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A Cruelty That Cut Both Ways

The thunderbird had left two carcasses by the barn overnight.

Ezra refused to call in the hands to help. It was Sunday, after all, and their God-given day off, whatever the devil’s own bird might have done. It was only divine providence that the rest of the cattle hadn’t escaped when the bird ransacked the Greens’ barn—the blank-eyed creatures stood and stared from where they’d crowded at the back when Ezra cleared the wreckage of the door and let in the morning’s light. He and Sarah cleaned the two dead cattle while Liza read the Bible to herself in the kitchen and prepared the Sunday meal. Sarah had assigned her daughter the story of Ruth and Boaz for today, and she could hear her daughter’s voice drifting out through the open windows in between the rap of the knife on the wooden counter. She struggled over certain words—Moabite and guardian and foreigner—but her voice was clear and true as she sounded out the story of faith and patience rewarded. Sarah hoped she took the tale to heart.

Not much flesh to salvage from the dead cattle. The blood had run out to make dark mud of the dusty ground, and the hides had been shredded by the thunderbird’s talons. But the livers and the tongues were still fresh and mostly intact, and Sarah used her best kitchen knife to cut them clean of the beasts. There would be gelatin from the bones too. Sarah said as much to Ezra, and he spat into the soil. Spittle clung to the dark whiskers on his chin, and his blue eyes glittered like ice chips in his face. “So we’ll eat for a day or two, and I’m meant to smile about that?” When he stood, his knees creaked. But she pressed her lips tightly closed against a retort, and he didn’t come any closer. Finally he shuffled himself back down into the dirt, muttering curses as he sawed at the cartilage in the steer’s hind leg.

Sarah peeled a slimy shred of muscle away from her steer’s shoulderblade and added the bone to her pile. She hadn’t changed out of her best Sunday dress—the only one of the three she owned made of store-bought cloth and not patched-up flour sacks—and she was brown to the elbows and knees. Well, it would wash, and so would she. She wiped the damp hair from her forehead with the back of one wrist and said, “You reckon it’s brooding season?”

This time Ezra shot to his feet despite his crackling joints. He crossed the space between them in three steps and cuffed her across the cheek. “I look like I’ve sprouted feathers to you, woman?” he shouted. “How the hell should I know when a creature like that sees fit to drop an egg? I raise cattle, not goddamn demon birds!”

She murmured her apologies, but he didn’t return to stripping the other dead steer. He put his head down and stormed across the corral, muttering, hands clenched at his sides. She put her head down too. There was still work to be done, however many pairs of hands were set to it, and the blood that ran down Sarah’s chin mixed in the dirt with the blood of the cattle.

The pain was a reminder, and one she’d earned. Not just that she had bought that sting and then some, with the secret sins she carried. But this too: that Ezra was more right than he knew. That bird was surely a demon, and the fate it bore on its leathery wings was Sarah’s and no other’s. For what wrong she’d done Ezra, whether he knew it or not. And what wrong she’d done Liza as well, of course. It would be a sin to deny that twist of the knife too. When it came for her and bore her downward, she would be ready. So long as her daughter was left safely behind, at least. Ezra had never, would never hurt the girl. And the thunderbird could bear her no ill will. If she’d played a part in Sarah’s misdoings it had been entirely a passive one.

Sarah’s lip had stopped bleeding, though it felt puffy. Ezra was still pacing the perimeter of the corral, cursing his bad luck in women and land-claims alike. His cursing wasn’t so bad. At least while he blasphemed, she could tell where he was without looking at him.

Back at the house, Liza’s voice had fallen silent.

Monday morning the three ranch hands arrived by the time the sun was up. Matthew, Mark, and Charlie, who by rights ought to have been a Luke or at least a John, scratching their beards and shifting their weight from boot to boot as Ezra handed them each a weapon. For Matthew, Ezra’s second rifle (the one with the bad trigger); for Mark the pistols from Ezra’s desk; for Charlie, the wood-axe. They set out with Ezra on horseback, and melted into the red rising sun. “We’ll be back by dinner,” Ezra said before he mounted up. That meant Sarah would need to have dinner ready for four hungry men after doing their day’s worth of ranch chores.

