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He's Lookin' Oh So Purty an' So Nice

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There came a knock at the door. Jud picked his head up and peeked at the window to see who was there. He frowned, felt his skin grow cold. From his seat at the little table he leaned back, grabbing his gun from the dresser, and cradled it in his lap, thumb caressing the cold, smooth metal like it was a talisman. The knock came again. Jud swallowed.

 

“Well, open it, cain’t you?”

 

The door creaked open. Jud hunched, squinting a little as more light came in. The cowboy strolled across the threshold like he owned the place.

 

“Howdy,” he said. Jud eyed him, using his handkerchief to polish the gun he held in his lap.

 

“Whut’d you want?”

 

“I done got through my business up here at the house. Jist thought I’d pay a call.” Curly had a way of sticking his lips out, like a pout, which irritated Jud on top of the...everything else about him. Curly eyed Jud and stepped closer to the table. “You got a gun, I see.”

 

“Good ‘un.” Jud kept a watchful glare on the cowboy. “Colt forty-five.”

“What do you do with it?” What kind of a question was that, anyway? A taunt?

 

“Shoot things.”

 

“Oh.” Curly raised his eyebrows and didn’t look bothered. He began to stroll around again, casually, paying attention now to the decor up on the walls. Jud watched him, staying still, keeping the gun close at hand. Curly stopped and clicked his tongue in front of one of the pictures. “That there pink picture -- now that’s a naked woman, ain’t it?”

 

Jud swallowed again. His cheeks burned. “Yer eyes don’t lie t’ you.”

 

“Plumb stark naked as a jaybird....” Was he amused? Interested? Put off? Jud took a gamble.

 

“Shucks. That ain’t a thing to whut I got here.” He inclined with his head to a box on the table. Curly turned, looking potentially interested, and came on over. “Lookit that top one there.”

 

Curly exhaled, with a hint of a chuckle, and glanced at Jud with a smirk. Jud frowned again, unfriendly. “That’d give me ideas, it would.”

 

“That’s a dinger, that is.” His voice came out grave.

 

“Yeah, that shore is a dinger…” Curly looked up and around again. Jud kept his head down, focused on the weight of the gun in his hand. “That’s a good lookin’ rope you got there.” Jud looked up. Curly smiled. Why would he smile? He stuck out a hand and batted at it with a finger. “Spins nice. Y’know Will Parker? He c’n shore spin a rope.” Jud kept his eyes trained on the cowboy. He clenched his jaw, tried not to sweat. Something ain’t right with that man, but Jud could never place why. Curly moved on, this time wrapping his finger around a hook on the wall and giving it a tug. “‘S a strong hook you got there.” He looked back at Jud and met his eyes. “You could hang herself on that, Jud.”

 

A chill ran down Jud’s spine. “I could whut?” he asked, in a low voice. 

 

“Hang yerself. It’d be as easy as fallin’ off a log.” Curly sounded serious, yet still in an unsettlingly light way. Almost like a game. “Fact is, you could stand on a log -- or a chair. And put this here ‘round yer neck...tie that good up there first, of course. Then, all y’d hafta do would be to fall off the log -- or, the chair.” He spoke deliberately. Jud found couldn’t look away, couldn’t interrupt. “...Five minutes -- or less, ‘ith good luck -- you’d be daid as a doornail.”

 

“What’d you mean by that?” Jud asked, jumping on the tail end of Curly’s explanation, quick with nerves.

 

“‘Nen folks’d come to yer fun’r’l, an’ sing sad songs,” Curly continued, still eyeing Jud. What was that glint to his eye, pity?

 

Jud shuddered. “No.”

 

“They would.” Curly nodded, hands in his pockets, chin up. “Y’ never know how many people like you til’ yer daid.” He tilted his head a little, imagining. Jud was silent. “Y’d prob’ly be out in th’ parlor...all d’cked out in yer best suit, with yer hair combed down slick, an’ a high starched collar…”

 

“...Would there be any flowers, d’ya think?” Jud asked, softly. Barely a whisper. He couldn’t help himself. He wasn’t even sure quite why he asked, what compelled him to engage in this ludicrous fantasy. Something pulling him into it, whether he wanted it or not…

 

“Shore would. An’ palms, too, all around yer coffin.” Curly nodded again. His face was unearthly serene. “‘Nen folks’d stand ‘round you, ‘n’ the men’d bare their heads and the women’d sniffle softly… Some’d prob’ly faint. One’s’d took a shine t’ you when you was alive.”

