Buck opened up one of the paper cartridges filled with black powder and poured its contents into the gunshot wound in his leg. His hands shook with a searing pain that blasted through his entire body—but he knew from experience that he had to act fast or risk losing the limb.
“Gimme your knife,” he pleaded with Harley, his older brother, who handed over the bone-handled blade he kept strapped to his waist and watched as Buck forced it into the wound to dig out the bullet. Buck yelped again as the lead ball popped out and onto the ground.
“I need a bandage,” he gasped. Harley leaned down to the dead man on the ground and tore a piece from his shirt before tying it around his brother’s wounded leg.
The thought of what Galen had done to their youngest brother, Eli, caused Harley, now upright to swiftly bring his foot down onto Galen’s chest, stomping the prone corpse in frustration. Eli had been big and dumb and slow, but he certainly felt his brother didn't deserve to be shot and killed while in the middle of a fuck.
“I'm takin’ his pants,” Buck said as he began to remove Galen's boots. He then pried the guns from the dead man's hands. “He won' need 'um.”
Truth was, Harley and his brothers never owned a piece of clothing that hadn't come off a dead body of some sort—even as infants.
Buck didn't mind the bloodstains left from Galen’s bayonet wound. Pants were pants—and good pants weren't for wasting.
Harley was too preoccupied with his anger and sorrow to take advantage of attire. He wiped the tears from his eyes.
“Where's mah gol-damned knife?”
“How all should I know?” responded Buck; he'd been too busy fishing through Galen's pockets to mind the blade. The answer did little to calm Harley, who was now fixing to administer even more payback for Eli’s murder by taking out his frustration and inconsolable grief on the interloper. He trundled over and knelt beside his youngest brother’s cold corpse and let out a long sob.
“I’m a-gunna make that sumbitch pay, Eli!” Harley said as more tears welled up in his eyes. Indeed, he intended every word of his promise, repeating it over and over, as he stalked around, head down, looking both high and low for his blade.
“Gol-damnit, Buck, you had it last. You git up an’ help me fin’ it,” he bellowed.
Up to that point, Buck had avoided looking over in Eli's direction—evading the grief. But now it hit him that he'd never see his brother alive again. He threw down the ammo bag.
“Fine. I want you to cut off that basterd's head for wat he done to Eli!” Buck told him, now choking back his own hot, burning tears.
“Gol-damnit Buck!” Harley shouted again, still looking for the knife. “I cain't fin' it!”
“Then I'm a-gunna mutey-late him some more wid this,” exclaimed Buck, picking up Harley's bayonet-tipped rifle and using it as a crutch to help him stand upright.
But as he turned back, raised gun in hand, Galen was no longer there—only a depression in the ground.
“Huh?” exclaimed Buck.
Harley also turned, sensing something was wrong. “Sumbitch,” he gasped, gazing in amazement at the void son the ground.
“Where’d he go?” whispered Buck.
“What?” asked Harley.
“I says, ‘Where’d he go?’ The dead guy?”
“I dunno,” barked Harley. “And quit whisperin’! Cain’t hear you wid my bad ear.”
He hurried over to Buck and snatched his gun from his brother’s hands. “Gimme dat.”
Harley’s head swiveled around when he thought he saw something out of the corner of his eye. Quickly he turned and fired his rifle, his bullet cracking into the side of a tree thirty feet away.
“Gol-damnit!” he huffed. His hands shook as he took the powder horn from around his neck and began the process of reloading his gun.
“Wuz it him?” Buck asked. His gunshot wound still ached, but now his knees were becoming shaky.
“I dunno,” Harley told him. “Cain’t be. Dead men don’t jes’ get up and walk away.”
“Unless he ain’t dead,” said Buck, stating what both of them thought but neither had said.
“I ran him through. Stabbed him twice. I saw the light go right out his gol-damned eyes,” Harley exclaimed. Having taken the lives of several people over the years, he was pretty certain he knew when a man was good and killed.
