by
r. muir

 

If he'd left her alive... things would  have been different. Folks heal. Maybe not as good as new, but life would have been about mendin'. I'd have helped. I'd have made it my business to see her up and around again, done for her, in the meantime, been every bit as good a friend to her as she'd been to me; Bea was a fine woman. Too fine for the likes of Lem Cole, her "lawfully wedded"—meanin' they was man and wife "till death doth them part"... which it did; Lem killed her. I know that for a fact; he carved me a note. Read, "She's all yours now"—underscorin' "now" with a parting slash of that knife he used to do her in.

Jed grimaces... spits. His face recovers... hardens into a fixed, inscrutable stare.

God was born with a twin brother. I don't say that out of disrespectfolks got a right to believe what they believe. But God walks nowheres on this earth without his siblin' Satan.

Jed's expression, bleached by sunlight, does not change...

"Vengeance is Mine, sayeth the Lord." Well... like I said, believe what you will. Had she been spared, love may have spread its balm. Intead... got me a pain... like a broken jaw on a cold December mornin'.

...except he squints.

"An eye for an eye"; that's the only sort of justice makes sense; don't gainsay me! Fair is fair; he'll die the same way she did!

Through clenched teeth, lips compress into a seam of tightly-drawn stitches... thoughts awaiting body to galvanize resolve.

Beat her to a pulpnot just this last time, neither; Lem Cole laid it on long and he laid it on hard. Led off with his belt, most times, then often-as-not resorted to his big bare fists. Bea bore him bruises. No sons nor daughters; whuppin' number one put an end to that. S'pose Lem figured he had nothin' left to lose once Bea turned barren. Fool!

A nervous tick contorts Jed's grizzled cheek. It passes.

She come over soon as folks let out how I lay stricken with the typhoid fever. Livin' on my own, I needed nursin', or likely I'd have died. Lem raised no fuss. He weren't keen, though; share-croppin' is back-breakin' work and Bea had chores a-plenty. Done 'em all, then burned the midnight oil helpin' me do mine. Sure loved her company. Not straight off, of course; I was ailin' so bad could have tucked me in my coffin; I'd have been obliged. Fever broke. Was then I saw Bea's beauty put the twinklin' stars' to shame. Had only I  reached my hand ahead o' Lem... His luck, my loss.
Now look.

Jed's briefly softened features resume their grit-stiff set.

No excuses; you was right; I was wrong; Lem up and caught us. Runnin' off was sinful, you said. Stayin' on, I said, was a damn sight worse. Got you agreein' with me—more 's the pity. Should have left things well enough alone. Maybe you'd be breathin', 'stead of tied to yonder sawhorse... nekid... splayed. What kind o' husband flails his spouse's flesh till it scarce lays claim to bone? Then defiles her? Violates her innards with the handle of a hoe? The truth ain't pretty. Folks do terrible things to other folks; always have, always will; it's 'human' nature. Nary another creature tortures to death its own.

Jed Montana's guts constrict. His limbs revive. He spits. Shock, at last, gives way to the task at hand:

WATCH
him close ground, cast his shadow on the corpse of his beloved;

HEAR
the buzz of flies compound his migraine;

SMELL
the stench of death commence its rank, ulterior work...
pulchritude laid waste...
transformed into carrion;

TASTE
an acrid sweat as he unfastens gore-soaked tethers—
crooked wrists rubbed raw and rent with splinters; 

FEEL
him lift; without a soul, the body puts on weight, it seems;

EXPERIENCE
burial:
boot to shovel... boot to shovel...
dirt displaced...
a dent...
a gaping hole...
a cavity...
into which, at length, she spills.

MAKE HASTE
to cover,
hence restore Bea Cole's lost modesty.

Positioning a slab, on which four words are crudely gouged, Jed sinks its base into the mound. "She's all yours now," the phrase attests—Lem's bitter epithet become Bea's commendation.

