Fall 2011, Volume 11

Fiction by Daniel Davis

What's Left Behind

We found the bodies swinging from tree limbs near the northwest corner of the cabin.  There wasn't much cleared land—an attempt had been made to cut away the forest, but you couldn't fight back the mountain.  The cabin merged smoothly with the landscape; even the outhouse seemed to be a part of the trees.

Wilcox and I stayed mounted on our horses, the animals shifting restlessly beneath us.  If it hadn't been for our weight, they would have taken off; and if we had stayed there a little longer, they may have tried it anyways.

"Shit," Wilcox said.  "They even hung the dog."

A man, a woman, two young boys, and a dog.  The children were hung from the same tree limb; the dog and both adults were hung separately.  None of the bodies looked to have been there long, a few hours at most.  Even the scavengers hadn't been at them yet.

We tied our horses up around the side of the cabin.  They calmed as soon as the bodies were out of sight, though there was still the scent of death in the air, and they stamped anxiously at the ground.  Wilcox took his Winchester from its sheath, inspecting it.  Then he glanced up at me and nodded, and we went around back again.

I watched the rear door of the cabin, hanging open, for any signs of movement.  The interior was faded, as though the sunlight touched it only through obligation, and no real desire to reveal its contents.  I fingered the Colt at my hip, feeling the skin at the back of my neck tingle.  It felt like we were being watched, though it always felt that way in the forest.  I hedged my bets and just assumed we were under observation.

Wilcox walked over to the bodies.  He stood in front of the dog, shaking his head.  I'd never known him to have much affection for canines—hell, I'd seen him shoot plenty for no reason—but his beard was twitching in a way to suggest some aggravating thoughts going through his head.  When he spoke, his voice was emotional, though I couldn't discern if it was disgust, fear, or hatred.

"We should cut 'em down."

I agreed, and found a log we could stand on. Wilcox used his Bowie knife and cut the dog down first.  The damp ground muffled the thump, turning it into a hideous wet cough, and it was much the same when we cut down the children.  The adults were too big not to be quiet; their falls were louder, more what you'd expect, and that was strangely comforting.

I knelt down in front of the man, looking him over.  He was dressed as though he'd been killed while doing a hard day's work.  I saw a hole and some dried blood on his chest, just above his heart.  He'd been shot first.

The others proved to be the same.  The woman was comely, definitely a mountain girl.  The children too.  And they'd all be executed first, one bullet to the heart, then strung up.  Even the dog had been shot, though its executioner apparently hadn't known where to find a dog's heart, and had instead shot it between the ears.

Killing a family in such a way, I could explain that.  I couldn't understand it, but it was human enough—I'd seen far worse in the war, and even some after.  But executing a dog…whoever had done that had been disturbed, or just plain crazy, far too dedicated to his task.  You shoot a dog, yes; but you don't execute it like you would a man.  It just didn't make any sense.

Wilcox stroked the dog's head, just behind the ears.  The dog was large, a hound of some sort, but it was dwarfed by Wilcox's hand.  His fingers flowed through the matted fur, picking out dirt and leaves.  I glanced at his face and saw some look in his eyes I didn't quite recognize; it took me a second to see that it was regret.  I'd seen that look plenty of times, but never on Wilcox's face.

He felt me watching him and looked up briefly.  "I had a dog once," he said, and his eyes flicked back down.

I stood and faced the cabin.  We needed supplies—food, water.  It'd been a few days since our last stop.  We'd been looking for a man—or, rather, Wilcox had—but he'd died before we got to him.  Wilcox had gone without his revenge, and he'd been anxious ever since.  I hoped that whoever had done this wasn't still around.  Then I hoped that they were.  A man does you wrong, and you kill him, that's one thing.  Right or wrong, it's the way it's done.  But you don't kill his wife and children.  And the dog…

"Should we burry 'em?" Wilcox asked.  I turned around and he was looking up at me, his eyes half-pleading.  He wasn't the man I knew, the man I'd traveled with the past few years.  He was a kid again, a kid with a beard the thickness of a bear's hide, a kid who'd done his share of killing and hurting.  It was a disturbing sight, almost as bad as the bodies sprawled out in front of him.  I turned away.

It wasn't our job to go around burying all the bodies we came across.  Back in the war, they taught us to overcome that urge.  You see a fallen comrade, or a slave—for the few of us who'd felt sympathy for the Negroes—and you want to give them a good Christian burial, replete with sermon and flowers and cross.  But you can't.  You have to keep on.  The dead are done; whether they're in Heaven or Hell, or just rotting below the soil, they're gone.  They've left behind their bodies, carapaces really, flesh that will break down and become one with the soil, whether they're beneath it or above it.  A funeral is consolation for the bereaved, not the dead.

