Mr. Willow is one kind son of a bitch.
Three Ugly Things by Brad Green
Otis Bean found the body where Hilton said it would be. It was a big man, or had once been a big man. Headless horse tattoo on his neck. Another dead Clang Bastard. Whenever Hilton needed a body, it was always a Bastard. Otis looked down at the dead weight with his long Springfield rifle leaning against his belly.
Earlier he'd tried lifting the Bastard, but his back wouldn't take the strain. Even now Otis felt the red knotting through his left hip where it hurt so bad doing the dishes for Hilton Fishtrap and his brother. They could have at least sent someone to help. But it always worked this way. Otis do this. Otis do that. Today it was Otis sneak up Willow's hill. Otis haul this fat dead Clang Bastard. Otis plant the body so Willow's men will think it was the Bastards that took the shot. Otis shoot Willow through the head with that pea-shooter. Otis, don't get caught.
Otis gripped the barrel of his rifle. Pea-shooter his ass. An M1903 Springfield was not a pea-shooter. And Otis Bean was not a low-land hauler of deceased Clang blubber. No, Otis Bean was—
Otis cocked his head and stared up at the sky gleaming blue rents through the cottonwood leaves. What was he anyway? He'd been in Button three years now. Came over from Templeton after his mother had passed from the lung rot. Willow had turned him down when he asked for work, but the Fishtraps hadn't. Otis knew his eyes were troublesome to some folk, how wide they were, how wet in their skin. He reached up and thumbed away the moisture collected at the corners. Perhaps it was an allergy that caused him to constantly tear. Even the Indian healers in the hills hadn't been able to stop the watering, though. No one his entire life had been able to stop the tears. Otis pulled away his thumb and looked at the smear of liquid across the skin. But they weren't tears. Not really. His mother had always called it his condition. "Oh, my boy isn't sad or afraid," she'd say. "He has a condition."
Otis spit on the dead man's back. If he had a condition, it was a warped back is all. And hauling that sloppy bastard up this damn hill wouldn't tend that knot nicely. No, he'd leave the body where it was. Hilton and Eliot would never find out. Climb the hill, find the spot in the tall cottonwood Hilton had scouted. Shoot Willow in the head and wait for the commotion to die down. Then tonight he'd scoot out and be at the Firehouse for dinner. Hilton and his brother could take over Willow's operation then. Maybe even give Otis a cut? Perhaps he'd even get to see Alice or that new girl Carmin with her white feet that would fit so well in his black palms. Certainly killing Hilton's main rival would be worth a pitch in the hay with one of the girls.
Otis had it all planned out. The girls wouldn't look at his face, of course, with its scars and his rheumy eyes. No they would look at his lap, act amazed at that. Otis knew those girls put on a show for whatever man was with them. They could put on a nice show for Otis. More than anything, Otis wanted Alice or Carmin on their hands and knees, facing away, their round buttocks parting between his thumbs, his stubby fingers crawling over the luscious knobs of their spines.
"Bark," he'd say. And they would. Otis drew in a deep breath. Oh, he'd make those girls bark if only given a chance. Certainly Hilton would allow that for the killing of Mr. Willow. Otis pulled up the Springfield and slung it over his shoulder. He stepped over the dead man and avoided that patch of cow-itch up ahead, making his way up the slope.
As he often did, Otis looked about for three things uglier than him. His mother had always told him he'd find beauty if only he found three things worse off than himself. Often it was hard for Otis to find a thing uglier than himself though, but just now he saw the gnarled bark of a runty juniper and thought perhaps his face was fairer than that limb. In a beech further ahead, he saw a killdeer flitting, those two dark circles around its neck surely an ugly thing to behold. Those rings reminded Otis of the iron collars he'd seen his Daddy wear long ago and he stopped for a moment to swipe the cuff of his sleeve across his watery eyes. He'd only been ten years old the day those three whooping and drunk wastrels trooped onto their farm and collared up his thin-wristed father. Otis and his mother hid in the woods while the men sliced off his father's eyelids and staked him to the ground, searing in the sun. They stripped him, rubbed his genitals with honey and let the ants jigger up his legs, but still his father would not tell them where his family was. Otis figured if there was something uglier than his face, it was the nature of man for sure.
Ducking under a low-slung branch, Otis felt the cold cylinder of the Springfield press against his back. His lucky Springfield. With that rifle he'd shot the three wastrels without being seen. That had been his first taste of blood and if there was anything that Otis Bean enjoyed more than making a woman bark, it was watching a man bleed. Such a desire wasn't unusual, he'd discovered, but most men that'd he met, Hilton Fishtrap for example, liked to be up close when the leaving occurred. But not Otis. Closeness was for making women bark, but everything else in life was done better at a distance. What more power was there in the world than to take the life of a man and have that man never see you? To see him walking along, let's say, and collapse before the last breath escaped, a fine red mist sprouting from his head. That was a God-like thing, Otis reckoned, and it plumped the heart more than jabbing a blade into a kidney for sure.
