The Hot Country III: Afterthoughts
by Gemma Files

So now they are kings in Hell, he and Bill the Butcher--a position Priest Vallon finds, increasingly, far too comfortable to occupy for his own moral liking. Just like he knows it's also probably a sin to find the Butcher beautiful, 'specially the wake of all that's passed: Here, there, above or below. So terrible inappropriate, at the very, very least.

Though it can't be denied that the former serpent of Paradise Square in full display is a sinister and glorious sight indeed, and only all the more so whenever he twines his lithe coils around you, strains and sweats and screams his release in your ear with metaphorical fangs sunk deep--passion back-seeping like poison, impossible to check, making the both of yez equal drunk as lords or fools.

One more weapon in a belt-full, discovered late and used without art, perhaps without even meaning to. Yet it's sunk deep, nevertheless--right to its hilt and out the other side, tuning the Priest all at once to a whole fresh spectrum of Bill-ness: Elegant bones crossed with a hooligan glare, the squint unnecessary now yet lingering on anyroad as a longtime tic of emphasis. Or to distract, as though subtly embarassed, from the startling, lash-sleek slope of both eyes used in tandem once more; bright brown-green-grey slits set narrowed, under fierce brows, against the Hot Country's sleepless sun.

In sixteen whole years of waiting, the Priest never remembers his dreams of vengeance varying before the Butcher finally made his long-sought appearance down the back of that field past the longhouse door--Stars 'n' Stripes-wrapped as ever, red down one side from the spray of his own death-blow, ears still a-ring with the sound of the Five Points' destruction. Never remembers thinking much at all, in fact, from one rout of perpetual man-killing motion to the next, other than:

Maybe sometime soon, maybe later, but he WILL come, at last...son-of-a-whore won't die in his bed, not if he can help it. And when he does, I'll put that rat-nosed Yankee bastard on his back for sure.

And so he has, so he does. Almost every "night", like Satan's own clockwork.

But Christ alone knows this certainly isn't how he saw his dreams being fulfilled, when first he put a name to 'em.

The Good Book says God forgives us our trespasses if we'll promise t'do the same, for which we should all of us be mightily thankful. But there's no law on earth says the Priest has to forgive the Butcher for all he's done, though this ain't earth and though he already has--the parts to do direct with him, anyroad. It's the parts touching Amsterdam which are harder by far to let slide, them that deformed the child's life and set him on the same vengeful path his father trod; those are the ones the Priest can't help chewing over still, even in the very thick of things. Making him drive Bill and himself all the harder, to their mutual, mock-penitential pain and pleasure.

Still, it's not like anyone ever put a pike to the Priest's throat and made him fight, did they? He knew exactly what the consequences might be each time he stepped out with cross and sword in hand, same as Bill must have every time he sharpened and loaded his cutlery.

So yes, sometimes fucking the Butcher feels like revenge, like punishment, like retribution come straight from God's lips t'the Priest's ears, and further. But sometimes, just as often, it feels like only what it is--the recreation of two warriors condemned to spend eternity doing to boredom everything they both would have claimed they liked best when still alive, as fine and fierce and dreadful as any battlefield hoy. No quarter, no truce, just this this slam of hips and scrabble of nails, this tearing at the mouth and groin, writhing and snarling 'till they each find their moment of ecstasy. Making Bill respond, then laughing at how vile he always curses that same response; teaching Bill (by example, more than anything else) the places to push equal hard at on him, then gasping at how damnable right it feels, whenever he does.

The Priest is not a priest, and well aware of that same fact, for all he may have studied hard to affect a Godly demeanour. But he finds he knows his own lack of sanctification most distinctly while riding this swell of rageful admiration which periodically glues the two of 'em both together in such a Devilish inventive bevy of poses: Bill on top, humping the Priest's hip, his right hand's cleaver-callus stroking out a hot little spurt of not-quite-spend each time he worries at the Priest's lip and milks him extra hard; Priest on top, levering Bill up on his knees so's he can take him from behind, thrust the edge of one hand between those sharp teeth and shake him 'till the points of his moustache unravel.

Or like it was just that last morning, before Bill's current injury: Waking face-to-face and already grappling mildly, both still half-asleep, then--once the Priest realized exactly what they was about--flipping and pinning Bill easily before licking a hot stripe down the side of his neck to soothe him, like some mother cat working her young one's nape. Only to have Bill twist 'round at the feel of it, thought-quick, to bite the Priest's tongue to its root in turn--light enough to ache and pull rather than deep enough to wound, but hard and fast and snappish nonetheless.

