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By the time the dawn shadows had shrunk in their reach Eli Ramshackle had been on the road for a few miles. Dressed as a ragtag preacher, long strands of dark gray hair falling from under his wide brim hat, he made his way on foot along the trodden road as it wound and stretched between the hills and trees towards a horizon hidden in the distance. His clothes, a black jacket and pants, a white button shirt and worn leather shoes, were pale with dust and debris from sleeping rough for several nights. With each step he took the large, cubical package he carried by his side dangled and swayed in his hand as the hemp rope cut a groove for itself in his hand. 
  'If we come across a river,' he said to the package, 'I don't care how long it takes to find a bend hidden from view or some rock pool deep enough to dive in, but I'm taking a bath.'
  He could smell himself, and although it was mostly of fresh earth that hung around him, the sweat he had poured out of his body over the past few days as the sun beat down upon him had begun to stain him with a stench he could not tolerate for much longer. He could hear the head rocking around in the package.
  'I hope you can stand that headache I'm striding into you,' he said. 'Probably the advantage in being dead, ain't it? Can't feel a damn thing anybody does to you.' He walked in silence for a moment. 'Lucky bastard.' 
  A breeze languished between push and lull and as the sun warmed his back Eli wished for the breeze to bring him some of the last remnants of the morning cool. His knees were set against him and they brought about an unevenness in his stride that pained his hip. He wore a grim expression under his hat, but his eyes stared forward, as if they had the destination under vigilant guard to prevent some shadowy fate from absconding with it. 
  Come the noon he found himself some shade to sit under and eat his last apple. He didn't bothered peeling it, but used a long, worn knife sharpened on whetstones for over a decade to cut slices out off for him to chew with his narrowed teeth. 'I hope you don't mind me eating the last piece of fruit I brought along, Captain. Not like you got any use for it,' he laughed to himself. 'My Lord. What a view, ain't it? The mountains pale and blue as their vision comes to us from where Heaven touches Earth. Green all around. Listen, you can hear some of the first cicadas striking up their chorus. Damn your eyes, Captain, if you had them.'
  With his gaze distracted, he failed to notice a figure appearing on the road he had left in his wake. He stood up and straightened himself by leaning backwards, feeling his spine crack up from the bottom right to between his shoulder blades. He bent over to pick up the package carrying the Captain's head and upon readying to return to his journey, he looked back and saw what he thought was a slender man. He squinted and tried to make him out better, but his sight had dimmed with age and he knew he couldn't trust it. He spat. 'Damn my eyes, too.'
  He mustered what vestiges of youth he had left to speed himself away down the road. Taking care not to betray his urgency to hurry along, he tried to keep his stride as steady as possible. 
  'You know, I wonder why every fool and their mother has to be traveling on my roads,' he said as he looked over his shoulder. 'I know, I know, Captain. They ain't my roads, but this intrusion upon my solitude is something I can't stomach.'
  Following a hill the road fell down and hidden from view, the man slipped off the road and disappeared into the trees and sat down, out of breath and wiping sweat from his brow. He took his hat off to allow the dim breeze to cool his head. From there he watched the road and waited for the traveler to pass him. 
  The birds sang, the trees danced with one another in their branched entanglements, and the wind caressed the leaves of grass. The man listened to his own breath easing into a calm inhale and exhale. His hand rested on the package, fingers quietly drumming a forgotten waltz. The dark clad figure appeared and he saw that his eyes had lied to him before. In profile he saw that his follower was a woman. Her curves were hidden from afar and she wore not a dress, but rather dressed as a man. Long hair flowed behind her. She moved without a sound and the man watched her float over the sea of grass and honeysuckle until she stopped. He felt her looking directly at him, although he knew himself to be quite invisible among the brush and the shade. She did not stare in his direction for long and moved her gaze over the area. A single step loosened her from her position, and she turned to spin around on her heel, slowly, taking her time to survey all around her, before she fell back into her step and carried on walking. The man waited for her to disappear and sat a while longer.
