by Joshua Gage
Mordecai Arbuckle lived on a small horse ranch in Converse County with his two daughters, Flora and Mercy. His wife having passed years before, he devoted his entire life to his ranch and his daughters. His ranch was prosperous, as there was always a need for strong, healthy horses, especially with a war on, and he was able to dote upon his daughters as much as any good father should.
The girls grew up healthy and strong, and were famed in the county for their beauty. Rumors spread that Mordecai refused to marry them off, despite the fact they were the right age, in order that they would be able to do the chores and whatnot as he got on up in years, but both he and the girls insisted to anyone who broached the subject that it was simply that the right suitor hadn’t come along.
Almost as much as they were famed for their beauty, the girls were famous for their fruits and vegetables, which they grew in a large garden behind their house. Every summer, when there was a county fair, Flora and Mercy would show up with tomatoes the size of a man’s fist and red as a hunter’s face in January, cabbages that took two men to carry to the judging table with leaves as crisp as an autumn breeze, beans so silky and creamy folks swore the girls put butter in the ground and stockings on the plants to keep them warm. At the end of the fair, the girls would collect their blue ribbons and hard earned money, and no one would begrudge them or their freckled cheeks and dimpled laughs. Every fall, they would bring bushels of apples from their lone apple to sell in the town of Casper, as well as jugs of cider. Men and women from all over town would line up around the general store for a glass of the glorious nectar, and folks would swear on a stack of Bibles that it was the sweetest thing that’d ever crossed their lips. People all begged the girls to know their secrets, but Flora and Mercy insisted that it was simply having good soil, good fertilizer, and watering the plants regularly.
Converse County was a safe haven for deserters. Many men came to Casper to start a new life, to buy farms and settle down, escaping the blood and noise of war. Some came broken, eyes scared blank, souls seared from cannon fire and rifle blasts. Others came bloated with legends of their own importance, bragging about victories in Stone’s River and Shiloh, the number of bodies that had fallen before their bayonets. Casper had lost most of its men to the war already, so no one ever asked questions of these men or passed judgment. A good hand was a good hand, and there was always plenty of work for a young man to do in and around town, and never enough men to do it. Most of them, it was known, didn’t have families to return to or a past before the war itself, and if they did, they kept it to themselves.
Flora and Mercy Arbuckle had no need for rifles or bayonets. They could wither a man with a glance of disdain, paralyze him with a toss of their hair. With a blink of their large blue eyes, they could kill him outright, his bouquet of hyacinths and gardenia scattering to the dust before their front porch. They would drag the corpse around the house, lest they stain the floor boards, until they reached their garden.
There, they would don two leather butcher aprons, and then string the body up by its ankles from one of the limbs of their apple trees. A clean razor would slice the boy’s throat, letting the blood water the tree. Occasionally, they would collect the blood in a bucket so they could use it to water their other crops. Once the body was bled dry, they buried it, letting it nourish their tomatoes, and cabbages, and beans.