He looked down on his favorite boots- his only boots, the tattered ones his momma gave him- to find them coated thick and black with creosote. He hissed air between his teeth and muttered a curse beneath his breath. His heels scuffed along the railroad ties embedding the shit in the stitching and tread.
His arms were splayed and flailing as he stepped onto the rail and tried to keep his balance. He inhaled the deep stench of the wood preservative and gritted his teeth. Once righted, his hands returned to his belt and his young fingers drummed rhythmically on the worn grip of his new peacemaker. He'd traded Boyd Crowder half a dozen Playboys and three stolen mason jars of Arlo's moonshine even for it. The weight of the steel, heavy in his hand, and the power it promised would have made him smile if his lip hadn't been busted and his eye swollen shut.
His head was still dizzy with concussion and he was finding it harder and harder to teeter on the tie. He was tired of that game now, and decided to his boots were too far gone to save anyway. He stepped back onto the stinking, stained, chemical soaked wood and winced as the hard step down made his teeth clatter together and his sore lip jiggle.
He was headed home now that the trade was finalized. He was going to make Arlo wish he'd never laid a filthy finger on him or his mother. The thought of that whiskey-fueled monster cowering in a corner while his boy held a bead on him made the hair on Raylan's arms stand on end. His momma had already escaped with her life to Noble's Holler and left the boy to take the full force of that asshole's unadulterated, concentrated rage. With his new equalizer, he could put Arlo in the ground forever. Once he was dead and buried beneath that headstone in the yard, she could come home again and they'd be happy. All it would take would be one bullet and a little courage to free them from all of their problems.
He reached into his jacket pocket and produced a tiny flask of Arlo's pilfered 'shine and took a swig. The alcohol burned his torn lip and lit a fire all the way down his throat, pooling like gasoline in his stomach. The warmth slowly turned to numbness, blurring his vision from the outside in and taking a bit of the sting out of his battered and bruised body.
As he dragged along the tracks thinking of how best to pay Arlo back, a soft, sad noise reached his ear. He shook his head and breathed deep, trying to will his mind out of it's fog and to silence his pulse, now pounding in his ears, long enough to pinpoint the sound. The quiet cries were emanating from the ditch some 200 yards up the track. He scampered over to the side of the tracks and peered into the muddy, trash strewn gutter. Damp and shivering laid the small, limp body of a mongrel puppy no more than a few weeks old. His tiny leg was fractured and he looked to be barely clinging to life. The stark white spur of bone poking through his scruffy, matted fur turned the boy's stomach. He unbuttoned his jacket and removed it, though the evening air was brisk and chilly. He tucked his gun into his belt behind his back and knelt beside the dog.
As gently as he could he gathered the frail form from the filthy water and wrapped him in the plaid fabric. He scurried up the bank and used his jackknife to splay from a birch growing there, two pieces of branch of comparable length to the pups tiny limb. He cut a strip from the bottom of his ragged tank top and quickly fashioned a splint. As he tightened it around the shattered bone and jagged wound seeping life, the puny pup cried and whimpered with what little strength he had left. Raylan shushed him and stroked a finger along his fur. He scooped up his precious package and cradled it in his arms. He reversed his direction and quickened his pace toward Indian Line. He walked until his legs burned and his lungs pleaded for relief. He occasionally checked on his little buddy, lifting his lip and pressing his thumb to the pale gums beneath but did not stop walking. He hummed an Eagles song softly to comfort the tiny creature, talked to it in soothing baritone and forgot about Arlo for a while.
Aunt Helen's house finally loomed in the distance. It was dark but smoke billowed from the chimney signaling she was home. He approached the front porch carefully, knowing what kind of lady Helen was, and what double-barreled surprise stood in the corner behind that door for trespassers. He knocked on the screen door loudly and announced his presence.
Helen answered the door, wild-eyed, shotgun in hand but as soon as she saw her nephews blood-crusted, purple, misshapen face in the harshness of the bare bulb porch light, she returned it to its resting place behind the door.
"Raylan, what in the world..." she started, voice husky with sleep and from too many unfiltered Camels. She opened the screen door and motioned for him to come inside.
"Aunt Helen," he said, looking at his boots. "Sorry to bother you so late. I was walking along the track towards home- you know, the one the Black Snake takes from the mines- and I found this little guy. I don't know what to do. I don't have any money to take him to a vet. Momma's not home or I'd take him to her. I'm afraid he'll die." He set his jacket gingerly on the table and uncovered the sorry, broken, little canine.
