The child watches as the man sifts dirt into a hole. The shovel chomps through the loamy earth, and each perfunctory crunch is a reminder of the past hour: of the door buckling on its hinges. Of Pa, wrenching his hand back, pushing the child toward his half-closed bedroom door. A boot shattering the jamb. Wood slapping against the floor, clattering, the bronze knob cracking against the wall.
The man leveling his revolver, the snout belching yellow flame. Pa, twisting backward, falling, a weeping hole in his head.
Now, as the ropes chafe against his red wrists and the cold wind licks the salty sweat on his forehead, the child wonders if the man will turn that revolver on him. But he’s already digging the hole. So maybe not.
But then, what will the man do with him?
Vernon mops the sweat from his brow and sticks the shovel in the turned-over soil beside the hole. In it, with a body that is twisted like a mangled salmon, is the man. A man. A human of no importance. At least, to Vernon, that is the case. To Mr. Reginald B. Farnsworth, this man is of extreme importance, insofar as he owed a certain sum. Poker, Blackjack, Craps. One of the seven deadly games.
He glances at the kid, tied to one of the nearby trees. Vernon isn’t great at guessing ages, but he can’t be older than eight or nine. His eyes are sharp, belying the doughy youth of his cheeks. Like sapphire marbles, they are. And they bore into Vernon’s chest with confusion, distaste, and hatred.
Shaking his head, Vernon turns to his pack. Pushing by the slabs of jerky, the ruffle of extra clothing, and his revolver, he finds what he is looking for: his waterskin. Pulling the top off, he sucks down a few gulps. Then, glancing at the kid again, he walks over.
“Get yer chin up,” he grumbles.
The kid assents, and Vernon dribbles some water down his throat. Then, he stoppers the skin and pushes it back into his pack.
“Are you gonna kill me?” the kid asks.
Vernon turns, staring into those chiseled sapphire eyes. Something about them lifts the hairs on his arms. Or maybe it’s just the wind. Regardless, he turns back to the shovel, grasps its wooden shaft, and gets back to work.
The water serves mostly to remind the child of how dry his throat is. Now lingering, the beads of liquid tickle his parched tongue, pulling saliva from his gums – thick, treacly stuff that the child swallows without much relish.
Stars twinkle above, clear and present. He remembers the time Pa told him what stars were: or, at least, what Gramps once said about the universe. That it’s just the same stuff, recycled, turned over onto itself. And once the world ceases to exist, it will turn to the dust from whence it came, just like humans will sink into the soil.
Something about that is comforting as the child listens to the steady chunk patter of dirt being shoveled into the grave. The pile of turned-over soil is getting smaller by the minute, and the man seems determined to finish before the moon dips too low in the sky.
That means something is coming. Some revelation. Some startling honesty, rusted like dinner spoons.
Vernon looks at the sky. It must be getting closer to two-in-the-morning, judging by the placement of the moon. Ideally, he wanted to be done around midnight. But the man in the grave, the man of no importance, the man who will feed Vernon’s pregnant wife back in Montana, chose to take his sweet time putting the kid to bed.
Again, he glances back at the kid. The hole is half-full. Three feet left.
“What’s your name?” he barks.
The kid doesn’t answer. Not immediately, at least. He seems to consider the biting wind. Then, with a sharp earnestness, he says, “Sam.”
“How old is you, Sam?”
Vernon searches Sam’s face. He could be lying, but at the end of the day the difference between eight, nine, and ten is about as important as the man in the hole. Vernon chews on the inside of his cheek, turns, and shoves the blade into the remaining soil.
He sits in front of his work, his arms resting on his bent knees. Vernon considers the child.
“You know why your Pa’s in that hole?” Vernon asks.
“Not exactly,” Vernon says, though it’s not far off either.
“The cards, then. Ma never liked the cards.”
“Where’s your Ma now?”
“Virginia. She said she wanted to be closer to Mr. Cleveland.”
“The president, huh?” Vernon asks. “Don’t know many who love him.”
“Ma doesn’t love him; she just respects him.”
Vernon picks at his pants. He swipes at the stray flecks of soil on them, then leans his head upward and sucks in the sweet air.
“Are you gonna kill me?” the kid asks.
“You don’t need to be scared.”
