Tobias Robbins is a writer by nature, a reader by habit and a teacher by training. He is fortunate enough to be a middle school English teacher and is therefore surrounded by fantastic stories every day. His favorite stories are the ones with layers that force the audience to ask the most important question of all: “why?”
They could tell that one of them was about to die.
At least that's what Joe thought to himself as he tightened his grasp on the wooden handle of a slightly rusted hatchet. Their calm clamor seemed stressed and a touch more frenzied as Joe eyed his surroundings. The frantic hurried movements in the violet shade of very early morning.
"Sorry little darlin, but we all have our roles to play and it looks like it's your turn,” Joe mumbled to no one that mattered as the almost sweet smell of excrement curled his nostrils.
With a grip made strong from years of toiling in the earth, and melancholy set in his soul from the years of violence, Joe grabbed a delicate looking specimen by the neck. He squeezed tightly, and then dragged her kicking and flopping to an old mesquite stump.
"You know, I don't relish this part, little thing, but what's doin needs to be done." There was no room for pity now, as Joe raised the hatchet, and brought it down with a dull thwack.
The expected squirming.
The usual blood.
The common controlled commotion.
It was an awful stillness.
"Well the easy parts over, now to pluck your damn feathers."
Joe couldn't help but feel a bit guilty carrying the dead chicken past the others in the coup. Silly critters with no wits at all can't feel scared or anxious. Just brainless creatures… without any thoughts… like that of a man like Joe. He switched hands, carrying the chicken on the opposite side of his body, blocking it from the view of the other chickens. Silly or not, he still had a heart.
It was precisely this balance of strength and sensitivity that eventually convinced Norma to marry him. During their courtship his letters emitted a proud kind of compassion, which not only demonstrated his romanticism, but also held a surprising elegance as well. Norma loved his writing so much, she gave him a blank book to write in as a wedding gift. Many nights thereafter, Joe struggled to find the words to capture on the pages, but they eluded him. The brown leather book sat mostly empty and unfinished on his dresser.
After breakfast, Norma helped Wyatt and Winona put on their Sunday best while Joe hitched on the buckboard. Every Sunday, on the trip to church, Norma couldn't resist making a comment about the dirt road messing the children's clothes, but Joe just acknowledged it offhandedly. The church was a pleasant looking building. Huge double doors drew the eye naturally up the steeple and finally to the iron-cross high above all onlookers. Flanked by small gardens, it resembled a quaint Texas version of the Garden of Eden. Constructed during The War Between the States, Joe wasn't there to help build it, a fact that made him feel a slight twinge of guilt upon seeing it every week.
Sweetwater was his home, war or not, and he should have been here to help with one of its most solemn endeavors. Of course, no one faulted him for doing his duty. He honored his town by going off to war when he was needed, but the war wasn't his home, and the army wasn't his family. He was born in Sweetwater, married in this church after the war, and someday he knew he would be buried in the cemetery on the hill behind the church. Being here was all he had ever wanted. Peace, calm, and the freedom to tend his own land.
If any place signified peace to Joe, it was certainly the church. But not this day, however. The smiling faces of friends were replaced with worried scowls. The jovial greetings replaced with hushed concerns.
"Joe honey what's going on? Why is everyone in such a state of commotion?" asked Norma.
"Don't know yet," he said back.
After tying off the wagon, Joe took Norma by the hand. In turn, Norma took Wyatt’s hand, and he, his sister's. As a train, they meandered their way through the crowd of people congesting the courtyard. Focused intently square on reaching the large doors of the church, Joe couldn't help overhearing fragments of conversations.
"They been gone for far too long..."
"Indians, no doubt in my mind..."
"Has anyone checked the saloon? Haha!!"
"It's fine. They will show up later today or the next."
Finally, they reached the doors to the church. Joe could see the preacher talking to Sheriff Cooper in the doorway. They took turns folding their arms and shaking their heads, while whispering to one another. Before long, the bell rings and the rest of the town’s folk find their seats. Wyatt and Wynona were still too young to take in the subtle uncomfortabilaty of the congregation, but Norma had a nervous look in her eye. She squeezed Joe’s hand tightly.
The crowd's whispers instantly silenced as the preacher took the podium.
"Thank you all for coming today. It seems to be that we have a larger flock than normal, and I suspect that is due to some of the rumors floating around town. Well, it's not my place to speak on such worldly matters, so I will have Sheriff Cooper speak on this subject instead.”
Will Cooper was a good man. The people originally voted him in as Sheriff eight years ago mainly due to this collective belief. He was born in this town and his family had done moderately well in leather tanning. Although he was not a very educated, or articulate for that matter, he still managed to command a modicum of respect due to his size, stern voice, and the overall fairness of his decisions. His fairness, however, diminished depending on the darkness of one’s skin. Yellow, red, brown, or black, Cooper felt most of the town’s problems could be rightly associated with at least one of those hues at any given occasion. Seeing as how the majority of townsfolk did not find themselves on that side of the color spectrum, most didn't mind.
Brushing outward with his thumb and forefinger, Cooper smoothed his long mustache. The heat wasn't the only thing making him sweat.
"Many of you know the Jennings boys didn't come back after fishing. That was three days ago. They meant to return that next morning, but haven't yet."
The ‘yet’ was a surprisingly calculated word choice. It implied the possibility of return.
He continued, "Most likely, they decided to stay a spell. Nothing to be concerned with. I'm heading out to Fool’s bluff today to fetch ‘em."
Joe knew the Sheriff well enough to discern the slight hint of distress in his eyes. This was an ability he absorbed while taking questionable orders by commanding officers.
After Cooper’s speech, the preacher took his place at the podium and instructed the audience to bow for prayer. Then, he had them open to their Bibles to Romans 6:23. Before the sheriff could disappear through the rear exit, Joe excused himself and followed.
"Sheriff, hold up."
"Oh hey Joe, you doing ok?"
"I'm not the one with whom to be concerned with."
"Listen Joe if this is about the missing boys I don't want-"
"Missing? Hold on now, you said they were prolly still out fishing. You don't really think that, do you? Something else ain't setting right in you. Tell me Will… Maybe I can help."