Liza helped her put the cattle out to pasture, then joined her in the corral to shovel manure. By then the morning was gone, and with it Sarah’s opportunity to do the week’s baking. Well, they could all eat flatbread for the next six days like the Israelites in Egypt and they’d be none the worse for it. Sarah and Liza went out to the east pasture to fix a bad fencepost, and to keep an eye out for the men riding homeward.

“Where do you think the thunderbird came from, Mama?” asked Liza. She leaned into the fencepost to hold it upright while Sarah dug the old rotted post out of its hole. They had both tucked their skirts up inside their apron strings to let off some of the oppressive heat that clung to their bodies. “Did they have thunderbirds back in Chicago?”

“No. Move that post closer, will you?” It hurt Sarah to have to ask that; her daughter was twelve years old and not built for ranch work. But Liza complied, and Sarah slipped the new post into the old hole. The barbed wire wrapped around it, front and back and front again, and helped to hold it upright. “There’s not many of them, and no one’s ever seen one but here on the prairies. From what your daddy and I have heard, at least.” She stepped backed and fished the hem of her skirt free to wipe her brow. “As far where it came from, well . . . ” She didn’t dare say hell lest Ezra decide she’d been stuffing the girl’s head of fancy again. “Somewhere down south, maybe.”

Liza didn’t look satisfied with this answer, and small wonder that. “Come on,” said Sarah, and tucked the loose damp curls that had come free back into her daughter’s braid. “We’ve got work to do back in the corral and the kitchen before our day’s done.”

The men weren’t back by dinner, and Sarah’s tentative heart lifted as the shadows lengthened and the Dutch oven cooled. Maybe her prayers had finally been answered. Her lies she would carry around her neck until they dragged her downward to perdition, but she did have a daughter to see to, and in spite of herself she longed for the kind of reprieve only God in His infinite mercy could grant. A woman and a girl couldn’t manage a ranch on their own, no, but they could sell the cattle and make their way back east on the money they earned from it. They could learn to walk with their heads high again, to raise their voices without flinching and to sing without looking around first to see who might hear. When the sun dusted the earth again, she nearly told Liza to start packing. But she bit her tongue and bided her time reading with the girl by lamplight. Half an hour past dark, and she heard the jingle of reins and raised voices outside. “Daddy’s back,” said Liza, looking up from the Bible, and Sarah’s belly twisted around her supper.

She lurched out of her seat as the door banged open. Ezra and Matthew crashed through the door with Mark’s arms stretched between them. Charlie loomed in the doorway, a pale bloodstained ghost. “Get us some clean water!” Ezra bellowed, and Sarah rushed to comply.

The men laid Mark out on the kitchen table, and Sarah gasped at the sight of his shredded leg. Had that been the work of the thunderbird’s talons, or its beak? What a foolish question. She snatched up a pail and cried to Liza to start a fire.

Boiled water and bloodstains on the kitchen floor. When Mark finally slept, still stretched out to his full height on the table, Ezra sent Matthew and Charlie home. Sarah lingered in the kitchen doorframe, watched the light in the oil lamp dance in the beads of sweat on Mark’s face. She told herself that it wasn’t her fault, that Mark’s fate wasn’t her own misdirected punishment. Nor yet a cruel wish deflected off Ezra to an undeserving target. Well, now they’d both suffer for it. Him trapped in the shredded prison of his body; her bent under the burden of a mouth to feed. A mouth without a back to bend to labor. The tiny twisting tongues of flame from the lamp licked at her like hellfire.

“Go to bed,” Ezra grunted, when he pushed past her.

She folded her arms across her chest. Liza had already retired, exhausted by the day’s events and the night’s terrors. “I should stay. Do for him as can be done.”

“There’s nothing to be done for him.” Ezra leaned toward her, and she put the doorframe between them. “I said go to bed. I ain’t going to say it again.”

