Illustration for The Brutal and the Simple

The Brutal and the Simple

January 2014 | Illustration by Galen Dara

I rode like hell down the shit and dirt we called a road. Head down, I pushed on, spurring the horse under me to just keep going. I’d wear the horse out, I knew, but being smart and careful wasn’t in the cards. Not now. Now was a time for running. My Pa’d chide me for cowardice, but let him come up out of the grave and face down this level of bullshit and then he could give me more endless sermons.

Doc Kemper used to tell me the secret of humanity was that we are both brutal and simple. Now, I always did disagree with the good Doctor, mostly because of the fact that none of my friends’d ever shown themselves either brutal, or simple. The Doc’d be laughing right now, next to my Pa.

“Anthony,” he’d tell me, “trust in the Lord. Believe in your fellow man but understand they’re fallible.” He laugh and nod before tossing in his closer. “Always carry spare ammunition, is what I’m saying.” And we’d have another drink and ease the night to bed. Still. I didn’t believe him. I didn’t want to. And now, my face pressed against this sweaty horse neck as dust kicked up and wind tore at my clothes, I realized he’d been right all along.

A sharp crack sounded by my head and I jumped in my seat, startled. The horse startled too, and took it as a chance to throw me and take off at right angles to where I landed, hard, on the ground. Traitor.

A second crack, followed by the whine of a ricochet, exploded the dirt near my hips. I grabbed the bag, oh that bag clutched tightly in my fist, and fumbled until I stood. Running, could you call it running. I hobbled into some scrub brush as best I could. It wouldn’t give me cover, not really, but it might hide me a while. Night was falling, regardless.

I stayed there and remembered when my life had turned to crap.

It was a Thursday. The explosion rattled my ears. Standing too close to the blast again, like a fool. I choked on and was blinded by dust. Grit scraped across my eyes as I squeezed them shut and rubbed them.

“What?” Bertrand shouted at me, following up by thumping his fist into my shoulder.

“Just coughing up half this mine,” I said.

Gabby laughed at that. She would. The woman never seemed to have problems in the mines no matter what happened. Light went out and she’d learn to see in the dark. Air got thin she’d just stop breathing. Seemed like much of nothing could make Gabby flinch.

I admit, in those days my estimations may have been a bit higher than reality, when it came to Gabby, as I was decidedly sweet on her. Not that she knew. No, if she’d known she would have mercilessly teased me about it and made it a point of humor for the whole crew. So I kept my peace.

We were a small crew of four, if you counted Kyle. Kyle did the lifting mostly. We didn’t place much stock in his thinking and, though we all stood close in each others estimations, I’d have to admit that more than once we each considered Kyle a piece of equipment more than a man on the team. Kyle’d been the only one not in the mine when we blasted, seeing as how he’d been lugging a load of rubble up topside.

Something glinted ahead in the lamplight. The dust tried to settle and I swiped at it with my hand, hurrying it along as I moved forward. Gold. It had to be gold. That sort of glitter wasn’t no shanty rock or normal quarry stone, it could only be gold. I hacked around it with a chisel and pried it free. This was a coal mine, or was gonna be when we got deep enough. Gold wasn’t on the menu. The vein popped free and fell to the ground with a solid thump. Yup, if it weighed that much it’d be gold.

I showed it to Bert and Gabby both, and Kyle when he came back and we discussed our fortune. “Folk,” I told them, “this is it. This here lump funds the rest of the mine with no worries. Why, we could hire others to do the rest of the work for us and just kick back and laugh.”

“Or we could split it and just abandon the mine,” Bertrand said.

Gabby cut in, “It ain’t gonna last a lifetime, split four ways. Now if only one of us—”

“It’s all our find, together,” I said. Now truth the mine was mostly mine, Cardno Mine, the deed said, but these were my partners. Fair only counts when it it’s easier not to be.

“Yeah, ours. Together.” Gabby said. A look in her eye and I saw a hardness I’d never noticed before. I brushed it off. I shoulda paid better attention.

A rattlesnake made itself known near the scrub I hunkered behind. Forget Thursday. Thursday laid dead to me. I dropped the bag on the snake, cruelly, letting the weight of the gold inside crush it quick. Best thing that gold had done for me so far.

The worst part about that Thursday, the sun setting as we left the mine with the gold bundled up in secret, had to be that it was now, as I laid waiting to be shot, only Friday night. One day is all it took. I grabbed the rattler, with its crushed skull, and looked around. Horse long gone, edge of the desert, no supplies — this would be where I died if I wasn’t smart. And by smart I mean stupidly lucky.

A third shot called out, lifting a clump of dirt near the bushes. “Anthony,” Kyle shouted from the darkened distance, “Just come out and I won’t have to shoot you.”

