WINTER IN MONTANA is like a cold dark train rushing past, never reaching its stop. Near my house on the north side of Missoula you can hear the train cars crashing together magnetically at night. They call them ghost cars. Something about the hollow sound of them shaking your walls, startling you out of sleep, like it’s a surprise visitor from the graveyard down the street, but it’s not, it’s just business as usual. Sometimes I stand on the bridge that crosses the tracks and stare down at the black lines of cars filled with coal stretching from forever till forever. Or at night when I walk home from work at two o’clock in the morning, I take off my glasses and stand under the bridge with my face pressed into the chain-link fence, listening to the scream of the train distort, crying past me, the sound bending against the frozen air so that it is louder than possible in the wintertime, when in the air there is nothing else to quiet it.
Winter here is hard. We all tend to go a little crazy from the length of the season and also from the shortness of the days. Just a brief haze of gray light from behind the clouds and then the sun is sunk behind the sharp edges of the mountains like they’re the jawbones of some great beast closing in on us and we are all about to be swallowed whole. That’s what it feels like after awhile, in the dead heart of winter. Like you’re being eaten up. Some people hibernate—you don’t see them from October until April when they emerge, crabby and pale at the same time as the grizzly bears. Others become barflies, they sidle up to the counter with heavy elbows and order liquid sunlight. They burn quietly under the surface, waiting it out.
Lucky for me I work at a bar and so I largely drink for free. Actually, our boss, Bill, only hires alcoholics and encourages them to keep a mild buzz on while working, so as to weld all of the kitchen boys into a hazy, graceful machine, and for the waitstaff to have just enough alcohol simmering in their systems to be kind to everyone no matter how god awful a customer is. Everyone drinks for free on the clock, and at the end of the night when the Hellgate Bar and Grill is empty, the bar counter is lined with employees drinking away their tips.
Bossman Bill, he has no scruples and incessantly robs the Hellgate’s faraway owners of cash, embezzling thousands from the outside bar during summer nights when he hires a band and ropes off the parking lot for dancing, selling beers from plastic cups and folding the frowning cameos of our presidents into a mysteriously disappearing used pickle jar. Or in the fall, when he pays the kitchen boys out of the Hellgate’s checkbook to cut firewood for him on his property in Lolo, or during hunting season when he tells the boys to carry his trophy elk/deer/antelope up the back dock so he can butcher them on the same surfaces that will be later used for cooking Joe Shmoe’s medium rare fillet. And then he pays the dishwasher to clean the blood out of his car.
Most of the back of the house has at some point or another exchanged their black and white checked pants for prison orange. I myself am no exception. Some nights I don’t accurately gauge the lag of last minute whiskey shots against the time I need to walk home across the railroad tracks and I end up in the drunk tank at the county penitentiary. It’s better than passing out and freezing to death in a roadside ditch. But Bill never hires anybody who completely lacks principles. We all have principles. We are proud of the dishes we cook, garnish, and set in the kitchen window. No one ever spits in a customer’s food. No one steals from the bar. But we exist on the periphery.
At night after the bar closes sometimes we stay late and smoke cigarettes in the dark on the back dock with our legs swinging down, or we tailgate on the battered company truck in the alley, drinking beers we got to-go or liquor bought at bar-close and poured into Styrofoam cups. The thing is, we are all rimmed with fine cracks and barely holding together, but so is everybody else and we don’t hide it, unlike most of the sanctimonious world. That’s what all line cooks have in common. Why we hide during the day in our houses and exist only at nighttime, masters of the grill fire kitchen, and have each other’s backs under the moonlit sky, sharing a cigarette and shooting the shit.
Our waitstaff is cool, too, mostly smart, good-looking women, as worldly as we are not. The back of the house kind of lives vicariously through the front of the house and vice versa. We play the gangster rap they like in back while they have to listen to friendly crap music on the satellite radio in front. They are social and earn our tip-out with their smiles while most customers would cross the street if they saw us walking down a dark road towards them alone. Bill is actually notorious in Missoula for hiring only hot waitresses. All the waitresses have nicknames, fake names they’ve picked to keep from having to give out their real names to drunk male customers who think a big tip left for a hot waitress is the equivalent of paying a call girl up front. Every once in awhile Bill has some random pang of conscience and hires an old, haggard or fat waitress with a mile-long resume and an ability to drink more than he can. But they are few and far between and he usually confines them to the day shifts.
