(an excerpt from Honey from the Lion, forthcoming from Lookout Books)
A hundred men, there had to be, in Cur’s railroad car. With a steaming sigh, the engine came to life. The block was raised. Rods and gudgeons and spindles pumped with a guttural cadence. Rich with sweat, the timber wolves had packed themselves in, smelling of salty flannel and hair restorer, heads slick and iridescent, their cheeks and hands still tacky with smut. The engine—a forty-ton Shay—jostled their smiles as it bounced the cars. Endless racking sounds, like billiards. The Shay, everyone’s engine of choice and praised so dear, dropped through the cut at Big Lime with a silver keen. The young ones plugged their ears. The old didn’t bother.
Like sunflowers, the wolves dished their faces to the sky. Light was a luxury the forest denied them. They clenched their eyes shut and savored the warmth, showing off the white undersides of their chins. They flexed hands to chase away the aches, the ones that made every knuckle joint sing. Teamsters and sawyers, filers and bulls, tallymen and grade crews, buckers and trimmermen with pitch on their hands. It was an open car, a cattle car really, which in their pride they tried to ignore. Hiss of steam, rack of pistons—it sounded like the metal would wrench itself apart. They squeezed their mouths tight against wheeling cinders, moustaches gathering bits of ash. Letters to post, women to find. Laudanum, too. Pay stubs!—now that would soothe an ache. Dizzy with motion, and rest.
September 30, 1904. Payday, and two thousand had money to spend.
Packed among the bodies, Cur tried to stand apart as best he could. He needed to find Amos Church—they were in the union together, and despised one another, but that is the nature of associations. Cur had been chosen for this errand of weapons, chosen over Amos by Amos’s own father. Vance Church had taken a shine to Cur. The book in Cur’s coat pocket beat on his ribs. Cur felt a thrill of joy and dread. That’s right, Amos, he thought. Serves you right. Your own dad don’t trust you.
Both were Camp Five. Amos must be onboard. Somewhere. Cur wanted to see Amos before Amos saw him, but the heron nagged at him, pure distraction, the thought of its frivolous end. When Cur was a boy, they shot every fish-eater they saw: eagle, osprey, otter, whatever stole a mouthful off your table. But Cur was a fisherman no more, nor plowman, nor hunter.
He overheard McBride, his cousin and friend, warning the young of the barber in town. “If you go to the barber,” McBride said, “go early in the morning. He gets wobbly drinking green hair tonic through the day—come noon he can’t cut your sideburns even, he’ll nip your ear, say, ‘Look! You moved on me! Look what you made me do!’”
Cur felt the wind blow through him, and he shivered a little in his wet clothes, a premonition of the winter to come, when even the rocks groan with cold. Amos was nineteen years old, a slippery age, new here and just young enough to frustrate Cur, who was twenty-seven in this long year, still wiry and strong, not old and not young either, because the Blackpine camps put hours on your life. But every season has its comforts and afflictions. Cur’s father used to lay bets with friends on what morning they’d see frost on the pumpkin.
Switchback after jolting switchback. When they cut the grade, McBride claimed to anyone who’d listen, the lazy engineers followed a rattlesnake up the hollow. Cur chewed his thumbnail, then spat, cringing. Bite of pine pitch on his tongue.
Cur passed through the swaying bodies. When he finally spotted Amos, he jumped a little in his skin. Easing behind, Cur felt a crazy nervousness, like a bachelor knocking on a widow’s door. Amos had eyes a bottle-glass blue, a smart and mean cut of mouth. Perhaps Amos was the kind Cur ought to be. Or could not be. A bomb- thrower. An unsmiling man. These stories had followed Amos from Youngstown, Ohio. Cur wished he could ask if they were true. Had he bombed the industrialist’s parlor? Killed the family inside? Amos once broke his own father’s jaw—everyone knew it for a fact.