Sarah fled, and dressed herself for bed with numb fingers. When she heard grunts from the kitchen, the feeble kick of stocking feet against old wood, she closed her eyes in prayer. The first plea on her lips was that Liza, at least, might sleep through this.

They buried Mark in the pasture, deep beneath the dry grass where the wind whistled. He had no family to stand beside his grave as it was filled, and none to ask any questions that might rile Ezra’s temper either. Charlie didn’t have his letters, and Matthew had a dreadful stutter, so Ezra read from the Bible when the wooden coffin disappeared beneath the pebbled dirt.

There wasn’t proper food for a funeral spread, but Matthew and Charlie came back to the big house for a bit. Liza and Sarah put out bread and butter and cold sliced beef and the men ate and nodded their thanks. She wanted to reach out to them, touch them, reassure them of their guiltlessness. But she could hardly do any such thing with Ezra looking on.

When the men went out to get at least an afternoon’s worth of work done—all the more important now there were only six hands to set to eight hands’ worth of work—Sarah tugged at Ezra’s sleeve before he could follow the others. “This is the end of chasing that bird,” she begged. “Isn’t it?” Sarah could not abide the thought of another man bearing the punishment for trying to avert the fate that ought to be hers. A cruelty that cut both ways, that one.

Ezra slapped her so hard her ears rang. “I swear I’ll never point a shotgun at that damn monster again, less it comes knocking at our front door.” He jerked his shoulders up and down, and Sarah wondered what it was he meant to shrug off. “There’s mucking in the barn that won’t wait. Get Liza and get to work.”

They had been married long enough that she spoke Ezra’s language, the pauses and the subtly emphasized words, the muscles in his face that tensed and slackened. Ezra would never again put himself between the ranch and the thunderbird, no. But he might see to it that someone else still would.

Liza had already bent her back to the soiled barn, and her hem was pinned up to keep it from dragging through the filth. She paused to straighten her back when Sarah arrived, and leaned on the handle of her muck rake. “Mama,” she said, and though her voice was dry as old bones, tears swelled up in her cinnamon-brown eyes. “Why is the thunderbird tormenting us?” Her voice dropped low. “Could it be something I did wrong? If I missed my prayers, or if—if I didn’t mean them enough?”

Sarah reached out and pulled Liza into her shoulder. The smell of manure filled her nose and mouth: rich and grassy as God’s green earth, and as tainted. “No, my darling,” she said, into Liza’s hair. Too hard to explain to the child the particular taint of original sin that ran in her blood. “You didn’t do anything wrong. It was never you.”

Two weeks and three more dead cattle later, Sarah was in the yard when a stranger on horseback rode up. He had a hard-weathered face, brown as sun-baked prairie soil, but it relaxed in a smile when he greeted her. He wore a pistol on his hip and a pair of rifles slapped the flank of his sorrel mare. She offered him something cool to drink, and wished she could offer it as some sort of meager thanks. But he hadn’t come here to save her, of course.

He told her he’d come to do the job advertised in town. “I’ve killed them birds before. Not always easy, but don’t you mind—it can be done.” He grinned at her over the rim of the cup of water she’d fetched. “You know, there’s folk who like shooting them down because they think they’re holy to the Indians, but that’s not so. The Winnebago have a thunderbird, but to them it’s a messenger to the gods. Not some ugly leathery sky-beast.” He took another deep drink, then chucked the rest of the water into his own face. Droplets rained down from the gray-black stubble of his beard. “Besides: they die awful hard for birds, but too easy for angels.”

Sarah dropped her eyes to her feet, not at the cowboy’s words but at the sound of Ezra’s voice. He was yelling, across the yard, at her or at the man, she couldn’t tell. He didn’t like it when she spoke to men without him present. She half hoped he would strike her in front of the stranger—earned or not, she would take freedom from this man’s hands if he saw fit to offer it.

