Authors: Robert Jackson Bennett
Tags: #Horror, #Thriller
By the time the number nineteen crossed the Missouri state line the sun had crawled low in the sky and afternoon was fading
into evening. The train had built up a wild head of steam over the last few miles. As Tennessee fell behind it began picking
up speed, the wheels chanting and chuckling, the fields blurring into jaundice-yellow streaks by the track. A fresh gout of
black smoke unfurled from the train’s crown and folded back to clutch the cars like a great black cloak.
Connelly shut his eyes as the wave of smoke flew toward him and held on tighter to the side of the cattle car. He wasn’t sure
how long he had been hanging there. Maybe a half hour. Maybe more. The crook of his arm was curled around one splintered slat
of wood and he had wedged his boots into the cracks below. Every joint in his body ached.
He squinted through the tumble of trainsmoke at the other three men. They hung on, faces impassive. One of them called to
the oldest, asking if it was soon. He grinned and shook his head and laughed.
Ten miles on Connelly felt the train begin to slow and the countryside started to take shape around him. The fields all seemed
the same, nothing but cracked red earth and crooked fencing. Sometimes there were men working in the fields, overalled and
with faces as beaten as the land. They watched the train’s furious procession with a country boy’s awe. Some laughed and called
to them. Most did not and watched their coming and going with almost no acknowledgment at all.
The old man before him hitched himself low on the train, eyes watching the wheels as one would a predator. He held up three
fingers, waved. Then two. Then one, and he dropped from the side of the train.
Connelly followed suit and as he rolled he saw the churning wheels no more than three feet from him, hissing and cackling.
He slid away until he came to rest in a ditch with the others. They stood and beat the dust and grit and soot from their faces.
Then they crouched low in the weeds and waited until the train’s passage was marked only by a ribbon of black smoke and a
roar hovering in the sky.
“Think they coming back?” whispered one of the young ones. “Coming back to look for us?”
“Boy, what are you, an idiot?” said the old man. “No train man is going to double back looking for trouble. If we’re off then
we’re off. Done.”
“Yeah. Count your limbs and teeth and start using your feet. Maybe your head, too, if you feel like it.” He scratched his
gray hair and grinned, flashing a crooked mouthful of yellowed teeth.
They shouldered their packs and began heading west, following the tracks.
“Should have held on longer,” said one of the men.
“Ha,” said the grayhair. “If you did that then I guarantee you wouldn’t be looking so hale and hearty right now. Don’t want
to get caught, caught by the freight boss. He’d whale you raw.”
“Not with him, I’d reckon,” the man said, nodding toward Connelly, who was a head taller than the others. “What’s your name?”
“Connelly,” he said.
“You got any tobacco?”
Connelly shook his head.
“Hm,” he said, and spat. “Still think we should’ve held on longer.”
They took up upon an old county road. As they walked they kicked up a cloud of dust that rose to their faces, turning their
soot-gray clothes to raw red. The land on either side was patched like a stray’s coat, the hills dotted with corn lying flat
as though it had been laid low by some blast. Roots lay half submerged in the loose soil, fine curling tendrils grasping at
nothing. In some places growth still clung to the earth and men grouped around these spots to pump life into their crop. As
Connelly passed they looked up with frightened, brittle eyes and he knew it would not last.
The two younger men paced ahead and one said, “Why don’t these dumb sons of bitches leave?”
“Where they going to go?” asked the other.
“Anywhere’s better than here.”
“Looks like home to me. This seems to be my anywhere and it ain’t much better.”
“Things’ll turn different in Rennah,” the other said. “You just watch.”
The grayhair dropped back beside Connelly. “You headed to the same place? Rennah, you headed there?”
The grayhair shook his head, swatted the back of his neck with his hat. “Your funeral. Nothing going to be there, you know
that?” He leaned closer to confide a whisper. “These fellas is just suckers. They flipped that ride ’cause they heard there’s
work here, but there ain’t. Further down the line, I say. Maybe south, maybe west. Eh?”
“Not going for work,” said Connelly.
“What? What the hell you going for, then?”
Connelly bowed his head and pulled his cap low. The old man let him be.
The sun turned a deep, sick red as it sank toward the earth. Even the sky had a faint tinge of red. It made a strange, hellish
sight. It was the drought, everyone said. Threw dirt up into the sky. Touched the heavens with it. Connelly was not so sure
but could not say why. Perhaps it was something else. Some superficial symptom of a greater disease.
He counted the days as he walked and guessed it had been more than two weeks since he had left Memphis. Then he counted his
dollars and reckoned he had spent a little over three. He was spending at far too high of a rate if he wanted to go much farther.
