There was a scar on Jim Book’s right palm that ached more often than he’d like these days. It was an old, pale thing. It was wrinkled around the edges now, but straight, self-assured, with the slightest curve upward at the base of the index finger that threatened to grin with a final flourish. Mercifully, few people noticed it, but those who did over the years usually made a short noise of incredulity and lifted their eyebrows at Book with a, “Good lord, where’d you pick that up?” Jim Book didn’t like to lie; he fancied himself a good, honest man when it came down to it. But this old companion was something better left fading and folded into the crinkles of his aging hand. “Just a little souvenir of the job,” he’d reply, resting it on the butt of his revolver to punctuate his point. “Gee I’d like t’ hear that one someday,” they might have added, to which Book would only gave a curt shake of his head and a “Not worth telling.”
Book leaned back a little in his aged wooden chair, hearing the creak of it as a biting screech in his ears that made him sweat. The creatures that scurried beneath the floorboards, the beasts that lingered in the attic beams—they rattled his ears, every last one, reminding Book of the itching under his skin and the ache in his belly. His ears were more sensitive now, painfully so, and the thousand scampers and skitters of the early desert evening wriggled their way into his eardrums despite his best efforts to lock them out. Normally, she was the loudest of them all. Abilena wasn’t in the house now; she’d probably run off at the same time he did, after their explosive fight that afternoon. It was hard to be in that house with her, a struggle every moment of every day. And when she’d put her lips on his? The rush of hunger was as tantalizing as it was agonizing, listening to her heart pumping in her chest, blood rushing through her veins like a flooding stream whisked up by the rare desert storms, quick and desperate to reach its destination.
But the hunger never passed the way the rains did. Book had listened to that teasing rhythm for nearly three years now, seeing the pulse of plump arteries beneath supple skin when she mopped his brow, feeling its heat whenever she kissed his cheek. Yet his own flesh remained tight and sallow. It clung to his gaunt figure and made him no better than a tanned hide ambling the desert wild. No quack doctor like Jonas Stillwagon with his machines could help with that, could replenish him to his former self. Only the blood. Only the blood and the monthly turn of the heavens to darkness.
Book rapped his filthy fingernails restlessly against the arm and kept his back leaned tensely into the midrail and spindles, trying to focus on the taptaptap on the hard wood or the way it dug into his shoulder blades, not the dried blood crusting on his fingers. The desert was coming to life as the sun fell, but the new moon was destined to provide sweet relief, a brief oasis from the noise and the hunger, the awareness of the world around him. It had been hell trying to keep the monster inside himself away from that living world. His flesh crawled like the sandy floor itself, prickling whenever a warm body came near, humming restlessly even for a cold one. It made him sick, lusting after cottontails and wild dogs. Abilena never said too many words about it unless he came back with the blood on him, and she pretended not to see the tears stinging in his eyes, either. She was wonderful like that. She’d just grab a blanket and a glass of water for him and sit him down by the fire so Book could nurse his anguished shame. He wondered if she thought she’d be doing this forever.
Book would curse Sweet’s name with a few choice words in his head and then lean back in that old chair like he did now, clicking his heel and tapping his fingers and waiting for the termites under his skin to still. Liquor and laudanum were no help. And when the cravings began to claw their way out, it felt like the scar was the first place they went, scraping and scratching at that healed gash like it was the only door to escape. It just plain hurt. And Book couldn’t help but think it was so goddamn stupid that the old wound should throb and act like the blood inside knew he’d feed and Sweet would win again.
It had always been about the blood.
Skinner seemed to find it, one way or another. Blood was on his boots, or marring the cuff of his sleeve. A spot or two dried on his cheek at the end of the day.
“Hunting is a boy’s game, Martha. I wouldn’t bother none,” his father said to his mother’s concerned tone. “Boy’s active. Probably has himself a little blade. Nothing wrong with that. Soon enough he’ll be bringing rabbits home for stew, not just chasing gophers and what have you. You’ll be glad to have a sharp thrower when the winter gets lean.”
