The Hot Country IV: Sparring Match
by Gemma Files

Details are easy to miss from across the street, whether or not you've got two eyes to con 'em with. But now that Bill the Butcher's up close to Priest Vallon almost all the damn time--closer by far'n he'd ever have dreamed he wanted to get, back once upon a time--he can finally see how mournful little that votive engraving he paid near six dollars for actually resembled the man himself, in all his bleak bulk and canting Popish fire.

But a rowdy ain't close-quarters habitation, not by no long shot; never meant to be, if you want to keep yourself upright.

Sixteen years spent meeting Priest's paste-and-paper gaze over the mantlepiece in back of Satan's Circus between hands of whist, a passing mow from his latest jomer, screams rising up from the rat-pit versus Finbar's Paddy bawling, tribute offered or exacted at a knife's sharp point while Harvey and the others scooted their chairs back to make room, whenever Bill chose to stretch his long legs out under the table. Sixteen whole years spent vaguely dreaming on finding anyone with similar sand, always waiting and always disappointed--hell, even Amsterdam hadn't been able to come at him rightwise, in the end: Not from the front like any normal man, let alone like his father.

In the Points you learned your lessons fast and hard, or you didn't live to benefit from 'em. So Bill's spent his life being quick to take offense and pay it back in kind, and the Priest's still the only one ever stood up to him and matched him blow for blow--beat him down and walked away after, gave exactly as good as he could've got at Bill's hands, like he knew to the very last inch what Bill could take before pain and weakness swept him away, at last, from any lingering hope of reprisal. Like they was always twins in some supernatural sense, attuned to each other's limitations and possibilities--able to read each other in the very dark, like a pair of profane lawbooks.

Both of 'em bred to battle, in their own particular ways: Battle as mother's milk, as meat, as prayer. Battle as all in all.

Which is why Bill finds it so hard to understand why--after Christ alone knows how long here in the Hot Country, this endless rout of damnation-born riot and self-healing slaughter--Vallon's finally slowing down, burrowing into himself like a winter insect, and taking Bill right along with him.

Was cold when first he arrived here, so much so the Priest'd grin and tease whenever he complained about it: Jaysus, it's a pure child yeh are after all, William Cutting. Does even the weather shape itself according to your whims and wishes, back on the streets of New York?

To which he'd have to choke back the automatic response: Well, YES. Not the weather, so much, but most-times every other thing mentionable--since I been old enough to hold a cleaver, any roads.

But time ekes on, and Bill supposes the Hot Country had to start living up to its name at some point: No more bloody snow to scrap on, just foul, squelchy mud snaring your battle-shoes and a constant drill of warm, misty rain through which the sun leaks like a fog-bound harbor ship on fire. Gets so's you don't want to do nothing requires unnecessary motion, not even wax your own moustache, let alone light the inner fuse'll get you flaring like a firework and raring to scuffle.

Just want to curl up 'gainst each other in the Priest's bed instead, though doing so isn't really restful anymore, let alone arousing: It's sweaty and rank, hard to breathe and harder to actually fall asleep, rather than floating in some gross narcotic haze; they lay down exhausted and haul themselves up in the "morning" even more so, with strained muscles, stiff necks and thready red eyes.

Hot skin on skin, dry under slick. Priest wakes with Bill's wet hair in his mouth because the top of Bill's head hits him right in the jaw, while Bill finds himself trying to squirm into a further contortive embrace, digging his sharp profile into the hot pulse of Priest's throat. And the annoyance of it immediately seems to make him want to muss Bill like a sleeping cat, stroke him backwards with those huge bricklayer's hands--palms lightly cracked like they been in the kiln awhile themselves, rough enough to draw sparks whenever they make the rounds of Bill's secretest parts--and ruffle his fur simply for the debatable pleasure of hearing him complain, so's he can see how fast it takes to soothe those complaints away once more...

Oh, and it's nothing like Jenny, nothing like the Circus whores or them Chink gals down the Pagoda; nothin' like any woman, like that familiar give and take of hard vs. soft, that automatic rhythm. Because this is take and take, hard on hard like the rasp of whetstone 'gainst blade. They sharpen each other, and Bill knows that if he only pushes back enough, the Priest will always snap at last: He'll see that tic in his cheek begin to twitch, his blue gaze fix and heat. Just sit back and wait for the explosion, 'cause there's only so much patience to go 'round, after all.