But no, Ezra had raised his voice in exultation at his hired gun’s arrival, not in any fit of temper. He tagged up to the stranger, pouring out golden charm like a river of whiskey. Any reservations or doubts had to wash away under such a tide as that. Sarah’s certainly had, when she married him. But then she’d had other reasons to let herself be carried along so easily. She’d been his mark as much as he’d been hers. In any case it was nothing strange for Ezra to present the Sunday-best version of himself in front of friends and neighbors and passers-by; it was only for Sarah and sometimes his hired men that he rolled up his shirt-sleeves.

They sent Sarah away while they talked money, until Ezra shouted for her to fetch the hired gun something stronger to drink than water. She fetched him a cup of Ezra’s second best corn-juice, better than what he gave Matthew, Mark, and Charlie at Christmas but not as good as what he kept for his own personal use. Its smell peeled Sarah’s lips back from her teeth, but the hired gun took a deep draft and barely pulled a face. “Tastes like killing monsters feels,” he said, and handed Sarah the cup. When he swung himself back into the saddle, riding so tall and straight and handsome, she could almost doubt the thunderbird’s odds. Almost. But maybe if he failed in that quest, he might come back to the farmstead looking for another. A princess in a locked tower, a dragon at the gate . . .

No—she banished that foolishness from her head, with a jerk of her wrist to fling the rest of the corn-juice into the tall grass. She was no innocent maiden, and never had been. Liza’s daddy had been a handsome man, too, and look where that had gotten her.

Ezra’s hand twitched, but he didn’t slap her, not with the hired gun still in earshot. “I paid good money for that chain-lightning,” he growled, and she knew he’d make her pay the wastage back later, in coin of his own choosing. She looked out to where the hired gun rode out through the ranch gate, which Charlie hurried to swing closed behind him. She shivered with fear and terrible desire when a shadow slid over her, but it was only the sun passing behind the clouds.

The tall handsome stranger with his rifles never came back, in seek of pay or otherwise. Other hired guns came and went in his wake, two or three a week at first, and then fewer as time went by and tales of the size of the monster that haunted the Green ranch spread. Some were as tall as the first, and some were as kind, though few were as handsome. But each and every one of them had eyes only for the prize, a reptile-bird hide to drag back to town and a pocketful of silver to spend on the resulting celebrations. Sarah didn’t blame them, not when Ezra saved his vile outbursts of temper until after these men had come back empty-handed or not at all. Until after they had disappeared into the sunset seeking easier quests to set themselves against.

And as charming as Ezra was, Sarah was his opposite. The years of marriage and the hot prairie sun had taken their toll in equal measure: her hair was so fair and her eyes such a pale blue, it was as if the color had been bleached out of them. If she’d had a clever way with words once, a sharp tongue that had turned heads, it had been a long time that her tongue had lain still and silent in the bed of her mouth. She was a piece of the landscape on the Green ranch and nothing more to these men. Maybe, she thought, as the summer days stretched out hot and dry, that was all she was to the Lord her God too. Her sins weren’t great ones, but they were ugly little things. Ugly enough for her Maker to turn His head, maybe. And for Him to deny her the quick easy end of a visit from the thunderbird.

Or maybe He was waiting for her confession: not to Him, for she’d given her penance on bent knee a thousand times over. But to Ezra himself. And Liza. The sharp edge of Sarah’s lie curved backwards on her, too. In the small quiet space they had together in the evenings, Sarah found herself studying her daughter’s face. With Ezra out working late, his time pulled taut by helpless anger as well as necessity, she could enjoy her daughter’s presence without the shadow of his nearness to darken it: her dark darting eyes and the delicate point of her chin. Sarah’s hand-me-down nightdress hung too big on her body.

“Liza,” she said, her voice dusty in her mouth. The girl hunched over the Bible by candlelight; she didn’t straighten up at Sarah’s voice, only slanted her eyes her mother’s way. She looked like a startled coyote, trying to figure out which way to flee. The yellowed linen of the nightdress tented sharply over the peaks of her shoulder blades.

