First off, he arrives with both eyes intact and his knife-belt still
full; second, it ain't actually *hot*, as such. Third,
Monk McGinn's there already, a half-finished leg of lamb tucked under one arm, grinning like the loon Bill the Butcher
always held he was from the longhouse door: *Hey, Mr. "Community Leader" Cutting, what took yez so long?
Found the Draft a bit more strong than you thought, that last day or so?*
But then, for fourth, there's the snowy ground in front, and Priest
Vallon waiting for him--tall as a tree, cross and
sword in hand. So perhaps it's a sort of Heaven, after all.
They fight for all day and all night for some long time, with breaks
between for drink and carousal 'round the fire.
And Jenny ain't there, no more is the Priest's wife (which might begin to strike Bill odd, if he ever allowed himself to
think much on it), or the Priest's ingratitudinous whelp Amsterdam neither, so Bill takes it there ain't been much
time passed back below.
Yet it's not like there's ever much space to muse in after the last
battle or before the next, even were Bill inclined to;
not like he's led a life which points him towards introspection, in any event.
Besides all which, it's so *good*--so *right*, and good, and perfect
in all ways--Bill can barely contain himself,
mostwise: The best hour of his entire life, stretched out into infinity. Nothing but cut and slice, dodge and dart, and
no matter what wound you give or get, it's healed up by nightfall or sunrise. There's a raft of other gladiators here,
none of 'em from anywhere civilized; most made the mistake--at least once--of telling him they didn't know where
"America" was, 'till his cleaver taught 'em better.
But they're nothing but time-fillers, anyways. Just meat for Bill to
whet himself on, when they're fool enough to
throw themselves between him and his rightful prey.
And: "You met my son," the Priest says, one night or morning. "My Amsterdam...he came to you, eventually?"
"Yeah, I gathered him in. Good kid. Got sand. Takes instruction well, too."
"Where do you think he is now?"
"Upside, I'm guessin', for a few more years yet." Bill grins, wide enough
to show where those grey teeth on one
side used to be, adding: "Though I'll look to see him here, eventually, that's for sure--he owes me that much,
minding he give me my death-blow."
The Priest sighs, looking into the fire, where the logs spit and crackle.
Asks: "Does this all not start to pall for you
"Not even a bit?"
"Well, I ain't too fond of the company, considering this place is full
to the gills with Micks like you and McGinn, not to
mention those other foreign types. But it goes without sayin' how I can't fault the menu."
Nevertheless, from that moment on, things start to crack. Like some
damn joke played on him by larger
forces--so's the Priest's had fifteen more years of this than he has; does that mean he got the right to piss on Bill's
"I'm for no more of this," the Priest says, eventually--throws his damn
sword down and turns away from Bill like
Bill's nothing more than another long-bearded mail-coat what can't even speak English. Like there *ain't* sixteen
full years of history between 'em, with milennia yet to live out here on the Devil's grill.
"*Fight*, damn you!" Bill snarls, and puts a knife in the Priest's back,
twisted deep, just for the hurt of it. But the
Priest barely halts to pull it free, as he heads back for the longhouse door.
"I've fought enough," he throws back. "Ye can do what you like, if ye even know what that is--"
"I want what I *want*, is all--what I'm owed. I paid fair enough for
it. Lived and died for it, one way or another. And
if you claim you ain't had no part in that, you're a liar just like that bog-trotting son of yours!"
The Priest turns, and they glare at each other--Bill coiled in on himself
with anger, lean and lithe as a spring; the
Priest trunk-rooted, implaccable, his head like a halo. Pronouncing, in that preacher's voice, from that great,
"You're a selfish, willful, ravening man, William Cutting. Let me alone
to worship my God in peace, and wait for my
son to join me!"
"Don't be daft! Ain't no *peace* for such as you and me--"
After which--for punctuation--Bill throws himself full-scale up against
the Priest one more time, so hard they both
shake and almost fall, together. And oh, the savage joy of it, to finally push and be pushed back against by
someone's got the sand and muscle to do it hard enough to hurt...
