Bookmark and Share

Published on Tuesday, November 2, 2010

Alter's Choice

By Lauren Hendrix

 

The last job was supposed to put me square with the boys but when Willy up and got himself buried, they needed me. At first, I refused but Malcolm told me that there weren't no other fellow as big as me for miles. I knew he was right so, God willing, I agreed to my last job. I know now that we shouldn't have gone down to that house. For two days, we sat on that hill with the wind blowin the dirt around us like ash as we watched the place, learning what we could about the family. All we saw was the mother and the two girls feeding the animals and getting water from the well. We counted how many times they went to the outhouse, how many times they rode their horses, and how long they sat on the porch in the evening.

   

Two days wasn't enough to see what was really going on inside the house but when I said my peace, I was ignored. The young are so impatient. Then again, I too couldn't wait to get within those walls. The wind wheezed so loudly in my ears that I had forgotten the sound of the dirt grating my teeth away. I followed Malcolm and Labute down from the eroding hill, and through the rocks that might well have been brimstone as we took our time easing up on the place. Malcolm hoped that the family would spot us and leave. We just wanted what was in the house. When we made our way to the edge of the dried up farmland, the two girls, and their mother hastily hitched and loaded their wagon.

"Let's get em'!" declared Labute's rotten tooth filled mouth.

"Naw, I thought we went over this. They ain't worth it," Malcolm thankfully said.

Then Labute argued, "Oh, come on Mal. No one'll ever know."

"I'll know and we don't do that. I know that other group of fellers you rode with did things like that but we don't. Plus, there's three them and one of you. I don't feel much like cleaning up and Alter's book has rules against such a deed."

Malcolm was the undeclared leader because he was of a higher rank during the war. He was the one who found this place; he claimed the owner had a lot of valuables. A little extra coin couldn't hurt what I already sent my wife. We wouldn't be as desperate if it weren't for that war. The promise of 11 dollars a month in the army was not easy to pass up when I usually made three doin' handy work at my brother-in-law's church. When the South lost, that money was worth more when we used it to wipe our asses with. Therefore, we did the only thing we knew could get away with.

"Alter, what ya think? We got two or three days till they send a party?" Malcolm asked me without looking back. I watched the wagon.

"Two," I answered as one of the girls looked back at me. She had blue eyes that seemed to glow in the golden afternoon sun. Her eyes questioned, "why?" I had no answer.

 

*         *        *

 

All I could think as I closed the horses up for the night is how nice it was going to be to sleep in a bed even if it was with Labute. When I entered the house and shut the door, the wind angrily roared as my ears and jaw relaxed relieved of that burdensome element. The dinner the mother had started before she had to leave was done as if she prepared it for us and not for her own family. Potatoes, biscuits, turnips, and a little chicken lay cooking on the stove. The smell caused my tongue to ache. The boys had already started stuffing their mouths when I walked in. I sat down, filled my plate, and said a prayer. It was the best meal I had in months. Instead of securing the house, we ate until all of the cooked food was gone. Labute tore through the shelves and finally found what he was always searching for: an unmarked bottle of liquor. I circled the main room and kitchen where the family probably sat together talking, and preparing meals. Slowly I looked through the trinkets the family had on those shelves. I picked up a glove, a bit of string with a needle and pipe with a tin of tobacco that Labute had knocked to the ground. Then I walked into the hallway. In the dim light I counted five doors, too many for a family of three. I stood between two of the doors and I squinted into the darkness to find that the other three were closed at the opposite end of the hall. I pushed open the door to my right, revealed a bedroom, and then pushed the door to my left to reveal another bedroom.

"Do you always do that?" I didn't know who Labute was talkin' to so I stood there waiting for Malcolm to say something. He didn't, so I turned around and found Labute's crusty eye looking at me. I turned my whole body towards him and asked, "What?"

"Pray," Labute answered as if I should've known what he meant.

"So, God'll help when I need it," I answered matter of factly.

"Help you? Why hell would God..."

Malcolm stomped on the floor and snapped, "Hush up Labute, what do you care?"

"What? I's just messin'," Labute's face erupted into a smile at reaction he'd caused in Malcolm.

"Well don't. I said I didn't want to clean shit up tonight and by the shit I mean you," Malcolm said as he leaned his head back against his chair.

