Fiction by J. A. Tyler
Pistol in hand, O’Riley waited, suspended, for whatever firefight had sought him out in this willow gulch, hollowed here with a strange kid and a pale white horse.
They’d come to get him, and this time not for the bounty or the recognition. This time it was for the righteousness, the re-balancing. This time the men would be weaponized and saddled to string O’Riley up for the murder of a true man, a man almost more father to O’Riley than his own father. This mob would come to exact justice for the killing of a man who didn’t deserve it, not under anyone’s gun, least of all O’Riley’s vengeant revolver.
A branch snapped.
A coal whispered.
Andiss shifted in his sleep.
Nothing came. Nothing happened. The night returned slowly to its owls and breeze, branches brushing against one another again, dust picking up and laying down, the prairie sifting slowly into morning.
Slowly, O’Riley lowered his pistol, uncocked the hammer, though he still had to convince himself there wasn’t a band of mobbed men waiting for him in the lightening dim. With each barely breathing ray of early morning touching the horizon, O’Riley settled, until by the full flush of sun he’d relented, holstered his weapon, and retaken the musculature of his body, readied again for the roughshod ride of hapless bandit escape. Time felt thinner than ever, and distance was what he needed—before there really was a mob upon him.
Dawn came, and with it powerful light, showing Mercham what he’d already trod on.
It could almost be mistaken for mud, only there hadn’t been rain in weeks. This was blood, wept from a body, outed from veins, spit and coughed and gouged onto the dirt.
He knew immediately: It was his mother’s.
Only time and distance and the last star disappearing above knew whether she had any left in her, whether she was a body living or turned corpse.
The crimson-browned trail wound and jumped. Crevices soaked, and then great patches where there was none. Two or three steps and it appeared again, flecked on the dust and then rained out, the blood. Blood and more blood.
The red wasn’t red anymore. Barely red. Darkened brown. A canyon of dark.
Sickened, Mercham carried on, moved in widening circles from the cookfire outward, searching out the splattered stains in their newly discovered patterns. Hoof prints. Boot marks. Branches broken. A rumple of gravel and stones cleared. Then, on the outer rim some riotous distance from the firepit, he found it, where her world had been torn asunder.
Where she’d been tied to the tree the bark was scraped, skinned from the trunk, the evidence of the struggle there roiling and obvious. She’d been here. Right here. Tied exactly to this spot.
I don’t know, ma’am.
The memory resounded, abhorrently echoed.
Only a few days ago, he had been a ten-year-old boy.
Blood was staunched in the dirt and in the pine needles around the base of the tree, where the roots rose, where her feet had dug small trenches, bark worn by the binding of her wrists and her waist and her neck.
Attempting dignity, she’d hoisted herself onto the leader’s horse, not wanting to appear diminished in her son’s eyes. Her husband’s blood had clung to her apron, and the rifle smoke had hung heavy. Her heart was an opening wide enough to drive a wagon through.
She’d fought them here at this camp with everything she had. Teeth and fingernails, knees and elbows and fists. She’d resisted. She’d begged. She’d pleaded. She’d bled.
Mercham sank to the ground and ran his smooth, tender palms along the dirt grooves her feet had trenched, turned his fingers in the dust where her blood had run out. Watching, neither the larks nor the snakes had a word to say. Mercham put his forehead to the tree bark, absent to all the words of the world, the dirt on his hands, and the soft weathering out of a mother’s love.
The tree had started from a seed lofted across the plains, over the hills, through gulches, on the paws of coyotes and under the wings of hawks. A seed not planted by human hands, not sifted beneath soil and watered with care and foresight, a seed held instead under a quarter inch of pebbles and dust, under a blanket of duress. The seasons were devastatingly cold and excruciatingly hot in turn, yet with each rain and each snowmelt, with each bead of dew gathered to its bosom, the ground capitulated to its existence, to new living, the seed seeping into the earth, rooting.
From meager shade in a borough of other forlorn plants, tendrils clinging to hardly-dirt, the seed grew, shoring up through the gravel, lengthening eventually to make small shadows of its own, stretching higher. Soon it was big enough to hold nests and hide coveys, tall enough to finger larger winds and catch more rain and snow, deep enough to root into the aquifers veining these otherwise arid prairies, doubling and tripling its size over decades, untouched by hands and unseen by eyes, a bark scented in butterscotch.
Mercham knew now. And Mercham’s mother knew, too. The last thing they shared was a butterscotch tint amidst the tumult of this brutal forever.
Mercham jettisoned from the tree like a bolt of lightning, taking off rampantly into the hills, fury renewed, anger bellowed and stoked, an energy made of despair. Before, Mercham had been afraid the bandits might be hidden in the brush, posing as coyotes running parallel. Now he hoped for it, longed for it. Even at ten years old, even dehydrated and starved, even sleepless and lost, he knew he could tear the throat straight out of any one of them if he only had the chance.
