Excerpt from Calamity
So, you want to hear about the Green Man, do you? About how that green son of a bitch and me burned our way clear across the Wyoming once on thirty years? Well, reckon I can tell you my part of it. But that there’s a story of some bloody goddamn revenge, it is. Against both men and worse. But if you’re like to go through the mill, mister, reckon I’d be right obliged to take you. See, once on my name was Martha Jane Canary. That’s Calamity Jane to you. And this here’s the story of how the one become the other. And about the Green Man what rode through hell with me to do it. And that’s the goddamn truth.
Part of it, anyways. Truth is, I heard him before I saw him—heard his ear-splitting roar all the way across the damn yard, even with my head pushed down in the hay, hot breathing in my ears and all. For a moment that queer howl of his right drowned out my own screams, if you’ll believe that. No sir, you don’t forget a thing like that—screams like ours.
See, Jimmy Burns was on me. I bit and I clawed at him. Did anything I could to get him away but he didn’t back off none. No, he tore at my shirt with one hand and shoved my face sideways into the hay with the other. Fuck, ain’t never been so scared. Was only a girl, see? Barely fifteen. And ain’t nobody ever set themselves on me like that before, what with rape on their mind. And here was one of them doing it, too, what shot up Mister Harthra and the boys. Doing me worse than dead. So I screamed loud as I could from under Jimmy’s muffling. And I thrashed all wild against him, swinging my knees and elbows into whatever bits I could.
Being in such a heap, the Green Man’s howl wasn’t all that frightening. Not to me. I’d heard Mister Harthra make such a holler once on when he was mad as all hell. So I drew hope from that roar, I did. Hope what I wasn’t all lonesome out there in that barn. That someone else survived the die-up. That maybe what I saw done to Mister Harthra and the boys was some kind of bad dream what I was finally waking from.
But that roar? Well, Jimmy’s buddy—Walker, I think it was—was might upset by it. And rightly so, I reckon. Was the last damn thing he ever heard.
I remember him clear as if he was standing right there beside you. Remember him hissing from them shadows by the barn door, “Shut that little cunt up. Reckon I heard something.”
But, I tell you, them two boys didn’t know what kind of calamity they was courting. Jimmy cupped my mouth with that filthy palm of his and breathed a loud “shhh” in my ear. Oh, I stopped screaming, all right. Flashed my teeth, I did. Sunk them deep into the meat of his hand, tasting dirt, blood, and bone. Tears might’ve filled my eyes and hay might’ve stabbed my cheeks but I was plumb glad to hear his screaming in my ears, I was.
Well, glad for a blink, anyways. Jimmy was mad as the devil, at that. He clutched his hand, reeled back, and, before I could free my pinned arms, he slammed that fat fist of his right into my face. Goddamn! Hurt something awful. The barn spun and I’ve got some weak recollection of my body flopping all around like a fish, whether from my own jerking or from Jimmy’s manhandling, I don’t rightly know. But was blood in my mouth, all the same. My blood. And as my wits come back, I felt Jimmy pulling at my belt, wrestling them dungarees over my hips. Boy, that’s a terror you’ll just never know. No man will. And no girl should. Turns my stomach even today, God knows how long on, to think on Jimmy Burns and how close he come to it.
But, of course, you was asking about the Green Man.
See, right then is when everything stopped. Jimmy stopped grabbing and pushing his hips into mine. Walker stopped his cussing. And in their stead, I remember some loud crash booming through that barn and the sound of splitting timbers mixed with cursing and screams. I felt Jimmy leaning into me, his arms fumbling at his own belt, letting me alone as he struggled for his gun.
And that’s when I saw him. The Green Man, I mean. My eyes was all foggy and tear-soaked but I could still make out his tall, slender figure just fine in that open barn doorway. His long arm holding Walker’s pudgy body two full feet off the dirt. Was a right beautiful thing.
I cried out but my words was muffled by all that blood filling my mouth. Jimmy heard me, though. Swung his elbow into my bare belly, knocking the wind right out of me, upturning my world all over again. Was a sight worse than when he punched me, too. Stars all flashing like powder before my eyes and the sounds of that barn all drowned by the rush of blood in my ears. The crushing volume of my own heart, if you believe that.