I didn't say another word as I turned back around and went into the room to my right, shutting the door behind me. Luckily, Labute drank himself to sleep at the table. Malcolm, who had started drinking with Labute, either took one of the other rooms or fell asleep in that chair by the fire. Wherever he was, I could hear nothing more than his snoring and the damn wind. Lying there listening to the familiar duet, I should have been out in seconds, but I had horrible blanket of dread tucked in over me. I asked God to release me of my bad gut and prayed for Him to lead me safely home. Then I started to think about the horses in the barn we'd sell, the dinner we'd make tomorrow night, my wife's smile when finally, I made it home, and I was out. During the night, I would wake up in a haze to noises in the house but figured that the boys were trying to find their way to the outhouse in the dark. Then someone opened the door, I couldn't see who it was. After the door closed, I didn't hear a thing. I slipped into a deep sleep.

 

*         *        *

 

When I woke the next mornin', I was already sweatin, the house and wind were silent as if both had be waiting for my eyes to open. I took my time in gettin up. I prepared myself for the probable mess the boys made while I slept. I sat up, slipped on my boots, and buttoned my shirt. When I open the door, the sun flooded my eyes from small bedroom window across the hall blinding me for a minute. To my right I could hear muffled screaming. I walked towards the sound until my sight returned. When the blurriness cleared, I froze. Labute was lying bloodied on the floor next to Malcolm who was gagged and tied to the foot of a bed. Without a second thought, I rushed into the room. As soon as I was through the doorframe the door slammed shut and something heavy dropped behind it. I pulled the gag from Malcolm's mouth.

"You stupid son of a bitch!" Malcolm yelled. "Didn't you see me shakin my head at you!" I ignored him and went to Labute. His body was already stiff. I went back to Malcolm and untied him.

"How in the hell are we going to get out of here now?" Malcolm questioned angrily.

I didn't say anything to his question. I just pointed to the window. Malcolm yanked his hands away and got up. I investigated Labute wounds as Malcolm walked towards the window and jumped to see what was on the other side of it.

"How did Labute get all cut up?" I asked staring at a particular slice in Labute's neck.

"We didn't check the house." Malcolm answered.

"How many are there?" I asked getting up.

"Don't know, but when I came to this morning I was tied to the bed and Labute was there bleedin. There was something in that drink. Labute drinks so damn much it probably didn't faze him none. You didn't hear a thing?"

I shook my head, "No, I was out. Thought you two was lookin for the piss hole."

"Stupid old man." Malcolm murmured as he moved a table next to the window.

"Hey! Who's out there?" I yelled as I banged on the door.

"The owner of this farm!" Then I heard scraping across the floor as if the man/men on the other side of the door was dragging something.

Malcolm ripped a sheet from the bed, "Let us out of here, and we'll give you all the money we got!"

"Not until that party I sent my wife after gets here!" Then again, there was scraping.

"O fuck this!" Malcolm said as he wrapped his arm in a bed sheet. "Alter, get over here, and give me a boost."

I shook my head. "No, what bout me?"

"What the hell, don't you trust me?"

"Do you trust me?" I countered.

He climbed down and quietly pulled me away from the door and explained, "I intend to go climb out of the window, go around and take the owner. Then let you out of that door."

"Why can't I go?"

"Do you really think you can make that jump from the window without breakin something?" I looked down at my old weathered boots and knew my bones were in about the same condition. I looked back up at him, defeated, and said, "Fine, but hurry the hell up. The heat is already bringin flies in."

Malcolm climbed up onto the table and smashed his arm through the window. He wiggled through the small wooden frame half way until he needed me to help him. When I heard him land, I expected there to be running but not towards the stable. I climbed up on the table just in time to watch Malcolm ride off with two horses in tow. One of them was mine. I yelled after Malcolm but he didn't look back. I cautiously climbed down and sat in the corner farthest from Labute's corpse. I heard the scraping in the hallway and then it stopped next to the door.

"Dang, that's some friend you had!" the owner yelled.

"Oh, go to Hell!" I yelled at the top of my lungs. Labute began to smell worse than he did when he was breathin. Without the wind the sun began turn those four walls into the place where the worm will never die.