After a sigh and a glance over his shoulder, Cooper gestured for them to head under the shade of a peach tree near the back corner of the church. Inside, the muffled bellowing of the preacher’s sermon could be heard.
"Do you remember deputy Davis? He was my deputy for a few months before he took the sheriff position in El Paso? He sent me a letter that arrived on last night’s stage. Got me worried. Says there's a gang of lunatics cutting up the countryside. Says they're religious fanatics. Says they're sick in ways the devil would envy.”
Joe’s patriarchal instinct was of concern for his family. He immediately grew impatient; wishing Sheriff Cooper would skip to the simple yes or no condition of his family’s safety.
Cooper continued with his story, unaware of Joes growing anxiety. “This lunatic cult, they don't just kill ya they take your soul, they say. They perform some twisted kinda witch burning at the stake to judge ya guilty, then they kill ya. They make ya walk the dessert floor barefooted, so the souls of yer feet get burnt like the souls of the wicked. From the looks of it, one fella they got up north must have walked plenty of miles cause most of his skin was gone, toes broke too. What could be so persuasive as to make a man do that to himself? To be made to keep walking despite that pain? Fear, a damn strong fear of the one that pushing you to do the walking, that’s all I can figure… desert turned his skin to strips of leather…”
Joe said nothing. A quiet moment of morbid contemplation passed between the two men. After a sigh the Sheriff continued.
“After they decide you walked far enough, they make you pick out the saguaro that they're goona tie you to tight. Hundreds of needles punching through your skin passed your meat and deep enough to hit the bone. They drip mesquite sap on your naked skin and let fire ants loose on ya. If they bite, then that means yer a sinner and then they flail ya with a horse strap. The fire ants always bite, you know that, even without the sap. My horse bucked me last summer cause she stepped in a hill of um. Imagine getting those littles bastards all over you. You’re helpless to do anything about it. After a while of this they slit your throat. I mean, what’s the point of all that effort if they just kill ya anyway? They leave ya there, to be picked at by coyotes and ravens and the like. Davis reckons there to be about five or so of these crazies. Says they killed in Sheep Springs, Buxton and last week they took a 20-year-old school teacher in Red Rock. Don't tell nobody Joe. No sense in panicking the town."
With a silent nod, a blank faced Joe extrapolated the potential threat. With his hand, Joe wiped the sweat from his face across his hairline to his jaw and chin.
"By the order of those towns, it seems they aim to be heading west," Joe said with a resilient undertone.
"Ya that's what I was thinking, too. Now, it's all together likely these godless bastards head north a few days and pass through Lakota. Davis, already sent a letter warning their Sheriff."
Part of Joe was wishing he didn't follow Sheriff Cooper out of the church. He could be singing hymns with his family at this very moment instead of considering the atrocities of what may come. Cooper could see the concern on Joe’s face and bluntly told him to forget about the conversation, that he could handle it, and the Jennings boys would turn up soon. Joe agreed reluctantly. After all, this was sheriff business, not his. Joe’s only concern was his family and his farm.
Joe was tight lipped on the ride home, and he did his best to not arouse needless worry in Norma. He acted as concerned as he could about the town gossip that Norma prattled on about. Though the newly acquired dirty laundry seemed laughably unimportant considering the news Joe had just heard himself. Of course, he wasn't about to share that news. Not to anybody.
His book, on the other hand, technically wasn't anybody. It was the perfect receptacle for the un-sharable information he could no longer contain in the confines of his skull. After supper when the kids were laid to bed, Joe sat on his porch. The wood from the armless chair squeaked as he adjusted his position to see the blank pages better under the yellow lamplight. As he softly scribbled his simple words down, he couldn't help but feel something strange under his skin. Something without reason or word to justify it. After each punctuation mark, Joe looked up from his book, out into the darkness. The cedar trees somehow seemed treasonous. Their roots seemed to be unfathomably inching towards the house whenever Joe was looking away. The crickets chirped in secret code to the other denizens of the night, inhuman messages of subterfuge. The sky was also a conspirator to the dark desserts plan, casting spotlights of moon light beams on some areas, while clouds darkened whole parcels of landscape in others, slowly swaying, without notice to another patch of duplicitous terrain.
Amongst the mystery of the night, the leather cover of his journal gave no security from fear. The warm light of his lantern offered no reassurance of safety. The nameless worry was within him. His breath shortened. His muscles tight. His body, his life, his family and his soul; all forfeit to the primal darkness and the power at its command.
Joe liked to consider himself a rational man, as most men assuredly do. Yet, he was an old friend of fear. It's talons found common grip on his mind during the long nights between battles. He knew the tricks it could play. There was no lurking villain sharpening its blade in the dark or just outside his field of vision. No macabre spectacle of archaic ritual awaited him or his family. Children fear the darkness due to their innocence; men fear it because they lack it. Evil, nor its ambassadors, were coming for him. The lunatic cult would not come to his home, and if they did, he was capable of defending what was his. The story Sheriff Cooper told him stirred up the deep seeded paranoia that all men instinctively feel when a threat is presented. Nothing more. Joe shut his journal, unfinished. Blew out the lantern and went inside.
"Nothing lasts forever darlin. We all return to the dirt eventually."
"That certainly is a dramatic representation of the situation, my dear husband. It's only a broken tool."
"Huh, sorry but it's true. Just suppose I been thinking bout the Jennings boys. Missing a week now with out a track or trace. "
"Joseph Everdean Goodman, do not prematurely cast a pessimistic outlook upon the fate of those young men. If you can't be hopeful for your own sake, then at least do it for the Jennings."
"You're right darlin. My mind tends to wonder to the morbid when so many questions are left unanswered. I will be in better spirits when I return from town."
Joe felt a touch of embarrassment as he put on his hat by the front door. He turned and managed a sheepish grin to Norma. Downright childish to let a simple thing like a busted ho rile up so many emotions. The ho was old and covered in rust. The wood of the handle was splintered and ready to fall apart at the next strike of a stone. Why does such a mundane occurrence lead thoughts to questions of one’s own mortality? Joe didn't know. Joe didn't care. He tried his best to exile such dark thoughts from his mind as he traveled alone in the midday heat. After tying off his horse in front of Olaf's General store, he stomped the dirt from his boots on the wooden planks of the walkway. This was sure to straighten out his mood.
