By seven o’clock they were outside and waiting for the clucks, a company car idling near the train, its wheels sunk into the still-muddy ground. Karen, impatient to be off, drummed her fingers against the dull steel of the car’s hood with its bas relief woodlouse. Thorpe fidgeted with his tie. E. W. smoked alone by the passenger car’s front right leg, eyes red and hair disheveled. Jon hadn’t slept, but he felt strangely refreshed. Dressed in his only surviving clean clothes he waited beside Thorpe, hands in the pockets of his pinstripe trousers. The air still held the flat, metallic smell of rain and grey clouds hid the sun.
“Foul weather,” said E.W. He laughed, hysteria tingeing his voice.
“Quiet,” said Karen. She straightened up, hands clasped behind her back. “Here come the birds.”
The clucks came robed and hooded out of the dust, their stilts sinking into the cracking mud. They moved with staccato grace, heads bobbing up and down as they approached the car. Four yards away they halted, six of them, claws wrapped around the pegs of their stilts, hands clasped at chest level. Their leader bent his head to Karen, his wattles trembling. “She-khan,” he grunted. His beak clicked. The smell of wet feathers and musty wool surrounded him. Jon tried not to wrinkle his nose.
“Good morning, khan,” said Karen. She didn’t offer her hand, and the cluck seemed not to expect it.
“We will take you to the wellspring,” said the cluck. It turned, its hood hiding its profile, and set off at a bounding lope. The others followed, cloaks flying.
“Gentlemen,” said Karen. “Into the car.”
The company car, driven by hatchet-faced Sutton, rattled and bounced over the muddy hardpan. In the backseat, Jon sat with his chin resting in his hands. The wind ruffled his dirty blond hair and made his eyes water. Even with the night’s rain it was still dusty in the desert. The clucks kept ahead of the car with ease, bounding along on their stilts. Beside Jon, Thorpe twiddled his thumbs and looked troubled. “What do you think it is?” he asked Jon, shouting over the wind’s thin howl. “Their god, I mean.”
“Big fucking cactus,” said E. W., grinning thinly.
The rest of the ride passed in silence. Jon thought about smoking, but didn’t.
The clucks halted at the base of a low sandy ridge and Sutton brought the company car to a shuddering halt. Jon stepped out of the car, a sense of bleak serenity settling over him. Whatever happened, it was going to happen soon, and he had a pretty fair idea what he’d see over the hill’s crest. His dream was waiting for him there.
“We walk from here,” said the khan, tapping the ground with his left stilt.
They set off up the ridge in a group, the clucks walking with exaggerated care in the loose soil. Jon’s heart began to pound as they came to the top of the ridge. The clucks spread out in a half circle around the Company men. They kept their feathered hands raised and their beady black eyes downcast, except for their khan who stood proudly with his hood thrown back. “Behold,” he said, sweeping a clawed hand across the sweep of the bowl valley beyond the ridge, “the Mighty Griswold, Font of the Sacred Spring.”
The cactus, two stories tall and wide as a house, loomed in the center of the valley, its bulk ringed by a moat of pure water. Grass covered the rich, dark earth and pink flowers bloomed amidst the verdure. Small black eyes stared out over the water and its wrinkled, fibrous mouth was twisted in displeasure. Karen pushed past Thorpe and began to descend the curve of the bowl. Jon followed her, his eyes on the immense cactus that had spoken to him in his dreams. Behind him, Thorpe and E. W. followed at a distance, Thorpe hesitant, E. W. miserable and drunk.
When they reached the edge of the Mighty Griswold’s moat, Karen halted. The cactus-god stared down at her and she returned its gaze without flinching. The cactus’s mouth moved, wrinkled lips shifting slightly. “You…are…she…khan,” it rasped. Its voice was like old tree trunks breaking. “I…see…fire…in…your…eyes.”
“You know,” said Karen, reaching into her coat with a slim, elegant hand, “I thought you’d be bigger.” She produced a stick of dynamite and, with a casual flick of the lighter in her left hand, lit its fuse.
Jon stared. The hiss of burning cordite was drowned out by the roar of an approaching engine as a second company car flew over the hilltop, sand pluming around its wheels. It slewed down the valley’s curve, workmen with rifles and shotguns leaping from its running boards. Karen wound her arm and hurled the sputtering dynamite at Griswold, who closed his eyes and sighed deeply. The clucks were squawking furiously, long knives appearing from beneath their robes. The stick of dynamite flew in a graceful arc over the moat and landed at the cactus’s roots.
“Oh Jesus,” said E. W., on his knees in the sand. He cradled his head in his hands, weeping. “Oh Jesus.”
The dynamite went off with a bang that sent Jon reeling, hands pressed to his ears. Chunks of fibrous vegetable matter rained down around him along with sticky blue sap and broken thorns. Heat and wind slammed against the barkeep-turned-foreman like a pounding wave. He stumbled away from the blast, ignoring the soundless screams of the clucks as they advanced with knives drawn on Karen. Bragg drew the pistol holstered at her hip and shot their khan clean in the throat. His stilts folded and he fell to the sand. The workmen opened fire on the rest. Griswold’s immense bulk had been scorched and blasted half to pieces, his face, apart from one beady black eye, had been entirely burned off. His remains were slumped like an invalid, smoking copiously.
Jon saw Thorpe standing pale and drawn beside Karen as she watched the clucks retreat, sprinting away while the workmen fired at them. Two stumbled and fell, one without a head, the other clawing at its ruined side. Jon halted, breathing hard. His ears were ringing. Four of the six clucks that had escorted them to the spring were dead, sprawled on the grass with blood soaking through their heavy robes. “Jesus God,” Jon breathed. “What the hell did you do?”
Karen, if she heard him, said nothing. She’d holstered her gun and was walking toward her car without a care in the world, long hair swinging from side to side. She turned to look at Jon and a smile curved her lips, slow and satisfied. Jon fought the urge to throw up on his shoes. The workmen were laughing, slapping one another on the back as they cleaned their guns and followed their employer toward the automobile.
Thorpe’s strident cry was distant in Jon’s damaged ears. He turned, his feeling of nausea worsening, and saw the scientist lying on his back beside the moat, Thorpe kneeling beside him and cradling his head. E. W.’s thin chest was rising and falling in short, labored hitches and there was blood all over his chest and shoulders. Thorpe looked at Karen and shouted something, tears running down his broad face. The woman looked back at him without pity and Jon saw her lips form the words: “What the hell use is he to me?” She turned and climbed into the car, dark glasses flashing.