All the kitchen boys go by nicknames, too, given to them by the end of their first week by Bill. That’s how they know they’ve become part of our big alcoholic family. Mine is Whiskey Bill, for my drink of choice and to discern me from Bossman Bill.
I got the job here when I couldn’t get a job anywhere else. My high school burnt down along with my high school records a few years ago, and my mother is long gone and my dad is barely on the map anyway, he’d lost my birth certificate, so I couldn’t even get any legal ID and so it was hard for me to find a job. But Bill doesn’t really care about paperwork, that I don’t legally exist. To the world, I am Whiskey Bill, and that is about it.
Everyone hates and loves Bossman Bill. He is our god and our devil. He holds our lives in the palms of his tan hands. He is the dark figure standing in the doorway, the only shape between a bed in an alley and a bed in a house. He tells us we are lucky to have a job, and we are. Most of us have no resume that is going to impress anyone and there never were many jobs in Montana, let alone nowadays.
You know, every time I eat something sweet the teeth in the back of my mouth ache. I lie to myself and say that my teeth hurt because my ice cream is too cold or my coffee is too hot, but that’s not the truth. The thing is, I can’t afford to go to the dentist and Bill will never pay for insurance no matter how long a person works at the Hellgate Bar and Grill. So I wait, knowing it will only get worse. Time rolls on, rotting my teeth in my head because nothing will ever change for me.
I had a friend growing up whose dad paid her fifty bucks to pull out her own baby teeth when the permanent ones started growing in badly. She did it, too, she wore away at the roots by tugging on her teeth constantly until they fell out on their own. It was less wearing than having a credit card company calling you all hours of every day because you can’t pay your dentist bill.
I’m told if your teeth are already rotten at the roots there isn’t too much resistance if you need to pull them out on your own. One of our line cooks numbed his gums with cocaine and wrenched his teeth out with pliers when they got too bad to bear, stuffing hydrogen peroxide-soaked cotton in the wounds to prevent dry socket. Or you can always just let them rot until they’re gone, provided it doesn’t get infected and go straight to your heart. The thing is, pain is relative.
Sometimes I feel like an old pair of clothes, fraying into nothing. So I take another drink and my blood feels rich and filled with light. Life. I know I am an alcoholic and I am okay with that. We all are. When I wake up and I am sober, my guts feel shriveled and twisted up on themselves and all I can think of is how thirsty I am and I feel so thin, like I am about to disappear, like I want to disappear. My life can’t be mended. It’s not like a game where you can trick yourself into better circumstances. And so worry wears at you constantly, making you afraid to move, freezing you.
Bill knows all this. There is a reason the only thing he gives us for free is booze. So we can forget. Bill lords his power over us to convince us there is no other way. He pays us barely above minimum wage. He cuts our shifts down in the wintertime but keeps us overstaffed so he can schedule us according to his own convenience. He makes the waitresses clock out while they count their money. He doesn’t give us shift meals and allows no breaks no matter how long a shift is. It’s all illegal but it’s the same story all over town. We are all in the same boat, drifting, going nowhere, or else you fall over the aluminum rim and sink further. We sold our souls to the Devil for a paltry dollar bill, to our boss, our Bossman Bill.
Bill has been there forever, along with a few of the boys in the back of the house. I am beginning to be a fixture, myself. The whole world moves for me in one giant clockwise blur around the Hellgate. I am trapped, whirled in circles by an unknown hand, until I have the spins so bad my brain shatters and I keep returning to the same time even though time passes, keeps passing me by. I work, drink, crash, wake up when the sun dims and fades away into the mountain-line and I work and drink again.
This winter, though, the clock stopped for me, or what I mean is that it stops every night at exactly 7:37PM, in the corner of the Hellgate’s cramped kitchen.