  'A woman, Captain. My damn eyes,' he laughed. 'Looks to be a pretty one to boot. Not that she would have anything to do with you. The living not being partial towards the dead where romance is concerned. Generally speaking, of course, no need to take offense.'
  Though he was lulling himself into a lazy comfort that made his bones ache with heavy protestation, he raised himself to his full height, sighed and returned to treading along the road.
  'You know what you remind me of, Captain? Old Black. Old Black was my dog. Even when he was a young pup I called him Old Black. He was a good dog. Followed me everywhere. Never said a word. Which, as you can imagine given my proclivity towards misanthropy, meant he was better than most people to me. God, I miss that dog. But you know what, Captain? You're the next best thing. Don't say a word, just listen, allowing my mind to ramble and reason with itself. People get in the way, don't you think?' 
  A fork in the road appeared before him. The pole of a signpost stood where the road diverged, but the sign itself was missing. He walked forward and placed the package down at the post and picked up a stick lying on the ground and stepped back. He threw the stick into the air above him, keeping an eye on it to avoid its fall. It rolled a bit when it struck the ground, but pointed down the middle of the left leaning road. 
  'Since it's been divined that we shan't go right we have no choice to take the road that is left,' he chuckled. He picked the package up with a groan. 'You're not getting any lighter as the day goes on, Captain.'
  The road continued to curl and swerve through the woods, over small hills, and began following along a small creek. The man knelt down to drink some water, cooling his thirst as the noon day meridian was fast approaching. He splashed water on his face, rubbed it and when he removed his hands from covering his eyes he saw a shadow leaning over him. Dismayed his head fell and he wearily turned around. The woman stood before him, a hand on her hip, the other dangling by her side. He didn't say anything. In the silence they stared at each other. He was squinting in the sunlight as he looked up at her, her eyes hidden in the shade of her hat. His knees were starting to hurt.
  'Are you following me?' she asked in an amber voice. 
  'Yes, I came looking for you in this stream of water.'
  She raised her arm and revealed the pistol resting in the grip of her hand. 'I need to know if you're following me.'
  He sighed and lowered his head. 'Clearly, I'm not.'
  'You hid from me. Were you planning to jump me when the opportunity arrived?'
  He looked at her and found that he couldn't judge her intention one way or another. Grabbing hold of the package and putting his hat back on he stood up and raised himself to look her square in the eye. Though she had the high ground, the foot or so he had on her in height made them meet each others' gaze as equals.
  'I'm not following you. Nor do I have the intention to reive you.' He opened his jacket. 'See, I'm not carrying a firearm or a knife.'
  She held the pistol out for a hesitated moment more before she lowered it and rejoined the road. She seemed set to return to her journey, but she paused. 'These roads are dangerous.'
  'Only if you have something worth stealing.'
  'I'm a woman. They'll always find something.'
  'Yes, road agents will rapine all that they can, especially from a woman. Keep that pistol on you.'
  'What's in the package?'
  'Wouldn't you like to know.' He walked up the shallow bank and fell into his stride and passed her. She joined his step and followed beside him. 'I don't need the company.'
  'If you have the speed to out pace me, then go for it.'
  His knee was bothering him and he knew that even if he tried it would only look ridiculous. 'Damn your eyes.'
  'My eyes? You don't like me looking at you, old man?'
  'Leave me be. Go on ahead.'
  'I'd rather know why you hid from me.'
  'I wanted you to pass me so that I could avoid a predicament such as this.'
  'A predicament in which someone asks you over what you got in that package?'
  He said nothing.
  'Must be valuable.'
  He spat. 'It's a head.'
  She stopped in her tracks. 'A human . . . head?'
  'Don't worry, he has a name.'
  She fell back into step. 'How'd you come by it?'
  'By the getting place.'
  'Where are you taking it?'
  'Nowhere.'
  'Then why do you have it?'
  'A man needs company.'
  'Why not travel with someone? Living, preferably.'
  'You're living proof that the dead make the best companions when a man wants to hear his own thoughts.'
  She laughed. 'Men don't need to be alone to hear their own thoughts. Your lot have such loud thoughts you can hardly hear a woman speak.'
  'I'm not like those other men. I don't congregate.'
  'Then what are you then?'
  'Not one for company. Why won't you leave me alone?'
  'The road is long and I could use the company.'
  'I don't want it.'