Helen hadn't taken her eyes off the boy. She'd known Arlo was a violent drunk and that he liked to beat the living hell out of men at bars, but she didn't think he'd beat his own son so severely. He was only seventeen, for Christ's sake. She thought back over the last time she saw her sister, Frances, and how she'd had mystery bruises on her wrist. Frances attributed to washing clothing in the basin and smashing into the wringer. Come to think of it, they often had bruises and injuries when they'd stop by. Raylan was always catching fly balls and Bennett players' elbows with his face and Frances was always clumsy. That sonuvabitch.
"Aunt Helen?" Raylan asked, bringing her out of her head and back to reality. He looked down at the little lifeless dog in his jacket, tears welling in his open eye. She thought maybe this was the first time she'd seen Raylan cry, aside from when he was just a tad, knee high to a grasshopper.
She followed his gaze to the bundle of clothing and found the small pup still breathing. She rattled around in her medicine drawer and found some aspirin, sterile saline, gauze and ace bandages. She worked on crushing a few pills and tossed the bottle to the boy. It hit him square in the chest and clattered to the floor. He looked bleary eyed at it for a moment before slowly bending to retrieve it.
She said, "Take some of those and go clean yourself up in the bathroom. I'll tend to this little fella while you're away."
He stood on shaky knees and wobbled to her restroom. She glimpsed the gun in his belt as he hobbled down the hall but bit her tongue. She worked on the pup, forcing the pill paste down his throat, rinsing the mud from his jagged hide and worried about the boy in her bathroom.
Raylan blinked into the bright light above the mirror. He swallowed down half a dozen pills with a handful of mineral-laden well water from the tap. He ghosted his fingers over his bulging eye and bloody lip. He touched his face gingerly and checked that he still had all of his teeth. He tugged the gun from it's makeshift holster in his belt and set it on the toilet tank. He stripped his dirty, blood-stained shirt off with a wince and eyed the blue-purple patches over his torn ribs and shoulder. Forgoing the sink he opted for the shower, instead.
He watched the water spray from the shower head weakly in all directions. Steam billowed around him, filling his lungs with moisture and loosening the clotted blood in his nostrils. He stepped into the stream, feeling the scalding water sting each of his scrapes and cuts. Every nerve was on fire and his head swam. His stomach lurched and he vomited, tiny undissolved pills and 'shine mixing with the water. Back to the barrage of pain, he gritted his teeth and wept, head in hands, as blood and vomit swirled down the drain.
He climbed from the shower and carefully toweled off. He dabbed his battered lip with antibiotic and stretched a bandage over the gash on his brow. He sifted through his mussed hair and found a gouge on his scalp. He doused it with rubbing alcohol and cursed through clenched jaws, knuckles white on the edge of the sink. He dropped two or three more pills into his mouth and swished them down. He hobbled back to the kitchen, wrapped in a towel.
The pup was resting, balled up in a clean towel over a hot water bottle and the dryer was tumbling his jacket. Helen sat at the table, smoke curling around her face beneath the overhead light. She had a whiskey in her hand and she looked old. She stood upon his entering and walked to the freezer. She dug around for a minute before producing some frozen peas and a slab of venison. She held the peas out to her nephew and touched it gently to his eye. He recoiled in pain. She rubbed some poultice on his back and looked over the job he did doctoring his face before placing his hand over the bag of peas and moving it to his eye once more. She took the venison to the stove and tossed it in a pan. She nodded toward the couch, made up with a pillow and blanket and not-so-subtlety suggested he was staying there for the night.
After they ate and she finished a few more cigarettes and glasses of whiskey, the buzzer on the dryer sounded for the second time signaling he had clean underwear to sleep in and they went to bed.
In the morning, she made them breakfast and took the stray pup to the vet in town. They hooked his tiny body up to an IV and rushed him off to surgery to fix his mangled leg. She forked over all of the money she had on her toward the tiny dog's care and treatment. On her way home, she dropped by her pharmacist friend's trailer down in Rabbit's Holler to get Raylan something a little stronger than aspirin and to collect on a debt they owed her. She was done worrying about this boy. He was young and smart and caring. It was time he got out of Harlan before he had to do something that would tarnish his soul. She hopped out of the truck, sawed-off in hand, hellbent on setting him free.