 

“What woman ever took a shine t’ me?” Jud asked, sadly but getting invested now, despite himself.

 

“Aw, lots’a women.” Curly grinned, looking almost friendly, almost warm. Almost. “On’y they don’ never come right out an’ show you how they feel, less’n you die first.”

 

Jud swallowed again. His shoulders drooped. “I guess that’s so.”

 

“Mmyeah...they shore would sing loud, though, when the singin’ started…” What was that look in his eye? “...sing like they hearts’d break.”

 

He strummed his guitar. Jud hadn’t noticed Curly had his guitar with him when he came in. Of course, it was dark in that old smokehouse; Jud could hardly say he saw that guitar now , but it must’ve been there, he could hear it. He could’ve sworn though the cowboy had showed up empty-handed. Unless his mind was going for good.

 

“Pore Jud is daid,” Curly crooned. Jud met his eye and shivered. “Pore Jud Fry is daid...all gather ‘round his coffin now and cry… He had a heart a’ gold, and he wasn’t very old… Oh, why did such a feller hafta die?” He sang on, strumming and plucking his six string. There was a pitying, almost mocking tone, a warble to his voice, but it was so damn charming. And that stare of his, those eyes burned right through Jud, right to his heart, thumping in his chest. Curly picked up the song again. “Pore Jud is daid, pore Jud Fry is daid! He’s lookin’ oh so peaceful and serene--”

 

“And serene,” Jud repeated, despite himself. What had come over him? 

 

Curly smirked. Jud found he couldn’t read his expression with any confidence whatsoever. “He’s all laid out to rest, with his hands across’t his chest; his fingernails have never been so clean!” Jud leaned back in his chair, shut his eyes, frowned, breathed. He was losing himself, losing himself in the daydream. His lip trembled, his fingers curled up.

 

“‘Nen the preacher’d get up, an’ he’d say--” Curly continued, in a low but energetic voice. He stepped up and stood on the chair round the other side of the table and strummed once, full and resonant, and gestured broadly with his arm. Jud watched him with rapt attention. “‘Folks, we are gathered here t’day t’ moan an’ groan over our brother Jud Fry, who hung hisself up by a rope in the smokehouse.’ ‘Nen there’d be weepin’ an’ wailin’, from some a’ them women,” Curly quirked a brow. Jud sat forward, almost hopeful. “‘Nen he’d say, ‘ Jud was the most misunderstood man in th’ territory . People use’t’ thnk he was a mean, ugly feller. An’ they use’t’ call him a dirty skunk , and a ornery pig-stealer.’” Curly stuck out his chin and made a face, squinting at Jud, drawing out the last syllables like a sneer, a taunt. Jud clenched his jaw, not angry at Curly, not angry at the fantasy, but angry that folks would really say that, would really think that about him. Was he to know if it was made up or real? It certainly felt real, here and now. 

 

Suddenly soft again, suddenly sweet again, Curly plucked the strings. “But the folks that really knowed him -- knowed that beneath them two dirty shirts he always wore --” The cowboy had a determined expression on his face and strummed, hard and deliberate. “There beat a heart as big as all outdoors!”

 

“As big as all outdoors!” Jud repeated, pushing on the tabletop, standing, letting go of the gun. He was impassioned, determined, like a sinner in church wracked with his guilt and energized by the preacher, like a laborer rioting under a rebellious leader. 

 

“Jud Fry loved his fellow man!” Curly’s grin was pleased, driven, almost sinister; not that Jud picked up on it.

 

“He loved his fellow man…” Jud breathed, softening again. It was true, he thought. He felt it deep in his chest, even with his mind wandering (or, perhaps, because of it). 

