It was days before they found a town. Uneventful days, filled with bitterness and loaded silence between them. The town was standard. Sugar and Brooke found a bar and found it empty of patrons.
“We’re not heavy drinkers,” explained the bartender.
“What do you do?” asked Sugar.
“We’re religious,” said the bartender, “mostly. And we like games. Or most of us do. Every town has a few folks who keep to themselves.”
“What’s that mean, you like games?”
“It’s just something most of us can agree on.”
“What kind of games?”
“Can we have two house wines?” said Brooke.
The glasses were set before them and filled. Then the bartender explained, “Stick and ball games, some. Cards. We’re active.” He held out his forearm to display his vascular build, as well as the scarring that ran from elbow to wrist. “I’m a slider,” he said. “I know it’s not good for me, but I get excited. I can’t help myself.” He drew a stool from behind the bar and set his foot upon it. He cuffed his trousers to mid-calf and displayed the swollen ankle of his right leg. It was purple and white, like a drowned man’s.
“That was a misstep that I fell into,” he explained. “Hard.”
“A committed player,” said Brooke. He raised his glass, first to the bartender and then to his brother. Sugar did not raise his glass, but turned back to the bartender and asked the name of the particular game that had cost him his ankle.
“I’ll be back in fighting shape soon enough,” said the bartender.
Brooke drank, elbowed his brother, but Sugar kept his eyes on the bartender.
“Do you rent rooms?”
The bartender shook his head and pointed across the road.
“That’s there,” he said.
A building opposite the bar held roughly the same shape, though the porch sagged slightly and the windows were dirty beyond being able to see into.
“How’s a place like yours stay open if no one in your town drinks?” said Brooke.
“Travelers, mainly,” he said. “And it’s not no one, but most.”
Brooke finished his drink and Sugar slid his full glass toward the opposite edge of the bar.
“Won’t be needing it,” said Sugar.
“You’re sure?” said the bartender.
Sugar nodded. “Consider us one of yours,” he said. “We’ll be here a bit and I’d like to try on the life of an insider.”
The bartender chuffed, took up the wine glass, and tilted its edge toward Brooke. Brooke waved his hand and rose from the stool beneath him.
“Excuse him,” he said, patting Sugar on the shoulder. “Without a proper bed, he gets strange and over-serious. Why don’t you hold onto that drink. We’ll head across the way and secure a room, then settle up once we’ve finished our first round.”
“Of course,” said the bartender.
In the street, Brooke stopped Sugar with a slug to the gut. Bent over, Sugar looked plaintively to his brother and shocked Brooke with the sudden desperation in his eye. He collapsed to his knees, then onto his side in the dirt. Brooke hovered over him.
“What’s got into you?” said Brooke. “And where’s my brother?”
Sugar watched the townsfolk leave their porches and enter their homes. They could smell a fight, and the two strangers were more than likely armed.
“What aren’t you telling me?” said Brooke. He loosed a kick into the middle of Sugar’s back, which was curved and exposed from his position. Sugar bent backward and set one hand to protect his spine while the other stayed at his gut, holding it dearly.
“We can keep going on like this,” said Brooke, “in front of the clouds and everyone. I can pound you all day and you know it. You’ve never set against me in two lifetimes and come out on top and that’s just the facts of the situation. Either you tell me what’s gotten into you or I break you open a bit and see if it doesn’t come sliding out.”
“I’m carrying something,” said Sugar.
“Go on.” Brooke tapped his heel in the dirt to loose a clump of wet grass, the last bit of the woods still clinging to them.
“I was told I’ve got something inside me,” said Sugar.
“We can get it out,” he said.
“I was told not to get it out,” said Sugar. “I was told explicitly not to.” He was not looking at his brother. He was staring down the lane to where the rowed storefronts and home fronts angled toward one another and vanished into the light. “It felt like a warning.”
“We’ll get it out,” said Brooke. “Everything will be as it always has been. Now get up.”
Slowly, Sugar lifted himself, his eyes still locked on the horizon.
Brooke bent to help Sugar and Sugar leaned into the hands that found purchase at the moist pits of each arm.
“You’ll be okay,” said Brooke. “I’ve got you.”
The keeper of the inn was an old maid of the tobacco chewing kind. She spit what she could into a brass pot near the ledger, and the rest hung at her chin between a stray hair and a scar, thick and marbled like lard.
“I’m Brooke,” said Brooke, “and this is Sugar.”
“Twice the fee for two,” she said.
“Same as two rooms?” said Brooke.
“Same,” she said.
“That doesn’t seem exactly fair,” said Brooke.
“Maybe it isn’t,” she said. She was even in pitch and unmoving, perched on a stool behind the counter and shifting only to bring the brass pot a few inches from her lip and let loose what was filling the basin of her mouth.
“I’ll be straight with you,” said Brooke, “and tell you that we were hoping we might be able to owe you some work or a favor of some kind, in exchange for a room. We’ve been in the woods for weeks now.”
“Months,” said Sugar.
“Months,” said Brooke. “We’re hard workers and we can commit ourselves to just about any task.”
“That your wife?” said the keeper of the inn.
“My brother,” said Brooke.
Sugar removed their only weapon — a small blade he’d sheathed in the front leather of his half-inch-thick belt. He placed it on the counter and let his hands fall to his side.
“How about a challenge?” said Brooke, “if a favor won’t suit you.”
The old woman stared back at him, unflinching, circling her jaw.
“From behind the counter, which of the two of you can get closer to my body without piercing me from across the room.” Brooke took several steps to place himself against the far wall.
“You strike me, you lose,” he said. “You get closer than my brother without doing so, and we’ll come back when we’ve got some money.”
“Two throws a player,” said the woman. “I don’t have much experience with a knife.”
“Two throws then,” said Brooke. “Sugar, why don’t you join her behind the counter there.”