Shit, even them gunshots sounded far off. Jimmy’s elbow, braced against my belly, stabbed into my ribs with every shot he squeezed off. And even while my senses was all fouled up, I could still hear the Green Man’s roaring—that same haunted, other-worldly screaming I’d heard echoing across the yard just moments before. And damn if that sound wasn’t rushing through that dark toward me—right damn over me, even! I swear, through eyes squeezed all tight from pain, I saw his long, dim shape fly like some avenging sprit right across me—like some answered prayer—arms and legs all moving like an animal’s, some billowing duster blocking out the light from outside. And all of a sudden, Jimmy was gone. Ripped off me and cast beside. His fingers had done clutched at me for the last time.
Then silence. Shit, sudden as it begun, was all kinds of quiet. No heavy breathing in my ears, no tearing fabric, no curses. No inhuman roar. Just quiet like the damn Earth was new.
I remember, just lay there for a spell, right where Jimmy left me. Just watching ropes and hay hooks swinging from them barn rafters. Shock, I guess they call it. Bill used to call it sleeping. But that silence was unnerving, it was, and Jimmy had showed himself to be a real curly wolf, if you take my meaning. So when my wits come back, God, panic took me. I scrambled to pull my clothes back on with no thinking for all that stabbing hay I swept up into my jeans. Was a right terrible mess, I was. My tits was all sore from Jimmy’s handling, my thighs all bruised from his knees, my face all wet from his licking and my tears and blood, too. But I barely had time to wipe them tears away and close my torn flannel before I heard voices in the dark behind me.
Quick as shit, I dropped back into the hay, thinking to hide, I guess. And looking across the dark of that barn, I saw two men locked together in some empty stall.
Now, Jimmy, he stood pinned, a tack peg wet with blood sticking right out through his shoulder. The Green Man stood over him—a towering figure in that long gray duster, his face all hid by shadow and the wide brim of a worn-out Stetson. His hand around Jimmy’s throat, them long green fingers pointing that boy’s face up into his.
Was then I heard Jimmy mutter through gritted teeth, “But we killed you . . .”
The Green Man pressed in real close. So close Jimmy’s face was shrouded in that same shadow what hid his own.
“Where is it?” the Green Man asked him in a low, raspy tone. Now I can’t quite speak same as he done. Or so well. No sir, I can only tell it with the words God gave me. But take my word, that Green Man’s voice was a right dry thing. Rough like them stones what push up them Tetons. Like the growl of boots stepped in gravel. And, God, I didn’t know him from Adam, yet, but I could just feel the rage in that voice. I don’t think any of us—me, Jimmy, Jeb Boone, anybody in Piedmont that day—had any notion of what kind of passenger we woke up. But we’d find out soon enough. Goddamnit, we would. Not before half the town had gone up the flume but we’d know.
Point is, Jimmy didn’t know who he was dealing with. “I don’t know what you’re talking—” I heard him start, his voice all shaking. But the Green Man just tore him off that tack peg easy as a man might toss a cut of meat. Threw him clear across the barn, he did. And that boy fell crumpled to the dirt, howling. That’s when Jimmy and I both saw Walker, cold as a wagon tire, lying right there in the middle of the barn where the Green Man must’ve left him.
Pained as he looked, Jimmy still managed to scramble over to Walker’s fat body, fumbling for the iron strapped to his bulging waist. Well, I got ready to move. If Jimmy started shooting I wasn’t keen on hanging around and risking him finishing what he done started before that Green Man showed up.
But when I saw that green fella walk out of that shadowed stall, his breathing all hard and his fingers all curled in anger, well, I kept myself low. I’ll never forget, when he stepped into the light, I saw them long bug stalks reaching up from his head through slits in his Stetson, bent forward like the feelers on a locust. And I saw his eyes, black dreadful eyes large as coffee cups, set like pools of oil against his rough green skin. Was a space man, he was, understand? Tall and lean and green and terrible. Was magnificent.
Jimmy lifted Walker’s gun but the Green Man was fast as a colt, snatching it away by the barrel. I guess was then what Jimmy really saw The Green Man for the first time. I’ve never seen a boy’s face go so white so fast.
“You ain’t Harthra . . .” I remember him whispering.
The Green Man stood over him, thin lips pulling back over silver teeth.
“Where is it?” he growled.
Jimmy shook his head and cried. I think, by then, he’d figured how this was going to end. Maybe I didn’t know yet but, looking back, I reckon Jimmy did.
