It seems there is grass forever, sprouting and stretching its roots and bending towards the Other Coast, bending over the lands where Anything Can Happen For Anyone, which is good overall we’re led to believe but really goes poorly for the people whose Anything doesn’t line up with the Anything of the people who get to decide what Anything actually means. The grass is dark and it is night. The wind washes over the grasses, and there is a sound like the Earth itself breathing and then the nighttime chill of spring reveals the condensed of one men, two men, who are sitting in a stand of tall and skinny trees opposite one another. There is a man in pajamas and a man in a prominent leather vest and leather pants that maybe have that fringe stuff on them, but only a little, not like Marty McFly levels of fringe but a perfectly time-appropriate amount of fringe, or at least an amount of fringe that you see and think is time-appropriate and not too over-the-top.
“Are you going to kill me?” says the man in pajamas. The pajamas used to be red but they are pink from overwashing and brown from the spring mud that splashes up above the black leather boots he wears. In firelight glow he would look like a spent matchstick. He affectionately calls his pajamas his “jammies” in private moments. He is a rustler, which means he is morally compromised, but he has a wife we’ll never really meet and who won’t get a name, she’s just “the wife,” and maybe a daughter who has pigtails who runs and hugs him around his knees in a cheesecloth flashback, so we are to feel sympathy for him. Even though his whole income is rustling, the lowest of professions, or maybe he’s an alcoholic or yells at “the wife” or tells Pigtails, his fifth child, that he wasn’t ready to be a father when she was born or he has a history of murdering people who are significantly tanner than him because they are “trespassing” on “his” land or again because he is a rustler, the lowest of professions. We still are to feel sympathy for him. And, in this case, he is not in danger because of his position as a rustler, but rather because he is the only surviving witness of a bank robbery by the Tarbuckle and Hoofspit Boys, who have dispatched their most brooding and ominous assassin as a tracker. The rustler is boldly trying to walk all hundred miles to the sheriff in Pilot Mound, Minnesota so that he can collect the reward on the Tarbuckle and Hoofspit Boys and finally get himself and his family out of the rustlin’ business for good. The moon is hidden. There are probably unstolen cows nearby, unstolen cows being one of the two possible types of cows. It is that sort of country, the kind you can drown in, just a sea of grass and cattle-stamped copses, and the rustler has taken every precaution not to be found, shivering himself to sleep without a fire and eating cold beans.
But the rustler is found by the other man, the brooding and ominous assassin from the Tarbuckle and Hoofspit Boys. He has a facial scar or missing teeth or a wrinkly forehead or a claw-hand that’s still second-fastest this side of the Mississippi and can be beaten only by his other hand or a pencil mustache and beady eyes or a bushy mustache and wild eyes or a scar ‘round his neck from where he almost was hung until being dead that he hides with a beard or eyebrows that never really line up the way they should so he looks like he’s plotting something all the time or a heavy Irish brogue to show he’s an outsider or a British accent and a hat that no one else would wear to show that he’s devious or is Mexican or used to be a Confederate soldier and never gave up the fight or used to be a Union soldier and somehow that is seen as bad for some reason. However you want to picture him, he stands over the pajama-clad rustler and wakes him up by cocking back the hammers on his double-barrel, which he is named Betsy.
“Are you going to kill me?” asks the rustler.
“Not yet,” growls the brooding and ominous assassin, and he steps backwards so that the moon just now peeking from the clouds, ironically gives him a halo, though also that visual makes you wonder if he has some sort of redemptive moment coming later on. He most likely doesn’t, unless he is, like, Clint Eastwood or Jeff Bridges or maybe Alden Whatever who was such a convincing fake cowboy that They made him a space cowboy that everyone wanted to love and he did a very okay but very disappointing job of it.
The brooding and ominous assassin steps back, keeping Betsy pointed right at the middle of the rustler’s chest, and reaches behind himself with one hand and brings out a shovel, which he has apparently carried this whole time because it is unclear whether he has a horse or not. It would be silly and unrealistic if he didn’t have a horse when you consider the logistics of the vast distances and broad vistas, but that detail isn’t all that important. He throws the shovel, and the rustler catches it and makes a face like he’s never seen a shovel before. The brooding and ominous assassin sits down with Betsy across his lap, and silently rolls and lights a cigarette. This takes far less time than it would in real life.
“Get to digging,” growls the brooding and ominous assassin.
“Are you going to kill me?” says the rustler again.
“Make it deep enough so the coyotes don’t get at you,” says the brooding and ominous assassin. He pronounces coyotes as “kai-yotes,” because he is very much from around here. “I seen graves digged that weren’t deep enough...they’ll start at your face, first, of course, then your neck, and your nipples, and work their way real slow down to your hips, and—”
“No thanks,” says the rustler.
“What do you mean, no thanks?”
“I’m really not interested.”
“Digging.” The rustler nods to himself. “I have a nice list of things I’d like to be doing when I die, and digging is pretty low. I won’t lie. It doesn’t even appear on the list.” He pats the ground next to him, almost lovingly, like he’s the type of person who kisses the ground when he returns home from a long journey, the historical precursor to people who clap when air-planes land. The ground is post-thaw but still hard and the rustler grows even more against digging, because it really would be a lot of work, and in that moment he sees that maybe the bad guys aren’t so different from him but the epiphany fades.
