Woebegone

The Well

Shading her eyes against crystalline morning light with her free hand, Hattie makes her way to The Well with her wicker-sleeved jug. The woven basket handles are generous and would make for comfortable carrying even if the jug was full, which it never is.

Hattie has acquired the habit, as others before her have done, of referring to The Well with a particular emphasis, as though the word was a proper noun.

Instead of catch-basins closer to the edge, farther back a’ways, there are wells. Some are productive enough. There is, however,  only the one capital “W” Well, and it’s maintained with a vigilance resembling a military installation.

Located in what might be called a plaza at the roughly defined center of town, The Well remains sealed against the elements in a manner to discourage unauthorized access. Not that anyone in Woebegone would ever avail themselves of the good water beyond their allotted ration.

Distribution is a daily ritual following a rigid, one might say an uncompromising protocol, established over time by the meager flow and sparse reserve of the precious resource. This protocol is overseen by the one individual whose personal nature could also be considered uncompromising, an obvious asset in this case, given the good water to be a treasure beyond price, one to be protected at any cost.

Four women are gathered at The Well when Hattie arrives.

Poor Reena Ledbedder, large with twins and miserable today, shifts her weight from one foot to the other behind Shea Buford, hugging her jug.

Shea waits with almost catatonic patience for her allotment without so much as a look or grunt of acknowledgement in Hattie’s direction, or any other. She’s still new hereabouts and the turning’s been hard with her.

Beautiful Ruthie Mallory, on the other hand, bless her sweet, child’s heart, cannot wait to tell Hattie about a dream she had the night before.

Velma Hawley’s features are pinched into a familiar grimace.

There is a smoldering hatred in the gray eyes of the self-appointed Water Mistress that refuses to be restrained. It boils out expansively and without selectivity. She seems to dislike everyone with equal fervor. How sweet, doddering old Pete could stand the lemon-sucking old bat is beyond Hattie’s ken.

The people some people choose.

That their only child is an equally unlikable, oversized, combative road-apple is no unsolvable mystery, however.

The Water Mistress has continued to measure the good water into their individual containers. Now, she’s stopped.

“Mizzy Pruitt, I heared you had a visitor come in out the blowin’ sand last night.”

“Drifter. Doody brought him to me. He was in terrible torment. I gave him some good water and he quieted right down.”

“Well, that was generous of ya. You use yer share however ya want, ‘course, but I ain’t able ta give ya any extra ‘cause of it. Tell me, though, did he look tasty?”

Hattie suppresses the scowl that would only serve to further perturb the Water Mistress, no doubt influencing the measurement of her ration for days to come.

“He looked haunted.”

The clatter of Jamie Mallory’s buckboard being drawn up the main street by Jamie’s two mules, Sister and Sarah, intrudes. Heads turn toward the noise.

Jamie, lounging against the bench seat’s padded backrest, lifts his little cap and waves to the women with a grin. “Marnin’ to ya, foin laidees,” he hails in passing and, to Ruthie, a doting, “Hoy, dorlin’.”

Ruthie and Hattie wave back. Reena’s raised hand awards her a tiny kick in the abdomen. Shea stares into the distance.

Velma heaves a resonant sigh. “I don’t have all day, ladies.”

Newt, bent over the traces, peeks out from under the brim of his hat and winks at Hattie. Her sweet man, even yet. She winks back.

The wagon turns off the main street toward the Stores. It’s tracks in the dirt look deep, suggesting a heavy load underneath the buck’s oilskin cover, but the only outward indication of the success of the outing is a pair of big, rough-looking dogs trailing close behind on heavy leads.

Velma, watching the dogs round the corner out of sight, licks her lips.

Shea Buford shuffles away, hugging her bottle of precious liquid to her bosom.

“Ruthie,” Hattie says, “why don’t you tell me about your dream, honey?”

Ruthie’s eyes slip from Hattie to the Water Mistress. Velma has resumed metering her allocations.

“Well, okay. I was havin’ a picnic momma made for me, sittin’ right by this nice little crick. There was all sorta good things in the li’l basket. I was real happy.”

The Water Mistress gives a derisive snort. Hattie keeps a look of vexation sheathed.

“But then the water in the river it becomed all icky… thick like porridge, an’ there was a fog comin’ offn it, like it was steamin’, or maybe smokin’. I couldn’t tell which it was but it made the trees an’ grass all wilt an’ die an’ I ‘member my skin sorta felt funny whur it touched me.”

Ruthie swallows hard.

“I was ‘fraid ta breathe it in an’ I tried to get up to run away, but I seed there was somethin’ on my arm like a little animal, ‘r maybe a big kinda bug thing! It had feet with toes an’ it held onta my arm with ’em an’ its head…”

The girl tremors twice, the memory vivid. Her voice is too loud.

