“Take a deep breath, Crying Jag,” Virgil said to the beast under him. Crying Jag, a gypsied mix-breed with two glass eyes that put a look of insanity in her, filled her ribcage with enough territorial air to make the girth strap creak at the cinch rings.
“Well, ain’t that a wonderment!” Virgil remarked. Crying Jag blew.
The two, man and horse, had spent most of the morning hugging the east bank of a mighty river, upstream and down, scouting a suitable place to cross. By midmorning, Virgil had begun to worry about the fresh boots on his feet, a fatalism that had grown to include his very spark-a-life by noon. The river current was thick and clouded to the color of gravy with mud from the last rain and seemingly unwilling to narrow for rider and ridden anywhere along its length for miles. It had the demeanor of big uncaring animal, that river did.
At the most possible of impossible locations, Virgil held his stolen six-shooter above his head and gave Crying Jag the spurs. The beast balked, once, twice and then (with spurs dimplin’ deep her heaving sides) leapt as if attempting to clear the watercourse as she would a tree trunk felled across their path.
Piano trundles. Fiddle bow pokes holes in the smog cloud of fired cheroots and corncobs gathering at the tent’s highest points, which are none too high. Wind desperately trying to lift the canvas skirts of the place, succeeding only in sucking the driftwood sign off the agitating façade and into the foothills on a crest bedeviled by coyote sounds.
“…and whoever thought to bring a pianer to this godforsaken place didn’t account for the roads beating the instrument completely outta tune…”
“Amen to that. And tell me, what is the damn point of music if there ain’t no wimmen to dance with? I thought you said there’d be here snatch abundant!”
“Just deal them cards.”
“You boys hear about that feller Charly Darwin stirring up of the folks back east?”
“Nup. He a criminal?”
“Oh, as far as some reckon, he is.” The stranger leans in. His tongue squirts out of his mouth into a nostril. Virgil and MacDougal attribute this habit to a real weak upper lip. “ Others think him the Anti-Christ himself. He’s buffaloed all a England and thereabouts. Or, that’s what my brother, a sailing merchant, says.”
“How’d he do that?”
“With a book.”
“With a damn book!?”
“With a goddam book, yessir.”
Virgil surfaced from a dream in which he stood with a lantern on the bank of an underground river. On the opposite bank, a teeming population of grey hominids, restless with want and seemingly afraid of the black waters between, their coin-eyes catching in the lantern light. The countenance it created: the fiercest ignorance or a knowing so great it blanched the mind. Virgil wailed in response to the pain in his left walking limb, a mangled thing still caught in the stirrup. Crying Jag’s saddle had slipped onto its haunches – which the beast was tolerating admirably. Virgil then passed back into unconsciousness and his blue-eyed steed dragged him further away from the river favoring her right front hoof.
“Could you chew that last bit finer fer me, mister?”
“You’ll hafta excuse Virgil. He’s got a puny thinker.”
“Better a puny thinker than a puny pecker, MacDougal!”
MacDougal laughs at this, partin’ the fat red beard on his fat red face for a horseshoe of teeth, teeth a scratch feed yellow and just too tiny for a man MacDougal’s size. Virgil had asked him once, asked him: “Them your baby teeth, MacDougal?” “What the fuck are you talking about, Virgil?” MacDougal’d said and Virgil’d decided to drop it. The stranger closes his fan of cards, gives his nostril a quick tonguing and speaks. The two lingual veins on the underside of his tongue are dreadful pronounced and the color of blue flame.
“Boys, boys. Its boggy crossin, this stuff of old Darwin. Boggy crossin. I can only tell you what my brother told me. It put me sideways, too, indeed it did. It slices like such. All a God’s little girly critters try to make rut with the best boy critter – them strongest of the strong, them handsome types…”
“Yer not tellin’ us anything new, my friend.”
“Ain’t nothing new to tell, boys. Thissus been going on since Day One. What Darwin figgered out is. Darwin figgered that the strong handsome parts would be passed on down to the little ones and those little one’s would make rut just the same until the herd changed.”
“Changed? Changed how?”
“Well, we all, mankind God bless, used to be apes and monkeys.”
“Horse shit. God made man and made wimmen out a man’s rib.”
“Indeed, I said the same thing to my brother, but now I told ye, ye’ll not be able to think otherwise, I guarantee it. Its called natchural selectation.”
“That’s a sin. MacDougal, we’ve been infected with a thinkin’ sin.”
