars then pushed open the doors of Belle’s.
Mabel stood behind the gnarled wood bar, cigarette perched between two stained fingers, her thumb erratically flicking the end. She wore a men’s white oxford with the sleeves rolled up to the elbows, dirt clinging to the sweat stains. Two lumps in grease-stained coveralls kept the corner from floating off into space, and a dried rose sat in a mason jar on top of the piano in the corner. Mabel’s grandfather had been caught in the Gold Rush current and swept from New York to the west coast. When his destiny manifested itself as lead and rocks, he turned back and got as far as Arizona. He opened a saloon and named it after his dead wife, Belle. Mabel’s mother, Isabelle, gave the building to Mabel when she passed. The place wasn’t designed to look like an old west saloon so much as it hadn’t managed to give up the ghost, but Lester thought decay suited the place well.
‘You come to pay your tab?’
Nik Korpon is the author of STAY GOD, OLD GHOSTS, BY THE NAILS OF THE WARPRIEST and BALTIMORE STORIES: VOLUMES ONE and TWO. His stories have bloodied the pages and screens of Crime Factory, Shotgun Honey, 3:AM, Out of the Gutter, Everyday Genius, Speedloader, Warmed&Bound and a bunch more. He is an editor for Dirty Noir and Rotten Leaves, and reviews books for Spinetingler, NoirJournal and The Nervous Breakdown. He also co-hosts LAST SUNDAY, LAST RITES, a monthly reading series. He lives in Baltimore.
Lester gave her his James Dean smile. ‘Next time?’
She snorted a laugh through her nose then pulled out a chipped tumbler and sloshed some bourbon into it.
He swung a leg over the stool and tipped back half the drink. The two at the end just sat there staring into their drinks.
‘Mabel,’ he said. ‘Where’s your nephew?’
She squinted one eye and took a long drag, considering him through the smoke. If she’d tried a little harder, she could’ve killed a whole cigarette at once.
After a long minute, she said, ‘I don’t get into feuds where blood is involved, but I heard he was headed down to El Pozo.’
‘He been in contact with my brother?’
She pulled out a tumbler for herself, this one with a complete rim. ‘I told you I don’t like it when blood is involved. Either kind.’
‘I heard you the first time.’
He threw back the rest of his drink and stood.
‘You going to kill him?’ She swirled the liquor around in her glass, like she was afraid her drinking it would seal his fate.
Lester glanced around the bar, at the tarnished mirror behind Mabel. He pointed at the rose on the piano. ‘Things don’t stay alive on their own. You got to work to do that.’
He walked out of the bar and kicked over the engine. El Pozo was well over a hundred miles for the crows, more than two for cars. Lester didn’t have that long.
He set out across the desert.