“Top its head was awful, Auntie! Long, like a… a knittin’ needle. An’ sharp! It scared me sore much I ‘member I screamed an’ tried ta shake it offn me an’ ‘at’s when it… it smiled at me, Auntie Pruitt! A wicked, hateful smile. Then it sticked its head right inta my arm an’ it hurt sore fierce that I woked up.”

Ruthie’s eye are huge, staring into Hattie’s.

“I thunk fer a minute it was still on me! But Momma came runnin’ cuz I was cryin’ an’ weren’t nothin’ there. She tolt me be still cuz it was jist a dream, but…”

“But what, Honey?”

“But when I tolt her what happened, I seed she looked sorta funny her own self. Then she jist tolt me it’d be awright an’ sent me ta fetch water an’ not say nothin’ an’ here I am.”

Ruthie raises her arm and lifts back the sleeve of her frock. Her forearm is discolored, purple-black with a long welt at the center of the bruise. Hattie takes the youngster’s arm and probes the site with delicate attention.

Ruthie flinches, draws back with a wince and whimper, pulling her sleeve down.

Hattie’s concern for the girl’s injury balances precariously in the moment with the memory of her own similar dream not so long ago, the recollection of it grown perhaps imprecise, but the description of the little creature could not have been more intimate. She had forgotten about the smile.

The recollection sends a prickly wave under and over her. How very, disturbingly evil, it had seemed then. She happens to catch Reena Ledbedder’s eyes and sees the look of consternation in them. She knows that look.

The thing that used to be Velma Hawley braces her fists on her hips and produces an impatient harrumph. “S’prised atcho, Mizzy Pruitt.” Her voice drips condescension. “S’prised you ain’t seen such b’fore, you bein’ th’ new ‘n’ better witchy woman here ‘n’ all.”

“Instead of me,” is the part Velma did not say aloud and Hattie reminds herself that no response could be in any way helpful at this moment. Velma is in teaching mode, teaching Hattie a thing or two.

“Simple fact is, the child must’ve started her red days recent.” She fixes Ruthie with a sharp stare. “Ain’t that right, Missy?”

Ruthie looks at her shoes.

“Thought so. Them’s the times, girl. Nice hot comfrey poultices’ll take it right down inna day ‘n’ that’s that. Nothin’ ta git yerselves all worked up over.

“I’ll tell you this too, D’kin Remert sez to me th’other day the needle-head thing people keep sayin’ they seen is jist some kinda lergic reaction to somethin’ in the vironment. He sez he’s figurin’ it out.”

This last Velma has directed toward Reena, the most likely to go into a faint at the troubling thought of the needle-headed dream creature being somehow—sweet Jesus, though we’ve all gone an’ forsaken ya, please don’t let it be, you know… real.

And Hattie knows the older woman’s been speaking to her all along.

She wants as much as anything to ask Velma what it all means, knowing before she does so, she’ll get no satisfaction there. Instead, she offers a sincere, “thank you” for the unsolicited advice and hoists her jug with disappointing ease.

“Come along, Ruthie. Let’s take care of you,” she says and starts off up the street toward the Stores. “But first let’s see what the men brought back with them, shall we?”

      ~    ~

The Well Read More »

At Hattie’s

Hattie Pruitt has begun to worry, and that worries her a little. Before the turning she’d been a dreadful fretter. Why, she’d lie awake all night sometimes, anxious about the silliest things. Afterward, nothing seemed to bother her anymore. Now she just lays down her head and drops right off, easy as you please. Easy as pie. Easy as falling off a log.

Not that the dreams aren’t sometimes very odd. They are, but to tell the truth, she can’t remember the details of a single one of them the next morning and she doesn’t really care to. Dreams are just vapor. Why bother with them?

Thinking of it now, though, sparks memory of a dream… when? Months ago. Six? Not more, surely. Maybe.

A dreadful little creature had its needle-pointed head stabbed onto the muscle of her upper arm. She remembers her sense of revulsion, seeing it in the dream.

Yes, that one was peculiar. The next morning her arm was sore to the touch and to use it but, of course, she had to use it anyway. By the time she thought to worry about it, though, the soreness was fading.

It seemed an odd thing then, but not a problem she had to sort out. She laughed when she told Newt about it. He didn’t laugh.

What worries her today is Newt’s real late getting home and she’s gotten one of her feelings.

Newt had set out with Jamie Mallory in Jamie’s big buckboard over a week ago bound for Las Vegas, a wide spot on the Santa Fe Trail two days northwest. They’d loaded up with all sorts of tradeables, planning to meet up with as many as they could of the cavallards passing through on the Trail constant these days. An unbroken stream in both directions, they are. So Jamie Mallory says.

Some of the items they took with them were made by Remert in his shop: specialized tools and creative little gadgets, and toys, even. Hattie can’t imagine where he comes up with such ideas. They also took along some of the quilts and clothing the womenfolk had made together.

Not to seem prideful, as a good bit of the work was Hattie’s own, but their wovens and needlework are as fine as any she’s seen anywhere and she’s lived in Chicago. She knows right enough what ‘fine’ ought to look like.

