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Authors: Joe R. Lansdale

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BOOK: Sunset and Sawdust
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She pulled the string on the light, dragged up a chair and sat in the darkness by Pete’s body with the shotgun in her lap. She sat there and listened to june bugs beat against the window screen close to her. She could hear them beating even with the window closed. Now that the light was out, she wondered if they would soon stop. As long as she had lived in East Texas, she felt she should know the answer to that, but she couldn’t seem to remember anything about june bugs at all.

They finally ceased. The house without the windows open grew warm. Sweat ran down Marilyn’s face, into her nightclothes, made her underarms sticky. The house was quiet. In the back room she could hear the grandfather clock ticking.

She wondered where Sunset and Karen were. She hoped they were okay. Then it struck her.

She was hoping the woman who had killed her son was fine.

5

As the sun rose, pink and oozing through the woods like a leaky blood blister, Sunset discovered she too was bleeding. Not only from the wounds Pete had given her, but also from the fresh ones she’d gotten from her daughter, scratches and bites, additional damage from mosquitoes and ants. Sleeping on the ground had gotten dirt in the wounds and made them itch. Her side and stomach hurt, and she didn’t even remember being hit there. Maybe had, maybe hadn’t, might have just rolled on something, a root or rock.

She was sitting on the bank of Sawmill Creek, where she and Karen had spent the night beneath a big elm tree. She was sitting there feeling the morning sun, looking at her daughter, lying where she had finally cried herself to sleep, angry and confused, her hands clenched, her face squeezed up like a fist, damp leaves mashed against her cheeks and overalls.

Sunset turned away from Karen, studied the creek, watched as black button-sized bugs skirted over the water and some long-legged spider things ran over its surface as if imitating Jesus in a hurry.

The water was clay red from the storm, looked like blood, and it was flowing fast and loud along the new lines of the bank. The tornado had knocked all manner of stuff ass-over-heels, torn up trees, caused the old high line of the embankment to break up. When the warm wind blew, Sunset could smell fish rotting.

She tried to concentrate on the water and not think about Pete, but she couldn’t do it. She repeated the events over and over in her mind, trying to find a place where she might have done something different. Kept thinking she’d wake up and it would be a bad dream. But that didn’t happen. She was wide awake, sitting on the bank of Sawmill Creek sticky with sweat.

She lifted her hand to wipe her face, discovered she was still holding the gun. She had held it while she was telling her daughter what happened, held it while her daughter, in a moment of savage confusion, had hit her with her fists, clawed her with her nails, and bit her.

When Karen wore out, fell to the ground crying, Sunset tried to comfort her, tried to explain, but Karen put her hands over her ears and made a noise so she wouldn’t have to hear it.

Finally, Karen fell asleep to hide from Sunset and the world, and Sunset lay down and slept a little, her finger off the trigger, but the gun still in her hand, the smell of the powder still in her nose, the sound of the shot still in her head.

She put the pistol in the pocket of her mother-in-law’s loose housedress, and having it out of her hand, even if it was close, made her nervous.

She was suddenly glad she hadn’t had it with her the day she fought Pete’s girlfriend, Jimmie Jo French. She found out Pete was running around on her and blamed it on Jimmie Jo. Confronted her out front of the company store at Camp Rapture, went at her like a tiger. If she’d had the pistol with her then, the undertaker might have been wiping Jimmie Jo’s ass and that wouldn’t have been something she could have lived with, killing Jimmie Jo in a fit of jealousy.

She realized now Jimmie Jo was no more to blame than Pete. What she had been really angry about at the time was she had heard rumor Pete bought Jimmie Jo nice things. Clothes, even jewelry. Pete never bought her anything. She thought for a while she might not be good in bed, and had done her all to fix the problem, thinking she’d make it so he’d like how he was getting it at home and get over Jimmie Jo, but that hadn’t changed things. He stayed angry all the time, slapping her, punching her, forcing her legs apart while he rammed her like he was trying to poke a hole through a concrete wall, and if he liked it, she couldn’t tell, it was just a thing he did, finishing up, getting off her like he was disgusted.

And he hadn’t given up Jimmie Jo. Sometimes he came in smelling of her, not even bothering to clean the smell off before coming home, not caring if she knew, maybe happy she did. Sunset could never figure for what crime she was being punished.

Sunset wondered where Jimmie Jo was now. If she’d heard about Pete being killed, and how she felt about it. “Howdy.”

Sunset looked up. A man was standing nearby. Sunset stood, felt like wires were being pulled inside of her and the wires had hooks and the hooks were hitched to her vitals.