And he would have to go farther. The man had a week’s head start on him at least. It was unlikely that he’d even be in Rennah.
But he had been there once and that was all Connelly needed.
Closer, he said to himself. I’m close. I’m very close now.
“Town’s up that way,” said one of the men, pointing to a few lines of smoke on the horizon.
The old man eyed the spindle-like lines twisting across the sunset. “That ain’t the town,” he said.
“No. Those are campfires.”
The men looked at each other again, this time worried. Connelly was not surprised. He knew they had expected it, whether they
said so or not. For many it was the same as the town they had just left.
Connelly caught its scent before he saw it. He smelled rotten kindling and greasy fires and cigarette smoke, excrement and
foul water. It was a plague-stink, a battlefield-reek. Then he heard the cacophony of dogs barking and children crying, a
junkyard song of pots and pans and old engine parts and drunken melodies. Then finally it came into view. They shaded their
eyes and looked at the encampment before them, saw jalopies lurching between canyons of shuddering tents, people small as
dots milling beside them. A wide smear of gray and black among the white-gold of the fields. There had to be at least a hundred
people there. At least.
“Jesus,” said one of the men.
“Yeah,” said another.
“Can’t see there being much work here.”
“I reckon not, no.”
“Told you so,” said the grayhair softly. “Told you so.”
Connelly and the men parted ways as they approached. The men walked on and came to the camp’s ragged border. Some of the people
had tents and some had cars and some had nothing at all but still mingled around these tattered constructs like refuse caught
washing downstream. They watched the new strangers approach, too tired to hold any real resentment. The men split up and wandered
in and were caught among the webs of the encampment, filtering through the grubby people to find some spot to sit in or a
fire to stand by. They sat and made talk and waited for night and the following dawn. By now it was routine.
Connelly did not join them. He walked around the camp and into town.
The town couldn’t have been more than five hundred people, at most. Yet the essentials were there: a main street, a post office,
a general store, and finally a saloon at the end of the street.
Connelly peered through the yellowed windows of the bar. Dusty bottles were lined up behind an old wooden countertop. Men
sat in sweat-soaked shirts with their hats pulled low, staring into their drinks with eyes like muddy ice.
He walked in carefully, stepping like the floor could collapse at any moment. All the men looked at him, for his size caught
the eye. He removed his cap and stuffed it in his pocket and sat down at the bar. The others relaxed as he did, seeing that
underneath all the miles of travel he was still a man, though no doubt one who had been roughing it for the past months. His
hair had grown long and a beard crawled at the edges of his jaw. He could have been thirty, or forty, or even fifty, as his
skin was tanned and dark and bore deep lines from the sun.
“What can I get you?” asked the bartender.
“Whisky,” Connelly said.
Neither one moved.
“You don’t have whisky?” asked Connelly.
“We have whisky. You have ten cents?”
Connelly reached into his satchel and took out a thin wallet and a dime and slid it over.
“Sorry,” said the bartender, taking it. “Got to do that. Lots of folks come in here, order, then run out.”
The bartender poured and placed the glass in front of him. Connelly took the glass and drank it in a single swallow.
“Long time getting here?” asked the bartender.
“Here is just another stop on the road,” he said.
An ancient old man stood up and came and sat beside Connelly. He ordered as well, hands trembling. Then he turned to Connelly
and studied him, his face fixed in a terrible awe.
“What you doing there, grampa?” asked the bartender cautiously.
The old man did not answer. Instead he said, “West.”
“What?” said Connelly.
“West. You’re going west, ain’t you?”
“If that’s where I’m going, yeah,” said Connelly.
“You are,” he said. “You are. I can tell. I seen enough people heading west to know when one’s going that way. And you are.”
“You shouldn’t, you know. You shouldn’t.”
“I could go back south or north right after you get done talking to me.”
“No. You won’t. Certain men, the way they look at things and the way they walk, they’re drawn to the west, to the far countries.
Even if they turn aside and walk for days on end, soon enough they’ll find themselves facing sunset again.”
“A lot of people are moving west right now.”
“True. That’s true. But they should not go.”
Connelly fiddled with his glass, ignoring him.
The old man said, “They say the sun kisses the land out there, like a lover. That may be so. I been out there. For years,
I been out there. And if that’s so then the sun’s love is a terrible, harsh thing. Where it’s placed its kiss nothing grows,
all is burned away, everything is scorched and nothing lives and your heart is the only one of its kind that beats for miles
and miles. And all is red. Where the sun and the horizon and the sands meet, all is red.”
“Yes,” said the old man. “You should not go. You should turn around. Stop looking. And go.”
