Thursday, 24 June 2010
Extract of The Bone Picker by Derek Rutherford
The transcript of an interview conducted last weekend by the Black Horse Western Discussion Group with Derek Rutherford will be posted here in a few days. As a taster below is an extract of Derek's forthcoming Black Horse Western, The Bone Picker, which will be available in October :
Chapter One - Kansas Territory, Summer, 1855
The man was hanging from a tree by his wrists. His feet were three feet from the ground and the dirt beneath him was dark with blood. A jacket and hat lay next to the remnants of a small fire.
Buzzard Jones pulled his horse to a halt fifteen yards from the man, and carefully looked around. The sycamore was one of several growing in the lee of a hill, strong trees a rarity in this region of eastern Kansas. Further along the canyon a group of willows thrived, too. A dry gully ran along the base of the slope. There’d be water here in winter and spring. Enough to make the trees and grass flourish. Tough bushes sprouted in small groups between the trees. Water all year round and it would have made a fine place to build a cabin, sheltered from the wind and the dust.
Buzzard tapped the horse’s flanks and eased her forward, twisting in his seat, looking up at the skyline, scanning the rocks. The only movement came from two birds high in the cloudless sky, circling, waiting for him to move on so they could come down and start feeding.
The hanging man’s head lolled to one side. The part of his face that Buzzard could see looked raw – either beaten or burned.
Five yards away, Buzzard climbed off the horse.
“Someone didn’t care for you much, did they?” he said, walking slowly around the man. Up on the plains the wind would have given the man some movement, pushing him this way and that until he might have almost looked alive. Down here he was as still as the rocks.
Buzzard lifted the man’s jacket. It was torn and there was blood on the inside. The pockets were empty. He threw the jacket back down. The man’s hat was better. A little sweat stained, but Buzzard would get a price for it.
He looked back at the man. His boots were good, too. Better than good. Wine coloured, lots of fancy stitching. Plenty of dollars potential there. But when Buzzard gripped the man’s leg and pulled on one of his boots the man let out a long low moan that sounded like the noise a fellow might make as he died and realised the Devil himself was waiting.
Buzzard jumped back in surprise, caught his foot in the man’s jacket and fell over.
The man said, “Help me. Help me, please.”
“Mercy,” Buzzard said and scrabbled backwards.
Buzzard stood up.
“I thought you were dead.”
The man didn’t appear to hear. Buzzard stepped closer to him, leaning down to get a better view of the man’s face.
“Mercy,” he said again, quietly this time. The man’s eyes were gone. Cut out leaving just dark holes in his face. “Who did this to you?” It looked like Indian work, or at least the sort of thing that Buzzard imagined might be Indian work. But as far as he knew there weren’t any savages around these parts – hadn’t been for a few years. Anyway, the man still had his hair. Indians would surely have scalped him too.
“Water,” the man said.
“Hold on,” Buzzard said. “Hold on, fellow.”
Buzzard whistled between his teeth and his horse walked forwards. Buzzard reached into a satchel and pulled out a knife.
He climbed back onto the horse and urged her alongside the man. Then he stood in his stirrups, reached across, and sawed through the rope.
The man fell to the floor and the air expelled from his lungs when he hit the ground sounded like a pig squealing.
“’Pologies,” Buzzard said, jumping to the ground again. He slipped the knife back into the bag and pulled a water skin from the back of his saddle. “Here.”
He knelt beside the man, lifted his head gently and poured water into the man’s bloodied mouth.
The man coughed and gasped. When Buzzard felt him pressing backwards, he lowered the man’s head to the ground.
“Who was it?” Buzzard said. “Who are you?”
“Southerners,” the man said.
“Southerners did this?”
The man’s head moved. It may have been a nod or it may have just been an attempt to ease the pain.
Buzzard listened. He couldn’t hear anything except the rasp of the man’s breathing
“My name is…Curry,” the man said.
Curry. Should he recognize the name? He couldn’t place the man, leastways, not with the ruined face.
