The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror, Vol 11, No 12 (2008)

Sown from Salt

Sown from Salt

© 2008 Gemma Files
All rights reserved.

They made a desert there, and called it peace.
—Tacitus

Reese woke after dawn, dew-stiff, with difficulty; so much blood had dried all over his face, while he slept, that his eyelashes were now almost too sticky to peel open. The hard Arizona sun pressed down on him. Aside from the song of flies, no other living creature seemed anywhere near.

Though there did not seem to be too much to bother rousing himself for, he sat up moments later, nonetheless, and nearly threw up. A terribly familiar pain monopolized the centre of his chest, folding him up around itself like a half-screwed winch. Had he not known better, he might have thought the bullet in him still, lodged deep—a truly unlovely thing, harbinger of delirium and death. Yet neither of those was to be his portion anymore, as he was well aware.

There was a dead body laying almost next to him, one of several such—leftovers from the latest trip to yet another town, fresh and not-so alike, scattered where they fell after judgment—but he ignored it: Dead bodies were everywhere. This world was a butcher-shop at the best of times. He'd've been far more surprised not to find one, there or elsewhere, on top of the earth or under it.

Eventually, he made his feet and stood there swaying, squinting upwards. He felt for his watch, popped it open, checked the time and reckoned which direction might be north accordingly: left a bit, where that dry ravine-mouth hid the horizon, aided by scrubby bushes. Some hours hard walking to anything resembling civilization, probably, which alone argued for getting going. Yet he stood there a moment more, unsteady, wishing with all his considerable might that he could simply lie back down and sleep, this time without fear of waking.

His mouth already too dry for spit, he drew a cambric handkerchief from one pocket and used it, fastidiously, to scrub his sticky lashes clean. His eyes burned.

Grimly, he staggered forward.

***

Never fully alone, even in this emptiest of places: As the sun moved overhead, shimmering mirages lit the corners of his eyes; Reese seemed to hear distant laughter, footsteps behind and whinnying horses ahead, even brief snatches of song-a plaintive hill-holler tune from old Missouri, Mother of Outlaws, sung in the most easily recognizable of light baritones:

I wish I wish...my baby was born...and sittin' on...his Daddy's knee...and me, poor gal, was dead and gone...and the green grass growin' over me...

...at which point he fell, taking almost a whole half-hour to rise again. Lay curled 'round his pain once more, cracked lips fresh-split, and sang the chorus back in a bare whisper all the while, not even one-quarter so effortlessly pretty:

"...but that's not now, nor never will be...'til the sweet apple grows...on the sour apple tree..."

He had a man kept in his mind to go with that voice, same as always: Last thing he'd seen before that dark crack between then and now first gaped wide, not to mention the only thing he'd remembered consistently, since. Those mocking eyes finding his, full-on, right before obscene pain broke his world apart in a spurt of gun-smoke. They had looked at each other, and then he had been looking at the ground, and then he had been looking at nothing. And then—

—and then, after...much later...he had woken up once more, dew-stiff and cold on the hard desert ground, his heart apparently having been replaced by an open wound. With someone else's blood dried to a sticky mask all over his stupidly dumbfounded face.

He rose back up, walked on, 'til the sun met the horizon. 'Til everything went gold, then red, then black.

***

The next town he crossed over into—sometime after sunset, under a mean sprinkling of star—was so small he somehow knew (as he always did, these days) it only had one whore left working, and her kept so indifferently busy, she often had to take in piecework to make ends meet. They'd had setbacks, obviously, almost since foundation; a virtual parade of ill-luck with no apparent cause (or cure), forever conspiring to rob the place of reason for being. Hope of mining had first inspired settlers to congregate there, 'til the claims dried up. They'd then switched to raising livestock—sheep, pigs, cattle, horses—'til various sicknesses forced those not bankrupted outright to cultivate a host of crops, all of which similarly came to nothing. Now there was intermittent talk of the Railroad, which might (or might not) be drifting towards their territory.