“Help me get him to the other car,” said Thorpe. Numbly, Jon walked to the dying E. W. and took his legs while Thorpe slipped his arms under the tall, thin scientist’s and lifted. E. W. was light, easy to get over the hill and back to the first company car, abandoned in the sand. Sutton, Karen and the workmen were already diminishing into the distance by the time Jon and Thorpe had gotten E. W. strapped snugly into the backseat and pulled away from the column of greasy smoke rising from the crater. Jon’s hearing was returning in increments. He stared at his hands while Thorpe drove back to Lawson.
There was a ribbon-cutting ceremony in Oceanside a month later. The mayor, a huge goateed man with the Company’s woodlouse on his ascot, loomed in the center of a sea of aides, thugs and lickspittles. Half of Oceanside had turned out to watch. Jon and Thorpe stood to either side of Karen as she climbed the steps to the railroad platform and, with a flourish of her shears, snipped the red ribbon neatly in half. The crowd applauded, led by their smirking mayor and his cronies. Jon felt like laughing, or sobbing, as the suspension trail glided smoothly into the station. It hung eight feet from the ground, each car connected to the suspension cable by electric wheels.
There was a speech by the mayor that Jon didn’t listen to, and then the huge man left the platform with Karen in tow and the crowd started to break up. Jon, hands in his pockets, looked over at Thorpe. The other man looked sick. “Bar?” asked Jon, arching an eyebrow.
An hour later they were slumped across from each other in a booth at the Sunflower Tavern, Thorpe on his third glass of whiskey while Jon spun his empty wineglass on its stem and ignored the laughter and conversation of the bar’s other customers. He had money in his pocket, but it felt like lead weights, not freedom. “Think E. W.’s alive?” he said.
“We did what we could,” said Thorpe, putting down his drink. “Besides, I don’t think he cares one way or the other.”
“Boys,” said Karen.
Both men turned, Jon blinking blearily. Karen Bragg was standing beside their table in a sleek black dress. Her hair was up in an elegant knot, dark and shining in the bar’s dim lighting. Jon could smell the alcohol on her breath as she put her hands on the table and leaned in toward him and Thorpe. “How’d you like to work the new rail line?” she asked, her lips curving up from her teeth in a smooth, callous smile. Bragg stepped back from the table, one hand pressed self-importantly to her chest. “I’ve been promoted, of course. Company liaison to the Mayor’s office, and supervisor of the Hoover-Oceanside line.
“I’m a powerful woman now,” she said quietly, sliding herself onto the table. “I can give you anything you want.” One of the bar’s patrons whistled loudly, but if Karen heard him she gave no sign. Her eyes, half-closed above the slim crescent of her smile, were bloodshot slits. Her slim hand flicked out, fingers walking slowly up Thorpe’s wrist. There was a look of naked, desperate greed on her thin face. Jon felt a sudden deep sense of pity for her. He stood, slapping a few coins and a crumpled bill down on the table.
“I’ll take the job,” he said. “I don’t have anywhere else to go.” Bragg turned sharply, a few strands of her dark hair escaping her knot. She slid off of the table, her fingers leaving Thorpe’s arm. The other man looked tired and troubled.
“You won’t regret it, Mr. Morton,” she said softly.
As Jon turned to leave, Karen put a hand on his shoulder. He half-turned, removing his glasses. Thorpe was already out the door, his broad back vanishing into the evening crowd. “You know why I did it?” hissed Bragg. Her face was close to Jon’s, the smell of alcohol heavy on her breath. “The Mayor paid us to wipe the clucks out, to take the spring from them. He needs that water to survive what’s eating his lungs, and we’re going to be the ones bottling it.” The smile slid cunningly back into place, making her look for a moment like a grinning fox. She kissed Jon full on the mouth, her tongue sliding snakelike between his lips. “I make you sick,” she said, pulling back an inch. “That’s good. I like that.” She took his hand and pulled him out of the bar, sliding with smoky grace through the crowded bar.
“You’re going to run the line,” she said as they stepped out onto the street. “I’m going to make sure the city serves the Company’s, and, more importantly, my, interests. I don’t think we’ll see much of each other.” She turned, her hair falling out of its knot and across the left side of her face. Jon felt his skin crawl. “Let’s enjoy tonight. I can pretend you’re Edward, and you can pretend I don’t make you want to shoot off the roof of your mouth.”
She pressed a finger to Jon’s lips. “I’m drunk,” she said. Tears glistened in her eyes. “So are you.” She took her hand away and kissed him again. “In the morning, you won’t even remember hating yourself for this.”
Jon sat sleeping in the locomotive of the Hoover-Oceanside suspension line, his head resting on his arm in the car’s small, square window. The wind ruffled his hair and the sleeve of his shirt. The sun was just rising and in the front of the locomotive the engineer was easing the train’s brakes into place as it approached its first stop. Jon woke with a start and sat up, blinking away the fog of sleep. He was disheveled, his clothes three days old and stained with spilled wine. Outside, the smoke-wreathed bulk of the bottling plant sat brooding on the carcass of Griswold the Mighty, its pipes sunk deep into the sand. Jon stood up and went to the engine’s ladder, ignoring his driver’s greeting.
The ladder unfolded with a hiss of pistons working and Jon climbed down to the dead brown grass of the bowl valley. E. W. was waiting for him in a camp chair, the stump of his right leg swathed in cotton bandages. Workmen surrounded him, carrying boxes marked RENAISSANCE BOTTLING PLANT 019 to the train’s lowered cargo cars. The scientist looked thinner than he had on Jon’s last visit and there were shocks of grey in his wild hair. “Everything’s on schedule,” he said. “Problems with the tribes have been minimal.” His lips thinned into a bitter line. “This place is dying, of course, but what does that matter?”
“To her?” said Jon. “Not a whole hell of a lot. How’s the leg?”
E.W.’s mouth twisted into a sneer. “Still missing.” He gestured to the padded wooden peg leaning against his chair.
Jon pulled a cigar from his breast pocket and lit it with practiced ease. “It’s been a year. You’d think they’d have something better than a stick for you.”
“You’d think,” agreed E.W. “Any word from Thorpe?”