“You have to untwist that wire,” said the woman.
A coil of wire was threaded between two copper loops, keeping the waist-high door at the end of the counter cinched shut.
Sugar’s fingers were trembling slightly. He wasn’t nervous, but still sore and uncertain.
The woman watched his hands work the wire and declared that she would go first.
“It’s my roof and my wall,” she said.
Brooke nodded, and Sugar unthreaded the wire and joined her.
She did not rise from the stool, but took the knife from the counter and held it a moment. She let it lower her hand, bounced it a bit. She held it by the blade, then the handle. She held its edge before her eye, then its handle. She brought her arm back and sprung it forward as she loosed the knife. It plunged into the wall a foot or so to the left of Brooke’s neck and held there.
“You’ll announce the throw next time,” said Brooke, unshaken.
Sugar retrieved the knife and rejoined the woman.
“I’m throwing,” said Sugar.
The knife appeared half a foot from the scar left by the woman’s throw, just to the left of Brooke’s neck. Brooke smiled. The vein in his neck swelled just slightly with each heartbeat.
Sugar retrieved the knife and rejoined the woman.
She did not rise from the stool. She took the knife from Sugar and held it a moment. She let it lower her hand, bounced it a bit. She held it by the blade, then the handle. She held its edge before her eye, then its handle. She brought her arm back and sprung it forward as she loosed the knife. It plunged into the wall halfway between Sugar’s scar and the left edge of Brooke’s neck, and held there.
Sugar retrieved the knife and rejoined the woman.
“I’m throwing,” said Sugar.
The knife appeared then just at the left of Brooke’s neck. When he exhaled, his flesh pressed against the blade.
“A winner,” said Brooke.
The woman shook her head.
“Three throws,” she said. “I said three.”
“You undoubtedly said two,” said Brooke, removing the small knife from the wall and joining them at the counter.
Sugar stood beside the woman, sporting a vague grin.
“Three,” she said. “My roof and my rooms and my wall.”
“How will three not turn into four?” said Brooke.
She shook her head, spit into the pot.
“Can you give me a shave, Sugar?” said Brooke.
“Three a player then,” said Brooke.
He took his place back at the wall, aligning himself with Sugar’s final scar.
The woman did not rise from the stool. She held the knife in her palm. Let it lower the hand, bounced it a bit. She held it by the blade, then the handle. She held its edge before her eye, then its handle. She brought her arm back and sprung it forward as she loosed the knife. It plunged into Brooke’s right thigh, hilt deep.
“You win,” she said.
Brooke sank to sitting, pulled the blade from his leg, and the windows of the inn exploded with gunfire. Sugar struck the floor and met Brooke’s eyes from across the room.
“No,” cried the woman, “not the windows and walls.”
The gunfire did not cease until she had set to cursing into the palms of her hands and crying just a little and the two brothers had joined one another behind a sagging couch near the center of the room. They had only the blade, slick with Brooke’s blood.
Soon they heard boots on the planks of the porch and a voice that called out, “Toss what you’ve got and rise up slowly.”
The boots found their way into the main room, an innumerable cluster of bumps, knocks, and creaks, settling then to silence.
Brooke wiped his blood on the knee of his britches and shook his head to Sugar, who rose up slowly, hands in the air.
Before him stood a line of eight unrecognizable faces, and then that of the bartender. Six-shooters in fourteen hands and shotguns in the remaining four.
Brooke was bleeding through his fabrics. His foot twitched at the ankle.
“My brother’s got only a knife,” said Sugar. “And I’ve got nothing.”
“Step out from behind the seat,” said the leader, a man in a brilliant white button-up topped with a loose brown vest. He bore no signifying marks or pins. He appeared roughly forty years of age, give or take a few years. He was hard-faced and scarred at the chin. “Do it now,” he said, evenly.
Sugar did as he was told. He did not glance at Brooke, who was attempting to steady his foot and gain a clear head.
“The other too,” said the leader.
A skilled shot nicked the blade of the knife as it landed a foot or so to the left of the couch. It skittered and spun to the far wall and a young boy near the end of the line apologized.
Brooke’s hands emerged first. Then the back of his head, his shoulders, and the broad black back of his leathers.
“Turn,” said the leader.
“Can’t,” said Brooke, his hands gripped to the couch’s back. “I’m pierced and bleeding.”
“Go around and see,” the leader said to the man beside him. An older man in a worn black top hat, striped whites, and suspenders set to examine Brooke.
“We’ve got them,” said the boy.
“He’s bleeding all right,” said the man in the top hat, looking back at his party from the couch’s left edge.
“I had them,” said the inn keeper, rising from behind the counter. “I had them both and you came to us like this and bore apart my walls.”
“Marjorie, we do apologize.”
“Apologies won’t keep out the wind and the mosquitoes,” she said. “This is nothing but a waste on your part and a loss on mine.”
“Take them,” said the leader, signaling with the barrel of either pistol for his men to approach the brothers.
The man in the top hat lifted Brooke to standing and pulled his wrists together before him. He lashed them with a worn bit of coil while the others set upon Sugar.
“I’d like to request a cell near my brother’s,” said Brooke.
“I’m sure you would,” said the leader, tucking his guns behind his belt and releasing the tension in his shoulders.
“For comfort in a new place, and for the discussion of our defense,” said Brooke.
Sugar was blank, led to the door by a ring of four men. The face of each blended with the next. Sugar buckled slightly as he disappeared through the door.
“Plus, he’s sick and should be minded,” said Brooke.
“The thing is,” said the leader, stepping to Brooke finally with a grin like a lightning bolt. “There’s no cell. No defense. And no one at all to pay either of you any mind.”
He startled then, as if to slug Brooke, but paused as the bound man flinched. When Brooke recovered, the leader plunged a thumb into the fresh wound at Brooke’s thigh, sending Brooke to the floor again. Then the leader turned to take his leave.