"I wonder how long the party will take. A day or two?" The farmer asked and I didn't say a word. Then he asked, "Do you think that body will keep in this heat for that long?"

I sat all night trying to accept my fate but the scraping and the of buzzin' flies just kept getting worse.

  

The moonlight grew brighter and I was sitting a chair in a corner next to our bed. She was lying there sleeping. I couldn't sleep, and from here, I got a better look at her. She gripped the quilt her mother had given us on our wedding day around her bare shoulders. The hair in her face fluttered when the breeze swept through the window behind me. A shadow appeared on the floor bedside my feet. I turned to find a huge vulture sitting on the windowsill. I moved to my wife trying to wake her up but she wouldn't open her eyes. The devil's peacock hopped down as another appeared and then another. They jumped up on the bed and started pecking at her hands and legs.

"Get away from her!" I yelled as I pulled her limp body to the floor. I dragged her towards the door but she seemed to get heavier by the second and the birds were on top of her now. I dropped her arms and shooed them away. They would jump back for a second but when I had my attentions on one, another would creep closer. I hunched over her body. One of them grabbed hold of her nightgown and ripped it. Liquid pooled around my knees. Then the smell hit me, O'Lord, the smell! I looked down, and the moonlight revealed that I was hunched over Labute. I shot back when I realized the birds had pulled him open and the liquid was his insides. I couldn't hold it down; I threw up where I sat unable to escape. I climbed on the bed and stuffed my face into the mattress.

 

*         *        *

 

As the sun rose, I grabbed a pillow and bit into it. The wind had started again outside. It's wraith like arms reached through the window as I watched the birds come and go, taking parts of Labute with them and fighting over the bigger chunks of him. Inside me, anger boiled and spewed as I watched. I had to see what was blocking the door and I had to face my captor. The birds didn't seem to care about me and continued to feast as I picked up a piece of the broken glass and slid it slowly under the door. To my surprise, the thing blocking the door was an old chest of drawers.

I put myself on the far wall, opposite of the door and hoped that the door wasn't as solid as it seemed. I ran at full speed with my shoulder in the lead, I hit the door and heard a crack but the door still held. I felt no pain, and I prayed to God to make my shoulder like the steel of an angel's sword and ran at it again. By the Grace, I broke through the door and crashed to the floor. It took me a little while to get back up but I eventually did. I wondered why the farmer didn't get me while I was down. I crept down the hall looking into the other bedrooms before I passed. I stood silent and heard nothing but the wind picking up outside warning of my release. Maybe the owner ran when I got through the door, at least that's what I convinced myself had happened. I walked straight into the kitchen. Then I heard the shotgun cock, I froze and instinctively put my hands up.

" Turn around." I slowly turned around to face the farmer. The man was sitting in the chair by the fire, smiling. I watched that smile fade as my smile rose. I knew him from the war. In fact, I saved his life. I lowered my hands but he raised the gun higher.

"Don't move," he commanded. I backed away from him. "I said don't move!" Again I froze. I knew he remembered me, or he wouldn't have looked so stunned.

"Don't you remember me?" I asked.

"Yea, you dragged me off that field in Tennessee."

I nodded towards the gun.

"Why?" He blatantly asked.

"Why, what?"

"Why did you save me?"

"You were hollering like you wanted to be saved."

"You should've left me there." Then he lowered the gun and pulled the blanket away. The smile on my face disappeared when I realized he didn't have either of his legs. I started to move towards the door but he lifted the gun up again.

"No, I will kill you."

"Look, I'm sorry about your legs, I didn't know they would do that. What was I supposed to do?" I pleaded.

"I'll let you go, but you gotta do something for me."

"Yea, ok. What?"

"Kill me."

"What!?"

"Look at me, I'm a legless farmer. I'm burden to my family."

"I... I can't."

"My wife can marry again. She's still young and my girls can have a better life. Please."

He was actually pleading with me to kill him. I collapsed into chair by the table. "I'm a Christian man. I can't. There has to be a better way."

"Christian?" He accused, "You're a criminal."

"I ain't ever killed anybody though. Even in the war, I never aimed my weapon at anyone. It's sinful to take another life." I could feel sweat on my scalp; I didn't want to make this decision.

