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On Deliverance

Some of the bodies, a corpse runner ain't ever gonna return home.
It's not that I don't got compassion at the sight of the dead soldiers in the ditches. Honestly, I don't give a damn if they've got a leg blown off by the sonic cannons, even if it's gonna drip blood all over my wagon. It won't even matter if they got on the gold uniform of the West, or the crimson one from the East, because I make corpse runs both ways. All that matters is if the identification chip is still readable, and beneath that uniform, be it gold trimmed or crimson lined, is there a tin locket around their necks.
That locket, see, that means they got someone left behind at home: someone who threw their arms around that soldier's neck, whispered words of love and devotion into their ear, and gave them a sweet memory to hold on to when they went off to crawl through mud and the blood of their brothers.
There's a loved one, that locket says to me when I find it around a lifeless neck, and a loved one's gonna pay.
On this run, the one body in my wagon was my last hope to feed myself and my mule. I hadn't found much of anything to run on the last few battlefields: too many cannons blowing heads clean off, and too few good identification chips. I had just this one delivery left, and I sure needed it to pay off, or I was gonna be in a real bad place.
I kept the corpse wrapped tightly in white canvas, and had tied it down to prevent it from rolling about in the back of the wagon. As long as a face is recognizable, they'll always be paid for, but a bruised face pays less than a pristine one.
This particular body was good--his tin had burned and there was no picture left, but his mud-stained face was too handsome to not be generously loved. He was a young fellow, maybe eighteen. His identification chip took me to a small homestead so far out on the edge of the war, I was amazed that fool had even found his way into it. An idealist, I reckoned, who maybe had left to defy stern parents or some such.
It had started to drizzle when I came upon the homestead where the boy had lived. It was an unassuming place, but charming: buckets of clematis climbed up the homestead walls, the pink flowers drooping sadly in the rain. Maybe they knew, those flowers, that soon they'd be plucked and put on a grave, and that's why they looked so damn sad.
When I knocked on the door, a young woman barely out of her teens opened. And just like the flowers mighta known why I was there, sure enough that girl knew, too. I saw it in the way her jaw clenched when she noticed my red collar.
"Good evening, miss," I told her, wringing my hat in my hands, because it's always best to put your sad face on when you deliver if you wanna get paid good. "Terrible weather tonight, ain't it."
Her ashen face was tight--so tight that her lips were pressed into a thin white ribbon. "Yes, sir, it's not very pleasant. Please come inside, before you catch a cold."
She invited me in. I did my best to shake my wet duster off on the porch, but once inside I still soiled her clean swept floorboards with mud and grit. I felt darn guilty about that.
"I've got supper on the table, so please make yourself comfortable. And let me take your hat and your coat."
She held out her hands, which trembled like terrified birds. A thin gold ring was on her left hand. In my head, I cursed as I handed her my duster.
Widow, not a sister. No parents to hand a son over to, only a too young, too alone, too terrified wife. The worst kind of delivery.
I sat down at the table--careful not to plop down at the head of the table in a widow's house. That right there's an unspoken rule of a corpse runner: don't go reminding people that the man of the house is dead and gone and ain't gonna sit in that chair ever again.
The young girl put down chipped but delicate china bowls. I looked around the homestead. There was a copper pot on the stove, and a brass clock ticked away on the fireplace mantel. She probably didn't have much paper money, but either of those would do.
It's not official, the payment for a corpse runner. We say we do it on donations because it sounds better that way. But people always pay, no matter how poor they are. I'd sold about five brass clocks much like the one on the mantel last time I'd been to my peddler in Woodstown.
She served me stew. I tried not to look at her too closely, but for some reason, she drew me in with all that uptight sadness she was holding in. She was inhumanly thin, her waist so narrow I bet I coulda hugged it with my hands. Her small chest barely moved beneath her brown paisley dress, as if she was afraid to breathe. So many sorrows were contained in the tiny wrinkles in her face, the tightness of her brow, the shimmer of her eyes. She looked like a terrified sparrow.
"It isn't much," she said about the stew. "But I still get the rations from the war department."
"Yes. Isn't that peculiar." She let out a small, shrill laugh. "They come, every week. Thank the Lord for his blessings in dark times."
Usually the identification chip would send a message to the war office to cut off food support as soon as the vitals of a soldier failed. If they hadn't registered the body on my wagon as dead and gone, then this woman hadn't had any official confirmation that her husband was dead. Me bringing her the body, and she registering it for a burial, would end the rations.
"This is a nice homestead," I lied, feeling guilt that I had even eyed the copper pot on the stove. "Do you have cattle, or pigs?"
"A few hens. One of them has the crow plague, so I don't know how long before the rest will catch it. But a few of them still lay good eggs. They might last through the rains. Until Joshua comes home."
Those last few words were a challenge, and I felt her gaze drilling into me, begging for me to contradict her. But I just sipped the stew, and it burned my tongue. I felt like I deserved that burn.
We ate the rest of the meal quietly. I didn't eye her copper pot anymore, or her clock. She stared out the window at the wagon outside. The rain was pelting the canvas wet. Probably the wrapped body, too.
Finally, the girl spoke up. "Good sir, I'm sure you have something you need to say to me."
I stood up. "Yes, miss, I do."
I walked around the table, and I reached my hand out for hers. She remained seated, trembling, but she took my hand. It was icy cold.
"Get it over with," she said in a low voice.
"Thank you, miss, for the meal and your kindness. But I have to get on. The rain outside's no good for my cargo, and I got a delivery to make in the next town over before it gets too dark." I squeezed a coin into her hand. "I wish the best for you, and for your homestead, and for your fellow, wherever he might be."
Her mouth fell open. "Yes," she whispered. "Yes, I pray that, every day. Thank you."
She followed me to the door and handed me my duster and hat. She wept. I honestly didn't know if it was because of relief or sorrow, or if I had fooled her at all.
"Be safe, sir," she said. "And God bless you."
"And you, miss."
The rain welcomed me as soon as I stepped outside. I got into the soaked wagon and snapped the reins. The mule pulled the wagon out of the yard. The woman remained standing on the porch, a slim black silhouette against the warm light of her home.
I went on for a few hundred yards before I pulled the wagon to a stop and got my shovel out. It wouldn't be a good time, burying someone in that weather, but at least the rain had made the dirt wet and it wouldn't take long to make a hole big enough.
Like I said. Some of the bodies, a corpse runner ain't ever gonna return home.
The End
This story was first published on Friday, June 19th, 2015
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