“You leave me the hell alone,” Connelly said.
“Listen,” the old man pleaded. “Listen to me. I been out there. I seen the great, red hunger, and where it walks everything
aches. From the stones to the skies, everything aches. It’s broken land, there. It is broken and lost, like those who live
there, and they cannot go back. You should not go out there. You should not.”
The bartender scowled. “Get out of here, you damn crazy fool. Stop worrying my customers and get the hell out of here.”
“Go back to your home,” said the old man.
“I don’t have a home,” said Connelly. “Not anymore.”
“But you still could have another,” said the old man. “In the west there is no hope of that. Such things are forfeit there.”
“Get out. Now,” said the bartender. “I won’t ask you again. If you stay here for one more second I’m going to whale you, I
don’t care how old you are.”
The old man stepped down from the seat and staggered out onto the sidewalk. He mumbled to himself, played with the buttons
on his overalls, and shambled away.
“I apologize for that,” said the bartender. “Damn old coot. He’s always causing trouble. I don’t think he even lives here.
He just drinks when he can and sleeps in whatever alley he finds. There’s more and more of them. They’re almost like dogs.”
“Another whisky,” said Connelly.
The bartender poured, gave him the glass, and watched again as Connelly drank in one swallow.
“Well, you don’t spend like an Okie and you don’t drink much like an Okie, either,” said the bartender.
“Probably ’cause I’m not an Okie.”
“Where you from?”
“Ha. People who’re east ought to stay east, I’d say.”
“You going to give me another earful like the old man?”
“No. I just don’t see why you’d want to come here. Nothing to come for. No one wants to stay here. I don’t want to stay here. Folks are all heading west or south or wherever they can go that isn’t here. Anywhere there’s green
ground and work.”
“I’m not looking for work.”
“What are you doing here, then?”
“I’m looking for a man,” said Connelly quietly.
“Yeah. He came this way. Took a train, hitched his way here. I’m looking for him.”
“Why are you looking for him?”
“Got some questions for him.”
Connelly didn’t answer.
The bartender grunted. “I don’t want any trouble.”
“I don’t mean to give you any,” Connelly said.
“Ain’t that what they all say.”
“You may have seen him.”
“I see a lot of men. Too many of late.”
“You would remember him,” said Connelly. “He was scarred, on his face.”
“Any working man is liable to be scarred.”
“He had a bunch of them, all over his face. Three big ones, here and here,” he said, and drew one finger from each edge of
his mouth along the cheeks, back to the angle of the jaw. Then once more, around the socket of his left eye.
The bartender turned to watch. His mouth opened slightly in surprise and he looked away.
“You seen him,” said Connelly.
“I said I haven’t and I meant it. I haven’t.”
“Then why’d you almost fall over on yourself when I asked?”
“I didn’t. Just… You ain’t the only one looking for him,” he said.
Connelly’s eyes opened wide and he sat forward. “What do you mean?”
“I don’t want trouble,” said the bartender. One hand reached under the bar. Almost certainly searching for some hidden cudgel.
Connelly sat back down. “I just want to know what’s going on,” he said.
“I don’t rightly know,” the bartender said, and sighed. “Three men come in here, just a day or two ago. Came in, asked if
I’d seen a man with a scarred face. ‘Like he’s got a big mouth. Big,’ they said, and they drawed on their own faces just as
you done now. I hadn’t seen him, not a man with scars as such, and I told them the same as I told you.”
“Who were they?”
“I don’t know. How the hell should I know? Don’t know you, either. I don’t know you from Adam.”
“What else did they say?”
“They didn’t say anything else. They just come in here, ask, then when I said no they just go on out.”
“Where’d they go?”
“To the camp, I guess. Back out to that camp outside, with all the other people who pitched out there. I guess they came in
on the train,” he said, and eyed Connelly once more. “Much like you.”
“Where are they camping?”
“You got a hell of a lot of questions for a guy who only drank two whiskies.”
“I just want to know. That’s all I want. Please.”
“Little bit northwest of here, I think. At the old tree. Bent tree, big dead tree. You can’t miss it.”
Connelly thanked him for the drink and walked out.
* * *
Outside the sun had fallen until its light was a pale pink halo in the distance. Pools of shadows swept down out of alleys
and ditches and into the streets. Miserable fires glowed in the darkness, like mad fireflies or failing stars. Connelly wound
through the streets and the camp and out to the hills on the other side of the town.