Otis knelt as he heard movement up ahead in the brush. He held his breath as he did before taking a shot, focusing on the leaves where he heard the shuffle. Soon a mouse squirted from a litter of spiderwort and disappeared into a felled log. Otis stood again and released his breath. Sometimes a creature fled before a man, so Otis waited still, but nothing else came through, so he continued on.
He found the camp twenty minutes later. He saw four men digging a pit, their backs brown and slick in the sun. A row of burn barrels at the edge of the camp smoked and Otis noted how the smoke swirled and broke apart in the wind. Then he saw the cottonwood that Hilton had told him about. Stout, forty or fifty feet high. Otis moved toward it and traced his fingers over the bark. Overhead, he saw the crook in the branches Hilton had told him about. The crook was deeply shaded but that position overlooked the camp with little to interfere other than a few leaves. Otis sucked in his lower lip and started climbing, that knot in his back flaming as he wrenched himself into the tree.
Once in the crook, he slid the Springfield off his shoulder and laid it across his lap as he situated himself for the wait. He plucked away several leaves and watched them swirl down to the ground. Now he could see the choke points where men might walk through the camp. Otis thumbed a bullet into the chamber. Sighted down the barrel, moving it from this spot to another, looking for the white hair of Mr. Willow, but all he saw were the diggers, a dog mangled in a barbwire fence, and the red dust of the camp floating through the air like bad breath. Otis wiped at his eyes and waited.
Later, Otis heard the cock of a rifle and he opened his eyes. Otis cursed and leaned over to peer at the ground. A man with a sloping forehead pointed a rifle at him.
"Come on down now," the man said. "Toss that Springfield or I'll put a bullet through your neck and get you off that perch the easy way."
Otis wiped at his eyes and let the Springfield drop. The man stooped to pick up the rifle and slung it over his left shoulder, still training his rifle on Otis. After climbing down, Otis knuckled his back and stretched.
The man motioned with his rifle. "You get a hitch there?"
"Every damn day Otis hurts. Dishes are the worst."
"It's the bending over slightly, isn't it?" The man asked. "Just a tad bit off kilter makes it flare?" He slapped his own backside. "Got me a similar woe. Goes down my leg too. Does yours do that?"
"No." Otis straightened, the hot ache cooled to a gray fist. "It stays local to the origin."
"Well, you'd be mighty blessed in that regard."
A silence fell till the man with the rifle gestured toward the camp. "Move along now," he said. "Willow is wanting to see you. He saw you perched there earlier today, but wanted to let you get your full nap on."
Otis pushed out from the woods and the man with the rifle followed behind.
"Mr. Willow is kind like that," the man said.
Even though he wasn't told to do so, Otis raised his hands as he walked. Ahead, he saw the white hair of Willow. Two dogs quarreled in a pen.
Willow turned from the dogs as Otis approached. "Well, it's Otis Bean. Am I correct?"
"And you're here on behalf of the Fishtrap brothers?" Willow held his hand out. "Ezra, hand me the man's rifle." Willow ran his fingers down the long barrel and the glossy stock. "This is a fine rifle, Mr. Bean. I'm partial to an old Volcanic myself. Have you ever shot a Volcanic, Mr. Bean?"
Otis shook his head that he hadn't. He shoved his hands into his pockets.
Willow sighted down the barrel. "One can snipe with this rifle?" Willow's left eyebrow cocked up from the gun sight. He swept the rifle over the tree line and continued talking without waiting for Otis to answer. "Ezra, that tree where Mr. Bean was napping." Willow lowered the rifle from his shoulder and pointed with his long, lean fingers. "That about 100 yards away, you figure?"
Ezra cupped his hand over his eyes and squinted. "Thereabouts, Mr. Willow."
Willow sighted along the rifle again. "Does this gun shoot straight, Mr. Bean?"
Lowering the rifle again, Willow jerked his chin at Ezra and Ezra stepped behind Otis, grabbing his arms. Otis struggled a moment, but Ezra's grip was fierce.
"Ezra, tie Mr. Bean to the tree he was going to shoot me from. I want his arms held out." Willow put down the rifle and spread his arms wide, with his fingers and palms splayed. "Like this. Minimize any wiggle." Willow picked the rifle up again, touching the barrel to his chin. "I don't want him moving."
Ezra dragged Otis to the tree and two other men came to help. Otis watched Ezra's gnarled and dirt-black elbow, listened to the stiff denim scratch of his pants as he walked. The men behind Otis panted. One smelled like smoke, the other like hot milk. That milk smell was a thing uglier than his face, Otis thought, so he counted that. That was one. A drip of wetness curled from the corner of his right eye and Otis blinked. He stood near the tree when they reached it, feeling his arms go cold. Otis thought his feet tingled, but he wasn't sure. One of the men started nailing boards to the tree.