Olaf was writing up an order for Widow McCall. He smiled and nodded his head towards Joe in between scribbling on his notepad. Olaf was a large Dutch man who worked hard to hide is foreign accent. Together, he and his wife Brunhilda sired nine children together; several of which Joe caught glimpse of running passed the tables and shelves containing the stores wares. Pale skinned with large rounded facial features (just like their father), they chased each other and hid behind the legs of smiling customers. Joe sighed in silent contemplation at the miracle of patronage, then his smile turned sourly to a grimace at the thought of that parent losing their children, as the Jennings have.
"Vat brings you by today my friend?" Olaf's voice boomed deep from within his barrel chest.
Turning to see the dimpled smile of Olaf, Joe answered, "I find myself in need of a new trench digging implement, my good sir."
Joe was hoping that the obvious irony of putting on airs when visiting such informal acquaintance might ease the tension in the back of his mind. The two soon selected another ho and Joe paid for it. The transaction itself became secondary to the conversation between them. All the familiar topics were brought up: farming, business, news of Indian raids, and politics. Joe knew he was hesitant to bring up the subject of the missing young men, and between talk of mundane life, he wondered if Olaf shared his reservations. As if the European semi giant could read Joe’s mind, he called him out on the topic, in hushed tones, as to not frighten the children if they managed to over hear. Joe was relieved to have an audience to express his concerns; Norma was a good wife, but he felt no need to agitate her nerves with ghastly speculation. Joe found an odd sort of comfort in hearing that Olaf also feared for the safety of his family, as is Joes own fears were validated. Despite the comfort of commiserating, Joe was reticent in keeping the Sheriff’s troubles secret. He was trusted with the news of the cult and it would be underhanded to spread a secret, even if it was to a friend.
"It bothers me da most dat da kids know of it. Young ones must be whispering of it at school and letting dar imaginations git da better of dem. I'm up at all hours of da night, calming fears of da Unterkind," Olaf scowled and flapped his large hands down like he was waiving away a foul smell.
"Sorry, you lost me. What's Unterkind?” Joe asked. Sometimes Olaf’s native tongue tripped up the lines of communication.
"Da child's story. It's a dark spirt. A monster from dreams."
Joe could tell Olaf was frustrated to translate the figurative concept.
"Do you mean like a fairy tale?" Joe inquired patiently.
"Yaw. Dat’s it. It's a nonsense child story from home. Hold on, I show you," Olaf called for one of his older boys, who was shelving cans, to run upstairs to their living quarters and fetch a book. The boy did as he was told without a word, but upon his return, asked his father in a language Joe was unfamiliar with.
"Da Unterkind," replied Olaf coldly.
As Olaf thumbed through the pages of a very large, very old looking book, the boy remained blankly staring at the floor. With a forlorn expression on his face, the gears of his adolescent mind turned backwards to years past. It seemed to Joe as Olaf’s son recalled some childish fear as it’s power took hold of him. The boy turned ever more pale than his regular ivory tone. Once Olaf found the page he wanted he raised his head, and with a mixture of surprise and disappointment, sternly rebuked the boy for still standing there dumbfounded. The boy shook his head and went back to his work.
"Dis story is not for dem to hear. His mother and I made the mistake of reading it to him and his older sister years ago and have regretted it ever since. Some story's refuse to be forgotten, and I am ashamed to admit dis one even bothers me just a bit." Olaf turned the yellowed pages of the mighty tome for Joe to see. The words were not in English, but the accompanying illustrations spoke volumes.
Whether it was an original hand drawn image, or a very good reproduction of an earlier engraving, Joe could not tell. The dark lines and deep shadows gave it an almost unreal depth. The edges of the page had immaculate filigree, made of vines, thorns, and roses in each corner, all crafted with the same tar black, as if they were drizzled on to the page. The central image was that of a ghoulish looking mongoloid anthropophagous. The dreaded beast was hunching over a small boy who was cowering in absolute terror. The Unterkind had long gangly limbs with clawed fingers and toes. Its stomach protruded immensely, and its hunched back was covered in boar like hair. The only thing it was wearing was a necklace of black feathers and bird skulls. The head of the creature was three times as large as a normal human’s, with pointed ears and a long beard. It showed a large grin full of teeth under a drooping, crooked nose. The image alone was disturbing enough for an adult audience. Joe wondered what was this doing in a book of children's tales. Olaf’s culture now seemed a step further from what Joe would call normal, but before any concrete judgments could be set in his mind, Olaf turned the book back round again and began to read it aloud.
“Da story begins with a poor family that lived in a cottage in the middle of a great northern forest, near a mountain range, covered in ice. Three little boys were told by their father and stepmother dat the winter would be hard and they would need to ration their provisions to survive. Though the boys openly agreed to limit their consumption, they secretly plotted to sneak bread from the cupboard after their parents went to bed. For three nights, the boys stuck into the kitchen, and each time they each took a small loaf of bread. Each of da three mornings, the father would come out of his bedroom, clueless as to where the bread disappeared. Because he had complete loyalty and trust for his sons, he never suspected them. Their stepmother, however, was suspicious; she harshly accused the boys of being selfish thieves. The boys were warned that if they continued to steal bread from the cupboard, they would be abandoned out in the snow at the edge of the great mountain range. The children denied being gluttonous, but the next night, attempted their midnight raid upon the kitchen’s cupboard once more.
“Dis night though they did not find bread, but instead, their very angry parents waiting in the kitchen to surprise them. True to her word, their stepmother convinced the father to take the girls boys to the foot of the mountain and leave them there to starve. That night, while sleeping, huddled next to a small fire, the boys were dragged off by the strands of their golden hair, as they screamed into the dead of night. They'd woke to find themselves without any clothes.”
Joe grimaced slightly and looked over his shoulder to see if anyone else was listening, luckily the store was empty, and chances of an awkward ease dropper were set aside.