Even for a saint.

Flesh on flesh--the easiest way to comfort yourself, the most familiar. But now it's been reduced to an itch, an ache, something you rub at harder and deeper, so rough it bruises and bleeds, just to feel anything at all.

And here's the proof of it: The Priest licking a long track up Bill's spine in the dark, his moustache scratching all the way. Saying muffled, into the skin between Bill's shoulderblades, his old refrain: "Oh my sweet William..."

And: No, Bill wants to protest. NO, that ain't me at all. I ain't sweet, like I ain't yours or or no man's--no God's, no devil's. No damn body but America's own, Goddamnit...

So good, though. So dark and lovely, a healing itch like fresh scar-tissue, stroked lovingly with barest fingernail-tip. And when the Priest rolls him over at last he goes all limp and willingly, with no further outcry but a slow groan; that broke-nose bruiser's face rooting between Bill's thighs, huge curly head heavy against his pelvic cradle. Clever Mick mouth as hot and wet as sin, as Satan's swamp, fit to sink and drown in forever.

Working and knotting his hands in the Priest's hair, Bill kicks out only to find himself held and soothed, firm but fair, by those big hands. Soft voice of "reason" sent rumbling into the skin of his groin, a soothing murmur: "Be still now, yeh unbridled thing, yeh mad Yankee fool. Madman of my heart, my own..."

Be still now, acushla. Let me do what I'm doin'; Lord knows yeh know you'll like the end of it, an' all.

Building and building, and there's no damn way he can hold it in--can't even tense himself against it, no more'n he could against some floodgate's broken lock. Because he's there, now, his vision narrowing and his legs shaking, aftershocks tender and raw against the Priest's nursing tongue.

Wrung out, done, utterly lax. So much so that when the Priest rears up over him again, smiling down in that provocative way with Bill's traces still wet on his chin, Bill can barely muster enough fight to keep the big Paddy bastard from folding his leg back and thrusting his hip the fill the space, cramming himself inside so easily it's an insult in itself. Hot, sore, yielding to re-shape himself 'round Priest like he's used to it now, like it's somehow "natural". When it's any Goddamn thing but.

"Just DO it, blast ya," he snaps, as the Priest pauses. The worst tack to take under most circumstances, givin' who he's dealing with--and here in particular, since it simply makes Vallon smirk, and slow his pace even further. Answering, smooth as Scripture:

"What yez ask for, yeh'll get; what yez don't, yeh won't. Did no one never learn yeh that principle?"

"They tried."

"Have t'try harder, then, I suppose. So: Say what yeh want."

Bill squirms, snarls: "You know it, name it; done it often enough, by now. Or's the heat got ya tongue all tied up, that it?"

"No more than it has yours. Might be I'd just like t'hear you beg."

"Might be you'd wait one damn long time to hear that, you son of a--"

"Might be." And grins down at Bill, which draws a flame of pure spite from him; sparks him to twist his mouth and pull hard so's the Priest sinks in even further, calling on God and the Pope as he does. To which Bill just laughs right in his surprised face, a sharp bark: How ya like the view from up top now, Mister Know-All and Tell-Nothing?

"Ah, there's the bog-fuckin' Mick I know best," he tells Vallon, careful to put the right amount of sneer in every part of it. But the Priest knows his tricks by now, damn him to some further-down Hell--turns red as his own hair, then just nods and snorts through his nose like a bull. Saying:

"You want me to hurt you, is it? Can yeh be that perverse?"

"Don't tell me you're too shy for the job, or you ain't dreamed on it neither, all this time..."

"Ah, no doubt. But why d'you think I'd be like to do anything at all--even take me own revenge--on your say-so?"

And Jesus, that's a further hidden punishment, ain't it? Like God Almighty's telling him, in that still, small voice: Don't be so Satanic proud, Bill Cutting, 'cause that cull you near took the idea-pan off of was in the right--you're nothing but some jumped-up Papist shitsack's kept boy, after all.

Which makes him groan and struggle, not that that gets him far, or free. Or stops him from coming again at the sheer pleasure of it, neither.

The Priest's damnably "reasonable" voice at his inner ear, tempting him from memory, even as they lay panting there together: It don't have to hurt, yeh know.

But: Liar! That's a sin, ain't it? Everything does, 'cause everybody needs it to. Like everybody owes, so everybody pays...

