Errand to Asymmetry
Josh had returned to the shaft at dark, readied to recover and rebury the body. Daybreak, and he was looking to see if he’d missed, beside a hat, a not too cheesy thing or two. The back of Josh’s head felt a gun’s barrel. Josh shoved the body into the shaft. The lawman’s other sinewy hand grasped Josh’s neck and shoved it. They watched a Stetson descend the shaft to no doubt settle on its owner. The lawman ordered Josh, “Stick ya head in dare good, McNinny!” The lawman hadn’t asked his prior captives their Christian names. He told Josh, as he’d told them, “...yer all scum wid yer infectin’ ways...Dead-on insultin’! Yas don’t pass da devil to da high’st Name!” McNinny became, “Noxious McNinny,” and the lawman checked his heaping ire not to shoot the captive dead. Josh was thinking this is what being played merry hell with feels like. Lastly called, “Hapless Josh McNinny,” Josh looked worn but he got lucky.
“See dat hole?” the lawman asked Josh. “See a privy ditch, boy!” The lawman grabbed the back of Josh’s shirt with the hand that had grasped the neck. He pushed and pulled Josh, pushed and pulled him and quickly grasped Josh’s neck. The lawman paused and bowed his head, shook it and said, “Gotta recant.” Because, “Dis—dis hole, it haaa—hall’ed by dat—da guilt-liss stiff lyin’ dare.” Josh’s twin, Jeremy, had confessed to the killing and had implicated Josh after he got the lawman to promise them no harm, a fair trial, etc., but the lawman’s ire had peaked with Jeremy who he’d shot dead. To flush out Josh, the lawman had spread a claim rumor about the shaft where Jeremy had told him he and Josh had thrown the body. Josh believed it. The lawman, flush with hubris for the ruse’s success had sensed the end. He decided to trifle with Josh till either he or Josh—or both—die. This gave Josh a chance to beat a lawman and neither cared it takes forever.
The lawman released Josh and was backing away. Way back he yelled, “Dink I’m gonna do it? Go down widda rest of dem worms and if ya gotta pick a whole mat of ’em off, do! Tie ya rope round ’im! I pull ya up wid my line, den we heeze ‘im up!” The lawman laughed and yelled, “And yuccan put on da twistin’ face a-gain fo’ da stink!” Josh was about to comply but he heard the lawman’s boot steps fast approached. Josh turned. The lawman went some steps back and pointed the gun. His order, “Hands up!” gave Josh a glimpse of scarce teeth set diagonal in their gums. Josh wondered why the codger wasn’t weedy. Flecks of tobacco clung to a weeks’ old beard of red and silver under wide, bluish eyes with contracted pupils. The brows lowered and the lawman sneered. For the hole Josh hadn’t stepped back and he felt lost to the lawman’s, “Heh-heh. No need goin’ down dare, fool. Might as well let his grave put yeh in yours when da time come. Meantime I grab it in da name o’ da law.” He got Josh going with, “Pick up yeh ropes ‘n’ canvas! Move! Lay ’em on da saddle!” Josh finished. “Turn ’round! Lock yeh fingers top ya head! Go on!”
The walk to town was long. The lawman was towing the horse and Josh walked ahead, thirsting, hoping the old man let some of whatever he was drinking touch his tongue. The lawman drank from a demijohn of three gallon volume. Tied to the saddle horn with a tawse an unusual, large leather sack hung. The lawman when dry orders his captives to step left, turn around and not look back. After, “Don’t move!” he lifts the flap and with the few teeth uncorks the bottle. He crouches and puts the bottle’s short, narrow neck in his mouth. He drinks, sasses the captives and shoots them dead. To the bottle he calls Jeroboam he recites, “Dank ye, yeh majesty!” “I bless me!” “And ye!” He traces the bottle with a “X” and bows to it and says, “I kin to you for what I do!”
