Killing Animals

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.


Killing Animals

All that covered Joseph was the bearskin that hung loose to his knees, that and the thick brown hair on his head and calves. On his back was the rifle of a hunter who’d mistaken him for game.

He moved slowly among the townspeople under awnings that shadowed the planked sidewalks. Hollow footsteps fell on wooden floorboards as each stranger shot him a wary look and turned away. Dust clung to the people’s clothes and floated into their mouths while the sun’s hard rays baked sweet horse dung on the cracked dirt.

It was a smell that would fade as the sweltering yellow sun dropped into scarlet and the sky above turned as black as the Missouri River below. And the quiet town would start to make noise, and the saloons and brothels would roar.

By dark Joseph would be gone. He was here to trade pelts for supplies, then he would move on. He looked past the faces that shunned him, saw the saloon and knew that just beyond it was the barber shop. In the withering heat he felt suddenly dizzy. He took an awkward step forward. After the barber’s would be the general store, then a blacksmith’s, then the jail. Joseph closed his eyes and tipped his head back, took a deep breath of the wretched air, and proceeded slowly toward the store.

He entered not with his usual caution but with fear. He knew this town but had not intended to come here. Not today, not to trade. He staggered to the counter and laid his pelts down with a low growl.

The bearded man behind the counter grabbed a rifle but he looked in Joseph’s face and his grip loosened. Last time he’d seen him this man had been a child. “You don’t look so good, boy. Been a long time.”

Joseph listened to the strange words, propped himself against the counter.

“Spittin’ image,” the old man mumbled, then stepped closer. “I don’t expect you want cash for that.” He looked curiously into Joseph’s eyes. “Food?”

Joseph shook his head. He had eaten enough. Joseph looked up and around the store. There was little he could use here, but his body leaned forward and would not straighten up.

“Traps, maybe? Now your father, he was a fine trapper.”

Joseph’s eyes flickered. He tried to focus on the man.

“Yeah, I knew your father.” He lowered his voice. “He was a good man. But he crossed Arnie Tate. Arnie’s a trapper too.”

Joseph looked at the man warily. The growl in his throat was softer now. It had been years since anyone had mentioned his father.

“Maybe you’d be wantin’ a good knife. In case what you’re huntin’ gets in close.”

Joseph shook his head, growled louder and backed away, left his pelts on the counter.

 ***

“How’d a thing like that get a rifle? I say we kill it.” Slim looked around the oval oak table for agreement.

There were eight men here, every one of them eager to settle this and get back to work. They were dressed for business, pipes and cigars lit, the lone window closed and the room filling with smoke.

“Jesus, Slim.” Sheriff Marcus shook his head at his deputy and coughed. Not a slicked-back hair fell out of place. “You can’t kill a man on suspicion of theft. Unless maybe you think he stole your wife.”

A couple of Town Council members laughed in surprise. Slim’s wife had left him years ago, but now he glowered at Marcus like she ran off yesterday. The men stifled their laughs.

At the head of the table Arnie Tate did not laugh but tilted his chair back on its rear legs then brought it forward again. Silence came, as it always did when it was Arnie’s time to talk. His deep voice resonated without being raised, as though emerging from a place of untold depths. “Anyone heard from Gil?”

Heads shook, uneasy mouths mumbled.

“So one man,” Arnie said slowly, “goes in the woods and never comes out, and another comes out acting strange. With a rifle that looks like one of Gil’s.”

Gil was a hunter who shared his profits with Arnie Tate. In exchange, Arnie guaranteed that Gil would have no competition. There was no way Gil would’ve missed a payment.

Arnie tapped a thick finger on the table. “I say we got us a murder suspect.”

No one disagreed with Arnie. No one ever did.

Sheriff Marcus rose from his chair. “Guess we got work to do. Come on, Slim.”

Slim pushed his chair back and stood beside the sheriff, and maybe now his face showed what he felt. Slim didn’t need Arnie to tell him what to do with the stranger; he knew that was Gil’s rifle. He knew Gil a long time.