 

“He loved the birds of the forest, an’ beasts of the field. He loved th’ mice an’ the vermin in the barn, an he treated the rats like equals ,” Curly dropped his voice, almost down to a whisper. “Which was right . An’ he loved little children...he loved everythin’ an’ everyone in the world!” Jud closed his eyes, even hazarded a smile, meek but there. The thought of it all, being loved, and known for his own loving. “...On’y he never let on. So nobody ever knowed it.” Slow, deliberate, Curly continued. Jud’s head drooped, smile lingering but in bitter sadness now. His shoulders trembled. Curly plucked a string loud, sliding it up to a harmonic, and let it ring.

 

After a beat, he kicked back into gear, heavy and hard. A loud and bittersweet dirge. “Pore Jud is daid! Pore Jud Fry is daid! His friends’ll weep an’ wail fer miles around!”

 

“Miles around!” Jud echoed, picking his head back up again, fervent.

 

“The daisies in the dell will give out a different smell, because poor Jud is underneath the ground!” Curly kept strumming, stepping off the chair. Jud turned around, emotional, caught up in the fantasy. He forgot not to take his eyes off his visitor. He saw nothing now, except the scene before him, the mourners gathered round him, the sun in the sky, the flowers and palms. He sat on the edge of the table slightly and, without thinking, took over the song.

 

“Poor Jud is daid. A candle lights his haid...he’s layin’ in a coffin made of wood,”

 

“Wood!” Curly echoed this time. That glint was back in his eye, almost mischievous, almost pitying.

 

“An’ folks’re feelin’ sad, ‘cause they use’t’ treat him bad,” Jud sang on, hands curling into fists. There were tears in his eyes. “An’ they know their friend is gone fer good!”

 

“Good!”

 

The both of them took up the next verse together, in tandem. It didn’t even cross Jud’s mind to wonder, how they both knew what to sing, he was so charmed. “Poor Jud is daid! A candle lights his haid!” The last note Jud held out, let ring like a church bell. He breathed, softly but deep, and lowered himself back, laying on the table, staring up at the dark ceiling. Anguish, hope, deep emotion all swam in his eyes.

 

“He’s lookin’ oh so purty and so nice,” Curly crooned, singing slow now, standing over him with a sad sort of expression. He held out the note long and wailing. “He looks like he’s asleep…” Jud closed his eyes.  “It’s a shame that he won’t keep…” His hands joined themselves together, resting on his chest. “...but it’s summer, and we’re runnin’ out of ice.”

 

Without getting up, without looking, Jud sang along again, joining Curly in the last few bars. “Pore Jud,” they cooed, long and slow and sweet. “Pore Jud.”

 

It was silent, for a moment. Jud breathed softly as the fantasy faded, he returned to his lonely room. A tear or two rolled down his cheek.

 

 “...Yes sir. That’s the way it’d be,” Curly said, slowly. Jud opened his eyes and looked at him, seeing Curly quirk a brow. “Shore be an’ interestin’ fun’r’l. Wouldn’t like t’ miss it.”

 

Jud frowned, suddenly aware. What had come over him? He sat up and turned to face Curly. “Wouldn’t like t’ miss it, huh?” There was something so unsettling, staring into the cowboy’s eyes. It made Jud’s skin creep and crawl. He felt beside him with his hand, finding the gun, and wrapped his fingers around it, his amulet. “Well, maybe you will. Maybe you’ll go first.” His voice was hushed; he had to work hard to keep it steady.

 

“Maybe.” Curly sat down on the other edge of the table, not breaking eye contact. He didn’t seem particularly threatened, which only irritated Jud further. “Let’s see now,” Curly practically chirped, slightly abrupt. “Where’d you work at before you come here? Up by Quawpaw, wasn’t it?”

 

“Yes…” Jud steeled himself, swallowed. Kept eye contact. It was summer, wasn’t it? Why was it so cold in here, why was he so chilled? “An’ before that over by Tulsa…” His brow furrowed. “Lousy, they was t’ me, both of ‘em, always makin’ out they was better, treatin’ me like dirt,” he went on, a little faster than he meant to, more worked up than he realized. 

 

“An’ whut’d you do?” Curly looked at him, almost bored or lazy. What kind of fucking game did he think he was playing, here, anyway? “Git even--?”

