Species of Man – Daniel Davis
I walked into Wilcox’s hotel room and there was a man tied up on the bed, hands roped behind his back, legs bound so tightly together his bare feet had started to turn purple. He lay atop the sheets in his underwear, twisting back and forth, flopping like a landlocked fish, until he saw me and his eyes went wide with a hope I doubted he’d felt in a while. He glanced across the room as if to warn me, and from the ruin of his mouth he said, “Help me.” His voice was thick and wet with blood. I only understood him ’cause I’d heard many a man say that before.
Wilcox sat at a small table opposite the bed. His shirt was dotted with blood and he looked to have gotten some in that monstrous beard of his as well. Big and burly as a grizzly, Wilcox wasn’t one to trifle with, and I thought long and hard about the Colt holstered on my hip, but even more about the one on his, as well as the Winchester carbine that lay across the table, right next to the bottle of rye.
“Shit,” I said.
I think Wilcox grinned at me. He took a pull from the bottle and slid a tumbler my way. “Drink, Horace?”
I glanced back at the man and a powerful thirst overcame me. The whiskey went down rough enough to slough away the remnants of last night’s binge. I pulled the second chair away from the table and set down and poured myself another glass and held it below my face.
The man had realized I wasn’t his salvation and went back to trying to wrestle his hands free. The fish metaphor came back to me, and I couldn’t see him as anything but. I drank a little more of the rye. A couple tears came to my eyes, and I looked away.
“Some son of a bitch I caught cheating,” Wilcox said.
I grimaced. “I told you not to play.”
I tried to think of a retort to that but couldn’t. Wilcox couldn’t be budged. He couldn’t be stopped. He was best considered a force of nature, and you’d rather step aside than get caught in his wake.
After a while, the man gave up. Your arms grow tired when they’ve been bound too long that way; you start to feel the weight of flesh and fat and bone. One of the worst nights I ever spent was in such a position, and after a while my arms began to ache even more than the musket ball in my side. A goddamn musket ball. I’ll always give those Southern bastards this much: they fought with any damn thing they had laying around. Didn’t help none, of course, but a man gets credit for heart and ingenuity.
I sat and thought for a bit. Wilcox just watched the man. I was grateful I’d come in after the work was all done. Wilcox wouldn’t have asked me to assist, knew I’d never do a thing like that unless the man’s misdeeds warranted it, and cheating at a card game did not, in my estimation, justify the animal brutality Wilcox was capable of. A talking to, at best, a bullet in the leg, at worst. I’d seen a Comanche, or a man who had once been a Comanche, put a knife through a gambler’s palm once. I had thought that an appropriate punishment. The Comanche had then sliced open the cheater’s throat, but he’d hung for it, which I had also considered fair.
There was blood on the wall behind the bed and some on the floor around. The hotel wasn’t the kind of place that had regular maid service, so we’d be okay for a while, but it was the kind of place where an owner would throw you out for something like this. That, and call the sheriff. Judging by the dress of the women I’d seen downstairs, the owner probably had some sort of arrangement with the law in the area, which complicated matters even further. It was the type of complication I generally tried to avoid, though naturally it was just this sort of mayhem that a man like Wilcox thrived in.
I sighed and finished the tumbler. I so craved another drink, but I wanted my head as clear as I could get it, so I set the glass down. Wilcox had the bottle two-thirds gone, but I knew from experience he just absorbed the alcohol and not the other way around. I’d seen him drunk before, I’d seen him so drunk it would’ve stopped a normal man’s heart, and it was a terrible sight to see, but I felt comfortable that this bottle wouldn’t push him over the edge.
The man on the bed coughed. I turned to him, wondering how you could convince a man to forget that something like this had happened to him. Or if not forget, then conveniently forgive for a couple of hours.
“Do what you needed?” Wilcox asked.
I started, then waited a beat before replying.
“Horses bought and paid for.”
He grunted. “I liked my horse.”
“Your horse didn’t like you. He was half dead and had two bullets in him.”
