It’s dark; the rain spatters the entire world with mud. A man sits on a horse the color of a starless sky, trotting at a dead man’s pace. Simple John calls to him, “Lee, Lee,” grabbing his reigns. He throws his leg over his horse and slides out of the saddle. “The McLaren boy’s up in that loft. Got the family scattergun, says he’ll use it on anyone comes in- then hisself.” Lee undoes his gunbelt, holds it out to John like a limp prairie dog.
Lee pokes his head into the dark. “It’s Lee. I’m leaving my guns put, so don’t shoot.” The boy peers over the ledge, lit only by candle shaking in his hand. “Hold. Don’t, don’t- No closer.” Lee walks towards the ladder against the loft, and keeps his hands out to show he’s unarmed.
“What are your thoughts, son?” The boy doesn’t answer, but ain’t started shooting, either, so Lee starts to climb. “I ain’t armed. I’m coming up. Don’t shoot me.” As he reaches the top, he’s greeted by the cold, metal eyes of the shotgun; Lee moves slow, keeping distance between them as he sits in the hay. “I ain’t coming at you; you don’t need to point that. Tell me, what are your troubles?”
“This ain’t over no woman, is it?” Jamie snorts a response, a bitter smirk on his lips. “All right, then, what?” After another silence, Lee adds, “You want to speak, or you’d be already killed.”
“Why- why didn’t you stop me? You could have got close, and took this shotgun off me.” Lee didn’t smile underneath his hat, thought under some other light he might have.
“I might stop you, take that shotgun away and put you bleeding in the hay. But I won’t be here tomorrow; just ain’t no stopping a man wants it done. Question’s why?”
Jamie shudders, falls over; the thought of telling was enough he heaved dry into the hay; Lee doesn’t take advantage, use the moment to get at the gun, but sits back, waits.
“Sometimes pa, when he and ma was fighting, he’d come to me at night, real late. I didn’t like it, but he- he says I was his special boy, and it was our secret. I; I never told, only-” Jamie stops and empties his chuck at his feet; after a minute he sits back up, spitting, wiping at his mouth. “He stopped visiting me, started visiting my little brother. I couldn’t- not to him.” Jamie holds the shotgun out; “It has to be this way. Like Jesus, dying for the weak, and defenseless.”
“You’ve the look on you of a boy I met passing through Virginia. I found he killed his pa and his ma, two sisters, little brother. Killed his neighbors. Killed until he got bored and killed himself. Like a bear tasted the flesh of men, or a foaming dog- he gets that flavor, it don’t go away til he’s in the dirt.”
Jamie whimpered, wiping at tears coming down his cheeks. “You man up, now. Life ain’t easy, or just. You’re fit for killing, do everyone the favor of dying alone; if you care at all, care enough to leave em behind.”
Jamie blinks hard, armed with his reasons and words, needing none of them. He balances the butt of the gun on the hay, and set his chin on the barrels. He reaches for the trigger, but the distance and the angle are awkward, and he couldn’t get his finger round it. “I can’t,” he swallowed; “help me, please.”
Lee takes his hand, and stretches his finger over Jamie’s, and they pulled the trigger together. Jamie’s blood runs down the barrel as his fingers slip away, leaving Lee holding the shotgun.
Lee climbs down, each step of that ladder longer than the last. He could feel James Harper’s warm breath on his neck before he heard him. “You didn’t stop him. You didn’t even try to save my boy.”
Lee doesn’t make a move to tell it was coming, but the fist comes hard and fast, so much so Simple John doesn’t understand at first why Harper’s on the ground, or why his mouth had gone soft and red. Harper touches his lips, and his fingers come back wet and sticky with his own ochre. “I may be the one killed your boy, James, but we all got blood on our hands tonight.”