“Given my present circumstances, Lord, I believe it only to proper to oncet again address you as I did in the days of my childhood. In my weakened state, I can’t seem to free foot from stirrup, no-how. My trotter’s busted and swollen, boot ripping at its seams and there’s hammering pulse from toe to hipbone. Both gun and hat carried off. Low is my morale, Lord, having been trawled through my own horse’s shit and piss for a I don’t know how many a day. I’ve eaten nothing but dirt and treebark like a goddamn woodland creature. It ain’t enough to sustain a man… It ain’t enough…”
“Virgil, I think you better rethink that wager.”
“I’ll wager whats I wants to wager, MacDougal.”
“Whatchoo gonna ride if you lose that pony, huh?”
“Maybe I’ll ride ye sister, MacDougal. Now, she’s a specimen of natural selectation, I’m certain of it.”
“Hobble yer lip, Virgil. I’ll not say it again”
“That beak of hers! I bet she gets them hardest nuts, I bet indeed!”
“My sister is a goodly God-fearing woman if there ever was one. I won’t stand fer it!”
Virgil heeds this warning, but not t’other and wagers his horse…
The cards are laid on the table, neat paper sighs of fate. Virgil grins over his three pair and a dry ace. The stranger slaps the table with a full-boat, three queens and a pair a deuces and draws the kitty towards his belly including the stub of cheroot meant to stand-in for Crying Jag, his tongue slipping in an out of his nostrils, his weak upper lip shiny with saliva in the lantern light.
“Oh my weepin’ pisser!” Virgil was hot in the face and knuckles.
Virgil surfaced from a dream to see the sun through his eyelashes.
Virgil surfaced from a dream to see a pair of molting apes gaze at him from their perch in an aspen.
Virgil surfaced from a dream of night to a dream of night where the gibbous moon bobbed and multiplied.
Virgil surfaced from a dream to a voice he did not recognize as his own. A goose down four-poster floated above him and a scarlet-cheeked woman struggled against the bed sheet. A spreading blossom of blood soaked the fabric in a fanning delta from between her thrashing legs.
Virgil surfaced from a dream to see Crying Jag’s tail lift, her anus puckering then expanding to accommodate a chartreuse turd. It broke apart in his hands, oozed between his digits, as he was carried past and Virgil hisself cried.
“I’ve learned to love, Lord, lying here. Hither fucking thither I’ve been dragged, dropping all the crumbs of hate, enmity and odium behind me so that the birds in your service might feed and the trail back to my sinful ways would vanish. Watch over us, Lord. Crying Jag keeps wicking her ears with intent, halting and peering around as if we’re being followed…”
“Virgil, come back!”
Virgil flees into the sucking wilderness with MacDougal following in his waddling fashion.
“Ye’ll end up with yer neck broke in a dry crik bed!”
Porcupinous conifer boughs sting his face, one hand mashing his hat to his head, the other held against his mouth to plug the sobbing pukes. Virgil, Virgil, Virgil you’re as drunk as biled ape. Is that all we is, Lord? Pink apes riding horses under a godless sky?
He picks up a deer path and runs, boot soles slipping on the spongy bed of pine needles. He runs until a root trips him up and he crashes into a copse of scrub oak. Darkness into darkness, just another fleshly body passing into unconsciousness held afloat above dried oak leaves and the reeking effluvia of a voided stomach by the straining and hardy little trees.
“Lord, what lesson is there in dying? Whatever’s been following us spooked Crying Jag. She took us over fallen log. I fear that I’ve lost an ear, Lord. The bit of shirt I had left I’ve wrapped around my head to stopper the blood. I cursed You and Your Son and Crying Jag’s mother and my mother… I’ve begun to keep an eye for the right size stone to bash my brains out with.”
At dawn the stranger exits the bunkhouse, waters the scrub oak with a farting piss and finds his new horse on the picket line, knowing her by her queer eyes. Leading his mule a tether of braided hemp, they ride out. Behind them Virgil combobulates out of the sticks, chewing the corners of his mustaches. Virgil’s face is wind-beaten, his eyes a pair of radishes, his gait is sidelong and shambling and whisky-poisoned. He’d awoke next to MacDougal, to MacDougal’s snore. With pert-near feminine delicacy Virgil’d relieved the fat man of his Colt Paterson and stole off.
“Way I reckon it,” he says to the man diminuating over a rising on the trail, heaving out of sight. Crying Jag trotting gaily under the stranger, as if she’d had no previous owner, breaking Virgil’s heart. “If there ain’t a God, there kin be no Satan and shorly no Hell. And nobody ever judged a monkey for killing another monkey. I’ll have my horse back, I thankee.”