“You tried shooting me well before I was hid,” I yelled back. He knew where I was, anyway, didn’t matter none telling him. Only Kyle would claim this was hid.

I took a chance. I stood up, rattlesnake in one hand and the incredibly heavy bag in the other. “Fine, Kyle,” I said, spotting him just standing there with his rifle aimed at me, “here I am, then. No shooting, right?”

“No shooting, Anthony,” he said. “Just toss over the bag.”

I wound my arm back, to toss over the gold, but threw the dead snake at his head, instead. He threw his arms up, dropping the rifle, at it sailed through the air toward him. We would’ve laughed about his fear of a snake he didn’t know was already dead, in the old days.

These days, instead, I rushed him, knocking him over and kicking the rifle away. He flailed more as we tangled and the gold bag swung down accidently, catching him in the head. We lay there and I realized Kyle wasn’t moving no more. The bag, stained red, sat too deeply in his skull to mean anything other than stupidly lucky won the day. I hated myself for feeling grateful.

But I pushed the hate down and took his gun and his horse and made for town again. If I could get back to town and the Sheriff I could maybe survive this night. So I started to ride again, just as hard as I’d ridden while running from Kyle. I knew that Bert and Gabby were out there, hunting me, but I also still wanted to believe they’d come to their sense before anyone else had to be hurt.

Town lay a good twenty miles away and the darkness ate all land navigation. I used the stars best I could, wishing I could be up there and not stuck down here with this shit-eating life. Kyle’s horse didn’t like it, being pushed to ride again after such a short rest. I didn’t like it either, would’ve loved a nap, or maybe something to eat beside my own fear in the last twelve hours or so, but we had to do what we could to survive. The night grew cold, out there, and I leaned down on the horse to share some of his warmth. We made it back to town somewhere approaching midnight, and I let the horse go free. He just stood there, on the verge of collapse. I felt the same and sighed, leading him to the nearest trough to drink his fill.

Hefting the bag once more, I walked to the Sheriff’s office, seeing a light still on. The door opened with a kick, and I dropped the bag on a nearby desk. Stood near it, too, of course, while Sheriff Danes came by to look me over. He didn’t look surprised. That put the fear back into me, my bowels feeling weak.

“Tony,” Danes said, tipping his hat back slowly, “you come to turn yourself in?”

“Wait, am I here to what?” My hand reached out for the bag again. I stopped, my fingers just touching it, when the Sheriff laid hand on his gun. He could draw quick, I knew, and Kyle’s rifle… crap I left it on the horse. Shooting a Sheriff wasn’t on my big list of things to get done, anyhow.

“Now, Tony, Bert already told me you stole from your crew. Said you’d try and hide here if possible, and spin some tale. Let’s just have that bag there and round everyone up to settle this.” Danes started walking toward me slowly, hand still on the butt of his gun.

I held out the bag and let Danes get closer. He could get the drop on me, fast draw that he was. Still, something people who aren’t miners never seem to wrap their heads around: gold’s damn heavy. Heavy as a man, a bag of it this size. It don’t take much. Now when you spend your days hauling rock you get used to it. We were all of us built for it and used to reinforced bags for lugging stuff around. But a sheriff, no, he’d give it no mind at all.

He got close and I held the bag out to him and then made it look like my hand slipped, dropping the bag. Pretty sure I could hear every bone in his foot shatter like kindling. That was before he screamed up a storm, of course. I grabbed his gun from the hostler, quick as I could, and pistol-whipped him to sweet unconsciousness. I gotta say it was a kindness I did to him then, not having to feel that foot.

Danes got dragged into the nearest cell, no easier or harder to move than a sack of gold, say, and locked the door. He’d keep for a little bit at least. The bag I grabbed on my way out, and Danes’ gun slipped easily into my belt.

The street stood empty, which suited me fine. Dark and silent.

“Anthony,” Bert’s voice rang out, making a liar of me.

“Bertrand,” I replied, rolling my eyes. There comes a point when the pressure just stops mattering. A respite from the hell that your life might become. That shining moment when you simply no longer care. I’d slid into that state of mind and only noticed when I checked and didn’t feel any sort of remorse over the fact another loyal friend stood down there wanting to kill me. “Bert, look, just walk away,” I said.

“Can’t do that, Anthony. Can’t,” he said, “leave you to take our money.”

“Our money, Bert! But y’all refuse to split it and are willing to kill for it all. You want me to just… oh forget,” I said and tossed the bag high as I could. Got a good wind up, though my shoulder almost separated doing it.

The bag arced, and for a second we both watched it. But only for a second. We both drew down and fired, the flash of the muzzles blinding me. I heard Bertrand hit the dirt and knew there would be no getting back up for him.

