Yes, life. Life is what they called it.
And Moses supposes he could do worse than an exis- tence filled with equal parts death and discovery – when the alternative is life and listlessness.
He will be happy to be off this road at last. Happy to be forging ahead.
They are two hours from Colorado City when they come across a wreckage that Moses doesn’t remember from before. Perhaps he has got the roads mixed up and they are now on a different route. Perhaps he has become blinded to the nuances of the world now that he is locked in the repetition of it.
Moses brings the car to a stop.
Abraham starts to complain about his leg and doesn’t mind the break from riding folded up in the passenger seat.
The leg’s stiff as hell, he says. I got to stretch it. Plus, I need to piss.
So they climb out of the car. It is dark again already – the days are shuffling by quickly now, as though in the agile hands of a professional card sharp. And maybe God is a gambler after all.
Peabody helps Abraham stand, and the two begin to limp in circles around the car.
Moses takes the stub of a cigar out of his pocket and lights it with a match. The road is a cut through the hills, and he gazes around him at the trees. The road looks familiar and unfamiliar at the same time. The wreckage blocking their way, though, doesn’t look new. He puffs thoughtfully on his cigar.
I’m going up to that ridge, he says to the others. Take a look around.
He climbs the slope, pulling himself up using tree branches that pop and snap in his mammoth grip. He is out of breath by the time he crests the ridge. Down below there is nothing. It’s possible that they are on the cusp of the Colorado City grid, but it makes no difference. The hill on which he stands is just one rib of many on a cage of ridges that ripple the landscape. He can only see the dipping distance between one line of hills and the next – and there is only emptiness in that unlit valley.
He sits for a moment to recover from the climb. He listens to his own heavy breathing, the rasp of air in his throat. He looks at the fat cigar between his thick fingers. He is a brute, he knows, and there should be laws and cages for such as he. But sometimes he is surprised to discover that he has found a home in the wild black of what America has become. He belongs on the edges of the world – but now the world is all edges. Margins without centre for ever and ever.
Then he hears a shout from down below, indistinct and panicked, back in the direction of the car where he left Abraham and Peabody. Then other noises. The sound of scuffle and event, followed by two thunderous screeches of pain – voices Moses doesn’t recognize. Then another shout – his name:
It’s his brother’s voice. And then Moses is running, crashing down through the trees, an ursine monster smashing through the underbrush, calling out, Abe! Abe!
He hears the sound of an engine below – a car speeding away. And then he bursts through the scrub at the edge of the road and sees the mess in the pool of light cast by the headlights of the car they have been driving. It’s a body, but not Abraham’s and not the doctor’s. Moses kneels over it.
It’s a man, grimy-faced and ugly. He wears a leather jacket with studs on it, and there’s a baseball bat still gripped tight in his dead right hand. He lies in a wide pool of jugular blood that is still pumping with weak persistence from the wound in his neck. Struck through his neck, from one side to the other like some horrible mockery of a bow tie, is a bowie knife that Moses recognizes as his brother’s.
Abe! Moses calls. Abe!
There is no response, but when he hushes he can hear a guttural choke from the ditch by the side of the road. He rushes over to find the doctor, Peabody, holding his hands over a puncture wound in his chest. The blood seeps through his fingers, leaking insistently through his pathetic grip.
Who? Moses says. Fletcher?
Peabody coughs wetly. He shakes his head.
Highwaymen, he struggles to say through his gasps. Fletcher, he put a bounty on your heads. Three men. Abraham got one. Wounded another. But they took him.
Dead or no?
Peabody coughs again, cringes in his breathing.
Dead or no? Moses says again, almost angry.
No, Peabody says. Fletcher’ll want to.
Okay, Moses says and begins to lift Peabody. Come on, I’ll get you to help.
But Peabody coughs a spray of blood over Moses’ face, shakes his head and pushes Moses away. There are reddish-brown smears all over his bald pate, the thin strands of long white hair plastered to his skull with drying blood.
I’m dead, Peabody says. It’s about time, right?
The doctor’s body seizes up with some internal organic fluttering, as of his organs all retching moribund against their own expiration. Then Peabody calms as Moses watches him, his breathing going slack and the grip on his chest wound loosening. He can see the man’s slowing heartbeat in the weak surges of blood coming between his fingers.
It’s about time for all of us, old man, says Moses.
But by that point, he is fairly certain that Peabody is already dead.
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Moses does not delay. He takes a small knife from his pocket and drives it up underneath the doctor’s jaw and into his brain. There is no time to give him greater service than this. Then he goes quickly to the car, but before he gets in something occurs to him. He walks around to the front where the body of the brigand is lying dead, his brain still intact. He does not want to put an end to this man who would messenger his brother to death. Instead he wants to hurt, to maim. So he raises his leg high and brings his heavy boot down onto the corpse’s face. There is a brittle wet crunch as the jaw bone shatters and dislocates from the skull. When Moses raises his foot again, there is an awful gaping smile on the dead man’s face. But the brain is unharmed. He will come back – he will be unable to eat.
Have a nice death, you bastard, says Moses Todd to the corpse.
Then he climbs into the car and backs it up. There is no time to finesse his way around the blockade before him, no time to search for another car on the road beyond. He will ram his way through, and it will either work or it won’t. The impact will either destroy the car or it won’t. But he is large with rage, he feels his brute, animal self in the very heat that rises from his skin. He will not be stopped.
He backs up far enough to get the speed he needs, locks the safety belt over his heaving torso, then accelerates quickly towards the blockade that consists of two burned-out cars positioned diagonally across the road. He draws his own car as far to the left as possible, two wheels onto the shoulder of the road.