“Damit Callaway! You make my life a living hell! You know that?” Ox said as he stumbled into my shop drunk, again. I could smell the moonshine on him from ten feet away. “Did you know you make my life hell?”
I didn’t respond; experience taught me talking to the son of our little enclave’s “mayor” when he was drunk only added fuel to his fire. I turned back to my work and continued on.
“You know, you’re lucky. No one else in our little village has the experience you have,” he said. “But you know what? I think you are full of it. I think you’re a faker. If my daddy hadn’t lost his hands he’d be the one in here workin’, and you’d be out on your ass. I’d kick you out if I could.”
He wasn’t far off. In another life, the life before this hell, I was a computer engineer. I sat behind a desk all day. My experience in anything close to blacksmithing was a class I took over a couple of weekends at the local tech school. We’d learned the basics of bladesmithing. I’d wanted to start a hobby making my own knives. Something different to do in my spare time, working with my hands, as far from the keyboard as possible.
Ox was about six feet tall and maybe weighed 130 pounds. He hunched his shoulders making him a few inches shorter than he should be. And his neck curved forward and up pushing his Adam’s out, causing it to protrude from his throat. Along with a too-big-for-his-face nose, he had a very bird-like appearance. He paced back and forth on the other side of the little counter I had in my shop, separating me and my work from folks who came to visit. There were pieces scattered about. Some were new knives, arrowheads, spikes used for protecting our village. And some were farm tools I’d either mended or crafted for folks in the village.
“My daddy knows how to do what you do. Part of owning a junkyard I s’pect.” Ox picked up and dropped a dull ax head.
Our “village” is an old junkyard deep in a valley of the Appalachians some of us managed to escape to when the world went to shit. A good place to escape to in many aspects. We were able to build walls out of stacked cars and school buses. And there is plenty of scrap metal around to melt down and re-purpose for weapons and farm tools. Ox’s father is the owner of the junkyard, which put him in the position to call himself the “mayor.” He’s a fair man; can’t complain about him too much, but his son is a huge pain in everyone’s ass. He does nothing to contribute to the community. More a drunk, entitled “Sheriff of Nottingham type” without any authority except to cry to his father.
“You know what? I bet I could do this job. I could do it better and faster than you and your stuttering fool back there.” He pointed a half-completed knife blade to the back of my shop where my assistant Jim leaned against the door frame to a small office.
“It’s a damn miracle the two of you get any work done. He can’t get a damn sentence out in less than five minutes, and you might say a dozen words a month. That’s why you’re so slow, you two can’t communicate.”
I continued to work on a pitchfork, or trident – depending on its intended use – I’d been fixing when Ox walked in. All he wanted was to get a rise out of me, any response. I pretty well blocked him out with the rhythm of my work.
Tink, tink, tink with my hammer on the orange glowing tines and the whirl of a hand-cranked bellows fan. Always aware of Ox, I had to turn my back to him every time I went to the forge.
There was a calm rhythm to the work. I could block out the hell our world had turned to. Block out the memories of the life I used to have, the family I used to have. It gave me a purpose as well, a way to help others. And Ox loved to get good and liquored up on moonshine and try to get me riled up. I may have been the only person around who didn’t cater to him, and it drove him insane.
Jim was an easy target for him, a schoolyard bully picking on the kid with a speech impediment. The thing was, Jim was one of the smartest people in our village and could manhandle Ox with ease if the need arose. He’d engineered many of our more complicated projects, and I’d done the metal work–he did the heavy lifting. But over time Jim learned to keep quiet so people wouldn’t make fun of him for his stutter. We’d worked out our own form of silent communication, and it worked well for us.
“Is that why you don’t got no family?” Ox said. “‘Cus you never talked to your wife?”
Tink, tink, whirl.
“You know you hold up this entire community with your slow work. We can’t trade – harvest is slow without ‘nough tools, weak without ‘nough weapons.”
Tink, tink, whirl, tink, tink.
“Is that what happened? You ignored your wife and she left you? Couldn’t take being ignored all the time?”
I turned back to the forge, spinning the bellows handle, keeping the hammer in my hand in case he came around the counter. I shuffled the coals with the pitchfork, the ends red-hot.
Ox threw the half-finished knife at the wall trying to make it stick, it bounced back almost hitting him in the face.
“Damnit, Callaway! I swear to God!” He picked up a sickle sitting on the edge of the counter and charged at me, stumbling to get around the corner of my counter. Jim left his perch from the office door to head off Ox.
I turned and wedged the handle of the pitchfork into the side of my anvil, expecting the red-hot tines pointing at him to stop his charge.
But no, he ran straight into the glowing red end of the pitchfork, his skin sizzled as the points pierced into his chest below his sternum, instantly cauterizing the wound.
He rolled to the ground, pitchfork and handle sticking straight up like a dinner fork stuck in a piece of steak.
Jim stared at me. Both of us with the same series of thoughts. It was self-defense. I’d done the community a big favor. But I could’ve just knocked him to the ground.
“Well…” I said. “You better run off and get the sheriff.”
Jim continued to look at me in shock, terrified. He looked down at Ox and then back to me.
“Run off. I’ll wait here.”
I leaned back against the closest workbench, crossed my arms and waited.
“What’s all the fuss about Callaway? Jim came running up in a tizzy,” the sheriff said walking into the shop.
I pointed to the ground in front of my feet.
“Well damn Callaway,” the sheriff laughed. “Jim, I wish I coulda heard you say ‘Ox finally got what he deserved.’”
Jim shrugged. If we didn’t know any better we’d all assume he was mute.
“This puts me in an awkward situation, Callaway. I want to shake your hand and say ‘thank you,’ but I need to take you to the mayor on this one. Don’t know what he is going to do, with your place in the community and all.”
“It is what it is,” I said.
“It looks to me like self-defense, he’s coming at you with the sickle there. In the old world, this’d be a open, shut case. But it ain’t that no more, is it? Let’s go I guess.”
I wiped my hands on my work apron and hung it on a hook next to the forge. We stepped out into the cool night and headed up to the mayor’s trailer at the top of the hill. I signaled to Jim to stay behind, leaving him to stay in the tiny shed with a dead body.
If I got banished from the community at least I could leave knowing I’d left it better than I arrived. If the mayor decided to execute me, I could escape the hell of this world and see my wife and daughter in the next life. I was ready for whatever punishment handed down to me.
My fate was in the hands of a handless man.