There was snow in the wind’s teeth. The boy rubbed the stinging cold from his eyes and squinted up at the bare trees tearing at each other in the gale. He moved forward, elbows squelching in the sodden earth, settled at the bluff’s edge, and watched the rider approach from Table Rock to the south.
The rider sang a few lines and then drank from a bottle half wrapped in leather. He was in no hurry, pausing now and again to glance up at snow whirling dark against the failing sun.
A rifle rested beside the boy, catching light from a sky gray as a crow’s beak. A bitter Nebraska chill cut through the torn sheepskin jacket and leather gloves the boy wore. He breathed softly, hoping he would not tremble too much. He gently laid his hat on the long, brown grass that was his cover, and then rested his elbow on the brim to prevent the wind’s snatching it. The fat man on the dappled gray horse dropped the bottle and the boy heard him curse as he swung a leg over the animal and collapsed to the earth with a wet thud, “God damn.” The man’s hat blew from his head and he stumbled to catch it. The sudden action startled the horse and the fat man grabbed at the reins, and then paused to collect himself.
The grass hissed around the boy’s ears and he steadied the rifle on a limb broken from the tree, and flipped up the sights. It was his brother’s Whitworth rifle, the one he’d used as a sharpshooter for Lee’s Army of North Virginia. It had directed dozens of souls down the trail to hell. The boy held his breath, stared hard along the barrel, felt the cold settle inside him, waited for the wind to hold, and then squeezed the trigger.
Scarlet and gray painted the flank of the horse, which bolted back towards Pawnee City. The fat man fell for the last time. A murder of crows shook from the trees lining the bluff and the boy stood, shouldered the rifle and stumbled down the steep bank. The man’s graying black hair was wet against the hail-torn mud. The ball had gone through his eye. The boy panted through the long grass towards the body and when he reached it, he stared at the blood seeping over the dirt. Its heat thawed the fallen snow and he watched the melt run into the steaming black of the man’s life. ‘Elder McLennan,’ he said, in his high, winter-dry, boy’s voice, ‘that’s for what you all done to Dan Cotheran, you jay hawking son of a bitch.’
He spat, retrieved the bottle, and headed south off the trail.
Mary Blackler watched her husband run out of the stable towards the cabin he built when he settled this land; she stood, wiped her hands on the front of her apron. Her blonde hair had worked loose as she plucked the chicken whose carcass now lay beside the tin bucket on the porch. ‘Girl,’ he shouted, skittering to a halt on the frozen yard of the farmstead, ‘the horses all been killed, my best team, every one.’ His face was as blanched as the break of day air above him and his hands shook. She stared over at him, saying nothing. His eyes were wet, and glittered against the morning. ‘Some devil done cut they godarn throats, all of a piece.’ He spat. ‘Damn it, my best team.’ He looked over at her. His long rust-shaded moustache flickered in the breeze and she was stunned to see he was weeping. ‘I apologize for my language, girl.’
She said nothing as she sat back at the stool and ripped a handful of feathers from the bird’s puckered and bleeding skin. Her blue gaze flickered across his. Then she spoke slowly and clearly, her rich voice carrying over the dry, frozen wind,” If you do that which is evil, be afraid; for he bears not the sword in vain: for he is the minister of God, a revenger to execute wrath on him that does evil.”
Blackler glared at her, his brow knotted, and she saw for the first time that blood dripped from his arms and had stained his rough spun shirt and old army pants. ‘I thought I told you about that kind of talk.’
‘It is the word of the almighty, ain’t no “talk”, husband.’ She pronounced the last word with a heavy irony. ‘Your sins is finding you out, that’s all. All you stole and carried off during that wild time weighs on you like pig iron. Your sins…’
He ran across and silenced her with an open palm slap, leaving a handprint of horse blood across her pale cheek. ‘I warned you to hobble your lip. Now look what you brought me to,’ he turned and looked back to the stable. ‘My sins is my business, and I’ll thank you to remember that.’
The boy watched Blackler from a copse of dead trees a few hundred feet towards the sun. He lay flat on his stomach, sheltered by the stones of an old wall, watching through a brass telescope that had also belonged to his brother. He’d waited three years to see Blackler’s ruddy Irish face again, and the old black whirlwind started ripping again at the fabric of his heart. The last time he’d seen that man was at the head of a gang of guerrillas tearing towards the ranch southwards of Kansas; they knew his brother, were jealous of the stock of horse he raised; so they dressed in blue and claimed to be acting against the known rebel, Dan Cotheran. They’d dragged him out, missing foot and all, and hanged him like a common thief from the highest bough of the old Elm; then they took everything else that weren’t rooted down: horse, dollars, food, even his two sisters.
The lead they put in the boy had not killed him as intended, and he waited, shadowed his brother’s old friends who were the only teachers he needed, ended up in raw Abilene, Kansas, where, over a crowded saloon, he saw Elder and Blackler, whooping it up with a pair of whores. He knew then it was time to quit beating the devil round the stump, and pay back his brother’s blood.
The boy waited for the sun to clear the line of trees behind him and then fixed the rifle on a broken stone and waited. Blackler, halfway to drunk judging by the way he stumbled out of the cabin, was now dressed in a thick blue jacket and wide hat. He paused to light a clay pipe and shouted back into the house, “Girl, bring my….”
The Whitworth kicked at the boy’s shoulder when he fired. His heart raced, and he tasted tin and at the last moment, he’d flinched. He had not expected that, but Blackler was down just the same. The boy rested his face in the dirt behind the fallen wall and breathed into the earth as though trying to breathe life into it. Grit had stuck into the sweat lining his brow when again he lifted his expression to the air. Blackler lay still on the hard ground before the stable. The boy felt nothing. It was over too quick. The idea had been to kill the horses, get Blackler worked up, fearful, teach him terror before taking him away from the sunlight forever, but he was impatient, as boys are, and too filled with a rage that had now departed. He climbed to his feet and started across the pasture, re-loading the rifle as he walked, looking left and right, seeing nothing but Nebraska grassland and wintry trees. Snow was again trying to fall. The boy’s hands trembled.
Blackler lay with his legs crumpled beneath him like a shattered doll; the lead had cleaved his skull, scattering bone and blood across an iced over puddle.
Gareth Spark writes dark fiction from and about the moors and rustbelts of the North East where grudges are savoured, shotguns are cheap and people get by in the economic meltdown any way they can. His work has appeared at Near 2 The Knuckle, Out Of The Gutter, The Dying Goose and Shotgun Honey.
He stood. Wind moaned through the beams of the stable and the long grass. The boy felt nothing. He rested on the rifle and looked down at the ruin of his enemy and when the shot came, it hit like a kick from a crazy horse. He fell forward, and it felt as though an almighty hand had reached inside the boy’s back, took hold of his spine and yanked it through his flesh. He lay beside Blackler on the earth kicking in the other man’s blood and tasting his own well in his throat. It stained his sandy hair as he twisted towards the shooter.
Mary stood close by the porch, holding an old Hawken rifle at her waist. She breathed fast and her face was wet. Her skirts blew in the rising wind as she stepped slowly towards the boy. ‘You killed me,’ he said, or tried to say at least; the flood of his life’s end caught the words, turned them to mush.
She stood over him, glanced at Blackler, then at the boy, ‘I know you,’ she said, her voice was frail, ‘how is it I know your face?’
The boy reached for her but could not raise his hand far enough from the hard ground. Then there was a tremble at the horizon, as though a fire was rising beyond where he could see, and then he saw nothing.
Mary leaned on the rifle, looked up into the harsh white sun. Then she remembered.