“I think we should head back, Percy!” Jim shouted over the loud thunderstorm around them at his older brother, trying to shield his face in the crook of his elbow, all but his eyes, so that he could still see where his horse was going.
“We would’ve been there by now if it weren’t for your dawdling!”
“Didn’t stop you from letting me come on the job, did it?”
“What job? Can't see shit in these conditions. Gonna stop up at this town ahead here, it’s just up ahead.”
He hated bringing his little brother along on jobs, but everyone else he’d worked with had screwed him over. The way he saw it, Jim was his last card in the unlucky hand he'd been dealt.
Their horses trudged through the wet dirt; the brothers trying to brace themselves against the violent winds and pelting drops of rain, until finally, a sign appeared in view, reading: WELCOME TO DRY RIDGE.
“At least they’ve got a sense of humor!” Percy shouted, a little quieter, the wind dying down ever so slightly now.
“Ah, never mind!”
They strode through the long stretch of street, slowing the pace of their horses to a trot as they approached what looked to be the only building to leave any oil lamps on.
“What about the horses?” Jim called, still struggling to tie his up, while Percy headed up the inn's stairs.
“We’ll ask if there’s a barn.”
Percy begrudgingly helped Jim tie his horse up, realizing the kid still didn’t know how to do it without getting the reins tangled.
“Fine,” Percy chided, “I promise.”
As they climbed the steps together, Percy got the sense that the storm was going to get worse again.
“Help you, gentlemen?” A fresh-faced boy behind the counter asked, looking a little startled. A sign above his head read SNUG SNAKE INN.
“Couldn't trouble you for a room, could we?”
“You’re in luck. I’ve got one vacancy.”
Percy found that a little odd. He had seen no other horses hitched outside, and decided the place must have a barn somewhere after all.
Percy was getting his bearings, taking note of the small building creaking with the weight of the storm. It looked expensive, well-decorated for being so shoddily built.
“$3.00 a night.”
It was then that Percy noticed the gold rings adorning his fingers and how nice his clothes were; no wonder the kid got away with charging so much for a place like this.
“That’s just fine.”
Percy knew he was being gypped but found in too much of a hurry to get to the room to care.
“Can I get your names?”
He looked far too young to be running this place, but then Percy had never made much of himself, had never even finished school; he thought maybe this is what that got you.
“I’m...J-Jack." Jim corrected himself before blowing whatever cover they might need to maintain later. Percy had taught him well.
The kid came from behind the counter to hand Percy the key, shaking both the brothers' hands as he did.
"What brings you into town?"
"Just here for a family funeral."
It was his go-to cover, Percy found people tended not to ask too many questions if you brought up death.
"Oh, I'm...sorry. My condolences." The boy offered sheepishly.
Percy gave his best somberly appreciative nod.
“Room seven. Just holler if you need anything. I’m a bit of a night owl.”
“Will do, thanks.”
“What about the horses?” Jim asked as they fumbled up the tight stairwell, struggling to keep his voice low. As he did, Percy glimpsed the boy checking his pocket watch, a heavy golden thing glimmering in the candlelight, marked by a distinctive blue eye; Percy knew enough to know it was likely worth a fortune.
“I’ll buy you a horse tomorrow, Jim. How about that?”
“But you promised.”
Percy gripped Jim's arm angrily, roughly jerking him to the room now
“I couldn’t help but overhear, we’ve got a stable out in the back.” Percy heard the boy say from the stairwell. Percy stopped on the step, unrelenting in his grip on Jim's arm.
Shit, had he heard him use Jim’s real name?
“Mighty kind of you.”
Percy had tried to hide the anger in his voice as he dragged his brother the rest of the way to the room, knowing his stunt would probably cost him a fortune of an extra fee later.
Releasing Jim's arm after unlocking the door, striking him a few times for good measure. Percy pretended not to notice Jim wincing as he changed his clothes, and the two turned in for the night. He didn't bother to remove any clothing aside from his boots before plopping down onto the bed and falling asleep without a word.
As the morning came, and the sun shone in through the cramped window, waking Percy from his restful sleep, he noticed that Jim was already dressed and reading something, or trying to, poor illiterate bastard. Percy wondered if he’d slept at all the night before.
“What time is it?”
“Huh?” Jim shot up from his concentration.
Percy stood from the bed and put his boots on, walking over to the small window, Jim involuntarily flinching a bit as he approached.
The two headed downstairs but before leaving, Percy noticed the boy from the night before was at the front desk again, and remembering the boy flashing his expensive pocket watch last night, thought he might make this trip worthwhile after all.
Jim wandered around the lobby, and Percy let him, flashing the boy at the front desk a warm grin as he tried not to be too obvious in eyeing the open door of a backroom behind him.