The radio clock is cheap, plastic, and coated in dust, set up high on the shelf above the first aid kit and the mini fridge that houses our spare ketchups and mustards. The clock isn’t set, so it reads 0:00AM and therefore by default there is no alarm that could go off at 7:37PM.
It is all very strange. It started in January. At first we thought the radio was broken and someone would swear and stop what they were doing to clamber up on top of the mini fridge and hit the power button a couple of times. The radio would start up again without fail.
It took a few days before Skinner, the kitchen manager, noticed it was happening at the exact same time every night. Like some invisible person was sitting on the shelf and pulling the plug.
G.L. was the one who finally decided it was a ghost. Skinner and G.L. are both Hellgate old timers, like Bill and soon enough, me. G.L. lies and tells everybody that his nickname is short for Good Lookin’, but really it is short for Grease Lightning, on account of his habit of thoroughly greasing his hair with Tres Flores Hair Pomade. At first, he theorized that maybe the ghost was offended by our choice of music, so for a couple of days we tried soothing the ghost with a variety of music, from Tchaikovsky’s Swan Lake to Echo and the Bunnymen’s Killing Moon. But it made no difference. The clock still stopped every night at 7:37PM.
The only night the clock didn’t stop at 7:37PM was the night that Skinner climbed up on top of the mini fridge and stared at it, eye-to-eye. Skinner’s greatest asset as kitchen manager is his possession of the iciest blue eyes in the world, cold like the sub-zero winds that blast out of Hellgate Canyon into town straight off the frozen mountain rock. All he has to do to get anyone to fall in line behind the line is to stare at them for a long, wordless moment, the ungodly cold blue color summoning power from the depths of who-knows-where. Evidently it works on ghosts, too, but it was too much for him to interrupt the dinner rush every night by glaring the clock into submission.
Which brings us to tonight, Friday night, the end of the workweek for most of the world, but only the beginning for us. It is 7:32PM, and we are all edgy and sullen, gripped tight in the jaws of mid-January, when this week the temperature sank so low that I got frostbite on my ears two nights before from walking a mile home with no hat on. It doesn’t help that we are listening to that song by Led Zeppelin that creeps in low in the beginning and keeps descending, with Robert Plant’s voice wailing high and unnatural above the baseline like he is a falling angel, pulling us all down with him.
Suddenly the dishwasher speaks up. He is a wiry kid with long hair and hygiene problems who grew up in state homes and got thrown out once he turned eighteen. When he speaks, I realize we are thinking along the same lines.
Amidst the slosh and rattle of dirty pans he says, “Did you guys ever hear the conspiracy theory about Led Zeppelin collectively selling their souls to the Devil in exchange for their talent? So then they got a few years of glory and perfect guitar solos before the Devil swung by and claimed John Bonham’s life? It is kind of weird how many musicians die young and at their peak, you know. Just like that old blues guitarist and the crossroads song, what’s his name…”
“Robert Johnson,” I say, flipping some meat on the grill.
Skinner cuts in, his voice soft and scathingly cold as usual. “Did you guys ever hear how much liquor Robert Johnson or John Bonham drank? Or Kurt Cobain and heroin, or Jimi Hendrix with wine and pills? I’d say the only devil those guys came into contact with was the one at the bottom of a bottle.”
I think about this for a moment. I admit that I love Led Zeppelin. I wouldn’t take Mozart back from the dead and playing live in my basement over Led Zeppelin from the bartender’s iPod, echoing through my favorite bar, tuned finely by a little Jackie D. on the rocks and some free peanuts. I’m a bit of a music geek. I have a library card—all they need for identification is proof of address—so I’ve read all about them, and the dishwasher is right, there is a legend of Robert Plant making a deal with the Devil at the crossroads, just like Robert Johnson.
I press the meat onto the grill hard with my spatula, blackening it till it smokes.
