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|Posted: Tue Jun 13, 2017 10:39 am Post subject: The Taste of Blood
|Glenn Douglas sat upon the crest of a hill overlooking the homestead of a family called Parnell. Behind his back the sun was moving westwards and setting and a shadow was slowly crawling over the land before him. Little by little the fields of wheat went from yellow-gold to gray and black. He spent some hours on that hill lying on his belly in thick grass that made him itch all over. He ignored the temptation to scratch and move and just sat there waiting and watching without a sound of complaint. He couldn't hear anything from the little family house on the homestead but could just make out the silhouetted shapes of people moving about in the light of the windows. The man beside him grunted impatiently.
"How much longer, Douglas?" he asked.
"When they're to bed."
The house and its inhabitants stood between the two men lying in wait and the larger cattle barn on the other side of the homestead. This place was just outside the valley, set at the base of rolling hills that rose to green pastures perfect for grazing. Many a rancher had set up shop in the area, though none dared, so close to the valley that was home to the thief’s den that was called Cossol. The Parnell land had been long in the making. Word had it that more than cattle would be coming in but for now that was all they had that was worth taking.
Night came on in full and in the cloudy sky Glenn could only just make out the silvery moon that was waning into a thin crescent. He smiled a wolfish smile and elbowed the man lying beside him in the ribs.
"Get up, Sam."
The man cursed and they stood at the same time. Glenn pulled from his pack a pair
of small, dark cloth sacks and tossed one to the other man. He tugged the other one over his own head. Eye holes had been roughly cut out and he had to fiddle with it to sit right so he could see.
He held it there with his hat and waited for Sam to put his own on before carefully making his way down the steep slope of the hill. The pair of them crept quietly in the night. The air was thick with the heat of the day still clinging to the ground. It was even hotter inside that cloth mask of his, with his warm breath falling back on his face and making him sweat already. They came up to the house and Glenn fingered the six-piece holstered at his hip, leaning up against a wall beside a window and inching just so, that he might look inside. Through the thin dust he saw a darkened kitchen with no sign of life. Silently, he gestured to Sam and the other man started to make his way around the other side of the house to check the other windows.
Glenn waited with his hand on his gun, messing with the way the mask hung again. Damn if I can't see in this thing, he thought. He could only just hear Sam walking back around to meet him. The man shook his head and Glenn took it to mean the coast was clear, and so the pair of them headed around the house and crept toward the barn. Beside it was a smaller building where a few horses were stabled. A bit of ways removed from both was a collection of small shacks that served as the temporary lodging for the few ranch hands the Parnells employed. Glenn stood there for a time in the stretch of flat field between the house, the barn, and the makeshift hovels and watched them all closely. He touched the gun at his hip again and wondered if there would be bloodshed tonight. Cattle rustling was dangerous business. Families could be broken by such a crime and men were willing to die to stop that from happening.
He wondered if, when the time came, he'd be able to pull the trigger and thought about the last time he'd shot a man.
“Glenn,” Sam hissed. “The Hell are you doin’, son? Get a move on!”
Glenn blinked as the present world came flooding back to him in a deluge of sensations battering him from every which way. He could smell the manure in the air from the cattle barn and the small stables just a ways from where he stood, the sweat of all the hard work that had gone into building them and the house and shacks that littered this plot of land. He heard the grass whisper as a cool summer breeze came flowing in. It made the fine hairs on his arms and his neck stand up and cooled the droplets of sweat beading down his back. He shivered and gave the homestead another look, seeing inside those dark windows the soul of a family he was about to crush. He’d heard men like Randall Parnell, big and tough as an ox, break down in tears after a job like the one he meant to pull. He’d seen many more such men die trying to stop him, though he hadn’t pulled the trigger those times. It was just him and Sam, though. The rest of the boys were waiting closer to the valley, ready to help herd the cattle far, far away to be sold where they would make seventeen cents on the dollar for each head. He knew the Parnells were rich folk from out east who had never before been to a place like this valley, who had no earthly idea what kind of men roamed these hills and the great expanses of grass and nothingness that lay between them and civilization. Randall Parnell and his kin would have to learn the hard way, Glenn decided as he straightened his mask once again. He gestured to Sam and started off toward the stables.
He was waiting outside, leaning against the wall of the stables while Sam worked his way around back again to see if he could find a way inside. He could just make out the sounds of the other man scrambling his way up the side of the wooden building and he said a silent prayer that the man wouldn’t fall and break his neck. Once more Glenn adjusted the way the sack hung from his head and just as he’d righted it again the rapport of a gunshot made him jump and flinch in surprise. The jolt again had the sack slipping down and obscuring his vision. Cursing, he removed his hat and tore the sack from his face, throwing it into the ground as he turned toward the stable with a hand on the gun slung low about his hips. From inside the stable he could hear horses whinnying and stamping the ground. Someone was working at a bar on the other side of the door. Glenn stepped around the corner of the building and waited.