Amos realized Cur was watching him. For fun, he drifted out of Cur’s sight line, to make him scramble and fret. Amos knew why his father had chosen Cur: a local man, not an outsider. Amos could work here twenty years and never be one of them. His own voice set people on edge—too midwestern, too clean, and theirs that warbling mountain twang. Still he despised the man. You could bend Cur like a reed in water. He thinks he can be everyone’s friend, Amos thought. To be everyone’s friend is to be no one’s friend. Cur had that glad-handing smile, his good looks, but not too good, a handsome man knocked askew: a slouch to his right shoulder, the missing eyeteeth that made a tall void in his smile. A fellow like that could bite off puppy heads and the world would forgive him. So make him fret. Amos kept on moving down the car. He slipped a hand in his pocket, polishing the nickel-plated derringer with his thumb. His father’s book of names gave his jacket a welcome heft, balancing the pistol. A five-dollar sort of gun that could reasonably be expected to blow up in your hand, taking every digit in a silver cloud.
Amos couldn’t joke and didn’t smile—the West Virginians could forgive much, but never that. He couldn’t tell you a story.
The Number Four Shay shuddered north, hiccupping gouts of steam. Sooty green and Chinese red, what a vision, dragging a comet’s tail of sparks and cinders. Couplings gnashed. Hot grease and ozone. Pummeling rods. The Shay stitched itself back and forth across the river and shook the trestles. The rails thrummed up through the legs. The wolves praised the engineer—he never pulled that whistle, not even on the blindest turn. He was a bellowsome man, telling how he’d whistle once for a cow on the tracks, twice for a woman, three times for God himself. Workers and wildlife ought to know better than to loll about a Cheat River line. He wore a Sons of Temperance pin, and it was said he’d like nothing more than to dice a sleeping drunkard, just to prove a point. “Got to check a weld,” he laughed. “See how stout that cowcatcher really is.”
The segmented cars cracked like a toy snake. Here, a flickering landscape of creosoted ties, deadfalls, and piles of greenbrier deep enough to swallow a country chapel. Here, a rowdy hand of crows laughing in a railside cedar. The tree had been overlooked somehow, not a single ax-bite upon it. A sawyer pitched a worn-out boot from the train. It left a quivering hole in the branches, and the tree shivered. The crows broke upward like they’d been called back to heaven.
“Caw, caw, caw!” a man cried after.
Amos clutched a slat for balance, and his hand stung, still tender from days of learning the ax. September was a slight chill pleasing his neck, the board bread-warm to the cheek. So much finer than the mills of Youngstown, where the smelter dried your skin to parchment, even singed the hair from your arms. Here, wind smelled of fermenting sawdust, salamanders, the faintly metallic bite of river water—soon it would be cold enough to bleed hogs. Amos felt his hatband burning. Twenty-five dollars were tucked into the brim. Another twenty-eight were due him at the railroad office. He had plans for his month’s pay, down to the last dime. He wasn’t like the others, who had little but frolic in mind. They told that you’d get into the Eagleback by knocking three times and chanting, “Seven dogs pissing on a wall.” If you went to the Winners Lounge, you shouted through the keyhole, “I want to lick the gravy off the platter!”
He didn’t know that the older ones were having a little fun with him.
A few waggled themselves through the slats and pissed out the side. Amos cut his eyes away so no one would think him funny.
Cur was watching him. Amos nodded. Caught, Cur blushed and pardoned himself as he stepped through the bodies. He put on a showy smile and shook his head, saying, “What’s the word?”
Amos regarded him coolly.
“Waiting on you to come over and pal up to me. Just do what I’m told, no matter how foolish.”
Hunkering down in an unclaimed corner, they made a show of rolling cigarettes, though neither particularly wanted to smoke.
Amos said in a low, guttural tone, “You’re getting blasting caps off that funny lady.”
“I’m getting guns.”
“No, you’re getting caps. Don’t argue with me. You know where you’re going?”