Like lightning in a bottle, bees in a jar; like a rock-back, teeth-breaking punch to the jaw followed by a roll between cool silk sheets; like taking a new-woke bear to your bed, then teasing him with his pick of meat or honey. Both best and worst together at once, like everything else William Cutting ever does or did, that anger-drunk Orangeman meat-cutter.

Awake and aware, Bill falls back on a whole raft of behaviors designed to deform him into some fearful spectacle--the walk, the growl, the pugnacious forward jut of the jaw, that sidelong cock of the head which makes his nose hook like a hawk's beak. Asleep, though...

Catch him asleep, as now, and the tension which drives him finally ebbs--his lips relax, even half-part, invitingly. A transformation so startling it's well worth the staying up just to witness it, for only such a stealthy feat of observation will usually reveal the Butcher at complete rest. Yet that's been far more the norm than the exception, since Bill took the wound he's recuperating from presently.

Because: Time does march on, in the mortal lands they've left if not here, and the warriors sent to continue their eternal battle in the Hot Country bring stranger and stranger weapons with 'em as the years turn their seasonless cycle. From the clumsy black-powder pistols Vallon remembers to those deadlier shells and rifles that were amongst the last things Bill saw used on his Natives, not to mention even more arcane devices--black angular handcannons and Hellfire-spouting long guns, strafing steaming rivers of lead.

You can take any weapon you can carry with you--Priest's own theory is that you arrive with the weapon meant most to you in life, or the one you were wielding when you got cut down. So now-a-times the newest gladiators come bearing these black and green, insectile, oil-smelling machines with small and lethal balls stacked neat and careful in metal boxes, and for a few days after they arrive they rule the battlefield; burst after burst of white heat, scattering snow and flesh alike.

But you can't bring more than you can carry, and not even these guns can keep a man down permanent, seeing how every single soul in the longhouse has already paid that price. So once you're out of missiles, you'll just have to get in close and club your enemies t'death with the stocks, like everybody else.

Lately, Priest's become the one gets to sit these boyos down and explain the ins and outs of suchlike laws to 'em, almost always while Bill taps his heel and fumes nearby. "Don't minister to them nimenogs," he growls, uncaring who hears. "Let 'em figure it out their ownselves, just like we had to."

"Why shouldn't I do 'em the favor, seein' I can? Perhaps that's the point." As Bill flips his hand, impatiently: "And don't do that, will yeh? Yeh know how it annoys me when I'm tryin' t'think--"

A nasty grin. "Yeah, sure. So stop me."

But it was one of these same guns which did that trick and laid the Butcher low at last, not so very long back: Blew him field-wise with his guts flapping and perforated, the raw seeping yellow of his spine shocking in the red-black of the cratered wound; was the Priest who grabbed him just before he hit, shouldered him and dragged him off still shrieking, limbs all aflop in their sockets. The poor Tommie bastard who'd done it could barely keep his dinner down at the sight. Now he cuts and runs whenever he sees the Priest coming, for which the Priest don't blame him--no doubt dreading (rightly, in Bill's case, when the Butcher gains his feet once more) the retribution that awaits. Priest'd probably do the same, in his place.

Or not.

At any rate, that's why they're convalescing together now, with Bill finally lucid after a day and night of delirium. And Priest can't recall the last time he ever had to tend to someone this helpless--not since Eileen's fever on the coffin-ship, probably, for Amsterdam was a tough little fellow, never sick for longer than a day or so. But Bill can't even move his legs: Priest has to change bedpans, to wash away his wounds' constant seepage, to feed him food from downstairs in tiny-sliced chunks, since whatever entity provides the meals here has apparently never heard of soup.

As Bill mutters and growls and bites down on sounds he won't admit are of pain, meanwhile, Priest struggles with a surprising but near impossible-to-brook impulse to play silly pet-games with a man once the acknowledged terror of old New York: Wash and comb through that nasty plastered-down mane of his, or strip those overworked battle-shoes away and set 'em to dry in the corner while his fingers knead the horn-hard soles of Bill's narrow feet. Or even--if he protests at the Priest's handling--prop him up like a doll in his lap and stroke him all over while he still can't do anything to stop it, feeling him literally vibrate with annoyance...

