by Shaun Baines

I might never have done it if it weren’t for them cards at the Dusty Hangman. It was a ramshackle hole in the ground with a roof of black tarpaulin to keep out the sun. We were playing for bread. Not fresh bread, mind you. Not the kind that’s crusty on the outside and fluffy in the middle, but stale, dried slices that was more green than brown.

I guess Lady Luck was on my side that day. My stack had doubled and I got to wondering if I shouldn’t treat myself to a glass of water.

My opponent Sally One-Leg was down to crumbs, eyeing my stack hungrily. “Let’s go all in, Launchberry.”

“You ain’t got nothing I want,” I said, picking up my bread.

She grinned and showed me false teeth whittled from wood. “I got this,” she said, reaching under the bones of her corset. Holding it in her gnarled hand, her face went all reverent, as if she’d been gifted it by Moses hisself. I gotta say, I didn’t feel no different. It was half an apple; its skin red and puckered and its flesh bruised, but a goddamned apple nonetheless.

I threw down my bread. It skidded over the table and landed in her lap. “Take it all, Sally, but you gotta tell me where you got it.”

That’s how I ended up at the top of this ridge in a desert called Baked Nebraska, dragging Sally One-Leg along for the ride. It weren’t nothing but heat there. My skin crackled under a white sky and my tongue was rougher than boot leather. I had to see it for myself though, so the boys read the truth in my eyes when I told them. It was the only way I’d persuade them to follow me back.

A week later, my hat slung low over my eyes, I wheeled my bicycle beside me, its sun-bleached stickers translucent on a silver frame. My feet sunk into the dry earth as I put one weary foot in front of another.

“You better be right about this,” Snickler said as we climbed the ridge to the hidden crater beyond. He pulled his bicycle along by the handlebars. His had pink flowers and a brown saddle. Removing a handkerchief hanging off his nose, he exposed a face lined with scars and worry. “I got a throat full of sand and nothing to wash it down.”

He coughed, something he’d done day and night on the journey here. It sounded like pebbles shook in a can. Snickler was a tall man, somewhere around thirty years old, but he looked older. He was born old and, just like the rest of us, he was born sick too.

“Quit your complaining,” Angel Eyes said, an ex-whore from Bone Valley, no taller than a gate post, but as pretty as a sunset. “You saw what he had. You know what it means and it’s more than those greedy Big Ranchers got. Ain’t that right, Launchberry?”

I nodded, but kept my eyes on the ridge. It wasn’t far, but the shimmering heat made it look like a mirage. We had to reach the other side, then they’d see how good it was gonna be. No more scams, no more hold-ups. This was the end of the line and no dirty Big Ranchers was gonna take it from us.

I scratched at my neck, feeling skin come away under my fingernails. “Don’t worry none, Snickler,” I said. “There’ll be water enough to drink when we get there. Enough to take a bath in, I reckon.”

“You can’t tell me to take no bath, Launchberry. You might have a moustache, but you ain’t my Ma. Why ain’t you listening to me? I’m starving here. We got no coins, no bread, no water. I ain’t seen a horse in so long, I forgot what one tastes like. We gotta ride these halfpenny things around if we need to get anywhere quick.” Snickler threw his bicycle to the dirt, kicking a tyre grown soft under the sun.

“Be grateful we got ’em,” Angel said. “Down in Dry Gulch, it’s too hot to even sit in a saddle. Cousin Albert almost gone and got his hole burnt shut.”

“Your cousin Albert needs his hole burnt shut. Uses it too much for talking.”

I continued upwards, knowing Snickler was never happier than when he was bitchin’.

“Those Big Ranchers got it all,” he said. “They got the water. They got the gas for their fancy cars and they got a big wall to stop us getting at it. What we got? Sunburn and rocks.”

“Ain’t you got the crabs from Sally One-Leg too?” Angel asked.

“Will you listen for a minute?” he protested. “Here we are following another dumb ass dream while them Big Ranchers is living theirs. All I’m saying is maybe we’re going in the wrong direction.”

