Tuesday, December 3, 2013


I buried what was left of Jamison naked under a pile of rocks while Bennett stood guard. The mound rose up to about my knees and was mostly porous red volcanic rock mixed with chunks of obsidian.

"Got any words?" I asked as I placed a final few stones around the mound's edges.

"Nothing to say that ain't already been said before," Bennett replied.

Bravery was the currency of the damned. Jamison and others I met on the road traded in risk. People like him put lives on the line for a reward that will keep them moving or that will keep others from encroaching. Fires dotted the horizon, and around them were men who stared at their cracked hands and weighed how much they had left against what it would take to lift them a little bit higher out of the dirt.

Bennett rolled a cigarette around in his mouth and spat. He wore Jamison's olive canvas duster jacket, blood stains and all, even though it ran nearly up to his fingers and fit loosely around his shoulders. I took the brown wool scarf and his old leather hiking boots which, although torn around the edges, were still strong in the soles and sturdy over the Modoc's rocky, rolling terrain.

I regretted the decision at first while stripping down our friend, but felt better as my toes and neck warmed in the biting, near-freezing wind. The rest of the clothing was ratty and covered in blood and dirt, but we took it anyway, dividing the load between our packs. The only piece we left behind were the remnants of Jamison's glasses, which were ruined beyond use by the force of the shotgun blast which he had taken fully in the face.

The man who killed Jamison smelled our fire and came looking for us. We heard his stumbling approach through the brush. Bennett doused the fire and we slid down into the wash downhill from camp. Jamison joined us at first, but then we saw the man. He was desperate and dirty, wearing a big back that bulged with mysteries and potential rewards. But he also caressed and drummed his hands on a humongous shotgun which shook as he held it out before him.

The man was dirty, stained a dark brown like he had been rolling in mud. His face was a wild whorl of black hair. The hair on his head curved down over his forehead and covered his eyes, and his beard curled up to the point where it almost covered his mouth. At the center was a bulbous nose that jutted out like a mountain out of the clouds. The rest of him was like the rest of us, thin and angular like a skeleton that wore skin.

Jamison urged Bennett to kill the man square away, but Bennett refused. He gave us a sour look and then worked his way back up the slope. I guess he wanted to try to catch the man flat-footed, but it didn't work. The man swung about as Jamison charged and loosed a blast. It sheared off the entire right side of Jamison's face. Everything below his neck kept moving forward, while what was left of his head rocked backward. The result was that he crumpled down on his knees and his arms splayed wide. his blood followed the slope of the slight decline and was thick enough to collect and begin to trickle downhill.

Bennett drove off the man us with a single shot from his Sig which hit true in the man's shoulder. The round was one of only 12 we had left, but given how big his shotgun seemed after it carved Jamison in half, it was worth the expensive and the extra noise.

"We need to get moving," Bennett said. "I didn't but wing him. He may be back." He dropped the cigarette and stomped it out. "Did you see the look in his eyes? Man was desperate."

"Which one?" I asked. "Give me just one more minute."

I didn't deal in bravery because it's finite. I never met a person who pulls it out of nothing like a renewable resource or the product of some alchemy. The unfortunate problem was that I met many who thought that the veins ran deep and could be mined endlessly with little or no cost. As we sat around the fire and ate scrounged food and meager meat from equally-weak animals, I asked Jamison how he felt. He assured me of his strength mostly. Through his toothless half-grin I got stories of raids before he hitched up with me and Bennett, and who he'd killed, and how he did it, gesturing wildly with frenzied hands, punching the air like he was locked in an endless battle. But his bodies betrayed him. His hands shook when still and eyes darted suspiciously, looking for any desperate advantage.

That's why Bennett and I ran and why Jamison died. Cowardice was safety on the plains.

No comments:

Post a Comment