Jesus, too, had persisted strongly throughout all of the above—camp-meetings, revivals, the occasional church of some Revelation or other always raising itself up and flourishing briefly before falling away again to ruin—though that in itself had never, as yet, proved much of a draw for attracting new citizenry.

He passed the gutted shell of one such project on the town's westmost outskirt. Someone had propped a sign against its door-lintel, done unpunctuated, in shaky red letters of varying size: MaNy cry in Truble & Are not hEard But to there SalvatioN.

"Saint Augustine," he said, out loud, recognizing the words as ones his former "friend" had once quoted him, in time of particular moral quandary—for the man in question did love to read, and loved even better to let others know just how well-read he was.

That struggle with his own impulses—let alone their shared actions—had been a passing one, he now recalled; easily overturned by sentiment, if not by argument. As ever.

Because: We've all done things we regret, I expect, his "friend" had allowed, though both of 'em knew full well the other probably didn't think he had. To which he'd paused and considered, trying his level best to summon even one instance in which he'd genuinely questioned himself. Replying, finally—

I do wish I hadn't stayed my hand, at Lincoln.

His "friend" smiled at that, narrowly: Didn't much, from what I hear.

Not too much, no. But whenever I did, I wish I hadn't.

And did he feel differently, now? Could he even tell how he felt, if—indeed—he felt anything, at all?

But here were the lights of what passed for a main street, at last: Open doorways, noise and music, faces peering out to greet him as he limped towards them in his dusty motley, his sticky crimson finery. He aimed to at least reach that storefront which claimed a doctor resided within before he pitched over, face-forward, to wait for them to decide what best to do with him...and this he was indeed able to achieve, before darkness reclaimed him. The never-quite-broken-off song rising undimmed in his ears, like blood, like tide:

I wish I wish...my love had died...
And set his spirit roaming free......
So we might meet where ravens fly...
And never longer parted be......

***

(But that's not now, nor never will be)

***

"Mister. Mister, do you know where you are?"

A gruffer voice, from some further distance off: "'Course he don't, Doc—don't even know his own name, I bet. How long you think he's been walkin'?"

The Doc sighed. "Couldn't rightly say, not without I question him directly. Help me shift him up on that table, will you?"

This last was followed by a vertiginous rush and roll of movement, balanced ineptly with a hand or two on every slack limb before he came crashing down again, his skull connecting table-top-wards with a sick little crack. And: "Not so hard!" The Doc cried, fussily. "You'll tear his scalp open, start him back to bleedin'—"

Then came the gruff voice once more, chiming back in—someone in authority; sheriff, mayor? or both? saying:

"You sure that's all his blood, Doc? 'Cause he don't look too 'sanguinated to me, from where I sit."

He didn't have to open his eyes to "see" the Doc's mouth crimp at that, unbelieving. "Well, I suppose I don't quite take your meaning, Mister Marten. For pity's sake, whose else would it be likely to be?"

"That's the question, all right," Marten murmured.

***

When he did open his eyes, some hours later, they came apart smoothly; someone had finally run a hot cloth over his face, paying special attention to all those varying nooks and crannies where the blood had collected most deeply.

He got up, still moving slowly—didn't seem to move any other way, these days. He remembered how his pulse had once run so hot, his every movement a fever, resting heartbeat faster than a grouse across level ground. In the pier-glass above the wash-basin, he saw his own pale visage blink back at him: Bushwhacker hair to below his shoulders, meticulously groomed in anticipation of whenever the South might rise again, plus a narrow blond beard and luxuriant moustachios, a pistoleer Musketeer; sand-light eyes under similarly bleached lashes, almost yellow from some angles.

And: Why, Sergeant, he thought, I never looked to see you here, down amongst the dead men and the drifting trash. Not without your dear companion to spur you along in any necessary endeavors, at any rate.

Oh, but it was bitter, too, no matter how he might try to smile at it; the pain inside him felt abruptly greater than before, not that it ever grew small. So hollow with grief and hate and longing that it fair came off of him in waves, the way heat boils up from the veiny crust of some fallow field at noon. In that one dreadful moment he at last knew himself little more than a husk set endlessly roaming this world, always in search of one who fled from him (as youth flees from youth, or shadow flees from light), and might well have wept at such terrible understanding, had the desert not long since rendered him incapable.