I heard Angel Eyes drop her bicycle to the ground, but didn’t look back. “You wanna be a Big Rancher now? You’re too sick. They won’t let you past the first gatehouse.”

Their bickering cut through me, but I didn’t blame them for it. We hadn’t eaten in days and the last water we’d drunk was under four foot of sand. Life on the wrong side of the wall was hard, but it hadn’t always been. Before my Granddaddy killed hisself, they used to grow corn round here, but the Big Ranchers wanted more than the soil could give. They put fertiliser down and chemicalled it all up so nothing grew in the end. He said it was a shame they done that, but I said it was madness.

While Snickler and Angel Eyes continued caterwauling, I selected two rocks and hid them in the dry folds of my coat. “Will you two quiet down and get up here?”

My voice echoed as I reached the top of the ridge. They stopped arguing and turned to face me, their jaws dragging in the dirt, but it wasn’t because of what I said. I’d disturbed something over the ridge and it answered back with a caw.

“What in the hell was that?” Snickler asked, scrambling up to join me. Angel Eyes followed and we perched on a rock each, overlooking the crater, grinning like circus monkeys. There were a hundred trees, maybe more, waving at us with their green leafy hands. A lake steamed in the sun with water so clear it looked like a ground full of sky. The bird I’d frightened swooped from branch to branch, joined by its kin, chasing and playing like they weren’t the last goddamned birds on the planet.

“Well, shit,” Angel said. “You gone and done it this time, Launchberry.”

We plunged into the crater where sand and stone gave way to grass. The moist air was like a healing balm on the cracks in our skin. We searched through vines and shrubs to find the shine of the lake and threw ourselves under its cool surface. Taking great gulps, I let the water rest in my mouth, savouring its taste. The others did the same and filling our bellies, we crawled back up the bank and listened to the drone of insects.

I looked over at my gang, what was left of them, and saw their lazy smiles as they closed their eyes to the sun. I was glad I could finally give them something worth remembering. It would be a good memory – something to take with them.

I must have fallen asleep because when I woke Snickler and Angel were standing over me, holding apples in their hands.

“We’ve been talking,” Snickler said.

Their faces were stern and it looked like trouble brewing. I sat up on my elbows, hiding my concern. “You two are always talking. I can’t get you to stop. What is it this time?”

“You said Sally One-Leg told you about this place, but how did a one legged whore get all the way out here?”

Wiping sweat from my brow, I pulled my coat close. I knew they’d ask eventually. My gang weren’t the sharpest spokes in the wheel, but they weren’t dumb neither. I’d told them I’d found us the greatest hide-out ever, somewhere we’d never have to leave and I wasn’t fooling neither. The only problem was we weren’t the only ones who knew about it.

“Sally didn’t find this place,” I said. “Her apple was payment for services.”

“Payment from who?”

“A Big Rancher. He came out here prospecting. Apparently, they ain’t doing so good behind their wall. They can’t make as much food as they eat so they go looking for places like this. Places they can harvest the way they did afore.”

“Wait a minute,” Angel said, panic in her voice. “The Big Ranchers know about this place? That means they’ll be coming.”

“I reckon they are,” I said, finding my feet.

“Jesus, Launchberry, what we gonna do?” Snickler asked.

Angel Eyes stuffed the apple in her pocket, running to a nearby tree to collect more. “We take as much as we can and haul ass.”

“Then what?” I asked. “We eat it all? Sounds good, but it ain’t gonna last longer than a week. We trade up? No-one ain’t got nothing round here worth trading for. Face it, boys. This is as cruel a hand of fate we coulda got. Goddamned cards were always stacked against us. We got all the riches we could ever want right here under our feet – “

“- and no place to spend it,” Snickler said, finishing the bad news. He sat on the ground, tucking his chin into his chest. “I wish you’d never brought us here. A man can be happy without hope, Launchberry. Giving it and taking it away is a meanness.”

“I had to bring you here. I got another big notion,” I said, scratching at my neck again.

