These were the roofs Joseph climbed as a child. From these same rooftop perches he’d heard laughter and known it was at him and his father. His father had tried to stay here, had told him, at nights in their home on the edge of the woods, how he would show them that he and Joseph belonged here.
But it had not worked like that, and now from his rooftop vantage Joseph watched the two men below. They stood just inside the alley, their badges retaining only the slightest glint from the falling sun. It was because of that glint he had followed them, remembering what badge-wearers did to his father. He listened to them and heard enough of their words to know they still worked for the same man, and now they hunted Joseph.
Joseph looked down upon them and lay down the plundered rifle as though it were fragile, keeping silent the laughter in his heart. He squatted, and his thighs tensed. The pair stood below him side by side, almost touching. Joseph leapt, legs spread, knees bent. He let out a scream, passed all his fears from hunter to victims as he crashed down on both men’s shoulders. They crumpled, and as they fell he slammed their heads together.
They dropped, unconscious. Joseph stepped away lightly and climbed deftly back onto the rooftop, returning only long enough to grab the rifle and strap it over his shoulder. Joseph dropped once more to the ground and sprinted away.
Joseph could escape now, maneuver along the outskirts of town until he reached the woods and freedom. But it had taken him years to remember this place. The place where he’d watched his father die. His father had been human, yet died at the hands of humans. And Joseph knew which one he blamed.
Dark came without word, without the sound of gunshots. Arnie Tate rose from his seat at the desk in his otherwise bare room. At his left hand sat an untouched bottle of whiskey. The long, thick fingers of his right hand stretched toward the pictures he’d absently yet elaborately sketched on the backs of some receipts: drawings of men on the rack, in stocks, and drawn and quartered. He had been thinking about simpler times. Arnie admired men who got the answers they wanted, and he was proud to think of himself as one of them. But he knew the world was filled with men too weak to get those answers, and now he knew that he had chosen two such men to do his bidding.
Arnie stepped away from his desk without noticing the pencil that had rolled onto the floor, nor did he notice it break as he stepped on it. He set out walking, knowing that the law had failed him as it often failed him. And he’d made Slim mad for just that purpose, to make him kill in defiance.
Arnie raised his right hand to the grip of his pistol, clutched it a second, let go. He’d rarely had to shoot a man but was prepared to now, because this man wasn’t going to tremble at the sound of Arnie’s too-calm voice or falter under Arnie’s predatorial glare. Arnie felt the muscles in his legs as he walked, felt the strength in his arms and chest. He remembered when the creature had been a child. He had known at the time that it was a mistake not to kill the woodsman’s lone progeny. But the boy had made his retreat, back into the woods from which his father had come, and Arnie had chosen not to follow, to give the child a chance to grow up with the knowledge of what happened to a man who crossed Arnie Tate.
Slinking along rooftops, Joseph looked down and saw a human, but not so weak as other humans, walking in his direction. He remembered this man. His death was necessary, but not for Joseph’s survival. This man’s death was more important than that.
Legs tensing, Joseph waited. The man below moved slowly forward, its eyes and body alert; it was a creature that had fought many times and always emerged victorious. And the rhythmic power of its muscular steps as it strode confidently forward said that today would be no different. But Arnie Tate had unknowingly ventured from one world in which he was hunter into another in which he was hunted, and now the ignorant creature was beneath Joseph.
Joseph dropped several feet, more flying than falling. His arm came down around the thick neck, like he dreamed. Joseph threw the huge body to the ground and jumped aside while the large man settled on his wide ass and looked up.
Arnie Tate smiled. Someone was about to die, and it was never him. He outlived his opponents because he was stronger than they were, smarter, meaner, and had more to live for.
The kick caught Arnie in the middle of a grin, knocked his head back, knocked a tooth halfway down his throat. One of Arnie’s massive hands shot out and grabbed Joseph by the balls and jerked suddenly down. Down Joseph came, falling toward Arnie’s open mouth. Joseph swung his body so he wouldn’t be bitten and his fist knocked Arnie’s ready mouth sideways. The big man gagged and swallowed the tooth in his throat, but pried his pistol free from its holster.
Joseph swung a rifle barrel toward Arnie’s cheek and Arnie’s thick hand thrust up to catch it. The barrel knocked Arnie’s hand back into his face and he dropped the pistol, fell backward kicking. One heavy boot caught Joseph in the crotch and staggered him. Joseph fell forward, clutched at the rifle. His growl surprised Arnie, and with both hands Joseph yanked the rifle free. Arnie raised himself in time to see the rifle coming down on his head like a hatchet on a stump.
Arnie awoke moving on his back, dragged by his feet and too weak to scream. He tried to swing his hands but they were tied behind him. He felt them now, scraping and bleeding on the hard dirt. His back scraped as well, it felt already bruised. His head burned and bounced against the ground. He choked on blood in his mouth and spat out what he could. It was difficult to breathe; he tried to snort the blood out from his nose but it was already dry.
Arnie Tate had arranged the death of the boy’s father in a simple manner, a traditional manner, by having him drawn and quartered. That was why they called them quarterhorses, Arnie had joked at the time. It was an old method and a brutal one, appalling even Arnie’s supporters, but there were factions who opposed Arnie back then, and their opposition stopped when they saw what they were up against.
Joseph made sure the large man remained conscious as they moved rapidly into the woods. Then he began to drag Arnie very slowly. And quietly, in a voice so smooth he was almost singing, Joseph began to speak. It was a language Arnie Tate did not understand, and its lilting calm scared him. It was almost English, but not quite human. Arnie knew his place in the world, knew where he belonged, knew he was safe in this land that he had made. But this strange creature did not know, would not even understand the words that would explain. It spoke or sang or whatever you called that noise, a sound that maybe the owls would answer.
As he was dragged Arnie knew that something horrible awaited him, and that he was best off feeling this pain, not thinking. He might be only half-conscious but he knew what came next, and he sweated and shivered and bled. From far away he heard light footsteps. Arnie listened closer, and he knew yes they were footsteps though distant. The clomping of hooves. He pissed himself before he knew, before the sound of neighing crossed the night’s frigid air.
But as minutes passed and the only noise growing louder was Joseph’s song, Arnie realized that no horses were coming except in his mind; the neighing was only a change in the wind. The boy would not draw and quarter him, and would know nothing worse. Unlike Arnie, he had not studied pain. Death itself might be the greatest revenge Joseph’s undeveloped mind could imagine.
Arnie resigned himself to it, steeled himself for it, even prayed silently for it. If he must die, please God make it quick. When he saw the glint as Joseph unsheathed a long blade, Arnie Tate smiled grimly, ready to tip his head back and shut his eyes tight.
But his barely conscious body was rolled onto its belly and his numb hands were untied. Then he was rolled once more onto his back, one hand tied tightly to a post behind his head. The other arm was pulled out straight, pinned to the ground beneath the weight of the woodsman’s knee.
Joseph slashed the long knife down and it caught on Arnie’s wristbone. There were screams and thrashing as Joseph sawed the blade through bone and slashed it down again. All the way this time, through bone and gristle and into the dirt below. And all the while Arnie Tate screamed, wide-eyed shaking frantically twitching, unable to stop the blood streaming into the dirt. Joseph brought the blade down once more, cutting through flesh, struggling at the bone, staining the dirt as Arnie screamed. Joseph slashed and Arnie screamed. Joseph cut. And Arnie screamed, to a God and for a mercy neither of which he believed in. And Joseph sang to the owls until the amputation was complete. And Joseph looked Arnie in the eye and brought his teeth down on the severed hand, knowing the taste would be foul.