As he walked through the weeds and the stones he looked but saw no other encampment. Just the growing dark and the faint outline
of the country. The chatter of cicadas rose and fell, punctuated by the chirps of the nighthawks circling far overhead. As
he mounted the next knoll he saw the greasy spark of a small fire not far away and above it the twisted skeleton of an ancient
tree. He stood watching the flame and began to ascend. When he heard the mutter of quiet talk he stopped.
He took off his cap and used it to dab at the sweat on his brow. He knelt to think and as he did the voices ceased. Then a
hoarse shout came: “If you’re going to come out then come out. We can’t wait on you all day.”
Connelly hesitated, then tramped up the hill. He saw three men standing before the fire looking down on him, their faces almost
masked in the dark. One, the shouter, was very tall, and while not as tall as Connelly just as broad. His face was aged and
hoary and was half hidden by a grisly, raw beard. The one beside him was shorter and more slender, his face narrow and handsome
and somewhat amused. The third was short and portly. His eyes were runny and frightened and unkempt hair grew around his chin
and upper lip. He wore a ragged bowler hat that he could not stop touching and he stayed back farther than the other two.
“The camp is back that way,” said the leader. “Plenty of room there.”
“I didn’t come here to throw down a mattress,” said Connelly.
“Then what did you come here for?”
“To ask a question.”
“A question, eh? If you want to ask, then ask.”
“I came looking for someone.”
“Yes. A… a man. A scarred man. Cheeks all tore up.”
They did not answer, did not move or tense or twitch. They stood as statues crowning a hill, eyes placid and blank, faces
“Heard you were looking for him, too,” said Connelly. “Came to… to see. Just to see.”
The men still did not speak, nor did they glance among themselves to confer. They remained quiet for far longer than any man
had the right to.
“Why are you looking for him?” said Connelly. “What’s he done? What’s he done to you? Who… who is he?”
“The camp is back that way,” said the leader, this time quieter. “Plenty of room there.”
Connelly looked at them a moment longer, waiting for some answer or at the very least some sign of knowledge. They gave him
nothing. He walked back down the hill to the camp. When he glanced back they were still standing, still watching him, unmoving
as though part of the hill itself.
It was late when Connelly made it back to the grounds and he could not navigate among the jalopies and the shabby homes. He
picked out the bank of a small stream not far from the camp. Then he unrolled his bedding and threw it down and lay there,
looking up at the stars and listening to the worried mutterings of the other travelers. He took out a pint of whisky and drew
deeply from it. He grimaced as it went down, then took another draw and watched the sky die and the moon rise above him.
On the cusp of sleep he whispered to himself: “Molly. Molly, I’m close. I’m closer than ever now.”
He slept, but not for long. He awoke less than an hour later, his heart beating and his mind screaming, awoken by some nameless
animal instinct that told him he was no longer alone.
His eyes snapped open and he sat up and heard a gruff, low shout. Something crashing through the brush to his right. Then
a figure barreled through the weeds at him, arm held high, something gold and glittering clutched in its fingers.
Connelly reacted without thinking and threw his arm up to catch the blow. His elbow met with the man’s lip and the man grunted
and something sprayed Connelly’s cheek, hot and wet and thick. His attacker stumbled and collapsed, clutching his face. Another
voice cried out in the darkness, “Georgie, Georgie! What you done to my Georgie!” A second man came running out, ready to
tackle Connelly, but Connelly outweighed the man easily and tossed him to the ground. He straddled him and struck him once,
twice, around the face. He tried to weigh down the man’s struggling but still he cried out, “Georgie! Say something! Say something!”
Fingers dug into the flesh at Connelly’s neck and the other hand clawed at his armpit. Connelly groped in the dark and found
the pipe that had served as the first’s weapon and brought it down, again and again. The man yelped and fell silent, his body
seizing up and his knees rising to touch his face. Behind Connelly the first attacker struggled to his feet. He roared drunkenly
and though Connelly could not see him his ears sought the sound and brought the pipe to it. With a sharp crack the man fell
limp and did not move again.
Connelly stood over them, breathing hard, his arm aching and his blood beating so hard and fast he felt it would erupt out
of his veins. Yards away voices were shouting, calling out, “What was that? What the hell’s going on out there?” Connelly
looked at the shapes of the bodies in the dark, not knowing if they were alive or dead, unable to hear any breathing over
the rush in his own ears. He hurled the pipe into the stream and felt his hand and knew it was covered in blood, perhaps his
or perhaps another’s.
He gathered up his satchel and his bedding and ran downstream, across the water and over stones. The keening of birds and
insects filled his ears. He threw himself down next to a fallen old oak and looked over the top. He could see nothing, no
eyes in the starlight, no hands or glint of metal. Someone shouted, calling to another. He held his breath, then picked himself
up and began running again.