A young boy of no more than twelve came creeping out with a pistol that was too large for his small hands clutched with white-knuckled tightness between his hands. He had ruddy hair and his face was pale, though Glenn suspected that was from fright and not the boy’s natural complexion. His big, blue eyes were wide and watery and already he was beginning to cry. Glenn waited until the boy stepped a few paces away from the door and then he came out and grabbed the boy’s wrists and tore upward, lifting him straight from the ground. The boy shouted and dropped the gun as he began kicking and writhing with what little might his small body could muster. Glenn dared to steal a glance back toward the homestead and saw the flickering glow of a candle moving across a window. He cursed again and tossed the boy back toward the stable and pointed his gun at him.
“Shut your mouth, boy,” he growled through clenched teeth. He looked past the boy and saw Sam lying there in the dirt and straw with the ground growing darker from the pool of blood that was pouring out of a hole in his chest. The man’s gun was still at his belt.
“Jesus, boy. You ***’ shot him!” he turned to look back toward the house but the boy got up and dived for Sam. Glenn put a foot between the boy’s shoulder blades and sent him to the ground with a hard kick before stepping up to loom over him. “Don’t you ***’ move, kid. If you think you’re man enough to hold that piece back there and shoot a man, then you’re man enough for me to shoot you, too.”
“Pa’s gonna kill you, you sonofabitch,” the boy cussed, spitting a mouthful of blood from his split lip into the dirt, manure and straw on the hard-packed ground. “You’re dead meat, just like your damned stupid friend!”
“The hell you doin’ out here this time of night, boy?” Glenn asked, ignoring the threats. “Been watchin’ this place all day and night and I ain’t seen you come out here after you went to bed.”
“Protectin’ it from cowardly thieves like you!” the boy spat back, struggling to push up against the weight of the boot that held him firmly planted to the floor. “Lemme go, or I swear I’ll- “
“Shut up!” Glenn put more of his weight on the boy’s back and that seemed to suck some of the air from his lungs. The man looked at Sam once more and sighed, then tossed a look about the stable. There were four horses, all of whom were stamping the ground nervously. Their eyes were rolled back and they were backing into the corner of their individual stables, frightened by the smell of blood and the sound of gunfire. One of the horses was already saddled, he saw, with heavy saddlebags tied up and bulging with unseen contents.
“You tryin’ to run away, boy?” Glenn asked. “The hell’d you think you’d go way out here? Nearest place is Cossol and a boy like you’s got no business in a place like that.”
“None of your damned business, mister! Let me go!”
“Oh, so it’s Mister, now, instead of cowardly thief?”
“You are a coward! And a thief!”
“Well you’re at least half right.”
Glenn reached down and grabbed the boy by the scruff of his shirt, hoisting him up once more. He heard shouting from the house behind him and knew that they’d have company soon. He dragged the boy off toward the stable and shoved him against the door.
“Open it up, pull that horse on outta here. You done ruined my evenin’, son, and now you’re gonna pay me recompense for all the money I ain’t gonna make since you killed my partner.”
The boy protested but at the sight of the gun in his face with its hammer pulled back set him to the task just as easily as any words could. He turned and opened the stall and grabbed the reins, stepping back to slowly lead the nervous animal out. Glenn snatched the reins from his hands and hoisted himself up to the saddle, then reached down and took the boy under his arm and hefted him up to sit in front of him.
“Now, you stay nice and quiet and don’t do anythin’ stupid,” Glenn whispered to the boy as he guided the horse toward the stable door. The beast was compliant, eager as it was to be away from the dead body and out in the open air. “You’re gonna be my shield, you see. And if you do your job right then no one else gets shot, in a few days I might let you come back home.”
“My Pa’s gonna-” Glenn smacked the boy upside the head with his empty hand and then pressed the cold metal of a gun barrel against his temple.
“I said quiet.”
He clucked his tongue and took the reins up again in his free hand, giving them a little flick and tapping the horse’s sides with the heels of his boots. It took off at a nervous trot back toward the house and the large man who was running toward them with a rifle in his hands. Glenn looked past the man at the family that crowded the door to the homestead and counted the faces he saw, nodding to himself. He pulled up the reins some thirty paces away and smiled over the boy’s shoulder at his father.
“Evenin’, Mister Parnell,” he said cheerfully. The other man’s eyes widened and his face reddened when he saw his son saddled up with the would-be cattle rustler. Immediately, Randall Parnell raised the rifle in his hands and aimed it right at Glenn, but he hesitated pulling the trigger from fear for his son’s life. Glenn’s heart started pounding. The sounds of the wind and the nervous, ragged breaths of the horse beneath were drowned out by the rush of blood that he could hear roaring in his ears like the waves of an ocean storm breaking against a rocky cliff.
“Who the hell are you?” Randall Parnell asked, his voice hoarse.
“No one of any note,” Glenn said. “I’m just a man tryin’ to make a livin’, same as you.”
“The hell you are! Let go of my boy!”
“You’ll get your boy back, safe and sound. But first I’m gonna need you to drop that rifle in the dirt and then walk back into your house, tell your wife everythin’s gonna be okay, and put the rest of your children to bed while I ride off with the boy here. You do all that and I’ll let him go and he’ll find his way back to you at some point.”
Randall Parnell scowled and clutched that lever-action repeating rifle to his chest like Glenn might hop down from his horse and take it from him.