I wanted to tell that to Wilcox, because he hadn't fought in the war, hadn't been taught what I had.  I opened my mouth to tell him, then closed it again, thinking of that look I'd never seen before, those eyes that were no longer his own.  I wasn't speaking to Wilcox, the man I rode with; I was speaking to Wilcox the boy, who'd once had a dog.

"Yeah," I told him.  My mouth was dry and the words were heavy.  "Yeah, let's bury 'em.  But we're gonna check out the cabin first."

I heard him stand and brush the dirty off his pants.  "All right," he said, and I could tell by his voice that he was back.  "I'm thirsty."

As we approached the cabin, I undid the strap on my holster.  I knew Wilcox had that Winchester up at his side, pointed forward and down; I also knew that he was probably faster with it than I was the Colt, and that if anyone came out of that cabin and tried to shoot and hang us, Wilcox would have 'em down before I'd even cleared the holster.

But nothing came out, and we went inside without any fuss.  It was a simple cabin, three rooms.  Kitchen, main room, bedroom.  We checked the whole building first, then Wilcox started going through the kitchen cabinets.  I surveyed the other two rooms in detail, looking for any sign as to why the family had been murdered.  All I could see were the usual: table, chairs, family Bible.  The latter was beaten and used, as they often are; I opened it to the first page, glanced at the family tree, then closed it again before I had a chance to read the names at the bottom.

As I was going into the bedroom, Wilcox said, "Found some whiskey."  So I went into the kitchen, and we each took a pull from the bottle.  It was warm and rough, but it felt good once it was down.  I handed the bottle back to him, and he took several small pulls from it, gesturing into the rest of the cabin.  I grunted and went into the bedroom.  Wilcox followed me, sipping from the bottle.

The bedroom was small; the kids must've slept in the front room, on cots or something.  There was a chest of drawers; we went through it but found nothing of interest.  Wilcox lingered on the woman's unmentionables, sipping whiskey and holding one or two items in his hand.  I thought of the boy who'd once had a dog, and I shivered and turned to the small chest that sat against the far wall.  There was a blanket and an oil lamp resting atop it; I took those off and opened the chest.

Inside were various paraphernalia.  A sketchbook.  Some medals from the war; the man hadn't been an overly decorated soldier, but that didn't mean much.  I personally had earned several medals, most of which I can't say I really deserved; most of the folks who'd deserved medals in that war had died to get them.  So had this man, though it'd taken him a while.  There was nothing outstanding in the chest, nothing that really caught my eye, though I saw a pistol that was definitely post-war Army-issue.  Perhaps he'd been an Indian fighter.  There were a few who'd settled in this area.

Wilcox was standing over me drinking.  He commented on the medals, not quite knowing what they were for.  He sounded unimpressed, which meant he was impressed.  I handled them carefully; not because they were as precious as they looked, but because they belonged to a dead man.  Even Wilcox seemed somewhat reverent, and I knew he wouldn't have thought twice of stealing those medals, had their owner been alive.  I didn't feel like telling him they had little monetary value; too many returning soldiers had sold theirs or melted them down, myself included.  The money I'd gotten for them had bought me a few decent meals; nothing elaborate, but far better than they'd served me in the Army.

I finished rummaging through the chest, then closed it and stood up.  I was tempted to keep the pistol—it had been well taken care of, and was a fine piece of weaponry—but I didn't want anything from this cabin.  I wasn't even keen on the whiskey I'd already imbibed, though when Wilcox offered me a second hit I took it.  I wasn't comfortable with it, but I needed it.

"We know who killed 'em?" Wilcox asked.  I glanced at him; his eyes were shifting aimlessly around the room.  The whiskey was hitting him faster and harder than I'd expected; perhaps it'd been the long ride, or the disappointment at not getting his vengeance.  I wasn't too worried about him—I trusted him enough not to wrong me, I wouldn't have been riding with him if I didn't—but seeing Wilcox intoxicated was much like seeing your pet dog off its leash.  There may be no real harm in it, but you're reminded of those fangs every time it opens its mouth.

I shook my head in answer to his question.  His eyes focused on me for a moment, and he said, "No idea who killed 'em, and no idea why."


"Jesus, Horace.  You don't just...do that without reason."  He gestured towards the back of the cabin; the whiskey sloshed in the bottle, and for a moment I thought he was going to drop it.

"If someone had reason," I said, "they left no sign of it."

He grumbled and took a drink.  I couldn't blame him.  It was frustrating.  Not that I had any allegiance to the dead family—I didn't even know who they were—but sometimes, you just want to know.

Why the hell did they kill the dog?

"You find any food?" I asked, to keep myself from trying to think it through any further.

"Some meat and vegetables.  Meat's gone bad.  Some canned goods too."

"We should take 'em."

He just looked at me for a moment, then nodded.  He didn't like it any more than I did.  But we couldn't afford to pass up the food and go hungry further down the road.  My stomach already felt too constricted.  I would've stopped to eat a meal right then and there if it weren't for the bodies out back.

