A/N: Halloween story! This is my October project, and I'm very excited about it. War AU will be resumed in November. I have a very strict posting schedule for this one: four chapters, a new one posted every Monday, last one will be up on October 29. I've tried to do responsible research, and if you see some glaring error please let me know. This chapter is mostly just setting things up, and I hope the others will be legitimately creepy!
Gerald was given his assignment papers in Kansas City, the last semblance of civilization before what Kyle had been warned was basically wilderness: nothing but mountains and desert until the ocean. There was also gold, which had given rise to some makeshift settlements, and even aggregations of humanity that claimed to be cities. Kyle felt damned to hell anyhow, after what had happened at Trinity and the way it had disgraced his family enough to chase them from the east coast entirely. He thought it was fitting that they should live in the craggy shadow of some western mountains, damp and solitary, outcast.
It was summer and unbearably hot on the train. Kyle had been playing at Christianity since applying to Trinity, and he'd heard plenty about the hell his teachers and classmates believed in. This felt like what he had envisioned on the way to or from Rodney's quarters so many nights, his feet like lead as he plodded toward eternity. Hell wasn't being in a fire so much as melting in air that felt like flame, and the stuffy confines of their train were perfectly suited to Kyle's earthly punishment. His brother and father were inert, staring at the window of the compartment. His mother was tugging her collar down and dabbing at her chest with a moistened handkerchief in an attempt not to faint.
"Kyle, have you eaten anything?" she asked when night began to fall. Ike was digging his teeth into some cold chicken their father had brought back from the dining car, and no one was scolding him for eating like an animal, using his hands. There were no plates, no utensils; the dining car was scarcely more than a bar with a stove top, Gerald had said.
"I'm not hungry," Kyle said, though he couldn't be sure that was true. His stomach was pinched up tightly with some combination of emptiness and dread, and it seemed too narrow a thing to get anything but the occasional sip of coppery-tasting water into.
"Eat something anyway," his mother said. It was her answer for everything and a frequent refrain since Kyle's fall from grace. His father had done little more than regard him sadly from a distance, and Ike reminded Kyle daily that he hated him for taking him away from his friends, the city, their lives.
Eventually they all slept, and Kyle tried to but couldn't. With the lights on in the hallway it was hard to see anything from the compartment window except for their pathetic, huddled reflections. He imagined that they must have entered the desert at some point during the night, though it was possible that there was a more direct route to Denver. They would be heading south from the station there, deeper into the mountains, toward a place called Pike's Peak that had been a significant source of wealth for prospectors in 1859 and for a few years afterward. Now, in 1862, the opportunities for particularly easy money were fading and the settlement at the foot of the mountains was becoming a dangerous place for those who remained. Kyle's father had sought a judgeship in an anonymous place where he could distract himself with the work of keeping order, and this was certainly anonymous, nonexistent to everyone they knew in New York. Kyle had thought New Jersey might be wilderness enough for the Broflovskis to escape into, but Professor Rodney Holland had proved to be more famous than Kyle had realized. He was infamous now, which made Kyle infamous enough by association to need to put two thousand miles between his family and the scandal.
The sun came up and an attendant came to the door of their compartment with coffee. Kyle drank some, foolishly, and it upset his empty stomach until he was sure he would be sick. Ike was annoyingly boisterous, talking about the reading he'd done on the wildlife in this part of the territory. The porter came down the hallway announcing that they would be arriving in a quarter of an hour.
"We'll be met at the station by the Sheriff," Kyle's father said.
"Oh, God," his mother said. "I hope he isn't some – wild man."
"I hope he has teeth," Ike said, drumming a fingertip against his front two. "At least a few."
Kyle felt as though their every negative expectation of the place and its citizens reflected badly upon him, and he supposed that was fair. This was what he had chosen for his family, unwittingly, by deviating from society, biology, and everything that constructed proper civilization, so they had been thrust from it.
No one met them at the station in Denver, and after the train pulled away, headed on to California, there was nobody on the platform except the hapless Broflovskis, surrounded by a pile of luggage, and a teenage boy who was sleeping in a chair, a hat pulled down over his face. It was approaching lunchtime, and Kyle's stomach was in terrible shape. He wanted a clean restroom, soft sheets, cool water. Everything in Denver was hot and dusty, and he did not expect to discover any of those comforts when they arrived at their final destination.
"I suppose we'll have to wait," Gerald said.
"Unless that's the Sheriff," Ike said, gesturing to the boy.
"Maybe he knows something, anyway," Gerald said, muttering. He approached the boy and cleared his throat. "Young man?" Gerald said. "Excuse me?"
The boy woke with a start, the chair that he'd tipped back against the side of the ticket counter landing hard on all four legs. His hat tumbled off, and he regarded Gerald with bleary confusion that quickly transformed into panic.
"Oh, gosh, oh!" he said, springing up. He was small and fair, with giant blue eyes that probably looked startled even under the best of circumstances. "I drifted off, oh gosh – do you know, mister, if the one o'clock from Kansas City come in yet?"
"Yes, it has," Sheila said, stepping forward to take over. She had a habit of doing so, and Kyle was rarely glad for it. "We've just arrived on that train, in fact, and we're looking for Sheriff, ah – Gerald, what was the man's name?"
"Stotch," Gerald said. "Stephen Stotch."
"Yeah, that's my dad!" the boy said, breaking into a random, manic grin that made Ike snicker. The boy bent down to retrieve his hat, screwed it back over his fluffy hair and threw his hand out for Gerald to take. "I'm Leopold, Stephen's son. He sent me 'cause he had some trouble in town that he had to see to. He sends his, um, regrets for his absence, but I can take ya'll into town."
"Leopold," Gerald said, shaking his hand. "Thank you, I—"
"You can call me Butters," he said. "That's what everyone in town calls me, on account of when I was little the other kids tricked me into showing my rear to the pastor for a joke, and they've called me Butters ever since." He turned progressively redder as he told this story, and he gave Sheila a shaky smile.
"Young man," she said, "I hope you can help us with our luggage. And I hope you can refrain from talking about your – unmentionables in front of a lady and an impressionable child during the trip to town."
"Mother," Ike said.
"Oh, dang, I'm sorry," Butters said, and he fidgeted, his cheeks coloring more deeply. "They told me you all were from the city and that you were real dignified and such, and they said, 'Butters is going to embarrass us all,' and I said, 'no, I will not!' but here I go talking about unmentionables, I'm sorry, ma'am, I only meant to explain my name—"
"Can you load the luggage, please?" Kyle said, unable to stand this any longer.
"I sure can!" Butters said, and he dashed for it as if someone had fired at his feet.
"You are not to order the people of this community around as if they work for us," Gerald said to Kyle in a whisper as Butters loaded their luggage into the carriage he'd brought, Ike assisting and Sheila overseeing.
"I'm sorry," Kyle said. "But this is absurd—" He made himself shut up when he saw in his father's eyes that he was restraining himself from reminding Kyle exactly why they were here. His parents had been kind not to cast him out completely, though he did partially blame them for the way he'd turned out, and for being so determined to send him to that goyim school.
Kyle had to ride up front with Butters, perhaps as punishment for having disrespected him. He was grim and tired, his stomach lurching as the horses drew the carriage over unpaved roads, and twice he had to swallow down coffee-flavored bile that threatened to rise. The mountains loomed around them, not majestic like the ones Kyle had seen during the family's trip to Europe. These were eerie and ominous, unwelcoming.
"How old are you?" Butters asked Kyle.