The remaining four men lifted Brooke and led him through the door where two stagecoaches, each drawn by a set of four horses, were waiting. The lanterns on the stagecoaches were lit. The sun was finally preparing to set. The horses were newly shod and freshly brushed, as if prepared for a journey of some length.
Brooke was brought to an empty stagecoach, and his mind settled to thinking of Sugar in the other, and whether or not his brother would meet the opportunity to take the gun from one of his men the moment it presented itself.
The men set him on a low bench at the back of the wagon. They sat around him, two across from him and one at either side.
If he had not recently been stabbed, he wouldn’t have startled. The men and the innkeeper, he realized, had been working separately toward the same end. Their plan was known, or at least its most relevant parts. A pistol butt broke into the flesh above his ear and sent him into the lap of the man at his left. From that position, he could make out only the sky and a pair of large red rocks on the horizon. He felt blood at his neck. The sun was behind them, disappearing into the earth. As the stagecoach began to move, he could then see the town, shrinking behind them. Its walls and facades, as they were broken apart, pulled outward by faintly visible ropes, and folded at the middle, back toward the earth. The town was splitting apart like a radish root in a dish of water. In the shadows at its edge, he imagined he saw the phantoms of men, working.
From Brooke’s earliest memory, Sugar had been a boy and their father had treated him as such. It was not until they were old enough to ride horses and kill snakes with traps that Brooke identified Sugar’s body as being different from his own. And it was only a short while later that he began to develop an urge toward those differences. They had a white room. A cluttered white room that was used for no particular purpose other than storage. It held the sunlight like a lamp. The windows sagged and spiders hung in the panes. Sugar was gentle then, but his father took that from them. Their father toughened both of the boys until they were mean and capable. To the best of Brooke’s knowledge, that man was Sugar’s first. Brooke had found them in that cluttered white room. Everything had some bit of the man’s blood on it. Every object in the room announced what the boy had done and that they were now alone and without a plan for how to proceed. There was a knife in Sugar’s hand and he was crying. His hand was as thickly covered as the blade it held. They buried their father where they buried men and women who wandered beyond their fence, just beneath the apple trees behind the house. It was a fertile yard. They had not cleaned the white room but had sealed it off and let it stand. Years passed. They knew how to farm. They knew how to trade. They made do. Most people did not ask about their father. He was not well liked. One man came asking, claiming the man owed him some money for a pony the boys did not know, and had heard nothing of. It seemed like a lie. A pony. What use would their father have for a single pony? Men were always talking to them about ponies, as if it were the only thing boys knew or had any interest in. Sugar had gone wild at this point, and would scream until whatever it was that was setting him off changed in some way. Sugar set to screaming at the man who came asking about the money for the pony and Sugar moved the man down the hill and down the road with the screaming he did. The man protested and tried to stand strong but there was something wild and frightening about Sugar in that mood and it would have taken a very strong and confident person to stand against him. This man was too full of flinches. He did not come back after he was finally gone. One night, years into their life together on the farm, for no obvious reason, Sugar showed Brooke what their father had liked to do to him. They got along, the brothers. They worked in equal measure. Their days were not particularly difficult to get through. There was no purpose to any of what they were doing outside of getting it done and having enough to do it all again the next day. They lived like lizards. Or the way apples keep coming back and falling to the earth. They sat on the porch sometimes and drank grain alcohol and did not say much. When they did what their father had liked to do, Brooke sometimes worried that Sugar would kill him. He would vow never to do it again. But he always did it again, whenever the urge came — which was fairly regular — until the day the barn burned and they lost their house. They lost their minds a bit that night too. There was no way of knowing how the fire started. A lamp in the barn, maybe, and a cow or a fox or a gust of wind. It didn’t matter. It mattered that the house lit and the fire spread and it was dry and had been dry and everything had just been begging to burn. They took two horses and rode to town. There was no fire there. So they went back and brought some of it to town with them. Torches made out of tools from the barn. They were not good boys. They were on the cusp of becoming not good men. It was a small town and the people had not expected the kind of evil every man is capable of, if he has a partner and the right state of mind. They brought the town down around them as the fire had brought down their barn and their home and any claims they had to a legacy or permanence. People died, but Brooke did not know how many people. More than he could think to count, it was likely. They screamed and came spilling out of the buildings. One man was diligent enough with the well and bucket to keep the fire from spreading to his front porch for a time. There were houses scattered in the countryside that bled out from the edges of the town, but Brooke and Sugar did not bother with the glut. There had been no plan and they were not clinical in their state, so they finished the edges of what they’d started and left the town for the wilderness. They rode for several days before Sugar split. It had been at least two since they could last smell the smoke. Sugar made whatever kind of noise he wanted packing his bag and saddling his horse, but offered no farewell or any other proper acknowledgment of what was soon to pass between them. Still, there was no attempt to hide his actions or intent. Rather than rising to join him or chase after him or even demand that he explain himself, Brooke had simply watched his brother go and figured that was the end of it. When Sugar finally returned years later — much in the fashion that he had left — Brooke only noticed one discernible difference. Sugar didn’t scream anymore.
When Brooke awoke, his head was still in the lap of the man beside him. That man was watching something out the window with a plain look on his face. He startled when Brooke shifted, then forced his lips back to flat and nodded at the prisoner. Brooke nodded back.
“You are not comfortable with prisoners,” said Brooke.
The man did not speak.
No one spoke.
The driver glanced behind him to check the faces of the other men. Through the window, all that could be seen was the dark purple of the dirt and yellow plants straining from between the rocks. The shadows on the horizon, he imagined, were the great red rocks that decorated the immense desert between this town and the next. The stars were out.