“I know her.” Amos smiled. “Sounds like everybody knows her,” he said. Cur wouldn’t rise to that. Now Amos began to curse. This was
his best trick: the sudden fury of a wasp. “By rights I ought to keep this money to myself. Do this right. I’m supposed to be in on this. I’d’ve stayed in Youngstown. This is a notch down. Hell, ass end. I should leave …”
Cur thought, Please do. “I don’t like you going round my back,” Amos said, fairly hissing.
Others began to notice. Cur spoke in measured tones. “Nobody’s going round your back. You’re tetchy. This is between you and your dad. I don’t stand in the middle.”
“Yeah, it would be, but you go talking into ears and they go talking to Dad. You and Neversummer. I know how it goes. I should be running this.”
Cur lifted the cigarette and licked the paper. “Ain’t like that,” he said. “I never said word one against you. Ask anybody.” But everyone knew what he thought of this fire-eater, this devil. One time, in front of too many people, he called Amos a needledick. Backbiters seemed to run to Amos as quick as their gleeful legs could carry, to tell what they’d heard. Cur finished by saying, “I just do what I’m told.” He hadn’t meant to mimic the boy’s earlier words. It came out as a slight, just the same.
Amos asked, “You think I do what I’m told?”
The train made it hard to kneel. Cur lit a match off a ragged thumbnail and brought it to his mouth. He puffed and watched the other men.
“You look sick,” Amos told him.
Cur shook his head to cut the wave of nausea. It wasn’t the motion of the train.
Amos settled. He had made his point. He reached in his jacket and worked a thick envelope out of his father’s book. He placed it flat on the boards, then slid it to Cur. Needlessly said, “Don’t count it here.”
Cur eased another book from his person, cut the envelope into the pages, and returned it to the inner lining of his coat. The light from the slats played on his face. Amos frowned.
“That a Bible?”
“Naw. A cowboy book, by Colonel Gantry. Like Frank and Jesse James? They’re a fine read.” Cur felt he was babbling—Amos gave him nerves. “It’s a two-in-one. No back cover. That’s a good deal, right?”
Amos’s face said nothing, not even in the lines of his eyes. Cur waited for a fleeting grin. It didn’t come, and he felt stupid. He swabbed out his cigarette on the board. “Look,” he said, “you be surprised how much I agree with you. No need bumping heads.”
“People got a problem with me, they ought to lay it on the table. I’m straightforward. I say what I feel. I don’t dance around it,” Amos said.
“I’m not dancing. Everybody knows about Youngstown. It weren’t your finest hour.”
“They weren’t even there! They couldn’t even find it on a map!”
“I’m not the boss,” Cur told him. “You got to talk to your dad.”
“You’re unreliable. I don’t know how anybody could be dumb enough to trust you.” Amos sucked at a tooth. “You know what I did in Youngstown? Some might not admit it, but I had a dozen begging me to do it and ten dozen thanking me after. Yes, it was a fine hour. You believe it. They know it’s time to drain the swamp. People are tired of waiting.”
“You blowed up a man’s house. With his family in it.”
“That’s right. Could you do that?”
Cur didn’t answer.
“That’s right,” Amos said, rising off his haunches. “You don’t know what to say, do you? You don’t know what to say unless five people tell you. What’s worse is you don’t even know what to think.” With that, Amos walked to the other end of the car.
Red-faced, Cur unbuckled his belt and eased up to the slats. He was too rattled to go at first. The Shay gathered speed. He calmed and took a long piss, which fell in shimmering streamers upon the grade. He had the sickening feeling that Amos was right. How could someone just look at you like that, drill down into your mind, and hold out your thoughts in front of you? He dreamt of leaving the camps for his stepmother’s farm, turning away from their cause. Amos was right—Cur was afraid of what they could accomplish in the world. Living in failure was easy. You could always blame someone else. The union had two months. Cur passed the days like stones.