We went back into the kitchen and started taking the cans from the cabinets.  There weren't many, and I didn't bother to check what they were.  Most were unmarked anyways.  They were edible, and would keep us a little longer.  I tried to tell myself that these folks would've fed 'em to us anyways.  Folks with kids—and a dog big enough to protect them—tended to be friendly to passersby.

When we had about half the cans on the table, we went outside to get an extra sack from the horses.  I kept my eyes down as I went out, so as not to look at the bodies.  I probably would've walked straight to the horses, too, if Wilcox hadn't hissed a warning.

I stopped and looked up.  Just a few yards away was a mountain cat, one of the boys in its jaws.  It must've heard us coming before we were out, because it didn't look surprised—it just stared at us, its eyes hard and flat.

I'd only seen a mountain cat once before, and that had been from a distance.  They avoided people, whenever possible, because despite their size—this one had to be a good seven feet long, maybe two feet high at the shoulder—they weren't very strong.  Strong enough to take out a man, of course, but they didn't seem to know that, and I was rather grateful for their ignorance.  There are few things I trust less than a wild animal that knows how much power it has over a man.

The cat wasn't backing down, though, probably because of the easy food.  If it was starving, then all the worse—it would be desperate, perhaps enough so to attack us.  And the way it sank its teeth into the boy's neck, I got the idea it hadn't fed in a while.

Its eyes were darting from me, to Wilcox, to the side of the cabin, where I could hear the horses lightly stomping their hooves in agitation.  The cat made some sound low in its throat, which came out muffled around the boy.  I couldn't tell if it was a sound of fear or a warning; I decided on the latter, and slowly straightened my back, lowering my hand to my Colt.  I didn't expect the revolver to be of much good—by the time I'd taken aim, the cat would be on me—but I wasn't going to let it take me without something of a fight.

I thought, at first, that the cat could sense my fight.  Maybe it could.  Its shoulders tensed, and though it didn't drop the boy, I could see its jaws slacken a bit, as though it were ready to let go of its meal at any moment.  I had almost drawn my Colt, too, when I saw the slow movement from the corner of my eye.  I turned my head just enough to see Wilcox with his Winchester up to his shoulder, taking aim.

The gunshot was loud—the rifle was almost next to my head, and it rattled me enough so that, for a couple seconds, I couldn't tell what was happening.  Just in case, I drew my gun.  But through the haze that covered my eyes, and the wracking pain that shot through my skull, I could see blood fly from the cat's haunches as it dropped the boy and turned, all in one swift motion, and jump back into the forest.  Wilcox fired a second time—a dull roar, to me—and bark flew from a tree as the cat darted right, then left, then back right, and vanished.

I stood there a moment, orienting myself.  My eyes were watering.  I could tell Wilcox was speaking—the vibrations of his voice, I think—but I couldn't hear what he was saying.  He'd walked over to the boy and knelt down before he realized that I wasn't with him.  He frowned at me, got up, and came back.

"Jesus," he said.  I heard the word a moment or two after he spoke it.  "Horace, you all right?"

I swallowed and closed my eyes, then opened them.  I shook my head, then nodded and said, "Where's the whiskey?"


I went inside and finished off the bottle in one big swig.  The burning in my throat took my mind away from the pain in my head.  I left the bottle on the table and walked back outside.  Wilcox had returned to the boy's body; I joined him, and we stared down at the frail form, a new gash torn in its neck.  No more blood though, and I was grateful for that.

"Won't do much good to bury 'em now," I said.  "Soon as we're gone, that cat'll come back and dig 'em up."

Wilcox didn't speak for a moment.  He was looking at the boy, and I thought he was going to agree with me.  Then he said, "We should at least bury the dog."

There was a shovel leaning up against the back of the cabin.  It took most of the rest of the afternoon, but we dug the graves and put the bodies in.  No headstones, and the graves weren't deep enough to keep away scavengers, but it was the best we could do.  By the end we were dead tired, but neither of us suggested spending the night in the cabin.  Nor did we consider riding to the nearest town and informing someone of what'd happened.

We put the canned goods in a sack, drank some water we found in the cabin, and mounted our horses.

"Why you think they killed the dog?" Wilcox said.  That little boy had crept back into his voice, and I made a firm decision: I did not trust that boy, not one bit.

"Couldn't say," I told him.  "Maybe because it was there."

"Yeah, but…"

Not only did he not know the answer, but even the question eluded him.  We sat there, watching the shadows draw like curtains across the graves.  Somewhere out in the forest, the mountain cat wailed like a broken woman, and our horses trembled.  Wilcox and I stood stiff, but I saw him wince slightly.  Whether it was because of the dog he'd lost, or the cat's declaration of inevitable victory, I couldn't tell.



BIO:  Daniel Davis was born and raised in Central Illinois.  His work has
appeared in various online and print journals.  You can find him at www.dumpsterchickenmusic.blogspot.com.