“And still kept going. Good horse.”
“Well, now you got a new one.” I nodded at the bed. “He got a name?”
“Can’t I ride it a bit before I name it?”
“Well, I suppose.” He took a pull. “Most men have names. Some niggers don’t, and some Indians I suppose, but every white man I’ve ever met had a name given to him at some point in his life.”
I shook my head. I couldn’t. I just couldn’t.
“Mister?” I said. “Hey, mister?”
He turned his head to look at me. I saw a flash of anger in his eyes, and that gave me pause. There’s certain types of men capable of such hatred after a beating like that. Not a single type was the kind of man you wanted to put through such a beating.
“You have a name?” I said, keeping my voice even.
His gaze didn’t waver. I saw him thinking about it. Not trying to remember his name, but deciding whether or not he wanted to tell me. Then he said, “Fredericks.”
He nodded. His forehead ruffled the sheets.
I looked at Wilcox. “His name is Dexter Fredericks.”
“I think I heard somebody mention it last night, now I think about it.”
I didn’t like Wilcox’s face. He was always calm in the thick of it, always studied, measured, looked like he was either thinking of everything or nothing at all. But there were tells. Mostly around the corners of his eyes, which could grow taught when he sensed danger. They were certainly drawn now, as he stared at Fredericks.
I looked back at the bed. Young man, maybe twenty or twenty-two, old enough to have a wife and a child. Couldn’t really tell now, of course, but I judged he usually wore his hair neat and slicked back. He was naked save the underwear, and there was too much blood on them to judge their everyday cleanliness, but glancing around the room I saw a bundle of clothes in the corner, thrown there indiscriminately, and despite the bloodstains they were clearly of a finer ilk.
“He somebody?” I asked.
“Stow it,” I said. “He somebody or not?”
Fredericks watched us. That anger had been joined by a dark mirth that I did not particularly enjoy.
“He mighta mentioned it,” Wilcox said. “I wasn’t paying much attention to his words at that point.”
Nor would it have made any difference if he had been. I sighed. We’d only been in town a couple days, stopped to trade our horses in for ones that hadn’t been ridden to the bone. It was supposed to be a respite of sorts. Missouri was about as far east as I liked to get; I was born on the other side of the Mississippi, and that’s where I’d seen all my action during the war, and I wanted no more part of it. Didn’t care if I ever saw Georgia again; I’d left Atlanta smoking and that is how it would always stay in my mind. But we’d taken a job and that job had led us to a town several hours away, where we’d found our man and claimed our bounty. We’d ridden until we got to this town whose name I couldn’t even remember, just a few miles away from the river itself. You could almost smell the muddy water. And I’d thought this was maybe a break, change horses and head back west where the action was. Of course, the world had often proved me a fool before. I bore the scars as proof.
I wasn’t averse to trouble, or violence for that matter. I’d killed enough men to stop believing in God. What good is believing in a God who would only punish me for my livelihood? I had no need of Him, nor He of me. Trouble brought in the money, more of it than one might think, though most of it went back into the work. Horses and guns are expensive to keep up. But it was a life and I was good at it, and for the sake of survival I’d teamed up with a monster who was even better at it than I. Trouble and violence ran through me and I through them.
But there was no sense in this. Worse, there was no profit. Dexter Fredericks was nothing but a steaming pile of unwanted attention, a trapdoor under our feet that could swing open at any second. Wilcox knew it, too. He did not have much in the way of book smarts, for he would never suffer a man to tell him what was worth knowing, but he had an animal’s instinct for danger. The only problem was, he seemed to like it. Only thing I think he liked more than whiskey, bloodshed, and women, was danger. And he didn’t care if he dragged me into the cesspool after him.