Emery Book liked having a more fancy-free boy around, Jim gathered soon after Skinner settled in with them in 1863. And his mother, too, warmed to the idea of another child being there that could help little James from turning out as stern as his father too soon. Skinner was wilder, romped the way a boy was supposed to. But Jim suspected he was a little wilder when his parents weren’t around. Being a quiet child, it took a little while for Jim to take a shine to Skinner, caught between wanting the approval of his parents and the approval of a boy near his own age that he resented for having their affection. Jim had a boy’s pride to prove.
Jim was wary of the boy’s bright, mischievous blue eyes and ratty, straw-colored hair. His words and his manners were a little rough, and the way Skinner wandered off by himself made Jim nervous as much as curious. Whenever his parents asked where their new ward had been, Skinner would just shrug and said, “Out and about!” in a cheery tone that made them ask no more, and Jim didn’t much like that, either.
He soon found himself at Skinner’s heels more often than he realized because of it. Jim started following Skinner after only a week or so, but he wasn’t too stealthy for an awkward eleven year old with lean legs, and somehow Skinner always seemed to know he was after him. Once he’d caught on, the yellow-haired boy walked faster and casually ducked behind this or that until Jim was left huffing at the bottom of a hill, kicking the dirt and sweating off his curses to an empty grove.
It took Jim at least a couple weeks to build up the nerve to finally confront Skinner as the boy sat on the porch tying his boots. Jim came up on his side and idly leaned against the post next to the stairs, crossing his arms over his chest. “Where you going?”
“Out,” Skinner replied carelessly, giving a harsh tug on the strings of his boots.
“Out where?” Jim pressed, trying not to sound annoyed.
“Why, you gonna follow me?” Skinner popped open a little tin can he always carried with him. It was filled with dried leaves, mint from the burned out Sweet farm. Before Skinner went off on his adventures each day, he always stuffed a few leaves his mouth for chewing and then headed out. Jim wanted to ask about it, but his parents warned him not to bother Skinner about painful memories.
“Maybe.” Jim scuffed his own shoe on the worn wooden boards beneath his feet, eyes on the tin as Skinner picked out some of the larger leaves. “Why do you always go alone? Can’t I come? I could show you around.”
“I already found everything fun around here.” Skinner closed the box and stood up as he put it in his pants pocket. He brushed off the butt of his pants, starting down the steps.
“Have not!” Jim objected with a huff and a little frown, quickly following after him. “You don’t know this side of the county like I do! Have you been to the dry river bed? Or down to the bullfrog pond beyond the Turners’ property?”
Skinner showed no signs of slowing down as he strolled confidently down the walk. “Have you seen the pit with red-skin arrowheads? Or been down into the rock caves?” he asked right back, prepared to challenge the local knowledge of James Book.
“Pop says it’s too dangerous to go down there,” Jim countered, hurrying a little so he was only a step or two behind the blond boy.
“Yeah, well, I been down there. It’s pretty neat. There are bats and skeletons of dead animals. I even saw a human skull down there two days ago!” Skinner declared proudly, smirking over at Jim with the satisfaction that his adventures were far superior.
“Nuh uh!” Jim was kind of fascinated, but a little trickle of fear got in him, too. “You’re a damned liar, Skinner Sweet. There’s no corpse in those caves!”
“It’s not a corpse anymore if the flesh and guts are all gone,” Skinner said, jumping to slap a low-hanging branch as they passed the trees at the edge of the property. “Just a skeleton, stupid. Don’t believe me if you want. I’ve been adding snake bones to the pile down there. And maybe I’ll find me some gold, too.”
“Will not,” Jim said stubbornly. He shoved his hands in his pockets, looking uncertainly at Skinner’s self-assurance as he crossed the grass. “But you’re going to have to show me this skull for me to believe you,” he quickly added. “So… I’m coming too.”
Skinner turned a wide grin over to his companion, flecks of green in his teeth. He spit his mint leaves into the grass and wiped his lips on his sleeve.
“Just keep up, Jimmy.”
