There’s a thick yellow stink in the town of Zaretan when I arrive, like stomach bile and fetid water. This is a town that eats its shoe leather, I can tell. A town that depended too much on the earth to keep them fed, and now that the rains have stopped and the crops have died, there’s nothing left for them. The first clue is the smell; the second is the absence of rats. The third clue is the shopkeeper sitting on the front steps of the general store like a polished brown collection of bones.
I have felt eyes watching me since I crested the ridge and saw the town below. You get that feeling the further out west you go, the feeling that they’d eat the pages out of your Bible just to have something to chew.
The shopkeeper stirs when I approach but only enough to shift his head. Still, I keep a few feet away, out of grabbing range. He’s taking advantage of the July sunlight, warming himself like a cat. I bet there aren’t any of those running around here, either.
“We’re closed, boy,” he says, although the last word is uncertain. His voice is raspy. He rubs grit out of his eyes and straightens his shoulders a bit. There’s white around his mouth, dried spit. The only watering hole I’d seen on my way into town had been dry and cracked, like the riverbed in this city’s namesake. In the Bible, the river by Zaretan dried so the Hebrews could cross. Here, God has no chosen people.
“I’m looking for a man,” I say, my thumb hooked in my belt loop. My dungarees have gotten mighty loose in these past few months and I’m running out of belt to punch holes in. “His name is Orlando Frontera.”
The shopkeeper just stares up at me. I unhook my thumb from my pants and dig in my pack. One-handed, I take out my waterskin, and toss it to him. He catches it, fumbling to unscrew the cap, and drains the whole thing before hugging the skin to his chest like it’s going to magically fill itself.
“The Fronteras live out at their farm,” he says.
“And with a kid. Why, are you his...?” He trails off, eyeing me, obviously unable to come up with a plausible end to that sentence.
“Tell me how to get there,” I say. I want that waterskin back, but I don’t really want to get that close to him. I should have thought of that before I gave it to him.
His eyes run over me, obviously trying to see what else he can get out of me in payment for the information. My boots have seen better days, though the shoe leather has been sacrificed to the hard ground, not my soup pot. My satchel sags, almost entirely empty except for the meager bit of money I got from selling my saddle and the remains of my horse. There’s a cook pot and a Bible in there too, though half the Bible has gone to starting fires. An old revolver hangs in a holster at my side.
“How much is it worth to you?” the shopkeeper asks, and his eyes fix on the tarnished silver cross around my neck.
“Not that much,” I say, following his gaze down. “I can find their farm myself if it comes down to it.”
“Lotta farm land out there,” he says.
“You’re not the only person in this town I can talk to.”
His eyes roll up to me, and he’s so dehydrated I can almost hear them scrape in their sockets. I don’t begrudge him the water he took. “You keeping that gun to use it on Frontera?”
“Keep the waterskin.” I turn away from him.
Contrary to my statement, there’s no one else in sight. Most of the buildings on the street are shuttered. The bank is closed, and even the horse troughs are dry. There’s a chapel down at the end of the street, and its front doors are open. The graveyard next to the building has a whole row of fresh graves, and a man is patiently digging a new one. The mound of dirt next to him is barely knee-high, and from the way he’s going it’ll take a week to get the usual six feet down.
“Pardon,” I say as I approach, digging in my satchel. He—no, she. It’s a woman in trousers and a flour sack shirt, her hair cut short, her wrists as thin around as the handle of the shovel. She squints at me.
“Yeah?” she says. Her gaze wanders over me like ants on sugar.
“The Frontera farm,” I say. “Can you point me toward it?” I remove my hand from my satchel and hold out the last of my money—forty cents.
She doesn’t reach out to take it. “What am I going to do with that? Nothing to buy around here.” She turns back to the shovel and skims up another handful of dirt. Her arms shake with the effort.
“It’s all I’ve got,” I say.
“They’re that way.” She jerks her chin north. “’Bout six miles. Just follow the trail. You’ll know it by the gate.”
“Thank you,” I say gravely. There aren’t many people out here who’ll do a favor and expect nothing in return.