But now there was a knocking at the door, impatient for entry; he stood there stock-still, unable to hide his true nature anymore. Spotting his guns slung over a chair by the bed-stead even as they kicked through, and knowing himself far too slow to reach them before they broke through their initial shock at seeing him laid thus bare, jumping forward all at once to take him down in a single sprawling pile.

***

Face-on, Sheriff Marten proved as bluff and craggy a Union bastard as any Reese'd ever plugged through the brain-pan, or anywhere else. Marten held up a broadsheet from which the same face he'd seen mirrored upstairs stared, wall-eyed; next to it his "friend" quirked just the slightest of smiles, as though thinking it a fine irony that they meet again this way.

"Your name Sartain Reese, same's it says here?" Marten asked.

"Sartain Stannard Reese, yes."

"Folks call you 'One-Shot'?"

"They do."

Marten's deputy, a clean-browed young man whose eyes were masked by little round-lensed spectacles, put in, at that: "You really at Lincoln, Reese?"

"When I was fifteen, yes."

"And I guess you was at Bewelcome, too," Marten said. "With Bart Haugh."

"...yes."

"Uh huh. So where's that sumbitch now?"

Reese glanced down, head hung low, ridiculous hair falling between them like a shield; replied, carefully—fighting hard to keep any further tremor from his already-shaky voice, which thankfully might be put down to him having been punched in both throat and belly during their earlier tussle—

"Don't rightly know. We had a fallin' out."

"What happened?"

At this Reese looked up again, grinning against the pain, and tapped his chest one time above the breast-bone, neat and clean and hard, like knocking on a coffin's lid. Saying:

"Well, as to that...he shot me, Sheriff, just about here. You see it, where I'm pointin'? Right through my Goddamned heart."

Marten stared him straight in the eye, unimpressed by what he maybe took for mere rhetoric. "So how're you alive then, Mister Reese?"

Reese nodded, slightly. "How am I?" he repeated, without much emphasis, having already asked himself that same question on many an occasion by now and never yet received any satisfactory answer.

They beat on him some more for a while, after, before slinging him into a cell to wait on some judge they'd have to order from two towns over. The deputy (Jenkins, his name proved to be) sat there checking Reese's guns in front of him, stroking their chased silver hilts admiringly and sighting down their long barrels at nothing in particular, before locking them safely away with the rest of the sheriff's armaments.

"Wouldn't do that, I was you," Reese told him, carefully maneuvering one of his looser teeth around in its socket with his tongue-tip.

Jenkins frowned. "Why not?"

"'Cause unless you're planning on selling 'em, you probably don't want what comes along with 'em. They was at Lincoln too, after all."

Jenkins gave him a long, cool look. "I heard some things, about you and Haugh."

"Did you, now." A pause. "Well, since I think I know what, I don't suppose it'll do either of us much good to discuss it any further. Still—would you say I merited hangin' less or more, I wonder, you happened to find out they was true?"

"There's some would say more," Jenkins allowed, flushing slightly. "But I ain't with 'em on that one, necessarily."

"Kind of you. I do merit it, though, sure enough—for Bewelcome, and elsewhere. Make no mistake about that."

That shut Jenkins up, at least for a little bit; must've been something he saw reflected in Reese's eyes, under the lantern's uncertain light. They maintained silence together, oddly companionable, until he finally had to ask—

"Whose blood was that you had on you, Reese?"

"Oh, somebody from round here's, I expect. Didn't you recognize it?" A pause. "Listen, Jenkins—you and yours seem good people, on the whole, from what I've seen. But there's always a reason I run across places, and you have been unlucky, so might be that's 'cause there's other people here, ones that's just like me."

Jenkins, paling: "I'd know, if there was."