Angel Eyes called my ideas ‘scheming’ and it was what got us this far. There wasn’t exactly hope in their eyes when they looked at me. They didn’t dare go down that road after what I just told them, but they was at least curious, and curious was all I needed.

“What’s the one thing we all need more than any other?” I walked to the lakeshore and stared over the water. I heard their footsteps behind me and I took hold of one of the rocks in my pocket. “When I first came here, I knew I’d have to bring something back to show you I wasn’t lying.”

“It was a handful of cherries,” Snickler said with a wistful smile. “They were the best goddamned cherries I ever had.”

“They the only cherries you ever had, you horse’s ass,” Angel said.

“While I was searching for them, I got to thinking. We need the water for drinking. Them cherries drink it, too. So do the birds. That’s important, right?”

Snickler and Angel Eyes nodded slowly, waiting to see where I was going.

“I used to think the Big Ranchers built their wall to stop us getting at their water, but maybe it was to stop them seeing all the dry they made. It’s painful to look and see the bad in the world, especially when it’s your fault.”

Snickler coughed and dabbed at his lips with his handkerchief. “They ain’t sorry, though. They gonna come and take this away.”

I picked up some grass, rolling it around in my fingers so they were stained with green. “No, they’ll do what they did last time. They’ll try to make it better and before you know it there’ll be poison in the ground and poison in our veins. Just like last time. That’s why we’re all sick.”

“I ain’t sick,” Angel Eyes said.

I hid the rock behind my back. “Angel you’re about three foot tall. That’s okay if you’re a circus dwarf, but you ain’t. That looks like sick to me.”

Snickler grabbed me by the arm. “There’s no need to be a son of a bitch, Launchberry.”

I looked over his shoulder to the lake. “But they’ll always need something to drink.”

He made to speak, but went silent when he saw the rock in my hand. His eyes crinkled in confusion. Before he got to squealing, I bashed it on the side of his head and he dropped, falling into the lake, his blood inking the water.

“What the hell, Sam?” Angel Eyes asked, her body locked in shock. In two bounds, I was on her, swinging the rock high. She ducked at the last second and it glanced off her brow. Her legs wobbled and she stumbled.

“I want us to stay here forever, Angel, but we gotta do to them what they did to us.”

She backed away, her eyes wide. “You’ve had too much sun, that’s all. Cooked up them big brains of yours. You need to take a rest.”

I’d never seen her scared before and I didn’t like it one bit. I wanted to reason with her, make her see why she was here. “I needed plenty of poison to turn this lake bad. That’s why I needed you and Snickler. And that one-legged whore, too.”

“You killed Sally?”

“Pulled her along on my bicycle, like I was a goddamned donkey and she was the cart. Soon as she told me the Big Ranchers were coming, I knew what to do. If we can’t have it, then they can’t neither.”

Angel Eyes bolted, but her legs were heavy. She made all of five steps before I brought that rock down on her head. It was like she instantly turned to jelly and she flopped onto a patch of wet moss. She wasn’t dead, so I counted down her breaths till they stopped. When she was gone, I closed my eyes and listened to the birds in the trees. The sun heat up my eyelids. When I opened them, everything was green, but then everything in the crater was green anyhow.

I dragged Angel to the shoreline, pushing her and Snickler out into the lake. They’d sink afore the Big Ranchers came.

The rock was sticky with blood. I put it my pocket with the other one to weigh me down. Wading into the water, the cool liquid rose up from my weary legs to an aching chest. I thought briefly of escaping, of climbing out of the crater and making a run for it, but for what? A dried up life scrapping around for food enough to do it all again tomorrow? Better this way, I thought. We’d need every drop of poison we could muster if we were gonna stick it to the Big Ranchers once and for all.

They were sick, but we were sicker and I had more poison in my heart than most.

Shaun Baines lives in a damp cottage in Scotland. He keeps chickens for company. When he isn’t outside gardening, he is huddled over a computer writing about dark things. His debut novel, Woodcutter, is to be published by Thistle Publishing. Find him @littlehavenfarm.