"I won't battle with you over nothing, Butcher," the Priest tells him, his deep voice windy with the effort. "You give me good reason, or you just lie there an' take what you get."

Take it, even if it's condescention wrapped up fine in trappings of pleasure or affection--forgiveness, mercy, them and all their train. Kind of lukewarm Reformers' refuse Bill wouldn't've picked up in the street back when he was still young enough to consider it, not even to keep his sainted Ma from starvation.

Vallon rolls aside now, half-crushing Bill as he goes, their bodies separating stickily. Is that the sun coming up, a dim gold thread at the wooden shutter's edge? Might be the longhouse kitchen's beginning to bustle once more, already full with flirtatious maidens what might be persuaded to bring he and the Priest a bowl from the rain-barrel to wash themselves in--if Bill could only lever himself up far enough to sit, let alone stand, or walk.

Thank Christ he can't squint to the mirror, either: Fine sight he must make, who once counted himself such a peacock. Hair half-sticking up like some parrot's crest 'stead of slicked to the skull in proper soaplock fashion, handlebar all wilted. And naked, too, since this rising Hot Country temperature has finally laid his old prejudices against ever showing his skin in full to the wayside; could match the Priest scar for scar if he wanted, map both their lives out like a back-and-forth sprawl of combat-tokens. All those he's taken, over the years, fit pin-to-hinge with those he's given.

Those marks on Vallon's sides, between his ribs, up under his breastbone; those ones done in close and personal, with the knife sunk to its very hilt--white and clean like bridal sheets 'fore the blood is spilled, and ain't that an ironic image to come bubbling up in a man's brain. Marks of Bill's knives, visible clear from 'cross the room, like the signs of a plighted troth.

Mine, Bill finds himself thinking as the Priest turns back towards him, leaning on the window-frame, and snorts at the very idea: Oh yes, t'be sure--yours like a still-open wound, an as yet unknit scar. The bitter truth, and it is bitter: A needle-sharp flash right through the eye you shouldn't have, like the feel of Jenny's clever fingers on the handle of your nearest thrower--the handle but not the blade, because the blade is commitment. The blade demands entry, demands satisfaction. As intimate as it gets.

You gotta love somebody more than life itself, to put the blade in 'em 'till it won't go in no further.

Which means, in some crazy way, that by giving the Priest his death-stroke, the Butcher must have always known he was giving himself away at the very same time...laying himself away like some promissory note, an I.O.U. payable on demand. Like his own future pain, or what-have-you, would be forfeit; a fair price, all in all, for gaining Paradise Square by the Priest's murder.

The Priest sighs. "This is like bein' in jail," he muses aloud, looking anywhere but at Bill. And that's all the insult he needs to get upright, at least--head knocking on the bedstead as he scrubs both hands impatiently through his disordered mane, grooming himself first on one side, then the other with the overage. Growling in reply, sidelong--

"Jail? That's for them as can't pay the crushers. Which is why I ain't never been there."

"I'm not talkin' from personal experience, William. It's a metaphor, is all."

"Oh, well." Raising his voice, as Priest looks away again: "We spending the whole day up here, Priest? Or were you thinkin' we might take ourselves a turn downstairs, just for the novelty of it?"

"'We,'" the Priest repeats, like he's weighing the word for counterfeitery. "And what would you suggest we do with this fine day in front of us, Mister Cutting?"

"I got no particular ambitions."

"When did you ever?"

An easy aside, probably thrown without even thinking. But it's more than enough, in context.

"Long after you were in your wood overcoat, in actual fact, and just 'fore your lying fidlam ben of a son done me to dirt--could've helped that Tammany Hall shill Tweed rule half the city if I'd wanted, or I'd been able to stomach his sanctimony. So fuck you too, for the implication."

Bill's on his feet now, that familiar fire lit deep in his gut, feeling his face tighten and his eyes ignite...oh yes, oh yes, this is so, much better. Pushing it further, just to see where it takes him:

"You think just 'cause we been intimate a time or two you know every damn thing I might or might not do, Vallon?"

"Or two? That's flattering; hadn't thought I could bed a man so hard he'd lose count, not even down here on the hobs of Hell."