Reese really did have to laugh then, torn mouth bleeding just a bit as he did, streaking his smile like rouge. "Would you? How, exactly, saving the Word of God? Men lie, Jenkins, even when they don't have something to hide—so how much more you think they're prepared to do to cover true sin up, 'specially if they don't want to have to keep on runnin' from its consequences?"

Which brought silence again, for a spell. Reese drank it in, leaned his head back against the cell wall, and waited.

***

As it soon turned out, the rest of the townsfolk didn't plan on putting anything off for simple lack of a judge. Instead, they came for Reese at midnight, with guns and torches; shouted Marten and Jenkins down, then hustled him back down Cow-track Avenue and hanged him from a tree outside that same burnt church he'd passed on his way into town. They also proved inexpert enough at this particular form of semi-judicial murder that his neck failed to break on the drop, which meant he dangled there a while—tongue out and blackening, face a-swell, some awful noise issuing forth from his throat like a half-swallowed rattlesnake—before Jenkins finally lunged forward and hauled at both his legs together 'til the crack of bone rang out at last.

This last mercy loosed a flood of piss that ran down Reese's fine trousers to foul them from the crotch down, soiling dirt and deputy alike; as he thrashed, strangling, his gay shirt flew open in front, revealing to all and sundry the black miracle of his wound...that awful fleshly Advent Calendar with only one day left celebrated, laid open like a little bone window so everyone in town could see the cold pink meat framed underneath its ragged hole, unbroken yet unbeating.

He heard more than one woman or close-hugged child shriek out in terror at the sight, while many more than one man blasphemed in gutter-language he recognized from Lincoln, Dodge City, Bewelcome itself. But then the penultimate buzz was in his ears, drowning out even that damn betraying song, at long long last:

The owl the owl...is a lonesome bird...
It chills my heart with dread and terror...
That's someone's blood there on its wing,
That's someone's blood there on its feather...

***

Then Reese was not,
  nor never would be,
  strung to rot like fruit
  from a gallows-tree.

***

But it wasn't the end, of course; never was. Not since he'd woken that first morning with blood in his eyes, his mouth, his hair—with an open wound where his shot-through heart should be and Bart Haugh's faithless name still curdled on his lips.

***

By dawn on the third day he was deep in unhallowed ground, sand and stones piled haphazardly atop to ward off coyotes. But the morning opened dark above his grave, only to grow steadily darker, a storm lowering constantly overhead yet never breaking fully into much-needed rainfall, while ball- and sheet-lightning chased each other up and down the sullen, swollen sky.

And just after sunset, once more, was when Reese came limping into town again, up the main street to Marten's office, covered in the same dirt and piss they'd buried him wearing. His tongue black-tinged yet in a still-torn mouth, when he opened it to wish Sheriff Marten and Deputy Jenkins alike a raspy—

"Good even, gentlemen."

Marten gaped. "Sweet King Christ Jesus, 'One-Shot' Reese."

"That'd be a 'no' to the first, 'yes' to the second," Reese replied, with all the bleak coolness of his condition. Adding, to Jenkins: "Now, I'd much appreciate havin' my guns back, Deputy, if you don't mind; they were a gift, you see. And the plain truth is, I'm sentimental about such things."

Jenkins nodded a tad at this, as though he quite took Reese's point—but Marten drew his own sidearm instead, aiming it straight at Reese's midsection. Blustering: "You can just go right on back to Hell and stay there, this time, you damned murderin' secesh—"

Reese shook his head, dusty gold hair flapping a bit with the gathering wind. "I believe there's some following behind me may want a few words with you, Sheriff, on that very same subject."

He said it gently, though—perhaps too much so. For under cover of that howl-din which suddenly rose up all around them, a great chorus of disembodied plaint knit to a hundred skittering shadows, Reese's warning seemed almost entirely lost on Marten, whose eyes grew wide and crazed. Even as Jenkins turned to inquire if he was all right, the sheriff found himself abruptly surrounded by nothing and borne away in some phantom twister of screams, kicking and yelling, bound for whatever black country Reese had already left behind.