Arnie looked at them both. Neither moved. “Now, Marc, you take Slim with you, but keep a rein on him. Be a shame if this stranger got killed and Gil turned up not dead.”

“A shame for who?” Slim spat out, and stepped toward the door.

Arnie Tate burst across the room, caught Slim mid-step. The large man spun the deputy around by one shoulder, brought a thick forearm under his chin and held him pinned to the wall, choking, six inches off the floor.

Arnie whispered while Slim gagged. “You just do what you’re told. If the stranger gets killed, it better be self-defense.”

Arnie held Slim there a few seconds, smiled as the smaller man’s face turned from its usual pale to red, then from red to blue. Arnie let him drop. Slim’s hands clutched at the wall behind him as his back slid down, all the way to the floor.

Slim squatted against the wall, breathing hard as he could, getting some air back. His arms flopped forward and his wrists dangled over his knees. Sheriff Marcus bent down and grabbed Slim’s hands, hoisted him up without a glance at Arnie.

“We got a man to arrest,” was all Marcus said, and he helped his deputy walk out of the room.

Just past noon they set out after the stranger. By six o’clock it was getting dark, and oddly cold, the heat of the day instantly gone. Sheriff and deputy stood at one end of an alley, looked out onto a street empty except for the horses tied outside saloons. Twilight at last, but now that it was cool enough to move no one came or went. A graveyard breeze tickled the air, and only the lawmen stood outside to feel it.

“Time to go home,” Slim said, folding his arms against the sudden chill. “We’re not findin’ no one.”

“We go home when the job’s done.”

Slim didn’t bother looking into Marcus’s eyes; he knew the sheriff meant what he said. Something about this was odd, but Slim didn’t know what, or care. He was just sick of keeping his mouth shut at Council meetings, sitting while a few people said a few things like it mattered, all the while everyone waiting for Arnie to say what to do. Well, Slim was sick of Arnie. Choking him like that in front of all those laughing bastards. He’d kill the sonuvabitch. He was mad enough to do it, but smart enough to know what would happen if he tried. Before he made a move he’d be in a pauper’s grave, his money safe in Arnie’s pocket.


Empty Kitchens

I got out of the lukewarm shower, left the water running. I had to drown out the sound of when Lola slammed the door. The sound when she left.

I walked out of the bathroom naked. The water dripped off me slowly. Even on my cheap carpet, those drops wouldn’t stain. Maybe Malcolm’s kitchen floor wouldn’t stain either. So long as his blood didn’t soak into the hardwood.

I stepped into my kitchen, opened the fridge door. Nothing there. Lola always did the shopping. I left the door open; at least the chill was a feeling. I had nothing else, not even clean dishes. I could tell by the pile in the sink.

I opened every cabinet but there wasn’t any booze left.

Back to the bathroom – not even aspirin, just toothpaste. The drawer under the sink – an unfinished bottle of cough syrup. Maybe there was alcohol in it. No need to read the label, I had nothing to lose. I threw back the remains of the thick syrup and gave it a couple of minutes, but it didn’t do anything.

I needed something to take the edge off before the cops showed up. They’d be here already if someone had seen me at Malcolm’s. But it was the only time I’d gone there – mostly we argued over the phone. For now I was just another one of his tenants, until the cops looked into who was behind on the rent.

Maybe the cops hadn’t found Malcolm yet. And when they did, there might be other suspects. Malcolm sure knew how to piss a man off.

He was always a dick, always looking for an excuse to evict me. After awhile, I was just looking for an excuse to kill him. I told him he should let me pay the rent late. He told me I was already too late. Told me at the top of his lungs. Almost as loud as when Lola slammed the door.

The sound when Malcolm fell was nothing. I didn’t hear anything when I shot him, either. He just dropped. I just ran.

Lola was gone and she wouldn’t come back. She’d never miss me like I missed her, she didn’t leave just because I blew the money. I could win all the money in the world and she wouldn’t come back now. Nothing big ever happens because of one thing.