“No,” said Jon. “Not since the rail got built.”
An uncomfortable silence descended on the two men. After a minute or so, E.W. picked up his peg leg and fastened its leather straps around his knee. “We’ll watch the men load the Mayor’s magic bottles,” he said, levering himself upright. “I can sign your forms, you can sign my forms and bureaucracy will live another day.” He stumped off toward the cargo cars where his men were lifting crates and placing them on padded pallets. Jon followed, blowing smoke.
“I’ve had enough,” said E.W. His voice was tight, strained. “She’s having them killed, Jon. The men here don’t answer to me. They’re only here to shoot clucks.
“When you took me to Lawson, the doctors had their hands full just keeping me alive. It was a cluck medicine man healed me, even if they still had to take off the leg. One of their khans sent him, because a survivor told him that I’d grieved for Mighty Griswold.” The scientist laughed bitterly. “Grieved for it. I was drunk, and scared out of my mind. I didn’t deserve to be saved.”
When the boxes were loaded, they shook hands and Jon climbed back into the train’s locomotive while the cargo cars rose back into position and E.W.’s workmen retreated from the boarding platform. Jon turned at the top of the ladder, but E.W. was already gone. “Poor bastard,” he said to himself, and closed the door behind him.
A day later, the train pulled into Oceanside’s station. Jon stepped out onto the platform. He liked the city, cleaner than Lawson or Hoover and with the smell of salt in the air. His nightmares weren’t so bad when he slept here. Karen was waiting for him on the platform with two men in the uniforms of Oceanside’s sheriff’s department. He blinked, surprised. “Karen,” he said.
“Relax, Jon,” she said, smiling thinly. “I’m not here for you.”
Jon turned, looking back along the train’s gunmetal length. E.W. was stepping calmly out of the rear passenger car, a gun in his hand. Thorpe was with him, sunburned and grim. The rest of the car’s passengers gave them a wide berth. “Don’t try to stop us, Karen,” said E.W. “Everyone’s going to know what you did. Whether they give a shit or not, they’re going to know.
“I’ve had enough lies.”
Karen drew and fired without a hitch. E.W. staggered and his back hit the side of the train, his own gun falling to the platform. The platform’s occupants, frozen watching the scene, began to scream. Thorpe caught E.W. before he fell, cradling the other man in his arms. “You shot him,” he choked.
“Yes,” said Karen, holstering her pistol. The deputies to her either side had drawn their guns and moved out to push back the panicked crowds. Other officers joined them. “I know he was your friend, Marvin,” she said, spreading her hands, “but look at the big picture. In a few hours, I’ll be the Mayor of Oceanside and you can either be with me, or you can be against me.” She straightened, hands behind her back. “What’s it going to be, Marvin?” Her eyes narrowed. “Jon and I, or the corpse in your arms?”
Thorpe looked down at E.W. and gently, slowly, he lowered the dying man to the platform. He straightened, looking at Karen. Jon couldn’t take his eyes from E.W. This is it, he thought, watching the scientist’s chest shudder. I let this pass and I might as well kill myself. I’m going to go to Hell.
There was a pause, Thorpe and Karen staring at each other. Thorpe’s mouth was twisted, his hands clenching and unclenching. Karen looked like an eel, slippery and full of teeth. And then Thorpe turned and ran. He vanished into the crowd before Karen could so much as raise a hand. Jon watched his friend go. I don’t even have the stomach to run away. I’m sorry, E.W.
“We should get to City Hall,” said Karen, tearing her eyes away from the place where Thorpe had vanished into the crowd. “The Mayor should be half dead by now.”
“You poisoned him,” said Jon dully. He couldn’t seem to feel surprised. On the platform by the train, E.W. coughed, wheezed and sagged into stillness. A dull ache joined the rhythm of Jon’s heartbeat. He wanted a drink.
“He had it coming,” said Karen. She turned and left.
Jon stayed on the platform until the county doctor came to collect E.W.’s corpse, and then he followed Karen to City Hall.
Mayor Walter M. Thurgood had died just after lunchtime, complaining of a stomachache. His deputy, Karen Bragg, was sworn in before his body was cold. And before Bragg’s hand left the Bible she was calmly dispatching orders to the Sheriff and deputies were streaming out of City Hall in automobiles and on foot. The whole while, Jon sat in an antique chair in the office of the former Mayor and, with his feet on the dead man’s desk, drank Thurgood’s expensive whiskey. E.W.’s gun lay on the desk beside his feet. Karen paced back and forth in front of the window, watching the city as evening fell and the electric streetlights came on.
“What’s the matter, Karen?” Jon asked. “All the right people are bought. All the trains are shut down. So”-he paused to take a long swallow of Thurgood’s whiskey-“it must be Thorpe. He’s got you…got you riled.” The one-time bartender chuckled darkly. “Guess we’ll all see what’s what ‘fore tonight’s over.”
“And just what the fuck is that supposed to mean?” snapped Karen, rounding on Jon. Her hair flew, outlined in stark black against the sunset. “Keep your mouth shut while I’m thinking, you fucking hayseed. Every move I make from here on out is vital-”
“Yeah,” Jon interrupted. He took another swallow of whiskey, enjoying bitterly the warm golden feeling as it burned its way down his throat and into his stomach. “Vital, sure. God knows Oceanside’ll never last without you as Mayor.”
Karen threw him a poisonous look and turned back to the window. She looked small in silhouette, a slim little woman with long hair and narrow shoulders. Jon felt again a sort of nauseous pity for his employer. Why he’d stayed with her, he still didn’t know. Nowhere else to go. I’m in the bottle and the bottle’s in me. Ha, E.W. would you love to see me now. I’m right where you were, but I’ve got this gun…
It was nine o’clock when the deputies stopped sending back reports. Karen returned to her pacing. Jon drank and brooded. At half past nine, a fire started near the docks and neither of them said anything. By ten, Jon could see small mobs gathering in the streets, and by quarter past they were in the town square with guns and torches. He knew without looking who’d be there with them, at the head of the crowd. “Just like old times,” he said, getting unsteadily to his feet and placing Thurgood’s empty whisky bottle on the desk.
Karen half-turned, her expression drawn. “You don’t see what’s at stake here, Jon,” she said tersely. “You don’t understand the first thing about it.”