They're shoulder to shoulder, now--to Priest's chest in Bill's case, but who's counting? Close enough so's Priest can probably hear Bill's teeth grinding as he peels his smile ever wider, and snarls:

"You better have that cross of yours close to hand, you say a thing like that to my face, you fuck. Potato-peeling, sheep-rutting, motherless Christ-chewin' six-foot pile of--"

The Priest catches him tight 'round the throat before he can get his last word out, one-handed and glaring. There's a long, red pause, Bill tensing himself for the fray. Until--

"I see what yeh're doin', don't think I can't," Priest says at last, letting go. "You're predictable, that's for sure. Yeh mad Yankee whore."

Bill rasps, disappointed. "Never doubted it," he replies, finally. "So...?"

One nod, no emphasis. And:


Leaving Bill there to steam, mind a-whirl with questions: So? So what, ya Paddy badger-artist? Don't you dare to walk away from me, you've started somethin' first--

But that's what he's doing, isn't it? Over to the vanity, sitting so heavily its chair almost cracks beneath him; rummaging on the floor to one side, then flinging Bill's battle-trousers bedwards, more impatient than contemptuous.

"You can go down if yeh want," Vallon tells him, at last. "I'll not stop yeh. And it's not like we're gyved fast together, any road..."


Ain't like that. Never was. Not then, not now--

(--never was, nor will be.)

"No," Bill says aloud, hoarser than usual. And sets himself to the task of personal order, pulling, buttoning. Can't find his shirt so he slings a vest on over his bare back instead, almost not noticing how it's suddenly the same "waistcoat of certain distinction" he once wore to Sparrow's, that fateful last year's Victory Day hoy. Yet another from the Hot Country's abounding, abiding store of mysteries: How the longhouse's population ebbs and flows unchecked, even though there's no one left Bill and the Priest can recognize anymore but Monk McGinn, off smilin' in his usual corner like he's cracked some Universal Code he ain't like to tell the rest of 'em about; where the meat they're served gets cut from, and who brews the mead; why the maidens never seem to age (nor learn proper English neither, come to think).

Or how Bill's old rocking-chair from the Circus just somehow come to appear in front of the hall's fire-pit, unheralded, so's he could slump cross-legged in it next to the Priest of an "evening" and voice these same questions, along with many more...

"Where do they all get to, though?"

"Why d'yeh keep askin' me, like I'm like t'know?"

"'Cause you are. More like than I am, one way or t'other--"

"Why? Is it just seein' I've been here the longer? For that's poor logic, Bill, if so; that one, yonder--" he points at a regular, slumped on his face at nearby table with his horned helmet in his lap like a sick-bowl "--been here since the Vikings sailed, at least; what is it yeh think he knows, that we don't?"

"We could find out fast enough, prob'ly, we worked him both of us at once."

He'd meant it straight enough, of course, when he'd said it. But the Priest hadn't even deigned to meet Bill's eye--just ignored him outright, looked through him. 'Till they'd got back up here, that was.

Christ, Christ. Suffering Christ.

Everything in firm place, Bill snags his belt from the bedpost and steps away smart, moving lithe, like he doesn't give a damn; leaves the Priest behind him to sulk, still naked at his mirror, like turning an unprotected back on him was still something courageous, a face-slap in motion. And feeling, feeling--

--feeling something grate inside him, deep down, like the glass eye used to in his head when he'd neglected its care too long. Something hard and bright and painful, b;ack around the edges, a premonition of decay.

Ego absolovo te, William Cutting. Go your way, in peace.

"In peace", sure. As though that's ever like to happen.


God alone knows it's Priest's selfish, wilful, deliberate refusal to be drawn what's making Bill slow down so frighteningly fast, settling him head-first into a trance of disrepair--making him feel for all the world like the frantic bright red I, I, I which drove him headlong through forty-seven years of upside life is dimming, perhaps beyond recall. Like it's all levelling out: The highs and the lows, the lull and the crest, the peaks and valleys alike. Nothing to tell one thing from another. Like being...


I have to fight, is all, he thinks. HAVE to. There ain't nothing else for me: Fight or die, even here where there's no dyin'...

...and no living neither, not that's worth the name. But that's as makes no never-mind.

Because: If there's no one left to fight, no one at all--not even the Priest, the one thing he thought he could count on in this miserable excuse for an afterlife--

Aw, Jesus.

Wrath's a sin too, or so the Butcher's been told often enough, throughout his long and angry life. And Hell's a strange damn place for certain, nothing at all like Bill'd thought it would be, not in his wildest dreams.

But he still can't figure, even over this endless length of no-time, whether or not that's a good thing, a bad...or, just maybe... indifferent.


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