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The Dusty Road to Tamlan Town

Guthrow cursed as the wagon bucked over a particularly nasty bump in the road, splattering chili all over his chaps.


“The hell you doin’ up there, boy?” he called, reaching up to steady the oil lamp overhead. “Just ‘cause we sold out in the last town doesn’t mean I have money for new clothes. And you damn near got chili in my sixgun!” But the old man received no response from his grandson. Finally, Guthrow spoke up, a little louder. “You hear me, boy?”


“Yeah.” Braddock’s voice was sullen, distant. “Paw-Paw, I been thinking … I don’t wanna use my powers to sell this stuff no more. Why don’t we toss them last couple of crates and start new when we get to Tamlan Town?”


Guthrow frowned. Besides his displeasure with the request itself, something had felt off about the way the boy asked it. It was like the air in the back of the wagon got a little thinner - clouded him up a bit, made it hard to think.


Then again, Guthrow had eaten a lot of chili.


He was the first to admit he didn’t understand the boy’s power. Didn’t really need to, as far as he saw it. One day Guthrow had realizd the kid’s voice could make people do what he wanted, and the old man smelled opportunity. He started mixing large batches of his special hooch - a mix of well water, turpentine, and cocaine - dumped it into bottles, and had the boy hawk it as a miracle. Those as didn’t go blind got hooked on the stuff, and Guthrow had been happy to serve up more.

That was, until folks in their hometown of Swepton Vale got wise, and ran them out. They’d left town with more than enough cash in satchels to buy a wagon and two sturdy packhorses, and then they took to the road. He’d had to change the formula of his hooch a bit depending on what was available nearby, but by and large, it made folks feel great long enough for the duo to leave town with their money, which was all that really mattered.


Sure, the boy had voiced some whimpering concerns along the way, but Guthrow had been able to stamp them out pretty readily. After all, the alternative was starvation, which turned out to be a strong motivator.


But guilt could be just as powerful.


“You been thinkin’ bout what happened to that woman back in Jenneth, haven’t you?”


Once again, Braddock offered no response, but Guthrow didn’t need one to know he’d figured it out. He rolled his eyes. That damned fool woman! Braddock had been like a dog with a bone ever since she opened her mouth, and the longer Guthrow had to deal with it, the more he thought she’d gotten what she deserved.


#


The Jenneth show hadn’t started any different from any other stop. They’d blown into town and rolled up the wagon’s canvas top to put their wares on display. Then Braddock had run around town, stirring up a crowd. And lucky them: Jenneth even had a railway stop, which meant there was a chance word traveled ahead about their miracle product.


Then a train rolled in about halfway thrsough their show, and everything started to go to shit. The woman - Guthrow still didn’t know her name; didn’t want to - had emerged from one of the passenger cars, one kid on her hip and two others in tow, looking mad as the Devil himself.

She’d marched right up to Braddock, smack in the middle of the crowd, and started screaming about her stupid-ass dead husband. How the hooch rotted his brain and left him craving more. How he’d thrown her into a wall and wandered off the night his last bottle went dry, babbling and muttering about finding more. How he’d stumbled his way into an open quarry and splattered like an overripe pumpkin at the bottom.


Guthrow chewed his lip as he realized several things. One, this woman had clearly been riding the rails hoping to come across their show at one of the stops, so she was likely determined as hell. Two, she’d left home, and presumably some income source, to do it, since she’d brought the kids along, so she had nothing to lose.


And three: the tirade had clearly unsettled the boy. Until then Braddock had been able to dispatch hecklers and naysayers pretty handily on his own, but now, he was stammering and fumbling his words.


That was bad for business - it made the woman’s accusations seem more credible. Guthrow, not wanting to give the shrew any more opportunity to muck around with their livelihood, started to make his way out of the wagon when Braddock asked the woman to leave, packing the suggestion with enough juice that Guthrow felt his bowels quivering.


But the woman, in her utter determination, ignored him.