“Who said anythin’ ‘bout gittin’ even?” 

 

“No one that I recollect. It jist come into my head.”

 

“If it ever come t’ gittin’ even with anybody, I’d know how t’ do it.” Jud’s fingers tensed a little on the gun. Curly glanced at it, looking offensively disinterested.

 

“That?”

 

No, ” Jud pursed his lips, held himself together. “They’s safer ways’n that...if y’ use yer brains…” Jud searched Curly’s eyes again, his face. What about this damned cowboy made him so weak to his words, so susceptible to be swayed, carried off in a fantasy, anyway? Who did he think he ways, coming around here and trying to bully Jud under his own roof? Someone oughta put him in his place. “Y’ r’member that fire on the Bartlett farm over by Sweetwater?”

 

“Shore do.” Curly watched Jud’s expression as it shifted from thought to thought, emotion to emotion. “Turrible accident. Burn’t up the father an’ mother an’ daughter.” Where was his guitar?

 

“That weren’t no accident...a feller told me.” He breathed. “The hired hand hand was stuck on the Bartlett girl, an’ ‘e found her in the hayloft with another feller.” He hated hearing his voice like this, like he couldn’t control his own words.

 

“An’ it was him that burned the place?” Not really a question.

 

“Took ‘im weeks t’ get all the kerosene.” Jud nodded almost imperceptibly, like he was holding himself stiff. “Buyin’ it at different times. The feller who told me made out like it happened in Missouri but I knowed all the time it was the Bartlett farm -- what a liar he was.”

 

“Yeah.” Curly breathed. Jud hadn’t noticed until now. “An’ kind of a...kind of a murderer, too, wasn’t ‘e?” Not really a question. They stared at each other in silence for a moment. Who was intimidating whom? Then Curly leaned back, moved to get up. “Git a little air in here,” he said, reaching for the door.

 

Jud’s mouth twisted into an ugly frown. “You ain’t told me yet -- whut business you have here.” Curly cast a glance at him from the door, sideways, unconcerned. He’d hardly opened it even a crack. The light came in at an odd angle, a sliver of yellow cast obliquely across the room. “We got no cattle t’ sell t’ no cow ponies. The oat crop is done spoke fer.”

 

“You shore relieved my mind consid’able--” Curly said, sounding as if he could roll his eyes just by speaking, but Jud cut him off.

 

“They’s only one other thing on this farm you could want.” Jud glared. “An’ it better not be that--” 

 

Curly turned back to face him fully, letting the door shut again. Darkness. He leaned against it. “--But that’s jist whut it is--”

 

“-- Better not be.” Jud clenched his jaw. “You keep away from her, y’hear?” 

 

Curly tilted his head a little. If he were bothered, or intimidated, he didn’t let on in the slightest. Which only made Jud angrier, more scared. “Y’know somebody oughta tell Laurey what kinda man you are.” He spoke too coolly, but even he had to break sometime, and he picked up a bit, stepping forward and frowning. “And fer that matter, somebody oughta tell you once’t about yerself--” 

 

“-- You better git outta here, Curly,” Jud snapped, hand tensing on the gun again. The cowboy eyed him through narrow, glinting eyes. 

 

“You know, a feller wouldn’t feel very safe in here, with you…” Curly said, after a beat. “...’f ‘e didn’t know you.” Jud watched him, almost paralyzed. Something about the way Curly talked, held himself, the way his eyes pierced like hooked daggers, it held Jud fast and wouldn’t let him go. “But I know you, Jud.” He stared at Jud’s, straight and cold. There was acid on his tongue. “In this country, they’s two things you c’n do if yer a man. Live out of doors is one...live in a hole is the other. I’ve set by my horse in the brush som’eres, heared a rattlesnake many a time.” He stepped forward, one foot at a time, back to the table. “Rattle, rattle, rattle, he’d go, skeered t’ death. Somebody’s comin’ close t’ his hole. Somebody’s gonna step on ‘im.” He came up and sat on the edge of the table again, still looking Jud dead in the eyes. “Git ‘is ol’ fangs all ready, full a’ poison, curl up...an’ wait.” He let that sink in a moment, and leaned forward. “Long as you live in a hole, yer skeered. Y’ gotta have pertection . You c’n have muscles, oh, like iron, an’ still be as weak as an empty bladder, less’n you got fangs t’ barb yer hide with.” He was barely more than half a foot away from Jud by then, maybe less. Face to face. It was cold, unnaturally cold, but still stifling, burning hot. Jud’s skin itched but he didn’t move a muscle, practically held his breath. “How’d you git t’ be the way you are, anyway?” Curly asked after a moment, looking flat, displeased, accusatory, but his tone was held cool, quiet. Practically nonchalant. Insulting. “Settin’ here in this filthy hole, an’ thinkin’ the way yer thinkin’... Why don’t’ch’you do somethin’ healthy once’t in a while? ‘Stead’a stayin’ shut up in here, a crawlin’ an’ a festerin’--”