They were inseparable after those first few adventures. Jim and Skinner’s friendly one-upmanship over local hangouts turned into a fast friendship, and they soon started spending their sunny afternoons roaming the country as boys would. Jim liked that Skinner was free-spirited and bold, but he made him nervous sometimes with the way he liked to seek danger out for the thrill of it. Once, when they were wandering the rocks on the high ground, they spotted a cougar skulking between the trees. Skinner thought it’d be fun to try to wrestle the beast with his bare hands, but Jim had very distinct ideas about what his entrails would look like inside out if they did. In the end, the cat was more interested in minding its own business than defending the bluffs. Jim was thankful it strolled off, but Skinner spent the whole way home jabbering about what a wimpy cat it was and how Skinner was probably hunting these woods better than that old toothless beast.
“You’re going to get yourself hurt, Skinner, and Pop’ll have my head,” Jim always declared, but Skinner was usually ready with a quick smile and a shrug.
“Will not. Besides, you wouldn’t tell Pop anyhow.”
“Hell I wouldn’t!” Jim liked to deliver a blow to Skinner’s arm along with his protest whenever Skinner said he would do that. But Skinner just laughed, and he was usually fast enough to dodge it.
“Would not. You like catching me yourself, Sheriff.” Their favorite game. Jim had nailed together a couple pieces of wood to make himself a toy rifle, and Skinner liked to run off and hide with a bag of rocks they pretended were stolen gold nuggets or silver. Jim had to find Skinner the Outlaw, get him at gunpoint, and question him to find his stolen booty. Sometimes Jim won, but other times Skinner wouldn’t let him.
“Yeah yeah.” Jim accepted the facts for what they were and shoved his hands in his pockets. He tended to shrug off Skinner’s victories, and he’d found that if he ignored some of Skinner’s crazier plans and pretended to be disinterested, Skinner would get frustrated and give up, too. But, for the most part, Jim’s love for his new brother got the better of him and he indulged his capricious companion without asking much in return.
One spring day, Skinner found himself a large hunting knife and started bringing it to their play. He kept it in his boot and used it to teach Jim how to throw a knife proper when catching wild animals. Maybe he’d had another knife from the start, Jim thought, what with the blood he always managed to get on himself ever since he first came there. But this one was his favorite now, and Jim had never seen any other one, so this one they shared in all their activities. Jim didn’t really want to know where Skinner had learned to skin a squirrel so well, but he liked that Skinner wanted to show him, even if it was just to see Jim squirm a little when Skinner yanked all the animal’s insides out from its belly. Skinner had gotten blood all over himself that day, and Jim too, a little bit. And that was when Jim thought it was about time some good blood got shared between them.
“We’re brothers now, you’ve gotta do it!” he was telling Skinner while they skipped stones into the river.
Skinner looked surprised, for once, at Jim. Usually it was the other way around. Jim was already twelve or so, and Skinner, fourteen, had been with the Book family for just over a year. Though Skinner typically led their misadventures, particularly the more dangerous ones, Jim was always there. In spite of his reservations, half the time he wanted (on some level he would never admit) to impress Skinner, so he went along anyway. But this time, Skinner was the one who seemed unsure. The blond-haired young man eyed Jim suspiciously. “But we’re not really brothers, you know.”
Jim sighed in exasperation. “I know that, Skinner. That’s the point. Brothers from the same mother and father are joined by blood. That’s why we’re going to do this. So we’re tied together forever, like real brothers are.”
“Why?” Skinner crossed his arms over his chest. His blue eyes weren’t on Jim, though, just the hunting knife Jim cradled in his palm, held out between them. Skinner’s freckled face was spotted with sunlight and he squinted a little, the leaves above their favorite climbing tree shifting with a hot breeze that tickled behind the ears.
It was a massive thing, that old tree by the river. Neither Jim nor Skinner could name the type, but its branches were thick and strong and everyone just called it ‘the dead man’s arm’ because they hung criminals on the highest branch. Negroes. Thieves. Deserters. Jim had never played around it before Skinner came to the live with them (his mother said it was bad luck to disturb a place where the last cries of the damned echoed), but Skinner thought it was the grandest climbing tree in all the county, so more often than not they were here before they went around exploring the caves by the gorge or the old river bed. It had become their favorite meeting spot.
