Summary: (A scene from the episode “The Crucible”)
Word Count: 3400
My hands grip Kane’s neck tightly, closing his windpipe and lungs off to vital air. I see my knuckles turning white as my fingers hold tighter. There’s a voice yelling, “No more games! No guns! No games!” but I don’t know whose it is. It can’t be his. I’m beginning to take pleasure in seeing his eyes bulge and hearing him gasp in hopes of getting a small breath.
Kane revealing the cache of food and precious water was the last straw in this game of survival. My mind couldn’t fathom the evil delight a human being could take in seeing another deprived of such basic needs while forced to work in the bowels of the earth. As he backed away with the rifle in hand, I cling to the bag of beans and the canteen, afraid to let go for fear they were nothing but a mirage.
When he introduces his next game — each of us would go for the rifle, the one reaching it first to kill the other — the primitive animal in my mind begins asserting its control. Despite fatigue from work, hunger and thirst, I lunge for him, wrestling him to the ground with my hands around his throat.
As my fingers close tighter, I feel his pulse racing as his body struggles to survive. I’m enjoying this power I have over him.
A strangled voice cries out, “Kill me! Kill me! I need to win! I win!”
Suddenly, the primitive animal-like creature in control of my fingers is being forced back into its hiding place. My hands are again part of my body, under my command. I release my grip on the dying man. I’m horrified knowing that I’ve been pushed beyond the limits of my control, and I’m confused — I’ve long insisted that no man was capable of forcing me to surrender to the primitive animal that resides within each of us. As he struggles for breath, I crawl for the rifle, smashing it against a rock until it disintegrates into several unusable pieces. Staggering to my feet, I grab the canteen and sack of beans and stumble as I run like hell to get out of my tormentor’s sight only to trip over my feet and fall to the dry, dusty ground, clutching the beans and water as tightly as I had his throat.
A desperate cry stops me from getting to my feet and running. “You’re leaving me here to die, just like those two animals left you!” He’s right — I’m leaving him on foot without food or water to perish or persevere. Kane’s satisfied “I win” forces me wearily to my feet. If I leave him behind, it’ll mean I’ve killed him — maybe not directly with my hands or a gun, but indirectly by letting the sun, thirst, and hunger take their toll. He’d like that. I don’t want to but I go back to keep him from dying — and winning.
I nudge him with my boot, but he seems limp. Kneeling down, I hold the canteen to his lips, allowing a small trickle of water to enter his mouth. We’ll have to share what little there is as we make our way out of the desert. Means we’ll have to drink sparingly to survive.
I’m ashamed I’ve allowed myself to be pushed so far by a man who apparently enjoys debasing other men. Back in Eastgate, I’d teased Joe, dunking him under the sudsy water as he bathed, saying he was the only man who could drive me to murder. I remember laughing as he came to the surface sputtering for air, angry at my childish display of the power that an older brother can have over a younger one. How wrong could I have been that no one could steer me to a precipice where I’d lose rationality and give in to the sheer pleasure of killing a fellow man? I thought control over one’s baser side was what distinguished man from the animals, but now . . . now I’m not so sure, after being forced to work in hellish conditions for another man’s perverse enjoyment.
I shake his shoulder; he still doesn’t respond. As his head rolls from side to side, I see the red marks on his neck caused by my hands. Turning my hands over, I look at them — these same hands gently held both Hoss and Joe as babies, as well as women I’ve loved; these hands have also held guns used to kill men who’d take from my family all that we’ve worked for; hands used to cherish life and wield death. I try to shake the image of my fingers squeezing Kane’s throat.
How much control do I really have over that powerful, primitive inner animal that roared its pleasure as life left his body?
Looking around, I note what can be salvaged for our trek through the desert. The poles from the shelter will do for a travois and the canvas tarp that’s a roof will do for a blanket. Guess he’s not going to stop playing dead. The ropes used first to hobble the mule and then to bind my hands and feet at night will hold him to the travois. Wonder if he’ll protest at being tied by his pack animal.