Brooke checked both windows, but saw no sign of the second wagon. He listened, but heard nothing. It was at least half a day if they were headed to the nearest town. Anywhere else would be much longer.
“Is there food?” said Brooke. “Are we to eat?”
The men did not respond. They rode in silence and time bore on.
“I find silence in the desert as pleasurable as the next man,” said Brooke, “but this is intolerable. I’d like at least to know why I’m here and what I’m answering to and where I’m going.”
“You’re answering for those you’ve killed, Brooke,” said one of the men sitting across from him. This man was the top-
hatted man from before. His look was less pleasant now, as he had begun to sweat, and his eyes were sunken from either weariness brought on by travel or a road-sickness he was making no bluster about.
“Which of those?” said Brooke.
“It hardly matters to us,” said the man. “Murder is murder.” He coughed into a kerchief. “By our punishment, you answer for one and you’ve answered for them all.”
“You plan to put us down then?”
“You’ll be put down in due time.”
“And my brother?”
The man to the left of the top-hatted man began to sneer at Brooke and did not break eyes with him.
“I don’t much like the way your man is looking at me,” said Brooke.
“And we don’t much like you, Brooke. We’ll take a particular pleasure in delivering you, and we’ll take a particular pleasure in seeing you put down. Your brother as you call it, is carrying a child. As decency demands, we’ll bring it to term, deliver the child, then deal with the creature.”
Brooke did not speak.
“How old are you then?”
Sugar did not answer.
“You’re an abomination. You know that. A creature.”
Sugar did not speak.
“You know that, right?”
The woods were thick around them and thickening. It was dark out and getting darker. They were approaching midnight. Approaching smells that Sugar knew. A kind of air that was familiar.
“You and your brother, you are no more than beasts.”
The man opposite Sugar had been talking the entire ride. Nothing could shut him up, not even a direct request from one in his party, though each had tried. The man was needling Sugar, trying to get a response, trying to get a rise. He wanted something from him, but Sugar would not give it. He was thinking only of Brooke. Brooke would be dead. If those men didn’t kill him, Sugar would fight him and one of them would lose. It didn’t matter who lost. Every day now with Brooke was all lies and more trouble. And now this. Now he was sick with something rotten in his gut and the whole world making a point of telling him how different and horrible he was.
“And what you got in you is going to be worse than a creature,” said the needling man. “It’s going to be one of those lumps licking salt off the walls of the barn. You’d be better off drowning it in a bucket than carrying it to term.”
Sugar did not answer. He watched the man. He wore a blank expression.
“It’d make better horse food than person. You’ll probably die squeezing it out of you. It will probably claw at your insides like a mountain lion.”
The wheel of the wagon rode violently over a large stone. The sounds of insects swelled the distance around them.
“Normally, in such a situation, we’d like to have a go at our catch. Out here in the woods alone. It would even be sort of romantic,” said the needler. “But you aren’t worth unbuckling for. I wouldn’t climb inside you with ten extra miles of dick skin.”
The top-hatted man was named Jim. The other riders had made it clear enough, in spite of their efforts to hide it. Brooke was keeping quiet now, learning what he could from their scattered conversation, and mulling over the news they’d delivered what felt like half a day before. They were deep in the country, deep in the desert. It was cold. Brooke could see his breath. The stars were out and the moon was bright enough to reflect the edges of the enormous rocks articulating the wide expanse in either direction. They were following a thin stream, headed for the arc where two large rocks met. If he was lucky, they would camp and maybe he would see Sugar. If he was unlucky, they were going to bury him in the hollows.
“Jim,” said Brooke.
The man turned to him, but did not answer.
“How did you know about Sugar?”
“It’s plain as day, rat.”
“I’d like you to be kinder,” said Brooke. “I’ve never condescended to you. I’m only asking for basic human treatment. I’m not asking for pardon.”
“It doesn’t matter what you’re asking for,” said Jim, “or what you’re not asking for. It’s us who’s running things, bloodhound. We’ll handle you how we see fit.”
The carriage lurched to a halt then and the driver leapt from his perch.
“Get your guns,” he whispered.
“What’s happened?” cried one of the men.
“Shut it or I’ll shut it for you,” said the driver.
“Put him in the bench,” said Jim, signaling to the men on either side of Brooke.
They lifted him, opened the seat beneath them, and before he could protest with more than a jerk of his bound wrists, he was bent over the mouth of the opened bench and stuffed into a curled-up position. Then he was sealed off. It was all darkness. He pushed against the wood above him. It bowed outward but did not open or burst.
He heard voices then. He heard hooves and the crack of a rifle. He heard yelling, more gunfire. Every sound was amplified by the rocks rising up around them. It echoed out like the first battle of creation. Like life was forming right there in the opening of that hollow.
Then there were bodies on the wagon. It rocked and Brooke slid an inch one way and then an inch back the other. There was the clinking of metal clasps, sacks dragged and dropped. It was a robbery, or they were abandoning him. Everything was flying off the wagon and the men were crawling around on it like spiders, looking for anything and everything to take with them.
“No passenger,” said a voice.
“As he thought then,” said another.
After only a few moments, the wagon went still and he heard the thuds of boots on sand and then the hoof-falls of horses fading into the distance. He pushed against the wood above him. It bowed again, loosed a little light this time, revealing the unfinished edges of the box around him. A bit of sand slipped in and stung his eyes. He turned his body, pushed with his knees, and was able to get the lid up about an inch or so. He kept at it. With knees and bound hands, then his forehead, he pushed against the lid and bowed it outward until it began to crack. The latch holding it shut would not budge. It was new, though the rest of the bench was splintered and worn. The lock was purchased, maybe, for this particular event. A small honor. The age of the wood was apparent enough. It croaked and creaked as he bowed it. It bent and shuddered and finally broke in a jagged line at the edge of the shining new latch.
