Heel on the Shovel
I figured Gage wouldn’t travel too far if he was with that old man and all, I mean where could he go? There wasn’t anything for miles, it was just open untamed country. He couldn’t go back to McCrory. If he didn’t just die of thirst or hunger and get covered over by the sand or get carried away by carrion. He would have stopped at this brothel and someone would remember him, how could they forget such a face?
We left the old man barely alive but he was certainly breathing when went on our way. There was no use in killing him I gathered, if he didn’t indeed die of his injuries he was of no great threat to our operation. I wondered as we left him in that state if it would have been more humane to just end his suffering.
The thought troubled me all the way to the brothel. The sun was just coming down by the time we got there but there wasn’t a single lamp lit in the building which seemed unusual.
The edifice was cold and dark but we could hear an odd rummaging sound. And see a little light bobbing in the darkness like an angler fish’s light in the deep darkness. We approached with caution and I called out like a fool before thinking.
“Hello, is anyone there?”
Ryan and the others shushed me angrily as they got off their vehicles and got low and still in the twilight and I saw the spark of a knife leaving it’s sheathe.
There was a long pause, a moment of unbearable silence. The rummaging noise stopped and the lamplight went out and I swallowed standing in the open. Just like in front of the barn awaiting another flash and a roll of thunder but instead I heard a small stuttering voice.
“HHh-hello? Who’s there?”
“Erm, I’m just looking for some service – A place to sleep and some food perhaps”
There was another deathly silence where nothing moved.
“O-ok” The man’s voice said as the lamp came back on. A few moments later a portly middle aged man wearing a smock came out to greet us in the dusk. “Hh-how you are ya?” The man asked.
“Erm we’re just looking for a place to bed down.”
“Ww-we? There’s more of you?”
Ryan and the others rose out of the falling darkness and stood in front of the porch at my back.
“I see” The man said as he moved the lamp around trying to get a good look at the strangers. “Well I hope you like beans, s’all I could find.” He said.
We sat around a table in the dimly lit brothel over meagre plates of luke warm beans not talking a great deal. I looked over in disgust watching Stein sop up bean juice with stale bread, not so much at the sight of it, but the sound. The slurping sopping suckling noise as he bit into the wet bread.
The man who greeted us came over with his lantern and said “How are you folks finding it?”
A few grunts were sent back in answer.
“Fine I said, I was wondering if you mind if I asked you a few questions?”
“Yes, I was wondering how you came upon this place, how long have you owned it?”
“Oh I don’t own it” The man said shaking the loose skin on his neck. “I stumbled on it just like you did, the place was empty when I got here so I thought there was no harm in camping out here til I move on.”
“I see” I paused feeling a bit of unease creep in but I went on. “Do you know what happened to the people who ran it?”
“I have no idea mister. I used to run the bank over in town until the other day now I’m a wanderer now, trying to find a way out of the valley and this god forsaken nightmare.”
“You said something about a bank?
“You haven’t heard about it? The whole town is going up in smoke!” He sputtered.
“You’re the first person we’ve talked to”
“You mean” He stopped and put his hand on his head and looked shocked and then swallowed. “I was the only one that got out.” He said in a horrifying realisation.
“What in god’s name are you talking about man?”
He swallowed and he said almost like he was reading from an old folk tale. “A great evil has come to Tupelo, the devil himself has come to town with a red right hand and driven the people from their homes. Swept up in a murderous rage. They chased down all the sane people and killed them and maybe more got away but I ran.” He swallowed, his throat sounded dry and sore. “But I looked back and I saw him, the man with the scarred face, he looked at me and I felt the evil in his heart and I knew the end was upon us.”
“The end of days, I’ve been reading all about it. I found a bible in back, smelled kind of funny and I think some pages are missing but it’s clear in revelations and I know he’s come for us”
“I’m sorry, I don’t understand.”
“The Anti-christ!” He said as if I should know what he was talking about or take his ramblings remotely seriously with a dramatic pause. “The devil’s child on earth, here to bring about the end of the world” He said rather theatrically.
He made a sound like a tutting noise and said “Here let me get the bible” he said as he started to get up.
“No that’s alright I believe you.” I said waving him away with my hand.
“You should have seen the fire in his eyes. Then you’d know it was true, must have been seven- no eight feet tall. With hands the size of a child and a gun forged from the chains of cerberus in the fires of hell itself.”
“Gun?” Ryan chimed in finishing his plate of beans. “Guess the old man lied to us. Remind me to pay him a visit on our way out, you can write it down in that little diary of yours” He said smirking.
“Did he say why he came?”
“Mister I just told you why he come, to bring about the end of days.”
“But why did the people riot?”
“Why?- Because the devil made them sick that’s why.”
“This is getting us nowhere.” I sighed and decided to make my way up the darkened stairs with a single lit candle. I endeavoured to see if I couldn’t steal one good nights worth of sleep before we head out to check on the strange man’s claim.
I found a bed in one of the rooms on the second floor. I picked one that had a door, they seemed overly used and smelled a little odd but comfortable enough. I just wanted to update my journal before I went to bed and I’ll record my findings in this Tupelo when I return.