“Say, you folks don’t eat food in Dry Ridge, do you?”
The boy gave a polite laugh, and Percy could see inside the room what looked to be a door to one of those indoor outhouses, and…a safe. A big one.
“I'd suggest The Berghoff, just around the corner. I have a kitchen too if-”
“That’s alright, thanks. Here, uh...” Percy fumbled for his wallet again, deciding this dumb kid was as good a mark as he was going to find, “I’ll pay for another night while I’m here. Same room if it’s not too much trouble.”
“Not at all.”
Percy took a strange delight at catching the glint in the kid's eye at the sight of the tip Percy had thrown in. Just big enough that he wouldn't miss it for too long. By the end of breakfast, well, more like lunch now, Percy had a fully formed plan.
“I’ve just had about enough of your genius plans for a lifetime, Percy.”
“You saw the place, the kid's got more money than he even knows what to do with.”
Jim stared daggers at him, a look that screamed he'd heard this exact sales pitch one too many times before.
Percy knew to take the lack of further discussion as a victory.
They stumbled back into the inn that night, having just come from the saloon, the boy almost seeming to have been waiting for them.
Percy gave an absentminded wave of his hat, not looking to see if the boy gestured back, but he could feel eyes on them as he helped his drunken brother up the stairs, hoping Jim wouldn’t be too hungover to remember the plan tomorrow.
They headed out the next day as promised, Percy not wanting to make too much more of an impression exchanging niceties. As he returned the key to the boy, Percy took another look at the pocket watch on the desk. The eye seemed to follow him.
Now he really was in a hurry to leave.
They spent the next few days in a town called Blackstead. Percy actually found himself glad Jim liked liquor so much. He could sort the plan out in peace without having his brother barking in his ear. Percy relayed it to him the night before the job in their room. Jim seemed to follow along well, for once. All Jim had to do was hold a gun and let Percy do the talking and robbing. The plan appeared literally foolproof.
Still, Percy did not sleep peacefully that night. And though it had been a clear evening, He dreamt he was back at the inn, the walls creaking against the raging storm, and he could’ve sworn he heard the ticking of...no, he had simply been nervous. That was all.
The day of the robbery came, and Percy loaded up guns and bags onto the horses, the size of the safe in his mind’s eye as he did. Had to remind Jim to put his bandana over his face when they were halfway there.
As they approached Dry Ridge, this time from the opposite direction, the inn remained the only building. It almost looked taller now, emitting that lone red light in the darkness. They hitched their horses at the rear entrance, making sure they were loose enough in case anything went wrong, and they had to leave in a hurry and retrieved their pistols and saddlebags.
Jim had a way of finding the creakiest boards to step on, lacking a certain elegance in all his movements, and as they approached the end of the hallway, growing closer to the front desk now, the entire building went dark, and Percy raised his hand to stop Jim behind him from taking another step. Percy figured it was now or never. If the boy had time to lock himself in the backroom, all their planning would’ve been for nothing. Percy raised three fingers in front of Jim’s eyes, slowly counting down after Jim nodded, and they dashed around the corner, pistols raised.
The boy was sitting at the desk, a vacant look on his face. So silent now that the sound of the pocket-watch ticking filled the room. He looked like he was about to speak when Percy raised a finger to his covered mouth.
“Unlock the safe and no one gets hurt, kid." Percy hummed as he pressed the pistol against the boy's head, trying to obscure the natural twang in his voice as much as possible.
The boy didn’t blink.
Jim had his gun aimed at the boy but had frozen up at the last minute, naturally. Percy pulled on the hammer of his pistol instead with no intent to shoot, just to intimidate the boy into moving.
“Look, just give us the combination to the safe.” Jim leaned in, almost pleading, but still trying to force gruffness, a strange imitation of what came so naturally to Percy.
But the boy only stared vacantly, eyes seeming to lack any color. Percy, growing more unnerved than impatient, struck him with the butt of the pistol, hard, watching a stream of blood jet from his nose. The boy only winced and let the blood flow from his face, and before Percy could say anything, the boy turned to look at Jim and spit blood in his face.
That had done it.
Percy watched more than felt himself strike the boy again, his anger rising in his body now, making his limbs ache. Only fueled by knowing the boy had never been this desperate for survival. He had been sitting in butter as he let travelers stay at his crummy shack while he flashed that fresh-faced grin and effete adorned fingers, and now he'd had the nerve to spit on the hand that fed him; what did he know about working for a living - about the stain it left on your soul? He would never know how it felt, would never have to, Percy made sure of that.
Percy hammered his fist down again. And again. Each blow was harder than the last until he had the boy pinned to the floor with blood spraying the parts of Percy’s face that weren’t shielded by the bandana. Jim only stood silently and watched, almost afraid.