“Each were locked in a separate cage against the wall of a cave.” Olaf continued, “They could barely make out a few shapes in the dim light of a small fire. The first shape was a small pile of their clothes; without which, the boys were shivering from the intense cold. The next shape they could discern was a black cauldron large enough to boil a pig in. The last object was half the size of an elk and was covered partly in hair. As dare eyes adjusted to the firelight, the boys could see it was breathing at staring unblinkingly at them.
“The creature stood to its full height and smiled. Its teeth were as long as a man’s finger and as thin as sewing needles. There were hundreds of such teeth it its large mouth, each shimmering in the fire light while the beast drew near the cage containing the first boy. It snatched the shivering boy, ripped off his arms and legs, and casually tossed all of his parts together into a stew cauldron. His two brothers, forced to helplessly watch.”
The look on Joe’s face was that of someone who was smelling in an unbelievably foul odor, almost sick from it.
“The next day, the second boy was made to eat the stew. The boy was starving, as well as freezing, and hot stew was tempting to him, but knowing it contained his beloved brother, he did not want to eat it just the same. Da beast grabbed the boy by Da back of his head the way a grown man would grab a gooses egg, and tilted the child's head back, forcing the stew to run down his throat. The next day, the second brother’s size had doubled from eating the stew. The hulking beast took the second child out of his cage, shredded him into small bits, and casually dumped him in the cauldron of stew, just as he had done to the first boy.
The third boy was clever however and knew what was to come next. He tricked the beast by lying and claiming to be so hungry he did not have to be forced to eat the stew. The beast poured the stew into a bowl and slipped it between the bars of the cage. Once the best turned its back, the clever little boy buried the stew in the snowy gravel behind his cage. He den tricked the creature once more by asking for seconds, insisting he was still hungry. Da Unterkind left to fetch more unwanted children left for him at the foot of the mountain. The beast looked forward to fattening up this third boy to almost to bursting. He would make the best meal yet for the wicked beast. The boy quickly uncovered the remains of the stew buried behind his cage and found a tiny bone. He used the tiny bone to pick the lock of his cage and escaped while the beast was away; he was in such a hurry to escape, he didn't even bother to pick out his clothes from the tiny pile by the mouth of the cave. He just ran as far and as fast as his weary legs could take him.
“Eventually he reached his cottage. He cried and cried apologizing to his parents for being so selfish and so deceitful, he promised he would never again lie or be greedy. Now that he learned his lesson, the father and stepmother welcomed him back with open arms.” Olaf closed the book.
"I don't mean to disrespect you. ...You know I respect you Olaf ... But that's supposed to be a children's story where you’re from?!"
"Vell it is a very old story, handed down by generations. It teaches young ones to share, and be honest. "
"A bit dark though?"
"Oh most certainly yes, dis is why we don't read it to the children any longer. In da mind of a child, the missing Jennings boys are da same as da boys from the story. It's da Unterkind. "
A beast of legend. A monster of ancient origin. A far forgotten folk creature that drags off children by the hair, let's them freeze naked in a cage, and makes them eat each other before finally eating the last of them himself. Was this any more plausible than a cult of religious fanatics? Where these children's tales any less credible than the theory proposed by the sheriff? Silly that the Unterkind option should even be considered a remote possibility...still, these stories were centuries old. Believed by a whole race of people. Even if exaggerated over the years, the story could still be somehow based in reality, couldn't it? Silly. Foolish even. In the absence of plausibility, only the irrational mind turns inexplicably to the realm of the unreal.
On the lone ride back to his farm Joe tells himself, "I am not a child. I no longer believe in childish things," Joe said it out loud, for if he didn’t, the concept would have lost traction. "The beasts of superstition are for lesser minds, like that of the innocent youth, or the heathen dirt worshipers."
Another vocal claim to the ever-silent forces of logic reinforced this thought in Joe’s mind, "Monsters in the dark simply can't be real."
His words were flagpoles, signifying his authority over base irrationality, "The tall man with needle teeth will stay locked in the realm of imagination where he belongs." As if simply saying it could make it true. As if the human voice alone had command over what ‘is’ or what ‘is not.’ As if a wall truly existed between the dreamscape of some nightmare realm and the physical world of man’s perception. As if Joe Goodman could really expel fear from his heart with only a few hollow words.
Deep down Joe was glad that the kids were tending to their outside chores. He was gentleman enough to know its unbecoming of a man to quarrel with his wife in plain sight of children. He paced the floor, gathering his thoughts in an attempt to put into coherent words his agitated feelings. Before he could organize a reasonable argument, Norma threw her apron on the ground and exclaimed once more with passion, "I still don't see how you thought it conceivable to say such a thing!"
Once more Joe defended his actions, "I told you Norma, I was only trying to be nice. Was my delivery malformed? Yes. But was my intention noble? Yes, it was. I had no desire to embarrass you or offend Mrs. Jennings. You must believe me when I say that."
Her cheeks were red. Her cheeks always got red when she was excited, or in this case, angry.
She started at him again, "You knew better. Her boys have been missing for two weeks. The sheriff told us that he still has hope in finding them and you offer your condolences on her loss!? I just!... Really... You ought to have known better. Think of how she must feel, Joseph. She needs to hold on to that slim hope, we have to have faith enough for her, to help her through her tribulations and you openly assume the very worst for her? We should be lighting candles for her hope not cursing her unfortunate darkness."
She was right. Joe made a mistake. To him it was fairly self-evident death fell on those boys over the past several days. Hadn’t the same realization have naturally occurred to Mrs. Jennings? Still, it was an inconsiderate thing to say, even if it was meant out of kindness.
"I don't know how many other ways I can say it. I'm sorry. I did not want to upset anyone. Please darlin’, can we just drop this line of hostile discourse?" Joe attempted.
With a cold glance, Norma walked past Joe and shut the door to their bedroom. Joe shook his head in disbelief at Norma's blatant disregard for his side of the situation.
The sun was setting fast behind the mountains, and instead of dulling the colors of the desert, it magnified their vibrant hues. Wyatt scattered slop to the pigs when Joe approached.