Jon put a hand on the desk to steady himself. “Your deputies all went home,” he slurred, “or else they’re out there with the crowd. Either way, we’re gonna die.”
The crowd raised its voice and surged toward City Hall. “Looks like they know Walt didn’t die clean,” said Jon. He sat down behind the desk and clasped his hands between his knees. Somewhere below, doors began to break. Jon heard the hungry crackle of fires spreading.
Karen stood in the center of the room, her hands shaking. The big oak double doors were closed and locked, but there were footsteps coming up the stairs and the floor shook under their feet. Jon lit a cigar and started to smoke. Something slammed into the doors and Karen jumped, biting herself hard enough to draw blood. Jon laughed to himself as the doors began to splinter and cave inward, hinges screaming. Thorpe came through first, pushing the door in ahead of him. He crossed the room in three huge strides, slapped Karen’s gun out of her hand and, grabbing a fistful of her hair, forced her to her knees. He put his gun to the back of her head. Eight other men stepped into the office, one carrying a phial of gold-tinged water. From the building’s lower floors came the sound of breaking pottery. “Poisoned him,” said Thorpe. “Killed E.W. in broad daylight. You didn’t really think you-”
“Stop it, Marvin,” snapped Karen, straining her neck until blood ran from her scalp. “You don’t know what you’re fucking with.”
“I know you’re a murderer,” said Thorpe, and his voice was tight with grief and reluctance. Jon stubbed out his cigar on the Mayor’s desk.
“None of this was my idea,” said Karen, her tone changing from bullying to pleading. She twisted her head as far as she could, looking with wide, tearful eyes at Thorpe. “Please, Marvin, you have to believe-“
He shot her. Jon saw what it cost him, saw the agonizing pain that flitted across Thorpe’s honest face, the way he averted his eyes from the blood and brains fanned out over the carpet. He let go of her hair and she fell flat, trailing smoke from the hole in her skull. Thorpe took a deep breath and let his gun fall to the carpet. The other men in the room, dockworkers and the lads from the steel mill, even a few railroad employees, looked on in stony silence. Thorpe turned to Jon. “I guess I don’t have to worry about you,” he said. His voice was an older man’s voice, tired and beat.
Jon picked up E.W.’s gun. “Not for much longer,” he said, and stuck the barrel in his mouth. Thorpe’s eyebrows rose. Jon pulled the trigger.
Jon Morton’s life ended in much the same way his daddy’s had, with a bullet in his head. He lay slumped on a dead man’s desk, blood dripping from his mouth. E.W.’s revolver lay smoking a few inches from the curled fingers of his left hand. Marvin Thorpe stood for a while and stared at his friend’s body, and then he turned and left the office with the other men. Outside, the moon was out and the city was burning.
Jon was buried next to his mother in Potter’s Field, just outside of Lawson. People from the city came to pay their respects. Thorpe didn’t come. It wasn’t so bad, and it wasn’t so strange. Jon didn’t mind, anyway.
Micah E. F. Martin
Jon Morton’s life had started strange when his mother, four months pregnant on account of a no-good railroad man, had run out of the abortion clinic of Vernon’s Hollow’s only doctor’s office screaming at the top of her lungs with both hands on her belly and leaving Dan Corliss on the floor with a bullet between his eyes. That had been quite enough of Vernon’s Hollow for sixteen-year-old Lily Morton, and when the next train had left for Lawson City she, and her passenger, had been on it. In Lawson, Lily worked as a barmaid until Jon arrived a month early and cranky to boot. Mother and son lived together in a tiny apartment over a bar in the city’s slum district, and if Lily Morton was bothered by the sniffs and sneers of the city women, she never showed it.
Jon grew up quick and quiet, a tall boy and always big for his age. From seven onward he mopped floors at the Lawson Arms while his mother waited tables, and on Sundays he went to the church school and learned spelling, grammar and mathematics from Pastor Bart Freeman, a retired gunfighter-turned-preacher with one leg lost to gangrene and a patch over his right eye. Jon’s only other departures from work were his outings with his mother, who had never quite gotten rid of her traveler’s feet after leaving Vernon’s Hollow. When Jon was nine, things started to go bad for Lawson. The mining in the hills dried up and the city started dying, prospectors and company men drifting away in clots and dribbles. Jon watched his home rot with a young boy’s objective detachment. Soon, even the desert people stopped stilt-walking their way into town to trade their eggs and cactus water for good Lawson steel or lengths of hardwood brought in on the wagons from Dodge and Renaissance.
When Jon was ten, Lily Morton caught consumption. It ate her quick (she’d never been a large woman), and she left her son with a hundred and fifteen dollars and seventy-two cents, and a warning not to get into any trouble. Jon held his mother’s hand when she died and told her he loved her, and he did, though she hadn’t been an easy woman to live with. When Lily Morton was dead, Doc Greenberg had her towed out of town to the potter’s field and buried. Jon went to the burial and Pastor Freeman read from the bible for fifteen minutes until the potter’s field men had well and truly buried Lily Morton.
Jon had, in fortunate accordance with his mother’s dying wish, never been much inclined toward trouble. He had a pragmatic streak a mile wide that had kept him away from Farmer Leroy’s secret stash of rotgut cider and the hash the older boys smoked behind Dewey’s Corner Store. So, being a sensible young man at the ripe old age of ten, Jon took his hundred and fifteen dollars and seventy-two cents and moved into the abandoned warehouse overlooking the town on King Fred’s Hill. The warehouse’s boards were in need of repair, its floor was covered in dirt and it was empty except for its rotting canvas partitions, but there was no rent to pay and Jon could walk every weekday day to the bar where he still swept the floor and sometimes worked the tap and on Sundays to the church in the dying town’s center, which he proceeded to do for the next twenty-two years with only a few deviations.
It was six months to the day past Jon’s thirty-second birthday, a holiday sadly unremarked upon, when the Company came to town. In Lawson, when the Company was mentioned it was almost always mentioned in connection with Karen Bragg, its Branch Executive Coordinator, and it was Karen Bragg who came to Lawson on the Renaissance Line. She and her associates were the first passengers to use the railway since taxman Clagget from Magistrate Bill Cod’s office in Renaissance City had come calling six years previous. When the train came into town, Jon was behind the bar at the Lawson Arms, polishing a filthy mug with a rag that had seen better days. The Arms was empty, waiting for the five o’clock rush when the workers at the mill would shamble in to half-fill the old stained tables.