Trampling dirt and grass and campfire cinders, Mercham sought out and quickly found the nearest and clearest set of tracks and broke down them at an unsustainable pace, burning across plains and hills and dry beds, pressing his eyes to spot tracks, his ears to play lookout, his feet to keep moving until he found them or until he collapsed. Blood beat in his temples like last breaths. Hill after hill, each rise was profound in its similarity to the previous. The same grass. The same skittish jackrabbits. The same dwarf trees and cast-off blue-gray ranges, the same remote timber. Until again there were no tracks to follow and Mercham was only moving forward, devoid of direction, too far from the camp to retrace and without enough skill to reset. In its place, only one foot and then the next, quick as he could, hoping his body would continue to ignore the thirst and the hunger, forego the pain, and focus on that harder ache, revenge, a retribution so staunch Mercham felt like a trail wasn’t necessary. His legs would stiffen and he’d have to force them back into shape, yet he went on. He could only think onward, could only move forward, could only ever keep going, sprinting toward an inevitable finish. The animals marveled at his foolishness, at his perseverance, at his plight. The skin on his neck and collarbones went bright and then leathery. White-speckled blisters watery under thin-skinned pockets burst when he brushed his hand across them, the heat burning like his heart. The images on repeat in his head: His father gunned down in the dirt between their homestead and the corral. His mother saddled up and ridden away like so many chickens stuffed in sacks. The colt’s jumbled look at the mare being led elsewhere. The bandit leader’s fingers on his mustache. The sound of cabin logs burning. Mercham focused on each detail, over and over again, the images coming harder and faster and louder, until his body plummeted groundward, until he blacked out and the gravel skinned the cheek from his face.
The sun spilled yolk-broken over the scattered gullies and hazy rises, O’Riley mulling the distance, how far he could go in a day with a kid travelling behind him, how many days he could keep it up without sight or sound, traversing the nether between towns and posts. A mob, the one that hadn’t arrived last night, might show tomorrow or the next day, its bated breath surely running at his heels while the sun warmed the crown of his head just before he replaced his hat.
When Mercham woke, there was only a single word ricocheting in the confines of his head, where the blood relentlessly pulsed, where his cheek mumbled its scrapes and skin-loss: water.
The thirst was undeniable now, commandeering the entirety of his being. Water. The word and the thought and the imagining of it running down his throat like a sunrise, unstoppable, belligerent in its determination. Even as the light faded once again from burning day to thickening night, even as his skin cooled, he couldn’t stop the call, couldn’t ignore it any longer. Water. His head sang water. His heart chanted water.
Mother. Father. Mare. Colt. Busted fence. Rifle fire. A scarred cheek. Scattered chicken bones. A campfire. The loom of a butterscotch-scented pine. It was so overwhelming that Mercham felt he had nothing left to weep for, and for miles in every direction only prairie yellow and dust and dry. No tracks or clues or ending. No returning home. And how had he ended up here, face down in the dirt, pecks of gravel under the skin of his cheek and the screaming promise of solitude, of bottomless thirst?
Darkness traded the light in long shadows and dusk landscapes, Mercham risen again and taking wearied steps, each new pinprick of starlight above like a bullet to his chest. And even with all the constellations, he had no reason to believe in gods or goodness.
The grasses, bathed in moonless sky, saw the second collapse coming long before Mercham did. His body made another plume of dust and a sound like a sack of flour dropped from a wagon. The same cheek took another skid, skinning as a peach would its fuzzed coat under bleary fingernails.
The stars still radiated overhead when he woke, and the darkness had continued pooling. Again, he couldn’t remember lying down, yet there he was, gently breathing, a coating of dust and a second bleeding peel across his cheek, head whanging. Exhaling sent a whiff of dirt out of his mouth as he stood, followed his breath upward, and took in the sky.
There hadn’t been a boot print or a horse track for miles, nothing to follow since the butterscotch pine and the abandoned camp and the numbing realization that he was too late. Fear had collapsed again into rampant youth, ignorant and savage, revenge at her most nubile. Twice he’d found a print that turned out to be his own, circled back on itself like a snake ingesting its own tail. The rest was nothingness, the only solution to walk on, bright and dumbfounded, the wind in his lungs barely enough to tend a seed, and all the stars leering.
O’Riley wondered, as the sun ran, how he would die. If it would be the sting of a gunshot or the flashing sear of a blade, or if his feet would dangle. It wouldn’t be age or disease, that much he knew. There was no long-term for the kind of man he’d become. He was temporary, passing. Though somehow the kid’s face, those eyes, they made him think about salvation, or regret, about how much of his life might be restored. Even he could make some of it right again, take back some of what he’d done.
The third time Mercham bailed forward out of consciousness, no count of the days anymore, the collapse was pure and total, the sincerest black. In the darkening fall, cacti tines pricked his arms, and the velvety layer of new thin scab on his cheek was cut into ribbons anew. One knee wrenched oppositely, not broken but devastated, nagging under his comatose body. Misshapen and blacked out, Mercham hung between the nightmare his existence had become and the endless, unfathomable reaches of dying. The stars said nothing in defense of either one, and a rattlesnake’s slow approach seemed only an appropriate omen-bearer.
And what of death, O’Riley thought, the words forming on his lips but exhaled in such a way no one was around to hear them, and atonement.
The sun did not abate.