He was up then and surveying the damage. The wagon was empty. He could see nothing through the window. He looked around for something sharp, a blade or a bit of broken metal, to remove his bindings. There was nothing. He opened the door of the wagon with his toe, slowly at first. When nothing happened and no sounds came, he pushed it open with his body and he stepped out and onto the foot ladder, lowering himself then down to the sand. The horses had been cut loose, and were gone. The still bodies of his captors decorated the landscape. They were shot, each and every one of them.
Brooke checked them, one by one, for a pulse. Nothing. Nothing. Nothing. Then Jim. Brooke set two fingers to the body’s neck and Jim startled, met the other man’s eyes with his own. He was pained but had strength left.
“We’ll just keep coming,” said Jim.
“I know,” said Brooke.
“If you can get out of the desert, we’ll find you.”
“I know,” said Brooke.
“We’ll hunt you down until —”
Brooke set his boot to the man’s throat then, shutting him up. He ground down for only a few seconds before Jim stopped struggling against him. When Brooke reached to check the pulse again, he was met with no resistance.
Two of the corpses had knives in their boots, and the other two had sheaths where knives should have been. The guns were gone. The only shells in the sand were spent. There was no food. No sacks or cases left on the wagon, except for an empty one. It was rawhide and would do to hold water. Brooke took that, as well as the broken bits of leather strap that had once held their horses. He took the bench’s wood too, and what he could pry from the walls of the wagon. It was steel and oak, the wagon, so he could only pry enough for maybe two fires, if he was careful with them. He worked as quickly as he could, confident the other men would not return but not wanting to test that theory. When he had gathered what he could gather, he went to the stream and set himself on his stomach before it. He drank for several minutes, cupping the water into his mouth, then lowering his cheek to the sand to breathe a few calming breaths. Finally, he gathered water in the sack, tied it off, and made for the gap between the rocks — right where the wagon had been headed and the best chance he had for catching a path toward wherever it was they were taking him and, it was possible, his brother.
Sugar’s delivery had to be overseen by several of the town’s deputies, partially because the doctor had spoken out so strongly against it.
The doctor was a committed drinker. He had steady hands until around 3 o’clock and then he was more than worthless.
Since Sugar’s arrival, the doctor had committed himself to enfeeblement. He would sit in the bar and drink, then he would drink in front of the bar, and then he would drink in the alley off to the side of the bar, and all the while he was calling Sugar an abomination and a creature and the devil. He said Sugar was pregnant with his own cock and if he, the doctor, were to squat before him while he was birthing that cock, it would be more or less the same thing as inviting the animal, Sugar, to fuck him.
“I will not be fucked by an animal,” insisted the doctor, on a nightly basis. He was a man of medicine. A church-going man. He had survived two wives and had two sons working to keep the peace. He deserved better.
The morning Sugar went into labor, the doctor opened up the bar. The bartender, who lived upstairs in the inn above the bar itself, and who could be blamed to some degree for answering the doctor’s insistent pounding at the door, would not take it so far as to serve the doctor at six in the morning. Instead, he suggested that the doctor take lodging upstairs and try to sleep off what was clearly still clinging to him from the night before. The doctor had simply stepped past the bartender, who was in his night cap and pajamas, and had gone around the bar to open the shutters and get the drink himself. The bartender protested but did not make a move to pry loose the doctor’s hand. In theory, the doctor was a respected man. He was educated and on the richer side of things and, above all, he was necessary to their way of life. He was not a bad doctor, though he was unreliable. He’d once cured the bartender’s ringworm without much fuss, and saved the lives of several men and women who’d come down with some kind of horrible fever just the year before. In theory, he was one of the town’s more important men. In practice, he was universally ignored whenever possible.
In the jail, Sugar demanded help but could form no specific requests other than, “Please bring a doctor,” or, “Please let me go.”
The doctor, drink in hand, held court on the porch of the bar.
“While I’ve never dealt in creature before this day, I can confidently say that to let this one out early, to open the cell any time within the next three or four hours, would be the same as letting it loose to wreak havoc on the women and children of our good town. A beast like that won’t be slowed down by something so casual as labor, at least not until it’s well enough along that it’s more or less immobilized by the pain and by the position its body will naturally assume.”
Four men, one woman, and three children were gathered before him, pausing their daily procession in order to hear more details about what was going on in the jail and why so many deputies were assigned to its security and why the doctor himself had been so put out over the last week. Rumors were spread and the doctor was always talking but something was different about this morning. Curiosities were as bright as the sun breaking over the hills. The doctor rose and swung his bottle like a young girl dancing her doll across the floor.
“We live and see the world progress into strange, dark places,” the doctor said. “The stench of what evil is on the horizon is beyond repute. Every morning I wake to the relief that we are still here, that there are familiar faces and friends about me, and then the horror of our situation settles in and I feel both pity and fright. At my life. At our lives. At what’s to become of them. We are witnessing the de-evolution of morals into muck. The degradation of decency.”
“You’re a doctor?” said one of the men. He was sporting a bright white hat and a long button-down shirt tucked into a snug fit of jeans.
“I am THE doctor,” said the doctor. “I am the man who would take the bullet from your leg should the rest of the day go rotten for you.”
“I appreciate that,” said the man, “but right now you’re sounding more like a washed-up preacher or a watered-down drunk. Aren’t there some kind of preparations to be made?”
The doctor laughed excessively and forcefully. He laughed so hard that a fine mist of spittle glazed those children perched on the steps below him. They wiped their eyes and covered their mouths and crept in closer.
“Of course I’m drunk,” said the doctor, “and this ain’t spiritual.”
“What’s the advantage? What’s the gain from how you’re carrying on?”
“There is none of either. I’m hoping not to gain something, but to lose something.”
“It’s obvious and not worth taking the time to say and you’re a fool,” said the doctor. “My fear, of course.”