She studied him. He didn’t look like trouble. They never look like trouble, she thought. Pete hadn’t looked like trouble when he started courting her when she was sixteen. He seemed fine enough and a good choice when they first married, until two weeks later, the night she had a cold and didn’t want to bed him and he made her, and made her many times thereafter.

She put her hand in her pocket. She was glad she had the gun.

“You two hoboing?” the man said. “Don’t see many women on the road.”

Sunset said, “We’re not on the road.”

“That’s good. You’re a good bit away from the rails.”

“So are you,” she said.

“Guess I am.”

The man wore a crumpled wool hat. It looked too big for him. He took it off and smiled at her. She noted he was nice-looking and maybe not as young as he first appeared. He had a little sack tied to his belt. Over one eye was a small black bruise.

“I’m looking for work. Some bo’s told me there was a sawmill hiring.”

“I don’t know if they’re hiring,” Sunset said, “but you follow the creek west a ways, and you’ll see it.”

She started to say he would have to talk to her father-in-law, Mr. Jones, or the Captain, but she couldn’t make the words come out. He wasn’t her father-in-law now. She didn’t have anyone but Karen and Karen hated her. Well, maybe she had Marilyn. The whole thing with Marilyn hitting her, then hugging her, had not quite registered yet.

“That girl,” he said, “she ain’t dead, is she? You didn’t shoot her? I seen you put that gun in your pocket. You ain’t gonna shoot me, are you?”

“That’s my daughter. She’s sleeping. We had a storm come through. Tore up our home.”

“Reckon I caught the tail end of that one. I was in a boxcar at the time. Kind of scared me. Thought the damn thing was gonna turn over. You hunting? A pistol ain’t the best for squirrels.”

“No. I’m not hunting.”

“Well, nice to meet you. If your daughter was awake I’d say nice to meet her. Storm bang you up like that?”

“It was a storm, all right.”

“My name’s Hillbilly.”

“Mine’s Sunset. Daughter’s name is Karen.”

“You sure got pretty hair. Your daughter’s got pretty hair too, but it ain’t the same as yours. Yours is fire, hers is a raven’s wing.”

“She got her daddy’s hair,” Sunset said.

“Reckon I’ll go on now, see if I can get that job.”

“You don’t look like a sawmill hand.”

“Ain’t. Just need work. I’m a musician. I sing and play guitar.”

“Where’s your guitar?”

“Got broken. I’m trying to make enough to buy me one.”

“Good luck.”

“Thanks. See you around?”

Sunset thought a moment. She really wasn’t sure about anything, but she said, “Yeah. I’ll be around. See me again, hope I’ll look better than I look now. I’m not normally this ugly.”

“And I’m not normally this dirty. But I’m always this ugly.”

She thought: False modesty. He knows he looks good.

Hillbilly tipped his hat. “Well, you take care now.”

And away he went.

The sun grew large and yellow as the yolk of a fresh egg, turned the air hot as a gasoline fire. The heat stuck in the woods like glue, became gummy, and the gum got all over God and creation.

By ten in the morning every working man in the camp was exhausted, underarms dripping with sweat, crotches itching with it. Water barrels were sucked dry and the mules wanted to give it up. Even the oxen, normally steady as Job, were starting to wobble and froth.

That morning Jones had ice delivered to his house in washtubs, sent over a temporary basket coffin he borrowed from the camp store’s owner. The basket coffin was put on the sitting room floor by Zack and another colored man named Hently, and they poured ice from the tubs into it. They removed Pete’s clothes, and his smell filled the room. They placed him on the ice in the basket and put ice on top of him until the odor was quenched and he could not be seen, except for one finger that extended from the chipped ice and pointed up, as if the corpse were about to make a suggestion.

Over at the mill houses, unlike usual, no one was talking about the heat.

“I don’t think a woman ought to just be able to shoot a husband, she wants to,” Bill Martin said. “Get that started, things in ever kind of way will get turned over and sat on. Hell, get so I tell my wife to get my breakfast ready, she’ll want to pull out a gun.”

“Working with you,” said Don Walker, “makes me want to shoot you sometimes.”

“You’re a regular Fibber McGee. Except you ain’t funny.”

Bill and Don hooked their mules to a sled full of logs. Don called to the mules, Hank and Wank, and they started to pull the sled away. Don and Bill stood out to the side and Don held the long reins and they walked alongside the mules as they pulled.

“Haw, you sorry bastards,” Don said to the mules, and the mules turned left.

Bill said, “You ought not talk to the boys like that.”

“These boys are lazy if you let ’em be.”

They met Hillbilly coming toward them. He smiled and waved a hand at them. Don pulled the mules to a halt.