I don’t care.
I take a short drink. Got to save the water. The poles come loose easier than I thought they would. It’s almost mid-day. Maybe it’ll be better to wait until evening before starting out. I just want to get as far away from this hellhole as fast as possible.
Lashing the canvas to the poles, I hear a distant voice saying, “I’m not doing this out of any concern for you, you miserable son-of-a-bitch. I’m doing it because I am the better man, one who won’t leave you to die. You keep on playing dead so you can think you’ve won, but I know this is just another one of your games.
“You want me to think I’m nothing more than an animal that kills without any remorse. Well, I’m not an animal like you. A man wouldn’t have killed that mule just to keep another man under his thumb. If it gives you some sort of comfort to play dead, you keep on. At least I won’t have to listen to your taunts.”
That voice — was it mine? It sounds so bitter and angry.
Finishing the travois, I take another drink and dampen my bandana before tying it around my neck. I look at Kane; seeing those red marks on his flesh makes me want to cover his throat with something.
I allow another sip of water into his mouth. “Drink it. It’ll be a while before I give you another.”
A little voice tells me not to gloat at being the one in control. There’s a grim satisfaction, though, in having power over a man who seems sub-human.
I struggle to get his body situated on the travois; he’s playing dead to the hilt. Water trickles from his mouth onto the dry sand, which quickly soaks it up. So this is all part of the game — refusing to swallow water to make me think he’s dead. Let him — at some point he’s gonna get greedy about wanting some. Maybe I just won’t give him any, even if he pleads or begs.
A jolt from my conscience practically slaps me across the face for briefly letting that primitive animal out of its dark hiding place to enjoy a fellow man’s discomfort.
I take another short swig and swish it around my mouth. I’ll have to ration it carefully if the two of us are going to make it out of here alive. If we’re lucky, we’ll stumble across a rare oasis or even a fellow traveler with water to share. I jam the cork back in and sling the canteen across my chest so I can control it; now Kane won’t be able to play more games by drinking it dry or dumping it out.
That small kettle will have to be packed if we’re going to cook up the beans. The fire’s dead so the pot’s cold. What can I carry it in? There’s one of the sacks I used to haul useless rock from that filthy pit in the ground. May as well bring the plates and forks, even though I don’t mind eating with my hands; I just don’t want to give him any reason to devise a new game.
My arms slip easily — too easily — into the mule’s harness. Even leaving this place I can’t escape being a pack animal. First it was rock, now it’s Kane. I’m not gonna give him the satisfaction of knowing that I resent hauling him out of here. Maybe I should have fixed some of those beans. Nah, I don’t want to waste the water or spend more time than necessary in this perdition.
Kane seems even heavier now. The afternoon sun beats down. I should have grabbed my hat. Where should we go? I really don’t care — just away. How many days have I been here? Too many for Joe to still be waiting at Signal Rock, I suppose. Wonder if he’s looking for me. Maybe Obadiah’s trial is still going on; Joe always has to know how something ends, so if a verdict hasn’t been reached he’s probably still there. What if the trial only took a few days and he went to Signal Rock thinking I was there? If he did go, would he still be waiting? Joe’s very impatient for a man who never arrives anywhere on time. He couldn’t even be on time for his own birth — he came into the world early. Wonder if he waited and then went home thinking I changed my mind about hunting and fishing. What I wouldn’t give to be eating a supper of fresh trout and then listening to Hoss and Joe bicker over a game of checkers. If Joe’s gone home, does Pa wonder where I am?
I hope those men have treated Sport decently. Leaving another man to die shows they don’t care for any lives but their own. Sport is a spirited animal. I’d sure hate to see that spirit broken by men who enjoy inflicting suffering on another creature. What if they turned him loose, too, and expected him to survive in the desert on his own? He’s managed to make his way home when we’ve been separated before. Maybe he’s safe in the barn, enjoying hay and fresh water.