Sarah’s tongue worked against her teeth, as if that might scrape the words free. The girl’s frame barely held up under the thin layer of flesh it was clothed in; surely it would shatter under the cruel weight of unvarnished truth. She reached across the table and stroked Liza’s brown hair. “Your papa and I are proud of how you’ve buckled down to work around here. Times have been hard, with Mark gone and with the extra work the bird makes for us. It’s a blessing to have you.” That last was true, though it hadn’t always been so, had it? She let her daughter’s curls fall from her fingertips and tried not to think of the girl’s daddy. She swallowed the acid words that had pent up in her throat: that ghost could lie abed a bit longer. “Get to bed now. It’s late.”

When they got up the next morning, another rotting husk lay in the farmyard. This time, the body didn’t belong to a steer.

Matthew’s eyes stared heavenward; Sarah rushed to force them closed while Ezra stood over the body and Liza hovered just beside. “I’m sorry,” Sarah said, to Matthew’s upturned face, and threw her coat over him to hide his cracked-open ribs from Liza’s eyes. The sun bore down unblinking on her shoulders; there was nothing that could be hidden from heaven.

They had the body in the ground by noon. No one had the will to mutter more than a few words over the fresh grave, and Charlie only stayed long enough to see his friend buried. “Nothing tying me here now Matthew’s gone,” he told Ezra, and slung his half-slack bag up onto his shoulder.

If he had tears glittering in his eyes, Sarah took care not to look. She put her hand on Liza’s shoulder and watched the last of the hired hands walk away from the ranch for good. Out of the corner of her eye, she could see the tautly corded muscles in Ezra’s neck and the vein standing out below his jaw. Time to keep her mouth shut and stay out of the way.

“I can help out more on the ranch, Daddy.” Liza stepped away from Sarah, and Sarah’s hand fell back to her side—too late to call back the girl’s words, nor yet Ezra’s sudden attention. No, he had never struck the girl. Not Sarah’s sweet daughter. “I got a strong back, and I don’t mind the work.”

Ezra didn’t move at first. Sarah reached for Liza, to pull her back and shoo her toward the house before she had to bear witness to one of Ezra’s displays of temper. But Ezra’s fist moved faster than her outstretched hand. He clipped Liza across the jaw and sent her sprawling. “Now you tell me,” he bellowed, “how one scrawny girl’s meant to replace three grown men!”

Blood dripped through Liza’s cupped fingers, three red drops that stained her dusty apron. She yelped when Ezra stepped forward and swept back his leg for a kick.

Sarah moved. Not much, not far. A little sidestep that carried her across Liza’s legs and the spill of her skirt. Her face pulled tight over the bones beneath, and whatever Ezra saw there made him pause. He stepped back. “Just get in the house,” he said, and turned away to dust his hands on his shirt. “It’s past one and I already dug a grave this morning. Get some dinner on my table before it gets any later.”

Sarah stood over her daughter until he’d walked out to the corral, and then hustled her to her feet and into the house.

Sarah and Liza worked silently, preparing the food and setting the table to Ezra’s liking. Hot marrow soup with the last of the overwintered potatoes, liver fried in the pan, old bread softened with a smear of butter. Sarah sliced up a cold joint too, for Ezra’s favorite sandwiches, and laid it in sight on the middle of the table, then turned to the pail of water to wash up her knife. “I suppose you’re not too hungry,” she said to Liza, who hovered near the table. “Go sit in your bedroom for a spell. You can read, if you like.” Liza vanished.

Sarah sat down at the table with her hands in her lap. Steam rolled off the marrow soup, and the over-rich stench filled her belly with sourness. It took another twenty minutes before Ezra banged through the door. He sat down, loosening the handkerchief around his neck, and looked about. “Where is she?”

“Resting. You ready?”

“Damn right,” he said, and shoved his plate toward her.

She served him his supper.

Early the next morning she led the sheriff’s deputy from town out, far out past the ranch’s fences. Out, on horseback, to the great nest that lay hidden in the scrubby trees, out by the cliffs that fell down toward the drought-shriveled river. She showed him Ezra’s body, torn nearly beyond recognition, where he lay amid the shattered remains of three enormous eggs. The pinkish things that lurked beneath the fragments of shell were too terrible to look at, and the deputy kicked them out of sight into the corner. “Damn fool,” he said, and covered his mouth as he frowned down at Ezra’s mortal remains. “Not the first idiot this bird’s claimed, and sure as shooting won’t be the last.”