A smell of rotted onions welcomed Josh and the lawman to a pond. Heeding his greatest thirst, Josh ran for it and the lawman didn’t move to stop him. Josh tripped and dropped face down at pond’s edge. His lips didn’t touch the water. He wondered what the smell was about. The lawman arrived and knelt, dipped a cupped hand into the water and raised it to his nose. His softly-spoken, “Some lily roots rotted,” followed a stoic gaze, which had been preceded by a grin, with Josh’s brother, lessened from the laughter with another captive, back to hilarity start of the routine (“Woo—eee—ya! Lily roots! Rotten! Like you boy!”) That captive he’d wounded and let drown. The lawman blinked, turned and saw Josh looked to him, open mouthed and palms flat, for whatever his captor said, which was, “Y’can drink.” Josh fast complied. The lawman muttered, “Me too.” His captive was lapping and the lawman relaxed his aim and walked for the bottle he taps and seals with zeal.
Chock-full of full-bloomed bluster, the lawman staggered to the pond where he saw the prostrate Josh still drank. “Ya be pumpin’ ship from here ta Walhalla!” he cried, as if he never went. He couldn’t even take the horse for a drink. The lawman hesitated. Seemed he may have wanted to have said something to Josh rather than the, “Eh-yeh—!” he said as he gestured sweeping Josh away. Josh knelt and wet face and hair. The lawman in water to his knees spit in both hands and grasped a white lily by its stem. He tugged and tugged, pulled the roots from the mud and splashed on his rump. The lawman found his gun, pulled it out and with, “Don’t!” warned his captive, but Josh hadn’t menaced. Josh was seeing himself in the water. He turned and saw the painted head of a turtle retract to its shell. Josh shifted, laid on his back and raised his knees, feet flat on the ground. The lawman drew a knife and cut and scored roots of the lily stalk. He soaked them with bottle content and applied them to sores beneath his lips from the draughts. The lawman chewed, swished his spit and spit this glob. For, “Dem damn skitters!” he cut more roots, bundled and soaked them with the bottle’s content. By a match lit off the coarseness of his chin the roots smoldered. There was nothing for him to do to harmless bugs that captivated Josh as they skated across the pond. The lawman sounded fatherly with his, “Mindin’ the Whirligigs, boy?” He added fast, “Ya know where ya goin’! Get up!” Josh and the lawman resumed their respective manners for a long march.
The lawman took a strip of dried red horse from his saddlebag, ate it and finished with another ceremonial tap. Hot and famished and on his knees Josh fell on his side. Josh was rising on the lawman’s, “Yer up or yer out boy!” Sweat on the lashes kept Josh from seeing the lawman faced him with what many men discard, but one juts from his lips: an old soldier butt, a cigar end. The lawman gathered them for their zest though short stints. He struck a light, as usual. Josh saw Jeremy on the flash and he listened as his brother told the story, again. Josh thought of when Jeremy had told it—scads of times before. Josh had asked him why he kept telling it. When they were kids, Jeremy had said that he didn’t know why, but when they’d turned plug-ugly, he’d changed that to, “Brother, take a tumble to what’s happened! We’ve showed up.” Each time Jeremy had told the story, he’d ended it with, “Brother, I die? Pass it on! It goes on and on!” Neither had children, nor wives nor anyone. It’s something the lawman’s unctuous beard hadn’t ignited with the stubs, but Josh was seeing what he’d heard. Like gas effervescing, phosphorus bits from the match glimmered on the McNulty backdrop and dissolved. Josh looked transfixed.
Life may curse from conception, but they which swear our ills originate without our consent may not concede a tale attests the omnipotence of a cruelty, where the ancestor had been easily fated as a descendant who is its upshot. Josh sees the accused Hasard de la Nulete being tied to a stake by two men in inquisitor’s garb. The two, occasionally tripping on their vestments, uncharily walk on planks propped with fieldstones. Town folk standing distant are uninvolved and closer is the victim’s son. Each inquisitor delivers the charge with quotes from patristics and compares their victim’s oversight to the cause of the Albigensian Crusade. Each declares him a perfect, an extreme ascetic who necessarily believes in two deities and who sees the Church the devil’s agent. He got death on the post for what the accused called a lapse, for which he keeps apologizing through the ritual. The two talk of shoving through his mouth meats, eggs and cheese forbidden a perfect if there was time, but it doesn’t happen.
