Night Settles In

By Mark Cunningham

We found them as night fell.  After tracking the sun in their trail all morning and losing them in the afternoon, we found them again as the last streaks of sunlight smudged to gray and the moon struck from soft silver to glowing gold, floating round and full against a black wall spattered with stars.   They set up camp just inside the canyon as we looked down at them from the cliffs above.
 
Jordy wanted to go right in.   They probably had his wife Molly.  She was prettier than my Bess the truth be told; pretty enough that we hadn’t found her body with the others.  They only took the pretty ones, the rest they just cut on and left to bleed.  They hadn’t taken Bess, so we had taken the time to bury her with the others before saddling up.  I had seen what the time it took had cost Jordy.  
 
“We need to go in now.”  Jordy’s eyes burned out of his head beneath the shivering stars.
 
“Dying won’t get her back.” Carson said, looking down through binoculars he had taken off a savaged Blackstripe. 
 
Carson was right.  There at least two dozen of them for the six of us, but Jordy argued it for a while longer.
 
Laughter and the sound of gunfire drifted up from below, bending the night’s cold silence.   We heard the first screams later.  They were hard to hear beneath the laughter, but I heard them.  I knew Jordy did too.  They were young, he and Molly.  They had just tied up and were still fresh in love from courting.  I heard that laughter burning hot in his eyes.  
 
“Now.”  That might have been Martin Glassing.  He owned the sawmill, or had before it burnt.  He had a pretty young wife named Esther and a little boy.  We hadn’t found either of them and sometimes they kept the boys for working.  Sometimes they kept the boys and sometimes they kept the pretty girls.  My Laura had been pretty. She had all the best parts of Bess.  She had been too young though.  I buried her with Bess.  We didn’t have time to dig the extra grave.  Sometimes she had cried at night so I’m glad she is lying with her mama. 
 
When night settled in at last, we hit the camp, quietly killing their scouts before they shat their britches.  Carson was right.  The rest of them were too occupied to put up any fight.  It was easy work, but we made damn sure they didn’t die easy.  We never found Esther or her boy, but Jordy brought Molly home.  She wasn’t pretty anymore, the truth be told, and she never danced again but at least he had her face to look at with those burning eyes.  I find myself fighting to picture Bess.  She has become a gray smudge like the last dying light in the black wall of the western sky, dark without the moon to float or stars to spatter.

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4 Responses to Night Settles In

  1. Robin Rhyner says:

    As usual, Mark, I find your writing just piercing. Like an arrow to the heart. I liked the quiet, simple sentences in this story. It made me rage all the more at the fates of the characters. I wanted the author to be angrier. Since he wasn’t, I had to get a little bit angry myself, at the way life can be so tragic, and the world keeps spinning as if nothing has happened.

    I really liked your images of the sky, moon, and spattered stars at the beginning and ending of your story.

    “I find myself fighting to picture Bess. She has become a gray smudge like the last dying light in the black wall of the western sky, dark without the moon to float or stars to spatter.” What a painfully exquisite combination of words.

  2. Greg Doolan says:

    Channeling Sergio Leone again, Mark? I thought he had a restraining order out on you? I loved watching the old Hollywood westerns when growing up. They were mainly the reserve of weekend afternoon television movies. “Night Settles in” took me back to those afternoons and to films like “The Searchers”. Nice one.

  3. tamarahunter says:

    Haunting, Mark. Bleak and desperate, and I agree with Robin…exquisite phrasing.

  4. Thanks for the comments. Greg, it definitely came from some of those movied. When I was growing up they had the 4:30 movie every day on the NY station and we used to watch them when we got home from school if they were westerns or war movies. I was kind of thinking this one to be set in a stark future or alternate universe type thing instead of the traditional western. I have actually begun messing around with more of it. Robin, I like your comment about you getting angry because the narrator wasn’t. I think pioneers in any setting learned that life just sucked and that’s the way it was. I think they might have reserved their anger for how they handled the bad guys. Remember, they did not die easily. Tamara, glad you liked the phrasing. The 500 word limit really helped there. It was longer on the first pass and I had to get sparse, which I think helped.

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