But: "It itches," Bill complains, apropos of nothing much. And: "That'd be the sensation comin' back," the Priest replies. "Can yeh still not move?"

"Do I look like I can move, you dumb Mick fuck? Woodenhead Popish Paddy son of a..."

To which the Priest just nods, all apparent sweet reason--then slams Bill down with a spread hand to the chest, suddenly moustache-to-moustache with him. And tells him, dangerously quiet:

"Butcher, I've let yeh rave thus far on account of your wounds, but you're surely the sort of cripple would try even a saint's patience. So understand me, now: If ever yeh take a mind to call me Mick, harp or mother-whorin' Irish nigger but one more time, I'll leave yeh lay in your own bloody stink t'starve."

"I'll be up sooner'n that--"

"Oh, I've no doubt. But yeh'll feel poorly 'till you are, I promise yeh, and you'll bear that alone if yeh don't give me your word on what I just said. Do you take my meaning?" As Bill stares at him: "Do yeh?"

"Yeah." A pause. "So what the hell do you want from me, anyroad?"

"For you t'hold your damn tongue for once in your life, yeh proud devil. Just lie there and be grateful yeh have anyone at all who still cares if yeh live or die..."

That's a misspeaking, though, isn't it? Being how they're neither of them doing either, not exactly.

Bill sighs, harsh, like wind leaving a cut sail. If rage was a fuel, the Priest often thinks, this one man could usually light the world afire; now he's glum, dowsed, sunk in a mire of impatient idleness. So unnatural a state, at least for Bill, that it half-makes the Priest ache just to witness it.

"Self-restraint can bring its own recompense, or so's I've heard," he offers, stroking the Butcher's stomach lightly. "D'yeh feel that?"


Down along one splayed thigh: "How 'bout now?"

"...not really."

The Priest smiles: Oh no? Then why're yeh quaking so, 'specially since I'm touchin' the parts yeh usually most like me to?

And: "'Difficult bloody creature'," he muses, aloud. "That's what I called yeh and that's what yeh are, Bill Cutting, no matter the circumstances. Difficult, contentious, ill-mannered..."

"My manners suit my company."

"Then yeh should be more careful on the company yeh keep. Don't you think?"

Bill makes some stifled sound, arching; doesn't answer, in any event. Doesn't have to.


No denying it, except by habit: This pattern they've fallen into mimics a sort of profane domesticity, Vallon supposes. But it's never been no romance, this arrangement between Priest and Butcher, and nothing of it but the very first act's ever yet been played out in public. Which isn't surprisng, really; Bill, so nice about his own dignity, has always been equal quick to extend the favor to any he respects, let alone...

...but is there an end to that statement, truly? None the Priest's fully decided on, even now...

Whenever they roam the battlefield or take their places at the longhouse tables, therefore, there's never a repeat of that one fateful night's display--no troth-plighting, no open love-makery down where the other gladiators could catch 'em at it. Just Bill, blade-slim and upright, strutting along beside the Priest with his tool-belt all a-bristle while the Priest's leather coat swings likewise open, displaying the throat-piece's reflected glare to best possible advantage.

"Are those two...?" The Priest recalls hearing one new arrival whisper as they passed by, sometime last--week? And another, older resident whispering back, hot on his heels: "We don't talk about that, fool. Not here or now, not in that one's ear-shot--"

Not here, not now, not never. With "that one" being Bill, of course, who most landed Hot Country immigrants remember mainly for the way he once near-severed a former Chichester's head from its stem for the crime of offhandedly calling him "Vallon's doxy, that rat-nose New York catamite" without first checking to see whether or no the Butcher might still be in range to listen. Took the eedjit a month to heal up even with two of the longhouse maidens holding his idea-pan back on for him, and still Bill just sat there staring at him most've the whole time, smiling his top-teeth-only smile like it was the afterlife's best joke.

So: No scandal, just an open secret which ain't even much of one, not when everyone in the longhouse knows how they now share the Priest's bed and take on all comers as a team--knives, cleaver, sword and cross moving almost in time, to some murderous unseen music. The Priest's become the wall Bill sets his back to most-times, one way or the other, and discovers himself quite pitiful happy to be so, too.

Which frankly begins to make him fear to know what that might have to say about him, in the final weigh-up.