Closing, the two jump off the planks. Tripping again they lift the hems to walk for two firebrands, each stuck upright between two stones. They set hay ablaze and trace the cross, more with slack sleeves than with hands. The town folk which may have disavowed the two gape nearby, as does one of the inquisitors. The other removes his outer garment, turns and sees the fellow’s look. On a double take, as if to preempt if his colleague shows further objection as flames consume the man, he declares, “Hasard de la Nulete are yours cursed above all men!” He turns. Again he sees the look and looks his anger at the man who heedless, gapes. He grasps the man’s shoulders and shakes him twice, then three times he who is undutiful. “See, Choteau!” he says, his arms spanning the colleague’s shoulders as he motions to their victim with the other. “‘Man is born for trouble...’” and raising the free hand, quivering each finger, “‘...surely as the sparks fly upward!’” Slowly they look to each other, Choteau gaping, the other grinning. The free hand lightly cuffs the sagging mouth as Josh feels the lawman’s stinging slap.
It was ample to clear Josh’s eyes. He saw the lawman who was vying with the vision for his captive. The lawman, a macebearer who’d been countering a challenge and who wasn’t retrieving the staff it had wrested. Seems the lawman got his captive back when it let Josh go, not at biddings which stopped at, “Choke it off! Where ya been, man?” The butt long smoked, the lawman heaved a breathed stench that bared itself as much a brand in Josh’s nose as the words were to ears. Josh saw the story hadn’t mentioned the McNulty name and he tried to catch on to what Jeremy had told him, before his captor did something, about its essence making it to their day.
The lawman patted Josh’s cheek to, “Quit lal-ly-gag’in’!” He didn’t want to break and the gun’s barrel tip closed Josh’s mouth which had gaped with the town folk and inquisitor. Josh saw he had to chance a getaway or the day hits bottom. To take on the lawman Josh had been fancying the inquisitors’ gall—and he didn’t want his ancestor’s fate, or his twin’s. The lawman had towed his horse and they faced Josh’s back which to, “Move!” got a shove with the fist-clenched gun grip.
Josh looked done. The lawman was most drunk and he needed more lily roots more often to apply sores burning in worse pain throbbing with each step. Marred sight, which had helped Josh view the past, outdid the lawman’s effort to oversee his captive. The heat piqued the lawman’s greatest sentience of his demise. Maybe it had catalyzed his humours which let alone offset insanity. The lawman thought it wasn’t worth playing the rangy critter with stringy, liver hair which sometimes hid deadpan eyes, a kisser under a crooked snoot showing bent and lengthy lower teeth whether he spoke or not. He wanted to shoot Josh dead. He let the bottle decide—“Wah say, Yeh Majesty?” The lawman took a few draughts. He coughed and winced and reeled through the ritual and got to the end. The draughts had become most disagreeable to his sores, but they’d given the lawman an early reward. He’d yelled, “Yas heap on me pluck to beat a mob!” He settled on the stomach it lent him to get to the pond for his sores.
Josh saw half-light dawning on him and a captor who he thought couldn’t get more pickled for a prize and that when the earth’s pull makes the old man’s tack it’s time to move. The lawman applied lily roots to his sores with a thought of the smell of the roots he’d burned. He declared, “Time fo’ my side!” The horse nickered and the lawman asked it, “How go da ditty, ol’ fella?” To Josh, “Stop!”
The lawman paused, fiddled with his beard and mumbled, “Now let see a frail sister said to me—.” He prevented Josh with a shot upward and made the sentence first of a rhyme:
A frail sister said to me:
God made Time to be His Eyes.
Some men be penned, His Law to keep;
The rest be fuel to burn for fire.
At Josh’s back, the lawman grasped Josh’s shoulder and rested his chin on the other. The lawman lifted his head and slowly, and not like he’d said the previous lines, he ended stressing the meter of the last:
Be sure you seen in laud attire!
