Long and Slow and Short and Sharp

Short Fiction by R. K. Duncan

The first sip of whiskey spread down Bill’s chest like slow, sweet fire and curled a tight fist under his heart. It tamped the fear down just enough he wouldn’t tremble when he tried to speak. This wasn’t his first time trying this, but dancing close to death couldn’t become routine, even after so many years they blurred together, not when he could feel it breathing down his neck with every note.

The music was perfect: a woman sang with a clear, resonant voice that cut through the conversation and the clink of glasses. She sang without accompaniment. She had played a fiddle and a guitar earlier. Her set was almost finished. Time for a last farewell. A last request. She’d take it, with as much as he would offer. She wouldn’t even think it was suspicious.

The love song she was singing as he crossed to the stage dug fingers up under his ribs and made him ache with longing, even through his hammering pulse and the fear that had made him stay sober until this one drink to steady himself. He would have felt it even if he had been sleeping, even if only a few stray notes of her voice had filtered dimly through a sealed window.

That was the real danger: a song so powerful he couldn’t shut it out. The only way to be safe was to make sure he didn’t hear the wrong one, whatever it was.

Bill wondered if the singer knew what she was, the power that was in her. They called themselves Enthusiasts now, the ones who could put magic in their songs. When Bill had been young, they’d been called Powers, or Angel Singers, and there had been less management and industry in music to drive big success by other means. These days, success was manufactured and Enthusiasts were less than rumor to most. Whatever she knew, Bill had no doubts about what she was. He had chased magic like that for so long, to keep himself alive. He could taste it now like cold water and sweet smoke on the shuddering air.

She had played her audience as smoothly as she played her instruments all night, giving each person what they needed, speaking about her own songs, how the music was a guide through dark times and hard places. More than one song had been aimed at one listener in particular, and Bill had watched the music work on them. That was one of the powers of a real Enthusiast: knowing just the tune a listener needed to hear.

Bill had to be sure she wouldn’t use that gift on him. He stepped right to the stage and leaned in, bills out already in his hand.

“Could I make a request for the last song? I’d love to hear ‘Wild Rover’, if you know it.”

He knew that tune was safe. She would sing it for him. Of course she would. That was how the scene had played out each time he’d tried. It had to end this way, or harder. There was still time to choke her if she started singing something else, something he’d lived through before, but that was too risky to plan for with a real Enthusiast.

“No.” She shook her head, brown eyes meeting his with a spark, voice slow and thoughtful, as if she didn’t understand herself. Then she nodded, and he felt her looking past his practiced smile, and the cold tight fear he always tucked away. She knew what she was. “That’s not the song you need.”

He jerked his hand back, opened his mouth to shout her down, tensed to tackle her.

Before he could, she sang, no need of microphone or music to accompany. Her voice was stiff wind and fresh water and the dazzle of sun bright on clean snow.

“Oh all the money that e’er I spent; I spent it in good company.”

The first note shut Bill into his memory. He fell back far, so long ago, before he was afraid, before he was alone. He remembered a night one year or so into his run. They’d fetched up in a saloon near a boomtown that had been close enough to the railroad to hold on when the rush dried up. All the furniture was scuffed red velvet, worn to dirty white where it rubbed.

Silver dollars fell from his hand like water and clinked on the scarred bar as he called for bottles of the best they had, and all the pretty girls to come out and sit with his crew. He’d been a proper outlaw dandy in silk shirt and black hat, with his sixgun hanging low and ready at his thigh.

His crew had been around him then, starting fights with the few other patrons and smashing tables. Hard Kelly kept a pretty girl on one arm and a pretty boy on the other through the night, and no one dared to tell Bill and his crew no, or ask if they’d pay for the damage. They’d been rich and happy and untouchable.

There had been music then, a badly tuned piano played frantically to cover the curses and the creaking of the beds upstairs.

“And all the harm that e’er I’ve done; Alas it was to none but me.”