Naturally, Monk McGinn's been the only one thus far with sand enough to comment, finally--albeit sidelong, and only to the Priest. Asking him, quiet--a few days, or maybe weeks earlier--as they watched the sun go down together:

"Did yez ever think things'd end up this way, truly? Back when yeh had him laid t'waste in the street outside his shop, and shamed him in front of the whole of the Five Points..."

"No, by Jesus. But--"

Here the Priest remembers himself shrugging, helpless to articulate the way he and Bill's dangerous liaison could seem so simultaneously both utterly natural and utterly un-. Then watching Monk nod in reply, commenting--

"He does have that effect, aye. Did on your Amsterdam, too--though not to quite the same,, that I know of."

(And thank Christ for that.)

But the Priest has to admit he can see the parallels, however much of a bad taste they may leave in his mental mouth. Bill likes a fight, preferably fair; likes an equal, a chance to be overpowered, undone. God knows, the Priest learns that fact anew almost every night.

"Like does call to like, in my experience," Monk pointed out, absently. Then rambled away just as Bill stepped back out the longhouse door, with a jaunty wave and a smile to match: Good even t'yeh, Bill!

Bill scowled after him, suspicion in every raised hackle. "Youse two looked cozy," he said, finally.

"Don't be a fool."

"I ain't. Just suspect that fat fuck been tellin' tales; am I wrong?" The Priest shook his head, slightly. "'Bout me, right?"

"Concerning you, yes. And--Amsterdam."

A pause. Vallon could see Bill considering his next words carefully, again not something the Butcher often did--or let people catch him at, anyroad.

"Your son was like family to me," he said, at last, "and that's the Holy Lord Almighty's truth. My right arm, pick of the litter, like the son I never had--"

Priest nodded. Thinking: As opposed t'the "daughter" yeh took to your bed, I garner...

"--but than again, I never knew him long when he wasn't lyin' all the Goddamned time."

"Well, and what did yeh expect, Bill? Every boy loves his father--"

But Bill'd have to take his word for that, though, wouldn't he? Which is why he gave him the narrowed eye, surprisingly restrained, before answering, eventually:

"I expected to die in battle, like a man. Hoped to, anyroad. And I guess I got Amsterdam to thank for that, or you. Or--"


True enough, the Priest remembers thinking--and thinks still tonight, lying here next to Bill, with the dying fire casting a warm flicker over them both. Going on to speculate, as he has on other occasions, how much as Bill misses his Jenny, he must also sometimes cast a fond thought after Amsterdam--the version he knew, at least. Just as Priest still yearns after his Eileen (though it ain't like he never flirts with the longhouse maidens, all the same, in between his bouts with the Butcher) and Amsterdam as well, the adult he never got to know. The tiny boy he failed to protect from the snares and wickedness of that same Devil who now shares his bed, and lived long enough to know his own child better than Priest ever will.

And it's almost like Bill's reading his mind, for he chimes in, hoarsely:

"What Monk said, that think I was sportin' with Amsterdam, that it, 'fore I knew who the whelp really belonged to? Like I couldn't have all the cunny I wanted, so's I had to foul my own bed and pad it out with some Mick brat I picked up from the gutter?"

An admonishing cuff, only half-strength, to the back of Bill's head. "What'd I say about usin' that name, yeh daft Yankee fool?"

"Screw you, Vallon. All's I'm sayin'--look, I loved Jenny dear, but she wasn't never my true blood--"

"No more than was my Amsterdam, it comes t'that."

"No, and no more'n I ever claimed he was. But..." Bill heaves himself up, grimacing against the burn of it, as he presses his fist to the latest of Priest's dressings. "Look," he repeats, slow and exact, like he wants no possibility of misunderstanding. "You can think all the other ills on me you want to, 'cause Christ knows I still got debts yet t'pay. But I never--not this, not before, not with no other man, not never. Just here, just with you."

Laying his free hand on the Priest's wrist and digging in with those always-dirty nails; his split brow crooks like a caterpillar thrown on the fire, scar bracketting a stare which brooks no disbelief--an open challenge wrapped 'round an unspoken plea, only slightly spoiled when he lets go and falls back, exhausted. Snapping--

"So believe me or not, 'cause I rightwise don't give a tuppenny fuck what you think, you big bastard."

Mysteries within mysteries. Bill's prickly by nature, constantly provocative; the more he shows of himself, the more he wants to see in return. Even if he has to tear it from you, in bloody strips.