“Yeah, but both Robert Johnson and Robert Plant wrote songs filled with devil references. It sure seems like they thought they made some sort of crossroads deal, even if it was just a metaphor for sacrificing yourself for the sake of art. I mean, Skinner, let’s say you’re right and those musicians died because they were unapologetically excessive. Well, maybe you can’t make art like that unless you are unapologetic and excessive. Maybe that is the trade you make in order to become some kind of live-wire conductor for total, you know, Truth articulated. But I can’t figure how it would be the Devil who would give them a deal like that. If anyone made a deal with the Devil, it’s us. I already feel like someone stole my soul and left me working this shit job year after year. But I sure can’t tell what I got in exchange.”
There is silence in the kitchen. Suddenly I realize I’ve just said stuff out loud that’s been quietly tumbling around in my head for years, stuff I never share with anyone, let alone a bunch of jaded line cooks who usually play the verbal who’s cruder and ruder game. Whatever truths they might hold they hide because it’s hard fought for and constantly vulnerable.
G.L starts to laugh from where he’s stationed on cold side.
“Uh, how much did you drink before work tonight, Whiskey Bill? Anyway, isn’t it almost 7:37? Someone should go get the waitresses.”
“Two sides of the same coin, Whiskey Bill,” the dishwasher adds quietly from his corner in the dish pit. But my attention span is short, and I am already focusing on something else.
We’ve been telling the waitstaff about the haunting all month, so tonight they decide to abandon the front of the house and pile up the stairs to witness the presence of the Hellgate’s ghost. The kitchen boys wander out from behind the line. A hush settles over us. There we are: the three cooks and a dishwasher that smells like unwashed hair huddled next to the waitresses like a herd of trolls among goddesses, staring at the haunted radio with great anticipation.
Tick-tock goes the clock and Bobby’s voice dies in mid-refrain.
“I don’t understand. Where’s the ghost?” says Mary, peering at the radio. She stands six-foot-two in all her willowy glory and therefore is the only one of us who can actually see the radio face-to-face.
“That was it. The radio switches off every night at 7:37PM,” says G.L.
“That’s creepy,” says Lorraine.
“That’s retarded,” says Mary.
“The alarm is probably just jammed,” says Olive, manager of the front of the house. She is a very good manager, but Bill promoted her undoubtedly because she has big tits and used to cocktail at a local strip club. Oh, our Bill, our boss, our anti-hero hero.
“There is no timer or clock set,” I reiterate.
“I have a theory,” says Lorraine.
“Which would be,” Skinner snaps. Lorraine has the bad habit of snorting cocaine off the back of the toilet seat before her shifts. This leads to a lot of screw-ups on her tickets and endless, mindless chatter we have to put up with. But she is the hottest waitress of them all, so Bill will never fire her.
“Well, let’s see. The Hellgate Bar and Grill is situated in the old historic Worden building, and it’s on the corner of Higgins Avenue, right? So, one of my regulars is a history major at the university and he told me that way back when Missoula first got started as a town, and was called, in fact, Hellgate, there was this general store named Higgins’ and Worden’s General Store, which must be this building, and one day in January in the 1860s these Vigilantes came riding through town and they hung some criminals outside the general store. And everyone knows that the Vigilantes’ special secret sign was the code 3-7-77. They’d carve into the gallows to warn future criminals, but that wouldn’t fit into a clock and so I think that the ghost of a Vigilante is haunting the Hellgate ‘cause so many of you guys have records so they are making the radio die at 7:37PM. Get it? 3-7-77, 7:37?” She gasps, rising up from her coked-out monologue for air.
“That’s the stupidest thing I’ve ever heard,” says Skinner, and we all warily watch him fix his famous eyes on Lorraine, trying to wither her into silence. “This isn’t the same building; it’s not actually very old. It’s built over a used automobile lot. And the original town of Hellgate was situated a few miles to the south.”
Lorraine shrugs. She is usually so high that she is impervious to Skinner’s icy temper. “Well, whatever, I still think that makes more sense than the ghost not liking Led Zeppelin,” she says. But she seems to be the only one who thinks it made sense. Everyone else shifts restlessly, avoiding her eyes, and so I know it is time to do our job again, to leave the ghost until 7:37PM, tomorrow. Skinner waves us back behind the line, and Olive shoos Mary and Lorraine towards the stairs.