He’d punctuated the end of each line with a bullet to a compass point, in the usual order, to the sun off the last. The lawman saw the sun hadn’t fallen when he’d shot it. He got his rope. The lawman made to lasso the sun and pull it to earth. He yelled, “Sun! Down! Boom! Jero-boom—up wid’ ya!” He swept the empty gun across the sky to get space for the bottle. The sun hadn’t moved. The lawman cursed, coughed hard and rasped something. Josh had heard the shot to the west hiss past his left ear through the space near his bent elbow and the bitter stress the lawman had mixed with its line. Josh envied the knack and thought whatever skills the old man possessed even drunk he had to reload. Josh reckoned, the “Eyes” watched an old soak reload, not him. Josh ran.
If the lawman’s rule was, “Shoot loaded!” it may be why he was also minding filling the empty chambers. Josh unlocked his fingers to free his arms after running a distance—the lawman had mounted the horse and was riding closest to Josh. The horse neighed and reared at a rock a shot deflected. Josh undid the squat he’d assumed for the throw. He tried to grab the horse’s tail then its rear leg to throw the old man for a tussle. The lawman stayed and pointed the gun. Josh dulled and complied. The lawman implied his order with, “Okay! Ya know! Go on!” Josh made coy and slowly locked his fingers top his head.
Josh had seen the pond and the bottle played for the lawman’s minding anything but him. He thought that if they made another pass there and the old man stopped the horse for a drink; pulled roots; said a ditty; anything, he would move, but not if the codger drank what he never dodged as God-awful, what seemed to give him horse sense and go. Unknown to Josh, the smell of lily roots may take the edge off nous and gumption, unbeknown to the lawman, and ease his concern of recapture. Seems the old mount had smelled them first. Maybe a hint of a coming lapse in vigilance, the horse shook its head and whickered. The lawman looked cataleptic, then came a grin, intolerable to the classy a dearth of teeth would disturb.
The sun had set and with the moon’s semblance on the pond neither Josh’s move nor a change in the lawman’s look happened. The lawman’s last order had kept Josh stilled but now he moved. Hands locked top his head, Josh ran into the water where his outstretched arms broke the surface and the rest of him followed. The splash revived the lawman who drew and waited for his captive to rise. Josh quickly did, shaking his head and spewing water. Josh twisted each step from the muck and got to the other side. Moonlight had revealed Josh and the lawman’s keenness hadn’t flagged—his shot glanced off-center, back of Josh’s kneepan. Josh heard the crack of the hammer, not that of a gun.
The judge had been slowly, monotonously repeating, “Joshua Gaines McNulty.” He had a jowl and sounded flaccid but the look over his pince-nez and hammer was intent. Josh had reverted at the crack for his sentence. He complied with the judge’s order to relax his arms from the locked stance he’d taken in view of a concerned court and attendees during his obsession with his past. The judge asked, “I suppose the accused wants a going-ova?” With his raised brows, in no way tetchy, still with the stare, the judge told Josh to avoid contempt. An abashed Josh fiddled with his hands, smirked, looked about and saw the lawman, who didn’t acknowledge him, sat beside a young woman. The lawman was staring in rictus at the judge. To Josh it looked the way the arms of the lawman and the lady who sat beside him, the widow, met from the shoulders they may be holding hands. A little shaver, the widow’s son, next her pouted, who glowered and nodded when Josh looked at him. Unnerved, Josh gulped and he winced at the old man’s appearance and wondered how he’d tidied himself so fast who he’d just seen a dirty crazy. Josh heard the judge cleared his throat, turned, saw the judge stuck in his pose, fiddled with his hands again.
The floor had amply supported the lawman’s fixed bearing, but it succumbed where he walked. Where Josh stood he felt planks dip beneath his feet and heard thuds and creaks while he looked down, up and, not turning, somewhat about. The lawman arrived, looked Josh over impassively with an unlit old soldier in his lips and his eyes widened. He swung to the judge and began, “Yer Honor!” He removed the butt and said he had to quote, “prose praising deliberateness...” of a court toward those who he said had, “...earned their dire rewards...” those he called the “wretched” which, “…verily, wrought wrongs.” The judge blinked hard and closed his eyes. He opened them and saw the lawman, arms up, looking at him and smiling. The judge coughed, cleared his throat and told the lawman, “Go on!”