Bill strained to raise his arm. He felt his fingers and toes turn cold and prickle toward numbness. He tried to hit the singer, choke her, silence her, but he only stood and listened and remembered what the spell of her voice commanded to his mind.

He remembered the pain of knuckles split from giving a hard punch to the ranch hand’s face. The stubborn fool had tried to fight instead of laying quiet. They’d drawn down after that and herded everyone into the big house while they searched.

It had even been true that the old rancher had some money put away, buried at a corner of the springhouse, but it had been half of what Bill had hoped for, maybe a tenth of the rumor that sent them there. They’d had to resort to taking jewelry and whatever money the ranchers had in the house to make it worthwhile to have even come.

The blood had been so warm, spilling over his fingers when he pushed his knife into that boy’s gut, the one who so objected to him stealing a kiss from the rancher’s pretty daughter while he lifted off her cameo.

They’d shot them all down, sixguns rolling a staccato thunder, and burned the house with the bodies left inside, to keep the story quiet, or maybe to make it spread and build their reputation. He couldn’t remember what he’d told the crew then, to convince them it wasn’t a mistake.

The crackle of the flames had been like tapping feet and clapping hands, converging out of chaos to a beat that sent his crew riding away, whooping as they fired in the air.

“And all I’ve done for want of wit; To memory now I can’t recall.”

Bill didn’t miss the cold irony of the line, or the singer’s smile as she sang it. The numbness was spreading up his legs now. His knees shook. His fingers twitched without him trying to move them.

His past flesh pressed on the inside of his skin, and his memory was clearer than a movie screen.

There had been one song on every lip when they rolled into town after the ranch house. He still remembered the first line, carrying on the wind from a pair of navvies, as the crew rode past the railyard.

“Big Bill Brant, he’s the Devil’s own son, cruel as the West has ever known.”

The song had followed them through town, from railyard to pawnshop to rooming house: a litany of his crimes, some real, some worse even than he’d stooped to: thieving and murder, arson and rape, blasphemy and torture.

The girl bringing whiskey to the card table that night had sung the last verse clear and high, almost as fine as the singer who held him in her music now.

“He’ll die one day, long time to come, when a sweet girl sings his farewell tune.”

He’d felt the prophecy in the words, branding itself onto his skin. However they’d known so much, and for whatever reason they hated him enough to do it, some Power, some Enthusiast, had made that song for him. It was a promise of punishment to come for everything he’d done, and the power in it would make sure it came true.

Bill had started thinking how to dodge that noose at once, and he’d never stopped since.

“All the comrades that e’er I’ve had; Are sorry for my going away.”

The singer smiled as she sang, and she kept looking at him. Singing just for him, keeping him still and helpless as a bug pinned in its velvet case. Something was wrong in his gut, like a clenched fist, or weight low behind his stomach. His breathing tightened.

The crew hadn’t put up with him long, not with the song running round their heads. They’d kept things cool in town, where they weren’t known on sight, where he wasn’t Bill Brant the famous outlaw. He’d even caught them singing it under their breath, when they thought he couldn’t hear. He’d nearly drawn on Little Simms over it, but the way the others had looked at him had made him let go and slide his hand away from the pistol slow and exaggerated.

They’d turned on him as soon as they were out of town again, waking him with a kick to look up at a circle of drawn guns. They’d taken his horse, his guns, his piece of the last score. They’d given him a beating to boot, before they sent him walking out into the sagebrush on his bare feet. Hard Kelly had shaken his head at Bill like a sad schoolmaster, like Kelly hadn’t laughed when the house burned behind them.

“And all the Sweethearts that e’er I’ve had; Would wish me one more day to stay.”

He managed to squeeze a choked-off laugh past the stillness that she held him in. His closing throat turned it into more a wheeze. His chest was starting to stab with needle pains.

He hadn’t been a fool, even tossed out with a curse hanging over him. Bill had known enough even back then to have a plan. He’d been given a loophole for the noose the song had shown him. He wouldn’t die until he heard the song, whatever song it was.

