Rufus Stevens was just a boy when the Men came to the farm.
It was the outlaw Duncan Chester’s men. They’d robbed a train, and the job had gone badly. The Pinkertons had set a trap for them, and several of the gang were killed when they tried to take the payroll on board. Those who weren’t shot outright bolted into the night. They rode hard through the rains, across the dark, wet fields of Missouri until they found the warm light of the Stevens homestead.
They were desparate men, intent on taking what they needed. They took Rufus’ mother, and his sister. They shot his father and his younger brother. They took everything; food, lanterns, blankets, firewood.
But, Rufus they spared.
“Let him tell the story.” said Duncan Chester himself, looking down on a shame-faced, guilt-ridden Rufus. Chester was wounded. He’d used a shred of Rufus’ raped and murdered sister’s dress as a bandage across his cheek and under his ear, plugging the gaping wound that was the result of a Pinkerton’s bullet.
They left Rufus in the dark and broken house, the hoof beats of their horses echoing in the night, eventually leaving only a breath of wind as the rains stopped. The clouds parted to reveal a full moon, reflected in the twin pools of dark young eyes that stared upward from the floorboards of that lonely homestead.
Rufus wandered the world like a lost spirit.
He grew to manhood, although he was a shadow of a man. He was gaunt, pale, and haunted. He had a propensity to cut himself, to create external scars to match those of his soul. But, he gave it up when he became a barber; it was his way of stepping back from the abyss, to use a razor in the service of others, and not for his own destruction. He’d bent his spear into a plowshare just like it said to do in the holy scriptures.
In his wandering, he found the town of Haskellville. They needed an able man to see to the needs of merchants, pilgrims, farmers, and other ragged travelers from the east passing through to see the Frontier. He’d cut hair, shave faces, be among men. The darkness in his mind and soul wouldn’t take him. The sound of the guns in the night endured in his dreams. But, in the day he’d commune with the Lord as he trimmed beards, shaved faces, cropped hair. He’d forget about the rapping on the door, the shuffle of boots in the rain, the screams of his mother and sister.
He spoke to none about any of it. Silence was the only revenge he could take, since they had spared him so that he would spread their infamy.
The barbershop was nothing but a wind-blown box with a flat roof, leaning into the Missouri wind in a nowhere town. But, Rufus Stevens found himself a sanctuary in it. The men came and went. His neighbours welcomed him, made small talk, and left. They asked nothing of him but clean faces, and hair out of their eyes. They did not consider him otherwise. Rufus was content. Strangers came through town regularly before venturing into the Frontier, most times never to return. Sometimes they went south to Tennessee, Arkansas, Oklahoma. They would take Rufus’ handiwork with them; a squared-off sideburn, a kiss-curl, a freshly waxed moustache, a trimmed beard. It was Rufus’ contribution to the world. The hair would grow wild again, the beards and moustaches unkempt. His work was ephemeral. But, what work done by the hands of men in this world was not?
Rufus still jumped at the hoof beats of horses beyond the unsturdy door of his barbershop. But, he never faltered when the razor was in his hand. It was like the angel calming the waters at Bethesda when Rufus set to his work. He considered it to be a calling, like an artist creating masterpieces not with canvas and pigment, but with whiskers and flesh. When he cut hair, and shaved faces, the darkness receded. He was free of it then in those fleeting moments.
One evening, the Man came in, wet with rain. It was just like that fateful night, so long ago, and yet so ever-present. Rufus looked up and he saw him, not as he remembered him. He was older, his hair white as a ghost even though he wasn’t an old man. His face was unshaven. The last time Rufus had seen him, he wore black with a wide-brimmed, battered hat, flanked by hollow-eyed men. Now he wore the clothes of a preacher, standing alone. And he wore no gun.
But, the scar was there; a livid gully of ruined flesh on his left cheek, and under his ear. No preacher’s clothes could hide it. It was Duncan Chester.
“A shave? What about a haircut?”, said Rufus in a ghostly whisper to the apparition in his doorway.
The man who had been Duncan Chester smiled.
“Yes. Thank you. It’s been a long ride and I’m riding longer still out to the missions on the Frontier.”