 

Jud couldn’t take it. He broke free of whatever bonds had held him fast and seized the gun, a frenzied instinct. The shot rang out between them, interrupting the cowboy, deafeningly quiet. Light streamed in from the hole in the ceiling -- he’d shot upwards. He wasn’t even sure where he’d meant to aim, if that was right or not. Curly didn’t even flinch, didn’t blink. The new light chased away some ugly, unholy glow to his eye, something Jud had only ever seen in passing glances, something that he’d almost doubted before now but recognized again as the danger he’d always known it was. Even with the light, the cowboy’s face was too dark, too shadowed, his eyes too hooded by those rough brows of his. Otherworldly, sinister. Jud took a trembling breath and slowly lowered his arm, the gun, once again finding himself unable to speak, unable to move or look away.

 

“Well, you oughta feel better now,” Curly commented, as though almost nothing had happened. He made a face and glanced upward, finally breaking eye contact, if only briefly. “Hard on the roof, though.” He looked back to Jud. “I wish’t you’d let me show you somethin’.” Jud didn’t move, didn’t speak. Curly inclined with his head towards the wall. “They’s a knot-hole over there ‘bout as big as a dime. You see it a-winkin’?” Jud stole a quick glance, like he was scared to look away from the cowboy. How did Curly see that, know it was there? He’d never looked that way, not once. “I jist wanna see if I c’n hit it.” Jud again didn’t react, nor did he move to stop Curly when his hand found Jud’s and took the gun. Without blinking, without taking his eyes off Jud’s face in the slightest, Curly coolly lifted his arm and pointed the gun at the wall. He pulled the trigger and shot. Jud flinched. Curly didn’t. After a second he let the gun swing down round his finger and brought his arm back in, placing it back in Jud’s hand, all the while maintaining eye contact. Jud glanced at the knot-hole in the wall, then back to the cowboy. His breath was shaky, his skin cold and clammy. They both sat like statues. “Bullet right through th’ knot-hole, ‘thout touchin’. Slick as a whistle, didn’t I?” His voice was barely above a whisper. “I knew I could do it. You saw it too, didn’t’you.” Not really a question.

 

“Who fired off a gun?” came a voice from outside. Aunt Eller. The two men still stared at each other. Jud reminded himself to breathe. Curly didn’t. “Was ’at you, Curly?” The door opened, and she appeared, a silhouette against the light of day. Jud saw her from his periphery but still didn’t move, except to wince slightly at the light. Curly didn’t turn around either. Eller frowned. “Don’t set there, you lummy, answer when yer spoke to.”

 

Curly sat up a little, rolled his shoulders back. Kept his eyes forward. Jud thought his expression looked slightly bored, slightly disappointed, but it was hard to read. “Well, I shot once.”

 

“What were you shootin’ at?”

 

“You see that knot-hole over there?”

 

“I see lots’a knot-holes.”

 

“Well, it was one a’ them.”

 

Aunt Eller made a face, displeased. “Well, ain’t you a pair a’ purty nothin’s, pickin’ away at knot-holes an’ skeerin’ everybody t’ death. Oughta give you a good Dutch rub an’ iron some a’ the crazies outta you.” She turned and started to go. “‘S alright, nobody hurt. Jist a pair a’ fools swappin’ noises!” she called out to the yard, departing. As she left, someone else snuck in, like a weasel.

