by John F Musser, SSC | February 14, 2023


It was early in the morning and Doc had a belly full of shine when he killed his father and half his brothers. He was seventeen years old, and way before that single-action Colt bucked in his big hand, he had already done the worse thing he would ever do. The next seventy years would have lots of good and bad, but no woman, or drink, or sunset, or the smile of a small child would ever match the satisfaction of watching his father and brothers die.

Doc was old now, impossibly so, it seemed. Still, he had recently decided there were things to be done. They had caught him earlier in the week. He had gotten careless and his goddamn treacherous left leg had brushed against the corner of the bed and he had gone down hard. That whiny smelly type-2 Cry Baby he shared a room with needed a talking-to.

Grubbing brush by the acre, no breakfast but what came out of a mason jar, their attention would turn to him. A cuff across the back of the head by one brother, a kick in the ribs by another, and his father ready to step in if Doc stood up for himself. “What’s a matter boy? Can’t take it? You always been weak, always soft.”

She’s breathing,” his daddy said in a high teasing voice…always there, the worse thing Doc had ever done.

The aides got him up off the floor. Mostly polite and gentle, they told him to push the button when he needed to go to the bathroom. They pulled the sides of the bed up and tied his right arm to one of the cross beams.

This time was different. Doc had only been carrying the Colt for a month or so, but he had carried the hate so much longer. With the first smack across the back of his head he pulled the revolver out of his coat pocket and shot his father low in the belly. Doc did a sight better with his oldest brother and hit him high in the chest. His father’s second son went down with one round through the throat.

Doc seemed to have a knack. His other two brothers ran off. Doc considered shooting them as well, however he had already gotten the ones he wanted. None of them, alive or dead, was armed – it wouldn’t have made any difference.

“Shut up, stop your whining,” Doc told the Cry Baby. Always complaining, always talking about the pain – Jesus Christ, everybody hurts! Maybe if Cry Baby had worked a little harder and sat on his ass a little less, they wouldn’t have had to start cutting pieces of his feet off.

Doc’s father tried to get up and started sort of bicycling his legs, moving in a circle. He eventually worked it out and began to crawl away from Doc. He did so good, Doc had to walk along with him. He leaned over and dug around in his father’s pockets until he found his tobacco. Doc filled his pipe and watched. He found a stump to sit on, and considered building a small fire. Doc wanted some relief from having done the worse thing he would ever do, the night his sister was born.

“You got that little girl fired,” Doc said. “She’s trying to care for her little bastard kid, and your lies got her gone. Who’s gonna feed 'em?” Doc listened as Cry Baby ranted. Doc said nothing – weren’t nobody who could be as quiet as Doc.

Swinging an ax for as long as he could remember, he went into prison strong and mean and nothing behind those walls was as terrible as his life had been before. The guards laughed as on Day One that big son of a bitch tried to bend him over. Doc got his teeth on his throat and the laughter turned to cheers as he fed.

Prison hadn’t been too bad. It was more food than he had ever had growing up and he gained weight fast. Easy time and in no hurry, it was his world. Chinning himself on the bars, moving the weights in the yard, and fighting for the guards to bet on. The more you won, the more you ate, the more you ate the bigger you got, and the bigger you got, the more you won.

There was always something or someone to do if you weren’t too picky. Doc had never been picky. There were strong and weak, and the weak were willing to do anything to be protected by the strong. Got a problem? Go see Doc, he will fix you right up.

“Don’t call her that. I don’t like that word,” Doc said. “My daddy used it every day of his life until I put a bullet in his belly. Don’t say it again.” But of course, Cry Baby did say it again, over and over, and laughed high and shrill about getting her fired. That’s when Doc understood he had more things to do.

Forty years and he was out. Didn’t learn to drive, never a family of his own. Just hard work and violence and drink, and being strong. He did pretty good on the outside. Someone always needed a man who could clear a field, or build a fence or burn a barn or show up with a shovel and a bag of lime to talk to a fellow who should have known better.

Doc was in his eighties when his legs started to fail and he had a few falls. He spent too much time in his head and stopped eating and kept drinking, and almost froze to death when he let his stove go out. He ended up here, and they fed him and kept him clean, and he took a shine to a few of the nice ones who smiled and sat with him and talked about their lives.

A couple of the young ones would get him out of the bed and walk with him up and down the hallway. He would hold on to the door jam and get himself in and out of the chair. He got stronger and started paying attention.

He had a dead-eyed distant relative who came around and nodded and asked questions when Doc would talk about the past. He brought Doc booze and was polite to the aides, and smiled and passed them money when he shook their hands – the smile never got to his eyes. He was sitting beside Doc’s bed and they were drinking and he didn’t seem surprised at all at Doc’s question. “Sure,” he answered, “you wanna a knife or a gun? No? Something not so obvious, got it.”

The longer Doc was there, and the stronger he became, the more he learned the people and the rhythm of the place. Mostly good, ignorant, and scared poor people. Both the ones in the bed and the ones taking care of them. There were bullies here as well. Cruel small little people who enforced their will through position or size or ganging-up. Evil cowards attracted to the weak. Doc could spot them easily enough.

Cry Baby was one of these, leaning on that little aide because he could smell her desperation. He couldn’t pick on anyone else, so he picked on her. Another one worked for the place, a little fella, some sort of boss. Doc could hear Little Boss at night, his voice low and demanding, and in reply the soft sad scared negotiating, then whimpers from the storage closet just down the hall.

The coal oil lamp flickered and as a seven-year-old boy Doc watched his father lay his sister on the bed by his mom. “Still born,” his father said as he placed his filthy hand over the baby’s mouth and nose. His mom looked away and Doc screamed, “She’s breathing!” and rushed his father.

He swatted Doc down with no effort at all. Hit him so hard his right eye turned to milk and the buzzing in his ears never went away. Doc laid there, pathetic and weak. The worse thing Doc would ever do in a life full of bad was be weak and useless when the most innocent and helpless little thing in the world needed him. His father ground his heel into Doc’s face and said, “We don’t want no girls around here, they ain’t good for nothing but shittin' out more mouths to feed.”

Doc had gotten himself out of bed and used the walker to get to the side of Cry Baby. Doc placed his pillow over the man’s face and held it there. His back and even his legs felt good, and it was no effort at all. Cry Baby’s arms waved and his hands clawed at nothing for a short while, but not for long. After he was sure, Doc carried his pillow back to his bed and got in.

“Must have died in his sleep.” Still there were things left to do. Good and Bad. More walks down the hall, more conversations with young people, more food to eat and more booze to drink.

Most importantly, he needed to get strong enough to swing that sock full of quarters, so one night he could be waiting in the storage closet to have a talk with Little Boss. If a fella was careful, he could probably get away with it.

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