I didn’t enjoy it, myself, but he’d given me no choice. I walked over and reached down to grab the bag, but my arm hurt. A splatter of blood rolling off my finger to hit the ground let me know he’d got my arm. The shock numbed me, and I took the lack of pain as a blessing. Shoving the gun back into my belt, I grabbed the bag with my other arm and started off toward the mine.

I stopped at the entrance, setting the bag down for a minute while I thought and prepared a few ideas. Then I kept walking deeper. I could hear someone moving. The trolley rolling makes the sort of noise you don’t forget easy. Had to be Gabby.

Whatever emotional numbness’d come over me while dealing with Bert washed away. I liked Gabby, was sweet on her, didn’t want to kill her. “Gabby?” I asked the semi-darkness.

“Unless you come to give me that bag, you oughta not be talking, Anthony,” she said. I could see her, just a bit, crouched behind the trolley cart. Steel cart like that would stop a bullet easy.

“I’ve had to kill Bert and Kyle already today,” I said, “I don’t want to have to kill you, too.”

“Then you got a simple option,” she said, “in just handing me that bag and walking out of here. I won’t harm you none. You got my word, Tony.” I believed her. But where would that leave me? I’d still have to leave town, Danes would want to lock me up and might even be so mad at losing what he thought would be a share of gold that he’d try to kill me.

So leave town, be broke, friendless, and have no job at all. No money, nothing but the clothes on my back and maybe, at best, Kyle’s horse and Danes’ gun. She’d walk out of here rich having had to do nothing except wait.

Or I could stay here and have a shoot out with a woman I had feelings for. Even if I won I’d still have to leave town, but I’d be rich. Rich can cure a lot of ills. The thing was, I realized, the ill it couldn’t cure was the hurt of my friends going bad on me. The gold brought me nothing good so far, so I had to think that moving on with it wouldn’t exactly improve my life.

Still, didn’t seem right that she benefitted from that. “I tell you what,” I said, “I’ll give you one more chance here.”

She laughed, thumping the side of the cart and making it ring loudly in the rock-sided mine. “You’ll give me… oh Tony. Sure then, what’s this chance?”

“We split the gold and leave here in peace.”

“Or I could kill you,” she said.

“If you could’ve,” I said, “you would’ve. You ain’t one to sit and wait. No you got caught unprepared, didn’t you?”

“Damn you, Anthony, I did,” she said. That’s when I knew she was buying time. Her lies always came too quick. I had minutes, probably, before whatever plan she cooked up went off. She’d been here possibly all day, waiting for the last of us to come looking for her. But she wasn’t ready yet, and that’s what mattered.

“So, what do you say, then?” I asked. Her answer didn’t matter. Either way she would kick off her little plan and kill me. It wasn’t me, personally, mind. No, I knew that. Death sat planned for whoever tripped up by showing their face here. She just didn’t have to know that her words were ash in the wind to me.

“I say give me the gold and go on your way and no one else has to get hurt.”

I nodded. “You’re right,” I said, lobbing the bag of gold in her general direction. “You have a good life, Gabby,” I said as I turned my back on her and started for the entrance.

“That’s it?” she asked. “After all this you’re really gonna—”

“Gabby, I’m doin’ like you asked.” I stopped near the entrance of the mine and looked back at her. “I’m moving on, and leaving you the gold. Hell, I’m leaving you the whole mine. I’m out of this town.”

On my way out I lit the fuse I’d set up at the mouth of the mine. The explosion rattled my bones, just like it always did, and sealed up the mine tight. We hadn’t gotten deep enough to find bigger passages, and one person wouldn’t be able to clear enough of that rubble before they ran out of air, food, or water. Whichever came first didn’t matter much to me.

Let her have the gold. They’d each already had my trust and killed it. Money didn’t matter after that.

I unhitched Kyle’s horse and rode out of town. Didn’t know what direction to head, so I let the horse choose. My Pa’d chide me for cowardice, and Doc Kemper would say I shoulda been colder, but they could both go hang. I’d find a little town far enough away that no one would ever hear of this and I’d… who cared? I found I didn’t.

I just rode.

About the Author

Adam P. Knave is an Eisner and Harvey award winning editor and writer who has written fiction (CRAZY LITTLE THINGS, STRANGE ANGEL, and STAYS CRUNCHY IN MILK), comics (AMELIA COLE, ACTION CATS, ARTFUL DAGGERS, THINGS WRONG WITH ME, stories in TITMOUSE MOOK vol 2, FIRESIDE MAGAZINE issue 1, OUTLAW TERRITORY and many more), and columns for sites such as thefoonote, TwoHeadedCat, Comics101, PopCultureShock, Three If By Space, and MamaPop. He was also one of the editors of Image’s POPGUN anthology.