Percy seemed unable to stop himself, possessed, after all of the years of anger, of fighting to keep him and his brother alive, all unloaded onto this poor bastard. He went on like that for several minutes, only stopping once he’d run out of breath. The face beneath his hands was now a grotesquely swollen mess of flesh. Percy pulled his hand back once more, having half the mind to keep going when an aching sense of reality hit him all at once.
The kid had stopped breathing. Percy felt a hand on his shoulder, both him and Jim flinching at the contact.
“Let’s... let’s go.” Jim’s voice wavered.
Percy only nodded, still trying to catch his breath, as Jim pulled him away from the pulpy mess of the man, the boy, on the floor. That golden pocket-watch with the blue eye still ticking amid the silence.
Percy couldn’t remember how they’d gotten back to Blackstead. The entire incident washed over him like a dream when he woke the next morning, his stomach tightening when he was lucid enough to realize it wasn’t. He felt almost catatonic most of the day but tried not to show it. For Jim’s sake, Jim, who had seemed to be down with a cough from the storm.
“What say we just stay here awhile, yeah?”
“Uh-huh,” Percy heard himself saying, not having touched the lunch Jim scrounged up for him.
Jim went on drinking at the saloon, and tonight Percy joined him. He had never been a lover of liquor, seeing what a fool it frequently made of Jim, but he itched for it now, and Jim carried him to bed that night, despite his sniffling and coughing. Instead of the other way around.
Percy dreamed of himself at the inn again. This time not only heard the creaking sounds of the storm, and the ticking of the boy's pocket watch with it, but he thought he heard a voice in the room, it seemed to whisper incoherently into his ear.
He woke panicked the next day, soaked in sweat and grateful to find daylight. Almost crying from relief. Jim tried to ask something; his voice too hoarse to get out much more than vowels. That was okay, Percy had a way of knowing what Jim was trying to say even before he said it, always had.
“Just a bad dream, Jim. That’s all.”
"Wh-" was all Jim could get out before painful-sounding coughs attacked. Percy cringed at the sound.
“Jesus Jim. You alright?” Percy patted his brother on the back, noticing that he didn’t flinch away from the touch this time.
“Hell of a cold.” Jim finally croaked. Percy thought he looked like death.
“What say we go into town and get you to a doctor today?” Percy said, already helping his brother out of bed.
They did, and Percy watched a garden snake slithering on the ground as he waited on the porch of the clinic, half-wishing the moment would last longer so he didn't have to hear what he already knew.
Whatever Jim had; Percy had never heard of it. Only knew it was incurable.
Percy did his best to shake off his guilt about the boy, realizing now just how selfish he had been. But that didn't matter now. He would do it again if it meant a better life for him and his brother. He couldn't make up for his years of cruelty, he knew that, but he would try to make Jim's last few days easier. Yes, he could still do that for him.
He lay next to Jim for several more nights, despite their room having two beds, no longer afraid of the possibility of catching what Jim had.
One morning, as Percy woke from a dreamless sleep, he turned over and found Jim lay next to him, unmoving.
Percy lay like that, watching his brother, for an eternity, afraid to move. The longer he stayed still, the longer he could pretend it wasn't real. But he knew, as he finally placed two trembling fingers to Jim's pulse, that it was. It was all he could do to drape his arms around the lifeless body and let out a cry. Like it might wake Jim from a slumber.
He lay in bed that night, the absence of Jim in the same room as him for the first time in his life, and let sleep take him, almost waiting in anticipation for the sounds that had grown so familiar to him: the rattling of the storm, the ticking watch. But there were no footsteps or whispering.
There was only...a cough.
Percy shut his eyes, but not before glimpsing two unmistakable figures lingering near the foot of the bed. He held his eyes shut like that for a long time, thinking he could ride it out until morning, convincing himself this wasn't happening. But it was. He could all but feel droplets of something hitting his face now as he listened to the familiar coughing. But sometimes not knowing was worse, so he dared to open them again, and saw what he already knew was there, as though he'd imagined it into reality. Jim, or the Jim-looking thing, its' flesh being eaten away and crawling with worms.
"I'm sorry," Percy had tried to say but found he could not. And perhaps that was the worst of it all. He could not apologize for what he'd done to either of them. He could only watch, knowing this was no longer a dream as the boy with his violently ticking pocket watch approached him, the once fresh face now a grotesque mess of flesh and broken teeth, as he reached a bloated hand out to Percy, the thick blood smearing itself across his face.
It taunted him, voice gurgling sickly around the blood spilling from its’ mouth, “For the one with the brains, you sure don’t have much do you?"