  'Too bad. I'm curious. Who do you have swinging around in there.'
  He remained silent.
  'An old lover, perhaps?'
  'The Captain was never my lover.'
  'From what I hear dabbling in the ways of the Greeks can make a man more of a man.'
  'I doubt it.'
  'It takes a real man to fuck a man.'
  He smiled. 'You've got a spectacular mouth on you.'
  'Words for when the pistol doesn't do the job.'
  'Where are you going?'
  'Up the road, same as you. Are you heading to Dixon as well?'
  'Dixon, eh? No, my destination isn't settled yet.'
  'Just wandering around aimlessly like a chicken that's lost its head?'
  'Not quite,' he dangled the package in front of her. 'I even have a spare.'
  'I'd say. Who was he?'
  'Captain Rowan Williamson.'
  'Why take his head?'
  'He wasn't using it.'
  'If you're evasive with your answers I'll only ask you another question.'
  'If I answer all of your questions then you'll leave me alone?'
  'I'll ask you questions as long as we walk this road together.'
  'No way to exhaust them, then?'
  'I'm afraid not.'
  'I didn't know the Captain.'
  'But you knew his name.'
  'Everyone comes with a name.'
  'What's yours?'
  He glanced at her with annoyance. 'Roth.'
  'I know that's one of them Jewish names. Do you have a Christian name to go with it or did you demand that to be judged for our sins as well?'
  'Ishmael. Ishmael Roth.'
  She held out her hand for him to shake. He transferred the Captain's head to his left hand to shake hers. 'Mary Bierce.'
  He returned the Captain's head to his right hand.
  'So, Mr. Roth, how'd you know the Captain?'
  'I told you I didn't.'
  'But you knew his name.'
  'You already said that.'
  'Must I say it again.'
  'I didn't kill him if that's what you want to know.'
  'No, that hadn't crossed my mind.'
  'I'm a doctor.'
  'Doctor Roth then, eh?'
  'Captain Williamson here had a rare tumor obstructing his thinking in his head. I was to treat him, but before I could he lost what reason he had left to madness and killed a few people in a red mist.'
  'That simple.'
  'They shot him about twelve times.'
  'That doesn't explain why you kept his head.'
  'I'm old. There's not much reason left in my mind either.'
  'You seem like you still have your wits about you.'
  He stopped walking. 'I've spent days walking with no destination in mind, throwing sticks up in the air whenever I've come across a crossroad or a fork to decide where I'd be going next. I talk to this man's head when I'm alone. I'm fucking losing it. When I first saw you I thought you were a man, then I realized you were a woman, yet you don't speak like one. I don't know if I can trust my senses anymore, so leave me be and let me go to hell my own way.'
  'Is that what you're looking for?'
  'Yes. Matter of fact, I am.' He steps forward and returns to the road. She follows him. 
  'From what I hear hell isn't a place anyone wants to go to.'
  'I can't stand the cold. Hurts my knees.'
  'What do you say to the Captain?'
  'Nothing.'
  'Must be something. Words don't mean nothing.'
  'I speak my mind. Ramblings. I allow them to go where they want.'
  'Can't you do that by yourself?'
  'A man needs someone to talk with. Can you ask questions if there's no one to answer them?'
  'Yes. I'd probably just answer them myself.'
  'There you go.'
  'I'm curious.'
  'I can tell.'
  'As to what you discuss with the head of Captain Williamson.'
  'Religion.'
  'And which way does he lean? Roman popery or Baptist? Or is he one of the tribe as yourself?'
  'For all I care he's a dirt worshiper. Why do you carry that pistol on you?'
  'A question from you and its one that you can answer yourself.'
  'I know the answer. But I mean, why wear a pistol? Why not something more . . . concealed?'
  'I want them hear the bullet that bites them. I intend to kill when needed, not sting with a pussified Derringer.'
  'Have you killed?'
  'Chickens. I watched them running around with their heads cut off. Most amusing. Did the Captain run around after his head was cut off?'
  'He was shot dead before it was removed.'
  'Why did they remove it? Seems so unbecoming of Christian men to do such a thing.'
  'I requested it.'
  'Buried without his head. He won't be resurrected on Judgment Day.'
  'God won't need the likes of him among the eternal chorus.'
  'Are you a Jew?'
  'In name only.'
  'Do you know Christ?'
  'I met a Mexican named Jesus once.'
  'I doubt he showed you the way.'
  'Do you believe in the Jew from Galilee?'
  'Only when asked if I do.'
  'So, you don't.'
  'No. I believe in this pistol and that head you're carrying a whole lot more.'
  The town of Dixon came into view. Tall buildings stood out over the cleared plain between the hills and mountains where the townsfolk came together to haggle and barter. Smoke rose from chimneys and a cleared road lead into the heart of the town.
  'Where are you going?' he asked her.
  'I already told you.'
  'Dixon?'
