On the morning of his demise, Ephraim Mung, a fatuous teen of extreme milk-fed dimensions, woke Johnny Bidzill with a hot glob of mucus as he slept in the pit. The pit's walls were planked tight with rough cottonwood, and it took a crew of five Chinese a day and half to dig it and two more to properly set the collar braces. Befouled with the screwy bowel leavings of past occupants, a canvas roof lashed to four log posts was strung over the pit's opening to keep most weather out. For descents and extractions and normally under the cover of Sheriff Higgs' scattergun a ladder was lowered. The pit was the jail for the town of Arenoso.
Bidzill didn't flinch as Mung's sputum landed on the threadbare, grey blanket he hid under nor did he glance up.
"Go away," Bidzill moaned.
Now in his short tenure as a deputy for Sheriff Higgs, Ephraim Mung had seen some ornery tenants of the pit, mostly assorted runagates raging on corn spirits and once for a German carpenter who, after sodomizing a retarded girl, met his suitable demise at the end of a rope. But Bidzill's refusal to answer with respect that morning had Mung irked. After a moment's consideration, Mung decided to lift the lid of a cast iron pot he clutched in his hand.
"Preacher Mayfield come by with some food for you. Looks like a couple handfuls of shell beans in gravy with a plug of fatback."
Still beneath the blanket, Bidzill barked. "What in hellfire do I want with food?"
"Well, a man has gotta eat."
"Fuck away and leave me alone."
Mung settled the lid back on the heavy pot.
"Are you sure you don't want none? Might be the last good bite you get before Sheriff Higgs gets back from Seven Trees."
"Sheriff Higgs and y'all can suck me."
As a church-going sort, the mild tenor of Mung's voice took on a shade of grand offense. "Hey! You watch your mouth there, mister. I'll dump this pot right down on your head."
"No, you won't."
"I won't? How do you know I won't?"
"You don't look like the type."
"You got a blanket over your head. You can't even see me."
"I can see through this ratty drape, and you strike me as the sort who'd never waste a speck of food. Your mama would be ashamed."
"Well, my mama ain't here. And Sheriff Higgs? He ain't one to treat prisoners so kindly, especially those who can't hold their ugly tongues."
"I need water."
"Sorry, no water. Can't."
"Sherriff said a whiskey-sick half-breed like you needs to be taught a lesson."
Still beneath the lice-ridden blanket like a grey ghost, Bidzill scoffed. "I'm from New Orleans, dummy. They may call me a bunch of things back there, but half-breed ain't one of them."
"Lots of Navajos running 'round these days with Christian names."
"Do I like a gut-eatin' heathen to you?"
"No, but you are kind of dark, I reckon."
"Lord almighty, ain't you never heard of octodroons?"
"Is that some sort of a tribe?"
"Oh, ain't you precious. How many years are you?"
Mung, after a pause, "I'm twenty-two."
"Ha! You're a day over nineteen at most."
"So what if I am nineteen? I'm not the one in the pit. What you ought to be worried 'bout is that man you gave a lickin' to because he's a PD surveyor and it looks like he's gonna go blind in one eye. Yep, Preacher Mayfield just told me he got a cracked bone in his head two inches long that might even kill him. With him being a Phelps Dodge man, if he pops off you'll swing."
"He ain't gonna pop off."
"Says you. Got a head on him as big as a sow's behind. Missing a bunch of teeth, too."
"That prancing Mary—son of a bitch deserved what he got."
"Your Phelps Dodge man. He's sugar boy, son, fond of the unspoken sin and whatnot. He wanted to play with my willy."
"The man gots himself a wife."
"Wouldn't be the first time a gelding looped a mare. You tell me, what kind of man creeps up on a fellah taking a piss and asks if they can shake 'em dry?"
Piqued by their confab's repugnant slide, Mung resolved right then if Johnny Bidzill missed the noose he would spread word as far as he could that this unsavory willy accusation of his was the other way around.
"So, you want to eat or what?"
Bidzill wound to his feet but kept under the blanket. "Oh, I suppose. But with this being from your preacher, a man in my precarious position got to be careful. You may not be worldly enough yet, but men who claim to know God personally are some of the most vile opportunists there be, not to mention that snake's rib don't care for me none."
"Rib. Your preacher's wife."
"So, that's what she goes by nowadays."
"Of course that's what she goes by, what else would she?"
"Well, young man, I submit to you that woman's real name is Opal. That's right, Opal Winston. A woman of the Magdalene trade back where I'm from. Your basic, low-rung Basin Street whore, the kind who'd give you a jigger or suck for a dollar or a swift shuffle for a quarter."
Mung stomped a boot. "Why you slag-tongued son of—you go to hell!"
"Not much of a stretch down here."
"You take what you said 'bout Miss Katie back."