The doctor lost his footing for a moment, trying to settle himself back down onto one of the many rocking chairs that lined the wall-length porch of the bar.
“What’s to be scared of?”
“The heinous child of two murdering sons of bitches,” said the doctor. “The rage of one at learning what he’s been through and what he is and the revenge of the other learning what we’ve done and what we’ve revealed. We’re caught in the middle of two predators, easing their union into the world.”
The children were laughing now because the doctor’s verve had loosed more spit onto his shirt and thighs. He was a drooling mess and also sweating profusely. He was making no effort to stop or clear his body’s leakings.
“They’ve caught the Dreaded Joneses?” said the woman.
The doctor shook his head, his bottle. “No, no,” he said.
“The Upriser Gang? The Broke-Bottlers?” said one of the men.
Again, the doctor shook his head.
“Jack Kraus and Splinter Cogburn?”
“Not them. These are not celebrities. There is no news here, only darkness.”
“Brooke and Sugar,” said the doctor.
The small crowd was silent. Then they began to murmur.
Finally, one of the men said, “Who?”
“Brooke and Sugar,” said the doctor. “Two men who murder. They aren’t celebrities. They’re murderers.”
“But we’ve never heard of them.”
“Which makes them all the more terrifying,” said the doctor. He darted to grab his bottle as it slipped from his hand, but only thumbed the neck, tipping it as it fell. It broke on the porch but spilled next to nothing, as it was almost entirely empty.
“Seems hardly worth all the fuss,” said the woman.
“All those deputies are watching two unknown criminals? With no reputation?”
“One unknown criminal,” said the doctor, “but they are not unknown.”
“We don’t know them.”
“You might have had the unpleasant experience of getting to know one of them, if we hadn’t rounded them up like we did. They are an endless outpouring of wrong-doing. They are a sickness.”
“You didn’t round them up.”
“I was an essential member of the team,” said the doctor. “Who has a drink with them? A flask or a dram? I will buy it from you for twice its worth.”
The men and women bid their goodbyes without much politeness at all. They had expected a grander reveal. This was all much messier and less exciting than was hoped.
“There’s only one?” said a chubby boy at the steps.
“They’ve been separated,” said the doctor. “Not everything is rustling and gunfire. There is an element of planning that can make one’s life easier.”
“So why all the deputies?” said the same boy.
“Because the devil himself could come tearing out of this murderer,” said the doctor. “And his brother’s wagon never arrived where it was going. So, caution is the game.”
“Are you going to pull a bullet out of him?”
By now, only the children were left, and they were only three: the chubby boy asking the questions, a pockmarked girl named Alice, with whom the doctor was familiar after last year’s pox revival, and the town rascal, Clint. Clint was chewing his fingers and looking restless.
“What they want is for me to deliver whatever he’s got inside of him,” said the doctor.
“We need more information,” said Clint, between bites.
“You’ll make yourself sick doing that,” said the doctor, “and spread disease. Spit your fingers from your mouth.”
“I won’t,” said Clint.
“Regardless,” said the doctor. He rose to fetch more to drink from the bar, but found the door locked and barred.
“You dog,” said the doctor to the unyielding oak.
“Is it the appendix?” said the chubby boy.
“A medical man,” said the doctor, turning back to the children grandly, drunkenly, with a stutter in his step and sweat on his brow.
“You took out my dad’s,” said the boy.
“A worthless organ, just waiting to be occupied by this or that malady,” said the doctor. “We’re sacks of vestigial organs and bones. Most of us is hardly necessary.”
He approached the chubby boy then and pinched his gut.
Clint lowered his hand to laugh and lean forward as if he were planning to take part in what was sure to become an ongoing harassment of the chubby boy.
“No, my boy. It is not the appendix.”
“What then?” said Alice.
“A baby,” said the doctor.
The three children were silent then.
“Did you hear me?” said the doctor.
The chubby boy nodded. Clint cocked his head then looked either way up and down the road. Alice raised her hand.
“Yes, Alice,” said the doctor.
“What baby?” she said.
“Sugar is carrying a baby,” explained the doctor.
“But…” began the chubby boy.
“It does not seem right, does it?” said the doctor.
“How did the baby live inside him?” said Alice.
“He has all the parts of a woman,” said the doctor.
“But he’s not…?” said Alice.
“He is not known as such and has never laid claim to the gender,” said the doctor.
Clint’s open palm met the back of the chubby boy’s head then. Clint broke into laughter and took a few steps back as the chubby boy rose to defend himself.
“Don’t,” said the boy.
Clint nodded, put up his hands, and assured him he would not.
“What does it mean for the baby?” said Alice.
“I don’t know,” said the doctor.
The clap was even louder this time, when Clint’s hand met the back of the other boy’s head. So hard was the blow that the boy tipped forward, his palms to the step in front of him, before he was able to gather himself up and chase after Clint.
“Quit it,” said the doctor, waving his hand as after a fly.
“I’m confused,” said Alice.
“As you should be,” said the doctor.
“Is he really a killer?” said Alice.
“Yes,” said the doctor, settling into his chair and bringing his hat down to block out the blinding light reflected by the dirt of the road before him.
“Are we safe?” said Alice.
“They would like us to think so,” said the doctor.
Across the street, the chubby boy had Clint pinned before a trough full of muck. He was slapping Clint across the face with one hand and scooping muck from the trough with the other. He tipped the muck onto Clint’s face, focusing on the mouth, eyes, and ears, and Clint squirmed and squealed, and the other boy’s face was like a stone.
When the doctor finally arrived at the jail he had a little girl in tow and was the storming drunk of a man who had managed to keep it going through the night and on into the morning. He pointed to Sugar, who had removed all of his clothing except for his shirt and positioned himself on the bed in his cell with his knees bent, as if napping in a tight spot.
“That,” said the doctor, “is crowning.”