"I'm heading into town. Tell your ma," Joe called to his son.
"Yes, sir,” Wyatt simply replied, without questioning or outward concern for the uncommon situation, and watched as his father rode towards town, silhouetted by the fading sunlight.
The Diamond Dot Saloon was not normally a place Joe chose to frequent, but under the circumstances a luke-warm beer was better than a cold bed. The average night at the Diamond Dot saw many of the same faces as church on Sunday morning. The only difference was the absence of credible ladies, and heavy drinking. For the majority of men in town, this was the only place for them to speak freely, enjoy a cigar, play cards, or to do anything else most wives would not approve of. In this way it was the ideal sanctuary for Joe. The two-story structure was the last building on the edge of Main Street. It was the exact opposite side of town from the church. The twin polar opposites of the community were perfectly separated and therefore perfectly balanced. Even before approaching the double doors, Joe felt more relaxed. The piano music was soothing, the dull clatter of men's discourse was reassuring, and the smell of sweat mixed with whiskey somehow comforting. Joe took a seat at the bar and ordered a beer.
"Glad to see you Joe. You so seldom come in, a was beginning to believe we were at odds," Phil the barkeep smiled sarcastically as he handed Joe his drink.
"Thanks Phil," Joe replied to receiving the beer, choosing not to acknowledge Phillis attempt at small talk. Phil was a good barkeep, he knew when to talk, when to listen, and when to shut up. He made no further attempt at conversation with Joe.
Joe sipped down several watered down beers as he sat silently, glad to let his mind wonder freely to no particular topic. It was good to not worry. Good to be unconcerned with the farm and the family. Unconcerned with lunatics. Unconcerned with monsters. Unconcerned with anything expect the pressing conundrum of whether or not to switch from beer to bourbon with his next round.
Turns out, the choice was made for him as Sheriff Cooper sat next to him and ordered them both a whiskey. The sweat under his arms had dried into salt lines and his hair was greasy from the day’s exertion. The Sheriff leaned his back against the bar and eyed the crowd, elbows behind him, resting on the bar. Feeling much better than earlier, Joe felt obligated to inquire on the Sheriff’s day. The Sheriff reply was placid and vague, more euphemisms than actual events. Fine by Joe. Keep it casual: weather, rumor, shared complaints, the usual. Neither of the men had the energy for anything heavier than the lightest of discussion. The Diamond Dot was not built for conversations of such lofty merit as one may find in a more refined establishment. No one present would be caught this night or any other, passing ideas of rhetoric or politics between them. Forgetting concerns was the objective, not examining them. Perhaps it was the breaking of this unsaid taboo that lit such a fire in Sheriff Cooper, or maybe it was just the sensitivity of the topic, brought up by a man of lesser stock.
"You can shut your damn half breed mouth this instant, Gomez."
"What I say is truths, senior."
Joe was caught off guard by the Sheriff’s quick turn of attitude upon eavesdropping on the table playing poker next to them. The Mexican-Indian and the other cowboys where hardly noticed by Joe over the past few hours. Apparently, Cooper had one ear on them for a while, and after having his fill of their topic, he burst.
"You don't know a damn thing about what's true. You ain't got all the facts. All the details. All you've been doing is spreadin fear with your heathen stories!"
The rest of the bar got only slightly more quiet. Gomez turned in his chair to fully face the Sheriff and with a sincere tone said, "I'm sorry if my story bothers you. Me and mis amigos were just talking about de boys. They gone missing a long time. It's like a story from my mother’s people, the Life Thief."
The bar became noticeably quieter at the mention of the Jennings boys. Joe starred back and forth between the two men. Would this come to violence? Could Joe hold off the other three at the table if it came to that? The Sheriff was the only person allowed to openly carry a gun, but these cowboys, fresh off the trail, were always known to carry a hideaway. Maybe Phil, the barkeep would intervene on the Sheriffs behalf, if need be.
Standing ridged as a tree, Cooper spewed through his teeth, "Listen to me boy, I do not give a shit about your Red-Skinned ghost story. You aren't to be talking ‘bout things you know nothin’ of. Spreadin’ vile tales of childish nonsense ain't a fuckin crime it's just aggravatin. By doing so, you slander the Jennings family, the Christian church, and most Goddamn importantly, my ability as a lawman. You will close your spick mouth or leave!"
That was it, thought Joe. That must be why Cooper got so mad so quick. The Sheriff’s ability, or in this case, inability to do his duty was now being put in the same league as a fantasy tale of heathen origin. Straight faced Gomez rose from his chair. The bar was now almost fully quiet. Without blinking, Gomez stared coldly into Sheriff Cooper’s eyes, put his cards face down on the table, and walked out. Joe took a deep breath and finished the last of the beer in his glass.
Sheriff Cooper addressed not just the cowboys at the table, but all men in attendance when he shouted, "Do we all understand each other? There is to be no more conjecture about the Jennings, Fools Bluff, any magical damned spirits, or any combination of the sort."
Most men just nodded in approval or mumbled "yes sir" before going about their business.
Careful not to provoke him further Joe said, "you're doing your best, Will. I know it and you know it."
"It's not just that, Joe.” Pinching the bridge of his nose and squeezing his eyes shut Cooper sighed. “I found something today. I haven't told anyone yet cuz to be honest I don't know what to make of it. Don't tell a soul till I get it figured out. I musta checked every crack of that canyon, and the hillside, and the river, and just everywhere these last couple weeks. Hell, I've resorted to rechecking the same spots seeing if anything went overlooked on my first go through!”
Fixated and focused, Joe stared at the Sheriff practically begging him to continue.
“You know about that big cottonwood tree at the edge of the north cliff? This morning I found a pile of clothes there. Not bloody, not even really even dirty: just boots, pants, and a shirt all together. But it was just one set of clothes so where were the other two? In this heat, a body would surely burn up with out protection from the elements. Barefoot would be the worst of it. I haven't brought the clothes to the Jennings to get identified yet due to the smell.”