“I’ll do no such thing,” he said.
“Sir, you gotta understand,” Glenn began. “Your boy here killed my partner, Sam. Sam and I was gonna steal all your cattle, but I can’t rightly rustle up all them steer and get them to the rest of my friends by my lonesome. So I’m gonna settle for takin’ this horse and whatever goods your boy packed in the saddles when he was tryin’ to run off this evenin’. Frankly, you’re lucky the lot of you ain’t dead as it is. Him especially,” he pushed the boy’s head with the barrel of his gun. “After all, he gave me an awful lot of trouble. So why don’t you just drop that gun and go back inside, Mister Parnell, and no one else has to get hurt.”
Randall Parnell’s mouth opened and closed several times. He was clearly struggling to find something to say, anything to work his way out of this situation. But at last his shoulders sagged and said, “Okay. Just… don’t hurt my boy. Don’t hurt Jack.”
Glenn nodded but watched the man warily. “On my honor, Mister Parnell, such as it is.”
Just then, the boy’s head jerked back and he clocked Glenn square in the jaw with the crown of his skull. He then dove to the side and fell off the horse, hitting the ground with a hard thud. He closed his eyes tight and put his arms over his head when the sound of gunfire split the night once again. When the boy looked up Glenn Douglas was still sitting atop his stolen horse, the barrel of his gun sending smoke drifting lazily into the air to be swept away by a cool summer breeze, his father lying flat on his back with his rifle on the ground beside him.
Jack Parnell scrambled toward his father and reached for that rifle, but the earth in front of his face exploded as Glenn fired another bullet that hit right in front of him. He stopped moving just a foot away from the rifle and looked up at the would-be cattle rustler, wide eyed.
Glenn Douglas could hear nothing but the ringing of the gunshot in his ears, he felt nothing but the cold, hard pit that formed deep in his gut and wound itself into a knot and made him want to keel over and fall from that high horse upon which he sat. He smelled only the black smoke of gunpowder and the sickly, copper scent of a dead man’s blood hanging in the air. He dismounted shakily and walked over, pausing just in front of Jack with his gun pressed into the boy’s face. When the boy looked up into the man’s eyes he saw panic and fear in what had previously been a gaze with unwavering confidence. Then Glenn swung that pistol aside and smacked Jack across the face with the warm metal, sending him spiraling toward the ground. Jack could hear his mother’s defiant scream as Glenn Douglas picked up his father’s rifle and walked toward the house. He looked up but his vision was blurry and his head was ringing. It was all he could do to not vomit right then and there.
“Stop…” he said slowly, his throat was tight and the word sounded heavier than it should have. Glenn ignored him, holstering his pistol and ushering the family back into the house. Jack couldn’t make out the outlaw’s words but he could hear his mother sobbing, heard her struggle and try and beat her hands against the man’s chest. Then he heard another gunshot and his heart tightened in his chest, tensed up and seemed like it stopped beating all together. Jack clawed at the earth and made his body move toward the house.
The boy barely moved from his original position when Glenn came walking back out with his father’s rifle still in his hands. Jack stopped moving when Glenn’s boots obscured the rest of his vision and he struggled to crane his neck far enough back to look up at the man again. His father’s rifle was propped up against Glenn’s shoulders and he had a hard set to his gaze that was a stark contrast to that almost regretful look he had worn moments before. Glenn crouched down in front of Jack with a hand on his pistol.
“I’m sorry, son,” he spoke calmly. “But it had to be done. You’ll want to run off and come lookin’ for me, no doubt. But you ain’t gonna do that. Your mama and your pa are both dead now, and you got brothers and sisters who need lookin’ after. So you ain’t runnin’ off no more, understand?”
Jack glowered at him, his jaw tight as he ripped at the ground and tore out grass in thick clumps. Tears were streaming freely over his dirty cheeks and his eyes burned red. He wanted to speak but something held his throat shut. He nodded in a short, tense motion.
“Good,” Glenn said. “My name is Glenn Douglas. I live in Cossol. Should you ever feel the need to exact vengeance upon me for what I’ve done today, you can find me there. But know this, Jack Parnell. I didn’t kill you today because, much as you might play at bein’ a man, you’re still a boy. But if you come after me in Cossol I will put you in the dirt same was I did your parents.”
“I’m gonna kill you,” Jack snarled, his voice cracking with the strain of speaking. Why couldn’t he move? His fingers dug deep into the earth and his whole body tensed like he was ready to lunge himself at the man. “I’m gonna kill you. You’re dead, you bastard. Dead.”
Glenn sighed and stood. He slid the rifle through the straps of the horse’s saddle before swinging himself up and onto the beast’s back. One last time he looked at the boy.
“Good luck, Jack. You’re gonna need it out here. There are men far worse than me roamin’ these hills. Men who got the taste of blood and never looked back. Men who run with coyotes and tear a man’s throat with their teeth. Men who run headlong into the dark and never return. Your father doomed the lot of you when he moved out here. If you’re smart, you’ll sell what you have and leave this land behind for good.”
I go on journeys out of my body and look at my red hands and my mean face and I wonder about that man who's gone so wrong.
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