Not to mention how, as the Priest's slowly re-learned, the bond between father and son remains something both unimaginably sacred yet utterly unintelligible, in Bill's own Not-So-Good Book. Honor thy father and mother, aye--that's one of those few things Bill escaped the 'formatory having memorized, for sure. But for Bill, "honor" means hating what you think your Pa--an emblematic representation of what all true Americans and fathers should be (the kind of men who'll die for their principles, without ever stopping to wonder whether or no those principles are ones it makes sense to live with)--and Ma might have wanted you to hate without thought, without pause, without question. And with both his parents dead and gone so awful long since, his chances of ever amending that particular Scripture are slim at best. Even now.

Still, the Priest can't be so much of a hypocrite as to claim his impulses are always the better of Bill's: They're uncivilized, ungovernable bastards both in many ways, for all he has the current benefit of sixteen more years' worth of post-mortem perspective. Temper calls to temper just as well as like to like, or better.

"Who says I don't believe it? My own God knows I'm most-times bendin' over backwards to try an' think right by yeh, yeh intractable American son-of-a-bitch..."

"What in fuck's name for? Do I ask you to? You fool yourself I'd ever do the same, given opportunity? I ain't that good, Priest: Never was, never will be."

"You're better than yeh t'ink." Now it's Priest's turn to sigh. "And besides...if I'd not accepted your challenge in the first place, I'd maybe yet be up top with Amsterdam myself, givin' him the support and guidance he needs. Might even have found some way t'broach that gap 'tween Rabbits and Natives, if I'd only not let my will to see you dead run away wi' me..."

Bill snorts. "Not too like, I had anything to say on it." Then gruffly: "Don't never sell yourself short for doin' what had to be done--you figured right, the only way you could figure. Made your stand, which is more'n you can say for most. Held fast against the rising of the tide."

"Did I?"

"I was there, wasn't I?"

"There's a wealth of irony in that sentence, yeh must know."

Bill turns over, fist still fast to his side, rolling half the covers with him as he does so. "You think too much, Priest," he says, muffled.

"And you don't think at all, most-times..."

Another snort, plus an obscene, one-handed gesture. "Go to Hell," the Butcher instructs. Adding: "There's some irony for ya, you want it."

To which the Priest can only nod again, in silent agreement. And turn the other way.


The Priest dreams sometimes--muses, more like--on how dearly he'd love to show Bill the hills where he was born, the stone crofter's hut his family lived and died in. Those green hills, all that blue, blue sky. A perfected version of his memories, with never a shadow of Famine or disease to trouble it.

Bill'd hate it, though, as the Priest well knows. He'd stand there all a-tremble, knives out in an instant, like some rat-killing dog turned from its kennel; bare his top teeth, and not in that feral smile he sometimes affects. No filth, no people, no enemies to arm himself against...the space and freedom of it would scare him to the bone, and that fear would turn to rage, to hatred. He'd strike out against himself, if he couldn't get to no one else in time.

You'd have to bridle him, sure, a voice whispers, inside his head--still and small, but can it really be God's? Maybe even break him, just to make him look it face-on. And he'd never thank you after, not unless you MADE him. But--

Peace on the Butcher's face, for more than a fleeting minute or an hour asleep, sprawled like a corpse by the Priest's side--aye, there's a prospect to fantasize over. Not all knotted in on himself like he is now, fever-burning with the rage of his own blood, chewing at his moustache and making the occasional fitful noise like a fox run aground. Shying from the lightest touch with a snap and a snarl, yet still curling himself--automatically--into the warmth of the Priest's body, like some hibernating beast burrowing from unwelcome winter light...

Oh, my poor William. Did yeh really think you'd escape judgement?

(You're not exactly the hand of retribution, though, are you, Joyce me lad? Where's your wings, your halo? Who was it, exactly, ever gave you the keys to the Garden and leave to bruise your heel on the Butcher's head, like he really was that old dragon mentioned in Revelations?)

Bill, who'd spit full in the Priest's face if he knew he was even considering offering him sympathy. Bill, who's never known what it is to be loved unreservedly; Bill, who only knows how to give love like a challenge, a dare, a curse. To inflict his fierce affection on others, and watch it eat 'em away like acid into whatever shapes he chooses to see 'em in...

The Priest knows he could never do like-a-wise to Bill, though, which he supposes is the difference between 'em--one, at least. Of perhaps not so many as he might like to think.