Would Pa or Hoss wonder where I was if Sport got home alone? Are they looking for me? Wait — maybe they’re only looking for Joe. If Sport’s home, maybe they think something happened to Joe and I sent my horse as a signal. Guess they’d start their search in Eastgate, since that’s where we sold the cattle. I think the bartender knew I was going to Signal Rock. Maybe they’d go there in hopes of finding Joe . . . and me.
I’ve been taking care of myself since a young age; Pa probably won’t even worry about me. Joe can fend for himself all right, but he’s always had Pa, Hoss, me, and even Hop Sing to look after him and pull him out of trouble. Ironic that I’m the one who needs help. I just wish someone knew.
My gut is starting to boil with anger. “If you’d let me borrow the damned mule for a few days, we could’ve avoided all this. You had to shoot our only means of survival, you miserable bastard. I should just leave you here, tied up, to roast in the sun like a side of beef over a fire. I’ll even walk backwards so you can watch me disappear from sight, hoping I’ll come back to give you a drink of water or a spoonful of beans.”
My feet suddenly stop working — that primitive animal in my head has come outta hiding. I can’t let it win; I’ve got to keep it at bay. Think of something happy. Mama. She tended man and beast as we made our way across the prairie. She would have somehow won over someone as miserable as Kane. Someone’s humming — sounds like one of the songs Mama used to sing.
We start moving again. Another thought flits through my mind — I’m once again defenseless in the desert with no gun or knife. Kane’s pistol was in pieces but it burned my hand when I touched it. No more guns — they just lead to more games. If we’re attacked, I’ll have to use my teeth and hands. He’ll probably get a perverse pleasure outta that.
A slight breeze scatters stray grains of sand across the desert floor and blows a tumble weed. I remember that moment I’d heard three gunshots and thought I’d heard Pa’s voice carrying across the desert, calling my name — that had been another of Kane’s games. I was desperately climbing those rocks but he pulled me back to the hard, sandy ground. The last thing I remember was my name echoing in the otherwise still, silent desert air. Hearing Pa’s voice must have been a trick. I’d wanted Pa to swoop in like Beowulf to release me from this monster. Kane’s voice was the only one I heard when I woke up.
Sun’s going down behind the cliffs. The sand and rocks don’t look so harsh in the faint light. Creatures of the cooler night will soon begin searching for meals and water. He let the fire burn down to embers after our evening meal — when there was one — so that it threw out a small amount of heat. Not enough — I was cold. There wasn’t enough light to keep the night creatures away — just another game to keep me from sleeping. Maybe he’ll be the one kept awake tonight.
I find a place near some rocks for our camp. The rocks’ll stay warm for hours yet, keeping the chill at bay. I shrug out of the harness. He can’t make me put it back on since he’s still tied up. My back and shoulders hurt. Guess I’ll prop him against a rock. I hug the canteen — we need water to drink but we’ve also got to cook the beans. We’ve gotta have food but I don’t wanna waste water. Oh hell, I’m hungry. I pour water into the pot and add the beans.
Dammit! We don’t have anything to make a fire with! Damn you, Kane! How’d the pot get knocked over? There’s beans on the sand. I can’t waste ‘em! I’ll just eat ‘em raw. Grit scratches at the back of my throat.
“Satisfied? Are you enjoying this? Am I animal enough for ya?”
Who said that?
Anger and something else are quickly exiting my mouth. An anguished cry rings in my ears but I don’t know where it’s coming from.
I become aware of my surroundings — it’s dark and I’m on my knees. Someone’s rocking me. Maybe it’s Mama. Someone else is squeezing my head. I remember Kane’s gloating face as he dug up the beans and water as well as his words: there’s just enough there to get one of us outta here alive. I think I kicked the pot over. I must have given into the anger that feeds that primitive animal; now we don’t have any food. It’s just possible I’ve killed us both. It’ll be a tie — no winner.