“You don’t want to go out there,” she says, leaning on the shovel to rest. “Frontera’s not right in the head. He’ll kill you soon as talk to you.”
“I know,” I say, and move on.
Sunset falls slow on the plains, like a long gulp of ale, clear and golden. The sun lingers on the horizon for a long, meandering hour before the grass swallows it and the light leaks away.
It’s past dark when I reach the cow gate. A pack of coyotes is yipping in the distance There’s no cattle here, no farm dogs, no horses. No chickens scratching in the dirt. Just silence and a farmhouse with a light on downstairs.
I duck the gate and give the farmhouse a wide berth. There won’t be any guard dogs, but I’m not going to take any chances. The curtains aren’t drawn, so I can see a shape standing by the fireplace. It smells like a cook fire, though not with clean wood; it reeks of burning paint and creosote.
Around the back of the house, by the kitchen door, there’s a fresh coyote pelt hanging from the laundry line. A bucket underneath is set to catch the still-dripping blood. That explains the cook fire, anyway. I stop next to the bucket, bend down and dip my finger. Taste it. Think of black pudding.
The kitchen door is hanging open. I move to the wall beside it and slide down until I’m sitting on the ground right next to the doorframe. I take my revolver out of its holster and rest it on my knees. I wait.
I remember my mother cooking when I was little. It was a few years into the drought—not this drought, but the one before it; they come every few years out here—and food was scarce. My father was a rancher, but the cattle were starting to starve out in the fields, left with nothing but dry, dusty stalks to chew. When he slaughtered them, my mother would use every bit of the animal, from its brain to its tail. I remember her cracking beef bones for the pot so she could simmer a stock overnight. She’d simmer it down to a thick paste, then dry the paste into plugs so she could turn them into broth later, when we really needed them.
The meat went first. My father slaughtered all his cattle rather than see them starve to bones in the fields. We ate what we could and salted what we couldn’t, but even our stores ran dry after a while. Soon we were down to just hominy and sorghum, and then that went too.
The night the bandits rode into town, I understood for the first time what hunger was. People were starving to death. In some towns out west, they’d rip you from your horse if you were stupid enough to ride one out there. You’d see the dead piled like kindling on the side of the road and no one strong enough to bury them. So people started migrating back east, and with those migrants came the bandits.
My father got his rifle when he heard the horses coming up the path and told us to barricade ourselves in the bedroom.
I don’t remember what happened after that. The last thing I remember of my parents is my mother grabbing the shotgun off the bedroom wall, the one my father’s father gave us. Lit by the candles, a small, golden woman, her skirts swirling as she spins and heads for the door after my father. In my memory, that movement is one perfect, fluid motion, though I know she must have stopped to get more shells from the dresser. I know she must have looked at me or said something. But in my memory, it’s silent.
I jerk my head up from my half-doze when a shadow appears in the kitchen doorway and a man comes down the steps so close that the breeze of his passing stirs my hair. He’s focused on the body of the coyote, which has ceased dripping. He doesn’t see me.
Inside the house, I can hear the sound of dishes being washed. Ahead of me, the man stands with his hands on his hips, looking past the coyote pelt to the plains beyond. If the fields once held crops, they hold nothing but empty stalks now.
The man is thin, but not as thin as the storekeeper. He has wiry wrists and his clothes hang slack on him. When he turns his head to the side, I see his face in profile, the cheeks hollow. I rest my thumb on the hammer of my revolver.
“Da-da.” A toddler comes to the kitchen doorway just a foot away from me. It should be plump with baby fat, but it’s not. Its head bobs on a too-thin neck. I freeze. Frontera takes up the bucket of blood. When he turns back toward the house, he stops, his eyes settling on me in the shadows.
“Who’s there?” he asks, his hand going to his hip for a gun that’s not there. The toddler, unaware, clambers down the steps and to his father.
I keep my revolver on my knees but say nothing, my thumb paralyzed on the hammer. His eyes go from the gun to my empty sleeve and then to my face. I don’t know what he reads there. After a pause, he takes a cautious step forward, the bucket of blood sloshing.