Nathan Hatfield, round-faced and flushed with exertion under his bowler hat, burst through the bar’s front doors. “Train’s in town, Jon,” he said excitedly, moving to the bar and planting his hands on the dark, much-polished wood. “Came in just now. Company woman from Renaissance, and a science type from the ‘cademy.”
Jon looked up from his glass, arching a bushy eyebrow at Nathan. “That so?” he asked. Jon was a big man, square and heavily-built with round glasses perched on a large nose. His eyes were a faded blue, his thick blond hair perpetually uncombed.
“Them’s the facts,” said Nathan, pulling a stool out from the bar and plopping down on it. “Why don’t you come down and have a look?”
Jon set down the glass and rag. “Well,” he said, “why not?” He turned to Mr. Dodson’s ancient black footman, Charles. “Charlie, keep an eye on the bar, yeah?”
Charlie nodded, the wrinkled landscape of his face unreadable. “Yes, suh.”
The train station was a big square building six blocks from the Lawson Arms. Its only remarkable feature was its bell tower, a boxy spire looming from the roof for no reason that had ever been apparent to anyone in Lawson. Jon and Nathan walked there, Jon still in his stained and dirty apron. Now in nature, Jon had very little of his father in him, but neither did he have much in the way of his mother’s temperament. From Dan Corliss he’d received only a relentless sense of practical necessities, and from Lily he’d inherited a pair of traveler’s feet. In his youth and early twenties he’d done a fair bit of wandering around Lawson and the surrounding hardpan, visiting the clucks on their reservations and even making his way out to Hoover City on a few occasions to play cards and throw dice. And as Jon walked with Nathan to the train station, his feet started to itch again. He’d spent his thirty two years in Lawson, and he knew suddenly that he wanted out, and that he wouldn’t be going back to the Lawson Arms after he saw the train.
The two men arrived at the station just before noon. There was a ragged crowd already gathered to watch a large black iron train engine descend the ramp at the side of the building, its six crablike hydraulic legs hissing and clunking. A steel woodlouse was engraved on the engine’s side. It had wheels as well, folded just then against its undercarriage, but the only other line out of Lawson went to Hoover, and it had been out of commission for two years. A single passenger car clattered along on an older set of legs, the cordon connecting it to the engine creaking loudly. A profusion of men, mostly blacks, dressed in dusty overalls, old shirts and work caps were coming out of the station behind the train. Each man carried a heavy pack. A slim woman with long, light brown hair and a face that was at once sharp-featured and very feminine was standing alone at the top of the station’s steps, her eyes following the train’s ungainly progress with absent, brittle concentration. Jon and Nathan pushed their way to the front of the crowd, mostly housewives, free blacks and night workers from the telegraph building with a smattering of tired-looking whores from the Diamond Saloon. A pair of morose-looking clucks stood at the edge of the crowd, birdlike features hidden by their heavy robes.
“That’s Karen Bragg there,” grunted Stan Kowalski, the bearded and beer-gutted owner of the Express Hotel, “that’s money comin’ through.”
Privately, Jon agreed. Karen Bragg did look like money in her smart grey skirt, tinted glasses and grey velvet waistcoat. She also looked like a weasel in a henhouse whenever her eyes moved to the crowd around the station steps. As Jon watched, a large red-haired man made his way through the press and whispered something in Karen Bragg’s ear. Bragg listened, then nodded brusquely. The large man ran back down the steps and toward the engine. “Stop right there!” he shouted, waving his arms. With a groan of hydraulics and a great gout of oily black smoke from its smokestack, the train hunkered down on its legs and fell still. A man in a conductor’s coverall and tall hat poked his head out the engine’s window and the big red-haired man flashed him a harried thumb’s-up before turning back to the crowd.
“Right, hello,” he said. As an afterthought, he took off his brown bowler. He had a broad, honest face, pale under its sunburn. New company man, fresh off the slave plantations around New Goshen or Abilene, probably still on his papa’s credit. He looked uncomfortable talking to the crowd, most of whom stared back at him without expression. “I’m Mr. Marvin Thorpe, with the Renaissance Rail Company,” he said, running his thick fingers along the brim of his bowler. “We’re passing through on the way to a construction job in Hoover City, and we’re one foreman short. Now you all know you can’t trust a negro to work honest without a white man calling shots.” He paused to smile. A whore coughed. Mr. Thorpe’s smile faded somewhat. “Pay is five dollars and fifty cents a day, cash,” he said. “Miss Bragg wants to head out quickly, folks. There’s a bottling plant needs building, and I’d be much obliged if you’d hurry up on deciding.”
Well, thought Jon, glancing skyward, it doesn’t get much clearer than that. And five dollars fifty ain’t bad for railroad work. He pushed past Stan Kowalski and stepped away from the crowd, untying his apron and ignoring Nathan’s shocked expression. “I’ll do it,” he said, tossing the apron aside.
Mr. Thorpe looked vastly relieved. He hurried forward and, seizing Jon’s hand, began to shake it vigorously. “Excellent, excellent,” he said hurriedly. “We’ll have you set up with the morning crew, Mr….?”
“Morton,” said Jon, “Jon Morton.”
And that was how Lily Morton’s only boy left Lawson.
“We’ll be running a suspension line from Hoover City to Oceanside,” said Thorpe, running the blunt tip of his index finger along the map spread out on the passenger car’s dining table. “The Company is planning a combined still and bottling plant here,”-he jabbed a finger near the center of the map- “but that’s reservation land and we’ll need a say-so from the cluckers to lay down track. They don’t like people drinking their water.” Thorpe sat back on the car’s padded bench and smiled politely.
Jon, sitting across from the red-haired foreman, sipped at his scotch. It was cheap, but the Company was buying and it helped offset the effects of the train’s lurching motion as it moved out of Lawson and into open desert, following the busted Hoover line. “Seems simple enough,” he said.
“It would be,” said the passenger car’s third occupant. E. W. Thurmond, the expedition’s anthropologist, was taller and thinner than either Jon or Thorpe. He sat opposite the map table, stretched out on a bench with a bottle of red wine in one hand and a half-full glass in the other. Behind him, the flat vista of the desert passed by in slow monotony.
Jon arched an eyebrow at the scientist. “It would be?”
