Soap and Water - 011
Download an audio version at (www.joshuamalbin.com/soap-and-water).
Whatever romantic notions Wyatt might ever have had about riding with a Posse, fifteen minutes on a dog-trotting mule with his hands tied drummed them out of him from the crotch up. His groin muscles burned with the unaccustomed effort. The rider ahead of him held his mount’s bridle rope so he had no control over the animal’s speed or direction, and when he felt himself start to fall all he could do was grab for the pommel and hold on tight with his legs. The trail was full of loose rock so he lost his seat often, and it didn’t take long for his legs to burn out altogether and let him drop. Then all he could do was twist so he landed on a shoulder instead of his face.
Meg and Veronica looked even worse off than him, Veronica in particular. Meg had a couple of cuts on one arm, and Veronica had cracked the side of her head on a tree root. What worried Wyatt when they paused for a rest wasn’t so much the lump she’d grown but the fact that her eyes wouldn’t focus and that instead of talking about pain she said she felt nauseous.
At least they were all still alive, so far. It was plain the Posse leader would prefer not to have to kill them, but it was also plain that the three of them represented a nuisance and a threat, and if they got to be too big a nuisance or too much of a threat, he’d find a way to overcome his reluctance.
The Posse stuck to cover as much as they could, staying within the trees or close to the bottoms of stream-cut canyons. Wyatt fell most often whenever they had to descend switchbacks from a ridge to enter one of these. Finally, after hours of riding, he smelled smoke. His heart sank. They were being taken into a Posse camp. If they knew the location of a camp, they became that much more of a threat. It became that much harder to let them live.
Then they rounded a bend in the stream and saw it: a ramshackle wooden house leaning against the red rock wall of the canyon. It looked like it had been built a hundred years before and abandoned for ninety-five. There was just enough room beside the stream for the mules and horses to pick their way up to it and a little beyond, to a corral partly sheltered by an overhang.
Possemen helped them dismount and led them inside the house—which turned out not to be a house at all, merely a wooden roof and a door sheltering an old mineshaft blasted straight into the mountainside. A big one, too, broad enough for three men. A hundred feet inside the shaft forked in three, and while those side passages were smaller, their confluence made a central gathering area where a low fire burned. As the men came in they arranged themselves in ranks down each of the four shaftways, and Wyatt lost track of how many of them there were. It was smoky as hell, and dark.
The Sheriff cut their bonds and sat them close to the fire. He announced they were to be treated well, in honor of something called the Feast of Future Peace. He didn’t seem at all worried that they’d try to escape, and Wyatt could see why, since there were dozens of armed Possemen between them and the mine mouth.
Right away the cooks began bringing out the food. There were two of them, and it appeared they’d gotten the job mainly because their war wounds were too severe for them to ride or shoot anymore. One was missing a leg, the other most of his left arm, and they split their tasks so that the one with both legs carried anything that required dexterity to the one with both hands, who sat at a folding table near the fire. First, for example, the one-armed cook carried a pot of sloshing cold water to the table and the one-legged cook thrust his hands inside, brought up a writhing trout, and killed it by ramming a pair of wooden skewers through its mouth and into its brain stem. Then he picked up a long, thin boning knife, gutted and filleted it, and cut the meat into half-dollar-sized chunks. The men brought him metal camp bowls and each received one such nugget of trout, a ladleful of thin broth from a second pot, a hot, clean pebble removed with tongs from a pan of them set at the edge of the fire, and a nosegay of watercress. They brought Wyatt a bowl to try and he praised it to the skies, loudly.
“Damn, this is good!” he exclaimed. He was ingratiating himself. Make friends with your captors. Make them see you as a person. “The hot pebble cooks the trout just right, and the venison broth makes the smoky fish so tasty.”
He thought the cooks appreciated it. More importantly, the Sheriff was listening and he seemed to appreciate it.