“Did you take some of my blood?” He smiles, and when he does, I remember those sharp yellow teeth. My hand is gripped so tightly around the gun that I don’t think I could pry my fingers free if I wanted to. My eyes flick to the toddler.
“That’s okay,” he says when I don’t respond. He stoops and picks up the toddler in one arm. “I’m a generous man. Keep it.” He chuckles and walks past me, back into the house. He shuts the door behind himself.
The sisters in the convent believed in discipline, God, and the ravages of sin. I was only six when they took me under their wing, a full year before God instills moral responsibility in His children. So what had happened to me, to us, was not because of my own sin but that of my father.
Kneeling there in the chapel, one shirtsleeve empty and pinned up to my shoulder, I couldn’t imagine what my father had done to bring that down on our heads. I felt, somehow, that the bandits were also responsible, but the sisters told me that they were instruments of God’s wrath. God moves in mysterious ways, and if we hadn’t deserved what happened, it wouldn’t have occurred. The bandits would be punished for their crimes too, if not in this life then in the next.
The convent sat on a vein of silver, and the sisters worked that mine with as much fervor as they said their prayers. Those initiates who weren’t down in the mines chipping away at the ore or at the furnace separating the silver from the lead were up on the walls of the convent with shotguns, keeping an eye out for claim jumpers. The sisters took their vows of poverty seriously. The only luxury they spared us was a tiny silver cross each, to remind us of our connection to God and, perhaps, as insurance against future destitution. All other money went to feeding and housing the poor. The sisters could eke a loaf of bread out of a handful of grain and then split that among the forty of us. With that, and the deep well that they had on the property, we survived.
At mass, I would whisper, “forgive us our trespasses, as we forgive those who trespass against us” and listen to the susurration of the nuns, hissing like wind through a broken window.
When I was thirteen, the sheriff came knocking at the door late, after dark, while on duty on the wall. Two of the sisters lifted the bar and pulled open the heavy wooden door, and the sheriff and his deputy hustled in, a man strung between them.
“Evening, sisters,” said the sheriff as they dropped the man into the dust of the courtyard. “We’ve got another one for you.”
I leaned over the side to get a good view. Sister Constance came out to the courtyard, as put-together as if she hadn’t been woken up moments before. She nodded to the sheriff.
“Tell me his crimes,” she said. I could see her turning a coin over and over in her hand, like a worry stone.
“He stole three goats from the Robinson place, and killed their shepherd to get them.”
“It weren’t me,” the man insisted through what sounded like a bloody mouth. “I swear, it weren’t me.”
The sheriff glanced casually down at him and planted a foot in the middle of the man’s back, keeping him there. “Maybe it was, maybe it wasn’t,” he said. “So you see why we brought him here.”
Sister Constance swept her skirts aside and knelt on the ground next to the man. She opened her palm to show the coin—struck from pure silver from the mine. Even from up on the wall, I could see its gleam in the moonlight.
“Do you see this?” Sister Constance asked quietly. The sheriff let up on the man enough for the man to get to his knees.
“Yeah?” said the man, looking uncertainly from the coin to the other sisters standing around, watching.
“God has blessed this convent with the ability to root out sin where we find it,” the sister said. She turned the coin over in her hand while the man stared dumbly. “If you killed that man and stole those sheep, this coin will tell me.”
The man stared at the coin, then spat on the ground. “They caught the wrong man,” he said.
Unperturbed, Sister Constance put the coin in her mouth, waited a serene moment, and then daintily spit it back into her palm. Wiping the coin dry on the edge of her skirt, she said, “As you can see, it’s quite harmless to those who are free from mortal sin.”
“I’m not putting no devil-coin in my mouth,” the man said, crawling backward in the dirt.
Sister Constance raised her eyes to the sheriff and deputy, who bent down to restrain the man. When he was firmly in hand, the sister held up the coin. “You have an opportunity to repent your sin. But if you decline, you won’t get a second chance.”
“You’re a goddamn witch,” said the man. He strained against the sheriff’s hands. “I did nothing wrong.”
Sister Constance nodded once, looking disappointed. The deputy pried the man’s mouth open, and Sister Constance dropped the coin inside.