He recalled an awful night meeting in the caves, just weeks ago. Before that, he had thought Amos liked him or was, at worst, indifferent. The union headmen had not finished saying their piece about a planned strike when Amos cut in, addressing Cur in front of the Woodworkers Brotherhood, a couple dozen strong. Amos said, “You’re too close to Captain Ketch. Why’s he always calling you into his office? You’ve been in there three times this week. He’s a Company man.” When Cur explained the captain was just a good feller and liked to talk hunting, Amos asked how many hours two men can talk hunting, and Cur said that if he had to ask, he’s clearly no hunter. Several laughed shyly, digging in the cave mud with the toes of their boots. Amos kept on. “I heard you discussing rifles with him. Krag rifles. Why would you bring up the make, caliber, and vintage of rifles we’re using?”
Cur felt like he’d been bitten on the face. “The captain’s country people. Like us. You wouldn’t understand.”
“I understand perfectly,” Amos said. “You have a particular friendship. You have to be giving that information to him purposely.”
At this, Vance Church cut in and made Amos stop, but he also chastised Cur: “It ain’t nothing against you. Quit talking to the captain.We got to hold everybody to a high standard.” It bothered Cur. Why hadn’t Vance jumped in earlier? Maybe he wanted to hear what Cur would say. Maybe Vance had planned this scene.
And now Cur was assigned to work with the one who hated him most. To keep an eye, perhaps. Near the long cut, mile marker 88, the Shay erupted in powdery bursts of orange and black. The engineer couldn’t hear the soft thunks but reached out a hand- kerchief and swabbed the brilliant filth off the metal. He held the cloth to his face and studied it like a bill of sale. The train was slashing through a shivering cloud of monarch butterflies. Arms laced through the slats, the timber wolves felt smacking on their hands, like the raps of nuns and schoolteachers. A veteran of the Spanish War jumped back, thinking a bullet had nipped him. Cur caught one on the wrist. He pulled his arm into the car and wiped it brightly on a breast pocket. Between thumb and forefinger, he clutched a sheared wing that glittered with spots. Butterflies and halves of butterflies clung to hats and vests, dressing the men gaudy as dancing girls. One lifted a dusty finger to his tongue and made a sour face. To chase off the taste, the fellow—a worn-out sawyer with a caved jaw—worked a plug of tobacco into the good side of his face.
The sight of the butterflies distracted the engineer. He gave a little cry and wrenched at the brake. The train heaved itself around a bend, and everyone caught themselves with one rippling motion.
The sawyer choked on his tobacco and pitched forward, touching off a yawing wave of bodies. Amos took an elbow so sharp he thought he’d been stabbed. He found himself eye to eye with Vaughn McBride, the teamster with a mixed reputation, and a cousin of Cur’s. McBride wore an epic and feathered hat, one you never forgot. Mended here and there with gut, it was decorated with what looked like silvery religious medallions pinched along the band. Closer examination revealed them to be worthless scrip from company towns. McBride had taken care to scour the coins of rust, taking the very words off them, even though his own neglected arms were stained from years on the reins.
Amos checked his pistol. The chamber was light by three .22 short rounds, but you could fill it in town for a dime apiece. A shopkeep kept them rolling loose in a candy dish.
“Why you keep your hand in your pocket? Can you not wait?” McBride asked, miming a jacking motion with his hand. “You can buy you a good old girl in Hell-town. Can’t spin without hitting one. You know how to give her the copper penny test?” McBride didn’t wait for an answer. “Take you a penny, rub it good on your fingers. When you reach down there, she burns your fingertips, you know she got a bad hole. Don’t want a bad hole, do you?”
Amos shook his head, embarrassed. Calm now, Cur stepped up just in time to enjoy Amos’s writhing.
“Or this will happen to you!” McBride held up a hand. It was missing the ring finger above the first knuckle. Everyone laughed, especially Cur. McBride stuck out his hand and demanded, “Shake! Shake my hand!” Having no choice, Amos took the battered claw. McBride’s grin was a cracked jug. “Aw, don’t sull up. No girl took my finger. Was a trash horse done that. The old stump-puller was sweet as could be; I shoulda known. That Belgian, I must tucked a ring bit in his mouth fifty times over without a hitch. One morning, snap! Him cocked like a rattlesnake to do it. Had a calm look in his eye all the while. I’m so startled I just look at him. Froze there, the both of us. Know how a horse bites? Once they clamp down, their teeths got to meet! I hear click, and I know my finger’s lost and swallowed. Blue Ruin comes in and says, ‘You look sick, Vaughn.’ I says, ‘Get me straw and sheep tallow before I bleed to death.’”