I stood up and went to the window. The harsh Missouri sunlight stung my face. The room was sweltering but Wilcox had, of course, left the window closed. I worked the latch and slid the window open, trusting Fredericks was too worn out to raise his voice. I leaned out the window and glanced around. We were on the second floor, not too high up, but you could see the countryside past the edge of town, farmland and forest beyond. The road I’d planned on riding out peacefully, two wanted men far from anyone who knew their faces and deeds. A future I should have known was already beyond my reach even before I’d imagined it.
Then I glanced downward. It was just after midday and the street was about as bustling as this town got. I ignored most everyone; after a while, common folk become grains of sand on the beach. You don’t notice them because you don’t need to. People go about their lives without getting into extraordinary circumstances. Men like Wilcox and myself, people who see action more than the average person, stand out. We wear our experience on our shoulders, in our gait, the clothes we wear. We don’t always embrace it, but we can’t camouflage it.
What caught my eye weren’t the dozens of innocent Missourians milling about, but the five men in dark coats gathered near the hotel’s entrance. All of them with hats at the perfect angle. All of them heeled. Four had perfectly-groomed mustaches; the third was clean-shaven and older. I could just make out the trace of a scar on his right cheek, an old wound. Hatchet, if I had to guess; I’d seen my share of faces cut up with a hatchet. It never left an insignificant scar.
None of the men looked up, but I hung out the window no longer than necessary. I pulled myself back into the room and shut the window.
“Trouble?” Wilcox asked. His voice was not perturbed.
I didn’t answer. Instead, I went to the door and opened it a crack. Glanced out into the hall. No one. I stepped outside the room and shut the door behind me, then walked gingerly down the hall to the stairwell. I pushed myself flat against the wall, closed my eyes, and listened. The hotel was almost always busy, and at all hours. The place was never quiet, and it wasn’t now. But it was definitely quieter. Words being exchanged, some of them slurred, all of them indecipherable from my vantage point. But there was one voice that rose above the others, deep and bellicose and heated.
That was enough for me. I went back to the room and closed and locked the door. To Wilcox, I said, “We gotta get moving.”
He winced and pushed himself up. “I’m bringing the bottle.”
On the bed, Fredericks chuckled. “My father’s men are gonna shoot you down like curs,” he said. “Both of you.”
We ignored him. Wilcox checked his Winchester; he already had his meager belongings together. I grabbed Frederick’s clothes and threw them onto the bed. “Get dressed,” I said.
He glanced back at his hands. I pulled out my knife and sliced the rope around his wrists and ankles. I watched his face as his arms moved. You may think, once you can move your arms again, the pain will go away. That is the lie your body has prepared for you. In actuality, there is a brief moment where the pain is immensely worse than anything you’d previously experienced. Your muscles have grown use to immobility; they’ve let their weight settle. They don’t want to move again, and when you make them, it’s a momentary learning experience. Frederick’s mouth twisted into a grimace as his arms resumed their normal position, and I turned my back on him to survey the room, see if there was anything else we needed. My belongings were two rooms down, but they meant little to me. I had my gun and money; anything else could be bought on the road or borrowed from Wilcox until I could buy it. I was used to traveling light.
When I turned back around, Fredericks hadn’t gotten dressed. Instead, he stared defiantly at me and said, “What if I don’t?”
I gave him my best smile. “Then you go out that door as you are and let the fine people of this town see more of you than they ever wanted.”
He got dressed. Wilcox said to me, “You got a plan?”
“No.” I checked my Colt. “This one’s pretty simple. Use the son of a bitch as a shield. Ditch him outside of town. His father, if that’s who I heard downstairs, isn’t gonna want his son to be in the middle of a hail of bullets.” That gave me paused and I said to the prisoner, “Is he?”
“He’s the Mayor,” Fredericks said. “So no, he sure as shit ain’t.”
“The Mayor,” I said to Wilcox.
“You played cards with the goddamn Mayor’s son.”
“You’d think he was rich enough he didn’t need to cheat.”
“I told you not to play.”
He chose not to acknowledge me this time. He slung his bag over his shoulder. “Horses in the stable?”
“No, I let ’em wander around for a while, maybe get a drink, maybe a quick lay. Horses got needs too.”