She can’t remember who, but someone suggested they take along a small keg of the good water with them too. That seemed to spark some heated debate, as such represents a precious lot of the stuff; it comes up from the Well so slowly.

The idea was advanced that it might help promote some new blood in the town, or at the least, fresh consumables. There was one strident objection.

Doody, battered beaver hat perched atop his dome like a badge of office, had rapped his gavel a couple times on the counsel table, the long, wide, lacquered one, and told Silas to take a seat and quit wasting the counsel’s time being frivolous. Then he led a short meeting about how much good water might be allowable. Hattie remembers it wasn’t much. A canning jar full, no more. Most everyone seemed satisfied they’d been heard, at least.

Doody, of course, would have been elected mayor long ago if anyone gave such notions even passing consideration anymore, which they didn’t. He’d long since assumed the responsibility for maintaining an orderly forum whenever decisions affecting the well-being of the community required deliberation. These meetings always seemed to take place within his establishment anyway. He has furniture.

Thing is, Newt and Jamie should’ve been back by now if nothing’s gone wrong and here’s this awful dust storm blown up. Hattie realizes she isn’t actually worried about Newt. No, Newt can take care of himself. What concerns her most is that something has shifted.

She’s not sure when it happened, but she’s realized it. Trouble’s coming, bad trouble with this battering windstorm as its harbinger. Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to face it alone.

With naught to do but wait, Hattie leans an elbow on the chair arm and lays her chin in her fist. No doubt she could conjure some busy work, but sometimes it’s beneficial to just be with oneself and, honestly, she doesn’t much care to do anything right now but listen to the driven sand scour the town clean. It’s enough to just be and see what comes of that.

 She brushes her cheek, stretching the skin, so supple and soft, like when she was young. In most regards, she feels like she did when she was young. Where are the small wrinkles that had begun to develop around her lips and eyes before she and Newt came to be here?

The good water cannot fully overcome the consequences of weather and time; this she’s been told. But damned if it don’t appear to hold them off at a solicitous distance for a good spell. She’s seen what it has done for those who’ve been here longer. And what it hasn’t done.

Perhaps if there was more of it… but nothing’s likely to come of such speculation.

Her other hand combs absently back through what was once a handsome tumble of dark, shoulder-length hair. An uncommon streak of pure white appeared there some time after her and Newt set up housekeeping in this place, a filament at first just left of center. Now her tresses on the entire left side are like strands of snow. It all feels the same, but even now when she sees herself in a looking glass, the effect is disconcerting.

Fingers trailing now from the ends of her hair, she holds both hands out in front of bright gray eyes and examines them front and back, as though they were unfamiliar. Long, nimble fingers. The capable hands of an accomplished pianist. She used to be quite good—gifted, someone once said of her—but that was in, literally, another life. She wonders if these fingers could yet find their way through the scherzo of Bach’s Partita Number Three. Humming the melody to the wind outside, she tickles the air with delicate butterfly strokes.

The thread of the moment unravels and her hands flutter down, trailing across the bodice of her simple dress, once again surprised at how little surplus material seems to be there, and down over her flat belly to hips and legs. If memory serves, they had once been considered quite shapely, now leaner and stronger than she remembers them.

The two realities are superimposed as a fresh wave of blowing sand pelts against door and shutters and, in the moment of comparison, she is vexed by her inability to remember with any clarity how she and her Newt came to be here.

It doesn’t matter, of course, because she can no longer imaging herself being anywhere else than this improbable little hamlet with its majestic surroundings. Also, the secret treasure at its heart, the tiny, tranquil spring seeping its priceless enchantment into a deep, secret basin.

Something clatters discourteously across the roof and Hattie looks to the low ceiling, not with concern, but with appreciation for Newt’s carpentry. Like most of the houses in town, the Pruitts built theirs out of solid beams and good clapboard hauled down from the town of Pueblo a number of years ago. It’s double-walled, pitch sealed, and filled in between with something like sawdust that Remert provided. It’s insulated against the cold and snow of winter and resistant to rain and wind, too, like what’s just now sandblasting the already weathered exterior.

Inside, by the yellow light of a single lamp, Hattie sits in the rocker chair Newt made for her, listening, smelling the traces of dust in the air, waiting. A knock at the door jolts her. Not Newt, surely; he wouldn’t knock.

Before she can raise herself from the chair, the door opens outward with difficulty against the gale and Doody lets himself inside followed by a lanky fellow with a load over his shoulder. Doody hauls the door shut behind them.

“Sorry about calling so late and unannounced, Hattie,” he says.

The room’s not large and only a couple steps bring her close enough to get a good look at both of them in the lamplight.

“Deuteronomy, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you out ‘n’ about without your hat,” she says by way of greeting.

“Wasn’t about to let that,” Doody gestures toward the bluster and debris chattering against the outer walls, “take my bonnet and throw it out into the Miles. No, ma’am, that just wouldn’t do.”