“Olive, is it late enough to take shots?” whines G.L.
“Sure, bourbon? Back to work, Waitrons,” Olive says.
I think about Lorraine’s theory as I ready the grill for the late-night rush. I’ve heard of the Montana Vigilantes. Our high school football team was named after them: The Victor Vigilantes. It’s one of the stories that every kid in Montana learns to be vaguely proud of from their parents while ignoring the ugly undertones. Basically what I remember is that back in the day a Vigilance Committee of twenty-one men beat a confession out of a road agent they’d caught. Then they demanded to know who else he knew was criminally guilty so he gave them a list of names and convinced the committee that all the men on the list were involved in a vast conspiracy of road agents, jointly planning stage coach robberies all over Montana. The list included the sheriff of their town, a man named William Plummer.
So they hung the sheriff from his own gallows in the middle of the town. And then they proceeded to scour Montana for the next month, riding through the mountains in the dark and the snow, pulling men whose names they had on their list from their beds, from their businesses, and hanging them from whatever was convenient.
The Vigilantes were credited thereafter with cleaning up Montana during an era when there was no jail or proper judge for five hundred miles. Violence was the only option, they lauded. But I always wondered how they knew the guy who had the confession beaten out of them was telling the truth.
Well, I think about it until Olive brings us a tray of bourbon shots and then I forget about it, I forget about everything but the golden glimmer in the bottom of the glass, and the white straight row of tickets stuck to the line.
Couple of days later, and they are having a party to celebrate a rare blue moon at the Lumberjack Bar outside of Lolo. Bossman Bill says he will take the whole staff out there for a belated Christmas/New Year’s party. He bare-bones-staffs the Hellgate, and everyone else is supposed to head down to the Jack at some point or another during the night.
The LumberJack is a bar that somehow manages to make it even though it is situated about forty minutes in the middle of nowhere. It’s a big log cabin fifteen miles down a dirt road, Grave’s Road, which branches off of a two-lane highway heading the wrong way, straight into the Bitterroot Mountains, one of those highways that exists because of an old coach road that shouldn’t be there any longer but persists because of some vague usefulness.
It’s a good party spot, though. You can camp in the woods when the weather allows and there are cabins you can rent off of various little trails wandering off into the mountains.
Since I don’t have a car or a license, Bill offers to drive me himself. I sit in the front while G.L. and Skinner pile into the back with a couple of other miscellaneous kitchen boys. We top the gas off at the giant Cenex station just outside of town and buy some beer for the road. Bill passes me one and slides another one into a coozie between his thighs.
“We’re going to have some fun tonight.” He smiles at me.
“Yeah, I’ve never seen a blue moon,” I say.
“It’s not actually blue,” says Skinner.
“I know,” I say. “That’s not what I meant.”
And then G.L. starts to sing, “Bluuue Moon, I saaaw you standing alone…without a dreeeam in your heaarrt…” and we all join in, merrily on the dark road that never seems to end.
Light spills out the open doors of the Lumberjack onto the snow. The doors are kept wide open always and the steam of sixty bodies makes the snow slick and wet and the entrance glows like a primordial mineshaft.
Inside, a country band blasts AC/DC and all the locals have come out of the woodwork to ask the slumming college students to dance. Bill buys us shots and I crunch some pills in the bathroom with G.L. so I am well on my way to Valhalla, dancing away the night with one gloriously beautiful waitress after another. During the break Bill buys me another whiskey and I lean against the bar with him, enjoying the general splendor of smoke-lacquered logs and the leering stuffed animal heads that are our worshipping audience.
“’Ts kinda a shitshow,” I say, sloshing my drink a little bit on the floor.
“That’s a waste of good whiskey, Whiskey Bill,” Bossman Bill says to me. His dark curly hair spills down the collar of his impeccably white shirt and he has one of those rich autumn beards that Montana men in the mountains always have, and he has bright white teeth and a big charismatic smile. No wonder he gets away with murder. “Cheers,” he says. “It’s good to be alive.” And he orders me another drink, you know.