The sound of a footstep came from close by; both hillbillies spun and looked. Buck winced from the discomfort of movement and shifted his weight to his good leg.
“Gol-damn,” hissed Harley between his teeth. He was starting to feel his chest tense up in knots. “Let's git out of here.”
“What about Eli?” Buck asked, his teeth now chattering from fear and pain.
“Eli's dead!” Harley burst out. “He won' mind. Let's get back to the wagon!”
With some effort, Buck scooped up Galen's boots, guns, and pants before beginning to gather Galen's ammo bag.
“Leave it!” cried his brother. “Let's git.”
Harley burst into a run, but Buck held back.
“Mah gun!” he shouted after Harley who, even if he had heard, wouldn’t have stopped.
Buck hobbled to his gun. He spotted his musket right where he’d left it—leaning against the side of a tree when he began thinking less about his gun and more about the boots belonging to the crazy sumbitch who’d fired on them.
With Galen’s possessions bundled against his chest, Buck had trouble grabbing his rifle. The barrel slipped through his fingers and the gun fell onto the ground.
“Damn,” Buck whispered. He bent down to pick it up, dropping the boots in the process.
“Damn!” he muttered again, just as he heard the footsteps come up behind him.
“Help me wid it, Harley,” he pleaded. “I'm in a lot of pain.” He turned his head, sensing his brother getting eerily closer.
He found no one there.
Fear gripped Buck’s chest, as though caught in the clutch of a bear. His mind returned to the moment when they were younger and their father once sat the three boys around a campfire and told them ghost stories until they cried, then continued telling them until Eli had fainted dead away. The fear that held Buck now was much, much worse.
Quickly, he picked up the boots and hooked his fingers around the barrel of his rifle before hobbling away, trying to remember where they left their wagon. Harley had already disappeared into the woods and Buck figured he was alone—and yet he swore he heard breathing that wasn’t his.
Buck turned around and his face blanched. Stepping out from behind the same tree that supported his riddle was the man he had watched his brother kill only a short while earlier. Though his pants and boots were missing and his shirt was torn and bloodied, the man looked otherwise uninjured; indeed, his murderous glare looked, instead, injuring.
In his right hand, Galen held the bone-handled knife Harley thought he had lost—the blade still tinged with blood from the Mexican woman’s tongue.
Buck dropped the stolen boots, pants, and guns to the ground. As Galen stepped closer to him, his hands scrambled to bring the rifle up—only to find the gun already spent.
Buck had never bothered to reload his gun afterwards.
The rifle fell from Buck’s shaking hands and he dropped to his knees.
“I’m sorry!” he sobbed. “I didn’t mean nothin’.”
“You mean by killing me?” Galen asked as he approached Buck.
“You already done shot me!” Buck screamed. Tears streamed down his face. His voice nearly raised an octave as he clasped his hands together. “I’m real, real sorry!”
“Oh, I forgive you for what you did to me,” Galen admitted, now on top of the hillbilly.
Buck’s face relaxed a moment, albeit in confusion.
“But what you did to that woman—that I’ll never abide,” Galen said before plunging the blade into Buck’s eye socket.
Harley ran until his lungs burned, finally reaching the wagon. Eli had insisted that they unhitch the two horses and tie them to nearby trees to prevent them from running away. Now Harley cursed Eli’s decision for the time it would cost him. Quickly, he tossed his gun into the back of the wagon, untethered the first horse, and dragged the unwilling nag to the rig before harnessing him. The second horse, however, was not as cooperative, and nipped at Harley’s hand, drawing blood.
“Stupid animal!” he hissed before he cracked the horse across its face. He tugged hard on the nag’s bridle, but the animal pulled away and reared up on its hind legs, emitting an angry and percussive warning grunt.
“Gol-damnit!” Harley exclaimed, putting his hands up to protect his face. “Fine, I’m leaving without you!”
Grumbling back to the wagon, he stopped in his tracks. Standing thirty feet away, staring right back at him, was the man he had just killed.
Galen was still holding the knife.