“The clucks,” said E. W. He paused, draining half his wineglass, and then slumped back against his seat. Jon had never seen anyone who looked so beaten. “The Company wants to put its line right through their holiest holy site,” continued E. W., speaking with the delicate, ponderous diction of an alcoholic. “It’s where they keep their god, the King of the Oasis, and they’ll never let us through. Myth is he sits in the middle of some goddamn magic spring.” He drained his glass and set it down on the floor, closing his eyes behind their wire-frame glasses.
“Rail can’t go a mile to the west?” asked Jon. He was curious now. He’d never heard the clucks talk about their god. Hell, he hadn’t even known they had one.
“The springs in the area are valuable, even if the magic is just cluck superstition. Good water for the bottling interests. Miss Bragg asked E. W. to negotiate,” Thorpe interjected, shooting a look of disapproval at the lanky E. W. who now had one leg dangling in the aisle. “The clucks will see reason, or good cold sterling.”
“And then hot lead, I suppose, if that doesn’t work out for you,” said E. W. He didn’t open his eyes.
Thorpe said nothing.
Jon finished his scotch and stood up. “Thanks for the drink,” he said, extending a hand to Thorpe, who shook it.
“You’re welcome, Mr. Morton,” he said. “Get a good night’s sleep.”
Jon nodded and went to the back of the passenger car where two sets of bunked cots were bolted to the walls. He stripped down to his union suit and got into the bottom lefthand cot, leaving his folded shirt, waistcoat and trousers on the floor. The creak and hiss of the train’s engines and the low murmur of E. W. and Mr. Thorpe’s conversation kept Jon awake for a long while. He stared at the underside of the cot above his own, hands clasped atop his stomach. There was no sense of loss at leaving Lawson. He’d wanted to flee it for years. He wondered what Karen Bragg, a woman he was sure had all the love and warmth of a sand shark, was doing in the train’s locomotive. He wondered why the Renaissance Company wanted a line from Hoover to Oceanside, and why it had to run through the clucks’ sacred place. Mostly, though, he thought of his mother.
Jon dreamed, and in his dream there was a great rounded hill in the desert’s heart, and around the hill water welled up from the earth and made an oasis and the water was pure and good to drink. The hill turned ponderously to Jon, and its skin was green and waxy and dotted with thorns, its eyes black marbles surrounded by a thousand wrinkles, its mouth a lipless slash between sagging vegetable jowls. “Oh,” wheezed the cactus that was a hill, its eyes closing in weariness. “You…are...of…man’s…seed. Do…you…bring …fire?”
“No,” said Jon. He knew he didn’t want to hurt the cactus, though he didn’t know why. The air smelled of warm honeysuckle. The stars shone overhead.
“You…lie,” groaned the cactus-god, settling on its own fibrous bulk. Flowers began to bloom from its green skin. “You…lie,” it said, “and…I…must…sleep.”
Having spoken, the cactus sagged forward and began to snore. Jon stared at it for a moment, not quite daring to move, and then he went to the water’s edge and, kneeling, drank. The cactus reared up with a horrible groan, its tiny eyes narrowed in fury. Jon scrambled back from the water, looking up in horror at the vengeful god towering over him, its wrinkled lips peeling back from wooden teeth-
Jon woke in his cot with the shrill blast of the train’s whistle ringing in his ears. He sat up and put his legs over the cot’s edge. Thorpe was asleep in the cot across the aisle, E.W. snoring loudly in the bunk above the other foreman’s. Jon blinked sleep from his eyes and put on his glasses, bringing the inside of the passenger car into sharper focus. There wasn’t much to see. A liquor cabinet, half empty, and a set of shelves stacked with Thorpe’s maps were the only indicators that anyone lived in the car at all. Jon got up and dressed himself. He ran a hand over the reddish-blond stubble on his jaw and neck. No mirror meant no shave, but he wouldn’t have risked a razor while the train was moving anyway. Jon went to the front of the car and stepped onto the accordion platform between it and the locomotive. He gripped the moving platform’s metal rail for balance and squinted out at the town.
Hoover had always been a dusty backwater. It’d belonged to the clucks until settlers ran them off to plant corn, which they’d done until the Susan River had dried up and the corn had dried up with it. Now Hoover was a glorified whorehouse, its rail lines mostly silent, its houses boarded up and forgotten. Only the bars and hotels were still open, and the lights in their windows were always dim, as though they were embarrassed to be seen with their storefronts looking out on Hoover’s dusty streets. Needless to say, there wasn’t any crowd to greet the Company’s train like there had been in Lawson. A few tired men and wan, pale women came out onto the sidewalk as the train headed for the center of town, but they didn’t linger.
“Ah, Mr. Morton,” said Karen Bragg, stepping from the engine’s rear cab onto the connector. She wore the same clothes she had the day before, but she’d pinned her hair into a loose knot at the back of her head. She closed the iron door behind her, giving Jon no glimpse of the locomotive’s innards.
“Ms. Bragg,” said Jon, inclining his head.
“There’s a warehouse in town holding the materials for the suspension line on commission,” said Karen. She moved to stand beside Jon, her pale eyes surveying the town through the round, tinted lenses of her glasses. Below, the work crews were keeping ragged time with the hiss-thump of the train’s mechanical legs. Karen Bragg’s fingers closed around the rail. “The warehouse owner’s a Jew. I’d like you to take a few men and see that we get a fair price out of him. When he releases the steel, head back. Time is very much a factor.”
“Sure,” said Jon.
“Thank you, Mr. Morton,” said Karen. She smiled thinly and then went back into the locomotive. Jon watched her go. She had good legs, but she still made him feel like bait hung over a crocodile pit.
Saul Greenburg was indeed a Jew. He was large, barrel-chested and bearded with a lion’s mane of grizzled grey hair and a yarmulke covering the best part of his shining bald spot. When Jon, accompanied by two rifle-toting workmen, knocked on the aged wooden door of Greenburg’s small home, the Jew burst out onto the porch with a cry of greeting and crushed Jon’s right hand between both of his. “Good morning, good morning Herr Morton,” said Greenburg in a booming baritone. “Fraulein Bragg said you would be coming, and you have. You will wish to see the steel, of course, and then we will bargain!” He sounded overjoyed at the prospect.
“Thank you, yes,” said Jon.