"Sixteen," Kyle said.
"Oh, how about that! I turn seventeen in September." Butters stared at Kyle as if he expected him to be excited.
"Perhaps you should watch the road," Kyle said.
"What's this business that your father had to stay behind to tend to?" Gerald asked Butters.
"Oh, it's just Eric causing a fuss," Butters said. "He's all worked up about the Confederacy, trying to start a rally. My father says he's gonna get it once the Union sends their overseer in -– I guess that's you!"
"My God," Sheila said. "Does this Eric person know that we're arriving today?"
"That would be quite a welcome party," Ike said. "Will there be burning torches?"
"Eric won't bother you, I promise," Butters said. "He tries to start rallies all the time -– even before the war, he was always complaining about something, but nobody listens to him. My dad'll usually just throw him in the lockup for the night, and he'll go crawling back to the boarding house in the morning."
"So your father is a Union supporter?" Gerald asked.
"Well," Butters said. "He thinks they'll win the war. We don't have a lot to do with the federals, sir. Maybe we will now, um, now you're here. My dad hopes so, anyway. He's been wanting more order."
Kyle had heard a lot about the war from Rodney, but it had never felt real to him. No matter what sort of draft measures were adopted, Kyle would never qualify for the army. He had delicacies, mental and physical, and had been exempt from sport at Trinity. Now they would be living in disputed territory, and though the war was being fought elsewhere its realities felt much closer.
They pulled into town in the early evening, and Kyle was bent at the waist from hunger and dread, clutching his stomach. The settlement at the foot of Pike's Peak was as unimpressive as he'd feared, a single dirt-paved main street lined by thirty-odd buildings, ranches dotted along the hills. The Broflovskis were to be given a house in town, and as they pulled up to it Butters explained that it had been a brothel, and that his father had only recently cleared it out.
"But don't worry," Butters said. "We got the younger girls married off good. I got one myself!" He held up his hand to show them his wedding ring. "Her name's Millie and she's a real good woman, since she's been saved now and all. By Jesus, I mean, not by me. Are ya'll Methodists or what?"
"Methodists, yes," Gerald said tightly. They'd had to pretend so that Kyle could get into Trinity, which was supposed to be a good thing for the whole family, the pathway that would lead him toward Harvard or Yale and onward to a real fortune. Kyle's parents had come over from Poland in the forties, when things there began to grow politically uncertain. His father had done well in America as a lawyer, and they'd found a supportive community of other Jewish immigrants in New York, but there were no schools like Trinity for Jews, so they stretched the truth on Kyle's application, and Kyle was expected to live the lie at school. They would have to lie here, too, since they would already be seen as suspicious outsiders. There would be no welcoming community of fellow Jewish families to greet them.
The only thing that greeted them at their new home was the stench of whiskey and a rat that scurried into the darkness behind the bar. Butters dashed around the front room lighting lamps, trying to make the place look respectable, but it was a losing battle. He needn't have told them it was once a brothel; this was exactly how Kyle would have envisioned one. Making his way toward the stairs with his bags, he had to stop to throw up.
"Bubbeh!" his mother cried, rushing to him.
"Oh, gosh," Butters said. "I hope you're okay?"
"He's fine," Gerald said. "Go and tell your father I'd like to meet with him this evening, please."
"Sure, well – ya'll are invited to dinner!" Butters said. "My mom's been cooking all day."
"Fine," Gerald said. "We'll be there."
"Seven o'clock," Butters said, waving as he backed toward the door. "It's the big house at the end of the road, the yellow one, you can't miss it!"
"God," Ike said when Butters was gone, Sheila dabbing at Kyle's sweaty forehead with her already damp handkerchief. "Do we really have to stay here?"
"Quiet!" Sheila said. "Your brother is ill!"
"He ought to be! He's the reason we're damned to hell!"
"Just leave me here to die alone," Kyle said, and he fell into his mother's arms to sob.
He was brought upstairs, to a dusty room with a single bed and mattress that he didn't trust. His mother did her best to make the room cozier, covering the mattress with clean sheets and putting up the curtains they'd brought from his room at home, but Kyle still felt as if he had arrived in his prison cell. He fell onto the bed and stayed motionless when his mother sat beside him to rake his wilted curls from his forehead.
"You're just overtired," she said, her voice trembling. "We'll have a nice, home cooked meal with those people tonight—"
"Mother, I will not. I can't bear another minute of that imbecile. Bragging about being married to a whore? He was completely sincere!"
"Shh, don't be cruel. We knew people here would be simple. At least he wasn't hideous looking. And apparently he's the town buffoon, he all but said so himself. I'm sure there's someone here you can befriend. The population is almost two hundred, after all."
"Two hundred," Kyle said miserably, rolling onto his side. "I'm sorry. I shouldn't complain. It's you who've been brought here unfairly, thanks to me. Ike is right."
"Ike is an angry little boy, and you'll never convince me that man didn't take advantage of you." His mother stood with a huff and went to the window. Kyle was afraid to hear more, his heart pounding. They had not discussed Rodney explicitly, and she wasn't wrong to suspect that the whole thing had not been Kyle's idea. "I'm all too glad to get you away from that world if that's how things were there."
"But how could I be happy here?" Kyle asked.
"I don't know, bubbeh." She was at the window, looking out at the main road. "We'll just have to figure that out, all of us."
His parents left for dinner at quarter till seven, and Kyle was surprised when Ike agreed to join them. Kyle feigned illness to get out of it, and his mother allowed the lie, selling it to his father. Kyle was sorry that he had stayed almost as soon as they were gone. He sat up in bed, blinking around the room, his eyes stinging, face puffy. It was high summer and dusk was just beginning to fall outside, the sky still warm and blue, shaded purplish with the oncoming night. His mother had opened the window to reduce the room's stuffiness, and the curtains were moving with a slight breeze. Outside, the street was eerily quiet, and the air through the window was tinted with something metallic. Gold, Kyle thought, and he slid out of bed with a snort at the thought that people in this town probably thought they could smell it, that it intoxicated them with the false promise of an easy fortune.
He spent some time setting up his room, unpacking his clothes and his books, searching the pages for stray notes from Rodney that he'd failed to burn. The thought that Rodney was in prison in New York, awaiting trial for sodomy, was something Kyle had hardly had time to process. Now, alone in a retired brothel, the fact that Rodney might be imprisoned for ten years penetrated the haze of his melancholy at last. Kyle wasn't sad about it, exactly; Rodney had forced him at least twice. He had also doted on Kyle, read to him and cuddled him, and sometimes that was worse, or at least more insulting, than being held down and spanked.
The more Kyle allowed himself to think about it, the closer the walls seemed to come, until he felt like there was no air left in the room. He went to the window and put his head out to try to get his breath, but the sight of the looming mountain made him dizzy, and he had to fling himself back into the room. He stumbled through it, tripping over unsorted books, and went out into the hallway, where the reek of old perfume was less pervasive. Still, the whole building felt sinister, lamps throwing flickering shadows down on the first floor. Kyle hurried down the stairs, feeling his throat tighten as if there were hands around it. He needed to be elsewhere, to get away somehow, and pushing out onto the empty street was only a small relief. He didn't want to be seen from the windows of the other houses, where 'simple' people were sitting down to dinner.
He walked in the direction opposite the large yellow house at the end of the road, which sat like a kind of mockery of a governor's mansion, light spilling out from large windows onto the front yard. The sun continued to sink as Kyle made his way off the main road, toward a meadow he saw in the distance, wide and welcoming, spilling into the foothills. Yes: if he could simply reach that meadow he would be able to breathe.