“Gol-damn,” Harley said under his breath. Even from this distance, he could see that same shine of life he remembered taking away now back in the man's eyes.
And those live eyes now brimmed with vengeful anger.
Harley didn't pause any longer; his feet erupted into a dead run toward the wagon. Buck had no quarter in his mind; his only thought was of his musket and bayonet.
Mortally determined, Harley closed the distance to the wagon faster than he'd ever run before. He was closer to the wagon than his pursuer was to him; he saw the specter was fifteen feet away. He was going to make it.
Ten feet. Five feet. Harley reached out ahead of him. He would grab the rifle and run that bastard through with his bayonet again. Panting and out of breath, he reached over the side of the wagon and wrapping his fingers around the gun.
But then Galen grabbed Harley's wrist.
Harley's heart stopped briefly as he let out a terrified, pathetic yelp. He kept his grip on the rifle, but Harley couldn’t wrestle his arm free from Galen’s grasp.
But Galen's concentration broke; he saw something in the back of the wagon staring back at him.
It was the dead body of a Mexican man, his boots familiarly stripped, his throat cut from ear to ear.
Harley sensed his brief advantage and tugged his arm, breaking Galen's grip. But before he could pull the rifle out of the wagon, his chin was smashed by Galen's fist. Harley’s knees buckled and he went down hard, slamming his already stunned chin against a wagon wheel. Galen reached down and grabbed the hillbilly by the collar and pulled him closer, thrusting his blade up to Harley’s face.
“Who's that in back?” Galen asked, jerking a thumb toward the wagon. “This the knife you used on him, too?”
Harley’s mind scrambled. With a sharp kick, he struck Galen's knee, connecting harder than he had expected. Galen recoiled from the blow. Three feet away, Harley spotted possible freedom: a large, jagged rock. Desperately, he lunged towards it across the dirt it—but was stopped by the boot Galen firmly planted in his back.
Galen reached down and grabbed a handful of the hillbilly’s greasy hair.
“That was her husband, wasn’t it?” he asked. “They were just going about their business and you preyed on them like animals.”
“You don’ unner-stand!” Harley cried, his eyes widening as Galen pulled harder on his hair. “Besides, you’re dead! You a ghost. You cain’t kill me!”
When Galen raised the knife to cut Harley’s throat, there was a sudden flash before his eyes. Instead of the hillbilly, Galen was holding a handful of hair belonging to the young girl from Veracruz as he prepared to scalp her. Then her face turned upward and greeted him with a bone-chilling grin.
But as quickly as it had arrived, the flash was over—the vision gone.
Galen let out a sharp breath, as if struck. He released the hillbilly’s hair, causing Harley’s chin to smack hard against the ground.
Galen turned away, still reeling.
“Why th’ hell do you care so much? They just a bunch of stinkin’ Mexicans!” Harley shouted. “You cain’t kill me over a bunch of them people!”
Galen turned back.
“I’m not gonna kill you,” he said. “But I can’t vouch for the rest of the creatures in these woods.”
And without hesitation, Galen plunged the knife into the middle of Harley’s back, severing the hillbilly’s spine in two. Harley screamed, now paralyzed below the waist.
“Gol-damnit! You sumbitch!” the hillbilly shrieked at Galen, spitting in anger and agony. “I’m gonna curse you to judgment day!”
“No you’re not,” Galen told him, flipping Harley over onto his back.
Galen walked away, wiping the blood from his hands onto the tattered remains of his shirt. In his palm, he held a pink nubbin of flesh that was still warm and wet from the hillbilly’s mouth. He looked down at it in disgust and pitched Harley’s severed tongue over his shoulder. The animals would smell the fresh meat and find it soon enough. The same went for Harley.
Galen rushed back to the hill hoping it wasn’t too late. There she lied, motionless—her bloodstained face looking upward to the sky.
I didn’t make it, he thought. But just then she coughed. Her head turned slightly to him—her eyes still pleading, though fading fast. With what little energy she had left, she raised her hand and reached out to him.