There's No God West of Salina | Teen Ink

There's No God West of Salina

March 5, 2014
By thomaswaddill BRONZE, Beaumont, Texas
thomaswaddill BRONZE, Beaumont, Texas
2 articles 0 photos 2 comments

Favorite Quote:
"Writers are a little below clowns and a little above trained seals."
-John Steinbeck

Those flowers, the way the ruffle and reach and sing.
~ ~ ~

The earth tumbled from beneath him in all directions, running and rolling towards the faroff horizon. To the west and the north the ground tumbled towards the faint blue line of the distant peaks, a low band that could be the sky if not for but a slightly darker tint; and to the south and the east the land ran and ran and ran. The man felt the earth give under the muscled legs of his horse, he felt the sun on his neck, and he felt the gnats on his arms and the perceptible tug of an eastern wind on his arms and he felt a sinking and drowning unity. The vermin cowered in their holes and snakes swam in their grassy oceans, and the man with the cigarette rode past, headed west.

It was the enchanting and haunting characteristic of the mountains: they possess you, infect you and smother you and become your breath. You wake and honeyed tendrils reach towards you, clouds the tentacles of the rising sentinel, and you stand transfixed as the lofty fingers perform surgery yet unknown to the human mind. And the howls and the and ruffles surround you in the night and the dead grass crunches under your trekking feet and the land tumbles out in all directions and you’re lost even as you see the ramshackle buildings covered in dust rise from the ground not a mile away. The West, it gets into you, it changes a few things, and it leaves you in the middle of nowhere. But even as the rocky cliffs rise behind and the smoke from your campfire licks the branches of the pines around you, you know that it’s your duty to be there, to see the jagged cliffs and watch the rolling hills roll farther. You hear the whispering of moths fluttering from dead, cracked lips, and yet the vermin scurry and the flying birds watch and the green surrounds you just the same.

The man knew this as he rode the trail, and the earth gave under the muscled legs of his horse. The knowledge of the hills and of the faroff peaks of the distant northwest, and the knowledge of the rising buildings now visible to the front of him.

A woman was there, and the riding man passed her, watching. She was tilling her fields, coaxing from it drops of nourishment, like twisting a drying rag for the last particles of water. But the May heat was harsh, the sun shone and beat down like a slaver, and the wind was rare and the fruit rarer.

The woman turned and saw him, raising her hand in acknowledgement, and immediately turned back to her work. He returned the gesture, but continued his gaze, wondering and figuring.

The riding man watched the woman till her fields.

~ ~ ~

The riding man jammed the burning cigarette in the crook of his mouth and dismounted in front of the one-story, wooden building, a building with the distinctive aura of small town justice. He took the rough rope from the haunches of his horse and tied the beast to the post in front of him. He took the burning thing back out of his mouth and threw it in the dirt.

He rose up the creaking steps to the door of the sheriff’s office and knocked three times with the brass knocker. After the muffled sound of a chair pushed back and silverware put down, a grey-haired man opened the door, and looked at the man in the frame, interested.

The man in the frame introduced himself as Jim Waters. He was a rider for the Pony Express, told to stay the night in this town since the next post had been raided, and this was the closest town. He told the sheriff he didn’t want no trouble, just stayin' for the night.

Good to meet ya, Jim. Thank you for doin’ this. You musta done this before; not many folks is thinkin how they’ll be treated as a newcomer in a settlement like this. You done right. I’m Sheriff Jackson. You know what – the man stepped out and closed the door – I’ll walk ya down to the inn. Not really a true inn, not with a bar such, the bar’s over on the south side; we’ve got a few Irishmen take quite a seasoning almost every night. No, this here’ll be more of a house, run by a widow. Real comfy, though.

As they walked, the packed earth giving slightly under their feet, a ragamuffin boy of twelve or thirteen, shoulder slightly lowered, ran into Jim, pushing him to the side. Jim looked back, and the boy slowed down slightly and looked back to exposed to Jim his profile, visible from around a burlap mess of dark hair. The boy paused, his eyes drifted down, then forward, and and he walked on.


The kid turned around to meet the sheriff’s angry eyes.

You better shape up, Bill.

The kid walked on.


What’s wrong with ‘im?

A pause.

