Under the clement sky and adamant sun, Austin’s rusted shovel rose and fell, rose and fell. Blade into soil, foot onto blade; scoop, heave, toss. Every fifth cycle, he paused briefly to wipe the sweat off his forehead. Every eighth cycle, he glanced at the brace of squirming legs sticking out from abaft the boulder. Birdscrows or vultures, he couldn’t tellcircled above, feigning patience as Austin was slaving over a deep, attenuated hole.
The donkey standing over the restless pair of legs stared balefully at Austin, flicking its ears.
The brute ribs of the black beast were assumed through its moisture-slicked skin, and if Austin watched carefully, he could just about see it swaying on its hooves. Damn. That was to be his ride out of this bleak desert, but he hadn’t found enough water for it. Hadn’t found enough water for himself, even.
He licked his sweat-salted teeth, distancing from the deep from vertical pit he’d dug.
Not bad for thirty minute’s work. Looking up, he attempted to gauge the time of day from the sun’s position. About halfway to its home above the distant, arenaceous hills. He drove the shovel into the ground with a solid jolt, hitched up his gun belt, and approached his troubled companion.
The man lying on the ground opened his eyes at the audible clicks of Austin’s spurs next to his face. Strong braiding bound his wrists, elbows, knees, and ankles, so that he couldn’t even flip himself over if he wanted to.
His fearful squint met with Austin’s pitiless glare a moment later, and he began to whimper.
“Mister, please, let me know, I ain’t done nothin’, ain’t know nothin’”
Austin spat; the wad spewed on the stones next to the man’s left ear. “Shut your trap boy.”
But the man babbled on. “How was I to know she was Lord Watford’s daughter? She seemed open and willin’ enough, she even smiled real nice”
Without warning, Austin slammed his rock hard heel into the man’s face, letting his spur dig into the man’s eye. The man screamed, thrashed, tried in desperation to move away, only to graze and shred his own eye in the attempt. The birds squawked their approval.
After a few seconds, Austin removed his foot. Fingers still hooked to his belt, he waited for the man to catch his breath. What followed was a flourish of invective, chesty gasps coming from the mans mouth. Blood dribbled down his temple, pooling into his hair and running down his cheek.
“You goddamn freak!”
Austin squatted, staring into the man’s remaining good eye, putting on the coldest, most merciless expression he could muster. “You heard of me before? Austin Schofield? Yeah, yeah, I see it on your face. You have. Good.”
“Six years I’ve served Lord Watford. Done all kinds of shit for him. Done away with all kinds of cucks like you. Done more things that keep me up at night than things that award me a babe’s sleep. But in those six years, never has he saddled me with an ass, and a donkey and told me to ride ten miles into the Akkazan Desert to deal with a sorry piece of shit like you. Never.”
The man licked his trembling lips, opened his mouth to reply. The words died somewhere in his throat as Austin held his thumb firmly right above the mans ruined eye.
“Lord Watford don’t let people screw ’round with his daughter even if she screws ’em. And he don’t like it if his own man fails to keep the snow outta his little whores lawn. See, you’re lying there thinking you’re the one getting punished. ‘Poor me, all buggered up’. Hell, I don’t even know your name, and you might possibly be the last person I damn see! I barely got enough water left over to make it back so I better make sure this ends soon, pretty boy.”
“Dwight! I’m Dwight!”
Austin snorted. “Piss off.” Grabbing the man by the hair, and blissfully ignoring his squeals, he violently dragged Dwight over to the hole. The man fought all the harder, but he might as well have tried to pry the ocean open; Austin slid him into the hole as if he was burying a post. Then he grasped the shovel, and scooped the dirt from the mound back into the hole over poor, screaming Dwight, until only his head remained, caked with dirt mudded by his sweat.
Austin went over to the donkey, which was still giving him angry looks. He retrieved a jar from the satchel on its back and again went aback to Dwight, who stared at it with abhorrence though he had no way knowing what it contained. A vulture had fluttered down several paces away, ruffling its neck and wings. Impatient.
“What’s that?” Dwight whimpered.
In response, Austin unscrewed the jar, slowly dipped his finger in, then brought it to his mouth for a lick. Then he sprinkled the fine grains around Dwight’s face. The man’s tongue darted over his lips, to touch the substance. Strange how mere sugar could inspire such horror from a man, Austin thought.
“Nno, please, Mister Schofield, please, you cant”
Austin strode toward a mound not far away, sprinkling the sugar in a trail as he went. “While we were riding out herewell, I was riding, you was being draggeddid you give any thought to what life holds for you?”
“I’ll give you anything. God, God! Please!”
Austin chuckled, two parts dejection, one part amusement. “I did, you know. I wondered if I’d make it back before that goddamn donkey dies. I wondered if the thirst would take me before that, or some serpent underfoot. I wondered if I’d survive and make it home just to face Lord Watford’s hangman.”
“mercy on me, o’ spirits of the desert, hear me please”
Austin reached the mound, and dumped half the jar around it. Red ants the size of his fingernails arose from the grains, but they quickly returned, greedily snapping the sugar up in their mandibles. He turned and began a stride back to Dwight.
“That got me thinking what life really is. It’s a train on a track leading off the cliff and into a valley; your brakes ain’t working, the doors ain’t working, your prayers ain’t working. Even though you might know where your trains heading, you cant stop it. As long as you live, theres something waiting;
He dumped the rest of his jar over Dwight’s head, muffling his cries. His feathery audience had grown. Flapping wings, snapping beaks. Austin watched as tiny red dots began following the trial hed left them.
and even if its bad, and you know its bad, what can you do? You cant stop living. he said, tipping his hat to Dwight one last time, before going to prepare his donkey for the trip home. He did not look back as the man’s screams grew in pitch. Did not look when the birds erupted into agitated screeching. Did not look when the cries faded away.