The Water Men
From the schoolyard at the edge of town I used to hear the vultures shrieking over carcasses, ripping at each other in the fight for the good flesh that don’t last. I’ve seen enough carnage to tide me for, well, forever. Above me, the birds make clean circles even though I covered up my wound, and they sound like babies crying or women howling out their sadness, but ain’t no one listening. Only me.
Got to keep my eyes closed because I can’t keep track of whether they’re birds or ghosts or angels. There’s this one. Keeps perching on a rock next to me, his head cocked like he’s waiting for something else. I see he’s determined to be patient. So today I decided to tell him my story. If I don’t, how’s anybody ever going to know that even though I’m a sinner, I didn’t mean it? What I done two nights ago was maybe punishment for wanting something I don’t belong having.
That vulture says maybe it’s not as bad as I think. He ruffles his wings a little, stretches ‘em out and then tucks ‘em back in. He says it’s going to snow today.
I can feel it too. Two days of cold sun and now the air feels like it’s in my bones, anchoring me to the earth. From where I’m laying, propped on my back aginst a bunch a rocks, the clouds look like ash. Every now and then I take a peek to watch them. Maybe soon I’ll getta glimpse of those pearly gates and I can at least shout up at Ma. Or Sam, if he’s up there yet.
I’m thirsty, but there’s no water to be had up here where the pinions grow in scraggly groups. If I close my eyes, I see Sam walking up and down the river looking for the good fishing hole. I squeeze my eyelids tight, and try to make myself jump from these cold foothills to where Sam is. But when I try, it gets all jumbled to hell and I lose him when I get too close. It’s like that watercolor of our valley and mountains that hangs in Sam’s general store. Some traveling artist made it out at Jamison’s pasture and Sam hung it up behind the counter. Funny thing was, you couldn’t look straight at it and make much sense of it. But if you turned your head and sort a eyed it from the side, the greens and golds of the valley jumped out, clear as being there.
The vulture tells me maybe that place is heaven, where Sam can be my pa and won’t nobody care.
But I tell him that Father would find me if I disobeyed him and went to the river, and then Ma would be even sadder about how Father and me couldn’t get along after she died. When I see her, I’ll have to own wishing Pa would just forget about me. So Sam n me can run the store and make our way through that giant bookshelf in his study. I don’t think she’s going to take it too good.
The vulture opens his mouth wide when I tell him this part, but all that comes out is a couple a quick grunts. His head turns so I only see one glossy eye. I tell him maybe our valley used to be like heaven, but not now. Ma died of the fever, and then the water men came and sucked the river dry for the city, the banks all puckered up like some old woman’s face.
That’s how come we had to campaign. Them water men called it a aqueduct but to us it was like some big chute to suck out living. Crops this year were worse than during the drought before I was born.
So Father and me were part of the posse to make sure they’d never finish. Us and Greevy from the feed store, Calhoun our neighbor, and Blake who’s got that big ranch along the river. And Sam. Been going on for almost a year now, since I turned ten. Father’s the head of our posse, and he gets folks fired up during meetings. Got to fight them bastards for our way of life, he says. Got to show them whose valley this is. Father says they think they own it cuz they have money. But they never bought it from none of us.
Every month or so we been laying out dynamite to blow up chutes and pipes the men built. Most men in town part of the job at least a little. Course, them city water people got wise to us and sent guards to watch over the job. They put up a stone guard station down in the foothills. You could see it from the aqueduct house up top. We still worked it out anyway. Guards from the city don’t know our valley like we do.
We killed one of them two days ago. I done it, but I didn’t mean to.
My vulture says not to worry; he knows just how to help me, but I have to finish the story first.
I tell him how those guards changed shifts. They drove down the winding road to the gatehouse, and left one guy up top the aqueduct power house until a couple a new ones came up the hill in the car. Usually took them about twenty minutes to do the change.
Father made us all carry our shotguns and I was standing guard while he and Mr. Greevy climbed down the gully to set the dynamite. The others were waiting in different places, watching for intruders. One guard got left behind, same as always. But this one, he came across us. We were laying out cable to blow that fresh cement piping. Our fingers freezing in the cold wind that come up.
I never saw him coming, and when I heard him he was already right behind me. He looked like some sort of ghost in the sliver of moon, except he was only a head cuz his body was all dark. His face was young, older n me but still a kid too. Not a man. And scared like me but not enough to stop shuffling my way. His head kept coming at me. I fired into him, right in the gullet, before I knew it. And he kept walking toward me and never fired his gun. Just looked at me, kinda surprised. And then blood come running from his gut, all steaming in the night and his eyes like two coal pieces, already dead but still blinking. Then he fell sideways in the frosty dust and that was it.