“Now ain’t the time for jokes.”
I shook my head. “Mayor’s son,” I said. “You ride here?”
“Naw,” he said, slipping on his pants. “I flew.”
Cocky son of a bitch. But I noticed how gingerly he was moving. Wilcox had some power in his fists. I wasn’t sure he could smash a brick, but I wasn’t confident enough to bet on the brick.
When the prisoner was done dressing, I grabbed some more rope—Wilcox always had more rope—and bound Fredericks’s hands again, this time in front. He stared at my hands as I did it, as though he had thought I was going to let him go. When I was done, he met my eyes and said, “Don’t you know who I am?”
“The Mayor’s son,” I said.
“A cheat,” Wilcox said.
“I wasn’t cheating, goddammit!”
“Doesn’t matter,” I said, checking to make sure the rope held.
“But I wasn’t! He just thought I was.”
“We’re here now,” I told him. “Your honor at the cards table means nothing. All that matters is you do what we tell you to do, and nothing but what we tell you to do. That’s the only way you’re gonna make it outta this.”
I grabbed his chin and jerked his head roughly, so that his face was just inches from my own.
“You do what we say,” I said. “That is how you live through this. If you don’t, you’ll be the first one to eat lead. You understand?”
The haughtiness didn’t vanish from his eyes so much as it drained slowly. The fear that replaced it was childish and primal, and I trusted it a hell of a lot more. A frightened man obeys because he can think of nothing else. Fear strips away individuality and independent thought. All men are equal when they are afraid.
I let Fredericks go and turned to Wilcox. “You ready?”
He scoffed, and I nodded acknowledgement. Of course he was ready.
I pulled out my Colt and cocked it. I gestured to our prisoner. “You go first. Don’t run. Just be calm. We want you to live as much as you do.” Not quite the truth; I didn’t much care either way, and Wilcox actively wanted the opposite. But Fredericks’s survival meant our survival as well. Or at least I hoped as much.
We left the room and walked casually down the hall. Casual, that is, except for my Colt and Wilcox’s carbine, and Fredericks glancing over his shoulder every few seconds as though I would change my mind and put a few new holes into him. When we reached the stairs, I told him to stop. I said it loud enough so that anyone waiting at the bottom of the stairs would hear. I listened for a few seconds. The hotel had grown even quieter. Customers gently asked to leave. Barflies told to get the hell out. Only a few voices, and though I couldn’t make out the words, they seem pointed and purposeful.
I glanced at Wilcox. He shrugged.
“Go down,” I said to Fredericks. “Slowly.”
He complied. The stairs creaked. It wasn’t a good hotel. We reached the bottom and turned the corner that led into the lobby, and Fredericks came to a stop. I almost walked into him. I thought about barking an order but I held up.
The lobby was mostly empty. The concierge behind the desk, because he always had to be there. He didn’t look happy about it. A man I took to be the owner, given his suit and portliness, standing next to a slim, grey-haired man to whom Fredericks’s gaze was immediately drawn. Flawless suit, beard trimmed perfectly. So thin if he turned in profile he might disappear from view. But the look on his face was set and serious, and I knew him to be a man who had always done what he thought necessary, whether or not the law agreed. I also figured him to be the law, at least wherever he kept his kingdom.
“Dexter,” this man said.
Two of the black-coated guns for hire from outside had come in. They stood near the door, hands on their belts near their guns, but not menacingly. They weren’t show. They were professionals. Luck was not on our side.
“Father,” our prisoner said. Formal, yet cowardly. This was not a father who spared the rod.
The man studied his son for only a few seconds. Took in the ruin of his face, the blood on his clothes. Then he looked at Wilcox and said, “You will pay for this.”
The man turned his attention to me. “I am told you were not at the card game, and therefore perhaps had no part in this,” he said. “I am willing to grant you your life if you walk away from this.”
The son started to say something. I rammed the barrel of my revolver into his spine and said, “The offer is generous, but I have a better one.”