There were eight deputies scattered throughout the jail’s main office, which contained a desk, several chairs, a dusty collage of wanted posters, boxes of bullets, some riding gear, and Sugar’s cell at the back.
The deputies appeared confused at the word, but Alice seemed to understand.
“We’re deep into it now, deputies,” said the doctor.
“We’re worried he’s dying,” said one of the deputies. A young boy. The doctor had seen him around but hardly knew him. He was new to town, flirting with Flora Jean, the gravedigger’s daughter. He didn’t drink and he didn’t chew and he kept to himself in a rather superior sort of way.
“That’s because you don’t know anything outside of the deputy’s game of capturing and killing.”
“I served for four years under —”
“You’re not helping your case, my boy. Can the cell be opened?” The doctor’s mood had shifted entirely. A kind of excitement came over him when it was time to begin. That, and he was enjoying the fact that Alice had come with him out of curiosity and that she seemed to cling to his every word and movement like a pitch-perfect daughter might.
“Birthing is easy, Alice,” explained the doctor, as the young deputy unlocked and cracked the cell’s door. “It is a matter of catching. Like waiting at the bottom of a hill to catch a friend who is sledding down it. There’s only a small bit of risk. More fun than anything else.”
“My mother had seven children and I was the last,” said Alice.
“You see?” said the doctor.
“But she passed after I was born.”
“Yes, well, birthing seven children is very different than facing the task of raising them.”
The doctor sloppily rolled his sleeves.
“I’ll need a stool,” he reported. The youngest deputy fetched one from behind the sheriff’s desk. The other deputies were resigned, reclined, and leaning against this or that. They had done little more than look in the doctor’s way since he arrived. Six worthless men and a sheriff, was all the doctor saw. They were as put out by the whole thing as he was, he determined, but weren’t doing much of anything about it. A man was not measured by what he did or did not want to do, but how he was able to handle getting through those things he did not want to do. The doctor was a man who liked to make a note when he had a thorough thought, but he found himself without a pen.
“Do you men plan to help secure this child’s birth or are you merely hoping for something to go wrong?” said the doctor, addressing the room.
“What child?” said Sugar.
They all turned to watch him. It was as if an object had suddenly come to life.
“You’re giving birth,” said the doctor.
“Through your vagina,” said the doctor.
“I do not want it to happen,” said Sugar.
“While many things about you chill me to the core, my son, I do pity you right now,” said the doctor. “This will be the last easy thing you do, I’m sure of it.”
“Bring Brooke,” said Sugar.
“Your brother is dead,” said the doctor.
Sugar moaned and set his head back. He seemed to instinctively know when to push, and the child was working its way out with little effort or coaching from the doctor.
“Gross,” said Alice.
“Yes,” said the doctor.
“Is he going to die?” asked the young deputy. He was at the doctor’s side then, standing just behind Alice. The sheriff lit a cigarette, and stepped onto the porch.
“I doubt it,” said the doctor. “You could get me a basin of clean, warm water. Some soap. Some clean blankets. You could make yourself useful.”
The boy did just that. He vanished with a determined air.
“Do you deliver a lot of babies?” said Alice.
“Some,” said the doctor.
“Do you like it?”
“Sometimes,” said the doctor.
“I am going to die,” said Sugar. “But I am not afraid.”
“Very good on you,” said the doctor.
“Is he going to die?” said Alice.
“No,” said the doctor. “Don’t worry at all about that. Why don’t you take a moment and get a name from each of these fine deputies. I’d like to be able to address them individually, if need be.”
Alice toured the room then, introducing herself and asking each deputy his name. They seemed put out mostly, by the day and condition of the doctor and all they were being asked to do. But it was charming enough to engage with a young girl in pigtails, so they smiled and gave their names. There was Isaac, John, Clint Sr., Jack, Weston, and the young deputy. He was not back yet and could not introduce himself properly.
The sheriff was on the porch, making a point of staying out of things.
“We’re nearly done,” said the doctor. “It is nearly a child.”
Alice rushed back to his side. She gasped, then put her hand to her mouth. It was the first time in her life she’d performed the gesture involuntarily. Until now, she had always done it in imitation of the ladies she knew, when her siblings did something worth gasping at, or when they stumbled upon something they weren’t to have seen. This time, the gesture was genuine and unexpected. It felt very adult.
Before her was an open wound swallowing the bottom half of a child’s body. The doctor met the child’s waist with his hands, still trembling and dirty from the road, and he slid the child out into the cool air of that bright morning. It screamed like nothing she had ever heard before. It was covered in blood and something slick, thicker than blood, that held only a vague tint of pink and orange. There was a purplish-white rope running from the baby to the man and the doctor cut it with a knife he produced from his waistband.
“It is a child,” said the doctor. “Voila.”
At that moment, the young deputy appeared in the doorway with the water. He spilled it in waves upon the office floor as he brought it to the doctor’s side. The doctor set the baby in the water, which was fairly warm and seemed to have a mildly calming effect — though the screaming did not stop.
Sugar was collapsed into the bench and bleeding from a visible tear that vanished beneath him. It might have gone on forever, back up to his shoulders and around, for all Alice knew.
“You are late with this,” said the doctor.
“I’m… is that it?” said the deputy. His eyes watered over at the site of the baby coming clean in the water.
The doctor lifted it and began to wipe the slick matter from its arms and legs.
“This is the child.”
“Not dead,” said the doctor.
“Let me see it,” said Sugar, without lifting himself up.
“It’s a girl,” said the doctor.
“Let me see it,” said Sugar.
The other deputies tried to make a point of not looking, but the doctor caught several of them stealing glances.
“The child’s in good health and will stop crying eventually,” shouted the doctor to the room. “It is not a demon. Not yet.”
“Can I hold it?” said Alice.
“Let me see it,” said Sugar.