  'No, probably just going to pass through Dixon. Nothing but whores and card tables in Dixon.'
  'Looking for work?'
  'Looking for my father.'
  'You got that pistol for him.'
  'I got it for me.'
  'What will you do when you meet him?'
  'I think you know.'
  'To scared to say it.'
  'No, I say it. When I'm by myself. I don't have a head to talk to like you. I'm afraid that if I say it to anyone who can hear it then the resolve will abandon me and I will have come this way for nothing.'
  'Where's your father?'
  'I heard he was in Dixon.'
  'Ah,' he nodded as the reached the thoroughfare. 'You're not going to make arrangements for accommodations, I suppose.'
  'I'm not sharing a bed with you, old man.'
  'I don't have the money for a hotel. I'll tuck myself away in some windless corner and see the night through.'
  'It's going to be a cold one.'
  'Well, that's what the whiskey is for.'
  'Why don't you spend that on board instead?'
  'I have enough money for one or the other, but not for both. Besides, they might charge extra if I intend to have company stay with me.'
  'The Captain, such a burdensome bastard.'
  'I'll be in town. Let me know if you find your father.'
  'I have a feeling word will reach you faster than the Gospel.'
  He nodded and shook her hand. 'God speed.'
  'May the road rise to meet you,' she smiled.
  Roth found himself a table to drink at for the night. He sat in silence and kept the Captain's head in the chair beside him. At times he wanted to speak to the Captain, but with people all around him he felt their conversation would not be private. A few men came to sit beside him and tried to engage him with their foul mouths and vapid subjects, but he pretended to be deaf and dumb and this warded them off. Some felt pity and generously shared pourings from their bottle with him. 
  He called an end to his libations when he saw the darkness creeping into his sight from the sides. He stood up and the whiskey rushed and spilled through his body as he moved, growing drunker than he thought he was with every step. With his trustworthy sight he began looking for a nook behind crates and barrels in which he could tuck himself away from the world and sleep. A great swell of noise ran past him and soon surrounded him. Men were running to join a crowd. He stopped and stared after them. Lead by a sheriff wielding a lantern in one hand and a familiar looking pistol in the other, Roth saw the deputies leading Bierce to a holding cell. Her face was freshly beaten and she had blood stains on her clothing. Roth waited until a man peeled off from the crowd. He grabbed him by the shoulder.
  'What was that all about?'
  'Some bitch dressed as a man shot Clive Umbridge.'
  'Do you know why?'
  He shrugged. 'Don't know. I heard them say that the two got into an argument, he started beating on her after she pulled out a pistol. Didn't have the balls to shoot him at first, but you beat on a woman and they grow a pair bigger than a bull's in no time.'
  'Umbridge, eh?'
  'They said after she shot him a few times, emptied the chamber on him, or so they say, she stood over his body and yelled at him.'
  'You know what she said?'
  'Take that, goddamnit.'
  'Take that, goddamnit?'
  'So they say. I wasn't there. She anything to you?'
  He shook his head, 'no. Just curious.'
  Roth slinked off and disappeared behind a corner. He slid down a wall and settled in for the night. The package rested on his chest.
  'What a fucking day, eh, Captain?' 


Submitted: July 13, 2022

© Copyright 2022 Alexander Byrne. All rights reserved.

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Comments

HOUDINI

Interesting tale! Leaves a lot of unanswered questions methinks, but an interesting tale nonetheless.

Wed, July 13th, 2022 8:37pm

Author
Reply

It certainly was an exercise in dialogue, description, a sort of holding back, and leaving things unresolved. Even as I was writing it I found that the questions lead the story, not the answers.

Wed, July 13th, 2022 1:44pm

Kenneth Bryant

Excellent dialogue and description. It seems psychological and character driven. I'm not sure what to think of Roth. Is he just a wandering aimless misanthrope or crazy? Maybe he's a little bit of both.

Sat, July 16th, 2022 11:42am

Author
Reply

Thanks for the compliments, Kenneth. To be honest, I don't know the answer to that question. In writing this, I was being lead by questions that seemed only to beget more questions rather than answers. I was intrigued by how difficult it can be to ascertain the truth, especially between characters who don't care much for being honest. I think in every lie there hides a truth (fiction is nothing more than making stuff up that seems somewhat plausible, after all) and I'd like to think I explored some of that in this story. Once again, thanks for reading and sharing your thoughts.

Sat, July 16th, 2022 4:46am

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