"You best check the height of that, Silas," Ezra said.
Otis swiped his cuff across his eyes as Silas motioned him closer to the tree. "Hold ye arms out," he said.
Otis complied. Silas had nailed the boards two inches too short. He looked back at Ezra. "He can just squish a little, aye?"
Ezra shook his head. "Willow wants him still. Redo it."
Silas grumbled and then Otis heard the shrill squeal of the nails wrenched from the cottonwood. Otis licked his lips, his tongue turned to wadding. He worried a little about his heart working so hard. On the ground near his boot, he saw a black worm working into the soil, undulating and digging bit by bit into the dense meat of the earth. Number two, he thought. Otis needs just one more for something good.
When Silas started hammering again, Otis startled. His cheeks warmed, but the men glanced away. Silas tugged Otis by the shirttail back to the tree. "Spread ye arms."
Otis did as he was told. The slabs of wood were warm through his shirt and scratchy at his wrist where the sleeve pulled up. Ezra was there then, looping leather straps around Otis' arms. More straps banded his belly and legs. As the lashes tightened, the leather creaked. Bars of pain rose through his skin where the binding cinched. Otis' eyes flooded and he blinked, but the water would not stop and he could not wipe it away. "Otis have a condition so you know."
Ezra and the other men said nothing. They rummaged through his pockets, taking bullets and what coin he had. The men stepped away and through his blurry, wet vision Otis saw Willow sight along the rifle. Then he heard the crack of the gun and the wood near his right hand splintered.
Willow lowered the rifle and adjusted the sight. "Mr. Bean," he yelled. "Your sight is off. I suppose your field of view is different than mine, however, what with those strange eyes of yours. Let me have another go. What do you say?"
Otis nodded, but he didn't know why. His wet cheeks shivered. Breath was a fat claw in his throat. Another crack and this time his right thumb exploded. The sudden white shatter of bone.
"Hit!" Ezra yelled.
"I need another bullet, Ezra." Willow hollered back.
Otis watched Silas jog up the trail with the bullets. His eyes swelled with water and a warm rivulet of blood wormed down his sleeve. The blood crawled into the crook of his elbow, then over the hump of his bicep, and finally dripped into the congested hair of his underarm where it tickled like a young girl's curious finger.
Willow slipped a bullet in the chamber. Otis saw the long bore of his Springfield, that tight black hole spitting hot metal. Otis watched that concentration of shadow there, thinking there's a third thing, there's a thing uglier than my mug for sure. Then Willow lowered the rifle and started walking toward the cottonwood. He trailed his fingers over the bobbing knots of timothy, just touching their spindly heads with his palms.
A musty heat billowed out from Otis' collar. He tried to speak, but his lips smacked wetly together and words came out mushed. His heart thumped so hard, Otis was sure Willow could see it beating through his shirt.
"Can you stop that hand shaking, Mr. Bean?" Willow asked.
Otis clenched his hand into a fist. Otis do this. Otis do that. Enough.
"Mr. Bean, I'm disappointed." Willow shuffled the toe of his boot in the dirt and glanced at Ezra. "What do you have in the way of nails out here, Ezra?"
"Got some ten-pennies for mending the fence."
"That'll work," Willow said, stepping back. "I need Mr. Bean's hand open and still."
Ezra rummaged through a towsack, pulling out a hammer and four nails. He moved close to Otis, bent the forefinger to the wood.
Otis apologized. He blubbered. This was too close. Ezra's breath greased like a hot, gummy sock across his face. The nail pricked into the skin and Ezra raised the hammer.
"I'll do it," Otis said. "Otis will do what you say. Otis will."
"Ezra," Willow said. "Back away. Let the man calm his own hand."
Ezra's hot breath retreated and Otis felt the afternoon sun tender his cheeks again. He gulped a breath and unclenched his fingers, spreading them out on the wood.
Willow paced back through the timothy. He counted his steps out loud and each number that Otis heard caused his blood to tighten and sing hotly through his veins. But he kept his hand calm and finally Willow turned, raising the rifle to his shoulder. Otis closed his eyes. Heard the looming creak of the cottonwood, a sour-throated frog in some wet slop in the woods.
Then the rifle cracked.
Otis' left thumb exploded. The world flashed black. Otis thought of Carmin and that damp, trembling notch on her throat where he wanted to tongue. He thought of Alice's belly bucking under his palm. But Otis had failed his job. Otis got caught. Hilton wouldn't let him make those girls bark now. Ezra cut the lashes off his arms and the ground smacked air from his lungs.
"Told you Mr. Willow is kind," Ezra said. "You let the Fishtraps know that we're coming. You do that, Otis. You do that for us you hear?"
A small hollyhock fluttered near Otis. Such a beautiful thing. He saw it now as his mother had told him he would. Beauty everywhere, sprouting between his bloody fingers clutching the dirt. Otis wanted to touch the flower, bring the petals to his nose, but he had no thumbs and never would.