On the coffin-ship from Kerry, after the real priest died and all the other Irish begged him to assume the old man's duties...yes, he's just about certain, now, that must have been when he began to incur the debt which laid him next to his worst mortal enemy for what may yet be all eternity. Sitting there stone-struck with Amsterdam on his hip, just a squalling baby back then, and feeling some treacherous part of him rise up in response to the women pouring dust on their heads in grief, keening and wailing over and over at him:

Ye must, ye must, or we're doomed and damned for sure. Keep our souls safe t'Amerikay, for Our Lord's own love; give us the Holy Virgin's blessing, hear our cries an' make us feel safe, Misther Vallon...

Because you're big, and strong, and calm. Because you speak soft and swing a heavy fist. Because we've all seen you pray often enough, out loud and volubly, 'specially when they dropped your Eileen over the side wrapped only in her shawl and weighted down with broken bricks. Because you can.

And it's selfless, isn't it? Which should count in your favor, seeing how you might have things to pay for, things to expend and amend. did, then, right enough.

Do still, come to think.

Cure the lame and the halt, heal the half-blind, redeem the desperate. Tell yourself, tell him: I swear by the Virgin I can make you over, William, yez'll only let me.

Make you better. Make you whole.

Make you God's, as well as mine.

Hubris, that's what it is--yet another ancient Greek temptation, like so much else. A burning sense of his own stolen office still infusing everything he does.

Next thing yeh know, yeh'll be sayin' mass and takin' confession, the voice whispers. Aye, and why not? Start with the Butcher's, he'll...sit still for it.

The idea that people used to listen to him because they loved and respected him, or at least knew he had their best interests at heart--Jesus, but Bill would laugh out loud at that one, gutteral as some tin wind-up dog's rusted bark. Does, when Priest's finally fool enough to poke his shoulder and ask him, now the fire's burned away almsot to ask and they don't have to look at each other's faces.

"They listened 'cause they was afraid of you, Priest--'cause you were big enough to beat hell out of 'em if they didn't, and mean enough to do it even if they did. And for superstition, too, 'cause you wore the Pope's mark; not like you was entitled to, really, but all the same. Fools trust a man who dresses 'bove himself, and them."

"Are yeh implying my faith is false?" Soft, that, and dangerous; more than he expects himself, in ways both disturbing and satisfying.

"Nope. Just that you ain't never gonna put the fear of no Popish God in me, no matter how many times I end up on bottom of this particular rowdy-dow."

"You do fear Him, though, like one of your own knives--for what he might do, not what he does. Wouldn't cut towards yerself now, would you?"

"That's practicality."

"That's fear, and well-founded."

"Yeah, well." Bill turns his face away and continues, a disembodied voice in the half-dark. "That's what preserves the order of things, ain't it? So you can debate this-all to the wall, you want to: I'm dead and I'm damned, and I'm goin' back to sleep."

"What if we're not, though?"



"Jesus, think we'd be anywheres near each other, you 'n' me, if we wasn't?"

Well. There is that.

"This could be Purgatory, Bill, that's all I'm sayin'. And they do say Purgatory's the one yez can get out of, eventually, if yeh only try hard enough..."

"Monk says that," Bill corrects, slow and low, all his long lines already half-lax with exhaustion. After which he gives a sigh, and he's gone again--beyond recall, leaving Priest with nothing but the pretty rind of him to hug, unsatisfied.

Thinking: So this's my penance, like. Your redemption, my expiation. Blood and tribulation.

But: Say he woke Bill again, just rolled him over and pushed inside without a by-your-leave, while he's still limp with dreaming--would the Butcher spit and snap at him, like usual? Or would he simply accept it as his due, his doom, their mutual fate re-proven in flesh? This tiny window out of Hell, opening intermittently on somewhere far hotter: The lovely scald of touching each other, of pressing on this bruise they're driven to map over and over. With the both of 'em knowing in their hearts they'll never feel its like with anyone else, not never, never again.

Whenever he and Bill start to grate on each other hard enough to cause real wounds, Bill will always be the one to absent himself--stalk off with a longhouse wench or two on either arm, or go a-courting through that increasing clump of female gladiators. Even had a brief fling with Hell-Cat Maggie once upon a time, right at the start of her Hot Country tenure, before slipping back into the Priest's bed with his lips all puffy and scratches down his spine, still smelling faintly of her.

