The moon hung fat and lazy in the southern sky, bobbing along slowly above the bruised horizon. Fran chewed his beans methodically, staring into the fire and pondering on the offer made by the indigo-skinned killer.
Oxen snorted and stirred, tethered to the parked wagons. The few leggers in their menagerie buried their heads beneath their wings, sitting down on their folded, muscular legs. Horses snorted and whinnied in the darkness. It was the men – always the men – that made most of the noise, laughing and cursing and shouting. Their faces were huge and orange in the glow of the bonfire. The bawdy stories they shared was keeping them from their sleep.
“She told me that her pa would need to meet me ‘afore we did the deed,” said a voice, choking back hysterics, “An’ I said her to her – woman, all you’ll be wed to tonight is the beastie in my pants, so if you want yer pa green with envy, by all means, let him come by and meet it!”
Guffaws echoed above the rising smoke of the fire. Men spat beans and water everywhere, clutching their bellies and hooting at another exaggerated tale from the hired guns. Hiram sat among them, a small, bemused smile on his face, staring upon all of them with his flat eyes. A few men slapped his back, thinking he was laughing as well, but Fran knew his brother far too well. His eyes were like a doll’s eyes, lacking in everything, especially humor.
“Where is the closest town? I could do for my beastie to be freed for a bit!” shouted another.
“Ain’t naught but haunts and deadmen in that shadowy place,” said another, voice still amused. “Can’t imagine anything else being out this way. You’ll have to tame that monster yourself, seems.”
Laughter rose again.
“There’s a church out this way, somewhere near what’s left of the city,” said another, his voice mangled around the beans he was trying to eat. “Mayhap you can charm one of the sisters from their black robes and show her your salvation.” Hoots and cackles rose into the air.
“Not this one,” replied another, solemn. “I heard laying with them women puts in straight into the fires of Hell. I done enough bad, I don’t need some church-woman making sure I meet the devil.”
“I’m already burned, might as well go straight there instead of foolin’ myself I might end up elsewhere!” cried someone, and he was given laughter and backslapping.
“Millford isn’t far.” The laughter faded slowly into silence, until it was softer than the whir of the cicadas. Hiram toyed at his beans with a spoon, and looked up, his eyes seeing all around him, and he gave a small, acknowledging smile. Fran felt the electric prickle of anxiety run over his body; his brother stood amongst the hired men, and they looked up to him the way that a lowly peasant would a king. “Once there, you can get the whoring out of your system. No need to worry about laying down with women of the church.”
One of them laughed nervously. “A-course not, Hi. We’ll leave ‘em be.”
A long blade slowly emerged from Hiram’s boot. He admired it for a moment, and then began to pare his nails with deliberate nonchalance. “See that you do.”
“Ain’t you just a saint.”
Fran swallowed. From the shadows, a staggering figure coalesced, his hat askew. A ruddy face looked down upon the inhabitants of the bonfire with derision. The shabby creature in a rumpled overcoat and stained shirt was Emil Boggs. He’d always been one of Big Blanchette’s men, and upon a time he’d been the best tracker in the region. Now, he was only good at finding whatever brew might be in the camp.
“Emil,” Hiram replied. A placid tone carried his voice, but his eyes were narrow and watchful. Fran licked his lips, alternating gazes between the old drunk and his brother.
“You seem awful troubled with the thought of your boys trussin’ up some nuns and making women of them,” Boggs slurred. A bottle trembled in his grasp, with a splash of amber liquid swirling along the bottom with each shambling step. “You don’t have a mind shootin’ anything that get’s in your way, mind ya–”
“Emil, while I am proud of you for getting your lips from ’round that bottle long enough to say ‘Boo,’ I have to admit I don’t rightly care for anything you have to say right about now.” Hiram sniffed loudly, drawing his pipe from beneath his jacket and filling it with slow, deliberate taps. “Why don’t you go on: finish that drink and sleep it off. Sleep ’til the day of judgment, for all I care. In between all of that, you’ll mind what you say.” A match scratched and popped alight, and he took steady puffs from the pipe. Hiram’s eyes flashed with each pull. “Go on, now.”
Emil’s eyes narrowed and widened, and a fat tongue rolled from between his lips, saturating them. Most of the men in camp were in need of a wash, but the stink coming from Boggs was profound. Fran lowered his beans to the ground, heart pounding in his chest, hoping that the old man would call off his little show of defiance.
“Ain’tcher dog, like these jackboots.” He brought the bottle to his lips, draining it. It tumbled from his grip, landing weakly on the hardpan, not shattering. A low, neuteredclang echoed against the crackling fire. “I seen you and Fran grow from swaddled rags to where the both of you is today. You won’t treat me this way.”
“Shut up, Boggsy,” Fran blurted. His voice quavered. He’d wanted no part in any of this, but he knew all too well when someone was pushing Hiram too far.
The round, beleaguered face turned to Fran, and its features screwed into an expression of disdain. “Notchoo, Fran. Not the little whelp. No, you won’t bark at me without me taking you down a few pegs!”
Laughter drizzled throughout the onlookers, and heat rose to Fran’s cheeks.
“A whelp he is, no doubt about it,” Hiram agreed, and he shifted. A crack of thunder rattled all around them. Fran saw the soft reflection of the fire on Hiram’s pistol, now naked in the evening breeze, with a lazy, rising tendril of smoke peeking from the barrel. Emil blinked, and a trickling flow of blood flickered over his wrinkled eyelid and splashed below to his cheek. A dark, wet hole above his eyebrow gleamed. The drunk collapsed.
Silence encompassed them.
Hiram holstered his revolver fluidly and gave Fran a particularly harsh expression. “Since you don’t mind a dead man calling you out, then I figure you won’t mind cleaning up that mess.” He waved a dismissive hand at the fresh corpse. “So go ahead whelp, and get to it. Can’t see you being useful for much else.”
The riders snorted. Whispers behind hands and smiling eyes were cast upon him. They think me weak, too, just like Hiram.. He snatched Boggs by the ankles and began dragging him. A small trench shadowed the dead man’s girth.
“Pa won’t like this,” he remarked, grunting.
“But he ain’t here, you stupid jackass,” Hiram spat. “Get that stinking husk out from my sight. And the dead body, too.”
Fran darkened under the rushing waves of laughter. He felt at his hip, scowling.Should have brought it, a voice said in his mind, but the thought evaporated at the sight of Hiram’s careful, carnivorous eyes. A smile, rapier thin, crossed his features, as if to say, Pity you ain’t got something hanging there.
Fran dragged the body into the shadows. His gaze caught the shadow of the caged wagon. Gotta be him, Fran decided, bitter. The Indigo Man’s warnings were true.
Fran hoped his shot was as true as his visions.