For a long moment, nothing happened. The man spat the coin out into the dust, then looked up at Sister Constance with a nasty grin. The whole courtyard waited in a frozen silence.
Then the man’s grin faded and he let out a low keening noise. Smoke began to trickle out of his nostrils. The man spasmed, kicking his legs. A hot white light blossomed under his shirt, and then the fabric began to burn away, and I could see the silhouette of his ribcage over the fire inside. My stomach twisted but I kept watching, caught between horror and morbid fascination. This man had done whatever he was accused of and worse, and he was burning for it.
The sheriff and deputy let go and backed away. The man was beyond struggling at this point. He screamed, thrashing on the ground, as thick black smoke gushed from his mouth. It smelled like overcooked bacon. His shirt was aflame and the flesh underneath was black.
The silence in the courtyard remained over the next several minutes as the fire burned furiously. When the fire finally subsided, the sheriff nodded to Sister Constance. “For your trouble,” he said, and held out a jingling pouch. She took it graciously. The deputy and the sheriff lifted the man’s corpse and carried it back out the gate to the waiting cart.
After I leave Frontera’s farm, I return to the camp I made last night up the ridge. I have no waterskin, nor any food. I can’t eat the forty cents I have left. I can’t even boil the leather of my satchel to give myself something to chew on, because I have no water to boil.
My prayers are automatic, the movements worn into my fingers as I sift through the beads on my rosary. With each Hail Mary and Lord’s Prayer, I can feel my shoulders tense. I haven’t had confession since I left the convent. Haven’t taken communion. I say my prayers, but when my mouth shapes the words, they come out tarnished. There’s nothing holy in this path on which I’ve set myself.
I remember his teeth.
It’s like a crackle of lightning in my brain, a flash of light and then nothing. I close my eyes and try to hold on to the memory, even though I don’t think I want it.
When I turned fourteen, the sisters taught me how to cast bullets, one of the few jobs I could do one-handed. Once they’d extracted the silver from the lead, I’d melt the lead into a quivering puddle and then pour it into the mold, making bullets for the sisters on the wall. What didn’t go to the sisters on the wall went to traders who stopped by, and there was always a market for it.
It was another sister’s job to strike the silver coins. Most of the silver was made into bars and packed in a safe, but a small portion was set aside for these coins, made with a cross on the front and a dove on the back. Those, Sister Constance kept somewhere secret. As far as I could tell, whatever holy power they possessed was not in the silver itself but in whatever process the sisters used to refine the metal. They didn’t do it to all the metal; certainly not the stuff they were going to sell. It was only the silver used for their holy work that held God’s fire inside. I was not old enough, or perhaps pure enough, to be let in on the secret.
Whatever it was, it would eat a sinner from the inside out. Eating their sin.
Two years later, three men were brought to the convent, seriously injured. One of them was gut-shot and died before they even put him in a cot. Of the other two, one had been shot in the chest, and the other was entirely missing his right leg.
“The Warner farm was taken over last week by bandits,” he raved while the sisters restrained him with leather straps so he wouldn’t struggle when they cauterized his stump. “We went up there, but they saw us coming—” He choked when a sister pushed a leather strap into his mouth for him to bite down on. His eyes rolled wildly and then he screamed as Sister Charity set the hot metal against his leg.
Later, when he had been sewn up and was resting in a cot, buzzed on whiskey, he tugged at the dangling sleeve of my missing arm.
“They et ’em,” he said. “Both folks and the oldest son. Et ’em right up. Just the bones left. We got the three-year-old out. Then they got the upper hand on us and tied me to a tree—” He groaned, one hand grasping for the stump where his leg had been. “Cooked it right in front of me,” he whispered. “Not because they needed it but because they wanted me to watch. I only got away when my partners showed up.” He looked toward the other bed in the room, but the second man had died just a few minutes before. I saw his face crumple.
Just a day after the third man succumbed to gangrene, I snuck into Sister Constance’s room and searched it furiously while everyone else was at the funeral mass. I should have been too, but I’d begged off with a headache.
