I ain’t with them, Moses says.
I’m shooting you, the boy says, his voice trembling, as though a declaration of violence were the same thing as a bullet.
You ain’t got to, Moses says. I ain’t one of them. I’m here for my two charges is all. My brother and a red- head lady. After I got em, you can burn this place to the ground with my good wishes. You seen em?
The boy’s hand shakes, the pistol remains fixed on Moses’ forehead.
Hey, Moses says. You hearin me? Let go that trigger. Come on now.
Something in the boy’s face twitches. He is paralysed. He could fire or not fire at any moment. Moses does not like his fate to be at the hazard of nervous chance.
Goddamnit, Moses says.
Then he raises his own pistol with practised speed and fires two shots at the boy that make charred holes in his chest and cause him to convulse as if suffocating on air that is no longer breathable. The boy’s hand, in extremis, squeezes and fires too, but Moses drops in the same motion and lets the bullet fly over his head.
Then the soldier boy collapses face down on the ground. Wisps of his hair are stirred lightly by the wind.
It didn’t have to go this way, Moses says to the corpse.
There is arbitrary death by nature, which Moses recognizes is everyone’s equally shared hazard. And then there is arbitrary death by the foolishness of man. And this is something Moses cannot stomach.
He checks the magazine of his pistol, and he hefts the massive bladed instrument in his opposite hand – and then Moses Todd leaps out from behind the building and into the fray. And that’s when he begins to fight.
The icy earth melts with the steam of warfare, the hot spilled blood mingling with the snowy mud in rivulets of dirty pink like the stain of old wedding roses. The ground is slippery with gory melt as Moses moves forward through the battle, swinging the cudgel this way and that, firing his pistol with the other hand. He sends the cudgel in a wide arc to his left, knocking a slug’s head clean off its shoulders, while with his right hand he fires twice at a bandit wielding a sword – the first bullet thunking into his chest and the second piercing his neck, sending a plume of blood splashing to the ground. He swings the cudgel back around and catches a ragged rifle-carrying woman in the stomach. When he pulls the weapon free, most of her guts, tangled in its blades, follow. The next time he swings it upwards, it catches a massive, thick-headed slug under the chin, and a rain of shattered teeth go tip-tapping to the puddled ground.
Moses does his best to avoid the uniformed men, for he knows them to be soldier instruments of a wider order and that they would not kill him if they knew who he was. But he also knows that to them he looks like one of the bandits, one of Fletcher’s men – and it is a circumstance of war that you cannot stop to palaver about the whys and wherefores of things. So when the soldiers do threaten, he kills them too. And, he supposes, this is as right as anything – because it is just as likely that, on any given day, he would be on one side as another. He is a soldier and a reprobate, a lawman and a transgressor. So it makes no difference, at any moment in time, who dies by whose hand – as long as there is some line, capricious and invisible though it may be, for the combatants to reach across.
Death is everywhere. His ears are deafened by gunfire and screaming voices.Women and children, too – for the bandits have raised their kind to be warriors. Women with throwing knives that lodge deep and true, children with sharpened teeth that have been taught to climb your body and rip out your throat as though they were feral animals. Moses slashes his way through them, digging his heels into the muck for leverage against the ugly onslaught. Everywhere is the music of slaughter, shrill swords fifing their way clean through the air, the deep baritones of surprised death cries, the airy percussives of bodies falling to the ground and giving up their final appalled breaths. And who is the conductor? And who waves the baton? And who stitches together these crescendos of grotesque majesty?
And, too, the battle is manifold – because the chaos is too thick for the combatants to end things right, to make sure the dead stay down, and so the slaughtered everywhere on the field of battle begin to rise again – and Moses finds himself killing again those he already killed once before. Death begets death, and it is no wonder that the world is overrun so. They rise slowly amidst the pandemonium, overlooked because of their calm in the middle of such frenzy. A corpse lying face down in a puddle of bloody snow melt will twitch first in the arms, a shiver will run through the torso and all the way down to the legs. Then an arm will straighten itself, find a handhold on the ground and gently leverage itself with fresh muscle to hoist the rest of the body face up. And there it might lie for minutes at a time, opening its eyes anew to the sunlight and the noisome activity going on around it. The orbs of its eyes roll lazily to and fro until, at last, it inches itself upwards, first on its hands and knees, and then rising to full height, standing tall in sudden mockery of life itself.
And so the valley quickly fills with the mangy slubberdegullions of death. They reach out pathetically for those alert bodies moving by them with the speed of survival – but when their hands grasp nothing, they drop again to the ground to feed hyena-like on the stillwarm corpses of the newly dead. And if a man, along his way to other death than this, should happen to put a bullet through the slug’s brain as it eats its first meal, then in a travesty of sacred stygian rites that call for dim ferrymen to cross slow between the shores of life and death, these creatures will have died twice in the space of an hour.
Now Moses confronts one of Fletcher’s surgical abominations, a slug dressed up like a sasquatch, its body patched all over with the scalps of other slugs sewn on its skin – a motley of hair, some long, some short, some blond, some brunette, some curly, some straight, much of the hair crusted hard by ooze and blood. Moses dispatches the thing quickly, one bullet to the brain, because it is a sign too distressing to look upon – humanity inverted somehow.
For a moment, Moses Todd, having killed everything around him that moves, finds himself in a wide radius of stillness. The other combatants occupy themselves at a distance, and he breathes deep the stench of wasted biology that hangs cloudy in the air. He stands, a droll on an empty stage, waiting for a response from the darkened seats – laughter or applause, it makes no difference – raising his brutal weapon to examine it against the spotlight of the sun. The bladed cudgel is tangled with gore. Like a nightmare Christmas tree, its welded limbs are ornamented with human viscera, tinselled with hair and stringy offal, flaps of torn flesh that hang from the tips, sticky bile that is already beginning to crust over in the metal interstices. It is a thing that does not soften to the human condition. People explode against the weapon, undeniable. It is a force, like the abstraction of American industry itself, a machine whose gears care not what they grind.