“Where?” the Green Man screamed, his voice punching Jimmy to the floor—and me back into the hay—like a goddamn blow. If you’ve never heard a Green Man use his voice like that, well, it’s hard to rightly explain. But you don’t ever want to hear it. Not ever. My mind reeled with pain at the sound of it.
But bad as it was, that scream was worse for Jimmy. He was its target, see? And he just shook in terror, his back all pressed up against Walker’s body. And while he done cowered, the Green Man towered over him, taking his sweet time turning Walker’s gun around and pointing that barrel at Jimmy’s shivering shape.
Now, I didn’t know him yet. Didn’t know what kind of man he was. But it was clear he wasn’t like Harthra. I scrambled to my feet wanting to run but unable to step away. And when I moved, I saw that Green Man’s stalks twitch, following me like Harthra’s used to do. He turned to face me, that gun still held on Jimmy. And with no backwards glance, he come my way, them black eyes drilling all deep into me.
My heart just about turned to stone, it did. I clutched my shirt tight and watched him come. Reckon I wanted to run but wasn’t a bit of me what could move under that stare of his.
“You know who did this?” Those were the first words he ever said to me. “You know who did this?” his voice booming, ringing in my ears and my head. “You know who killed these men?” he asked, pointing a shaking hand out that barn door at the dusty yard outside.
I backed against a beam, affrighted not by his strangeness, I reckon, but, well, by his violence. “I ain’t never seen one of your kind do that to a man,” I told him, thinking of the way he held up Walker in the doorway. The way he threw Jimmy across the barn.
He looked down at me, his gaze so goddamn cold. “Do you know who did this?” he asked again, his voice softer but somehow more menacing for it.
“I do,” I told him, barely whispering.
He nodded and looked out through them open barn doors. In that harsh sunlight, I could see he was looking at the stilled boot of a man shot dead, his body lying out of sight. When I looked back at him, though, that Green Man was holding Walker’s gun toward me, its peeling wooden handle just inches from my hand. Without thinking, I let slip my loose shirt and took that gun from him, that pistol stock all cold and rough. I can almost feel it now, thinking on it.
The Green Man looked over his shoulder at Jimmy, still crumpled on the ground, then back at me.
“Come outside,” he said, “when you’re through.”
When I was through? Shit, he had such a calm way of talking about such things. About beefing a man. But, like I said, was just a girl. Ain’t never killed nobody before. I stared down at that gun, so fixed on it I didn’t even notice the Green Man leaving. How long I stared at that revolving chamber, that horsetail pin, and that long, long barrel, I don’t know. But after a spell I cupped my left palm under that handle and lifted it, tilting that barrel up from the ground toward Jimmy.
Now, Jimmy’s wits was dulled, see, by that scream the Green Man put on him. But his tears was slowing and his limbs stopped all their shaking. Blood dripped from his shoulder, urine from his chaps. Was all a mess, I tell you. All come a cropper. But when he saw me looking down that long barrel at him, my shaking hands waving that sight across his torso, belly, and groin, well, Jimmy caught a breath quick. He stretched out a hand toward me, shielding himself with the same palm I’d nearly bit in two. Was then I let my finger slip around that trigger. Was rigid as a damn railroad track.
“Martha Jane,” I remember Jimmy sputtering, “It wasn’t nothing to do with you, now. Was about Mister Harthra. About that flying engine.”
I clenched my teeth and tried to steady that gun with both hands. I ain’t never held a revolver before, see? And was a sight shorter than my squirrel gun. But I knew I could sink a bullet into him. Shit, I could pump half-a-dozen rounds into him before he hit the floor. And I wanted to. I wanted to make him hurt so fucking bad. He helped kill Harthra and the boys. He’d come back, on the prod, looking to do me worse. But still that trigger felt heavy, welded in place.
Jimmy rose to his feet and backed away, stepping over Walker’s body without looking down, feeling behind him for escape. But he never took his eyes off me. I think if he had, I could’ve shot him.
“Martha, I’m sorry, now.” he told me.
“Shut up,” I whispered, every bruise and cut he left on me throbbing. I thought to pull that trigger. I really did. To scatter his blood as he would’ve scattered mine. But my finger just couldn’t move that thin trigger. I wasn’t like the Green Man. Wasn’t no killer. Not yet.