“Maybe twas you Lord who set me on this damn course and not the Devil! Maybe you knit a killer in the womb. Maybe the world you created couldn’t make room for me, Virgil! Is that you laughin, Lord? Who created whiskey and games of chance? Who set man against man? You! You! You!. Is that you laughin? I hear laughin?”
He has not killed the man, Darwin’s man, the stranger – he’s just winged him. Virgil walks to where the man fell out of the saddle, head passing through a fine blood mist. Crying Jag had spooked and run off somewhere. The man is not far from where he fell. He has his back up against a tree trunk. He can’t speak. He’s got the fingers of one hand stuffed in his bloody throat. The other, just as bloody, he holds out to Virgil.
“Well, goddammit,” says Virgil.
The man makes a weak beckoning gesture.
“Nup,” Virgil says, squatting to unlace the man’s boots. A pulse of blood runs over the man’s hand at his neck. A wet swallowing noise issues from him like links of sausage being dropped in a sack of other sausages. Virgil makes quick work of pulling off the man’s boots.
“My daddy was neither strong nor handsome. He was a mudsill, he was. He could find none to tie to but a blind catalog woman. She also had a withered hand, too. He shat his pants ‘bout once a week and liked to sneak up on his blind wife and put a wet finger in her ear, but that man couldn’t sneak up on anybody the way he smelled. Even if he was down wind you could smell my daddy, yessir. You know what they called him in town? They called him a… They called him… I can’t even bear to repeat it. Yes, we did have a few sheep. Ol’ Amos claimed he saw him – my daddy – doing an act of darkness with one of his big Dorset ewes. But Ol’ Amos was a coffee boiler and a falsifier and e’erybody knows that, but this tale stuck. I reckoned this then and reckon this now: e’erybody was jus’ looking for something, anything to vex my daddy with. Cuz, cuz. Cuz well see, it’s like this: I close my eyes an I see him proceeding in that act of darkness an, an. An’ I thought this before and after Ol’ Amos started mouthin it around. But going around denying and gittin’ my ass kicked for denyin’ somethin’ that you reckon is shorely true, well, it starts to make you think things an’ well it got to gittin so bad, I stole off one night –“
The stranger makes that selfsame swallowing noise, increasing the pulse of blood escaping between the fingers he has plugged in his wound.
“- I stole off. Been a thief, been a womanizer, been a betrayer, an absconder, been a coward, been a cheater. Now, tell me something, stranger, strange-talking man. Ain’t I breathing proof that that Darwin feller of yers is wrong? My daddy was who he was. Tell me, if it ain’t fer the grace of God would I be taking breath right now, right here, while yer expiring? Darwin’d have this the t’other way around ‘r somebody stronger n handsomer than yourself ‘r myself standing on our necks? I mean, they had me and I’m no better than them. I’ll tell you what you tangler of brains, I’ll tell you I don’t see no tomorrow where them best critters have rutted new better critters. I’ll tell you what, I’ll tell you I see a tomorrow full a men with their hearts full of the stuff my heart’s full of. I see a future where God’s good Bible can’t beat back the flames.”
The man’s eyes move from Virgil’s eyes to just above Virgil’s right shoulder.
“What do you see? Has the devil come to take you?” Virgil asks.
The stranger shakes his head.
“A wing-ed angel, then?”
The stranger, again, shakes his head.
“What then, damn you!?”
The man’s face constricts and his hand falls away from his neck. His eyelids flutter and Virgil makes the face he makes when he’s been interrupted.
Crying Jag brought them to a clearing and proceeded to crop the sparse grass. Virgil had calmed down, issuing no more unheeded directives at the horse but turned his attention to freeing a stone that lay half-buried nearby. He talked to the Lord while his wormy fingers sought purchase to pull it from its place in the earth.
“You see Lord, a man digging in the dirt. An act of bravery at the end of a coward’s life. I believe you placed this rock here to serve as the instrument of my death. Will bravery be weighed against my sins on the gilded scale at the gates of heaven? I must do this, Lord, before I lose the strength to heft it and suffer the misery of an infective fever.”
With a pitiful noise issuing from him, the killer pried the stone from its spot, fingertips white around the bloody nails.
“Let no man say I wasn’t good to my mother,” he said holding the stone stiff-armed above his head as though he were examining the maggots clinging to the wet fiber and dirt crumbs. The stone, nearly the size of a fresh salt block, covered the sun. Virgil regretted having to take his life in the shadows without the warmth of God’s sun on his face, but he hoped too that this sacrifice would be noted when the fate of his soul was being decided.