He still had the charisma that had gotten him a crew to begin with, and there was Jenny waiting back east for him to come home and settle down. He got there ahead of the song, even tried to make a go at farming, for a little while. He never let her know he still supplemented with his old employment now and again. But she would keep singing when she was working in the kitchen or when she came back home from town. He warned her more than once before he slapped her for bringing new music into the house, and then she’d started with his song, and he’d run out like a spooked hare.

He’d tried to make it work again, later, with a less musical woman, but once radio came in it had fallen apart fast. She hadn’t liked his rules, and she hadn’t stood for how he made them stick, even when he’d been clear to begin that there’d be no music in his house. He always suspected she’d known how he was making his money, as well. One night she’d left the radio blaring so loud his hand had shook too much to open the front door. That was that.

“But since it falls unto my lot; That I should rise and you should not.”

His breath caught, and didn’t start again. Each heartbeat felt labored, jagged as it tore inside him.

He’d lit out with plenty of cash to outfit himself, and his life before the country softened had left him with the skills to live alone, really alone, on some undeveloped parkland wilderness. He’d never been musical, and he wasn’t a sweet girl anyway, so he was in no danger if all he ever heard was his own voice.

He kept to himself a long while. Years maybe, though that time had muddled in his memory since, without anything to stake it down. He’d lived like an animal, trapping, a little hunting, foraging whatever grew wild. He’d planted a few potatoes, and sometimes they came up and he ate them. He stayed alone until he almost forgot why, almost forgot his name, but he’d remembered he could only be safe alone.

A song had pulled him out of it, a song that made him hear from miles away. He followed the sound for days before he found a young man with magic in his voice, and they’d both learned together that Enthusiasts could make themselves heard across great distances, through walls and earth and everything, without even meaning to, sometimes. What a fright Bill must have given the boy when he found him, with his long, wild hair, in his rotten clothes and the half-cured skins he used to keep warm.

Bill managed to kill the boy before he heard his last song, but he’d needed a new plan.

He’d gone back to city, where the logic of gun and demand could still give him resources, and he’d needed them all, to keep himself fed and housed and dressed, as much as he had to move to keep from being found by the law, or the curse that was always biting at his heels.

In woods, he’d had space to be alone in, a huge buffer of wilderness between himself and anyone who might sing the song that sent him off for good. In the city, he had to draw the armor inside, tighter than skin.

He plugged his ears, of course, and usually wore headphones playing static to drown out anything that might slip in. He pretended to be deaf, pointing and shouting and never hearing what anyone said. There was too much risk of catching snatch of song to do anything else. He made no connections, stayed nowhere long enough to be questioned about his strangeness, and always he strained to hear the Enthusiasts, whose music would cut through anything to touch him.

He couldn’t shut them out, not even with distance and isolation, not for certain, but he could still make it work, if he made sure they only played tunes he already knew were safe, then he’d never hear his parting song. He had been ready to live forever, afraid and alone and always listening to nothing.

He wondered if whatever singer had made that song to chase him down the years had laughed, seeing where his long road would lead him, how many long lost years of living like a caged animal in his cave, in his own head, it would take for him to get here.

“I’ll gently rise and I’ll softly call; Good night and joy be with you all; Good night and joy be with you all.”

The last lingering notes of the parting song changed in his ears to the song from long before, that had laid out his path to here and now. Bill’s glass shattered on the floor. He couldn’t hear his pulse. He fell, and felt himself twist in a last bow to the woman who’d finally finished his song just like a murder ballad should be finished, pain long and slow at the beginning, short and sharp at the end.

R. K. Duncan is an author mostly of fantasy, with a dash of sci-fi and horror thrown in. He writes about fairies and gods and ghosts from a a few rooms of a venerable West Philadelphia row home. In the shocking absence of any cats, he lavishes spare attention on cast iron cookware and his long-suffering and supportive partner. Before settling on writing, he studied linguistics and philosophy at Haverford college. His occasional musings and links to other work can be found at rkduncan-author.com