“You’re such a gentleman, oh,” I say. I won’t forget, I am grateful, and my eyes are breaking into four parts of glass, and it seems in fact that Bossman Bill is everywhere, smiling at me, goading me on further and further into my hazy whiskey glow.
“I know,” Bill remarks and then I go back to the music and to the dancing.
Later I get too dizzy to dance and instead the Lumberjack dances around me. But I can pull it together. I am capable of drinking vast amounts of whiskey, until it leaks from my pores and squishes in my non-slip boots while I walk.
“Just because you’re Whiskey Bill,” says Skinner as he and G.L. haul me up by my elbows and drag me towards the door. My glasses are slipping off my face but I manage to hook them back on again.
“Wher’re we going?” I ask, stumbling against them.
“We’re going to go look for the blue moon,” G.L. says. “After all, that’s why we’re here.”
“We’re going to go fetch Whiskey Bill,” Skinner says.
“But I’m right here,” I mumble, confused.
“You boys take care,” says Bossman Bill over his shoulder, turning to take another twirl with Lorraine the waitress.
Outside the cold seems to freeze my eyeballs until I can almost see straight or maybe I can’t see at all, I become nearly snow-blind from the light inside radiating against the brittle ice. When we walk into the forest I can’t see anything at all, but the dark. The dark that stretches for miles, like an ocean settled heavily in the deep cracks of the Bitterroots.
“I can’t see it, I can’t see tha’ moon,” I say.
“It’s there, don’t worry,” one of them comforts. I stagger against thick pine boughs and they shake wet snow down the neck of my shirt, icy cold fingers licking against my ribs. I push my arms in front of me, blind, wavering.
“No, I can’t see anything. Wher’re we going…”
“This way. Don’t worry, Whiskey Bill. Here,” G.L. says, and he lights a lantern and holds it in front of us. We are on a wooden seat on the roof of an old-style coach. He hangs the lantern from an iron pole swaying in front of us. Skinner is riding next to us on a dark horse that blows fog in great gusts out of its mouth.
My head shakes. I tremble but it won’t clear from my vision.
“Wha’d you give me, G.L.”
“Nothing you can’t handle.”
The wheels creak and the lantern swings and shudders, casting streaks of bourbon onto the snow. The trees arch overhead like tall men in wide-brimmed hats and dark coats. It starts to snow, damp flakes melting down my hot face like tears.
“Did you roofie me or somethn?” I say to G.L. I watch and I am horrified as his skin peels away in long strips, burnt flakes of ashes dissolving into the blackness, smelling of smoke, smelling of winter, spitting yellow-orange sparks. He has a dark necktie of blood and bruises around his neck.
“You smell like fire. Your shirt’s torn.”
G.L. swishes the whip and it cracks on the long black backs of the four horses. He fingers his tattered shirt, it’s pocked with holes, with strips of red cotton fluttering around him, making him look like he is dancing even though he is sitting down.
“They pulled me from my bed in the middle of the night. I heard them coming and I hid under the covers. They strung me up in the middle of town on a rope fitted for another man, but it fit me well enough and then they got the territorial governor, who was otherwise a gentleman, to bring down his howitzer.”
“Pop pop pop pop pop pop pop,” goes Skinner, riding beside us.
“My shirt was already red but they saw fit to make me bleed until it was dyed again. They ripped me up properly with the howitzer. My red shirt swished around me, cut to ribbons by bullets and blood. Then they set me on fire. My hair caught and blazed like a halo. They let me burn in the night until there was nothing left behind, but a name on their list, checked off.”
He turns and he looks at me, and there isn’t a man anymore, there is a grinning skull with flaming hair. There isn’t a man, there is empty space on the bench beside me.
“And I didn’t even do anything wrong. They just hung me because I was a Mexican.”
Skinner pulls up close. His horse huffs and puffs in the darkness, Skinner is shining dull, glowing dead blue, he is a sputtering murmur trapped beneath ice. His skin blooms with dark flowers. Someone spilled ink under Skinner’s skin.