He reaches a brown hand to his forehead, tips an imaginary chapeau to the woman, and continues, “This pilgrim here just blew in on the wind and needs a place to stay the night. I recall you’ve got an extra room Newt built for your momma, God rest her, and thought maybe you wouldn’t mind puttin’ him up in it.” He gives her a grin and a wink. “He says he can pay.”

Hattie looks the fellow up and down. He’s got manners enough to remove his hat, she notices, and he’s got an interesting face; not handsome, Lord no, but pleasing in a hard-edged sort of way. Looks strong, unmistakable Indian features and, equally unmistakable, reddish stubble growing out of his face. There’s a combination not often seen, safe to say. Pretty eyes, too, like new grass.

Something in those eyes is troubling.

“You got a name, mister?”

“He can’t hear you,” Doody says. “Says he had an accident a few days back. Deaf.”

“He’s hurtin’, too,” Hattie says. “Hurtin’ bad.”

“He don’t show it.”

“I can see it in his eyes.” She lifts a hand to the side of his head, touches him with her fingertips, then draws her hand back. “Oh, my…”

Jonas senses the same vague oddness about this woman that he felt from those back at the leathery man’s place, but there’s no threat in it and the woman seems kindly enough. Seems, too, she’s got a bit of a knowing herself. Or maybe the pain inside his head has become so strong it’s begun to leak out and anybody can feel it that comes close enough.

“Ma’am, I’m real sorry ta be a bother to ya…” he begins and the woman silences him with two fingers held to his lips.

Hattie takes his arm and leads him to Newt’s chair, pressing him into it with a deliberation that says she’s taken charge now and he might just as well accept the fact.

She gives Deuteronomy a wan smile as he gathers up Jonas’s gear with a grunt. She points to a doorway giving onto a small room where there’s just enough space to pile Jonas’s things near the foot of a thick feather-tick mattress set up on a wooden pallet.

Hattie fills a glass from a demijohn on a low counter with cupboard above, cluttered shelves below, and a good pitch-sealed wooden basin on top. Newt’s handiwork. She catches Doody’s raised eyebrow as she turns back to her guest with the glass in hand. She hands it to Jonas and says o Doody, “He’s in awful misery. Can’t you see it?”

“Nope. You’re the sensitive one.”

“Sit with us for a bit, won’t you? I’ll need some help with him presently.”

Doody lowers himself onto a straight-back chair by the table and affords Hattie his full attention. “I can’t think of any place better to be just now.”

It smells all right, Jonas thinks to himself. What were you expecting anyway? Yet it feels cool in his mouth and the flavor of it is… what’s that word? He heard it roll off his father’s tongue on occasion. Never thought he’d ever have occasion to use it himself before now, but this wave of liquid sliding down his throat tastes just so extraordinary, so clean and right, it almost makes him weep.

Exquisite. That’s the word.

A rush of delicious well-being washes over him as sudden as it is profound. He takes another long swallow, and another, savoring both the incomparable flavor and the wondrous flood of contentment spreading through him all the way to his fingertips and toes.

Years ago, he stood in the surf of the Pacific Ocean allowing the swells to crest and break over him. Each time he would surface and, shivering, stutter out, “Thank you, Grandmother!” And when he fell back onto the beach at last, the chilly morning air seemed comfortable by comparison to her embrace.

This feels very much the same. Except this wave rolling over and through him is a warm one. Like being lifted on breeze. Like a mother’s caress.

He can feel his muscles relaxing and the agonizing pressure of the screaming silence between his ears begins to melt away.

The little room commences to swim in a lazy way and Jonas can’t help but smile at the way it makes the woman’s face waver. She smiles back at him. Tears roll down his cheeks.

Doody watches, nodding as the familiar scene plays out. The fellow’s hard features show first surprise, then soften to assume a look of calm wonder and obvious pleasure. His knotted brow grows smooth even as the smile forms on his lips and the drifter whispers, “Thank you, Grandmother.”

Unexpected laughter bursts from him, startling Hattie and she jumps, recovering in time to snatch the glass as it slips from the man’s limp fingers.

He slumps forward. Without being asked, Doody rises to help Hattie lift the fellow out of the chair and carry him into the adjoining room, laying him out on the mattress there.

“I’ll finish tendin’ to him later,” Hattie says in a hushed voice, closing the door on Jonas’s slumber as quietly as the dry hinges will allow.

“No reason to act the church mouse, Hattie. You couldn’t wake that fellow now with a steam whistle and a cannon right there in the room with him.”

Hattie’s head lifts up, eyes to the ceiling. “D’ you hear that?”

Doody stops shuffling and cocks his head to the side, listening. “Wind’s died.”

“You know,” she says, “I think that’s about the worst I seen since Newt and me came here.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Doody begins, and then looks puzzled. “That’s funny. Darned if I can remember when, but I know I have.”