The lawman continued to speak with three and four syllable “r” words. The first few the judge had stopped scraping his hammer under his chin, which he resumed till he said his last, dry, “Go on!” The lawman said anyone who’d ever stood trial was a “twerp.” The judge downed his hammer. The lawman spoke on as if enchanted by a daemon that inspires speech that does not have flattery its motive. Maybe all the “r” words had announced the judge’s, “I knew it,” which may have showed he thought the lawman’s crescendo was bound to finish him, but the lawman had been using the letter in words which with their many syllables may apply in specified practices.
The lawman dropped his arms, opened his eyes and saw his hammer lifted the judge’s chin and curled the lips of his trembling head. The judge had seen all had looked admirably to the lawman. Maybe he’d decided this had placed the lawman’s bearing on a level pegging with his and that his equanimity had been tried enough. His, “Mista!” was hardly heard as he downed his hammer. “You want to come up?” The lawman approached the bench. On the judge’s temperate, “You want my hat?” the lawman blushed and retreated.
Sun in the room had touched what the hammer had felled and the judge re-stood—tall as a lantern, a likeness of the king’s image cleared by Daniel. It stood again, its arms crossed under the proud gold head turned aside and with the symbolic colors to its toes of the blended clay and iron. The judge placed his hammer next it to preclude another fall. On hearing his subsequent speech, which finished with supplication for custody of his former captive to jail, the judge consented and dismissed the lawman.
All heard the lawman’s, “Turn around!” renewed his charge of Josh who had not lowered his arms. With gun drawn and, “Move!” the lawman backed to the entry. Josh moved as if invisibly tethered at the barrel. The lawman arched and pushed the door. His arm back felt for the saddle. The lawman tugged the tawse and wanted to get clear of the courthouse for a draught. Josh hoped the trip to jail got them to the pond for a last chance to grab and work if the lawman didn’t get guts at the sack. It was excessively hot for the sun’s position. The law forbade a home to shelter a convict till a cool night journey. Josh had to go straight to jail.
The trip through vast, incessant timothy grass made time seem impalpable to Josh and the lawman, as there was no pond that at least with its life had given them a lasting sense. They heard nothing; felt no breeze; saw no shadow to time by and felt helpless as in the dark. Behind Josh the lawman took a drink and lit a butt after the usual ritual. With a puff the lawman thought his wobbly captive couldn’t run in the heat. The lawman laughed. “You bugger up, boy!” he told Josh and he relaxed his aim.
A glint--from the silvered part of the figure of eight mirror of a shiny, bronzed sextant, nearly hidden in the bag opposite the larger one he frequents. “How dis get’n here?” he asked. “Ay-eeee! Glad yeh come along.” The lawman said he’d found it aboard ship. The glint he called, “Prov’dence winkin’ at all my polishin’s till I polish da jug off.” He said, “Prov’dence? Danks. I’m rememb’rin’ it. Eh, tryin’ to,” talking of the sextant, “Now I see wad I lost.” He said, “Ya remembers me, eh?” On another draught the lawman shook his head and scratched it. He mumbled asking where it had come from and again how it had gotten here. He settled on the fact he had it. The lawman kissed the sextant and raised it to the sun. He kissed it again.
At the horse the lawman relit the butt, grabbed the harness and steadied himself. He looked into the horse’s eyes and his eyes widened and narrowed. The lawman told how he’d come by the sextant. He raised it to the horse and said, “Got it servin’. I be boatswain then ‘n’ keeper o’ lights. No piddlin’ around by me!” With a smile and, “Humph,” he said, “Might be dotin’ now. Then I was a-champin’ at da bit. “Days yell out, ‘Pipes!’ ‘Lamps!’ ‘Need ya!’” He paused. “Dems shellbacks. Days need me den.” The lawman turned and wheezed and marched to Josh, jaw out and eyes narrowed. To Josh’s back he yelled, “Bums scrimshank on orders!” and between the horse and Josh he yelled, “I shows yas how to take on big fish.” The lawman ordered, “See to..!” to no one. He turned and faced the phantom. The lawman stiffened and saluted. He tossed the gun to his other hand and went for the horse. The gun for what the order referred to, at the saddle the lawman gestured throwing it overboard.