 

“Mind if I visit with you, gents?” Ali Hakim said with a ratty but slightly nervous grin. “It’s good t’ get away from the women fer a while.” He stood up straighter and brushed off the front of his shirt, coming up to the table, with a veneer of confidence. He clapped a hand on Curly’s shoulder, who finally broke his stare to glance down at the peddler with a small, idle frown. “Now then, we’re all by ourselves. I got a few purties, private knickknacks fer t’ show you. Special fer the menfolks .” He set his pack down on the table. Curly rolled his neck and shoulders, standing. Jud sat and watched, silently, hunched, a hollow and sad look in his eye. 

 

“See you gentlemen later. I gotta git a surrey I hired fer tonight,” Curly said, heading for the door. Jud’s cheeks burned, anger flashed across his eyes. Ali noticed and shoved a handful of papers at him. 

 

“Art postcards--!” 

 

“Who you think yer takin’ in that surrey?” Jud asked sharply, finally breaking from his spell and standing, leaving the gun on the table. Ali stepped back, awkwardly in the way.

 

“Aunt Eller,” Curly shot back, looking quite irritated. Jud relaxed, but only slightly. “...an’ Laurey, if she’ll come ‘ith me,” he added, rather softly. There was a gentleness to his eyes that Jud hadn’t seen since he’d come around to the smokehouse in the first place.

 

Jud squared his shoulders. “She won’t.”

 

Curly looked at him. “Maybe she will.”

 

“She promised t’ go with me!” Jud insisted, stepping forward. “An’ she better not change her mind!” Curly narrowed his eyes and considered this, then left without another word. “She better not…” Jud repeated, softly, almost defeated. He sank back into his chair and scowled, solemn, enraged, depressed.

 

Ali looked like he was smiling through a great discomfort and shoved the pictures back at Jud. “Now I want y’ t’ look at these straight from Paris--” He could see they both needed a distraction, but Jud wasn’t having any of it.

 

“--I don’ want none of them things now,” Jud said, shoving them away, but weakly. He turned his head, and looked at his gun. “...got any frog-stickers?”

 

“You mean one of them long knives?” The peddler asked, confused. “Whut’d you want with a thing like that?” Not really a question. He knew why. 

 

Jud stared at the door, intently. He grew cross once again. He itched, he raced. “I dunno. Kill a hog -- ’r a skunk, it’s all the same, ain’t it?” He looked at Ali, there was a funny, determined sort of desperation to his expression. Ali just looked unsure and uncomfortable.”I tell you whut I’d like better’n a frog sticker, if you’ve got one.” Jud sniffed and stood up, pacing slightly. He made some gesture with his hands, anxious, planning. “Ever hear a’ one a’ them things called a ‘Little Wonder?’ It’s a thing you hold up t’ yer eye t’ see pitchers, only that ain’t all there is to it -- not quite...” Jud stepped close to the peddler and attempted to mime the object with his hands. “Y’see it’s got a little jigger onto it an’ y’ tetch it an’ out springs a sharp blade.”

 

“On a spring, eh?” Ali said, chukling, but nervous. 

 

“Y’say to a feller, ‘look through this.’ ‘Nen when he’s lookin’ y’ snap out the blade, it’s jist above his chest, an’ bang .” Jud snapped his fingers. Ali flinched. “Down y’ come.” Just above a whisper. 

 

“It’s a, uh...good joke. To play -- on a, uh...friend,” Ali Hakim stammered. Jud looked him in the eye, some of the determination fading from his expression. Ali looked concerned. “I, uhhhh, I don’t handle things like that, too dangerous , what I’d like t’ show you is my new stock of postcards--” He tried so hard to change the subject. 

 

“Don’t want none. Sick of them things,” Jud said, and he was quiet, soft. It was more off-putting than if he were loud and angry. He sat back down on the edge of the table, slouching. “...gonna get me a real woman.”

 

The peddler scoffed. To diffuse tension, perhaps? “What would you want with a woman? Why I’m havin’ trouble right now, all on account of a woman. They always make trouble. Y’ say you want one, why?” He spoke quick, racing over his words like a scampering rodent. “Look it’chu, yer a...man, what is free t’ come an’ go as y’ please, y’ got a...nice, cozy little place here.” He glanced around. “ ...Private, nobody t’ bother you, artistic pitchers , they don’t talk back to y’...”