The coins were in a leather pouch kept under a floorboard under her bed, only obvious because of the lack of dust. I took out six coins, tied the bag shut again, and retreated to the refinery.
Silver is as good as lead for bullets; just more expensive. I cast six bullets in the refinery, praying I wasn’t destroying their power, sitting in the heat while the sounds of mass came from across the convent. When they were done, I tipped them, still hot, into a handkerchief and tied that up.
The possessions of the dead men were being kept in the surgery, since no one had come to claim them. I found the revolver there. In my room, I packed that in my satchel with a few necessities, and before mass was even over, I headed out.
When I left the convent, there were six bullets in my gun. Five for the bandits, and one for good luck.
There’s something about the dry dusty heat that makes my heart beat in my ears and my stomach start to squeeze itself in at the corners, getting tighter. It’s the feeling of a bad storm coming. There are clouds bulking up on the horizon, but I know that it’s not going to rain. It doesn’t rain here anymore.
I spend the morning tracking for rabbits. They must be out here if there are still coyotes around, I know, but they’re keeping themselves well hidden. It takes me until noon to trap two in my snare, and by that point I’m convinced I’ve emptied the whole plains of their rabbit population.
You can starve to death on rabbits. They don’t have enough fat on them to keep a person going, especially not the ones out here, where there’s no vegetation left under the sun and all living things are just skin and bone. It’s not just rabbits—any too-lean meat will do it. You can eat all the meat you want until your belly is distended, but without fat, you’re always hungry.
This time of drought and famine isn’t a time to be picky with food, but I can’t abide with eating meat. It’s not as much the taste as the smell. I’m not fussy, but that smell of cooking flesh is just wrong to me.
But these coneys are the only living thing out here that I’ve found, though the fact that they’re here means that there must be vegetation somewhere. I’m too hungry to search, and I don’t think chewing on dry brambles will help me, anyway. I bind up my nose with my handkerchief and breathe through my mouth while I roast them over the fire, keeping my eyes averted from the blackening flesh. The smoke hazes my eyes, leaving them dripping, and I apply myself to pinning the skins to the ground with whittled sticks so I can scrape them one-handed. I’m so distracted I nearly burn the rabbits to a char, but I rescue them in time.
By mid-day, the clouds in the west have gone glittering white at the leading edge. I keep an eye on them as I walk to the Frontera farm. It looks like snow, but that’s impossible.
I check the bullets in my gun as I walk. There are two left. The other four have gone to each of the other four bandits who were there the night my parents died. I’m no crack shot—I make sure to only pull the trigger when I’m certain that I’ll hit my mark. I don’t care if I have to shoot a man in the back or while he’s sleeping. I shot one who was already dead. All I care about is planting the seed of the sin eater and watching it blossom.
There’s only one bandit left. Frontera retired before the others to raise a family, but that won’t spare him. He who eats of my flesh and drinks of my blood remains in me, and I in him. I can’t rest until I’ve consigned him to God.
One bandit, and two bullets. At first, that extra bullet was a safeguard in case things went awry. But now that I’m coming close to the end of my self-appointed mission, it’s becoming more and more likely that it’ll end up spare.
By the time I’m a mile from the farm, the clouds are a lot closer. I can see their approach over the plains, the dark haze that’s coming with it. It’s not windy, though, and it doesn’t smell like rain; maybe I wouldn’t recognize it if it did.
Sometimes I wonder what would happen if I put that bullet in my mouth like Sister Constance did with the coin. Would I burn? Murder is a mortal sin, but these men were more than murderers. They were stains on the soul of the world. If they weren’t, they wouldn’t have burned like they did, lit up like Catherine wheels. If they weren’t meant to die, God wouldn’t have let me kill them.
That doesn’t make it forgivable, what I did.
Some nights that sixth bullet weighs extra heavy.
And then, all at once, it starts to rain. The drops hit the dirt around me with a hefty weight, spewing up dust—but wait.
That’s not rain.
Locusts spatter to the ground with the ferocity of hailstones. Something hits me in the chest and I clamp my hand over it. A tiny brown grasshopper lays there, stunned. Another hits me in the shoulder, and then in the thigh. And then the storm really starts.
