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11

An Excerpt from:

Presque's Last Night

(from The Night Show, Vol. 1: The Great American Night)

 

(beginning of excerpt)

 

From a low rise overlooking a small hollow, Presque saw the miner’s cabin just as the light was saying its last goodnight, and the worst of the rain came down. Luck. It was a big wheel that came around always, and here it was again.

He could see the hole in the cabin’s ceiling that would permit him to light a fire in there without suffocating. Someone had removed the door, if there had ever been one. There was no sign of life anywhere in the hollow. Presque made his way down into it, one Colt (right hip) in his hand, the other hand working to push aside branches, hanging on to some so as not to go rolling all the way to the bottom on his ass. As he drew closer, he could hear a muffled sound like a coon scratching wood, but it was coming from inside the cabin. Outside the doorway, Presque cocked his hammer, and stepped up to investigate. With luck, the sound might actually be what it sounded like. As he reached the doorless space, the stink that ran out to meet him almost made him lose breakfast on his boots.

He had seen what, sometimes, the Indians did to emigrants who invaded their territories. Likewise, he had seen what some soldiers had done to the Indians in return. Presque had learned enough to never confuse that smell with anything else. It prepared him to expect the dead man, if not exactly the way he saw him.

He did not expect to see the boy at all.

Young, no more than four or five years old, doing the scratching with a chunk of flint, never once looking up at him, writing something on the wall. The body of the man hanging upside down from the center rafter had no head.

“Boy!”

Nothing, just scratching. Presque couldn’t read the words until he stepped up into the room—and then the boy heard him, falling back and uncovering his work.

No, that was wrong; the boy hadn’t heard him come in. He had felt Presque’s boots rattle the slats in the floor.

“You’re deef,” he said to the kid. And I bet you can’t read lips, neither, can you?

The kid was looking at him as if Presque was the Devil himself.

Presque gestured to the slab hanging from the ceiling. “Who’s your friend?”

Nothing. The kid was sitting like a crab on the floor, frozen, meeting death and knowing it. Presque put away his Colt. By the time he approached the dead guy, he forgot the kid was there at all, probing for goods that he knew he wouldn’t find. If they had gone to the trouble of taking a man’s head, Presque didn’t hold much hope for finding tobacco. Frisking without looking, he almost asked the kid if maybe he had any smoke, then kicked himself before he could ask something so stupid. The kid was deef; he wouldn’t hear the question. He gave up on the corpse, and turned to search the kid himself.

It dawned on him then that no one would leave their child with tobacco when they could take it with them. He might have a little food; after all, they had left him with flint. The scrawling was everywhere on the walls, all over the place, but no higher than four feet or so, the highest level the kid would be able to reach. That dismissed the chance that this kid’s parents had left recently. This little one had been here a long time. Three or four days, at least, and he could not have been here that long without something to keep his body breathing.

Presque went down on one knee and reached out to the kid, watching him want to back away, but too frozen by fear to try. “Do! You! Have! Any! Food?”

The kid shook his head—maybe; it might have only been a nervous tick.

“Are! You! Deef?”

That got a response. Very quick nodding yes. Presque knew he couldn’t keep shouting like this. The damn Law, not to mention half the people on the Trail, would hear him. The kid had been left behind because he was as deef as the flint they had left him with. That was bad luck to a traveler, enough reason to ditch the kid. Presque would be damned before he would let it rub off on him. “Listen to me! I need you to keep watch!” This time, he spoke less loudly, moving his lips slow and wide to mouth the words clearly.

The kid nodded. That was good; deef and dumb but not stupid. Presque took him to the doorway and pointed at the side of the hollow where he had come in. “You see anybody come out of those woods yonder and you come get me! Okay?”

Nodding. Good—hopefully. It might have been the only response the kid had ever been taught.

Presque did not even bother to remove the dead man before falling as close to sleep as he could.

 

 

When Presque’s eyes opened again, the kid’s silhouette was still standing in the doorway, and the rain had stopped.

There was no sound in the entire world. If there had been, even two miles away, Presque was sure he would have been able to hear it. He didn’t dare yell for the kid. Instead, he drummed his fingers once on the floor, and the kid turned his head to Presque at once. Presque waved the kid over.

“Thanks.” He mouthed the words clearly but never made a sound. The kid nodded yes. Presque almost asked him if he’d heard anything. He pointed to his own eyes instead. “Did you see anybody?”

The kid shook his head no.

“Is there a well outside?”

Nodding yes.

“A bucket?”

Again, yes. “Go get some water. Hurry back in here.”

The kid was off, out through the doorway in two seconds flat. The body, hung upside down, swayed slightly on a cool breeze. Presque stood, setting to the task of pulling it down, without crossing the light coming through the window or the door. The guy had been big, over six feet if he had still owned his head. By now, Presque was used to the stench, but having the thing there would draw flies, and signal death to anyone looking. Death always brought curiosity.

He had just laid the thing down on the cabin’s warped and rotted boards when a sound he had not made stopped him cold. He was hearing the pump handle out back working, a rusty groan that sounded thunderous in this night’s darkness. He could tune things out easily enough when he focused, and now he did, blocking it, concentrating.

There it was again … not the pump handle. Something on the dead guy, scraping the floor?

A possum fifty yards away, into the woods…

The pumping had stopped, three seconds before he realized it was gone. Waiting … again, the sound. A twig breaking, close by. Presque drew his Colt (left hip) and rolled to the door, backing up against the frame to wait for the boy. Not breathing. Hoping the boy might somehow draw a round, when he heard brush moving behind the cabin, in the direction the boy had walked off to.

Two more twigs, brush moving, front of the cabin, two-o’clock. Presque cocked the Colt and took a risk, leaning forward for a look. ...

 

 

(end of excerpt)

 

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