Greenburg led Jon and his escort down Hoover’s main thoroughfare, droning all the while about the city’s lamentable state. “I stay here only two nights a month,” he said as they rounded a corner and came to the warehouse district. “It is too dusty a place for a man to live, and there is no temple…ah, here we are, Herr Morton.” They stepped in front of a dilapidated warehouse building and the bearded Jew drew a heavy iron ring of keys from the pocket of his trousers. The building’s double doors opened with some difficulty, their rusted hinges screaming in protest while Greenburg sweated and cursed. Jon stepped into the building’s dim interior. I-beams, suspension cable and piles of lumber and mechanical parts sat on wooden pallets in the gloom. Dust drifted through the beams of light that pierced the rotting ceiling.
“Fifteen thousand,” said Greenburg, his expansive tone of welcome gone.
“Nine,” Jon said absently. The liquor sellers and beer cartels were all misers, and he’d been charged with keeping stock of the Lawson Arms up to par for the last eight years. He could hold his own at the table.
“Thirteen,” said Greenburg. “I have children to feed, a wife to think of. I am a family man, Herr Morton. My mother is old, soon I will take care of her.”
“Eleven,” said Jon. “Take it or leave it.”
Greenburg threw up his hands. “Gentiles!” he cried. “Eleven! Very well, Herr Morton. It does not quite ruin me.” He shook Jon’s hand again and departed with a roll of crisp bills from the one-time bartender’s pocket.
“Tom,” said Jon to the taller of the two men, “run on back to Ms. Bragg and tell her the steel is paid for.”
“Sir,” said Tom, and he set off down the road toward the center of town where Bragg’s train had installed itself. He returned fifteen minutes later with Thorpe and the rest of the Company’s day shift, about sixty blacks all told.
“Right,” said Marvin Thorpe, taking off his hat and running a hand through his wild red hair. “We’ll want to get this out to the south edge of town. The station won’t go up for another month or two, but we’re starting near the old Oceanside line.”
“There was a line to Oceanside?” asked Jon, surprised. In the warehouse, the workers were starting to break up into teams to wrestle the wheeled pallets out into the street without spilling their cargo.
“About ten years back,” said Thorpe. He squinted at the sun for a moment and then put his hat on. “The clucks tore it up and strung up all the workers when the tracks got too close to their sacred spring.”
Jon arched an eyebrow. He’d never seen a cluck do anything meaner than take a swipe at one of their chicks when the little ones misbehaved. “Didn’t know they went in for killing,” he said.
Thorpe shrugged. “It’s good water,” he said.
The suspension line, a series of triangular metal frames supporting a track threaded with steel cable, stretched eight miles into the bare desert before the workers had their first contact with the clucks. Jon was on shift, supervising the day crew while Thorpe slept away the afternoon, and E. W. drank and thumbed through his small collection of crumbly academic books. Karen Bragg had gone back to Hoover to secure their next order of steel. Work had fallen into a familiar rhythm in the two weeks since they’d left Hoover and its dusty lots behind. Every morning, Jon woke up before dawn, gave himself a careful shave with a straightedge and a wet towel, drank a cup of coffee and went out to relieve Thorpe. For the rest of the morning and most of the afternoon he walked around the worksite, shouting when the men slacked, overseeing the water rations and the periodic retreats to the shade of the train. Sunstroke was the bane of desert work.
The clucks came a few hours after Jon started his shift, their stilts whisper-silent in the soft sand. Jon turned from the water tank, half empty now, and saw six of them coming toward the worksite. They skirted the crew’s shabby tents, graceful and quick on the four-foot stilts they wore to keep their clawed feet from burning on the hot sand. Better than five feet tall on average, the clucks resembled enormous brown chickens, though their musculature gave them a vaguely mannish appearance and their leathery mouth-beaks could form a semblance of expression.
The clucks tore it up and killed the workers.
Jon’s right hand drifted casually to the Bragdon .45 revolver holstered at his waist. “Ho, friends!” he shouted, waving left-handed at the clucks. The workers were abandoning their efforts to raise a new frame in favor of staring at the intruders. The clucks wore heavy robes of dark reddish-brown roughspun, hoods thrown back to expose faces that combined human and avian features in a decidedly uncomfortable way.
“You are khan?” asked the largest of the clucks, stepping away from its fellows and addressing Jon with its head cocked to put him in view of its enormous left eye. “You are khan?” it repeated.
“Foreman,” said Jon, tapping his chest with a finger. “I speak for the…khan.”
“Tell your khan he comes too far,” said the cluck, drawing itself up and fluffing its brown feathers. “Tell him we will take skulls if he goes farther.”
“I’ll tell her that,” said Jon, his fingers closing around the grip of his revolver. “We don’t want any trouble.”
“You should not have come,” said the cluck, sidestepping nimbly on its stilts. There was something sinister in the way its head bobbed up and down, as though it were a huge robin sizing up a worm. “This is bone-land. This is not for your kind, you and your she-khan.” He hawked deep in his throat and spat on the sand.
Jon swallowed and stood his ground, saying nothing. He heard a door slam and E. W’s muttered curse. The anthropologist was beside him in an instant, his shirt front hanging open, his eyes still gummed with sleep. “Ho, khan,” he said, offering the cluck a deep bow.
“Ho, scholar,” said the cluck. “You are welcome. Your flock is not. This is bone-land. We will gather skulls.”
“My khan has asked me to speak to you,” said E. W., straightening hurriedly but keeping his hands crossed over his chest.
“Your she-khan,” the cluck said, its voice thick with derision.
“She serves a true man-khan,” said E. W., not missing a beat. “He also wishes that I speak to you, as the mouthpiece of his people.”
“Then come, scholar,” said the cluck, its stilts shifting in the sand. “But your iron beast must rest while we speak. If your flock comes further, we will gather skulls.”
“Thank you, khan,” said E. W. in a weary tone, his shoulders sagging. He turned to Jon. “Tell Karen where I went,” he said, gripping John’s shoulder with frantic strength. “If I don’t come back, be ready for killing.”
“Are you sure about this?” asked Jon.
“Hell, no,” said E. W. He flashed a wan smile and set off after the departing clucks, his sandals sinking awkwardly into the sand while the fowl seemed to glide over the dunes like wraiths. “Tell Bragg I won’t be home for dinner,” shouted the scientist, looking back over his shoulder. In five minutes he and the clucks were lost to sight, hidden by the dunes and the dusty wind.