“So the clothes may not even belong to the boys. Maybe they fell out of a prospector’s pack, or off a traveling wagon…” As quick as the though came, it left, Joe knew it was wishful thinking at its worst.
“Its like… the sour smell of something dead. All around that damn cottonwood the air lingered thick with it. And I couldn’t get that smell out of the clothes no matter how hard I scrubbed. I couldn’t bring the smell of death to the Jennings. Not with out more of an answer anyway. That smell ... It was too strong. You smell it when you’re out in a field, and you always, without fail, see buzzards circling over it. No buzzards today. No way to see where they'd be pickin at. The smell only lingered around the tree, but I found nothing. No body. No blood. No buzzards. No critters at all, in fact, ‘xcept for a black bird perched on the cottonwood branch. It's the only clue I got and it brings more questions than answers. I don't know… What cha think Joe?"
"I think you’re real tired. You have been pushin hard to find these young men and you’re frustrated. Best treatment is a long nights sleep. Come at it fresh again in the morning,” Joe sympathized.
Sheriff Cooper looked at the floor and nodded his head in silent agreement. Joe wished him luck and shook his hand before heading out the door. Staying up late was a young mans game and Joe was tired, too.
Untying his horse in the dim light from the saloon, Joe could see a shape shift in the darkness by the corner of it. Before Joe knew to be scared, he heard a voice.
"Your friend, de Sheriff, I deed not mean to upset him." Gomez stepped from the shadows with a half empty bottle of rye.
"I think he knows that. He is just all messed up about those boys being gone so long is all. And without any clues," Joe replied kindly.
Gomez was drunk, but not too drunk. His words were not slurred and his steps towards Joe were not yet stumbles. Both men were now walled in on two sides by horses leashed to the hitching post.
"The story I tell, it is from my mothers people..." Gomez began.
Out of a mixture of kindness and curiosity Joe took the bait, "The story was about something called a Life Thief? Tell me."
Joe listened intently as Gomez continued, "My mother’s people are de oldest people around here. They go back to the time de sun was not yet lit, and the rivers not yet filled. Before the Gringos came. And before us, this thing was there. The Life Thief. It was a spirit from the old days. Not a man, or a demon, but something out of this world. It has no body, like smoke you can't see. You can smell it. It waits in shadows."
Gomez took a long pull off the bottle of rye.
Joe’s horse gave a little tug at its reign.
Somewhere far off a pack of coyotes yipped with excitement.
"Waits in the shadows for what?" Joe asked.
"For something innocent. It flies inside you and sees all your guilt. If you are clean of spirt it lets you go, but if you bad it takes you. My mother’s people say that the people that get taken over by it go loco. They get all crazy. Sick in the head. It makes you do things. Bad things."
"When a person gets possessed by the evil spirit, what kind of bad things do they do?" Joe’s voice was hoarse.
A light breeze passed between the two men, whirling Gomez's oily black hair that laid in tufts down to his chin. Dark clouds from the east were drawing nearer in the star light canvas of the sky.
"The Life Thief make you hurt everything around you. Hurt it and kill it. No life can be left. Most creatures know to stay away because they can smell the death it brings in the air. And if there is no life around it, it hurts itself.
“What do you mean?” Joe asked.
“My mother told me when she was a girl, her tribe stayed in the mountains in the north for a summer. Well, the hunting was good there, and no warring tribes were near. It was perfect ‘till a man from her tribe had de Life Thief in him.
“He killed his family with a rock in the night. They could smell the Life Thief through his teepee, and in the morning, he was found sitting, smiling in the mess he made of his wife and children. The men tied him to a tree until the elders could decide what to do. Dis man… he took off his own skins. Bit little holes in his skins, den pulled it off like a snake or something. All day alone at his tree, he ripped of strips of his skins, and laid them out to dry. By sundown he was dead, and a crow carried Life Thief off to find more to hurt."
“That’s horrible” Joe said with earnest contempt.
Offering his bottle of rye to Joe, Gomez sighed and shook his head in agreement. Joe took a long pull of the burning liquid, it seared his throat on the way down and gave him the shivers, but it helped too, it took just a small amount of the situation’s gravity away.
Gomez continued, “As a kid I was scared of de blood in the story, its real gruesome eh? But now when I think of it as a man; its just the idea dat bothers me. Something filling me up and taking me over. You get no control of what’s happening to you. Like when a bad man forces himself on a lady, its got to be like that. Just helpless. You cant fight the Life Thief like a person, you can’t shoot at smoke, or stab air. The Life Thief can do what it wants and you cant do nothin to stop it.”
Joe knew not to question such old stories. He knew they are only stories, and they did not have to make any kind of real sense. This story wasn't real and pointing that out would do no one any good he reassured himself.
Still, Joe needed to feel truly validated in the knowledge of this story’s falsity.
"But if it kills all things around it, why would it have the crow carry it around?" Joe realized as he said it how immature it was to attempt to justify the points of a myth as old as time.
Truth was, he just wanted this story to be outwardly proven wrong. To be seen as the fantasy that it truly was. Even if Gomez believed it, Joe could not be settled.
Gomez replied with, "The Life Thief, he hides in the shadows under the dark wings of the bird. The crow is a part of death because it goes in between this world and the spirt world so often. It is the servant to de Life Thief."
Convenient. Myths always have a convenient answer to speculative interrogations. No doubt the story was very old, and if so, it would have countless generations of people to fill in the holes left by logics absence. Not wanting to offend Gomez, Joe told him it was an interesting tale and he was thankful to hear it.
Joe climbed onto his horse and headed for home.
The coyotes where silent. The clouds froze in the sky.
“The story was not real,” he repeated to himself.
Dreams were pointless, Joe thought as he splashed water on his face from the washbowl in his room. The nonsense that takes place between a man’s ears during his slumbering hours is nothing of genuine concern during the waking hours. Joe stared sternly at his own reflection, then down to his outstretched fingers. His hand was trembling ever so slightly. Norma was in the kitchen making breakfast and the kids were still in bed. He let his arms fall limp at his sides and shook out the cramp while stretching his neck from side to side.
What purpose did they serve? The ball of conflicting feelings rolled around inside Joe as scenes from last night’s unconscious escapade flashed in and out of his mind’s eye.