"I'm sorry, but I can't because I know from which I speak. Of course, I personally never sampled the woman's charms, as poxed-up castoffs ain't my preference. Me, I prefer my whores blue-gummed and juicy, as they don't complain as much if you want to get creative. If I was flush, more often than not you'd find me in Mahogany Hall having me a high time. Anyhow, when I got here last afternoon I recognized your preacher's wife straight off, and she knew me too and gave me the iciest stare I've ever seen. Seeing how she thinks she's all proper-like now, I'm the only one in this chamber pot who knows her secret and to keep that quiet she might be up for anything. She could've stirred in some broken glass or lye in that grub, I mean, how long they've been hereabouts?"
"Six years, long before I got here."
"Okay, that arithmetic fits. Do you know their story?"
"Well, I know Preacher Mayfield be Miss Katie's second husband."
"Uh-huh. She said her first husband croaked back in St. Louis from a bad ticker. Seems he'd been shot in the chest during the war and never fully recovered. Served under Major General Price, too, but I reckon Miss Katie's widowing days were short as she and Preacher Mayfield got hitched a few months after her first husband died. Met at missionary jamboree."
"Missionary jamboree sounds 'bout right for that wag-tailin' bitch."
Mung dropped the cast iron pot of food and kicked it over the pit's lip. The warm beans, pork fat, dubious roux, pebbles, and surface straw rained down on Bidzill's blanket in a steamy slop and both the pot and its lid clonked out hollow notes when they beaned Bidzill in the head. Mung's hand fell to the butt of his holstered .32 Long Colt as Bidzill collapsed in a heap.
"Listen, you useless cur," Mung declared. "I know we be jabbering and all, but I got me no fears of putting a bunch of holes in you. I can easily tell Sherriff Higgs you tried to escape, you got that?"
Bidzill didn't move or make a sound.
Oh sufferin' Peter in heaven, lamented Mung. That pot of beans must've knocked that foul-mouthed bastard cold, which was not a favorable situation for Mung at all. Even if Sheriff Higgs wanted the whiskey-sick drunk to suffer without water, Mung knew his boss would see this turn of events in a disagreeable light. Like most good and honest lawmen, Sheriff Higgs had rules, one of which being justice is for judges and juries. Maybe in his defense Mung could explain how Bidzill talked trash about Miss Katie and Preacher Mayfield, which made Mung see red and he couldn't help himself. Of course, Sheriff Higgs would ask what kind of trash so perhaps Mung would be better off lying and say that the pot slipped his grip and it was an accident. As he dwelled on this, a notion superseded these cowardly options. Mung thought maybe if he waited a spell Bidzill would eventually come around.
Mung paced around the hole, clockwise and counterclockwise. Every so often he'd call to down Bidzill, yodel, or shout at him. But soon the passing minutes became a half an hour.
Mung wondered—what if I killed him? The thought that he took the life of unarmed man with a pot of fatback and shell beans was chilling, but then again, if he lied and claimed that it was an accident, maybe he'd get free of this knot and his life would resume. Mung never killed anyone in his life. He admired Sheriff Higgs deeply as Higgs saw the lawman life as one of order and fair shakes. He particularly despised those not of temperate spirit.
Mung needed to be sure. If Bidzill was alive or dead, he needed to prepare his fabrication. He retrieved the ladder from a barn nearby and then lowered it into the pit. Before descending he made sure to check his Colt. Deciding it would be wobbly to climb down with a pistol in one hand he stuffed the .32 in his belt for quick crossdraw access if things went awry.
Swinging a foot down to the third rung he began his climb down and when he was halfway to the bottom Bidzill cast off his shabby blanket with a magician's flourish and slammed his shoulder into the left ladder rail. Addled by Mung's girth and weight, the ladder's purchase was lost, and Mung fell, losing his wind with a great gust and snicking of snapped bones. Bidzill was quick on his feet and stepped clear in time.
Bedazzled and unable to breathe, let alone call out for help, Mung felt the cast iron pot lid beneath his spine and he reached for his belt. The smell of shit in the pit was overwhelming and to his horror he realized his Colt was already gone. Expecting a quick end of scorching lead through his brain, Mung could not fathom the sight of Bidzill tossing the .38 up and out of the pit, but then the wisdom of the gesture sunk in. Bidzill was crafty enough to know the report of a discharged pistol would draw attention.
Bidzill held the cast iron pot by its handle.
"My, you're a big boy, ain't you? Oh, well. Seems this here pot will have to do."
To crush Mung's skull only took five blows.
Copyright © 2017 Kieran Shea.
Kieran Shea's fiction has appeared in many publications including Ellery Queen Mystery Magazine, Thuglit, Dogmatika, and Crimefactory. He has been nominated for the Story South’s Million Writers Award twice. He divides his time between Annapolis, Maryland, and Ocean City, New Jersey.