"I'll make it easy. One of us isn't walking out of this house alive. Either way, I know for sure I'll be the one who ain't walkin, now you decide who's going to do the dying." The door flew open like death on his pale horse. I watched the dirty air swirl in showing me the freedom I could have if I do the devil's bidding. I looked back at the farmer and I could taste the dirt and vomit in my mouth.

The farmer used the shotgun to point to my left, "There's a pistol just there."

I sat there staring down the double barrels for a long while.

 

*         *        *

 

The party caught up with me. I don't remember how long I'd been walking, but it didn't take long for them to get me into town. There, Malcolm was sitting in a jail cell right next to the one they locked me in. Turns out one of the horses he took weren't ours. The Sherriff walked in with a young girl who had glowing blue eyes. She pointed her little hand at me and said, "That man killed my pa."

I didn't say a word. I knew the girl from the wagon and she knew her father was dead. I sat there on that cot and counted the bars. I could feel Malcolm's eyes on me but I didn't turn to them.

Then Malcolm finally said, "I'm sorry." He could never stand silence. I still didn't turn.

"How did you get out of there?" He asked. I turned to him with such anger bubbling up in me. He saw this and moved to the other side of his bunk.

"You knew, didn't you?" I demanded, "Who the owner was."

He pulled his eyes away from mine. "Yea, I knew... Wait, was he the one who trapped us?"

I looked at him. "You knew it was his farm? He was one of us."

"I heard he'd died after you'd dragged him off that field. I heard rumors that he sent back things to his family that he took from the Union houses. "

"He didn't die, they took his legs."

"Was that him scrapin' on the floor?" he asked amazed. "How did you get out of there?" he asked again but this time there was fear in his voice.

"I went through the entire war without killin' a soul. Then you left me in that room with Labute's rotting corpse. I had to get out and to get out I had to..." I couldn't even say it.

Then he had the balls to ask, "How?"

I wanted to go through those bars and ask what right did he have to ask his questions.

"Through the door," I answered matter-of-factly through my teeth.

"It was blocked, though."

"By drawers." As soon as I said that, he let out a burst of laughter. I just stared at him until he was quiet again. Then he stayed that way, he seemed afraid of me.

The sheriff came in with two plates of food and announced, "Enjoy this boys, it'll be your last."

I took the plate and began to stuff the contents into my mouth.

"You ain't goin to pray?" I stopped chewing and looked over at him. His eyes were wide open and he hadn't touched is food.

"Should I thank God or you for my last meal?" He looked away. "Plus I ain't allowed in His kingdom no more." I ate the rest of my meal, watched the sun spin round on the floor and then finally leave. When the new day began to shine through the bars, I wanted to pray but I felt I didn't have the right. The sheriff's men came in, pulled me up, and slammed me against the wall. They tied my hands so tight that after a minute or two I couldn't feel my fingers. Then they tied up Malcolm. A preacher walked in and I wanted to beg for mercy but I told myself it was only the fear of dying. I was a murderer and I knew where murderers belonged. I looked over at Malcolm, he was crying. I stared at him, he was a man I had respected, even admired for his smarts, but now the dumb muscle and the confident leader were on the same plain.

They took us out to the porch right outside the jail. I stepped onto a bucket and they put a rope around my neck. I saw those blue eyes again, asking me the same question they asked at our first meeting. "Why?" My answer: fate. Maybe her father was meant to die on that battlefield and I was never supposed to make it home to my wife. I realized that no matter how much I prayed the fates are just putting everything in their correct order. The preacher came up and said that: "God was punishing you for your transgressions against His children." The audience agreed and clapped as our charges were announced. Let them have their faith. With those eyes looking at me, I had forgot mine. I just wished someone would kick the damn bucket already.

THE END

 

After many attempts at normal, reliable jobs, Lauren realized that fighting against the need to be a writer full time was just simply stupid. When she finally gave in, Lauren went back to school and found out that her need was now a full fledged addiction to the craft. Now, even though money is not consistent and the loneliness can be over whelming she is the happiest she has ever been. Writing isn't the only thing Lauren is good at, but is the only thing she wants to do.

 

Back to   Top of Page   |   Fiction  |  Artwork  |  Non Fiction  |  Home

Back to: Top of Page | Fiction | Artwork | Non Fiction