“Everyone, under the train,” shouted Jon, turning back to the work crew. “We’re taking a breather until Ms. Bragg gets back. Drink some water and lie low.”
Thorpe emerged from the passenger car while Jon was cleaning his revolver. His eyes took in the gun and then shifted to Jon’s face. “The clucks showed up,” said Jon. “E. W. went with them. Said he’d be gone for a while.”
“Ah,” said Thorpe, scratching his chin.
Karen returned to the work site just after sunset, her automobile trailed by a rattling company passenger car weighed down with fresh building material. Jon and Thorpe were waiting under the train. The men had gone back to their tents to dice with their company scrip. “Ma’am,” said Thorpe, removing his bowler as Karen Bragg stepped down from her dust-streaked automobile.
“Mr. Thorpe,” said Karen. She peeled off her driving gloves and tucked them into her built, but her eyes never left Thorpe’s. Jon was again reminded forcibly of a shark staring at a baffled fish. “Would you care to explain why the evening shift isn’t working on the railroad, which I believe is the object of our venture?”
“Ah, yes,” said Thorpe. He looked uneasy, a fundamentally honest man confronted by a sudden overwhelming impulse to lie. “The clucks shut us down, ma’am. They showed up in the afternoon. Told us if we kept building they’d shut us down.
E. W.’s gone to speak with them.”
Karen Bragg’s smile suggested that Christmas had come early. “He did?” she asked. “They agreed to negotiate?”
The naked greed in Bragg’s smile made Jon’s blood run cold. She just got something she wanted, thought the foreman. The chickens aren’t going to like that, whatever it is. He felt a momentary pang of regret at having left his job at Lawson, where death by clucker lynch-gang had been a much less tangible threat.
“E. W. said he’d be back later tonight,” said Thorpe.
“Good,” said Karen, her grin widening. “Let me know when he gets here, Marvin. I want to know the minute he’s back. The minute.” She touched Thorpe lightly on the back of the hand, and Jon saw a pained echo of her greed in Thorpe’s honest, freckled face.
“Of course, Miss Bragg,” said Thorpe. He swallowed.
“Thank you, Marvin,” she said, taking her hand from his. She turned and walked off toward the idling locomotive where Sutton, her mustached and hatchet-faced driver, was smoking at the window. Thorpe watched her go, his expression troubled.
“This won’t end pretty,” said Jon. He sat down in a camp chair and lit a cigar, smoke billowing around his head. Thorpe walked away.
The sun set at half past eight. Jon sat under the passenger car, dancing the stub of his long-dead cigar between his fingers. “If I were home, I’d be serving drinks,” he said to the night air. He looked at the ground and his voice softened. “That wouldn’t be so bad.” His blunt fingers moved easily, shuffling the cigar stub back and forth.
It started to rain just after nine. Storm clouds boiled up over the worksite and thunder rumbled dully in the distance. When the rain fell, it came in sheeting torrents that marched over the hardpan like curtains being drawn by enormous hands. Jon watched, ignoring the slow rivulets, shiny with oil from the locomotive’s engines, that trickled through the dust around his shoes. Outside, the workers were putting up tarps and oiled canvases, shouting at one another. Lightning sheared the darkness from time to time, throwing the endless expanse of the desert into blue-white relief. Jon thought he could see something huge hulking in the distance.
E. W. came back alone, soaked and disheveled. His shoulders were slumped and he had his shoes in his hands. Jon stood, tossing his cigar stub aside. “How’d it go?” he asked as E. W. stepped under the passenger car’s shelter.
The scientist took off his glasses and pinched the bridge of his nose, eyes closed tightly. “Shit,” he said, and then he put his glasses back on and went into the train.
Jon stood outside for a while, watching the storm. He heard raised voices coming from the passenger car. When he went inside, E. W. was slumped on his bench with a half-empty bottle of scotch in one hand. The scholar had stripped off his shirt and waistcoat and his trouser cuffs were rolled up to the knee. Thorpe sat opposite him, hands folded between his knees while Karen Bragg, immaculate in a grey uniform skirt, stood in the doorway leading out to the connector. Her arms were crossed, her eyes narrowed beyond the dark lenses of her round spectacles.
“They said you have to meet their god,” said E. W. “In the meantime, if we build, they’ll start raiding.” He raised his bottle and drank.
Jon paused, halfway through the trapdoor in the car’s undercarriage. Thunder rumbled and he stepped into the car, wet shoes squeaking.
“When do I go in front of it?” asked Bragg. Jon saw that her hands were clenched into fists, manicured nails biting into soft palms. “I want this over and done with, Edward. The Mayor wants the line finished and the water coming into Oceanside before Easter.”
“Tomorrow morning,” said E. W. He laughed bitterly and slammed the bottle of scotch down on the table. There were dark circles under his eyes. His head rolled limply on his neck, deep lines incised at the corners of his mouth.
Karen stared at E. W. for a moment longer, her eyes prying slits of grey. “Good,” she said. “You’ve been invaluable, Edward. I want you with me tomorrow.” She looked up at Jon and Thorpe, the dark lenses of her glasses flashing. “You too, gentlemen.”
E. W’s eyes shone with tears. He smiled horribly. “Of course, Karen,” he said. “I wouldn’t dream of missing it.”
Jon sat awake on his bunk, smoking a cigar and listening to the rain drum on the passenger car’s roof. Above the one-time bartender, E. W. sobbed quietly into his pillow while Thorpe snored across the aisle. Near two o’clock, Jon rose and stubbed out his cigar in the ashtray on Thorpe’s map table. Outside, the rain had begun to slacken and the wind had died down. Jon stood at the window for a while in his undershirt and drawers, a glass of bad liquor in his hand. From the moment the clucks had showed up, he’d had the feeling he was in over his head. Bragg was out for something big. Too big.
“I don’t think you’d like this, mom,” said Jon. He lit another cigar and scratched the stubble on his chin. “I’m in pretty deep. You’d want me to hightail it.” He blew smoke, staring out at the dilapidated company tents with their embroidered woodlouse logos. “Think you can forgive me if I stay to see what happens?”
Jon sat down on one of the car’s benches. “I bet you’d do the same thing,” he said. “You always were crazy.” He put his half-finished cigar in the ashtray and sat for a long time, staring at the rain.