Dear Lord, you giveth and you taketh—makes no sense at all to me—yet Bea opined "Thy will be done." Receive thy servant. Rest in peace. May she find happiness, in Heaven, that, on earth, was sore denied. May he who loved her least fall prey to her avenger.

WITNESS
sky
so all-encompassing that it dwarfs the scrub below,
reduces Jed,
his mare,
the plume of smoke enveloping hearth and home,
to insignificance;

only memories will escape incineration;

burning timbers split and crackle;

horse and rider take their leave;

a hellish sun erases shade—graveside to horizon.

NIGHTFALL
Grief;
the ache of loss ensures that introspection echoes.

Pressed my ear against her chest, made sure... no breath... no pulse... no sobbin'... Seems a carcass is a silent thing; the dead don't hum nor moan nor lie awake at night to dream their dreams aloud—like Bea once done. Why, every night she'd conjure visions that foretold our hopeful future: 'bout the pooch we'd get; the well we'd sink; the barn we'd build; the stoop; and, when her voice growed faint as moths, the babes we'd spawn—suchlike beset her.

By the light of one small campfire—and the firmament—Jed takes stock.

Deprive a woman of her breedin' power, you hollow out the log. Add Lem Cole's meanness, its a wonder how she muddled through so long. Nine year' she catered to that man with nary a nod nor look of kindness; showed her scant appreciation, when, by rights, his life was blessed. Bea flowed with goodness. 'S if her belly bred a wellspring you could drink of, sip like nectar, slake a thirst that folks, in solitude, seldom quench.

His bedroll shifts. Jed rues the frozen ground: exposed, stone-strewn, unyielding—though corporeal pangs are dwarfed by those of conscience.

 

TIME LAPSE
Dawn.

The sun climbs dumbly, anesthetically, in its mindless repetition. Jed awakens, stomach grumbling. Crusts of mucous hinge his lids. The dregs of bile and pent-up outrage foul his palate.

Suede and rawhide, that was Bea and me, one supple, t' other rigid, yet the selfsame swatch o' skin when we embraced... smooched... intertwined, our union utter—if ill-fated. We controlled ourselves. No spoonin'. Not whilst Bea and Lem still shared his roof; no sir, that gal was chaste. Weren't till we crossed our third state line and set up house, in that ol' shack... Why, even then it took a wind-storm to conjoin us. How it roared! Near blowed the walls down, wild Nor'wester. Come up sudden. Cold and steely. Set our teeth to chatterin' 'fore the sun half took itself to bed. No heat; just blankets; not enough o' them, to suit. We had to snuggle. Elsewise freeze, right then and there; that cold spell lasted 'most a week... though I'd have laid betwixt Bea's thighs till Spring wooed Autumn.

TRAIL DUST

sage, assorted skeletons of brittle-brush and tumbleweed abound, as Jed braves prickly-pear and dry gulch at a stoic, dogged pace, his course unswerving, on the callous ground, its byways pale as scars, its span as bleak as is the prospect of Jed's clemency.

FOURTEEN DAYS

two weeks of solitude, hatching plots of retribution (interspersed with dauntless pipedreams: Bea recovered, Bea upraised), Jed's journey long on futile hope and short on mercy.

Lem will pay. He's mayhap bigger, doubtless stupider; brawn leaves little room for brains. I'll get the drop on 'im, make him truss hisself up proper—extra tight. Won't brook no pleadin', no contriteness; tit for tat, cold-blooded stern. The goal is kill 'im, carry out his execution.

FORECAST

(screams; subhuman howls escape a throttled throat whose sinews cinch with retching) Jed re-saddles, (bound hands clenching, knuckles ashen) grips the reins, (raw buttocks quivering) fits his boot to stirrup (naked), mounts up (savaged), then proceeds (run through with a shattered shaft of hoe).

FINALE

"Freeze!"

Lem Cole arrests his arms mid-swing—Jed draws a bead—ax blade suspended; from behind him comes a voice all-too-familiar.

"On your knees!"