The sky was blazing with the sunset by the time he arrived there, and he sunk down to his knees amid the wildflowers, hungry and exhausted. It was dangerous for him to go without eating, and his mother had made him promise to at least have a snack. There was nothing but the nuts and candies they'd brought for the train trip, and Kyle didn't want them, because they were a reminder of the shops in New York that they'd come from, the kinds of goods they would never find here. He pulled his knees to his chest and surveyed the meadow, grasses and flowers tickled by a cool breeze that came down from the mountain. Kyle had his back to it, but there were others in the distance: even outdoors, half a mile from the settlement, he was boxed in.
The thoughts that had driven him from his new home did not take long to catch up to him, and he wondered if he would suffer with them in this godforsaken wilderness until he required a straight-jacket to stop him from ripping his hair out in handfuls. He folded his arms over his knees and put his head down, pinching his eyes shut tightly. He'd actually allowed himself to believe that Rodney's grooming would lead to opportunity, that it was about more than what went on in Rodney's bedroom after curfew. Kyle been so desperate to see it all as some kind of acknowledgement that he was special, that he had a certain destiny. Now he was certain that Rodney had simply selected the boy who would be the easiest to lead astray: Kyle with his secret history, his lack of friends, his flaming hair that earned him a dozen cruel nicknames before he'd even been to his first lesson. Kyle had been an outsider, vulnerable to suggestion, easy to tame. Hating Rodney now, Kyle hoped he would be condemned to the maximum sentence for his crimes and perish pathetically in prison. It hurt to hate him at last, because he had worked so hard to convince himself that he didn't, once.
He heard a dog barking and looked up with alarm to see one rushing into the meadow, large and brown with pointed ears. The dog seemed unfriendly and his barking was clearly a threat. Kyle scrambled to his feet in a panic, not sure what the protocol for dog attacks was. If he were to run, especially fatigued like this, the dog would catch him and pounce, interpreting his flight as a confirmation that he was prey. Kyle stood there frozen, bracing himself and holding his hands up in surrender when the dog was upon him, smelling like mud and rabid breath.
"Spark – Sparky!"
The dog had stopped barking and was sniffing Kyle frantically, trying to get between his legs. Kyle was afraid to push it away and only marginally glad to see a man jogging toward him to retrieve it. The man had a rifle and was wearing a wide-brimmed hat like the one Butters had, unfashionable and old-looking, though the man himself looked more like a boy as he came closer, roughly Kyle's age.
"Sparky!" he said, slapping his thigh, and the dog tore away from Kyle, rushing his owner with wild glee. "Sorry," the man said, and he tipped his hat back to show Kyle more of his face. It was an instant relief: he was sweet-looking, bright eyed, and seemed to have all of his teeth. "I hope he didn't scare you."
"No – yes." Kyle wasn't sure what the protocol here was, either. He'd left his jacket and hat back at the house, and he was wearing a half-untucked shirt that needed changing. "It's alright, though," he said, not wanting this man to think he was angry. "He only wanted to smell me, I think."
"Yeah, that's what he usually wants," the man said. He was smiling at Kyle, petting the dog absently as it frisked about. "He's not much of an attack dog, or a hunting dog, but I'm not much of a hunter. Where'd you come from?"
"Ah – from there," Kyle said, feeling stupid when he gestured to the town. "I've just moved to town, um. Kyle Broflovski," he said, too loudly, and he threw his hand out.
"Oh, hey." They shook. "I'm Stan. Marsh. Did you come with the judge?"
"Yes," Kyle said. He was still shaking Stan's hand, or Stan was still shaking his. "He's my father."
Stan let go first, nodding. "I heard he was arriving today. That's good. We need a Union judge around here. You're from New York?"
"That's right." Kyle was alarmed by the idea that people here would have been expecting him, and he wondered if he was more or less what Stan had envisioned. Probably more in the sense of his hair and nose and ridiculous lonely wanderings in the meadow, less in other areas.
"Are you alright?" Stan asked.
"I don't know," Kyle said. He was shaken from the approach of the dog, unprepared to have a conversation but not sorry to have company. "I'm – I haven't felt well, the journey was long."
"Here," Stan said. He put the gun down in the grass and dug into a pack that was slung over his right shoulder. He came up with a canteen and handed it to Kyle. "It's water," he said. "From this one spring I go to when I hunt here – I think it's got healing powers. Well. That sounds stupid, but. You want to sit down?"
Kyle did, and he was embarrassed and glad when Stan sat beside him, the dog calming instantly and flopping down to rest its head on its paws. The water was good, clean and cool, faintly metallic like the air. Stan pulled some dried fruit from his bag, and though the apple slices looked like severed ears, Kyle was glad for them and ate ten.
"Shit, that would be a long ride," Stan said. "All the way from New York. How come your dad wanted a judgeship here?"
"Just – it's a long story," Kyle said, perhaps rudely. "How long has your family been here?"
"About three years," Stan said. "Me and my dad came from Oklahoma after my mom died and my sister got married."
"Oh. I'm sorry – about your mother."
"Yeah, I'm still—" Stan said, and he looked down at the blade of wheat grass he was picking at. "Thanks, I mean. You got any siblings?"
"Yes, a brother, and I think he'd like to disown me most of the time," Kyle said. "He's adopted. I think his parents were French smugglers. Or – he thinks that. He thinks it means he's much tougher than me. Anyway, he's thirteen," Kyle mumbled, embarrassed. Stan was grinning, for some reason. "What?" Kyle said, and he touched his lips, afraid he had some dried apple stuck there.
"Nothing," Stan said, and he shrugged. "It's just good to meet someone new, hear some new stories. Past three years all I've seen is the same sorry faces every day."
"The settlement is drying up?" Kyle said, and then he felt badly, because maybe that was insulting. "I mean to say – the gold?"
"Well, not really," Stan said. "It's just down to real mining now, breaking rock. I don't know if I'm cut out for it, but I'm trying. I'm up in the mountains six days a week, till about this time a day, when I try to get us something to eat. My dad – he ain't well."
"Oh, I'm sorry," Kyle said. "He's ill?"
"Sorta. Heartbroken, I guess. He drinks."
"Oh." Kyle felt himself flushing, and he looked down at his lap to hide it. "Sorry, I'm – interrupting your hunting, I guess."
"It's alright. I got a deer three days ago. I hate shooting them, you know?"
"I – imagine it would be awful." Kyle was still flushed, but he looked up to meet Stan's eyes. They were pretty, like something unearthed in a mountain, jewel-toned, dark blue. "I've never shot anything," Kyle said.
"Oh yeah? I thought people up north hunted foxes or something. Your dad hunt?"
"Um, no, I don't think so."
"Then, well. How are ya'll going to eat?"
"Oh, God," Kyle said, and he put his hands over his face. "I don't know. I'm sorry. I must seem insane to you – I hardly know what I'm doing here. They've put us up in this horrible old whore house, and my family is eating dinner with that Sheriff, his son picked us up at the station—"
"Butters?" Stan said. "Yeah, we all said it was a bad idea, sending him. He's okay, though, just kinda dim."
"Yes, well – no, he was fine, it's me, I'm not very – I'm just tired, I think. Sorry, I'm rambling."
"Here," Stan said, offering the canteen, and Kyle drank more water.
"I have some health conditions," Kyle said, and he wanted to take it back, feeling completely idiotic now. Stan raised his eyebrows.