*Note to the reader this is the last entry of Dram Johansens journal in this publication. We now pick back up with Alexander Ford’s Diary on the events leading up to the battle of Tupelo.
It was some days after the town started to quiet down. The fires cooled, tempers too, but instead of dying out they simply cemented into a steely will to do harm which permeated every fibre of the town. But not to eachother no, that would come later.
The town was calm and dead, most windows were boarded up and the only sounds to be heard were the wind and the whinnying of horses.
So as soon as they came we could all hear them and every eye watched them from slats in their boarded up windows. Watched and waited as the strangers came to town. I didn’t actually see them with my own eyes as they came in. But friends of mine told me later how the bulk of them camped just outside with their strange vehicles and these large round pods on the back. It looked like something right out of one of those picture books about little green men.
I was doing what I regularly do as life went back as close to normal as it possibly could after the ‘upset’ which is what we were all calling it. McClusky for the time being was back tending bar as usual. Mary-Sue was serving drinks, Mr Rickers was playing the piano and Madame Gertrude was singing a happy song about the Spanish war.
It was like a normal day except we all felt like we were cut outs on a stage instead of really there. We felt like we were playing a role now, like we were here but we weren’t. We were some place better or at least we felt like there was a long dream that came to an end and now we were awake but the dream was still there all around us.
Then it was like the dream again watching that stranger walk in like before and just like the time before I was the mopboy, except this time I wasn’t. The old timers in the back were drinking but they weren’t drunk although they were pretending to be. I remembered the first time, the blood, what that man’s head looked like after the shot and I knew it wasn’t a dream but it felt like one.
I looked over at Gage in his corner as he waited like before with his hand in his lap like before and his other on the table. He clocked the stranger almost. His one good eye burning, he’d been waiting, preparing. He’d been shaking the tree to see what fell out but I doubt he expected this of all things.
The stranger this time looked more scattered and less sure of himself. He was average looking with light coloured hair and a moustache. He looked like he’d had a bad nights sleep in his clothes, they looked ruffled and a little dirty. The man himself was average height with a little padding around his midsection, a stodgey paper shuffling type.
He stopped at the bar like the last time and like the last time McClusky pointed him to the back of the bar but this time it was a different reaction. Before it was a curiousity mixed excitement, this time it was trepidation and fear with a tinge of elation. He licked his lips and touched his moustache and turned to look at Gage and his table and Gage looked back at him for a moment.
And then the man spoke.
“Phineas?” He opened his mouth and eyes wide and said. “Phineas, is it really you?”
Gage said nothing he just stared unblinking at the stranger.
The man went over to him smiling, with his open mouth sighing in relief.
“Phineas, I can’t believe it” He said as he got closer trying to get a look at the shrouded figure. “My old friend, is it you?” He licked his lips feeling exposed by the silence now falling “Don’t you recognise me? It’s me, Johansen – Dram Johansen.”
With no cue at all he swallowed and then jovially took up a seat and sat with Gage and said “I thought for sure you were dead – you don’t remember me?”
Gage looked at him and lifted his shotgun and put on the table. The terrible weight of the thing shaking the light wooden table and the empty plate and knife and fork on it. “I remember.” He said.
Johansen was visibly sweating now. He looked at the gun and then back at Gage and said “Catherine and Eleanor are doing well-“ He swallowed and began sweating even more.
“They sent you?” Gage said flatly.
Johansen stole another look at the gun and said sadly “Yes”
“To kill me?”
“What?” Johansen coughed and said “No, no, the company sent me to close your account.” He paused and took in a breathe and said “I have the papers right here. All you need do is sign your official resignation and the company isn’t liable for any of your- actions”. Johansen nervously started for his inner jacket pocket.
Gage kicked the leg of the table making the gun bounce and said “Slow”
Johansen froze and started to pull the papers out of his pocket as slow and rythmic as if his arm was the slow hand on a clock.
He unfurled them on the table on and put a pen next to them and said “You just have to sign right there and the company is no longer liable.”
Gage looked at the papers and back at Johansen and said nothing.
“You see they’ve offered you a handsome severance package and the possibility of a job in the capital after some tests. They’ve even thrown in a weekend retreat in the Floston space hotel in orbit around the moon. Wonderful sights of the ice lakes, so I’ve heard, I was going to take Catherine, but… ”.
Johansen licked his lips and swallowed dry and looked in Gage’s one eye and stopped dead letting the sweat drip down his face. “Tonight” He said in a breathy almost whisper.
Gage looked back at Johansen and he watched as Johansen looked at the gun on the table and he said after a pause “You can go”.
Johansen waited for a moment. The signal slowly getting to his brain telling his limbs to move and he stood up with a jerky jolt. Then stopped and stooped to pick up the contract rolling it back up and stuffing it roughly back in his jacket pocket.
He trod quickly across the room to the exit and then stopped and looked back and opened his mouth. As if he was about to speak letting out a strangled breathy noise but instead just closed his mouth and looked down at the wood floor and then left.