The first part of this story can be found here.
In the morning, James awoke with a start. A sudden large noise, like a rifle echoing out from the trees. He sat up and looked around. Paul was sitting near the fireplace. Henry was nowhere to be seen.
He’d barely moved when Paul said, “Sleep well?”
“All right. Is just Henry hunting?”
“We don’t need much, he’ll be fine.”
James didn’t like that answer. But he dressed up anyway, checked his bag for anything missing. Just as he thought of breakfast, the next bullet came.
“Don’t think I don’t know what you’re up to,” Paul said.
“And what am I up to?”
“Come closer to the fire.”
James didn’t move.
“Come on, now. Sit down here.”
James sat down, turning his back to the flames.
“Now, there’s no sense trying to hide anything from me. I’ve faced up ‘gainst a bear, six feet tall to his ears, drove a knife right hard in his chest. And a thief ain’t no different. Some men, they let you walk all over ‘em like they were carpet, but this ain’t the town, no. Out here we do all we can to survive. So if you try to mess around one bit—if one paltry crumb leaks outta these four walls without my permission—expect to pay the price.”
James felt the heat digging into his back. He shifted his legs. “If you suspected me, you could’ve turned me away. Forced me to find shelter in the dark.” Another pause. “I would’ve done it.”
“Cut out all the piety. You came here damn well knowing we’d be tired and guilty if we turned you away. For all I know, you could’ve been watching us go back. Following us. Were you, now?”
James looked at the door. There had never been a second gunshot. “You don’t think this hasn’t happened before? That every farmer I’ve come across has set down his plow, eyes glued to me as I cross every field? I swear to God, all I want is to live the way I please, and society—”
“What did I say about the piety!” Paul shook his head. “You think you’re a philosopher, don’t you? Trading in your livelihood, your security, for your ‘communion with nature’, a broken romanticism cobbled together from childhood rhymes? Well, you should know by now nature does all it can to kill us. It robs our hearts and minds, our hands and feet, and then it kills us.” Paul reached behind him, pulled out a pistol. “Not like this. I point this at a man, he dies instantly. Not like that. It’s day in, night out. From all directions. Until finally, you give up. Drag yourself back to civilization.”
James, without thinking, reached into his bag, gripping his pistol.
A strange look came over Paul’s face. “Get your hand outta there!” He put his pistol back in his belt.
“A man’s allowed to defend himself,” James said.
“I won’t be the one making new enemies.”
The door opened. James looked up. Henry was on the threshold, another pelt slung over his back. Paul stood up in one jerky motion, moved towards the table.
“Oh, Henry! Nice work, nice work, let’s get it all skinned and out to the back.”
Henry glared at James, dropped the carcass off his shoulder. James stood up, moved away from the fire. His show of trust had turned into a deception. No matter his decisions, he was hunted down, slid into the same stereotype. Every place was the same.
Copyright Michael Nellis 2018