Figure I can tell ya since you’re jus’ passin’ through. Kid’s father just died. Name’s Bill. They live out in the skirts of the town. Mother’s doin all the farm work herself now that the dad’s dead and the kid wanders around making trouble every day. Men tried to go out and help her, but she won’t have it. Likes the hard-ship, I guess. Some people are just like that. Figure I can tell ya.

What happened there?

The sheriff said she had killed her husband. It was a bit of an uproar at first, but everyone knew the circumstances. The man was a rowdy, fighting sonofabitch, coming home drunk nights he didn’t come home depressed. The sheriff thought he couldn’t take the monotony of living on the frontier; Jim thought the opposite soon as he heard it. He came home swaying one night, tried to take a piece of firewood to his wife as he’d done more than enough. Marie knew it and felt the pains and bruises from the day before and was ready with a drunken knife, and the blood came out of him like rain.

Everybody knew it and everybody knew why. The sheriff had let her off easy. The problem now was her son, fourteen. Came home and saw the dirt mudded with the blood on the floor. Stepped right in it and kicked the sonofabitch’s head a few times. Now he scrounged for alcohol in the bar’s trash – people saw him.

~ ~ ~

Jim opened the window and smoked. The evening sun was setting to the west and the rays bounced off particles of suspended dust. The ramshackle buildings and the horses and the walking and sitting and talking people all started to meld into one, and the sounds of late afternoon poured in through Jim’s rented window. He looked for a moment and inhaled then set his cigarette in the little bowl on the table. He turned to the bed. There was a square of light coming through the window, perceptible and dimensional with the dust, and the prism fell onto the bed, next to a large canvas bag. Jim’s elbow nudged the prism as he rifled through the bag’s contents. Another set of clothes, an empty canteen, blanket, matches, pencil, knife, bottle of whiskey, stamps, letters. Dozens of letters, dozens of them in little rectangle, cream-colored envelopes, paper worn and corners bent. Jim took a letter – one with a woman’s handwriting, this time addressed to a Noah – and took a seat on his bed. I should lock the door. Jim got up and locked the door, then got his whiskey lied down on his bed and ripped open the top of the envelope with his finger. He took the letter out and, with a hand behind his head, reclined on the rented bed, he began to read. He noticed the hand behind his head was empty. Dammit. He reached for his cigarette.

These goddamned wives and waiting women and children and mothers and fathers.

~ ~ ~

Jim was awakened by the early morning noises outside his open window. His eyes opened quickly – thankfully, in some drifting stupor, he had managed to put the burning cigarette butt in the ashtray before he went to sleep. His head was pounding. He pushed the pile of open letters off his stomach and rose from the bed, moving with hungover lurches towards the bathroom. The morning water was cold like steel.

Outside, the air still hung on to the night’s cool.

Hey, mornin’, Jim. Gotcha a plan?

The sheriff caught up to the sauntering man once his second foot left the porch and hit the dust.

Well, sheriff, I don’t know. I reckon I’ll leave this afternoon.

Well, I hear there’s a load a’ Pony mail that’d love to leave town.

I’ll get it.

Thanks. Post office.

Got it.

Good meetin’ ya, Jim.

Same. Thanks.

Jim walked through the morning gray to the stables where he’d moved his horse the day before and found her and fed her the strawberries he took from the room. Her hot breath warmed his face.

~ ~ ~

Jim’s pack of letters almost doubled after he went by the post office. This goddamn small town seems like it has nothin to say to a body unless it’s on goddamn paper. While he was there he took some envelopes and stamps to the counter.

Lotta envelopes you got there. You writin’ all a’ Boston?

No m’am.

She looked at him, told him his amount. He put the money on the table like he already knew how much it was.


His breathing got louder as he put the load of mail on the back of his horse. He rode back towards the middle of town and got some coffee from his motel from the night before and paid the woman for his sleep and drank the coffee leaning on the porchpost and threw his grounds to earth when he was done and watched the sun. And when he was done watching the sun he filled his canteen and bought some food and got on his horse and rode out.

~ ~ ~

His horse labored over large rocks and thin grass and he passed under a limestone bluff and stopped for lunch in an arroyo. He got out some dried meat and his whiskey and a letter. He read and ate. It wasn’t long before he saw someone small coming towards him along the riverbed. The person saw him too; stopped, looked around, saw Jim staring at him, inhaled with his head turned down and came forward.