So smart, so evil, that horse! McBride admired it. An elder here, he wasn’t sure of his own age but looked a hard fifty. He loved talking sex and horses. The only thing he hated on this earth was a horse merchant. He didn’t believe horseflesh should be bought and sold, but why fight it? He once caught a merchant screwing a plug of gingerroot into the ass of a busted Percheron to make it lift its tail and step lively. McBride reached in, pulled out the plug, and told the merchant he was going to shove that gingerroot up his ass. But rather than feaguing the man to death, McBride simply kicked him. After that, the Company had McBride broker all their draft horses. He wasn’t a union man. He would’ve laughed at the notion of a strike, even to Cur. He lacked that hard vein of an- ger the union men had. All the teamsters did, haughty craftsmen, unwilling to rely on any other man. McBride said wistfully of the demon horse, “He could’ve taken my whole hand if he wanted to.” He looked Amos full in the face and said, “You ever see a Friday turn to Saturday in Helena?” McBride whistled through a gap in his teeth, big enough to take a ten-aught chisel. “Nothing like it used to be. Back in 1900, I come into a little money, and I’d keep four bottles of whiskey in four hotel rooms and treat the night like day and the day like night.”
“I’ve lived in the city,” Amos said. “A naked woman doesn’t turn my head.”
McBride leaned in close. “So you’re learned in the sacred arts?” In a hoarse whisper, he said, “They got a woman at the Winners Lounge’ll spurt water at you out of her thing.” McBride’s high, shivering laugh jumped men for twenty feet, even over the shriek of the gudgeons. “They call her the porpoise. She can snuff a candle. From five paces, she can.”
Amos grinned in spite of himself. McBride liked that. He admitted, “There’s no woman here like that. She’s in the state capital, they say, where there’s more call for amusements.”
They passed acres of slash, stumps wide enough for men to sleep upon. The Shay slowed and snuffled, taking the grade. Sunning rattlesnakes felt itchy vibrations and eased from the rails. The scent of sodden sawdust rode the wind.
McBride pretended to notice Cur for the first time, though he’d been standing there all along. “Well, it’s the birdslayer! Lock up your daughters and your cows! Sound the church bells in warning! Yes, they wanted to hang him for unnatural carnal acts with domestic stock whilst standing atop a stolen bucket, but he bribed the jury, all of them kissing cousins, the J. P. was fit to kill …” McBride liked to sing his friends, could call you sister-fucker and make it sound like high praise. “Yes, I seen him drunk on hair oil and bent double with the walking clap, but we think a lot of ole Cur.” He praised Cur above all others.
Several called Cur’s name, slapping his shoulders, offering him sly, accusing looks.
Cur said to Amos, “I see you fell in with questionable stock. I hope you got money. My cousin here will make you spend it.” Winking, Cur suggested a haircut, and started McBride cussing the barber again.
At the thought of money, Cur felt a flutter of panic. The envelope. He clutched his side like a wounded man and found it. Amos glared. It was a look that shriveled you.
They smelled the tannery, rank as a broken abscess. They had come to the limits of town.
From Honey from the Lion. Used with permission of Lookout Books of UNC Wilmington. Copyright © 2015 by Matthew Neill Null.
Matthew Neill Null is a recipient of the Mary McCarthy Prize and the Michener–Copernicus Society of America Award, and his fiction appears in American Short Fiction, Ecotone, the Oxford American, Ploughshares, The PEN /O. Henry Prize Stories, and The Best American Mystery Stories. A native of West Virginia, he holds an MFA from the Iowa Writers’ Workshop and was a fellow at the Fine Arts Work Center in Provincetown, Massachusetts, where he is currently the writing coordinator. Honey from the Lion is his first novel.