The old man nodded once, sharply. “Go ahead.”
“My friend and I leave town. With your son. We go to the stable, grab our horses, and ride west. You don’t follow. A few miles out of town, we let the boy off. Give us an hour. Then you come and get him. Maybe he’ll make it back to town by then.” I glanced at Fredericks. “Probably not. But when you reach him he’ll be alive and no further harm will have come to him.”
The Mayor gave it consideration. He was a man of business, a successful one at that. He had more guns. We had his son. The numbers fell in our favor no matter how you looked at it. Blood favors blood almost every time. There was always that exception, when a father turned out not to give a shit about his child. This was not one of those occasions. If it had been, they would have stormed Wilcox’s room and blown us all to hell. We were still alive because we held the trump card. I was terrible at the card table, but when it came to gambling with lives, I had so far turned out on top most every time.
“You drop him off,” the old man said. “And my men will come get him. But then they’ll come after you. You know this.”
“I do,” I said. “You won’t be with them. That will be between us and them. You’ll have your son back. That’s all that should concern you.”
His eyes held mine. No fear in him. Complete confidence. He was a man who always got his way, through sheer willpower. He was not one to back down. He would not rest until Wilcox and I had paid for this indiscretion. He was a man who held firm to a certain kind of justice, his own personal interpretation of right and wrong.
And I could live with that. I was counting on that. I needed him to understand me.
He did. Another curt nod of his head. And that was it.
Fredericks balked. “Father,” he started, and I twisted the Colt’s barrel into the small of his back. He squeaked, and I swear I saw the old man wince in embarrassment. In another place and time, I might’ve liked the old bastard. Or at least felt bad about kidnapping his son. But we are all subject to the whims of Fate, which I don’t even believe in but have come to accept. You can never tell how men will divide themselves against each other. I’d seen brothers fight each other in war, killing each other because they had a different interpretation of humanity. What makes us men also creates a permanent severance between us. Sometimes we fall on one side; sometimes the other. It was the latter I often found myself in, thanks to my trade. I couldn’t help what I was good at. No more than the Mayor could. We were two men staring at each other across a cavern, and it was the distance between us that created the animosity, made us enemies. Any hypothetical alternatives were meaningless, because the reality could never be changed. Sympathy and empathy are a reasonable man’s enemy, when he deals in violence and lead.
The Mayor didn’t stop us as we walked outside. The remaining black coats, including the scarred man, lingered on the porch. They did not seem surprised to see us. I could sense Wilcox bristling behind me, but I thought it bad form to turn around and tell him to be calm. Fredericks saw the men and seemed to take some confidence in their presence, so I pressed the gun barrel to his back again to remind him of his immediate priorities.
The scarred man, older than the others and bearing the air of superior rank, stepped forward. He didn’t go for his gun. He knew the score. If we were outside it was because the Mayor wanted us to be. He let his eyes drift over Wilcox’s face, took in the Winchester. Then he moved on to me, studying my eyes like he expected to find some deep truth in them. I knew better, but I held his gaze because I had to. You do not look away from a man like this.
“I’m going to kill you,” he said.
He was not trying to intimidate me, and I respected that. Intimidation is meaningless in a situation like that. It holds no weight.
I did not flinch at his words. I’m not sure he expected me to. Instead, I inclined my head ever so slightly and said, “Not this time.”
He liked that. He stepped back, and I thought with such a man on my trail, I would have several sleepless nights in my future.
We got our horses from the stable. Mine and Wilcox’s weren’t much, but they were solid animals who didn’t mind a man’s weight. Frederick’s horse was, as I’d anticipated, a marvelous animal, and his saddle elaborate and expensive. We got the animals ready and rode out of the stable. The black coats were gathered all in a group. The scarred man smiled and tipped his hat at me. My palm grew sweaty but I nodded back. So be it.