It was the kid with the burlap hair.

What the hell’re you doin?

The kid didn’t answer. Jim reached and felt the grains of the butt end of his rifle holstered nearby behind a rock.

The kid kept coming on his calico horse.

Jim took out his rifle. The kid’s eyes got wide and he put his hands up. Whoa, whoa, I ain’t tryin’ to rob you er anything, I just wanted to talk. Just to talk is all. Put - put that down.

Jim rested it in his lap with the barrel still pointing in the kid’s direction.

What do you want.

I just. I just wanted to talk.

I heard you. What the hell do you want.

I heard you was a Pony Express rider.


Yeah, n’ I know ‘bout you guys. Read it somewhere. You ever killed anybody?

I dunno.

Well I read that Riders have to kill Injuns and bandits to get through to where they need to go.


Yeah and I want to come with you.

Why the hell is that?

I just want to come with you. There ain’t nothing for me in that town.

How old’re you, son?


What the hell do you know about things bein’ there for you or not?

I just do. I feel it. I read it somewhere that when you feel that you need to go.

Where the hell did you read that?


Okay, kid.

Jim ate his lunch and took a swig of water and saw that the kid was still there and still looking at him. Jim looked at the hard ground to the left of him, thinking hard.

You’re still here.

Yeah, and I ain’t leaving.

Why the hell do you want to come with me.

I told you. I want to leave that town.

You’re full a’ s***. You just want to go on some goddamn adventure, you think you’re gonna kill some Injuns and be a damned hero or somethin’. Why do you want to come.

The kid looked at him. He would have been angry if Jim hadn’t been still holding the rifle.

Doesn’t matter. I’m coming.

Okay then. Just don’t be a nuisance. Minute you start bein’ a nuisance I send you back and you’ll have your tail between your legs like a goddamn puppy.


Jim finished his lunch and they set out to the northwest, back on the beaten trail.

What was your name again?


Hm. Thought the sheriff said it was Bill.



It’s Will.

Why the hell’d he say your name was Bill then?

Cause my name’s William. Buncha differnt ways to call a kid William. Two sides to every name.

Okay then.

Who’re you?

Who am I? Jim Waters. And I’ve got a clean rifle, kid.


~ ~ ~

They rode all day and their lathered horses and stopped when the sun hit the top of a peak, splashing its paint across that canvas. There’s a funny thing about the sun. It doesn’t set until you need it, and then it mocks you with songs and colors and all the while you can’t hear a damn thing when you’re trying to build a fire.

Kid. Pass me my knife.

He did so. Jim took the knife in one hand and a nearby piece of shale in the other and did his work and soon there was a fire birthing and crackling.

Kid, you bring any food with you?

Will looked at him and was quiet for just a moment long enough so that Jim knew the answer.

Dammit. How’d you ‘spect to survive? Dammit, kid.

Jim gave him his rifle to go kill some dinner. The kid walked off.

Alone, the rider at the camp unloaded his horse. The pack down, the saddle down, the rope tied to a pine.

Jim laid his head on his saddle and dug his hand into his bag of postage. He grabbed a letter and took his whiskey and sipped and read with the ripped-open envelope lying dead and broken to his side. He finished the alien letter and sat and sipped and thought and wondered. Soon Will came back and saw the broken envelope and asked what he was doing and Jim tried to hide it but the thing was done and Will asked isn’t that against Jim’s code as a Pony rider.

Kid, it ain’t none uh’ your business. Skin the rabbit. Here’s a knife.

Will blinked and took the knife and set to skinning the thing. While the kid was occupied Jim took out an empty envelope and his pen and put the letter in the new envelope and with a practiced hand reproduced the name at the top of the letter and the address onto the new, cream-colored surface. Jim sealed the thing and put it in his bag.

The dinner was overcooked but they ate it anyway because it was warm.

Why were you reading that person’s letter, Jim?

Drop it, kid.

But why. It’s against the rules.


The first nighthopper started his its monotone and clicking chirp.

I do it because I have to. Goodnight.