I make it another hundred feet before I’m wading in a river of locusts. Wriggling bodies squirm up my trouser legs and frantically batter against my shins to escape. I yank my handkerchief down over my face to protect my eyes from the sharp, flickering wings. The noise of them is like a tea kettle left on the stove, an unending shriek. The air is choking with the dry, grassy smell of insect. They twitch in the collar of my shirt, their wings sticking to my sweaty neck. One buzzes into my ear and when I swat at it, I crush two more into my hair.
It’s dark out now, no hint of the sun in the sky. The farmhouse is barely visible, the air hazy with wings Inside the house, a light has come on to chase off the sudden dark. I stagger up the steps and onto the covered porch, but the locusts are banging onto the railing, onto the steps, ricocheting off the porch like bacon grease spattering out of a pan.
I lean against the clapboard wall, picking locusts out of my shirt. Inside the house, I hear footsteps thump across the floor. I don’t think anyone knows I’m here yet. They can’t hear me through the noise.
The front door creaks open. A woman comes out. I keep myself flattened against the wall, staying still. She stares out at the yard, her back to me, and then turns toward the door. “They’re locusts, Orl. They’re going to eat the corn.”
“There’s no corn left to eat,” says a man’s voice from inside. It’s so close to me that I tense, the skin on my neck twitching.
“The soybeans, though—” She sweeps into the house, grabbing her skirts and shaking out a couple stray locusts. She leaves the door open. “We have to cover them. I’m getting quilts. You help me.”
“You’re not going out until it’s over,” Frontera says. From the sound of his voice, he has turned to watch her as she heads off to find quilts.
She doesn’t respond. There is a pause and the door creaks slightly, as if someone is holding the handle. I breathe out slowly, my hand resting on my gun.
“You were outside my house last night,” Frontera says. His voice, again, is very close.
I hold my breath and study the open yet still empty doorway. I’m pressed against the wall, so I can’t understand how he knows I’m out there. Then I see the trail of crushed locusts left by my boots from my flight up the stairs.
I jerk the gun out of the holster and nearly squeeze out a shot by accident in my panic before Frontera comes through the doorway and hammers me in the face with his fist, breaking my nose and sending me reeling back to the floor.
I crash down hard on my ass, dropping the revolver. The pain is explosive, but worse than that is the horror at knowing that I have ruined my plan with my own stupidity. Why couldn’t I have just shot him last night, when his back was turned? Frontera stands in over me, haloed in locusts.
We both go for my gun at the same time, but I’m bleeding and half-blind with pain. He gets it first.
“Who the hell are you?” he asks, stepping back.
I spit blood onto the floor, my only response. He grins.
“I’m going to give the locusts something to eat besides my soybeans,” he says, and aims the gun at my belly. I’m already cringing away, anticipating the shot. Will I go up in a firestorm, like all the bandits have? I hope the fire sparked by my sins consumes his house before he knows what’s happening.
Frontera pulls the trigger.
Once when I was very young, I grabbed a cook pot on the fire. I burned my hands so badly that they bubbled up, hot and white and painful.
Being shot in the belly feels like that. It feels like everything below my collarbone and above my waist is bubbling up, boiling into scar tissue and blisters.
Somewhere distant, I hear a woman’s voice say, “Orlando?” and Frontera answers, “Go back inside.”
I’m burning. My lungs are choking up with smoke. I can taste my own insides, the taste of burning meat and hair. This is what I knew was always going to happen, but not yet. Not now. Not while Frontera is standing there, unpunished.
After a moment, I open my eyes. It still hurts, worse than anything I’ve ever felt before, but I’m not actively burning. By this point, I should feel myself turning to ash. I’m almost disappointed, thinking that if this was all the bandits felt when they died, it wasn’t worth it.
But I’m not dying.
Very slowly, I raise my hand and press it against my belly. It comes away bloody but not burnt. Wherever the bullet buried itself, it didn’t lodge anywhere too bad, but that shouldn’t matter—I should be dead. I should burn in Hell for what I did.
