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Walk a Broken Line

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Raylan is born under a full moon. Some say it’s a good omen, or the sign of the devil, or just what the fucking moon happened to be doing at the time. That last one’s Arlo, of course, because Arlo’s never had faith of any stripe – not the kind you get in church, nor the kind that blooms in the dark under the hills. If Arlo had a religion, it’d be fists, and Raylan’s seen enough of them to strip-mine all the belief in anything else out of him by the time he turns ten.

Which isn’t to say that Raylan doesn’t know . It’s one thing to say there’s no big man upstairs, smiling down on his creations with a grand and glorious plan – how anyone in Harlan has ever bought that one is beyond him, but it don’t keep the church pews from filling up every Sunday – it’s another entirely to say there aint no such thing as magic. The kind of power that lives and breathes and groans through the mountainsides and the hollers and the deep caverns of robbed mines doesn’t need you to believe in it any more than a lion needs you to believe in its teeth. It’ll eat you alive any which way.

He’s got a pale ring of skin, Raylan does, at the top knuckle of his right pointer finger; neat and clean as the tan line left behind when his mama takes off her wedding band and turns it between her fingers like a sort of prayer, only Raylan’s never worn a ring of any sort there and it doesn’t fade away no matter how much sun his hand sees.

“Auspicious,” Boyd Crowder pronounces it at eight years old, right out on the church lawn with folks milling around and the smell of cold fried chicken wafting up from lunch baskets and their family trees vibrating against each other with that polite kind of tension that comes of too much bad blood in too small a glass. He’s got Raylan’s hand caught up between his own, examining it like a particularly interesting rock.

Raylan doesn’t much care for being touched, but Boyd doesn’t seem to care much about his glare. Picking a fight over it probably isn’t worth it. Not that that’s ever stopped Raylan.

Boyd grins at him after, blood on his teeth and dust all over his crisp white shirt, like Raylan punching him in the mouth’s the best thing anybody ever did.

The Crowders are odd ducks all over, every last one of them a bit “too.” Too big, like Bowman, already outgrown all of the kids in his class and most of the ones in Raylan’s besides, even with three years between them. Too smart, like Boyd, with his five syllable words and his plans nobody sees coming until they’re standing slap-dab in the middle of them. Too much , like their daddy, Bo, who’s broad and loud and wild except for when he’s quiet and the whole rest of the world goes stalked-deer silent, waiting for whatever’s about to come down. Too strange, like their mama, Maryelle, who’s willowy and soft-eyed and moves in a way that your eye can never quite settle on. She’s old blood, Raylan’s mama says, and makes him swear on his life he will never ever follow her into the woods alone, not for love or money.

People don’t mess with them, the Crowders, because they’ve got power – the earthly kind, in the form of little baggies of pills and burly men with scarred, fat knuckles, and stacks of crinkled cash, as well as the other sort, the kind that that breeds down in the blood, gets people crawling to them like trained hounds or starved mongrels, the kind that makes trouble roll off their backs when all logic and good sense says they should have been locked up, one and all, long ago.

Doesn’t take a genius to figure that being called auspicious by one of them can only ever end badly.

Boyd doesn’t follow him so much as he seems to turn up in places Raylan happens to be, most times before Raylan knows he’s going there himself. Anybody else, it would just be a coincidence – small town, limited options, and all that. Except Boyd knows it, brings it up, only turned around like Raylan’s the one tagging along after him.

“Been a while,” he nods as Raylan dings through the front door of the Dairy Queen, not an hour after he last saw Boyd in Pre-Algebra. Or, “Fancy seeing you here,” at Jesse Turner’s thirteenth birthday party which Raylan knows damn well Boyd wasn’t invited to because Johnny Crowder knocked in two of Jesse’s teeth with a lunch tray the year before and they ain’t had nothing to do with a Crowder since.

By tenth grade it’s “Raylan, you’re going to give a man ideas,” with that grin than manages to be slow and somehow sharp all at once. Standing just a little too close, close enough Raylan can catch the smell of woodsmoke and warm grass coming off him, the heat of his hand not quite brushing Raylan’s hip.

Anybody else, the word “fag” would already be flying, probably fists right along with it, but it’s Boyd which means everybody but Raylan looks right through it like there’s nothing happening at all.

Outside of that - whatever that happens to be - they don’t talk much; leastways, not until Raylan starts at the mine the summer after senior year.

Down in the dark, Raylan can feel it. Diamond eyes and razor teeth, the way the shadows change into shapes that don’t have nearly enough to do with the shivery light of the safety lamps. Everybody’s scared of the mine, no matter how many hill witch aunts they’ve got or how far back their blood runs, it’s just not everybody who can see why.

Boyd looks more like his mama down there, hollows under his cheeks that would pass for coal dust to anybody who wasn’t born and raised in the holler, black clinging to his shoulders like the dark’s congealing around him. He doesn’t try to hide it, which aint no surprise, but he doesn’t flaunt it like Raylan might have guessed either. Doesn’t need to, he supposes – anybody dumb enough to mess with Boyd deserves what they get anyway.

Raylan… well, Raylan takes more care to keep his gloves on than the rest of his crew. Digs dark shards out of the mountain’s spine and ignores the way that band of bone-white skin tingles like ice chips running over his nerves.

***

The mountain takes no masters and she claims her tithe in bones.

Very nearly claims the two of them. Would’ve, if not for Boyd and how he ran, hand wrapped vice-tight around Raylan’s.

Raylan’s never going back down. He’s known it for a while now but it’s never been true until he steps out into the sunlight that’s got no business being as bright as it is after what just happened and starts hacking coal up out of his lungs.