With that, Jim turned his head on his saddle and shut his eyes. He wanted to tell Will about the way he thought that things go so to where he though the only thing that mattered were those letters, the only things that mattered were the words on those pages.

But Will already knew that.

The night was dark and permeating and it blanketed with shimmering dew the two lying figures like a tending lover.

~ ~ ~

Jim woke first. He turned and saw cream-color on the ground near his companion. He walked over, tense, saw the ripped-open envelopes in the crease of Will’s curled and side-turned body and he kicked the kid in the back and yelled.

Dammit, kid. Goddammit. Get the hell up.

Will’s brow shot up and he blinked and looked up and scrambled away like a crab, looking up at Jim.

I’ll beat your ass. Dammit.

Jim caught up to the scrambling kid and kicked him hard in the rib. The kid wheezed.

What the hell were you doin’.

Nothin! I swear! Jesus!

I know you was readin’ them letters.

You do it!

Yeah I know.

Jim inhaled and delivered another blow with his booted foot to the ribs of the sprawling, panting figure. The winning man dropped to sit, breathing. Will took a while to recollect. And when he did he started talking again.

I just wanted to see what it was all about.

What the hell do you mean, what it was all about.

Well, I knowed you done it, and by-and-by I got curious - ow - and so I just had to do it for myself. Get in to someone else’s life. Seems like that’s what you were doin. The way you looked and read the damn thing like you was an animal. A damned animal. The kid let out a sigh, long and low.

The muffled song of the morning air sang to them as they thought, ruminated, interrogated. Jim shifted, and steadily beat a rock with his fist. His breathing got louder for a bit and then went back down.

You know, kid, they ain’t much more to this world than them letters.


They ain’t. Words on paper. Only God there is.

Surely not just any words. What if they don’t mean nothin.

Don’t have to mean a thing. Words on paper’s the only God there is.


~ ~ ~

The next morning Jim was alone.

Jim was alone, he and the horse, and some food and whiskey and his gun and some water and nothing else nothing else because that goddamn little sonofabitch ran off with the goddamn pack and I’ll kill that little sonofabitch ‘fore he gets to Colorado I’ll shoot him in the legs and then in the neck and that little sonofabitch ain’t gonna get to Pikes and faster, faster you goddamn horse pump pump pump I’m goin’ to kill that sonofabitch I’m goin’ to kill that kid I’m goin’ to kill him. Where’s his tracks. Goddammit. Goddammit where’s his tracks.

Ain’t nothin’ left. Ain’t a goddamned thing left.

The day rode slowly as Jim inched back towards his campsite where he left his things with his map. He got back and took his map and decided to head West because there was nothing else for him but his post. Maybe he could get someone there to hunt down this sonofabitch.

He rode all day and the sun sapped him and he must have confused his water with his whiskey because he drank like a fish. He rode under the limestone bluffs and across an arroyo and checked his map and fell off his horse laughing at the goddamn hawk and got back on and rode over the packed earth and saw some smoke up beyond the treeline across the field he was in. He rode on and knew it was the post because even in his drunkenness he recognized the country and he rode forward.

He got sobered once he saw the shot body.

Been dead for maybe three, four days. The stench. He rode forward and knew what was there. He saw horses in front of the log building and knew who was there. They’d see him in a second. He stopped just in front of the treeline. A couple of the band were still sleeping in the morning sun. The smoke was a a pile of burning stuff out beside that oak tree. There was a rough and bearded man tending to a fire in front of the post. Another one he saw in through the window.

Jim’s rifle was in his saddle. He could have gotten it. His arms were too lethargic, his willpower sapped by the sun or otherwise. He sat there and waiting for one of those men to turn around. And as the man with the beard turned and drew his pistol and yelled out who the hell are you, Jim didn’t say anything, didn’t draw his gun, didn’t spur his horse sideways to run back in the treeline. He sat, waiting. Something he said earlier kept resounding in his head- Words on paper. Only God there is. And he was halfway through the sixth repetition of this phrase when he hit the ground with half a heart left.
~ ~ ~

Those flowers, the way they ruffle and reach and sing.

The author's comments:
The point I attempt to make in this piece is what I used to allow extraneous passages in the narrative. It's like meaningful practice. Like practice for the sake of practice. Like (spoiler alert) writing for the sake of writing.

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