Frontera is standing over me. He flips open the cylinder and frowns when he sees there’s only one bullet left. “You were cutting it close, weren’t you, girl?”
I should be burning. I should be lit up like that murderer in the convent courtyard. I was His weapon, yes, but that doesn’t mean I escape His judgment. Is this God’s forgiveness? Or His absence?
Frontera pulls the shell out and studies the bullet. “Is this silver?”
I take in a breath, testing my lungs. It feels like I’m breathing through a wool blanket, but I can still get air in. My nose is dripping and my eyes are wet. “Bite—” I cough. “Bite it and see.”
He holds the bullet between thumb and forefinger. “Where did a wretch like you get a bullet like this? This could be worth a mint.”
I paw at my wound, trying to hold back the bleeding. His eyes follow the movement, and then he eases himself down to the floor next to me. Gripping my shoulder, he rocks me up onto my side and feels around on my back.
“No exit wound,” he says. “It’s still in there.”
He lets me flop back down to my back. Locusts crunch underneath me. I’m close enough to the edge of the porch that there are locusts falling off the railing onto my face. I’ve lost my hat somewhere.
“Who’s that?” Frontera’s wife is in the doorway again. I can see her eyes go wide when she sees the blood, and her gaze cuts uneasily toward Frontera.
“I told you to get inside, woman.” Frontera rocks back on his heels. “Get me the tongs. I need to do some surgery.” He winks at me.
“He’s just a child,” she says, gripping the sides of her skirt in tight fists.
“Get me the tongs.” Frontera twists around, and whatever she sees on his face makes her retreat back into the house.
Frontera pokes at the empty sleeve of my shirt. “Did I do this, child?” he says. “That why you’re here?” He shows me his smile, those familiar teeth. “I heard about some of my old pals disappearing. Someone shooting them and burning the corpses. Thought it might be someone out for revenge. Didn’t realize you were just a pup.”
“You killed my parents,” I whispered.
“Times are hard.” He sucks on his teeth and looks out at the locusts. “They’re getting harder. Might be you’ll help my family and I survive a little longer.” He pinches the rabbit-lean flesh on my good arm. “You’re a little wiry but you’ll do.”
The wife has reappeared in the doorway, holding a metal pair of tongs. She’s watching us in silence. She has the look of the grave digger in town, steadily digging that hole not because she wanted to but because it was something that needed to be done. I would wonder what Frontera has done to her to convince her to obey so readily, except I understand desperation.
“You’ve killed so many people,” I say to him, louder so she can hear it.
Frontera chuckles. “Delia knows,” he says, holding out a hand. She gives him the tongs. “She knows what I had to do to survive. Go get my coffee, Dee.”
Delia disappears again. With one hand, Frontera yanks my shirt open at the front, popping buttons and exposing the cloth binding my chest. His other hand holds the tongs, ready to fish in my wound to find the silver bullet, but before he can do that, he pauses. His fingers go to the cross around my neck, now visible against my skin.
“More silver,” he says in wonder. “Where are you getting all this? Why haven’t you sold it yet?”
I wish I’d hid it better. He doesn’t deserve it. I don’t answer and just watch Delia come back out, holding a tin cup of coffee in her hands. Her eyes are locked on the wound in my belly. She sets the cup down next to Frontera and steps back but doesn’t go back inside.
Frontera tugs on the cross, breaking the delicate chain. He shoves it into his pocket and uses a fistful of my shirt to mop the blood away from the wound. “Can’t be that deep,” he mutters to himself, digging the tongs into the wound.
I scream, jerking. He frowns and plants one hand on my shoulder, pinning my one arm down while he digs in my belly with the tongs. It’s worse than being shot, worse even than having my arm cut off.
“Quit that caterwauling,” he says, drawing back slightly. The tongs are bloody but he doesn’t have the bullet yet.
“Stop,” I beg him. “Please. Or kill me first.”
He grins down at me and squeezes my shoulder. “I don’t want to waste another bullet,” he says. He digs the tongs in again.
Everything goes white behind my eyes. I grab blindly at his leg, the only thing within reach that I can grab. My fingers tangle with the chain of the cross and suddenly I know why God spared me. Frontera doesn’t notice when I pull it free.