“You don’t have much of a choice,” says the brooding and ominous assassin, and he shifts Betsy in his lap so that the barrel is once more pointed directly at the rustler. The shift makes an inexplicably loud sound like the gritting of teeth.
“I mean—” The rustler pauses. He watches a night-bird of some sort, circling in the air above. If it was daytime, it would be a vulture, as a foreshadowing thing. But it is night, and so it is perhaps an owl. It doesn’t matter, probably. It just looks like a bird of some sort, and maybe it is a vulture, because who knows what they do at night. They might fly, for all you know.
“What could possibly happen? You’ll kill me more?” says the rustler.
The brooding and ominous assassin leans forward. “I’ll make it slow,” he says, hissing through the last word like a snake. He licks his lips. “I’ll start at your toes. Then your calves, and your thighs, and—”
“That sounds like a lot of extra work,” says the rustler. “And let me tell you what, I know I’m a screamer. So it’ll be a lot more time and stress and hell, you don’t even want to dig. So, yeah, I’m good without the digging.” The rustler is resolute and nods his head and smiles at the brooding and ominous assassin in an unexpected way, like he is rejecting an invite to supper but wants to be polite about it.
“Would you just dig the fucking grave?” snaps the brooding and ominous assassin. His voice is so much less full of gravel than it was before. He is annoyed and a little bit pouty in the way that usually only fourteen-year-old boys given chores or unavoidable responsibilities or the slightest amount of idea that all women are not their fantasy play-things are annoyed and a little bit pouty. “This is hard work. I don’t get to rest. I don’t get days off from being a Tarbuckle and Hoofspit Boy.”
The brooding and ominous assassin shifts Betsy back crossways in his lap and runs a dirty and frustrated hand through his hair, which is greasy enough to say that he’s been on the trail but also a little sexy in a way that makes you uncomfortable, because he is allegedly a brooding and ominous assassin. He furrows his brow and leans forward. “And do you know how much ego massaging has to happen to keep those two genial? Hoofspit hasn’t gotten over the fact that the newspapers always put Tarbuckle’s name first. And then there’s the whole thing where Tarbuckle has been planting rumors about him having a big johnson, which why that’s newsworthy I’ll never know but it is in the papers nonetheless, and Hoofspit seems to think that by planting those stories only about himself Tarbuckle is implying somehow that Hoofspit has a small johnson, even though that isn’t really the implication. Though you have to wonder, if he is so sensitive about the subject, could it be the case? I don’t know. I don’t even really think it matters all that much, whether your name gets to go first or what the implied size of your johnson in the News Media is. You know, tonight I had to settle an argument about how we’re going to monogram the matching boots we’re all getting—real nice, buttery leather, but they can’t decide on a logo that is satisfactory to everyone. And then I just had to ride all night to find you.”
This reveals he does have a horse, apparently, though it is unclear where that horse could be since the rustler was in the only copse you saw from the wide shot of the plains and the moon and all that. So maybe the horse is tied in the rustler’s copse too, but that would be pretty bold to ride up to a man you know is morally compromised with the intent to hurt him and then to take the time and noise to tie your horse to a tree, or wherever you tie a horse when there aren’t those post things that always sit in front of saloons or hotels or combinations of the two, when there aren’t any of those immediately available. The brooding and ominous assassin pauses for a moment, having talked too much at once until his mouth is full of saliva and he needs a second to swallow and set his feet. He continues.
“And you could have been a real fucking doofus about it, too. You could have just set a fire, or stayed in any of the saloons or hotels or combination hotel-saloons or general stores or stables or combination hotel-saloon-general store-stables around here. Instead you made my job real tough tonight, and then you’re going to be obstinate about the grave? Come on, man. Come fucking on, man. Is this how it’s going to be? Really?” yelps the brooding and ominous assassin.
The rustler shrugs. “I guess this is how it has to be,” he says, and he sets his jaw like the way you would if you were about to get into a cold bathtub with an open wound. Then we’re floating, away from the copse, panning over the prairie and the moon and the grass waving real slow in the wind, sort of like how you watch that feather at the beginning and end of that Very Overrated Film where Tom Hanks affects history in so many ways. Far away, a railroad reaches like a thin metal finger across the plain and the night-bird, which was in fact an owl, with its big yellow eyes that remind us of the moon, is sitting on a railroad tie, which represents civilization and animals meeting. And then we hear the faint echo of what might be a single gunshot, the owl flies away and we see nothing but feathers and then darkness, and you wonder exactly what it’s supposed to mean. But that’s on you, that’s on us, to make meaning or to reject things without it. Because if its all just stitched up from the trimmings of what comes before, then there’s nothing new, and there’s no point at all to saying what you’ve heard before back into the wind. That’s nothing special. That’s just noise.
Samuel Milligan is an English and Environmental Studies student. He is from South Jersey, but attends Bowdoin College in Brunswick, Maine where he has been published in the Bowdoin Quill.