“I ain’t scared,” the kid snaps. “You ain’t scared me. I just wanna know.”
“Fine, you’re not scared. Why you wanna know so bad?”
“So I can know whether I gotta kill you or not.”
Vernon sighs and stands, slapping the dirt off the seat of his pants. He’s about to turn to his pack, when he hears the kid’s voice again, softer, lacking the false bluntness.
“You don’t have to do it, you know.”
He turns, and the kid’s eyes stare through him. There’s an adult honesty in his preadolescent gait. In the way his legs are crossed.
“It’s not that simple,” Vernon says.
“Do you have a wife?”
Vernon balks at the question. “That’s not important.”
“Do you have a wife?”
“Yes,” Vernon says. He places his hands on his hips. “Of what importance is that to you?”
“I’m not an idiot,” the kid says. “I know Dad was into cards. I know he owed some guy up North big money. That’s why we had to get movin’ before anybody showed up. Why we ended up down here.”
“You seem to know a lot.”
The kid doesn’t say anything back.
“Well, if you know this much, you must know I can’t keep a kid around who’s seen me in action. You understand?”
“No loose ends,” the kid replies simply.
“How much did they pay you to kill my Pa?”
Vernon lumbers toward his pack and pushes by the clothes again. Inside, he finds the revolver. Silver and shining, golden curls inlayed into the metal. He snaps the cylinder open, sees the five healthy bullets, spies the one spent cartridge.
He snaps the cylinder shut again, turns, and walks toward the kid. He is surprised, and a bit unnerved, to notice the kid is not scared. Those blue eyes remain as steady as ever. Old things, they are. From a different time. A different age.
“Does your wife know?” the kid asks.
Vernon levels the revolver, pulls back the hammer, and shoots Sam in the head. The gunshot cracks, clear as crystal, through the night sky. The trees rustle as nightbirds fly away. But then, silence returns. Or, not silence precisely, but an equilibrium, defined by the cool wind, defined by the croaking branches and the whispering leaves.
He unties the kid’s hands, trying not to get blood on his clothes. Then, he drags Sam by the legs and thrusts him into the half-full hole.
Those blue eyes stare up at him as he shifts the rest of the loose soil into the grave. And they remain burned into his mind as he tucks away his things into his pack and starts off toward the city to catch a train home.
Vernon gets off at his first stop. Ohio has a peculiar scent to it. Mostly Cleveland. Like oil and gunpowder and lilies – and not necessarily in that order. He wanders the streets, weaving by panhandlers with tin cups and women in thick dresses. There’s a man over by the intersection – two blocks ahead of where he’s supposed to meet Mr. Reginald B. Farnsworth – and he’s got newspapers in his hand.
“Get ya news,” he shouts. “Get ya paper! Get ya news! Get ya paper!”
Behind him, an older man with a gallant mustache and a limp whispers to his friend, “I swear, they got silver out west. Heard it from m’ cousin, and he don’t lie ‘less he’s got a good reason.”
Two blocks on, he comes to a stout inn. He tucks his hands into his pockets and finds his buyer. Mr. Farnsworth’s portly frame bends the shape of the cushioned chair he’s seated in, and the flabs of his neck serve as a cushion for his chin. He pushes up the spectacles that run down his nose and folds the heavy paper in his hands.
Upon seeing Vernon, a smile creases the folds of his face, and he places the paper down, spreading his arms without standing.
“Mr. Wells,” Farnsworth declares. “Do sit down. I’m excited to hear about your business down south.”
Vernon sits in the chair across from Farnsworth. The hotel is a bustle of conversation, and near the front desk a bellboy helps an old woman in lavish furs to her room. Sunlight streams in. He smells lilac, followed by the acrid odor of gunpowder.
“Business went well, Mr. Farnsworth,” Vernon says, keeping his voice low. He sweeps the hotel again as he speaks, checking corners, considering windows, eyeing that bellboy. He has his hands in his pockets, after all.
“Splendid,” Farnsworth exclaims. “Your reputation precedes you, Mr. Wells. Is there a location I can send a colleague of mine?”
“Three miles outside of Oakdale,” Vernon says smoothly. “Follow the trail for half-a-mile, then turn west and march toward the clearing. Then, march east for two miles. You’ll find the site. A boy is first, three feet down, followed by his father.”