"Shit, like what?"
"Um, never mind." Kyle shook his head. "Tell me, is there culture here? What do people do for – recreation?"
"Well, since they shut down the whorehouse," Stan said, and he grinned at Kyle's expression. "No, I'm kidding. Well, not really, the whores were a big draw, but now Sheriff Stotch has made them all into little church mice. I usually go to the saloon after this here, when the others come down the mountain. You want to come with me? I could introduce you around."
"I don't know if I'm prepared for that at the moment," Kyle said. "But – thank you, I'd like that." He was actually terrified at the prospect, but he supposed he'd have to face it sooner or later. "Tomorrow, though, maybe?"
"Sure," Stan said. "We play cards and drink, I guess that's our culture. Sometimes somebody will play some decent music. There's a piano at your place, somewhere under a sheet. I bet you can play."
"I can," Kyle said, embarrassed, though it was also oddly charming to be guessed at correctly.
"Liane was teaching me," Stan said. "She was the owner of the whorehouse before Stotch ran her off. She's up in Denver now, so I guess I can forget about piano lessons. Wish she would have took her goddamn son with her."
"I could give you lessons," Kyle said.
"You serious?" Stan asked.
"Well, yes." Kyle had assumed that was the answer he'd been fishing for. "I have to do something useful, after all. I suppose there's no school here?"
"Nah, nothing like that," Stan said.
"Are you – educated?"
Stan laughed, and Kyle was flustered, not sure if he was being made fun of. Maybe this meeting would become a hilarious story for Stan's friends at the saloon.
"I went to school in Oklahoma," Stan said. "I know how to read – how to write, even."
"I didn't mean—"
"I know, I'm just teasing. You went to some big school in New York, I bet?"
"Well, 'big,' I don't know if that's the right word for it," Kyle said, mumbling. "It was – prestigious, I guess. But awful in the end."
"Yeah?" Stan looked genuinely concerned about this when Kyle glanced up at him. Or maybe Kyle just wanted him to be.
"They're just very snotty," Kyle said. "And I'm Jewish." He hadn't meant to admit that. "But they didn't know it. And frankly I'd prefer it if you didn't tell anyone. We want to fit in here."
"I won't tell," Stan said. "I've never known a Jewish person before. I have this book about religions of the Orient that my mom gave me. It's real interesting. Not that Jewish people are from the Orient, exactly," he said, sounding uncertain.
"No, we're from Poland." Kyle rubbed his hands over his face, wishing he could get himself to shut up. "My parents were, anyway. Really – don't let me keep you here if you have work to do."
"My work's done for the day," Stan said. "And you still look a little white. Here, drink." He held up the canteen and grinned when Kyle sighed, taking it.
"Why do you think this spring water has healing qualities?" Kyle asked, eying the canteen after he'd drunk from it.
"I've sort of got a head for that stuff," Stan said.
"Oh. Well, wait. What stuff?"
"Legends and mysteries and stuff like that. That's why I like reading about them Oriental religions. They got all kinds of secrets, this whole invisible universe. Nothing against Jesus, but he's mostly got rules."
"Our God mostly has rules, too," Kyle said. "My parents aren't very strict about them, though. We don't even keep kosher."
"Rules for eating," Kyle said. "I've got all sorts of those already, even without getting religion involved."
"Yeah?" Stan seemed truly interested. The dog had fallen asleep.
"I have a condition," Kyle said. "To do with my blood. I have to eat – just so. Thank you for the apples."
"Do you want more?" Stan asked, going for his bag.
"No, I'm fine." Kyle sighed and looked up the sky, where unfamiliar stars were beginning to appear. "I suppose we should head back to town."
"Yep," Stan said. He stood and the dog leapt up, instantly energetic. Kyle took Stan's hand when he offered it. "I've got to get home and make dinner," Stan said. "Then I'll be at the bar – sure you don't want to come?"
"Tomorrow," Kyle said, and Stan smiled. "What?"
"Nothing," he said. "I'm just glad I'll get to introduce them to someone new. They'll be real put out that I met you first, I can't wait. Some of 'em will stare at you like you're a circus animal, but they won't mean nothing by it, they're just mountain people."
"Mountain people." Kyle shuddered. "Well, just don't forget not to mention I'm Jewish. God, I suppose we'll have to go to church services here, to fit in." He scowled, and Stan laughed.
"Me and my dad don't go," he said. "Reverend Donovan's always getting after us like we should. I believe in God and Jesus and all that, but I think it might be a little more complicated than the Reverend knows."
"How so?" Kyle asked. They had left the meadow, and Kyle slowed his steps, not wanting to return to that dark, quiet house.
"You believe in spirits, things like that?" Stan asked.
"Uh," Kyle said. "No, not really."
"I guess it sounds dumb," Stan said, looking down at the dog.
"Well, no," Kyle said. "I mean, I believe people have souls." He thought of Rodney, who had studied in Paris with famous atheists. He'd said 'that's alright, you're still a baby' when Kyle confessed that he wasn't comfortable forgetting about God altogether. Kyle had wanted to ask how his status as a baby made him a fit receptacle for Rodney's come. "And if we have souls," Kyle said, noticing that Stan had gone quiet, as if his feelings were hurt, "I suppose it's not too far off to believe that their spirits might be – around. It's interesting to think about, anyway."
"I think it's real interesting," Stan said, his eyes lighting again. "I could tell you some stories about things that have happened around here. About spirits."
"I'd like to hear them," Kyle said, though it was the sort of talk he usually detested. Mostly he wanted to see Stan again, to sit with him in that meadow and be irresponsibly frank while eating dried fruit.
"It won't scare you?" Stan asked, and he grinned when Kyle gave him an insulted look.
"I doubt it," Kyle said. "But it would be appropriate, I guess. To learn some local legends."
"Appropriate," Stan said, and he knocked his elbow against Kyle's arm. "Hey, look. I'm glad we met. You should tell me your local legends, too. I mean, stuff about New York."
"If you'd like," Kyle said, flattered.
It was dark by the time they reached the main road, and Kyle looked back at where they'd had been. The meadow was completely hidden by nightfall, too far to be illuminated by the light thrown off by the town. The street was busier than it had been during the dinner hour, and the stares of passerby unnerved Kyle.
"Sorry," he said when he walked close enough to Stan to bump their shoulders together.
"For what?" Stan asked.
"Oh – nothing."
"Our ranch is up that way," Stan said, pointing. "Past the yellow house, about a mile and a half down the road that runs by the stream. It says Marsh on the mailbox. That's my last name. Did I tell you that?"
"You did," Kyle said. They had come to the front stairs of the former brothel, and people on the porches of the houses across the street were staring. "This makes me so damn conspicuous," Kyle said, running his hand through his hair. "City or country, everywhere I go."
"It's good, though," Stan said. Kyle wasn't sure why he was lingering, staring up at Kyle as he took the first few steps. "Having someone around who doesn't look like everyone else."
"Good for who?" Kyle asked, though he was flattered again, flushing. "Not for me."
"They'll be nice to you."
"'Cause you're my friend," Stan said, and he put his hand out. "Right?"
"You've been so kind to me," Kyle said, shaking Stan's hand. "I really needed it, thank you."
"Like I said," Stan said, and he adjusted his hat. "It's good to talk to someone new. Come to the Dark Horse tomorrow at eight." He pointed to a saloon down the road that was already growing noisy, patrons laughing on the front steps and rowdy piano music playing inside. "I'll be there, probably at one of the card tables."