“Martha—” he started.
“Shut up!” I yelled. Oh, shame added some steel to my voice, to be sure. And some fresh tears to my cheeks, too. That gun shook so wild—like I were aiming from horseback.
Jimmy’s hand wrapped around the edge of a barn door and, without a word, he slipped away. I just held the gun on the opening he left behind, steadying the barrel and tightening my grip. I swear, was right then I could feel that trigger give under my touch. But he was gone. I dropped my arms, the gun into the hay. Maybe never been more Martha then right then, letting the man what made to rape me escape my sights.
Reckon I stood there in a daze for some long spell, holding my torn shirt across my chest and taking account of the barn around me. The bloody tack hook, the splintered wood. Walker’s body in the middle of the floor. My blood in the hay at my feet. Felt like the last half-hour happened to someone else. That Jimmy done chased some other girl across that bloodied yard. That some other girl had tripped across the bodies of her friends before Jimmy finally caught her and dragged her into the barn. That another girl had nearly been raped in a half-eaten pile of hay before some green space man snatched off her attacker. But wasn’t some other girl, was it? Was Martha Jane Canary. Was me. And it’s a shame to admit it, still.
When I finally stepped outside, into the light, I saw the Green Man standing on the roof of Harthra’s ranch, a short little scope held to his eye. When he saw me, he stepped to the edge of the shingles and dropped to the ground easy as a cat might drop from a table. But he didn’t really look at me. Didn’t even look at the dozen bodies strewn around the yard, none, neither. Them black eyes just bulged toward them brown hills behind me, watching. God, he was always watching.
He didn’t come toward me none, neither. Just walked up to his horse. Now, that queer thing might be worth a whole story in your paper by its own goddamn self, I tell you. But right then, it just stood motionless at the porch steps, waiting, its harness dangling in the breeze.
“I didn’t hear no shot,” the Green Man said to me.
I couldn’t answer him. Just looked away, afraid to see my bruised and swollen face reflected in them large dark eyes of his.
Well, the Green Man took a long rifle out from under his saddle. A magnificent Henry—perhaps I’ll show it to you later. I got it in back. Its brass receiver so well worked and blinding in the high sun. Anyways, his eyes were fixed on the hills, see? And I watched him clip that short little scope to the top of that receiver and, with a flick of his wrist, lever in a round. And when he lifted the stock to his shoulder—against this polished patch of hide sewn into his duster, there—that little scope reached out and cupped his wide eye all around. I swear, it’s like no goddamn gun you’ve ever seen.
Well, I turned and straight away found the Green Man’s quarry. Was Jimmy running, stumbling through them tall grasses toward Piedmont.
“Wait—” I said. I still don’t know why.
But a shot cracked the air, cutting me right off. Jimmy snapped sidewise and fell out of sight.
“Wait!” I screamed again. But still I didn’t step toward the Green Man, none. I didn’t really try to stop him.
But Jimmy, he wasn’t dead. He started to stand and run, hands clutching at his punctured side. Was then a second shot rang out. And a third. Bang! Bang! Was like a dream, it was—one of them dreams where you can’t move or scream, understand? I just stood there, looking through someone else’s eyes, as Jimmy’s body spun from a blow to his shoulder before his head broke open and he vanished into the high grass. Still there, for all I know. Just bones, burned and bleached.
And suddenly I could move again. I swung around and punched at the Green Man. Them stalks twitching as he caught my fist in his. First time I ever touched him, that.
“Why?” I cried, unsure why I was even upset. Unsure why I hadn’t shot Jimmy my own damn self.
He looked at me for a long minute, holding my small fist in his. He had such a way of saying nothing that said so much.
“You’re young, yet,” he told me, “so I’ll forgive you that outburst.”
He threw my hand back at me, about spinning me around to the ground in doing, and pointed toward them hills and them tall grasses, saying, “Don’t you ever let a man do that to you and live. You understand me, girl?”
I hung my head. I was spent.
“You understand me?” he kept on, his voice ringing in my head.
I nodded, my eyes locked on that brass receiver of his rifle. See, he taught me something then. Something I’ve never forgotten. If Bill was still around, he’d tell you. I ain’t never forgot it.
“Best you kill him yourself, next time,” the Green Man grumbled as he turned away from me, slipping that long rifle back under his saddle. “Can’t count on no man to rescue you."