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!”
“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?”