The doctor set the child in Alice’s arms, and showed her how to hold it.
He washed his hands in the red water in the basin then dried them on the remaining blankets.
“Where did you get these blankets?” said the doctor.
“From a woman… down the street. I just…”
“They’re dirty,” said the doctor.
“It doesn’t matter now,” said the doctor. “But you have made a mistake.”
“Let me see it,” said Sugar. It was chant-like. Less a request and more a rhythm he was holding in his mouth.
Alice brought the baby to his side and knelt to place it in his arms. She showed him how to hold it.
“What is it?” said Sugar.
The doctor set down the dirty, stained blanket and joined the sheriff on the porch. He stuck in a plug of tobacco. His hands were starting to settle. The road was crisp before him and the sun was fully baked in the sky. He needed a drink.
“An abomination,” he said, and spat.
It was a bright night, and everything was more blue and white than black. Brooke had long ago lost the trail they might have been taking, or any prints to indicate a proper route. If he’d learned the stars, he could have at least followed them in some vaguely correct direction. But he had not learned the stars. He had not even tried. He might have tried more, he thought. He might have retained a few things here and there, instead of always just doing what he was good at and never learning anything. He cursed himself for being good at things that got you by. He turned back from his wide wandering and decided to follow the water instead. He might have been lost, but at least he would live.
In every direction, it was rock and desert. Small plants cropped up like lint on the horizon, but there was nothing substantial, other than stone and vastness, nothing that would lead him to believe food would be coming his way any time soon. He wasn’t particularly hungry, but he would be. For Brooke, it came on strong, and like a seizure, it gripped him and would not let go.
It was funny to him, to die in this way. Alone and for no good reason. Nearly every man he’d killed, he’d killed for a reason, however simple the reason was. And now he would die from bad luck and the world’s indifference. It was funny to him, on some level.
He began to list in his head the men and women he had killed in his life. One of them or some of them had come back on him and that had brought him here. It had likely not happened as intended, but the end result would be the same.
There was Jenny’s man. The runner. Whatever it was he’d done, Jenny wanted him gone, and she was a high payer and even a sort of friend. And now Jenny was gone and her bar was gone and there was nothing left of the sizable deal they’d made. Taking the man down had not been a particular challenge. They’d found him sleeping beside the very fire he had used to cook his last meal. They positioned his face in the coals and held it there until he ceased to struggle. They had not robbed him because they did not rob when they did not have to. People are sentimental and objects have personal value beyond the knowledge of thieves. They were to be paid and would have had everything they needed, so they left the man’s objects to those who would find him. They took his food but that would have been of no use to anyone but themselves after a day or so. It was an easy job, but one that had gone uncelebrated and, as far as Brooke knew, unrumored or spread. It was likely not an associate of Jenny’s man that was after them.
Before that there was a constable of some sort. Brooke could not remember the full details of the man’s position. He had been on the payroll of a criminal who was doing fine more or less running a small town by a large lake, until he hassled the wrong farmer and got a couple of killers after him. At one point, Brooke and Sugar had been in high demand wherever they’d gone. People needed support, protection. They’d like a gun in their hand, but even more they’d like a gun in someone else’s hand, a hand they could control. Brooke understood it. He appreciated it. Decent people had others to look after and could not go hunting folks down for revenge or justice themselves. He and Sugar were not technically decent people. They had one another, but it was because they were brothers and they cared for one another, not out of any kind of necessity or civility.
It was true, the constable of some sort had put up a fight. He even tried to hole up in his home with a set of antique rifles. Brooke and Sugar had finally had to smoke him out, filling his windows with explosive cocktails and setting themselves up to fire on anyone who came tumbling out. They expected him to come from the front door or a window, but the man had held his position. There was very little recognizable left of him in the ashes.
Brooke did not like killing men of high standing because it made people restless. It made them worry that they were not safe, and Brooke and Sugar were far better off with everyone feeling like they were safe. Safe as possible. They’d left that town and never come back. It was entirely possible that the constable’s men were those that were after him and his brother. They’d had an official air to them, Brooke’s captors. They were self-righteous and clean.
There was little use in this kind of speculation, but he needed something to keep his mind and feet moving as he progressed toward wherever it was that he was going.
Another possibility was the little man who’d razed Jenny’s. They hadn’t killed anyone that Brooke could remember, but they’d beaten his men and there was reason to be sore about the exchange. The hope had been to leave town and be done with all of it. There was plenty of territory to roam and no reason to ever go back to any particular spot if there wasn’t something favorable awaiting them. They weren’t about to get in any established person’s way over something that was much larger than either him or Sugar.
The stream broke against a large red rock and split in two. Brooke had heard that a lot of the stars in the sky were more or less the same every night, and you could use them as a tool. It did not look that way to him. It looked like a pan full of sand that shook and shook each night after it set.
His mind was wandering. He could not focus. It meant he was tired, but he could not bring himself to stop moving yet. He needed some final something to secure himself in his plan, or to draft a new one. He did not like to wait or give in before a challenge. It was cold out there. He was shivering and wet and getting colder. He did not like the desert.
After several hundred more feet, he fell. He loosed a reasonable amount of wood from his supply and began to pile it into a cone. He could not go on in the cold, tired as he was. There was no shame in collapsing. There was only shame in letting fear or uncertainty give you pause. There was a flint in each of his heels and he removed his boots to get the fire going then slid them back on for additional warmth. They were not safe shoes, but that was part of the pleasure of them. And more than once they’d brought him comfort and a sense of home when there would otherwise have been none. He did not like to wear them down, but emergencies did happen. He did not much mind being alone. He warmed his hands and cheeks when the flames finally kicked up.
From Haints Stay by Colin Winnette. Copyright (c) 2015 by Colin Winnette. Reprinted with permission of Two Dollar Radio.