“Ah, I see there was some trouble,” Farnsworth says.
“No trouble,” Vernon lies.
“Well, I’m only paying you for the father. This wasn’t in our original agreement.”
“That’s fine,” Vernon says.
“Good. Fine. Mr. Wells, I will send one of my men down to your lovely home in Montana once my colleague confirms the site. What was the figure we agreed upon? Eight thousand?”
“Ten and a half, actually,” Vernon corrects.
“I see,” Mr. Farnsworth says. He shifts in his seat, and his body wobbles dangerously. “Ten and a half it is. Upon confirmation, of course.”
Vernon catches the words he wants to say, shoving them back down his throat like a hastily eaten meal. He nods, though Farnsworth eyes are giving him the same feeling Sam’s did.
“There’s something else you should know,” Farnsworth says. “If I find you’re lying to me, there will be no mercy. I will make an example of you. Yes?”
“You have nothing to worry about, Mr. Farnsworth,” Vernon says. “If you follow the directions I’ve given, you’ll find the site.”
“Good. Fine. Now scurry on out of here. I have a paper to read.”
Vernon does not wait for the man to repeat himself.
In bed, Vernon strokes his wife’s cheek. Her belly is swollen, and she sleeps on her side now. The doctor says their baby is healthy, that he’ll see a world of love and kindness. Vernon smiles, then places his hand on the skin, feeling his son or daughter kick. Either is fine with him. He will love them regardless.
“Don’t leave for so long again, please,” Cara whispers. “I thought something awful happened this time.”
“I won’t,” Vernon agrees. And if Mr. Farnsworth holds up his end of the bargain, it’ll be a promise he keeps.
“A boy visited the house while you were gone,” Cara says.
“Yes. He said his name was Sam.”
Vernon’s heart freezes in his chest. In an instant, those woods return to him. Those chiseled eyes. That stoic face.
“What did he want?”
“He asked me if I had a man. And I told him, ‘I’ve got a Winchester 94 that can do some talkin’ if you wanna go that route.’ And he said, ‘no ma’am, no ma’am, just wanted to know if the man of the house was home.’”
“Did he say who sent him?”
“I didn’t invite him in for conversation, Vern,” she says, humor sprinkled in her tone like ginger in tea.
“Yeah, ‘spose that’s fair.”
“Someone I did some work for,” Vernon says. “He just rubs me the wrong way.” But he doesn’t tell her what’s really on his mind. The question that lingers on his tongue.
What color was the guy’s eyes?
Vernon swings the axe, splitting the firewood on the block. As he stacks the pieces, he sweeps his sweaty arm across his forehead. The air is thick, and the forest is ablaze with noise.
Still, work is work. And it passes the time.
He grabs another block of wood and places it on the stump. As he lifts the ax, he hears a whistle from somewhere behind him. Not a bird’s whistle; it doesn’t have an avian musicality.
Vernon spins, the ax blade glints in the sunlight, and a rifle cracks. His midsection bursts into a mixture of blood and gore, and fire burns as the bullet twists around his insides like a malevolent surgeon. He falls backward, knocking aside the wood he’s just painstakingly stacked, and it’s then he sees the men coming out of the forest.
Vernon isn’t surprised by how hot his blood is, but he is surprised by how it steams. How, when he tries to plug the hole, more seems to slip from the wound. He considers scrambling back to the cabin. Back to Cara. Back to the Winchester, and maybe even to a doctor, if Cara can ride out fast enough to town.
But no. They only want him. And if he goes back to her, she will be entangled in his web. So, he settles by the stump, holding his gut, and he raises a stained hand to the three men approaching.
“I did my job,” he says. His voice is weak, and his throat is as hot as beach sand.
One of the men, older, stouter, looks out at the expanse of trees, his rifle settled into the crook of his shoulder. Another, younger, leaner, watches the other side, though without the older man’s attentiveness. It’s then Vernon wonders if the man fought the Grays down south, or if he just has a fighter’s spirit in his blood.
The last man bends down, and his blue eyes are blazing with an odd delight. Vernon stares into them, and he opens his mouth to speak.
But Sam is first. “Sorry friend,” he says. “No loose ends.”
And then Sam slips the revolver from his holster, puts it to Vernon’s head, and pulls the trigger.