Fredericks led the way, me behind him and Wilcox in the rear. No guarantee no bullets would hit us in the back, but neither the scarred man nor the Mayor was the kind to shoot a man who wasn’t facing him. So we rode out of town with the best confidence we could muster, an experience not entirely unknown to me. I had my revolver ready. If I was to be killed, I would sure as hell do some killing first.
The town faded behind us. The scarred man followed us all the way, until the houses began to fall behind. He stopped at what I figured was the exact town limit, and he watched us until we were out of view. We rode in silence, except for the occasional sound from Fredericks, whimpers and grunts and hisses of pain and embarrassment and shame. At one point I realized he was crying, and I wondered when the last time he’d shed tears had been. Surely not since he was in diapers. He wore privilege like a cloak. All his needs met. Everything he’d ever wanted at his fingertips. He didn’t seem much like his father, but he’d inherited the social circle if nothing else. And when your family has formed its own kingdom, who you groomed to admire you was all that mattered.
We rode. The new horses took naturally to us. Frederick’s horse seemed perfectly suited to him—a regal animal that barely even glanced at the others. I could feel the scarred man’s gaze on me long after he was out of sight, and I held firmly to it. Couldn’t ignore him until he’d ceased to be a factor. That was how you stayed alive, if you were to call this a life.
After about an hour, Wilcox rode up beside me. I said, “This is on you.”
He knew. He didn’t have to say so. Instead, he said, “When we dropping the cheat off?”
We were well into the forest by then. The road was poorly trafficked and we’d only met a handful of travelers, none of whom had bothered to give us much of their attention. A brief, courteous greeting and nothing else. Relished anonymity. We were all just going somewhere.
Fredericks had heard Wilcox’s question. He glanced over his shoulder. There was no haughtiness in him now. He had been rendered down to his mere essentials. A shell of himself. I wondered if he would ever recover, until I realized that I didn’t care. I would never see him again.
“This is good,” I said. “Sun’s getting low.”
Fredericks stopped his horse. His eyes met mine but he said nothing. I saw gratitude in his face. I saw acceptance. I saw hope. Fear also. Fear that he would feel for the rest of his life, perhaps that he had always felt but had never found a proper expression for.
Wilcox rode up beside Fredericks, who flinched at his presence.
“Damn cheat,” Wilcox said.
“Cut him loose,” I said. “It’ll buy us some time. Not much, but some.”
Wilcox nodded. Then he raised the Winchester across his horse and fired. Fredericks jerked, his mouth falling open, his eyes springing wide to take in the world. The bullet struck his heart and surely killed him instantly, but for a second there he seemed to see something deep and incredible, a revelation the likes of us living could never comprehend. It filled him with pain or fear, or maybe that was just the bullet carving its way through his body. He went stiff, his muscles taking their final shape, and then he slid to the side and fell off the horse, hitting the dirt road in a thud of dust.
His horse neighed and trotted away, coming to a stop a few feet distant. I stared at the body, then glanced at Wilcox. He looked back at me and I thought I saw a taunt in his face I had seen before. Are we going to do it now? Is this it? But I didn’t lift my Colt; instead, I holstered the piece and looked towards the sky. A flock of geese flew overhead. The great muddy river, out of sight but not far away. I could almost feel it.
Wilcox rode over to Frederick’s horse and grabbed the reigns. I followed him. “Good animal,” he said. “I might trade up.”
I said nothing. I started off and after a few seconds I heard the sound of hooves behind me. I tried not to think of much, of the young man in the road or the black shirts making their way towards us. Nor of the man who rode behind me whom I trusted not to put a bullet in my back but had no real reason for that trust other than he hadn’t done it yet. I thought of the fluidity of violence and those who embraced it. I thought of Georgia and the smoke and fire ignited in the name of righteousness. And after a while I tried to stop thinking of everything altogether but I couldn’t.
Daniel Davis is a native of rural East-Central Illinois. His work has appeared in various online and print journals. You can find him at Facebook.com/DanielDavis05, or @dan_davis86 on Twitter.