Sarah shook her head. “Don’t think ill on him. He was protecting me and Liza to the last. Got it in his head the thunderbird must be brooding, to linger around here so long.” She dragged her sleeve across her face. “Well, he was right, rest him.”

The deputy tipped his hat, guilty and solicitous all at once. “What’ll you do now, ma’am, if you don’t mind me asking? That’s a big ranch for you and the girl to manage all on your own, even if new hands do hire on. And it’s not altogether safe, a widow woman and her girl all by themselves.”

“No, I’ll sell the ranch.” Sarah studied the ruins of Ezra’s face. Not enough left of him to tell what sort of expression had colored his final moments, whether he had left this world behind on wings of regret or surprise or terror. “Go back east if we can. My sister still lives in Chicago. Liza ought to grow up around family if she can.”

The deputy replaced his hat on his head. “Ezra’s got kin in Independence, too, hasn’t he?”

“Yes.” Sarah nodded slowly and so stiffly she was surprised her neck didn’t creak. “But I can get more outwork back in a big town like Chicago, I hope.”

“I suppose that’s so.” He sighed, and settled to one knee beside Ezra. Sarah didn’t envy him the task of dealing with that human wreckage. “Well, you’ll be missed around these parts, Miz Green.”

“Thank you,” she said, and walked out of the shelter of the trees, where she could stand up straight, where the sun’s white heat poured down on her face. She took two deep shuddering breaths, and swallowed her rising gorge.

A shadow blotted the sun’s warmth off her face. She looked upward, and found the thunderbird wheeling overhead, wings spread.

Her throat tightened. Not now—she wasn’t prepared to go now, of all times. Better to leave Liza behind with no protection at all than with a man as likely to harm as to help, yes. But not by much.

Sarah fell to her knees. There was no forgiveness to be had, not from a dead man twice wronged and not from the Creator God whose punishment she’d so terribly flouted. And Sarah wasn’t sure she would have wanted forgiveness anyway, even had it been there for the asking.

The thunderbird gained height, then tucked its leathery wings. It dropped toward Sarah in a freefalling dive. “I’m sorry,” Sarah said, but it was Liza who she sent those futile words to. She closed her eyes.

A gust of wind beaten on leather wings, lashed Sarah’s face, and she screamed. But not alone. Another cry raked the air, so close that it drove the breath from her body. Pain drew her belly back toward her spine, but not her own pain: secondhand pain, borrowed pain. She opened her eyes.

The thunderbird huddled not ten paces from her. Its claws tightened in the spilled innards of a yowling mountain lion. The lion kicked twice, gave one last feeble cry, and relaxed into death’s waiting embrace.

The thunderbird’s red-gold eyes found Sarah’s. The beast was too big to be believed, the size of a pair of circus elephants put together and then flensed down to bones and dry leather. The bony crest on the back of her head was nearly as long as Sarah standing to her full height. She held Sarah’s stare as she raked into the mountain lion’s exposed belly. Gore stained her fleshy beak and spattered the wrinkled leather of her belly. New gore and old.

“I’m sorry,” said Sarah again, not to Liza this time. To the bird, demon or angel or creature of the earth. The bird stared her down as she staggered out of the copse of trees and out onto the open prairie. Eastward, toward the ranch. Time to go home to Liza, help her pack up. They’d have to travel lightly, two women alone. A few changes of clothes in Liza’s hope chest, the brass candlesticks, the Bible. A pot and a pan, and, of course, Sarah’s best kitchen knife.

Originally published in Hidden Menagerie, edited by Michael Cieslak.

About the Author

Aimee Ogden is a former science teacher and software tester; now she writes stories about sad astronauts, angry princesses, and dead gods. You can also find her work in Shimmer, Apex, and Analog, or follow her on Twitter @Aimee_Ogden for updates on writing as well as strong opinions about beer and baked goods.