He let the stone fall. There was commotion in the trees to his left – a pinto stallion broke through into the clearing. Virgil’s horse bolted a pace or two, pulling him, quick as witch-dick, out from under that fateful dropping stone. The stallion’s nostrils were dilating and he, whole-horse, seemed to vibrate. Where he’d shed is winter coat, veins stood out against wild muscle. Crying Jag presented herself. Virgil shrieked. The stud lunged on his hind legs and stove Crying Jag – a pfft! of warm mammalian air escaping around the diameter of his piebald cock. Virgil grabbed a sapling pine by the trunk and held on. He was lifted bodily off the ground and stretched his full length. He heard the tree of his saddle snap under the weight of the thrusting animal. Rays of sunlight shot through the locked beasts, firing mane and tail and hide with a limning of gold and red.
Virgil finds his pony stepping on its reins by a small creek, He coos his special coo, drawing up those reins and mounting. He picks a few brambles out of Crying Jag’s mane and directs them up a ridge. The morning is cold in a way that makes the trees seem made of heavier material than wood and there is nothing in the crisp early spring air to dampen the cries of the scrub jay and the kestral and the black-billed magpie. Everything stings Virgil. Each sound, a talon into the dumplings of brain in his skull. A thin trail leads them to the river’s edge. Each weight-shifting step of Crying Jag’s jostles and jolts those aching dried-out dumplings something fierce. Virgil can smell hisself. He breathes through his mouth in an audible way. They descend toward the river, the power of its humidity and din meeting them before a soul could even eyeball it. Crying Jag slips nearly on her rump to the bank, the water there undulating dully under an amassing of driftwood.
“Steady! Damn you!” Virgil yips at her, sawing at her bit, pulling the reins to his chin and cursing his pony.
She kicked herself out of the broken saddle, leaving Virgil lying there, still with a tremulous grasp on the half-uprooted sapling. Crying Jag and the stud ran off, crashing into the brush together, spraying the sputtering cowboy with the effluvia of their union. A throb of pain hit Virgil like a locomotive, making his eyes cross. He let go of the sapling one hand at a time, very much a man afraid of being drug further into the wilderness by his mangled leg. Curling on his side, his hands clasp his ankle. His mouth, a hole of saliva strings. He lay like that as the mountains rose up to obliterate the sun.
He’s under the churning silt of the river, under a churning horse. He’s taken in water through the mouth, the nose and the ears. There is a sound of air escaping. The beast is thrashing. The hair of her tail slides across his eyes. A hoof with a horseshoe passes in front of Virgil’s face, air bubbles the size of fish eyes trailing from the mud and shit caught in the underhoof. From the depths, another hoof and horseshoe rises, boiling with bubbles. Virgil sees it – he could drop into a nail hole the farrier forgot to nail while affixing hoof to hammered steel. There is an engulfing of sight and in the darkness bursts of color like Virgil’s never seen color, not even when Calico Al struck him for groping his girl, that girl of Calico’s. Virgil had never given much thought to the bones below his flesh, but something caved in like a hide-wrapped clay pot with an inner-crunch and he dropped fully into the blackness of the nail hole rising up to swallow him, whole and totally.
On his belly, Virgil was reduced to worming his way toward the crackle of a cook fire, its light a holy spangle through the chaparral of pecker poles and sagebrsuh. Virgil was making little inarticulations to hisself, yanking his miserable soul along. Ripping at tufts of shot-grass. There was fanning of small rodents whispering away from him. The earth below his belly was hard and the coins and blades of firelight through the underbrush chimed each their own individual chime of angel talk Virgil was quite tired of hearing and yearning to hear louder for.
He paused just at the edge of the cook fire’s corona, some terrible shame gripping him. The shadows of the outriders were thrown up into the pale-sided shelter of canopy leaves. He listened to them talk and sop up beans with bread. He liked listening to them, their low tones, their weary laughter.
“Hey boys, lemme ask you sumthin” a voice over other voices.
“Ask it, then.”
“How do you circumnumacise a Oklahoman?”
“Kick his sister in the jaw!”
Virgil passed on while the circle of waddies laughed some. He was found in the early morning by one of them searching for place to piddle. The dead man had his chin on two fists, eyes fixed on the pit of ash that’d long stopped smoking. They buried him quickly in a shallow grave dug with hands, knives and a wrought-iron skillet and so shallow was his grave, that soon enough the coyotes had scraped a hole to him, feasting as though the earth sometimes offered up hidden pools of flesh and blood and to the coyotes it was simple.