 

“I’m tired of all these pitchers a’ women!” Jud snapped, shouting, hunching in on himself. Ali flinched, genuinely worried about him. 

 

“Alright...yer tired of ‘em,” he started, uneasy. He tried one more time. “So throw ‘em away, an’ buy some new ‘uns!” He held his arms out and tried to be friendly, accommodating. Jud didn’t even give him a glance. “Y’ git tired of a woman an’ whut c’n y’ do? Nothin’! Jist keep gittin’ tireder an’ tireder--”

 

“I made up my mind,” Jud picked his head up and stared ahead at the wall. Ali was quiet for a moment. 

 

“So, you want a real ...woman, say, d’you know a girl named Ado Annie?” 

 

Jud shot him a look. From another territory man it might’ve killed. “I don’ want her.”

 

“I don’ want her either.” He held up a hand like he was swearing on a Bible in court. “But I got her…!” Jud looked back at the wall. Ali could see, from the look on his face, what he was thinking, planning. Bad news. He was trifling with forces he oughtn't, he was going to get himself in a load of trouble if he wasn’t careful...and he wasn’t. Ali looked out for himself, first and foremost, but now he couldn’t help but feel like he had some responsibility to help this poor fellow out from his own foolishness, or at least to try . They were the only two out around these parts who saw what was going on, what wasn’t quite right. The only outsiders. Oughtn’t they stick together, have each others’ backs? That’s what the Persian thought, surely, but the farmhand seemed intent on handling things alone. Ali figured that was gonna get him killed sooner rather than later. He sighed, nervously. “Jud...you shore, ‘bout this?” he asked, timid. Jud flattened his lips and nodded. “‘Cause you don’t gotta -- y’know, could be dangerous--”

 

“I made up my mind.”

 

“‘S this about Laurey?” Jud was quiet. “Whut, d’you think yer gonna save her ‘r somethin’--” 

 

“I said I made up my mind,” Jud growled, clenching his jaw. 

 

“You know you ain’t -- y’know she’s--” 

 

“Git out!” Jud snapped. Ali stepped back, frightened.

 

"Git out...yeah, I'm tryin'," he said, worry now fully evident in his face and voice. He scrambled to collect the pictures and shove them back in his pack, to pick it up and skedaddle. "Think you oughta, too, though. They's not t' mess with, you seen 'em."

 

Jud looked pensive. "Yeah. I's seen 'em."

 

“Well…” Ali snapped his pack shut and hefted it off the table, tripping over his own feet towards the door. “Don’t ferget what y’ saw.” Jud stared at the wall, silent. “An’-- an’ make sure y’ thought this through…” His nerves were getting to him. He fumbled with the door and pulled it open. Jud’s eyes squinted a little from the light. “...I gotta git outta here,” Ali said, mostly to himself, and stole away, shutting the door behind and thinking how Jud oughta do the same but almost certainly wouldn’t.

 

Jud sat, like a stone. He hunched over, resting his elbows on his legs, chin in his hands. Then curled in further, head to his lap, fingers combing and tensing through his hair. He gritted his teeth, he groaned and growled, he bit back tears. How fucking miserable he was, how weak and foolish . To sit here all alone. To be cast out and approached only to be mocked, taunted, bullied, put down. Charmed . The most insulting of it all, that he lost himself, his own will to that fucking cowman’s crooning. That scourge on Earth. Must be some kind of demon , Jud reckoned. 

 

Maybe the other folks were too far gone. Maybe the peddler was the only one else not corrupted by its sway, but he was too cowardly to do anything about it but tuck his tail and head for the hills, get the hell out of Dodge as quick as he could. But Jud wasn’t a coward. No, he wasn’t a coward, he wasn’t no snake hiding in his hole, rattling and baring his fangs for nothing. No, he was going to do something about it. 

 

For himself. For Laurey. For all of them. 

 

He was gonna start dealing with it now, tonight. And he was gonna start with that damned cowboy.