Thinking about it makes me afraid to tell the rest. I want some water and I want Ma, and when I look over, she’s there, only she’s got black wings. People die in accidents, she says. You didn’t shoot him out of anger. She touches my shoulder with one of her feathery tips and it feels like fur. That makes me brave enough to go on.
The thing is, killing him felt nothing like killing rabbits and grouse. Made me sick inside and I had to lean over and bring up my supper on the ground across from him.
Mr. Greevy and Father came running up the bank and seen what I done. Greevy said, “Well, you killed him good, Joe. Bound to happen sooner or later.”
Father took the guard’s gun and shoved it in the belt of his pants. Then the others came running from their places too, and we had to have us a fast meeting before the relief guards found out one of theirs was dead.
Greevy was already bending down to grab the body’s feet. “Jesus,” he said, “We got to throw this one in the chute.”
Sam joined us, watching down the hill for the guard exchange. Felt like we stayed for a long time weighing Greevy’s words, except we didn’t really. We had to hurry. We saw the guard truck’s headlights, still parked way down below. That pinging, idling engine crossed the slope and drifted up to us. Loud for how far away it was. But that ticking and the fear of it made us move again.
Father said, “Got to drag him through the brush down past the canal there. Better do it now before they get here. Greevy, you put on his uniform and stand on the other side of the bank. Don’t know what the hell he was doing over here. Just kinda give the sign, so they won’t know until dawn that you ain’t their man and then you’ll be gone anyway.”
Rocking on his feet, Calhoun scratched his head and looked behind him. “Enid, I don’t know,” he said to Father. Calhoun said they would send men to find us.
I knew he was right, but Blake and Greevy had already bent down and started to take the guard’s clothes off while the circle of the rest of us looked on, restless. Greevy was grunting and bending over that big old belly of his, and he kept saying “Can’t be helped now.”
And the only person to argue after that was Sam, who tried to get us to slow down, even though those lights were marching up the hill toward us. “Maybe now’s the time to talk to that city lawyer. Negotiate–” Sam said.
But Father told both Sam and Calhoun they were damn fools to go back to waiting and talking when there wasn’t time for that and when it never worked before.
I was crouching down low, and their voices sounded far away in the dark. Sam offered me a hand up, but I told him I still needed a minute. I wanted to be home with Ma setting by the fire, waiting for the time to crawl into them covers and shut my eyes to the night.
The vulture asks me if I want a blanket and I tell him no, not now, not during this part of the story cuz I shouldn’t get no comfort over what was coming.
Greevy’d stripped down to his skivvies and was shoving himself into the guard’s clothes, but he was bigger by a lot and couldn’t button the shirt, so it hung open. He told Blake to grab the body’s feet and then said, “Dirty city lawyers are worse than water men.” He spit tobacco into the rabbit brush and said, “Dynamite ain’t working anyway. Joe here just pushed us to next step, that’s all.”
Father told us to hurry and shut the hell up. Said we could sermonize about death and salvation later, after we’d dumped the body and gotten the hell out of there. He grabbed a foot from Greevy and they hustled the guard toward the aqueduct below the powerhouse where the water rushes fast and free, his head thwacking on the ground behind them, while Blake and Calhoun followed behind with their guns.
The wind picked up, howling all along that canal, and I stood up but couldn’t get my feet to follow them. Sam stood next to me. We stayed right where we were, which I can see now is where it all went wrong.
Sam crossed his arms and said to Father, “Why don’t we tell them it was an accident. One of our boys here shot this guard on accident…” He looked down the hill, down toward those twin lights, just beginning to crawl up the road. “I’ll volunteer,” Sam said.
Father dropped the foot and ran back to us, cussing in the dark, from where the others stood. “Don’t you do it, Sam,” he said.
I knew that voice. It was the one he used before he hit me.
“I know what you been up to. Snaking in on my boy with your fancy books, your learnin’.” Father breathed heavily and Sam didn’t say anything for a while. I could hear the car’s gears grinding far away. The chill wind filled the air with the smell of sagebrush and pushed itself up my pants legs. I stood between them now, and I didn’t move.
“Boy who’s lost his mother needs a little time, Enid,” Sam said. “I’m not stealing anything from you. Just trying to be a good friend to Joe, that’s all.”
Father was real angry then. “A boy has to learn hard lessons before he can be a man,” he said. “You shouldn’t mess into business that ain’t yours.”