He digs deeper, frowning. “I’m no surgeon,” he mumbles distractedly.
I squeeze my eyes shut against the bouncing locusts and flail out with my arm. I almost knock his coffee cup over fumbling at it before I manage to rein my arm in. I press my empty palm over the wound, feeling the pulse of blood.
“You want I should stitch her up when you’re done?” asks Delia quietly.
Frontera looks down at me and abandons the tongs for a second, sitting back on his heels. “Save your thread.” He picks up his coffee. “I’ll toss her out to the locusts when I’m done.” He frowns at the blood on his cup, then shrugs and tosses back the coffee in one gulp. Delia looks down at me with dark, worried eyes.
Frontera coughs and brings a hand up to his mouth. He pulls a thin silver chain out from between his lips, a puzzled look on his face. The chain swings free, the cross on the end.
“Why did you—” he starts to say, and smoke curls out of his nostrils.
The light kindles in his belly, visible through his shirt. He grabs at his stomach with both hands, looking surprised. “What— did you put— in that coffee?” He aims the question at me, every word squeezed with pain. Before I can answer, he drops to his knees, and I see the line of angry red flowing up his neck.
He starts screaming after that. I’ve heard this scream before. It’s the scream of being devoured while you’re still alive. He grabs for Delia’s skirts, the only thing within his reach, but she recoils. His fingers close on air
From inside the house, the toddler wails and comes running out the door, swishing past Delia. She snatches him up at the last second, keeping him from running to his burning daddy. I see a glimpse of his face, wretched, horrified, before Delia presses him to her chest and turns away. She steps into the house and shuts the door, leaving me to watch Frontera burn.
I wake on top of a thin quilt on a hard wooden floor with a tickling blanket of locusts crawling in an open window and over my body. The bullet burns in my belly, a smoldering ember that gets worse as I swat them off me and roll over, levering myself up on my hand and knees on the floor of the parlor. My wound has been sewn shut with small, neat stitches. My stomach rumbles, not satisfied with just a bullet to gnaw on.
The house is empty and silent but for the locusts. I stagger out of the parlor and make it only as far as the kitchen before I have to sit down again in the carpet of dead locusts and catch my breath. The locusts are bunched up against the kitchen wall, migrating south, trying to climb out the windows and under my shirt. Under their whine, I strain to hear the sound of Delia’s voice or of the toddler crying, but there’s nothing.
I crawl to the back door and open it, letting out a wave of locusts. I sit on the back steps, hunched over the burning knot in my belly and tasting the faint, ever-present hint of smoke at the back of my throat. Delia may have tended to me out of guilt or Christian duty, but it might as well have been malice, because she has left me here with my life ahead of me and no vengeance to guide my steps. What do you do when you’ve done what I’ve done and there’s no one left to hold you accountable? When do I get what’s coming to me?
The wind whistles through the shorn fields. All the crops are gone, eaten down to the stubs, except for the prairie grass that proved unpalatable. The soybeans are gone. Delia’s quilts are gone, too. The sheep have been shorn of wool by a thousand starving locusts. The sides of the barns have been stripped of paint, and the wooden handles of shovels are chewed to splinters. It looks empty out there, but then, I was devoured and left for dead once, too.
My stomach rumbles again. I take a deep breath and rise slowly from the steps, returning into the empty hollow of the kitchen. My revolver and the sixth silver bullet are nowhere to be seen. I hope Delia has taken them with her. She’s welcome to take whatever path she wants with them. The vengeance for the loss of her family is in her hands now, or her son’s if he wants it. I won’t begrudge them that.
The cold storage furnishes me a crock of rendered coyote fat. I work automatically, stoking the fire in the stove and setting the pan over the heat. The locusts pop as they fry, and I find myself picking them out of the pan with my bare fingers and shoving them in my mouth until the gnawing hunger is sated. They’re hot and crunchy, rich with a sustenance I haven’t had in a long time.
They can’t touch the burning in my belly. That taste of smoke is going to be with me for good, I suspect, but for the moment I work to fill my belly, and that’s enough.