Boyd knows it like Raylan said it out loud. Like he knew to run before the rumbling ever started.

He plies Raylan with a  jar of moonshine and a bottle of elderflower cordial he produces from God knows where, the sky going sooty above them as the night air kisses their gritty skin.

“You know what your problem is, Raylan?”

There are a hundred right answers to that question – Harlan and Arlo and the baseball scholarship that never came through; the dead end sign at the road to his future here and the feeling that creeps out toward him every time he steps into the Myrtle Creek doghole, the one that he can feel wrapped around his ankles and dragging him in further every time he heads down.

He drowns them all in another slug of the elderflower cordial and tries to tamp down on how much he likes the taste.

Boyd’s smiling that smile that does reach his eyes, just not in the right sort of way. Leaning in against Helen’s porchrail and murmuring, so close to Raylan’s mouth he must be tasting the sugar on Raylan’s breath, “I do.”

He walks off into the dark without another word.

The next time Raylan lays eyes on him is across the gulf of twenty years, and the second he does it feels like no time at all.

***

“They sent you back to Harlan,” Winona says in the elevator at the Lexington office, because for all that she’s a Kentucky girl, Winona’s still from the world where veils are for wedding dresses and the only kind of court is the type where you get a stenographer. To her, home is a place you get sent to, not a thing that comes a-calling.

Raylan’s spent two decades trying to dig the Harlan out of him, but roots that old don’t ever really let up, they just find a different direction to grow.

He flashes her a smile, because despite all best intentions and good sense there’s always going to be a part of him that wants to sleep with her one last time, and nods, “Yep.”

***

“Set yourself up a regular hillbilly court here.” Raylan’s bootheels echo off the floorboards of Boyd’s bastardized church. His mouth simmers with the sting of alcohol, enough kick in the shine that he’s only now getting the taste of elderflower mixed in. Boyd’s right, he’s been away too long. “Half expected to see a lawnchair up on the pulpit. Spray painted gold, maybe.”

Boyd’s kicked back in one of the pews, easy as you please. Like having a lawman kicking around in his little criminal lair is nothing but a minor amusement.

“I am surely flattered that you’d opine me so highly, my friend, but you’ll find that there are no kings here. Just myself and few like-minded men.”

He’s got to wonder what the skinheads must think of the hodgepodge of half-recognizable runes and dried, no-doubt-perfectly-legal herbs Boyd’s got scattered in among all his skinhead flags and copies of Mein Kampf . Then again, Boyd’s always been good at making sure people only ever see what he wants them to. People who ain’t Raylan, anyway.

“To them who kneel, any chair is a throne,” Raylan intones, running a hand over the makeshift altar Boyd’s set up at the front of the room. If the sound of his voice twists out of shape just a little, it’s only the acoustics.

“Why, Raylan Givens, that was downright poetic,” Boyd grins - always and forever - and hauls himself up to loiter in Raylan’s same orbit. A jar of some unidentifiable powder Raylan can only hope isn’t cocaine gets rolled between Boyd’s hands, dusty ribbons of light catching on the symbols scratched onto his knuckles. “Suppose this’d be when I ask if you’re planning to make good on all that kneeling talk. If we were in a proper fairytale, that is.”

“Or a porno.”

It’s less of a look than it is a feeling, the sense of something behind Boyd’s eyes growing teeth.

“Cocktease ain’t a good look on you, Raylan,” he says, feather-soft, that same trick of the acoustics shifting the edges of his voice an entirely foreign direction. “‘Sides, we both know the only way you’ll ever take a knee is when your body won’t hold you no more. You weren’t made for it.”

His fingertips dance at the edge of Raylan’s badge, not quite connecting, like magnets with the same charge. “Don’t know why you pretend otherwise.”

***

Raylan shoots Boyd in Ava Crowder’s dining room, and it doesn’t feel like anything so much as inevitable. He fills out his report with machinegun-toting skinheads and Ava’s shotgun, and Boyd’s pistol on the dinner table.

He doesn’t mention the way the birthmark on his finger burned hot when he pulled the trigger. The lightning-bright tremble that zipped all through him kneeling over Boyd’s gasping body. How he’d had to fight off the instinct lick the blood off of Boyd’s mouth.

It ain't at all the same thing as forgetting it.

***

“Do you know what your problem is Raylan Givens,” Boyd says to him from a hospital bed, voice weak and nothing close to soft.

“I suppose you still imagine you do.”

Boyd smiles like it hurts him and he’s enjoying it just fine.

“I do at that, my friend.” Too-cool fingers catch at Raylan’s hand, drag down the length of Raylan’s own. It’s only anticipating it that keeps him from flinching when the touch slips over his birthmark like a livewire. “I sorely look forward to telling you one day.”

When Raylan pulls away, it’s not jerky or fast, or anything at all too telling, but only because he’s working at it.

“Might want to hurry,” he says, tipping his hat back onto his head. “The way things keep going between us, you might not have so many chances left.”

***

The hole Raylan put in Boyd’s chest scars over white, perfectly round the way that bullet wounds never are.

The prison doctor notes it as odd in his records, but nothing more than that – too much proof of what happened to make it seem like anything other than an anomaly, at least to people who live on that kind of logic. Raylan reads through the digital copy of the report – which he’s not technically supposed to have access to, but manages to backdoor around to with a little sweet talk and the fact that it is technically part of a case he was involved with – describing the exact dimensions of the eerie full moon shape a scant inch to the left of Boyd’s heart and tries to resist the urge to wrap a tape measure around his white knuckle. He figures he knows what the results would be anyway.