“You all need to watch out!” she’d added, wagging her fingers at the assembled townsfolk. “This is deadly stuff! The Devil’s drink!”


“It’s not any of that!” Braddock said. “It helps folks feel better!”


The woman spun to face him. “You, sir, are a liar! And I will follow you to the ends of the Earth if that’s what it takes to ruin you!”


“We’re just trying to sell tonic, lady!” Braddock squeaked.


“You’re con men! Murderers!”


“We … are … not … murderers!” Braddock sucked in a big breath, and the whole town seemed to rattle. Then, he spoke.


“GO SOAK YOUR HEAD, LADY!”


The crowd hushed, and the world seemed to fall still. Guthrow actually pissed himself, and he was sure he wasn’t the only one. How the woman hadn’t been obliterated on the spot, he couldn’t say, but she stood there for a long time with her ruinous mouth slightly open, like she’d forgotten what she was about to say.


But she never said anything else. She just started screaming.


Shrieking, really.


She dropped the kid on her hip and reached up, yanking the bonnet off her head, then started tearing thick chunks of hair out of her scalp. A man reached for her, and she would’ve bit off his fingertips if he hadn’t yanked them back at the last moment.


Guthrow had been flabbergasted. He’d never seen anything like it. Had the boy overcooked her brain somehow?


Before anyone could stop her, she bolted, still shrieking, toward a nearby horse trough and plunged her head underwater. Five grown men attempted to pull her out, but she’d held on with primal strength, her fingernails tearing out chunks of wood as she thrashed and mule-kicked at her would-be rescuers.


Then, finally - mercifully - she gave one last twitch and lay still.


Silence fell on the crowd like a heavy blanket, then one of the lady’s kids started crying. Guthrow, thankful for the cover, dropped the wagon’s canvas back into place and whistled at Braddock.

The boy, along with half the crowd, turned to face the wagon. His grandson was white as a sheet, but whatever was going on inside the boy’s head, he’d set it aside and sprinted toward the wagon, dodging grasping hands and balled fists, ignoring calls for their blood.


“Hiyah!” Guthrow cried, snapping the reins as soon as Braddock had thrown himself into the back of the wagon. The horses took off with a lurch, and they were on their way. If the town had sent any posse after them, Guthrow hadn’t seen hide nor hair of it.


#


The memory lingered in Guthrow’s mind, acrid as gunsmoke. However little sympathy he held for the woman, he couldn’t rightly say the whole thing hadn’t spooked him - especially the way Braddock was looking at him now. That wispy, worried look had been replaced with something else - a beady-eyed, scrunched-face stare that Guthrow hated even more than that wretched sourpuss he’d been wearing a few minutes ago.


Guthrow hated the look because it poked at the fear gnawing deep in his gut: inevitably, Braddock would someday realize that, if he chose to turn his fearsome power on ol’ Paw-Paw, there was very little the old man could do to stop him.


“Braddock, I don’t know how many times I can tell you this, or how many different ways I can explain it. That woman — ”


“ — died because of me!” Braddock cut in. “I pushed her too hard, Paw Paw! And now them kids … ain’t got no momma …” His lower lip began to quiver. When he spoke again, it was barely a whisper. “I know how they feel. No one ought to have to feel that way. And for what?” He met Guthrow’s gaze. “So we could sell snake oil to them folks? They was right to run us outta town. I never want to make nobody do nothin’ they don’t want again.”


Guthrow pinched the bridge of his nose between his thumb and index finger, gently massaging the bone.


“The hell we going to do for money, boy? You know someone who wants to hire a wiry-ass kid and a crotchety old fart? Probably couldn’t even get a job swingin’ pickaxes for the railway.” He shook his head in disgust. “I done told you before, boy, this hooch is what puts food in our bellies. It’s what we got. And we ain’t exactly livin’ the high life, you see?”


“I don’t care!” Braddock shouted. “There’s gotta be something better than gettin’ folks hooked on our swill and stealin’ their money! You’re smart, Paw-Paw - you’ll thinka somethin’.”