“Some memories seem to slip away in the turning. Others…” Hattie remembers who she’s talking to and she laughs. “Guess I don’t have to be tellin’ you any of that now, do I?”

Doody lays a kindly hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I’ve been here a good while. Got its advantages, it does, and I can afford to let a couple irrelevant memories slide now ‘n’ again. Seems a fair trade.”

“What about the ones that aren’t irrelevant?”

He turns toward the door, fixing to leave. “They all are.”

“I could make some tea if you’d like to stay and talk a bit,” Hattie says. She knows she sounds plaintive. At least the wind had been a kind of company. If Doody goes now, it’s going to be too quiet with nothing to do but think.

“Thank you, Hattie. That shit-for-brains, Maylon, took exception to the pilgrim’s looks earlier and made a bit of a mess over’t my place. I better get on back and clean up. Maybe when your man gets back, I’ll take you up on that tea and we’ll hear about his adventure.”

“He shoulda been back by now.”

“He an’ Mallory are hunkered down under cover. I expect they’ll be along come morning.”

“You sound like you know.”

“Surprised you don’t.

“Wait, you said Maylon took exception to this fellow over at your place. What happened?”

Doody points to the closed door of the adjoining room with his chin. “Gave Maylon what for.”

“You’re pullin’ my leg.”

“Am not.”

“Way I hear it, only ones ever got the best of that mean sonofabitch, ‘scuse my French, is the Cosgrove pair.” She smothers a little shiver. “One at a time at that, and I’m told Punkin whipped him the worst before it got broke up.”

“Woman, I’d a thought the same until tonight. Maylon threatened him with that mule-skinner’s knife he’s so proud of. The wayfarer there put him on the ground sniveling like a little girl.” Doody’s chuckling now. “You should’a seen it.”

“Lordy, I wish I had,” Hattie says, and the thought makes her chuckle a little too. It’s short-lived, as laughs and smiles often are in these parts, and she shakes her head in renewed disgust. “Maylon’s a belligerent, quarrelsome bully an’ no mistake. I don’t trust him at my back even a little bit. I’d like to think he may be of use to us some day.”

“You’re too generous, Hattie. By my reckoning, he’s a complete catastrophe desperately in search of someplace to occur. Should’ve harvested him when he was still a pup and been done with hm.”

Doody opens the door and pauses on the threshold before stepping out into the eerie quiet. “Maybe you’re right, though. He may have some use one day… long as it doesn’t require any common sense or good will.”

“Good night, Deuteronomy.”

“Thank you, and a peaceful night to you, Missus Pruitt.”

The simple ritual of civilized folk parting company carried out by individuals that are no longer quite human is not so much play-acting as holding on to the remembrance of what they once were in the face of an altered existence for which there are no clear rules, no prior experience from which to draw conclusions, or direction.

Closing the door on the deserted street and Doody’s retreating back, Hattie looks in on her guest. Motionless in the doorway of the little room, contemplating the man unconscious there, of one thing she is sure. She felt trouble coming on the wind earlier.

Well, here it is.

 

 

      ~      ~

At Hattie’s Read More »

The Pilgrim

Wind whistles tunelessly, but with unrestrained enthusiasm outside and through tiny gaps around the windows and doors of a large common room. A breath of fine dust puffs into the space and hangs in the pool of yellow light from two of a trio of oil lamps affixed to an old wagon wheel. It’s hung with bits of chain from the ceiling center beam. A similar chandelier, placed to illuminate the other end of the space, is dark.

A bit of wind-blown debris claps against the shutters out front on its way down the only street in town and the thing that had once been Silas Gunderson lifts its gaze from the table-top checkerboard.

To its credit, the thing still looks and sounds like Silas Gunderson always has and almost always continues to think of itself as Silas Gunderson, but it’s not. Not really. Not anymore. Still, it’d probably be easier to think of it as ‘he’, rather than ‘it’ because, doggone it, it does.

The look of annoyance on Sy’s face is genuine enough and he gives voice to his displeasure. “Fer th’ love o’ Pete, Pete! What in blazes ya waitin’ for?!”

Pete Hawley’s expression, when he pulls his attention away from the game, is one of vague perplexity. The slow intelligence that still thinks of itself as Pete Hawley looks out from behind his eyes and blinks them a few times without apparent comprehension.

“‘Fraid I’m unable ta twig yer meanin’ there, Sy. Why don’t ya quit stallin’ an’ make yer move already.”

“Wha…? Why, ya dunderhead! I been waiting fer you ta make yer blamed move fer five minutes! Wake up, will ya, Pete?”

“Well, I dunno why. I jist moved right there,” Pete says. He stabs a boney finger at a black checker near the far left corner of the board, “more’n four minutes ago. Waitin’ on you ever since.”

The thing that was Silas Gunderson slaps his thigh in exasperation. “Fine!”

He reaches out with the little finger of his left hand, the only digit remaining on it to oppose his thumb and, with them, reaches to pluck a red checker from the board, placing it onto Pete’s back row. “King me!”