The needles: yellowish, white with hints of brown… He cupped his hands and they filled with warm water then spread it across his face.
The thin branches braided together, studded with thorns…He stretched his arms up over his head and breathed in deep.
The smile so large it cleaves the head back as far as the ear, turns, whispers a laugh… He put on his britches, his boots and shirt.
The back of a beast, hunched over, breathing heavy and fast; feathers mixed with skin… He stepped out of the room, boots echoing on the floorboards in the still of the morning.
The ground cracks open, steam shooting upward, searing. He made a fist as hard as he could, forcing his heart to beat harder.
Norma turned to see him enter the kitchen area and sit at the table. She watched as Joe poured himself a cup of coffee.
"Biscuits smell good darlin’," Joe praised.
Norma smiled and set a warm biscuit on his plate before returning to the stove. They did not discuss the argument of the previous night. They also did not discuss the nightmare that followed.
Joe laid out his plan for the day; Norma did the same for him. Both planned goals that needed to be completed by sundown. The first thing on his list was to mend the fence at the far north end of the farm. The barbed wire had come undone from one of the posts and needed to be reattached. Norma suggested bringing Wyatt along, claiming the boy needed to learn how to do such things. True, Wyatt was almost ten and should be expected to do more of the work on the farm since he was older. Joe hesitated to bring the boy, because despite his good intentions, he would still take up more time to accomplish this simple task due to the necessity of teaching the skill. Joe ultimately acquiesced, knowing Norma to be in the right. Once the boy was ready, they to set out for the far end of the farm.
The heat of the day had not yet taken hold over the land so the ride was quite pleasant. By the North end of the Goodman parcel, the landscape became rocky with small gullies and ditches. The ground was far too thick with stone to be good for growing anything except dessert shrubs, and the occasional mesquite or juniper. A half mile past the edge of Joe’s fence were the hills that ran along side a gorge until it opened into the lake. The log posts that supported the barbed wire were as tall as Wyatt and set three paces apart. With two lines running along them, livestock would have to work to get out unless one of the wires became unattached, as was the case this very morning.
"Now hold up your end while I hammer it in over here. Mind the ‘bards." Joe directed Wyatt.
Wyatt was still cloudy-eyed from sleep. As Joe tacked in the wire, young Wyatt spied the area, always on the lookout for a ground hog or maybe a rabbit. To Wyatt’s surprise, something stirred under the twisted low hanging branches of a mesquite. The dark green leaves created a bell shape of the branches.
"Pa..." Wyatt whispered as loud as he dared and motioned with his head to the direction of the tree. Joe stopped hammering and looked.
The tree was almost twenty feet on the other side of the fence. The lowered branches rustled a bit. Joe caught Wyatt's eye and motioned for the boy to get the rifle that was slung to the side of his horse. Wyatt cocked the riffle as soon as he slid it out of its confines. Joe had taught him this; better to make the clacking noise while farther away, so as not to spook the critter.
Keeping his eye fixed on the tree Joe reached out for the gun and Wyatt cautiously placed it in his hand. The pair crept slowly forward, padding their steps as they went. Ten feet from the tree, Joe noticed the outline of a shadowed figure under the branches directly behind the leaves. Bigger than a rabbit, maybe the size a coyote or a boar, Joe assessed. Overhead, a large black bird cawed defiantly and soared calmly towards the horizon. In an instant, all the blood in Joe's body turned to ice. His eyes shot wide-open and he gasped for missing breath. Just then, a soft whimper slipped out from under the tree, and it was not the kind made by an animal. Shock, like lighting, struck Joe and in the space of a heartbeat he lunged; holding the riffle on target with his left hand, Joe shoved Wyatt back with his right.
Before the boy's backside hit the dirt, Joe barked out "Who's there! Come out damn you or I'll shoot!"
Getting up from the ground Wyatt’s confused eyes, and Joe's angry eyes, simultaneously fell on the motion of something slowly extending from the branches. A hand, with blood and dirt mingled together covered its skin almost entirely. It grasped outward at the air before falling limp to the ground. The appendage made no more motion and the whimper was heard no more. For a short time, that could have lasted infinitely, Joe and Wyatt starred gasping at the right hand and forearm of what was once apparently a man.
After a breath of realization, Wyatt ran back to the fence and grabbed the hammer; he stopped and slid a few inches in the gravel behind Joe. In the short moment that Wyatt took to get the hammer, Joe turned his attitude to that of the soldier he once was. He had his rifle. His comrade behind him. An enemy to his front… But what were his orders to be? Shoot? Retreat? Charge in? Squeezing the butt of his riffle tight to his shoulder, Joe ran through each possibility in quick succession. The least likely scenarios got disregarded first. The possible threat level was minimal; Joe knew what he had to do.
Slowly he moved forward. Keeping the riffle pointed, he lifted away the branches with his front hand. The rays of white sun split starkly with the deep shadows. They made a calico patchwork over the skin of a young man. Naked and filthy from head to toe, the boy could not have been older than thirteen. He was curled up tight into a ball with only his scrawny arm perturbing from the frail mass of flesh. The boy looked dead. Not recently dead, but he looked as if he died a while ago, and this spot under the tree was his grave. What Joe found under that tree was no threat, only pity. Pity personified. Joe knelt down and shook the boy’s shoulder gently. From a few steps to his rear, Joe heard Wyatt mumble something under his breath.
"What's that, Wyatt?" Joe asked over his shoulder.
With a voice no bigger than a mouse, Wyatt lets fall from his lips the name Mathew Jennings. Joe squinted and could barely make out the face of the young man he knew to be Mathew Jennings. Wyatt was right. Here lay one of the missing Jennings boys.
"Mathew? Mathew, it's me Mr. Goodman. Are you still with us son?"
Turning halfway around and laying his gun down, Joe told Wyatt to fetch the canteen from the horse.
"You're goona be fine now Mathew. We gotcha now. We're goona get ya home and all fixed up. Mathew, can you hear me?" Joe said as he turned back to Mathew.