“What do you mean why? It’s about trust, Skinner! It’s… I mean, if something bad happened to you, I’d help you out, right? Because we’re family now. Wouldn’t you?” Jim asked with a critical frown.
Skinner looked from the knife to Jim and his lips broke into a goofy grin. “I guess. I mean if you fell down one of those shafts in the mine I’d definitely come see what your body looked like.”
“Stop joking around!” Jim landed a punch on Skinner’s arm, making the young boy laugh and smile wickedly. “I’m serious. Who else is going to be your brother and go into that mine with you in the first place?”
“Yeah I guess you’re right,” Skinner shrugged.
“So you’ll do it?” Jim asked, squinting suspiciously at Skinner.
“Yeah yeah I’ll do it, Jimmy. Stop jabbering on about it and tell me what you wanna do.”
“Okay,” Jim looked satisfied and gave a nod of his head to confirm as such. “So we cut each other’s hands, right?” Skinner raised an eyebrow at that, but seemed intrigued. “Enough to bleed a little. On the palm right here. And then we put our hands together and vow to be brothers forever.” Skinner looked a little disappointed.
“That’s it? What’s so great about that?”
“It’ll mean that your blood’s in my blood and my blood’s in yours. So it’s like we shared it from the beginning.”
Skinner offered no other comment, but reached to grab Jim’s left hand and the knife from his right. “Okay. Let me do it then.”
Jim pulled his hands back. “Wait! It has to be the right one. You can’t make a clean cut by yourself with the left.”
Skinner sighed heavily. “This is too damned complicated, Jimmy! Just get it over with! What’s it matter?”
“It’s not hard, you’re just not listening!” Jim shot back. “You can’t make a clean cut with the left, so you need a brother to do it for you. See? That’s why! Get it?”
“I guess, yeah. I’ll go first.” He snatched the knife from Jim’s hand.
“Noooo, I’ll go first. You don’t know what you’re doing,” Jim countered, seizing the knife back from Skinner’s grip.
“I know how to handle a knife,” Skinner protested in annoyance.
“Yeah but this isn’t throwing knives at rabbits, Skinner. It’s a serious thing!” Jim declared with perfect confidence in knowing all there was to know about the importance of vows.
“Whatever. You go first then.” He held out his hand. “Just don’t get sick, alright,” he grinned.
Jim rolled his eyes. He held the knife in a tight grip in one hand and took Skinner’s right hand in the other. Determined though he was, his stomach fluttered when he pressed the tip against Skinner’s palm. He took in a deep breath. “Skinner Sweet, I make this cut as your best friend,” he said solemnly. “I’ll always help you out when you need it, and watch your back if you’ve got yourself in some kind of danger.” He hesitated, but Skinner pushed his own hand up and made the knife press in, a bead of blood swelling forth. Jim swore. “Hold still, asshole! Let me do it!!” He dragged the knife down with a little bit of pressure, flinching when Skinner’s skin broke and suddenly red blood was dripping over the side of his fingers. Skinner didn’t seem to care much. Jim handed over the knife and held his own right hand out.
Skinner took the knife without hesitation, grabbing up Jim’s hand with his even as it bled. “Don’t clench your teeth, Jimmy. Breathe or you’re gonna pass out,” Skinner laughed. He put the tip of the knife to Jim’s hand, then lifted his blue eyes to watch him. Jim swallowed. “James Book, I make this cut as your best friend. I’ll always stop you from being the boring old man you already are. And I got your back when you need it- ‘cause you know you need it. I’ll always be there to save your ass when you can’t handle the cougars and the rattlers.”
“That’s not funny,” Jim frowned. “Ow!”
Skinner made the swipe clean and fast across Jim’s hand, making him jerk it back from the shock. Jim saw the straight cut across his white skin before it split and started to ooze scarlet. “Jesus,” Jim muttered, biting his lip against the pain.
