His fingers rested on the rosewood handle, absently following the intricate lines. It was new, at least to him, but from the moment he picked it up, his hands had been on it. He couldn’t help it. He didn’t even really notice it at first until someone had mentioned it.
“Earl, we got a problem?” The way his brother asked the question made him wonder if they did. He was a little guy who was always hunched over, and now that he was spooked, his hunch had him doubled almost in two.
“Wha’choo mean, Jim?” He asked, confused. “I ain’t got no problem. You?”
Jim watched his brothers hand as he spoke. “Well you keep fingering that pistol like you mean to use it.” He swallowed before looking back up to Earl ‘s face. “And I don’t think I said nothin’, but I know how you get sometimes.”
Earl looked even more confused until he saw his fingers tracing the pistol grip. He pulled his hand away in a jerk, throwing his hands out wide. The movement made Jim buck. A yellow grin that broke out on Earl’s thick face.
“Naw, brother. It’s alright. It’s just new that’s all.“ he pulled it out of the holster and showed it to his brother, handle first. “Fancy ain’t it?”
When Earl offered up the pistol, Jim shrank visibly. He never took his eyes off of the mirrored steel.
“Yeah, yeah, Earl!” his younger brother yipped in appeasement. “It’s real fancy. Must’ve cost you a pretty penny.” He waved his hands toward the gun as if to shoo it away.
Earl smiled at his brother then down at the pistol as he brought it closer, clutching it like a child. “It shore’ is fancy.” He snapped his eyes back to his brother, just remembering he was there. “What? Oh… Naw I didn’t pay nothin at all fer it.”
“Wha’choo mean you didn’t pay nothin’?” Jim’s face was still screwed up with worry. He usually looked like he had just eaten an green orange, but he was worse than usual.
“I shore hope you ain’t gonna get in any trouble over it, Earl. The last thing we need is the Sheriff comin’ back this way. We barely get any business as it is.”
Earl shook his head and grimaced. “I ain’t done nothin wrong, Jim. In fact,” he shoved the pistol back into his waistband, “the sheriff seen it. And the sheriff’s the one told me to take it.” He pointed his dirty finger in Jim’s face, causing him to shy away. “So don’t you go worryin’ that stupid head of yours lil’ brother. I got it all under control.”
“Well then where’d ya get it?” Jim looked down at his feet which were kicking around the small rocks in front of the shop that doubled as their house.
“Wha’dyoo care? Nosey lil’ shit.” Earl balled up his fist and Jim covered his head with his arms. He lowered them once he realized his brother wasn’t really going to hit him. At least not right then.
“I’m just curious that’s all. Ain’t nothin wrong with bein’ curious.” Jim uncurled his body and tucked his hands into his pockets, sheepishly dropping his head.
“I was helpin’ the Sheriff pick up this kid they found out on the road towards Dodge. He was about yer’ age, and early that mornin’ someone came in to tell the Sheriff that there was buzzards circlin’ just off the main road. By the time we git there damned things had just started in at him and were pickin at his belly.” Earl bent forward and spit on the ground, the impact making a little cloud of dust rise into the air.
“Anyway, the kid had this ‘cross his chest, and the Sheriff said I can have it as payment fer the job, since I don’t got a pistol.” He smiled as he patted the handle.
Jim looked up at Earl and squinted. “Well how’d he die?”
“Who? The kid?” Earl scratched his head, trying to remember details. “I dunno.” He shrugged and motioned to the back of the wagon he had driven in. “He’s back there, take a look for yourself. You gotta unhitch the horses anyway.”
He walked past his brother as he went into the barn to wash up. It wouldn’t be the first time that Jim had seen a corpse. Their family had been undertakers for as long as Abilene had been a city. Their Daddy had taught them the ropes and ran the business until he got sick a few winters back and didn’t pull through. Now it was just the two boys and their mother. She kept to herself most days, locked in her room and only coming out to cook and eat.
Earl walked out of the barn a few moments later, wiping his wet hands across his grimy shirt. Jim was hopping down from the back of the wagon with a strange look on his face. He was scrubbing the back of his neck and walking toward Earl without looking at him.
“What’s wrong now?” Earl barked, causing Jim to jump. “You look even more screwed up than before. What did you find?”
Jim looked back at the wagon before saying anything. “It look like he killed hisself.”
“Killed hisself?” That just didn’t make a lot of sense. “Why would someone… why would a kid go and do that?” He scratched his head again.
Jim shrugged, and let his head sit a little lower on his frame making him look like a vulture. “I dunno Earl. Thing’s is hard sometimes.” He turned to look back. “Maybe he was just tired.”
Earl let out a big laugh and walked up to his brother, whipping his arm around his neck. “That’s just stupid, Jim.” He ruffled his Jims hair with his other hand and started to talk toward the house with him still looped under his arm. “What do you got to be tired about at yer age?”
Jim struggled against his much larger brothers side at first. “We should get him in the barn first. Get him downstairs in the cooler ‘fore he starts stinkin even more.” He stopped twisting in Earl’s grip once he realized that he wasn’t getting anywhere.
Earl just squeezed him tighter and dragged him to the house. “Naw, let’s get us some lunch first. He already stinks to high heaven, and I’m hungry.”
He pushed open the back door, bringing them into the kitchen.
“MAMA!” he shouted towards the stairs. Towards his mothers locked door at the top of those stairs. “MAMA! Earl’s home! Why don’t you come down and fix some lunch fer yer boys?”