The wagon’s lantern flickered and burned low for a moment, and the world seemed a little more ethereal. Guthrow scratched his head. His grandson did have a point: the old coot was pretty wily. He could think of something else, no sweat. No more running from town to town, dealing with these miserable rubes —


Guthrow shivered as he realized what was happening, and pushed the thoughts aside.


“You trying to use the speech on me, boy?” he growled. Braddock shrank back in his spot on the coach seat. Guthrow smiled, thankful that the lamplight helped hide the beads of sweat forming along his brow. He was playing it cool on the outside, but his guts were roiling with terror. He felt balanced on the edge of some great abyss.


If starvation wasn’t going to cut it anymore, then there was only one card he could play to bring the boy back in line.


He drew the sixgun from its holster and rested it on his thigh.


“Don’t you ever try that with me again, boy,” he said.


“I didn’t mean to,” Braddock moaned, his eyes locked on the revolver. Guthrow felt a twinge of guilt - maybe he’d been a little heavy-handed here, but the boy had crossed a line, and there was nothing for it but to make it clear how high the stakes were. He sucked on his teeth while his grandson started blubbering again. “Sometimes it just — I don’t know — ”


“Then you better figure it out!” Guthrow roared. He was tired of Braddock’s namby-pamby bullshit, of his incessant whining about having such an incredible power at his fingertips. “Otherwise more folks’re gonna die!”


“Oh, God!” Braddock turned back to face the road ahead. “Please, just leave me alone! I can figure it out if you just — ”


“If I just what? Coddle you? Tell you it’s all going to be okay? Well guess what, Braddock - it’s not okay! We’re going to get run out of town after town if you can’t — ”


Braddock whipped back around.


“I SAID JUST LEAVE ME ALONE!”


The words slammed into Guthrow like a shotgun blast. He toppled off the crate he’d been sitting on, nearly rolling out through the wagon’s back opening.


He stared at the red desert dirt for a long time before he moved. The world had gone silent, and everything was slightly out of focus. The rhythmic chuffing of their horses, the clatter of the wagon wheels against the road, even the wind whipping against the wagon’s canvas sheet - it all vanished, leaving only Braddock’s voice and his words.


The phrase created a void in Guthrow’s mind, a black hole which pulled all other conscious thought towards itself. At its center was a singular, utterly black core, a need which could only be satisfied one way.


His shooting arm tensed briefly, then started to bend at the elbow. The cold steel of the revolver flashed crimson in the wagon’s lamplight as its barrel began to make its way toward his chin.

Guthrow’s breath caught in his throat, and he clamped his free hand down on top of the rogue one. It was like being locked in an arm-wrestling match with an invisible foe who was just powerful enough to beat you back, inch-by-inch. It was an enemy he could not reason with, could not bamboozle, could not hope to outlast. Was this how those rubes felt when Braddock spoke to them?


The boy was in hysterics, trying to climb into the back of the wagon from the coach seat. God love him, he was probably going to try and help Guthrow hold the gun away, for whatever little good it would do.


Guthrow was dizzy with terror. Then he realized he was going to die with chili stains on his pants.

He started cackling as the cold steel met his chin. The last thing he saw was his grandson’s face, wreathed in shadow and flame from the wagon’s lamplight.


The horses, unperturbed by either the gunshot or the howling boy in the back of the wagon, drove the wagon over another nasty bump. The wagon gave a little hop, and a lanky figure tumbled out the back, landing with a dull thud in the desert dirt.


Braddock sat in the back of the wagon, his gaze fixed on Guthrow’s body until it was finally consumed by the encroaching darkness. When he could no longer see his grandfather’s corpse, Braddock tossed the last rickety crates of hooch out the back, then made his way to the coach seat.


The dirt on his face was smudged where he’d wiped away tears, but at least the sky up ahead was starting to brighten.


If he kept on, maybe he could make Tamlan Town by sunup.




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