Sam’s voice was low too, but he wasn’t angry. I’d never seen Sam angry. I felt sorry for him, being all alone and running that store. A guy like Sam needed a family to take care of him. “Calm yourself, Enid,” he said.
Father held up his gun and took a step toward Sam, close enough so that I could see the rip in the knee of his trousers. But Sam didn’t step back. He didn’t look afraid.
“I’m leaving,” Sam said. “The rest of you all should go on home, and tomorrow we’ll see what’s to be done.” He turned to walk down the trail.
“Don’t you go down there or I’ll…” Father’s words hung like icicles and made us freeze.
Sam stopped and turned around. “Enid,” he said quietly. “Think first.”
“I’ll do what I have to do,” Pa said. “Bigger ‘n me or you, this water war.” Father sniffed and looked at me.
Sam watched us from where he stood. “It won’t ever work,” Sam said. He made like he was going to walk away again, back down the hill.
I wanted to go with him, wanted to forget the whole night and run from that place. The engine on the guard’s car was grinding up the last part of the grade, those headlights getting ready to light up the power house and us too. We knew they couldn’t see us yet. I stood between them, feeling sick and trying to decide, Father on one side of me and Sam walking toward the place where the guard car would park. He pulled his kerchief out of his pocket. It glowed bright above his head. Then I heard Father cock his gun. I looked back. He had it aimed at Sam, and me in the middle between them. The others stood by without moving but they shouted at Father to pull back.
I stop talking and listen for the guard car, but all I hear is the wind. Snow falls on my face, and I open my mouth to catch some. Night will drop down again soon, and I can’t stand the thought of another night of cold blackness, the sky pushing down on me, all those stars Ma taught me throbbing and shifting like I’m watching them from the bottom of the river.
The vulture tells me there’s no one coming. He tells me Sam sounds like good people, and it’s too bad Sam wasn’t my pa. He says maybe Father’s heart got swallowed in losing Ma and the water all at once.
I tell him I have to keep talking, that I haven’t gotten to the part yet. After I do, we can leave, I say.
“Little Joe, you get back here,” Father said.
I know Father’s temper better than anyone, and I was nervous for Sam. “Father, it won’t do no harm for Sam to talk to them lawyers…” I said, but he strode over in five long paces and hit me in the gut with his gun. Down I went again, crouched in the dirt and watching him, standing in front of me, his gun aimed at Sam who kneeled down to see if I was okay.
The rest of them stepped toward us then. Mr. Blake helped me up. He put his hand on Father’s gun, but Father shook him off. “Jesus, Enid,” Blake said. “Let’s just get the hell out of here and work this out at my place. We’re outta time.”
“He’s right,” Sam said. “They’re almost here.”
We were stuck there, us seven, me and Father in the middle, Sam down the barrel a Father’s gun, the dead body a few paces away, and the rest of them arced out like Orion’s bow. The guard truck was coming, about to crest the last hill. Father didn’t move.
The truck’s headlights swung up and caught us all, frozen there. Once, I saw a travelling play that came all the way from Los Angeles when our new theatre got built. Lights lined the stage and lit the players in a dazzling glow, and I felt that way, like the hills were the platform. Only I didn’t know my lines.
I saw Father make like he was going to pull the trigger and shoot Sam. I crossed the gap. I grabbed his gun. It fired anyway. Shot Sam in the head instead of the chest. I saw his hair fly off into the brush and then he dropped like a sack a grain.
And then that guard car stopped. Four guards not two jumped out and started firing, returning the fire of our men, and I ran, ran fast as I could and heard bullets zinging past me, and the one that bit my leg made a sound like an ax in wood. Heard blood in my ears and that desert quiet and wished I was little enough to be home with Ma instead a out here. Past the edge of the lights I stopped and looked back and heard the shouts and fire and saw Father fall. And Mr. Greevy reloading and firing like some crazy sage country ghost. I ran all night up high into the hills till I couldn’t run no more.
Now I’m out here, I say to my vulture, way above town. And the valley like a wasting dried-up garden down below and no one to save it.
The snow falls steady now and it’s quiet, like night, and part of me is warm, finally, and my leg feels good, like I can get up and use it. I ask the vulture if he’s ready to fly me back to town so I can say the way it went up here. After I sleep some. Just a little while. Telling that story took it out of me.
Laura M. Gibson has been nominated for a Pushcart Prize, and been among contest finalists at Glimmer Train and Pirate’s Alley Faulkner-Wisdom. She lives in the Pacific Northwest, where I works to start and sustain school gardens.
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