“Don’t be a baby. Now what?”
Jim took in a deep breath and then reached his right hand out, taking Skinner’s in his own and threading their fingers together. He pressed their slick palms close, a little blood trickling down each of their wrists. “Now we’re not just brothers by the law,” Jim declared. “We’re blood brothers, Skinner Sweet and James Book. It’s the strongest bond there is. And one day we’re going to be brothers in arms too, you know. And after that, we’ll be lawmen together.”
Skinner smirked at that, then pulled back his hand. He examined the bloody palm a moment and then wiped it on his pants while Jim pulled out a kerchief to wrap his up with. “If you’re a lawman, maybe I’ll be an outlaw.”
“What sense would that make?” Jim asked pointedly.
Skinner just shrugged carelessly, shooting him a lazy grin. “Who says the world’s gotta make sense, brother?”
In the end, the jagged wound Book had cut into Sweet’s hand got infected, and his mother sat them down for an earful, shouting at them for their carelessness and making them work off every last cent they had to pay the doctor. And they were as brothers, truly, well into their twenties and after their service was done. But somewhere along the line, Sweet’s moral sense started to sour more quickly than it had before, and once Book entered the employ of the Pinkerton Agency, he wasn’t ‘Jimmy’ anymore. ‘Pink’ was the only name Sweet ever called him to his face again. He could hear all the times Sweet had called him ‘Sheriff Book’ in their romps through the grass under every mocking word. It never stopped stinging.
Book flexed his fingers and felt the tug of his old scarred flesh. Night had fallen, and his skin was softer now. He lifted his right hand and squinted at it in the dark, tracing his fingertips over the palm. Was he searching desperately for a way to keep Sweet close even then? Had some part of him known what he’d become? Already was? Book wasn’t much for prayer and he didn’t really think much of God. The idea that someone had a master plan for him… it was even more laughable now. Bitter and ironic. If there was a God, he was some kind of asshole. Because after all this time and distance, after all the gunpowder and corpses he and Sweet had left behind in this malicious dance they shared, they were blood brothers yet again.
When Book hungered, when he craved to sink his fingers into warm flesh and tear it open with his teeth, what was it that drove him? Was it just his dominant hand that reached for the kill first? Or was it Skinner, clawing his way out beyond the walking grave through that scar, determined to keep tormenting him and guiding his hand into darkness?
Sweet couldn’t really be dead, Book told himself. Not while his skin crawled and his throat thirsted to feel the smooth tang of blood. He refused to believe that he had to walk this road alone, a monster damned to live the life of evils he had condemned Sweet for. Sweet had to be out there, somewhere, waiting for their song to start again. But this time… Book just couldn’t do it. One day he’d wake up and the dogs, the sheep, they wouldn’t be enough. One day he’d hurt Abilena, and if he had a soul that wasn’t already lost, he’d lose it then. He’d give up the fight. Sweet would find him, and Book might feel too goddamned old and tired and hungry to do anything but fall in line and let Sweet take the lead just like he used to.
Can’t I come? I could show you around.
The only fate worse than death that Book could think of now was to walk this earth as Skinner’s brother once more.
Book stood up slowly from his chair. The blood from the sheep he’d slaughtered earlier was still on his hands, and he needed to wash it away before Abilena came home. He felt guilty for yelling at her, for letting the hunger and the rage get the better of him. His skin felt softer already and he was weaker now. He walked over to the basin and stared at the revolver sitting next to it. He reached out and rested his palm against the grip, feeling the coolness of the metal. Wondering if Sweet felt it somehow, through the straight-edged scar. And if he felt what Book meant to do.
Book pulled his hand away. He lifted them both, staring for a long moment at the way the sheep’s blood had nestled into every wrinkle, every groove of his old flesh, and then dipped them into the tepid water in the basin.
“What have you done?” Abilena’s voice sounded from behind him. “Whose blood is that?”
Book already knew before he asked her that he was ready to die. But maybe, just maybe, Sweet was already dead, too. Really dead. Maybe he was chasing him again already, after all.
Just keep up, Jimmy.
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