Lem slowly turns. His look of bold disdain foretells the likely outcome: Jed will falter; plagued by scruples, doubt will foil his lover's aim, as he concludes a wrong repeated makes not right.

Once, twice he shoots!

Lem, disbelieving, gawps at tidy holes that perforate his pant legs, drops the tool, looks up at Jed, in horror, then topples... wild-eyed, mute... as spurts of blood erupt, a scorching wetness inundating kneecaps, while anointing homespun fabric, shins to bootstraps. 

"Strip."

Refused. Another shot removes Lem's index finger. Wits berserk, he cowers, sheds his dungarees and shirt, in abject panic.

"Put on these."

Jed drops some shackles—crudely wrought from scraps of baling wire—and kicks them. Lem, perceptions reeling, fits them to his forearms.

"Come with me."

Jed grabs a loose end, yanks; the cuffs constrict. Lem lurches sidelong, crawling. Jed half leads, half drags his quarry to a crossbar.

"Spread and lean."

Lem meekly hoists himself, then doubles over, draped between two fence posts. Jed secures him, wrists to ankles, trussed like a hog.

"Remember Bea?"

Jed snaps a hoe in half, discards the head, then, brandishing the handle, puts its jagged tip to Lem Cole's butt, rears back, and rams it in.
A muffled grunt... a fart-like gasp... Lem dies impaled.

Gun drawn, Jed fumes... He sticks its muzzle in his own mouth, bites, and fires.

POSTMORTEM

Ought not to have done it, Jed Montana. Bea weren't you'rn. Law says so. Mine. Man owns his land, his horse, his rifle, and his better half. Church says so, too. "Love, honor, and obey"; them three was the oaths Bea swore. Come a cropper, at ev'ry blessed one. Loved you, not me. Honored you, not me. Broke the third the day you two run off. Well, I found y'all. Could've bushwhacked you, had I been a mind; you was no less red-hand-guilty than Bea; 'cept you weren't around. An' by the time I's done with her, I's sick to death o' killin'. Weren't easy. Man gets to thinkin', once he's took a life, gets to wonderin' did he do right. Spent me a long ride home hard ponderin' that. Finally reckoned I did; she surely had it comin'. Gave, then broke her solemn word, for starters. Done her wifely duty, but bore no young. Put the blame on me for a spankin' I once give 'er. Truth to tell, Bea 's barren from the day we met. Disgraced herself; she did. Three grave offenses. None tolerable—never mind I 's willin' to forgive an' forget. Last straw was her layin' with a man not her husband; namely you. They call that adult'ry, Jed Montana. They call that a sin. Mine, compared to you'rn, don't count for spit.

Like the ocean's voice in a seashell, or the air's through a hollow reed, Bea's account now issues forth, in absentia.

How I am allowed to speak, or why, or who might listen, is uncertain; I am dead, you see... as are my men folk twain. We are but memoirs. Mostly sad. My side is this.
Lem Cole was forthright, strong, hard-working. I was fifteen when we wed. He seemed... well... fatherly, being thirteen years my senior. Stern but stable. Patient, in his steadfast way. He broke me to him slow-like... though I dared not think to cross him. Did my duty. Kept my place.
Except a woman gets to feeling she is worthy past obedience, gets to contemplating might-have-been, if pledged to someone else. Say, Jed Montana: shy, withdrawn, poetic, worlds apart, was he...
When we high-tailed it, I felt drunk on hope, felt altogether tipsy to have finally broke the yoke I'd worn devoutly. Foolish me. To think that Lem would let his woman go without to-do was daft. To think that Jed, poor
dear, would fend him off... He mayhap tried. He failed. Then took his own life, after slaying Lem, who...
Three folks dead; none guiltless. But were we each so far from grace that hate ought blindside truth? Lord help us. Only He, I guess, knows wrong from right.

A stiff wind breathes... emits a sigh... indicts, rebukes, exonerates... then disappears like mourning doves at twilight.

 

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