"Alright," Kyle said. "Or, wait. Maybe you could stop here and pick me up on your way? It's just that I don't normally walk into saloons. I wouldn't know how to do it."
"It ain't that hard, but yeah, I'll come and get you. C'mon, Spark!" Stan backed away, waving. "Have a pleasant evening," he said, and he bowed a little. Kyle watched him go, wondering if what had just transpired had been the strangest hour of his life. It was the most unexpectedly enjoyable hour he'd spent in a long time, without doubt.
Kyle had trouble sleeping, woken at times by unfamiliar creaks and the sounds from the street that leaked in past the closed window. He was accustomed to the relatively constant noise of the city, but here things would go quiet for hours only to be pierced suddenly by drunken laughter from down the road. Each time he woke feeling uneasy, envisioning horrible scenes of sexual debauchery that had taken place in this room over the years, he forced himself to think of Stan, and of how calm he'd felt in the meadow when they sat together sharing food and water. And talking – really talking, in a way that Kyle hadn't spoken to anyone in years, possibly ever. They'd talked about souls and everything. He smiled in the dark, remembering this, and the way Stan's eyes were deep blue and lively like an uncharted sea.
He knew it was trouble, thinking like this, the way he had fantasized about a few of his classmates at Trinity. In his imagination they were so much kinder than Rodney, unexperienced like Kyle and patient with him, real allies. In reality they mostly just made jokes about his hair and the rumors that he was getting buggered by the Sciences professor. He was afraid, already, that he would spoil this miraculous new friendship with his unnatural desires. They had spoiled so much already, and by the time he rose from his bed in the morning he'd resolved to keep them tightly locked up.
"It's looking better already, don't you think?" his mother said when he came downstairs. She had cleaned the cobwebs from the corners of the main room, pushed four tables together and covered them with one of their nicest tablecloths, and was currently scrubbing down the bar. She'd come from poverty and was no stranger to hard work, but Kyle had never seen this side of her personally, and the kerchief she'd tied over her mound of hair was unnerving. "I chased that rat out," she said. "The Stotches were kind enough to loan us some traps. Did you see the piano?"
"Yes," Kyle said. He walked to it and lifted the cover from the keys, touching one lightly. His mother seemed to have already rid the instrument of dust and polished it. "Did you even sleep?" Kyle asked.
"A little," she said, still scrubbing the bar. "How about you? I hope you didn't sleep the whole time we were at dinner. You know, it's almost noon, Kyle."
"Is it?" he muttered, and he sat at the piano bench. "No, I didn't sleep the whole time. How was dinner?"
"Eh, you know, they tried. I didn't care for that woman's cooking, but we were all polite. The conversation was a bit dull, too, but I might actually like that little fool Butters. He's got a sort of sweet disposition. The poor thing he's married to, ach, but he's a little like Don Quixote, so maybe it's perfect. I wish Ike would have waited for you before he went out walking this morning. He's off exploring the town."
"Hmm," Kyle said, annoyed by that, and by everything Ike did lately. "Where's father?"
"At work." She looked up from her cleaning, slightly breathless from the effort. "He's got an office at the courthouse, just down the street. You should start thinking about what you're going to do while you're here. I know the schools we'd, ah, hoped for are off the table now, but you're so smart, Kyle, you shouldn't let your studies fall by the wayside."
"Mother, please," Kyle said, and he turned to the piano, spreading his fingers over the keys. "All schools are out of the question, and I don't think this town even has a library. I might give piano lessons, actually."
"Well, there's an idea! Do you really think people here would want them, though?"
"One would, at least," Kyle said, quietly.
He spent the rest of the day sprucing up his room, mostly moping and taking breaks to collapse onto the bed in a dramatic fashion that no one witnessed. He was increasingly nervous about how he would be received at a saloon, even with Stan at his side, and as the sun went down he started to worry that he'd hallucinated the pretty boy who'd rescued him in the meadow the night before. It just wasn't the sort of thing that happened to Kyle: people weren't often moved to rescue him.
But at eight o'clock, when Kyle was picking at the piano, consumed by anxiety about what the night would bring, there was a knock on the front door. Kyle hurried to answer it but Ike got there first, and Kyle shouldered him aside when he saw that it was Stan.
"Who are you?" Ike asked.
"This is my friend," Kyle said, and he shoved Ike away more pointedly. "Go and tell mother that I'm going out for a bit."
"How'd you make a friend?" Ike asked, eying Stan. He was dressed more finely than he had been the day before, though there were patches on the elbows of his brown jacket. Kyle wanted to tell him he shouldn't bother when he put his hand out for Ike to shake.
"Stan Marsh," he said.
"Ike Broflovski," said Ike, his tone seeming to imply that Stan should feel lucky to hear this name uttered in his presence. "What do you want with Kyle?"
"Uh," Stan said, glancing at Kyle with confusion.
"Ignore this idiot," Kyle said, and Ike finally relented, trotting off to tell on him. "Should I wear a hat?" Kyle asked. He had a relatively stylish bowler that he'd left sitting on the piano, but he hadn't seen anyone here wearing one like it, aside from his father.
"If you want," Stan said. "This place ain't – formal, or nothing."
"No, I know, but it's because it's the opposite of formal that I don't really know how to dress for it, I mean, certainly there are conventions, even if they're casual—" Kyle heard himself rambling and stopped. "Sorry, I. Thanks for coming. How was, um, your day?"
"Same as ever," Stan said. "Are we going, or should I come in?"
"God, no, don't, my mother will intercept you – I'll just grab my hat. Unless you don't think I should wear it?"
"Do whatever you want, man."
"Right." Kyle bolted for the hat, still feeling uncertain about it. He kept a careful watch on Stan's expression as he put it on. Stan didn't seem shocked by it. "Do people dress like this here?" Kyle asked, looking down at himself. He was wearing his dark gray slacks and one of his father's old jackets from Poland over a plain shirt, no vest. He'd thought he looked suitably rustic, but in the presence of Stan's more authentic ensemble he was sure that he didn't.
"You look fine," Stan said. "Really, hey. My friends are just a bunch of beer swilling miners with dirt under their nails."
"That's intimidating to some people," Kyle said as he followed Stan out into the night, glad that there had been no interlude with his parents. "I can't really drink," Kyle said as they walked toward the Dark Horse, Kyle's heartbeat slamming.
"On account of your health?"
"No, well, sort of, but I just never learned how. Other boys drank at school, secretly, but I only ever had –" He thought of Rodney's decanter and felt so queasy that for a moment he thought he'd lose his dinner. "Wine."
"We don't drink wine, but I bet it's not that different. Here we go." Stan held the swinging saloon door open for Kyle, and he thought this was probably not the way to enter a place like this: like a lady who expected to have doors opened for her.
The place was so smoky that he immediately coughed. He'd been afraid that everyone would go silent, turn and stare when he entered, but the place was too lively to notice him. Someone was playing a piano that was about the size of the one at Kyle's house, and there were a few women drinking and laughing along with the men, most of the tables littered with cards and money. The women's fashions were dated, lace on every bust.
"Here we go," Stan said, putting a hand at the small of Kyle's back to guide him toward a table in the front left, by the window, where a few of the men gathered at a round table seemed to have actually noticed their entrance. There was a fat one who was smoking a cigar, a mean-eyed kid with pointy cheekbones, a greasy vagabond sort who was smirking at Kyle for some reason, and Butters, who was waving them over and looking as hapless as he had at the station.