“What? Wait…” Pete swivels his head to address the huge fellow slumped back in his chair at a nearby table. “Did you see whose turn it was, Maylon?”

Maylon seems an unusually broad tree-stump of a lad. A stringy mop of greasy brown hair falls over eyes set too close together beneath a low, sloping brow. A flattened nose overhangs his thick-lipped mouth, gaping open, as though his protruding lower lip was a great dangling weight. He’s got far too much chin and jaw, and he’d surely have the look of a malformed simpleton if not for a brooding malevolence in his eyes and pinching his features.

Arms crossed, he’s scowling at a clear glass of liquid on the tabletop in front of him. It’s not half full.

“Do ya think I give a shit?” says the boy without looking up. His voice cracks, unable to achieve depth and timbre to match his impressive mass, or to carry the full weight of his congenital hostility. It adds a shrill note of irritability to his sullen demeanor.

Pete turns to the only other person in the spartan establishment.

That fellow signed his name ‘Deuteronomy Potwin’ when the town was more or less chartered maybe ten-eleven years ago and he’s still willing to answer to that moniker, though everybody just calls him Doody.

Doody’s kicked back with his chair propped at a precarious lean against the wall next to a wide, sixteen foot-long plank, sanded smooth and varnished deep. It serves intermittently as bar, podium, retail counter, bench, and buffet table. He’s flipping playing cards from a pack in his hand at a tall, ratty-looking, beaver hat stationed upside-down on the only clean spot on the floor ten feet away. The area all around it is littered with cards.

The trey of diamonds cartwheels off the brim of the hat and continues tumbling under another table as Doody dislodges a smoldering stub of cigarette from his lips with yellow-tinted fingers and points it at Pete just as the other begins to open his mouth.

“Before you bother to ask,” he says, “the only reason I pay any attention to you two comedians at all is because you make me laugh once in a while, but otherwise—and I find myself deeply disappointed to hear myself say this—I’m actually in agreement with young Maylon’s demonstration of ignorance and apathy over there. I don’t know and I don’t care either.”

He taps some ash onto the floor, reinserting the butt into a brown indentation between his lips just left of center.

The jack of hearts seems to catch a draft or something and coils off the mark.

Pete looks deflated. “Igner’nce an’ apathy’s about all that’s left ’round here these days.”

Sy’s chair grates back on the rough plank floor and he unhinges himself upright. “I gotta go take a Pete,” he says.

“Hey, lemme see that flesh club you call a hand again before you run off.”

Sy extends his arm toward Doody, palm out, pinky sticking up. Doody’s chair creaks down to a wobbly four-point landing and he rises to inspect the fellow’s damaged paw.

“If memory serves, windmill gears lopped them off three… no, four days ago.” Doody says. “I was in here that morning, but clear back in the kitchen rattling around. I heard you hollering from the field.”

From the mangled remnants of flesh and bone where fingers used to be, tiny nubs, pink and vital, have begun to sprout. Sy swivels his wrist, shows Doody the other side.

“Hurt like hell,” he says. “Still does off an’ on, but I sure do ‘preciate all them that shared some of their ration with me.” He wiggles his nubs. “Another week, I ‘spect, ‘fore they feel right.”

“Good that you got your thumb out of the way.”

Doody bends over the plank, reaching below, fingers questing, and straightens with a bottle neck trapped between them. A shot glass is tucked under his little finger. He lands the glass on the plank that’s now a bar, fills it from the bottle, and slides it over to Silas.

“Why, thank you, sir. You are a gentleman.”

“Tell no one.”

Silas knocks the shot down and stands motionless, head back, eyes closed, breathing deeply.

“Do ya s’pose I could have another sip o’ good water too, Doody?” Pete looks hopeful.

“Why don’t I get you a beer instead?”

“Oh. Yeah, okay.”

Silas steps out the back door to the jakes.

Doody fetches a bottle of warm brew from a low cabinet behind the bar plank. He’s straightening up with a bottle in each hand, because as long as he’s getting one, he might just as well get another for himself, when the latch at the entrance clicks. A gust throws the door wide, casting a lanky figure at the threshold in gritty silhouette.

Maylon, his back to the door, claps a big hand over top of his glass to keep the swirling dirt out of it and his voice carries over the whoosh and rattle behind him. “Shut the goddam door! What’re ya born inna fuckin’ barn?”

The man steps through lugging his gear slung over a shoulder, a scabbarded rifle and bedroll lashed to square, Pony Express-style saddlebags. He hooks a booted foot behind the heavy door and pulls it just enough to get his shoulder behind it, forcing it closed against the wind. The latch falls into place and he steps back.

He has a baleful appearance in the lamplight. The high collar of his duster is snapped to the top, his hat pulled down low over his eyes, and the rest of his face hidden behind a bandana that might’ve been blue at one time.

Doody sets a brown longneck bottle in front of Pete and they both watch the stranger shuck his burden onto a couple chairs at the table behind the door.