The next offering, a stew served in hollowed bread bowls in turn inside rabbitskin cozies, impressed him even more, and he asked what was in it. Eventually one of the Possemen relayed the question to the cooks and he learned it had chunks of lightly grilled rabbit meat, wild onions, ginger, garlic, trout roe, and new potatoes, all in a base thickened with pounded acorn flour. This made for a more complex flavor, a combination of salty trout roe, sharp ginger, tangy rabbit, and slightly bitter acorn.
“So rich,” Wyatt declared. “Sticks to the ribs.”
He was taken aback when the cooks asked for volunteers to help carry in the next course and four men went.
They returned with a whole deer carcass on a spit, head, hide, and all, which the cooks directed them to balance on a pair of sawhorses. The one-armed cook set a plastic basin under the deer’s stomach and picked up curved blade as thick as a machete, and the Possemen cheered and chanted: “Spill its guts! Spill its guts!”
The Sheriff spoke to Meg as this was all going on. “The intestines only have rotting grass and leaves in them, so we don’t bother taking them out,” he said. “You’re not a squeamish city mouse, are you? As long as you don’t think about the fact that you’re eating turd, it’s not bad.”
He was playing “shock the Easterner,” but Wyatt thought it was pretty heartless to do with Veronica sitting right there. She was already so wobbly she’d only been able to swallow the broth from the first course, plain. She went even paler and whispered, “Oh god. Gross.”
“Not at all,” the Sheriff said. “We cook it long and hot enough to kill all the germs. It’s perfectly safe.”
Meanwhile the men were chanting louder and clapping in rhythm. The cook with the machete swung the blade over his head and slashed open the belly. Out came the guts, the dark large intestine and the longer, lighter small intestine. Both were covered in black, tarry dung full of shredded leaves.
“Make sure you taste some meat from each end, by the way,” the Sheriff added. “The guts and the lights. They cook different.”
The cook dropped the machete and scooped out the rest of the lower body cavity with his one hand. Then he buried his arm up to the shoulders in it, working at something inside. He removed a lump of cooked flesh and then two more—the heart, liver, and pancreas? the lungs? Wyatt couldn’t tell. He reached inside one last time and tossed Wyatt something round, dark, and leathery, like no part of any animal he’d ever seen. It took him half a minute to suss out what it was: a whole orange, stained and wet from its time inside the deer.
He looked again at the basin under the deer’s split abdomen. The small and large intestines were really two ropes of sausages. The three lumps of flesh he’d watched the cook extract from the chest cavity, now arranged on the folding table, were cleaned dove or pigeon carcasses.
The same Posseman who’d told him what was in the stew found out for him that the “small intestines” were made of chopped deer offal and other scraps, the “large intestines” were blood and bread crumbs, and the “dung” was a mixture of ground unsweetened chocolate, shredded fennel, and dark beer. The cooks had separated the upper and lower chest cavities with a quadruple paper wall, two paper shopping bags sewn where the diaphragm should have been.
“You’re totally right,” Wyatt told the Sheriff. “The two ends are different. You get the oranges and bird fat making the chest sweet, but on the back half it’s nuttier, like mole sauce. Where the hell did you find oranges?”
About half an hour later the one-armed cook enlisted two more men to carry in the dessert and set it on the folding table, to be admired before it was eaten. The cooks had glued together hundreds of candies with some kind of glaze to create a sculpture of a Bichon Frise humping a bulldog. The bulldog’s body was built of Fun Size Snickers bars, except for the place where the front legs sank into the powerful chest, which was darker plain Hershey’s chocolate. There were also white chocolate spots on the left flank and underbelly, drooping jowls and lower lips made of prunes, and maraschino cherry eyes. The Bichon was a wad of Smarties with sugar-floss flying in all directions, its front paws clamped onto the bulldog’s ass and its Mike-and-Ike penis straining in midair.
The camp had both a bulldog and a Bichon, and the Possemen thought it was very funny to show the sculpture to them. The bulldog was a sweet old girl who didn’t mind being moved around, although she kept trying to get back to her table scraps with the patient, sad look common to all bulldogs. The Bichon spent its time trying to eat off the plate of the Posseman holding him. The fur around his tea-saucer face was matted with gravy.