"So this is your fancy new lover, Stanley?" the fat one said as they came to the table, and Kyle felt like he'd been punched in the gut. Somehow he'd known that they would instantly sniff him out. He wondered if he should run.
"Fellas," Stan said, seemingly unperturbed. "This is Kyle, he's just moved to town."
"With that Union spy?" the fat one said, snarling.
"You've met Butters," Stan said, ignoring the fat man, who seemed to be Stan's age and actually more of a fat boy. "And this is Kenny, poorest dirt in town. Craig, he's a horse's ass, and that fat piece of shit is Cartman."
"Really charming, Marsh," Craig said.
"Yeah, keep calling it fat," Cartman said. "It's gonna feel a lot more like muscle when I'm pounding my fists into your face."
Kyle was terrified, but Stan just snorted with laughter and pulled out a chair for him, as if everyone spoke to their friends this way. He supposed some of the boys at Trinity had berated each other in a friendly manner, but Kyle had never experienced it himself. When they'd made threats against him they were real.
"Is he rich?" Kenny asked. He was missing his left canine tooth and looked as if he lived in a hole in the ground and had recently crawled out of it for the occasion. There was indeed black dirt under his fingernails.
"He's not deaf," Stan said, taking the seat beside Kyle. The table was small and Kyle was glad to sit close to him, his anxiety peaking. "You can ask him yourself."
"Are you rich?" Kenny asked.
"Of course he is," Cartman said before Kyle could decide how to answer; they had been rich, but Kyle's misdeeds had cost his father a much higher salary than the one he would make here. "All these Union people are just trying to protect their own money while they rob everyone else."
"Can we not talk about the goddamn Union?" Stan said. "Save it for your protests."
"I would, Stanley, but none of you piss lickers attends them. Are you sure he's not deaf? Hello?" Cartman snapped his fingers in front of Kyle's face. "Do you speak?"
"I will if you'd stop for a moment," Kyle said.
"Cartman is overly accustomed to conversing with himself," Craig said. "Clyde told me you're from New York?"
"Who's Clyde?" Kyle asked, alarmed.
"One of our friends," Stan said. "He upstairs or what?"
"Yes," Craig said. "I suppose he's got his prick in Bebe by now, so he should be down in approximately two minutes."
"Oh, geez," Butters said. "I hope she ain't charging him."
"No, I'm sure she's just fallen in love with him at last," Craig said.
"See?" Cartman said, yanking his cigar from his lips and gesturing to Craig. "What did I tell you? Shut down the honest business of someone who's only trying to do this town a favor by organizing the whores into a central location, and you don't stop the actual whoring, you only needlessly disperse it. I suppose your Union girl here is enjoying living in my fucking house, though." Cartman glared at Kyle.
"Excuse me?" Kyle said. "You lived in the brothel?"
"His mother was the senior whore," Craig said.
"Hey, now!" Butters said, cringing. Cartman threw his cigar down.
"You shut your goddamn mouth about my mother!" he said, the volume of his voice attracting the attention of the room, but only briefly when the crowd saw that Cartman had not flipped the table or thrown a punch. Craig shrugged.
"Well, she was," he said.
"She was retired, Craig, okay?"
"How's your mom doing up in Denver?" Stan asked.
"She's pouring whiskey at an inferior establishment," Cartman said. "I'm going up to live with her as soon as she can make enough money for a room. I had my own room at the Golden Nugget," he said, snarling at Kyle again.
"The Golden Nugget was what they called the brothel," Stan said, and Kyle nodded, grateful for his willingness to translate this conversation.
"How much did you charge the johns who ended up in your room by mistake?" Kenny asked, and he ducked away when Cartman swiped at him.
"Well, I think it's real good we're cleaning up the town," Butters said. "And I sure am happy that your father's here to help, Kyle."
"Butters, please," Cartman said. "You're just glad your father bought you a wife."
"He did not buy her, Eric, she didn't get one cent!"
"Ah, God, here he comes," Craig muttered, looking toward the stairs that led up to the second floor of the establishment. "Doing up his belt in public like a true gentleman."
The man who was doing so was descending the stairs, red-faced, his hat pushed back as if a strong wind had nearly blown it off.
"That's Clyde," Stan said. "The reverend's son."
"He's not especially devout," Craig said.
"Goddamn," Clyde said when he came to the table. He was the only one beside Stan who Kyle would call attractive, but his eyes were nowhere near as nice. Clyde's were deep brown and slightly cow-like. "I need a smoke. Any of ya'll got one for me?" He looked at Kyle. "Who the hell's that?" he asked.
"Judge's son," Craig said. "I told you Stan was bringing someone. Do you listen to anything I say?"
"Oh, shit." Clyde threw his hand out for Kyle to shake. "Clyde Donovan, good to meet you."
"Is Bebe inflating her prices to cover the room she's got here?" Cartman asked before Kyle could give Clyde his name. "My mother never charged as much as this shithole."
"Shit," Clyde said, and he accepted a cigarette when Stan offered one, pulling a chair over to squeeze in between him and Cartman. "I'd buy her a whole damn house if she'd just marry me."
"She turned you down again?" Craig said.
"Well, I didn't ask again, Craig, I ain't a fool."
Craig rolled his eyes at that. Kyle sort of liked him, and something about the way he crossed his wrists on the table made Kyle wonder if they shared the same unnatural propensities.
"Bebe's too smart to marry your dumb ass," Kenny said, craning his neck to peer at the second floor landing, which looked down over the saloon. There was a strikingly pretty blond woman leaning on the banister, smoking a cigarette and gazing at their table. Kenny whistled and waved to her. She looked away, dragging on the cigarette.
"Like you can afford top shelf snatch," Cartman said. "You'd have to take out a loan to fuck a goat."
"Everybody shut up," Clyde said. "Is she looking at me?"
"She's coming this way!" Butters said, and he bounced a little, as if this was exciting for him, too.
"About time," Stan said. "We still don't have drinks."
"Evening, boys," Bebe said when she arrived. Her hairdo was half undone in a way that looked both fetchingly intentional and like the aftereffect of some passionate sex. The low cut of her dress made Kyle nervous, and he averted his eyes. "What can I get for you?" she asked, laying a hand on Clyde's shoulder. He'd gone very red and was looking at his hands, elbows on the table.
"The usual for me," Stan said. "Kyle, um." He looked at Kyle uncertainly, then turned back to Bebe. "Have you got wine?"
"No – that's fine!" Kyle said while Kenny, Craig and Cartman laughed hard at that. "I'll just – you can bring me whatever Stan's having."
"You sure, red?" Bebe asked. She reached over to touch Kyle's curls, and he struggled not to flinch away. "I could probably dig up some wine if I went down to the basement and poked around."
"I'm fine with whiskey," Kyle said, though he'd only ever smelled it. As far as he could remember, it smelled like something that would melt steel.
"My old roommate had hair like yours," Bebe said, still toying with Kyle's curls. He was hot all across his chest, a blush creeping up onto his neck. Bebe and Clyde both smelled like Rodney's sheets had after Kyle had been in them. "Hers wasn't quite this pretty, though. You heard from Gary?" she asked, looking to Stan.
"He wrote me once, a few weeks after the wedding," Stan said. "Uh, I guess Red's pregnant already."
"Hm," Bebe said, frowning.
"What the hell was her real name, anyway?" Craig asked.
"Rebecca," Bebe said, and she finally released Kyle's hair. "Anyway, I'll get your drinks. Clyde, honey?" She slid both hands onto his shoulders and leaned down slightly, until Kyle feared her breasts would spill out. "You want anything?"