Pete sips at the bitter ale and glances at the young man brooding in silence just a few feet away, elbows on the table and too-heavy jaw cradled in his palms, staring down the drink he’s been nursing for the last half hour.

The boy looks so much like his son that Pete often forgets it’s not him. Not really. No more’n anybody here’s who they used to be. Except Pete. He sure doesn’t feel any different or anything.

The newcomer unties his bandana revealing a hard face. He doffs his hat without slapping the dust off it and sets it atop the rest of his belongings. Black hair is pulled back in a raveling braid tucked down into his graying duster, which he unsnaps top to bottom and drapes over the back of the nearest chair.

Pete and Doody observe the fellow has the gaunt, wild look of one who’s been several days in the badlands. His back to the room and one hand resting on the table, he becomes still, head down, cupping his eyes with the other hand.

Pete looks at Doody, looks at the stranger, and back again to Doody. Doody shrugs.

Out of the hot sand blasting around him, Jonas’s tears begin to work with effect. It takes a couple patient minutes for him to dislodge the worst of the irritation, but beyond that and more blinking, it feels as though grit has been received into every fold and crease from his John Bs to his boots.

His other discomfort, however, has become akin to the only toothache he’s ever endured, excruciating days that felt like a knife had been driven into his jaw. Except this knife pierces his head ear to ear and the racket inside there is so mercilessly loud it’s no wonder he can hear nothing at all.

He’s given the room his back without much concern. The old timer seated alone at the checkerboard’s harmless. The other old fellow reads far more thoughtful than quarrelsome. The youngster sitting by himself, though… now that’s a different story altogether. To the good, nobody’s packing iron, not even the one in the outhouse out back.

He can see that the beefy kid’s going to be trouble; sees several ways the next few minutes might unfold. He knew there’d likely be a bit of disturbance when he let himself inside the dreary, nameless establishment, but it was shelter.

He is here now. If food and sleep are to be had, this is the place to begin.

“You all right there, Mister?” inquires Deuteronomy.

Jonas turns away from his belongings and points himself toward the plank,  stepping around the far side of the table where the brooding man-child is sitting. Maylon gets his first look at the stranger since he entered.

As someone recently said of Jonas, his appearance belies his nature.

“Oh, HELL NO!” Maylon cries, his youthful voice cracking, his chair clattering to the floor behind. “You ain’t servin’ no prairie nigger in here!”

Jonas continues past without apparent notice.

“You git him the hell outta here, Doody, or I’ll do it for ya!”

“Boy, you don’t say who stays and goes in my place. Pete, get control of your child before he starts something I’ll have to finish.”

Maylon growls under his breath, “You couldn’t finish hoppin’ on one foot if I mashed the other’n flat.”

Pete stands looking distraught. The boy’s been of his own mind regardless anything Pete’s said to him for some time, since before the turning even. Probably not likely to listen to him now and Pete refrains from making such a useless effort.

Jonas approaches the narrow, but sturdy-looking graybeard with skin like smoked leather.

Bushy, sloping brows under a sparsely thatched dome give him a droopy, disconsolate look, but his eyes are sharp and blue. He’s talking around a cigarette that appears to have a permanent resting place between his lips, a small indentation stained like the skin between the index and middle fingers of his right hand. He removes the smoldering stub and says something to Jonas.

Pointing to one ear, Jonas says to him in a quiet voice, “Had me an accident few days back. Can’t hear ya.”

Deuteronomy nods understanding.

“Lookin’ for somethin’ to eat an’ a place to rest a spell,” says Jonas. “I can pay.”

Another nod and Doody assumes the role of barkeep, producing a bottle of red-eye and a glass.

Jonas waves him off. “Just water, if it please ya.”

Doody shakes his head and, although Jonas can’t hear him over the earsplitting roar of his deafness, he understands well enough as the man says, “Sorry, pilgrim. Drinking water’s in short supply hereabouts. How about a beer instead?”

Maylon is on his feet. “What the hell’s goin’ on here, Doody? Yer actually gonna give comfort to a murderin’ redskin. When’djoo become such an Indin lover?”

“What difference does it make to you?” Doody says and holds up a brown bottle. Jonas nods acceptance, reaching into the front pocket of his Levis for a coin. Doody’s lips twitch into a little smile without displacing his cigarette as he waggles a hand in front of Jonas.

“First thing,” he says to Maylon with bare patience, “this fellow appears more breed than blood to me and if he was out to do some murderin’, a bright young fella like yourself would probably already know about it.

“And second—and this is the most important fact, young Maylon—this here’s my place and I will serve whomever I damnhell please. That includes a lone traveler looking for shelter from this wicked weather.”

Maylon is grumbling without much articulation. “You know where he’s headed same as I do I guess so I don’t know why you gotta be so nice ta him an’ so bossy ta me, ya big horse pecker.”