He grabbed a brownish apple out of the bowl on the table and broke through the thin, dry skin noisily. He heard the latch from his mother’s door squeak open, followed by her meek footfalls on the brittle stairs. He got up as she came into the kitchen and walked over to give her a hug and a kiss on the top of her head. She shrank in his arms. Her bones creaked under the weight of his hug, she might have broken had he kept it up much longer. When he let her go she rubbed the spot on the top of her head where he kissed her, wincing slightly.
“Just some bread and some of that pork will be fine.” He reached behind him and grabbed a bottle of whiskey from an empty shelf. The cork came out with a hollow thunk, and he splashed a little into a glass.
“It’s so early for whiskey.” His mother squeaked from behind him. “Don’t you think, Earl?” She hadn’t turned around to look at him when she said it, but instead continued to make him up a plate.
Earl took a pull from the glass and whistled the heat out of his chest. “It’s just a drink, Ma. Don’t worry about it. You sound like Jim.” He grinned and shot a wink at Jim, who was looking out the window at the wagon.
“WILL YOU STOP STARIN’?” He pounded his fist into the table as he shouted. Jim jumped, snapping his attention back to Earl and his mother let out a choked shriek. Earl took another drink from the glass and shot a look dark look at Jim.
His mother said something, but her voice was so small that it died before it got to them.
“What was that Mama?” Earl asked, still eyeing Jim. There was acid in his stare.
“Oh nothing… I was just wonderin’ what Jim was starin’ at.” Earl shifted uncomfortably in his seat, and pulled the pistol from his waist and set it on the table.
His mother walked over with a plate for Earl when she saw it. Her face went white and she quickly turned her back to it. Had Earl been paying attention he might have seen her convulse and reach out a hand to steady herself against the wall.
“Oh, the wagon.” Earl took a big bite of the salted pork before talking again. “Me and the Sheriff found a buzzard-pecked boy out on the road headin to Dodge this mornin’.” He pushed the pork around his mouth with his heavy tongue as he chewed, talking around the thick slab.
His mother spoke again but this time her voice cracked and shook. “A boy? How old?”
Earl finished chewing before taking bite of the stale bread on his plate. The sound of his greedy chewing filled the still room like the echoing of a train at night.
“How old was he, Earl?” His mother asked again, this time louder, but not much.
“How old? I dunno.” He replied. “About Jim’s age was my guess.”
Her eyes went wide, but she didn’t say anything for quite a while. The only sound in the room was Earl chewing.
“How did he die?” The question floated there for a moment before Earl registered it. Why was everyone goin’ on about how for? They saw a dozen bodies a month and Earl couldn’t remember a single time that his family had asked him how someone had died. “I dunno really. Jim says he think he shot hisself.”
When Earl looked up from his plate at Jim, he noticed Jim’s head swiveled around again. His eyes locked on the Wagon. He felt a ball of hot anger start in his stomach. He looked down at the pistol for a few long seconds. When he looked back Jim was watching him, his eyes were round and his fingers dug into the rough wood of the table.
He heard a sniff from behind him and turned to face his mother who was wiping the corners of her eyes with her dress sleeve. Now she was all worked up too, and all because of some bothersome little shit who went and shot himself.
“You too, Mama? Blubberin’ over that kid?” Earl watched his mother cry for a few moments before shaking his head and going back to his plate. “I don’t know what in the hell has gotten into you two, but it aint no different from any other stiff we get in here. I swear you two are crazier than shithouse rats.”
Earl ate in silence. His mother stood behind him, arms wrapped around herself, rocking slightly. Jim doing his best to keep his eyes off of the wagon out front. Earl kept looking from Jim to his mother over and over again. Waiting for one of them to say something. To do something. Something to cross the line. They didn’t.
“You two shore make a fine pair.” He waved his arm at Jim. “Fine get out there and get the kid down to the cooler since yer so tore up about it.” Then waved at his mother. “And you might as well get upstairs to yer room. I know yer just countin’ the seconds down here anyway.”
At once, both Jim and their mother escaped the kitchen. She climbed the steep stairs quickly despite her quiet steps. Jim stood up and walked out of the kitchen so suddenly that he forgot to push his chair in. A few seconds later he heard the lock on his mother’s door squeak closed and saw through the window as Jim led the wagon into the barn.
He shook his head again before finishing his glass of whiskey. He pushed himself back from the table and stood there looking down at the pistol lying in front of him. It sat there quietly, in the only pool of light from the window behind the table, and for the first time he was really able to see it. The longer he stared the easier it became for him to imagine the pistol in the dead kid’s hand. Pressed flush under his chin. A short, quiet squeeze and a loud, long end. Suicide wasn’t really something Earl heard of around here. People were usually so worried about how they were going to stay alive, that putting any kind of effort into ending it faster just seemed pointless.
He reached out for the pistol and just held it in his hand. He felt the warmth that the sun had leaked into it. He felt the worn carving tucked close against his palm. His finger slid over the trigger and pressed it slowly – just enough to move the hammer back ever so slightly. He sighed and shifted uneasily as he let go of the trigger and the hammer slid back into place.
He hefted the pistol and pointed it out of the front window, watching the world outside from behind the iron sights. He held it for so long that his arm twitched. The gun danced gently at the end of his arm, swaying slightly to unheard music. Just before he lowered his arm Jim crossed in front of the window. He put his younger brother square between the sights. Jim noticed his brother and stood like a statue. His face didn’t change. He just watched his brother watching him – the pistol between them.