"Uh," Clyde said, bringing his cigarette to his lips with a shaking hand. "Yeah, bourbon."
"Damn, son," Kenny said when Bebe left to get their drinks. He was looking at Clyde, smirking again.
"Shut up," Clyde muttered.
"Well, now that we're through with the 'Clyde publicly humiliates himself' portion of the evening," Cartman said, "On to business. Union boy, I hope you know your father's not welcome here."
"You can call me Kyle, thank you," Kyle said, trying to make his eyes hard. He'd learned too late at Trinity that deferring to bullies was the worst possible way of dealing with them.
"Cartman, you fuck," Stan said. "If you love the Confederates so much, why don't you go join their army and leave the rest of us in peace?"
"Peace!" Cartman said, leaning forward. "Peace, Stanley? You think that's what some fancy Union judge is going to bring? Ha! You think having the federal government making economic decisions for you is—"
"Goddamn, here we go," Kenny said, and he threw back the rest of his drink.
"You're the son of a whore who's never owned a slave," Craig said, glaring at Cartman. "Quit pretending like the North wants to take your livelihood."
"Yes, I was going to ask," Kyle said. "What exactly do you – do?"
"I am a miner, and that is beside the point," Cartman said.
"Cartman thinks he's gonna find him a magical payload," Stan said, leaning over to say so to Kyle in a conspiring fashion that made Kyle's chest feel lighter. "Then he'll set up a plantation someplace where he can make people work for him for free."
"People!" Cartman said.
"Enough," Clyde said. "Shit, can't we talk about something else? Like – what do you do?" he asked, eying Kyle in a way that made him sit up a little straighter.
"I was a student," Kyle said. "But I've – finished school. I take it you all work in the mine?"
"All of us except Craig," Cartman said. "He's sickly."
"Go to hell," Craig said. "I'll be back to work when it's not so hot."
"Oh, yeah, I forgot," Cartman said. "Cold weather cures TB."
"It's not TB, you shit!" Craig said. Kyle noticed then that Craig did look a little ashen and stooped, his lips cracked, and he leaned a bit closer to Stan, away from Craig.
"Leave him alone," Clyde said. "So what do you do, though?" he asked, turning to Kyle again.
"He's a rich Union princess who sits on feather pillows, reading books," Cartman said. "Didn't you hear him the first time?"
"Here we go," Bebe said, appearing with the drinks before Kyle could respond to that accusation. He was mostly relieved. "Two whiskeys, and a bourbon for my Clyde. Anybody need a refill while I'm here?"
"Yeah, I'll have a double," Kenny said. Bebe gave him a look, mouth quirking.
"You got money for it?" she asked.
"I got credit here, don't I?" Kenny said. "I'm working nights now, grave digging. I get paid Friday."
"Come back and get a drink then, honey," Bebe said.
"Hey, no, you can put him on my tab," Stan said.
"Forget it," Kenny said.
"Mine, then?" Butters said, elbowing him. "C'mon, Ken, let me buy you a drink in exchange for you walkin' me home. You know I don't like walking alone at night. It's a real service you do me, let me pay you for it."
"Whatever you say," Kenny muttered, and he sucked the last drops of whiskey from his glass.
"A double, alright," Bebe said, winking at Butters before she left.
"Butters, you chickenshit," Cartman said, and Kyle was very glad not to resume the discussion of his uselessness. "You're still afraid of the dark?"
"It's not the dark!" Butters said. He glanced around the table. "Ya'll know – ever since Christophe disappeared. I get the creeps, out there alone at night. Thank God I got Millie in my bed now, anyways."
"Jesus Christ, do you hear yourself?" Cartman asked.
"That French bastard passed out drunk in a ditch somewhere and never got up," Craig said. "There's no more to the story."
"I don't know about that," Stan said, and he drank from his whiskey, a full swallow that Kyle monitored watchfully, his eyes on Stan's throat. He reached for his own glass.
"Who's Christophe?" Kyle asked.
"He worked with us," Clyde said. "He did drink a lot, but I never saw him fall in no ditch. I bet Nascha got him."
"Oh, God," Craig said. "Your father would belt you if he heard you say that."
"You gonna tell him?" Clyde asked, and he drank from his bourbon, giving Craig a look. Kyle still hadn't sipped from his drink. Stan had already finished his.
"Who's Nascha?" Kyle asked.
"Well," Stan said, and he scratched at the back of his neck.
"She's a vengeful Apache spirit!" Butters said. "Back in 1820 the Indians slaughtered all the white folks who lived in the valley, because they thought this one feller who was in love with her had made off with her, but he really hadn't, see, 'cause they used to meet up in the mountains—"
"Butters," Cartman said. "You're telling it all wrong."
"Yeah, damn," Stan said, and he took hold of Kyle's elbow, turning toward him. "There's this story, alright, that a while back a guy who'd settled here before they found gold tried to make friends with the Indians and such, and he fell in love with this one Apache girl called Nascha. And his name was Arnold, I think."
"Stan makes half of this horse shit up himself," Craig said.
"I do not!" Stan said, and the way his fingers tightened around Kyle's arm when he raised his voice made Kyle want to swoon against him. He still hadn't taken a sip of whiskey. "I've done research," Stan said, pink-cheeked when he turned back to Kyle.
"Just keep going with the story," Kenny said.
"Yeah, Stan tells it best," Butters said.
"So Nascha loved Arnold, too," Stan said. "But the Apaches don't like white people, so they all told her to forget it. She was real headstrong, though, so she would meet up with Arnold in the mountains at night, in secret."
"To get herself poked," Cartman said. "'Cause white guys have bigger dicks."
"No, they don't," Kenny said.
"Oh?" Cartman snorted. "You'd know?"
Kenny shrugged. "You should, since your mama's seen a dick of every color and creed." He only laughed when Cartman reached over Butters to slap at him in a surprisingly womanly fashion.
"Anyhow," Stan said, loudly. "They didn't get caught or nothing, but one day in winter when they shouldn't have risked meeting up in the mountains, Nascha got lost and ended up freezing to death. Arnold was so distraught and guilty that he went and hung himself. I think – I can't really prove that part, but that's what people say. And I guess I can't say for sure that she froze to death as opposed to, you know, falling off a cliff or getting ate by a bear or something, 'cause they never found her body. And 'cause of that the Apaches got all furious, thinking Arnold had done something evil to her, and they came to town and killed a bunch of people, since Arnold was already dead and they couldn't just take revenge on him. So people say this town is haunted." He smiled like he was proud of this.
"I'll tell you what's haunted," Cartman said. "The goddamn Golden Nugget. Not that any of them ghosts had the balls to bother me, but the girls used to complain about all kinds of weird shit."
"Probably because they were all drunk most of the day," Craig said.
"All's I'm saying," Cartman said, narrowing his eyes at Kyle, "Is that I hope you sleep real well in my old house, because I know of at least two girls who died in them upstairs rooms, trying to have babies. Oh, and the babies died, too, and dead babies are real vengeful spirits, you'd be surprised."
"What the hell are you talking about?" Clyde said.
"It's cause they weren't baptized!" Butters said, eyes wide. "Like the Indians! They're doomed to wander the earth forever! Lost souls!"
"Goddamn," Craig muttered. He glanced over at Kyle's drink. "You going to be needing that?" he asked. "'Cause I could use another drink if these idiots are going to sit here telling ghost stories all night."