“For me they knocked down a corral post while Higgins’ wife was screaming for them to stop. I’d served time with Bill Plummer out in San Quentin, but I’d turned a new leaf, bought a saloon out in Hellgate. They just suspected me because my favorite spot to sit was on top of the safe filled with 24,000 dollars in gold dust. Like I was a goose hoarding a golden egg.
“I made a run for it and they shot me down right in the center of my spine. Dragged me down the street while I was still dying so that I felt every rock, every chip of ice making me hemorrhage under my frock coat. I died to the clip-clop sound of my panicked horse’s hooves. They strung me up afterwards in the barn, so as to set an example for others of the criminal type.” Skinner sits in his skin like a bag full of pulpy crushed plums. Skinner is missing the skin on the front of his body.
“We were all innocent. At least as innocent as them Vigilantes.”
“I don’t understand,” I sob, “I don’t understand.”
They both turn and look at me at the same time. “Listen,” they say.
“I can’t hear anything.”
Night is so heavy that I can’t bear it. The dark is so big that it swallows everything, there is nothing but the cold and my hands that are turning blue, and the snow is frozen hard like bones and suddenly I can see the bones in my hands. I hold them up and the creak of the lantern isn’t the lantern but the creak of the wind through my bones. I can see the snow swirling through my ribcage. “Listen,” they say, and I hear the cough of horse not before me but behind me.
There, stopped on the ridge-top is a line of horses and tall men with wide-brimmed hats, silhouetted with the blue double moon in tow, shining moons like white disks hanging in the air behind them. With a crack of the whip G.L. gets the four-horse team to run and the horses behind us start at a quick canter, tumbling down the hill fast.
“Whiskey Bill was our friend. He was just an old man, he didn’t deserve to die. He couldn’t even see it when they came for him. He’d heard they were coming and taken to the woods during the coldest, snowiest January any of us had ever known. He went snow-blind, stumbling through the mountains alone, trying to outrun them.”
“They stuck him on his old mule and tied the noose to a tree branch above him.”
“Crack went the whip,” says G.L.
“Crack went his neck,” says Skinner.
“I don’t understand,” I cry. “I am Whiskey Bill. I am Whiskey Bill!”
“They made a list. For each of the twenty-one Vigilantes there was a man that they would hunt to death. They took an oath, and one by one, they crossed off all of the names: Cyrus Skinner, Sheriff Bill Plummer, Jose ‘Greaser’ Pizanthia, Whiskey Bill Graves…”
G.L. turns and looks at Skinner. “Where is he? Where’d they get him last time?”
“Just ahead. Where the road intersects.”
Snow-blind man screaming for breath. His voice turns off on an angle like a train going through a deep dark mountain tunnel, time distorting it, nine thousand pounds of weight sitting on your neck. Feel that and know your home in the west.
“I’m sorry, Whiskey Bill, I really am, but it isn’t Whiskey Bill’s turn anymore. It’s your turn,” Skinner says.
“Don’t you know that the Devil doesn’t care when you trade places if you have the same name? The Devil’s a good salesman. He’s like a stockbroker; He doles out different deals for different folk. Some give their lives. Some, like the territorial governor who turned a blind eye when they burned me alive, give their hearts away and never get them back. There is just a hollow space within him now, fluttering like a bird in his ribcage. And the Devil doesn’t care if you send someone in your stead. He holds all of our names. Times like these, we are all forced to our knees in the dirt at the crossroads.”
I couldn’t talk anymore, I was sobbing but I didn’t have any breath, just fog, I didn’t have any tears, but snow, I didn’t have any words, but a name, my name, his name.
“Every once in a blue moon someone like you comes along,” G.L. says. And he blows out the lantern.
Then all I hear is the beat beat beat of twenty-one horses catching up. The sound of my bones rattling, scrabbling against the bare branches. The creak of the lantern, creak of the rope, high in the Bitterroot Mountains.
Lily Bruzas holds a degree in English from Mills College, Oakland and currently is a freelance writer in Missoula, Montana. Her work has appeared in The Camas, High Contrast Review, and The Walrus. She lives at the bottom of a dried up lake.
Her favorite sharp object is a curved needle.
Back to Issue 1: Sharp Things