Now it was Jenkins' turn to freeze, face slack and wondering. For all over the rest of town, similar harsh magic was being worked: A new-made widow far too infatuate with her state over here, a rival whose dispute had been settled through apparent chance over there; one veteran who boasted, another who did not; those with unsupported claims to their pasts, as well as those who never spoke of what had brought them there at all. Interestingly, almost none of Reese's own lynch-gang were to be counted amongst the judged—save for one or two Jenkins knew had once delivered other, similarly rough, instances of frontier "justice."

Reese—who had seen this same drama played out many times previously, in many different places—ignored it all, strolling past Jenkins into the sheriff's vacant office, where he broke the weapons cabinet's lock with Marten's empty desk-chair. As he walked back out, adjusting his holsters down low on his hips, he found Jenkins there to meet him...and paused, courteously, barely flinching, to let the deputy bury a few slugs in his gut; the very least he could offer as recompense for the night's awfulness. Nothing poured from the wounds except for a few slack streams of sand and reddish dust, admixed.

Reese peered at Jenkins, frozen once more, some vague semblance of sympathy in his yellow eyes. "Feel better?" he asked.

Jenkins swallowed. "Why him? Why not me?"

"Well, he had blood on him, too, I expect; you don't. Not yet, anyhow." Turning away: "Better look to keep it that way in future, don't you think?"

He left Jenkins standing there—probably the town's best choice for new sheriff, now—and made off, without much haste, down that muddy cart-route which might never quite pass for a true main thoroughfare, while dark tides of vengeance eddied back and forth all about him, leaving few but him (their harbinger, their slave) untouched. Musing as he did on how Bart Haugh, always over-proud of his Eastern university learning, had once read from Bullfinch's Mythology the tale of King Cadmus, who killed the dragon guarding the river outside Thebes-to-be, knocked out all its teeth and sowed 'em in the nearby fields...like seed, like salt. Then stood there astounded when men came up instead of crops, all over armor, and did what men in armor do best...

Laughable once, now the story was only bitter true: He knew himself a walking dragon's tooth, sent to lie in other folks' earth a while, and see what might rise up along with him, afterwards. And yet, even supposing some variety of judgment (divine, or otherwise) drove what he did, he could never count what he brought along with him as vengeance, not even for whatever the people there might wreak on him beforehand; as he'd told Jenkins, that was only what he deserved. If he were to be hanged in every town from here to Missouri, it still might not be enough to wash him clean of everything he'd done.

On reaching the westernmost border of town, Reese paused again, craning his neck to the sky. And cried out, to no one in particular—

"There. Am I done yet? Can I stop?"

Silence, only; the lightning's flash, clouds a-boil like lava. Reese felt it twist in him, knife-like, 'til he could not restrain his next demand, torn cold and bloody from the dry hole where his perforated heart should keep time still, unbreached. Screaming up at those hidden, condemning stars, 'til his throat fair cracked:

"Look, just—where in the Hell is he, Goddamnit? So I know which way to go, at least! You want me to keep on working Your will much longer, You surely need to tell me, right damn now—"

But: Nothing replied, as he'd come to expect, save for the thunder, which cracked the vault above him open, wide, to loose the promised torrent. A scarlet, sticky rain, warm and salt, which fell only on him, soaking him from tip to toe with the leavings of his own sin. Covering him completely, erasing all he was, or might have been.

An answer, of sorts—long-expected, bitter in his torn mouth, on his blackened tongue. So Sartain Stannard Reese bowed his proud Bushwhacker head to the wind of comeuppance, prepared to walk until he fell. Knowing that by the time the sun rose he would wake yet again, dew-stiff and cold, crusted all over with blood not his own. That he would seek his "friend"-turned-enemy Bart Haugh eternally and never find him, for vengeance...once that most satisfactory of all commodities...was no longer his to administer.

Not now. Nor never.

He set his raw feet to the desert's hard road, therefore, that same song dinning ceaseless in his ears. And let darkness take him, praying that this time—this time, of innumerable other occasions—

—it would not be so unkind as to even play at letting him go, once more.

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The Harrow: Original Works of Fantasy and Horror. ISSN: 1528-4271
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