Still clutching the hammer in his one hand, Wyatt passed the canteen to his father. Mathew’s face laid flat in the dirt with his mouth slightly parted. Joe placed Mathew’s head back as softly as he could and half cradled the boy in his lap. He began to pour the slightest amount of water down the young man's throat when he convulsed, and with a spasm, spat back the water.
Terrified, his huge white eyes sat strangely in the dark recesses of his filth covered face.
With a ragged protest Mathew pleaded, "No more! No more!"
As his fit subsided, Mathew's eyes darted around him, not blinking.
Joe did his best to soothe the wild young man, and in doing so, noticed cuts of various depths covering his body. Groups of three and four parallel lines running down for several inches everywhere. Some, scabbed over… some, green with infection…. Some, still oozing with what little blood he had left in him.
"Mathew, you got to tell us what happened. Where are your brothers? Who did this? Mathew come on, talk to me please I want to help,” Joe urged gently.
A pathetic moan was the only answer Mathew gave, as he flung his skinny arms and legs about, kicking at branches and clawing at the dirt.
"Wyatt, ride back to the house. Tell your ma what transpires here, go quickly. Go on!" Joe frantically directed.
Wyatt had only ridden at a slow pace before, so Joe knew he might be frightened to go at full speed; however, if they couldn't get help quickly then Mathew was sure to die.
"Hush now son, you’re safe. You are going to pull through this. Can you tell me anything? Tell me anything about where you been?" Joe kept faith that Mathew would be fine.
But Mathew had stopped his struggling. His breath was shallow. His eyes becoming placid. His entire body became limp and melted downward into Joes arms. With what must have been the last of the boy's will power, he tilted his head to look up at Joe, and whispered something. His voice was barely more than breath. Joe had trouble making sense of what Mathew whispered.
In the shade of a mesquite tree, Mathew Jennings lay lifeless in Joe's lap. His hands sticky with dried blood, Joe cradled the boy's body. It felt as light as it if he were really the pile of sticks he resembled.
Knowing his question would go unanswered, Joe droned out with a trembling voice, "Mathew what did you say son?"
No answer. A tear rolled down Joe’s cheek.
"What did you try to tell me? I couldn't make it out." Joe’s bottom lip was shaking as he asked, "Can you forgive me for not hearing your last words?"
No answer. More tears.
Joe replayed the young man's final words over in his mind, but his efforts only ended with more failed attempts to distinguish between each syllable. The final words of young Mathew were one of two options:
or "It's in."
Neither of the two choices offered any comfort.
The next several days became a convoluted blur of frayed nerves and frustrated tears. The county Sheriffs came to Sweetwater wanting to hear every detail. Newsmen appeared randomly throughout town and scribbled in notebooks. Sheriff Cooper couldn't walk down the street without being bombarded by questions. Mathew's funeral was held in the church and he was laid to rest at the cemetery on the hill behind it. Norma was gone most of the time, counseling Mrs. Jennings and helping with the funeral. Wyatt got into a fight with a boy over accusations of his father's involvement. To survive this whirlwind of calamity, Joe had to become rooted like a tree, solid and strong. He had to let the current commotion wash on over him while keeping his calm intact.
Nonetheless, Joe's frustrations where merely tiny cracks compared to the canyon of despair that had become the lives of the Jennings family. One son killed, two more missing. Sheriff Cooper did his best to placate their woes. He could offer vague platitudes about his ongoing search, but the truth was he was done with it before the first body was found. He did all he could, and he failed, he once confided in Joe. Even so, he stubbornly kept up the parade of gallantry that his station demanded. A halfhearted attempt to track Mathew’s hovel under the mesquite tree by Fool’s Bluff, but his efforts once again, turned up fruitless. The other two Jennings brothers were never to been seen again by a living soul.
The official story was how a bear attacked the Jennings boys. Mathew survived and crawled his way to Joe's farm. For the most part, that was enough to calm the nerves and silence the rumors. After all, no better solution had presented itself, and a bear attack seemed more believable than any other theory. The plausibility of a scenario increases exponentially, as long as key details are not accounted for. Most people in town didn't have all of the facts. They took the basis for what was openly known and filled in the rest with whatever makeshift sequence of events suited them best. For some folks, it was clear that a wild beast had done the boys grieves bodily harm. Others were more inclined toward believing the supernatural elements of the case held the most weight. Sheriff Cooper had discussed the occurrence with his former deputy and together the pieced together a story which featured the lunatic cult of religious fanatics to explain the mystery.
After a week had gone by, the initial rush of the events had simmered down. Life in Sweetwater began to resemble its previously established state of equilibrium. Joe was so busy he hadn't taken the time to mentally process much of the oddities that had befallen his life as of late. The setting sun turned the sky gold and the land a grayish shade of purple. With a combination of a grunt and a sigh, Joe sat down in the chair on his front porch.
The chair creaked its own complaint under the weight of the hard-working farmer. Joe ran his index finger down the spine of his journal. The leather was smooth and cool to the touch. The majority of its pages were still empty. What right did he have to fill them in, to make a permanent mark of his thoughts, as if he had a monopoly on facts? A feeling of limitation hovered around Joe's mind. He didn't know what to write. He never really did. His stream of consciousness ran straight off the unfinished tracks and over the cliff of conclusion. He had no answers. His questions only birthed more questions.
The Jennings incident was a quagmire of mysterious variables. Without a fact to cement in his mind, without a solution set down, without any kind of firm finality to this riddle, how could a man be expected to rest assured in his beliefs? No one knew what happened to the Jennings boys at Fool’s Bluff. The fear that was rooted in the soil of uncertainty grew to be the bitterest fruit of all. Was a lunatic cult loose in the desert around his home? Possibly. Was a monster ravaging people in the outskirts of his town? Possibly. Was a dark spirit taking hold of human souls in the shadows that surrounded him? Possibly. Was a man-eating bear stalking human prey a stone’s throw from his front door? Possibly. Joe would not know the truth for the rest of his days, and it would gnaw at him with every beat of his heart.
He would not return to his journal. It sat, unfinished on his dresser for the rest of his life. Its pages were left blank.