But: "You'll get no more sport from me," the Priest says, pulling himself
away. And goes back inside, leaving Bill to
So more time passes, in its timeless way: Summer's coming on now, with
the scent of fresh flowers in the air, and
the battlefield green with new growth. The food is good in the longhouse, the booze even better, and the women
are shield-maidens all, fierce and ready to tussle as any Satan's Circus ever played host to.
But none of 'em are Jenny, not even near--and if the Priest won't never
fight no more, then maybe this place *is*
some form of Hell, after all.
"Knowin' you never had much schooling," Monk begins of one particular
morning, plopping himself down next to
Bill just as the trays of roast meat and mead are handed 'round, "at least in the ways of the True Church, I thought
I'd tell ya something Father Hugo told me once--"
"The one-armed priest at the Old Brewery, Bill; don't interrupt me again,
if you truly want to hear the whole of what
I've got to say."
"Jesus Christ crucified, you've grown nice in your afterlife, McGinn.
But what the hell--say on, potato-peeler.
"Father Hugo once told me the only difference between Hell and Purgatory
was, Purgatory's the one you can
eventually make it out of."
And sure, Monk's just the same overfed blabbermouth mooncalf he always
was...but now Bill finds he has a cold
new fear to swallow on, freezing him clear through the centre of where he's always been told his soul should be:
The growing fear of waking up one morning or night to find the Priest simply *gone*, and him left alone--with
Monk, with his fists, with his knives, with his rage.
So maybe it's that makes him follow the Priest around for the next (month?)
or so, in full battle regalia, scowling
and taunting and berating the Priest at every turn: Questioning his piety, his courage, his lineage. Doing whatever
he can to transfer some of this terrible fever inside him to the Priest, before it eats him away altogether from the
Until one evening, when the Priest catches him fuming at him across
the table, beating an impatient tattoo on the
boards with the sole of his boot--then leans over faster and farther than Bill ever thought he could to collar him by
the back of the head, one huge palm cupping Bill's leather-slicked skull--
--and pulls him in, muzzles him deep with a hot mash of lips and teeth;
makes him twist in surprise, a hooked fish
jerking, and still holds him there, effortless, with the Priest's clever Mick tongue sunk like a sword to its hilt in Bill's
"Should've tried this manner of attack years ago," the Priest remarks,
when they break apart at last, "seein' how
well it's finally stopped all your bloody stupid talk."
To which Bill first gapes, then takes a long, harsh breath. And finds himself saying, at last:
"Look...you got Amsterdam. Got your wife, somewheres. Jenny, she's free
of me now, but what've I got,
Priest--what did I ever have, but you? Don't never leave me..."
And Lord God Almighty, King of Hosts, but that unsaid "please" at the
tail of it's a fresh weakness to end all
weaknesses; it cracks his chest wide up under the breastbone just like Amsterdam's knife, leaving Bill utterly
defenseless, splayed in his own shame. He'd gladly cut out both eyes if he thought it'd help, though he
knows--from bitter experience, on that unholy battlefield outside--that they'd just grow back in, soon enough.
"Oh, I think I'll be here some time yet," the Priest tells him, softly.
And presses him back against the longhouse wall
with all that terrible Irish strength of his, so's they tangle like two vines--sharp and rough as steel on steel, fitting
always together like they was made for it. So's when their mouths find each other again in the flickering dark, it's
with a clash, like two swords crossing: Sweet as stolen honey, terrible as an army with banners.
So in the end, whether it's Heaven or Hell ain't for Bill to decide,
no more than anyone else. It's the Hot Country, is
all. Where he is, and will be, and should be. *Must* be.
And the Priest seems to agree. Which might be why he next pulls Bill
upstairs, in full sight of everybody, where they
can find a bed big enough to let them fight the endless battle between 'em out some more.
The Hot Country II: Negotiations