"That mort's a workout," he announced, grinning. And: "You're a sick, sick man, Bill Cutting," the Priest'd replied, glowering.

"Aw, now. You ain't jealous, I hope."

With some heat: "That'd be a cold day in..."


But they do return to each other, again and again--increasingly, because they're just not comfortable without each other at close hand to grapple with. And the Priest can only suppose that's part of Hell: Doing the same thing over and over for all eternity, with no variation or respite. This hunger which never seems to dim, however it's indulged--tongue on tongue, teeth on skin, and both their scents mingling slow into one pervasive musk. Like two top predators rutting for entertainment, if not advantage.

Tracing each other's scars with their mouths, teeth out, just because they both like the taste of blood so much.


The Priest still prays to St. Michael Archangel to protect him in this battle, though only--like now--when he's certain Bill is fast asleep. Like every other time he prays, for every other person: Amsterdam, Eileen, Jenny Everdeane (who he never met but--perhaps--as a baby, yet knows from Bill's rememberances), Bill himself.

William Cutting, pray for him. Joyce Vallon, pray for him. Pray for us both, in this the very vale and heart of our mutual error...

Bill, who never prays but to curse, like some old-time warlock calling down lightning: May the Christian LORD smite my beloved country's enemies! Bill, whose best idea of "home" is a nest of rats in garbage or a tangle of hardscrabble hunger; Bill, whose best idea of "beauty" is a knife-blade honed sharp enough to prepare the way for the single most destructive stroke.

The Priest shakes his head, eyes closing tight on the awful vista of his own derangement. "Sin" doesn't begin to describe it, not really; there should be some new term, something special. But the Priest's no lexicographer, and Bill's vocabulary's--shaky at best, padded out with words chosen far more for sound than meaning. Sin it remains, then: Not the sin which put either of 'em here in the first place, yet undoubtedly the sin that keeps 'em. To some degree as yet to be determined.

Yet the Priest still finds himself asking, every so often: Did he always think the same, on some level? And could he ever have acted upon it if they hadn't ended up here, together?

Well, yes. And no. And yes.


He's almost certain.

Runs his hand down Bill's long spine, sees him shiver and glories in the sight, even as he thinks: Nothin' coming through the bandage anymore, seems like--'bout healed, might be, or close as makes no never-mind. So we'll be at it again soon enough, in one fashion or another...

Fighting, upright or otherwise. Laying bodies in the dirt, drinking meat and eating roasted meat. Flirting with the wenches before retiring upstairs, and practicing them same wiles on each other.

And maybe it'll be the Priest's turn to go down hard next, with Bill his nurse and him just a bad a patient. Seeing how it's a foregone conclusion there'll soon be some even more destructive weapon brought down from whatever fresh Hell the waking world's been turned into, in all those years since he and Bill first faced each other across the snow-strewn three-sided mess of Paradise Square. When he held Amsterdam's hand in his, chewed the last of Father Hugo's home-baked Communion wafer down, and thought: He's the same crazy bastard as ever, Butcher Bill; should've slit his throat when I had the chance, but oh well. This'll be over before any of us know it.

And hadn't that been true, in the end.

So: A bene way to spend one's eternity, all in all, this Hot Country "life"--fine and fierce and frighteningly satisfying with its heat and blood, its endless slaughter and debauch, its small but pertinent kindnesses. And yet--

--it can't be the last of all possible worlds, surely, not for either of 'em. And surely not for both.

There MUST be more than this, the Priest thinks, folding the Butcher closer and feeling Bill make another of those small noises in the back of his throat; not quite a cough, not quite a whimper. Protective of his prideful predator's dignity even in death, even in sleep, and even in the arms of the only man who knows him like he knows himself, from the inside-out.

Yes, there must be more--this can't be the be-all. And the Priest vows he'll find some way out of this particular way-station someday soon, for he and Bill alike...not that Bill'd ever admit it was starting to pall on him, at last. Or ever, in his sadly practical way, be able to conceive there might be more than the world in front of his new-matched eyes, for all that experience's already proved him woefully wrong on that same score at least the once.

Partnered now, though, they won't sever in this phase of the journey; Priest'll jigger it so's they'll find some way to pay their debts and pass through to whatever's next, trusting in the Unseen to provide whatever might be beyond that hidden exit door, wherever--and whenever--it might finally appear.

For Priest Vallon can't, even now, believe in a God who'd allow there not to be.


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