He raises his voice from a mumble to something requiring a near octave change. “They’s probably more of his friends outside right now waitin’ ta jump us an’ then run house ta house slittin’ throats and liftin’ hair.”

“Holy shit!” Doody says, turning toward the boy with pop-eyed astonishment. “You’re probably right!”

“I am?”

“Hell yes! You need to run out there right now and find out! We might already be surrounded!”

“I got a better idea. Why don’tcha jist give him a little kiss, Indin lover?”

Doody’s expression becomes ominous.

“That’s it. I tried being civil with you, you insolent little turd! Doesn’t work. Now go out there and lay in the street where you belong. I mean it. Take your mean, snotty carcass out of my place right now, or so help me God, I’ll…”

The boy is eye to eye with Doody and twice as wide. “I don’t guess you’ve noticed, but God don’t come ’round here no more. If’n He did, I’d cook His almighty liver over a slow mesquite fire an’ eat it smack in front of ‘im.”

Maylon rounds on Jonas with a sneer. “How ’bout you, Cochise? Wanna come outside with me for a minute?”

Jonas has seen this unfold a few different ways in his mind’s eye and pays no attention to the interplay going on before and behind him, nor to the other checkers player just letting himself inside through the back door with a whirl of dust eddying around his boots.

He empties most of the warm lager down his dust-roughed throat and, while he can’t help but think with fondness about the ice-cold brew served up at the Long Branch not a month ago, at least this’s wet and not entirely unpleasant.

“Breed or blood, I could care less!” Maylon clamps a big hand on Jonas’s shoulder. “Lookit me, goddammit! I’m talkin’ ta you!”

He pulls Jonas around to face him, unsheathing a fair-sized hunting knife at his side with the other. He’s hungry to see the fear in the eyes of this savage dressed like a man.

The placid look on Jonas’s face and the stoniness in those unexpected green eyes is not what the boy has anticipated. Maylon blinks. Jonas reaches up to the hand on his shoulder and wrenches the boy’s thumb like the spigot on a keg.

Small joints twisting beyond the limits of their design make small shattering noises. The look of wild-eyed alarm that overtakes the boy’s features is encouraging.

Maylon discovers it’s impossible to bring his knife into play while his body is desperate to distance itself from the agony of his splintered thumb.

He spins backward and down, falling against his table, which up-ends with a crash. The remainder of his unfinished drink empties onto the side of his face and down his neck as the glass bounces once with a dull cracking sound and rolls across the floor. It stops between Jonas and Gunderson, who’s fairly well flummoxed at the developments while he was otherwise occupied out back.

Maylon’s knife has gotten loose during the hasty introduction of his backside to the floor and skitters out of reach, but the fight’s gone out of him. He’s sitting with his back propped against the upturned table dabbing with obvious concern at the wetness around his collar.

The other men are frozen, staring at Maylon with a potent mixture of disbelief and anger. Gunderson rolls the glass on the floor with the toe of his boot and says to no one in particular, “That was good water, wasn’t it?”

Pete can’t seem to decide whether he’s angry enough at his son to have words, or too afraid of him to say anything at all. He’d love to beat the miserable little sonofabitch with an axe handle, but he’s pretty sure he’d wind up wearing his own ass for a hat instead.

Gunderson’s not afraid of the Hawley bastard and hauls him up with a hand and a quarter in Maylon’s shirt-front ’til they’re eye to eye and yells into his face.

“You spilt good water! You! Dumb! Shit!”

“It was him done it! He pushed me down! An’ lookit what he done ta my hand!”

 Maylon holds up his paw with the thumb cocked at an unlikely angle.

Silas helps him stand and Maylon lunges toward Jonas the moment he’s up. Gunderson holds his ground for the moment between the two of them.

“Jesus Christ! Pete, help me get yer crotchfruit out of here, willya?”

“Hey, fuck you, Silas!” Maylon screams and hurls Gunderson away with ease. The sound of more breaking furniture behind him, he charges with a clawed hand closing on Jonas’s throat. “I’ll eat yer fuckin’ heart!”

Jonas grasps the young man’s good thumb and, with an effortless twist, drives him to his knees. His voice is soothing. “Thumb’s one of them things separates us from the lower animals. If I break this’n too, you’ll just be a monkey can’t wipe his own ass. That what ya want?”

The lad is squirming, trying to find a way to relieve the pain and whimpering just a little as he finds every movement makes it worse. None of the others have made a move to intervene.

“You’ve missed the point of this lesson, boy,” Jonas says. “I wouldn’t worry, though. I can see in your eyes you’re bound to get it again.”

Holding pressure on Maylon’s thumb, Jonas makes a looping gesture that forces the adolescent Hawley first to his feet, then onto his toes. A small adjustment in force turns Maylon toward the door where the elder Hawley and Gunderson bracket him and hustle him outside without farewells.

“Well, sir,” Doody opines to the deaf man, “I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see that. What do you say we find a place for you to lay your head?”

 

      ~      

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