"Have you ever seen any evidence of the spirit world?" Kyle asked Stan, not wanting to discuss his fear of taking a swig of whiskey.
"Well, no," Stan said. "But I've heard stuff, when I'm walking alone in the foothills. Like, a woman laughing from higher up in the mountain. Like a mean laugh."
"And since there are no living women in this town, it's impossible that this could simply be someone who was having a modern day fuck," Craig said. "Seriously, man," he said to Kyle. "If you don't want that drink, I'll take it."
"Leave him alone," Stan said. "He's from someplace where you don't just throw it back in one swallow. They got class and stuff, there."
Everyone but Kyle and Stan laughed. Even Butters giggled, his hands pressed to his mouth.
"Well, Marsh, you'd know about throwing it back in one swallow," Cartman said. "In more ways than one." He pumped his fist in front of his mouth, and Kyle went brilliant red when he realized that Cartman was pantomiming fellatio. Stan just shook his head. Kyle took a big drink from his glass, wanting to get it over quickly, like plucking a stray eyebrow hair, and he was able to swallow it but unable to hold down his coughing afterward. Everyone laughed again, and Stan patted his back.
"Shit, ya'll be quiet," Stan said, but he was smiling when Kyle looked up at him with watering eyes. "None of you idiots gulped down your first whiskey without hacking."
"He's much too old to be having his first," Craig said. "Even Butters drinks whiskey."
"Not too much, though," Butters said. "A-and I take it with water."
"Shut up, Butters," Cartman said.
Bebe arrived with Kenny's double and set it down in front of him. She asked if any one else wanted another, and everyone but Kyle and Butters asked for a refill.
"I didn't cough the first time," Kenny said. He finished his drink in two swallows.
"Yeah, but you're a cave demon," Stan said.
"That's true," Kenny said. He smirked at Kyle. "I can confirm Mr. Marsh's story about the Apaches and the settlers," he said. "I was here for that. I've always been here, longer than the Indians, even. I'm the spirit of this here mountain. That's why these meager mortals are all so eager to make sacrifices to me with whiskeys."
"Well," Kyle said, still trying to get his breath and entirely sure he didn't get the joke. Clyde and Cartman burst into laughter.
"God that there was some entertainment in this town other than you drunken assholes," Craig said.
The rest of the night was slightly less confusing, because Kyle knew how to play poker well enough to only lose fifty cents, and after finishing his whiskey and half of another that Stan kept pressing into his hand, he was feeling like he understood a great many things about this place, laughing easily. Clyde and Butters were both getting progressively louder, and Kyle was finding both of them more and more entertaining. Cartman and Craig had both grown morose, though Craig was expressing this more quietly, and Kenny was intent on the game, sweeping coins into his hands.
"Can buy my own drink after all," he said, and he slipped two dimes into Butters' front pocket.
By the time the saloon began to clear out, Kyle felt as if the evening had only begun, but when he tried to get out of his chair he wobbled and almost fell on his ass. Stan caught him, much to the amusement of the others, who were cracking up at how easily Kyle had gotten drunk. Kyle vaulted between being annoyed with the others and glad that Stan was helping him walk.
"You're not so bad off, c'mon," Stan said, his arm around Kyle's back as they pushed through the saloon doors and out into the night. Kyle wasn't the only departing customer who'd had too much, though he was probably the only one who'd met his limit at one and a half drinks.
"They'll think I'm a weakling," Kyle said, wondering if he should extract himself from Stan's steady grip.
"Nah," Stan said. "They liked having someone new to listen to all the old stories, I could tell. What'd you think of 'em?"
"Of, fah- your friends?"
"Yeah. They're goddamn embarrassing, most of the time-"
"No, no. Well, yes, but they weren't nearly as frightening as I'd feared."
"Good," Stan said, and he grinned at Kyle in a way that made him take a misstep. Stan laughed and helped to steady him again. "Shit," he said. "I shouldn't have made you drink from mine after you'd had one."
"But I liked that you did," Kyle said. He heard himself becoming flirtatious and let go of Stan's waist, stumbling away from him. Stan followed, his hands poised in a cautious frame around Kyle, ready to catch him.
"You gonna be alright?" Stan asked when they reached the brothel. Or, no: it was Kyle's new home, and suddenly he was determined to think of that way.
"I'm fine," Kyle said. He leaned on the railing along the short front steps, his head clearing a little as he allowed himself to realize that Stan was leaving now, saying goodnight. "Will - will you be alright? Walking in the dark?"
"Oh, sure. I walk home by myself every night."
"But. That Frenchman, and your ghost."
"She's not my ghost," Stan said. He reached up to straighten Kyle's hat. "And that Frenchmen, well. Plenty of stuff could have happened to him. It was way back in spring, during the thaw."
"But you said, you thought. You said maybe something else? Happened?"
"I don't really think the spirits come after the living," Stan said. He moved closer to Kyle, lowering his voice, though the nearest onlookers were fifty feet down the road, whooping drunkenly. "But I think they can confuse them, sometimes. Like that Apache girl who died on the mountain? Shoot, Apaches don't get lost for nothing, not even in the snow. I think maybe her ancestors were mad at her for going against her tribe, you know? Maybe they made sure she couldn't find her white boyfriend by turning her around." He grinned. "Shit, I sound drunk, too."
"Well, it's really very sad," Kyle said. "If they were in love and so on. I suppose that's hard enough with your relatives who are still living being against it."
"It is sad," Stan said. "And I don't think Nascha's a bad spirit, even if she's the one who sounds all angry when she laughs up there. Why wouldn't she be angry, right? I think the bad ones are down here, in town. They're angry about gettin' murdered over some love affair they weren't having."
"Was it true about people dying in there?" Kyle asked, turning to look at the front windows of his house.
"Who knows?" Stan says. "Cartman lies all the time. But, you know. It was – girls did have babies there. Sometimes."
"Who's Cartman's father?" Kyle asked, frowning, and Stan laughed.
"He says he's a descendant of Zebulon Pike," Stan says. "But, uh. That's widely disputed."
Kyle scoffed, and for a moment he assumed the little smile that lingered on Stan's lips was a sure sign he'd be kissed, but he was only corrupted and drunk, and Stan was already backing away.
"It's good to know you, man," Stan said. "And, hey, um." He walked forward again. "I'm sorry they're so loud. My friends, I mean. I sorta wanted to know more about you, um. To talk, or something, but they're so— here's what I'm thinking," he said, holding both hands up.
"Yes?" Kyle said, still swaying a little.
"I ain't got a lot of money to throw around, and Liane used to give me piano lessons for free, um, sort of, and my thinking was: I could teach you how to hunt, seeing as how the general store here doesn't have no good meat, so you'll probably need to shoot your own, and in exchange you could teach me piano? Maybe?"
Stan was wincing a little, as if he expected Kyle to strike him, or laugh. Kyle wanted to cup his cheek. He clasped his hands behind his back and nodded once, hard.
"Yes," he said, and he put his right hand out for Stan to shake. "It's a deal."
Stan broke into a grin and shook his hand. Kyle was drunk enough to want to hold on for an inappropriate amount of time, but sober enough to know that he should let go.
"Tomorrow, then," Stan said. "Meet me out in that meadow around four o'clock. That's when I quit the mine. They all pick on me, but. They all have – even Cartman lives at the boarding house now, and they got food included in board."
"Four o'clock," Kyle said. "Should I wear anything special?"
"Leave the bowler at home," Stan said. He winked and tipped his chin up a little before turning to go.
Kyle had never been so happy to have his hat insulted.