He hasn’t even laughed or said anything. He’s playing this game for all it’s worth. His belly is as empty as mine, so at least he can’t sneer in the knowledge that he’s got a spoonful of beans hidden somewhere while I do without.
Let him play dead. He’ll just have to stay tied up; I’m too tired to care about his comfort.
I gotta sleep. With him tied tight and no guns, I won’t have to worry about him waking me up to play another game. The warmth coming from the rocks beckons my weary body. I lay on my back, hugging the canteen, looking at the stars. Coyotes sing their mournful songs and I hold the canteen tighter — they’ll have to find their own water.
A shooting star streaks through the inky blackness. I wish . . . I wish . . . do I get only one? Guess I’d better make it a good one. My lungs fill with cool air as I breathe deeply. I wish Pa was here.
There’s light trying to force my eyes open. I don’t wanna get up and go back into that netherworld so he can try to break me like a dry tree branch. There are hands on my throat, squeezing and crushing as I try to loosen their grip. I can’t breathe! I can’t get them off! There’s cruel laughter echoing in my ears as the hands squeeze tighter. I don’t wanna die like this! PA!
I gasp for air, soaking wet. The canteen’s empty. I’d cry if I wasn’t so thirsty. I think I’m as dry as the corn husks used to wrap tamales.
He’s still on the travois playing dead. I suppose he’s enjoying this. Let him think I’m nothing more than his pack animal. I won’t let him win this game; I’ve got to keep him alive until we reach civilization — or someone finds us. Today’ll be harder without water. We’ll see how long it takes him to beg for a sip. How I’m gonna savor the look of despair on his face when I tell him there isn’t any. A little voice says there’s no joy in seeing another man suffer. Maybe it’s right.
I look at the cliffs and see the sun peeking over them. The night animals have probably gone back to the safety and comfort of their shelters, bellies full from feeding. My stomach growls. Damn those beans! How long has it been since I last ate? Right now, I’d even settle for a pot of Hoss’ mesquite beans.
“Wake up.” I nudge the travois with my boot. “I said wake up.” He’s determined to make me think he’s won. Why can’t he just admit he’s lost?
I slip into the harness and begin trudging through the compact sand. The sun’s cheeriness is almost unbearable. Why does it have to be so damned happy in the morning?
I’ve gotta rest.
I’ve gotta keep going.
I see Joe in the water trough — I shoved him under for being smart with me. That’ll teach him.
I hear chuckling. Must be Kane.
This desert must stretch from one end of the world to the other. Maybe we’re really dead and this is how we have to spend eternity. Didn’t the gods punish someone like this? Guess I’ll be dragging him forever.
There’s a tiny breeze — it feels so good. Now it’s gone. Might as well start walking again. Nothing else to do.
I hear my name. It’s Pa’s voice.
Impossible. Must be another one of Kane’s games. If I stop, he wins. I won’t let him. Gotta keep going.
Seems like he would have talked by now. He’s as silent as the dead. Silent as the dead. That’s funny.
I fall. I’m outta the harness. Guess he’s gonna shoot me like that mule. Have I won?
Is Kane laughing? Did he win?
Feels like strong hands pulling me up. I hear Pa yell again. Just another game. Kane’s laughing.
I hear Joe and Hoss. Are they playing the game? They don’t know the rules. Gotta be a trick.
“There was no gold.” Kane and I are laughing. “And no more . . . no more games.”
Kane’s not laughing. Why am I laughing?
Pa doesn’t yell at me. Only at Joe. Sometimes Hoss. What did I do?
Pa holds me. I want to cry.
You didn’t win, Kane. I am the better man.
Thank you, Calim11, Sunjae, and Terina for agreeing to beta this story. To all three of you—I truly appreciate your advice and encouragement. You have my deepest gratitude.