The man paused again. His breathing stopped and for a moment Buzzard thought he was dead. In a way that would be for the best, he thought.
“There’s… a family,” Curry said.
Buzzard helped him drink again. After Curry had coughed up almost all of the water, much of it mixed with blood, he said, “Can I trust you?”
“Most people don’t,” Buzzard said, a brief flame of anger lighting inside him. “They say I’m a thief and a vulture. A bone picker. But all I do…I just clear up after the dead. Take stuff that they don’t need any more and sell it on to those that do.”
Curry was quiet for several seconds Then he said, “I think I know you. You an abolitionist?” He twisted his head, turning his tortured face towards Buzzard.
“No,” Buzzard said honestly. “But neither am I in favour. I don’t pay much heed –”
“I figure - ”
“There’s a family,” Curry said. “Coming over from Missouri. Friday.”
“I should get you into town,” Buzzard said.
“They’re going to be hiding out at South Bottom Crossing. Midnight Friday. They need to be taken up to Romego. The stables at Romego. Man there named Powder will do the rest.”
“I don’t know why you’re telling me this. I - ”
“Look at what they did to me.”
“I know, it’s – ”
“It’s nothing to what they’re doing to people in Missouri.”
“What do you mean?”
“I mean…Please, water.”
Buzzard gave Curry more water. This time he coughed up what looked like blood with a little water added, rather than the other way around.
“Let me get you to town,” Buzzard said. “Sawbones – ”
“This family are… witnesses. They will stand before the Senate and tell what they’ve seen.”
Curry started coughing again. Buzzard felt flecks of phlegm splatter his face.
“You’ll help them,” Curry said, his face pointing upwards.
Buzzard looked away.
“You’ll help them,” Curry said again.
“You’re talking about slaves.”
“Nobody’ll believe what slaves say.”
“These they will.”
Curry started coughing again. Now it was pure blood spraying from his mouth. His empty eye sockets screwed up in pain. When the coughing stopped he fought to get breath into his lungs.
“Why?” Buzzard asked.
“They did this to set an example,” Curry said eventually. “To scare people off. You’re not scared, are you? Just don’t trust -”
Buzzard ran a hand over one of his own cheeks. It came away smeared with Curry’s blood.
“What’s so special about these slaves?” he said. “Who shouldn’t I trust?”
Curry opened his mouth to speak but started choking again. His lungs were full of blood and Buzzard had to roll him onto his side to let the blood out and the oxygen in. He wondered if he had inadvertently caused this damage when he’d cut Curry down, or maybe even by giving him so much water. But that was nonsense, the man’s clothes were covered in blood. It looked like he’d been stabbed and shot and burned. The southerners, whoever they were, were well and truly to blame.
“Curry,” he said, when the man’s retching had stopped. “Who shouldn’t I trust?”
The man never said anything.
The man was still, too still. Buzzard rolled him back over. Every time he’d seen dead people before he knew they were dead because of their eyes. Eyes that were open but not seeing, open and unfocussed, open and cloudy.
He wasn’t sure how to tell if someone with no eyes was dead, so he just sat there a while, hunched over on his ankles looking at the blood that seemed to be everywhere and at Curry’s face and he thought of men who could do such things to a fellow human being. He thought of slaves and he pictured the river at South Bottom Crossing and how far it was from there to Romego and he figured it was a crazy man who’d get involved in such things when clearly there were very good reasons – mostly about retaining one’s eyesight – not to. Then he thought about how this man had trusted him. About how Curry hadn’t even seen him, just listened to him, to Buzzard’s own self-deprecating mini biography, and had made decision to trust a person that most people saw as being barely one step up from the town’s rubbish dump rats.
Later, he took a long drink of water, stood up and walked back to his horse. He climbed up and was about to ride on. He paused, jumped down again, and went over to Curry’s body.
“Forgive me,” he said, and pulled Curry’s fine boots from his feet.