“Excuse me,” Hillbilly said, “but I’m looking for work.”

“We ain’t the ones to talk to,” Bill said.

“Do you know who to talk to?”

“The Captain,” Don said. “But now ain’t a good time.”

“When will be?”

“Ain’t certain. His boy, Pete, got killed yesterday.”

“Accident?”

“Not unless you call getting shot in the head an accident,” Bill said. “Boy’s wife shot him. Pete was the constable.”

“Why’d she do it?”

“I hear he was beating on her.”

“Can’t say I blame her then,” Hillbilly said. “I don’t like a hand laid on me in anger.”

“She was his wife,” Bill said.

“Don’t give him no call for that,” Hillbilly said.

“What I been saying,” Don said. “Been telling Bill just that.”

“This woman shot him,” Hillbilly said. “She wouldn’t be a redhead, would she?”

“Hair don’t get no redder than hers,” Bill said. “How’d you know?”

“Just a guess,” Hillbilly said. “Redheads are known for shooting husbands.”

“I know a redhead that was known for other things,” Bill said. “Talk about fire in the hole.”

“All your goats got black or white or gray fur,” Don said. “Ain’t seen no redheaded ones, so you don’t know nothing there.”

“Keep telling you,” Bill said, “you ought to get on radio you’re so funny.” Bill turned back to Hillbilly, said, “Good luck, young man. Maybe the Captain will talk to you. We did lose a man last week.”

“Tree fell on him,” Don said. “Me and Bill had bets on how long before that ignorant sonofabitch got a tree on him. He’d cut and kind of saunter away when the tree was coming down. He sauntered a little slow last time. Tree jumped back on him. They’ll do that. Jump back. Drove that fella into the ground. Said the stuffing popped out of him like a Christmas turkey.”

“You got to be quick working here,” Bill said. “Not get no vines or limbs caught under your feet. I think that fella got some berry vines wrapped around his ankles. Get hired and don’t mind your work, you’ll be dead as him.”

“Thanks for the advice, gentlemen,” Hillbilly said. “If I was to talk to this Captain, where would I find him?”

“He ain’t staying at his house no more,” Bill said. “His wife done run him off and took sides with the daughter-in-law. He was in the mill house this morning, wearing the same old nasty clothes he had on yesterday. I don’t know that he’s really working. When you’re one of the big men, you can coast, your boy’s dead or not. You might have to talk to someone else about a job, though. There’s others can hire.

“It’s all a crying shame. Captain with his boy dead, his wife putting him out. He’s a nice guy too. He loaned me considerable money I ain’t paid back—”

“And don’t intend to pay back,” Don said.

“You don’t know that,” Bill said.

“You ain’t paid me the dollar you owe me.”

“I’m gonna. But I tell you, I owed his old lady, I don’t know. She didn’t want him to loan it to me. Said I was a bad risk.”

“You are,” Don said. “I want my dollar. I know that.”

“She said that right in front of me. A bad risk. Tell you, with this Sunset killing her husband, and him a law too, we don’t put an end to it, every woman in the camp and hereabouts is gonna feel they got the right to tell their men what-for over most anything they take a mind to. If it’s loaning money or holding out with the hot wet kitty.”

“Sunset,” Hillbilly said. “That’s what they call her?”

“On account of her long red hair,” Don said. “Before Pete whacked on her, she was a pretty good looker. Now she looks like Three-Fingered Jack looked.”

“Who?”

“Man took a beating from Pete,” Bill said. “But he died from it. They called him that cause he had three fingers.”

Hillbilly thought: No shit.

“This time it was Pete done the dying,” Don said. “I ain’t one to feel sorry for him. Beating on a woman ain’t right. Unless, of course, it’s a whore. I had one take a couple dollars from me once, and when I got hold of her she got hers, that’s what I’m trying to tell you. Her face looked like a speckled pup I got through whapping her.”

“What about a place to live?” Hillbilly asked. He had looked the camp over. All of the houses seemed occupied and close enough together a man wanted to fuck his next-door neighbor’s wife, all he had to do was hang his dick out the window, she hang her ass out of hers.

“There ain’t really no places near. You can rent a tent from the camp store, make you a spot down the road a piece in the pines there. They ain’t gonna cut them trees for a few years. Too damn small.”

“Thanks again,” Hillbilly said, and wandered toward the mill house.

Just before he got there, it occurred to him he had been curious but had forgotten to ask why this Pete had given Three-Fingered Jack a beating in the first place.

He thought too about the redhead by the creek, knew she was the one who shot this Pete.

BOOK: Sunset and Sawdust
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