Rufus pulled back the apron from his chair and stood aside. The man sat. Rufus opened the linen on the sideboard, revealing his implements of trade; scissors, razor, brushes.
“Missions?” uttered Rufus.
“Yes. I intend to spread the Word of the Lord to the children of the plain.”
Rufus picked up his shaving brush and mixed it in a pot of foam.
“For how long?”
“I plan on spending as long as it takes to minister to them, to plant a church, to make disciples, to …”
“I mean, how long have you been a preacher, Reverend …?”
“Tate. Reverend Richard Ethan Tate.”
“Reverend Tate …”
Rufus spread the thick foam on the Reverend’s face, leaning him back in the chair as he did so.
“I have been a preacher these twenty years.”
“And what were you before that, Reverend? I’ve always wondered how someone decides to become a preacher.”
Rufus picked up the razor and opened it.
“Like many, I suppose I stopped long enough to hear the call.”
“Stopped? Stopped what, Reverend Tate?”
“Well, a life of sin, Mr …”
“My name’s Stevens. Rufus Stevens. Ever hear that name, Reverend?”
Rufus raised his hand. The razor was like an extension of his own arm.
“Well, it’s a common name, Mr. Stevens. Are you from Missouri originally?”
Rufus lowered the gleaming razor to the Reverend’s right cheek. He scraped it across the expanse of foam, thin steel meeting yielding flesh, creating a clearing of pinkish skin, prickling with life.
“Yes. I was raised on a farm further east.” said Rufus. “But, I left years ago. I came here after wandering some.”
“I know what it is to wander, Rufus. I used to make my living less honestly, I admit. Wandering was necessary for me too, at one time,” said the Reverend. “But, I was redeemed.”
“And now the missions.”
“Yes. The missions.”
“I hope you don’t mind me asking all these questions, Reverend.”
“Not at all.”
“What happened to your ear?”
“An incident in another life, Rufus. It is like a reminder to me that I am vulnerable, and that all are at the mercy of God.”
Scrape. Scrape. Scrape. The razor traced it’s path over the bumpy flesh of the Reverend’s scar. It squared off the wild hair below the valley of the wound, the perfect sideburn fit for a gentleman.
“Yes, vulnerable. It’s strange you know, Reverend … Tate.”
“Strange? What’s strange?”
“That a man can face guns, murderous intent, and all kinds of dangers, and yet when they’re in my chair, they seem to forget how dangerous the world can be. They sit calmly in my chair. They stay so still as they make small talk. It doesn’t matter who they are. They could be a preacher like you. Or, they could be the worst villain on earth; murderers, rapists, thieves. And they raise their chins, and expose their throats.”
The razor hovered over The Reverend’s carotid artery. Rufus bathed in the silence for the moment. And he knew that Duncan Chester stirred somewhere in that chair, somewhere down deep, thrashing about underneath the guise of the reformed man, the man who had wrapped himself in the clothes of a preacher. He was a whitewashed tombstone, full of dead men’s bones and all of corruption. And he knew. He knew what was coming.
The Reverend’s voice was steady when he spoke. He was guilty. But, he wasn’t afraid.
“The Lord sees all, Rufus. I of all men who walk the earth know this. He can see our hearts, our intentions. It is He who passes judgement on the unjust. And we must submit to His will.”
Rufus smiled. He waited in the silence again, the razor suspended over the Reverend’s throat.
“There was a man one time,” Rufus began. ” He came in the night and he did violence to me and mine. He let me live because he wanted me to tell the world about the time when I was in his power. That has haunted me all my life. I always hoped that one day, God would see fit to bestow this same fate on that man; to know himself the violence that he perpetrated against me.”
“So, you are still in his power, then. You are still a victim of his violence against you.”
Rufus paused. As he spoke, the preacher Richard Ethan Tate struggled with the outlaw Duncan Chester, fighting for the scrap of a soul they shared. Rufus could sense it. And Rufus struggled too in the same manner. In that moment, they were the same.
“It’s a mighty thing to have someone in your power, Rufus. It is the measure of a man’s true worth when he uses that power to exercise mercy. For revenge is like a lion seeking whom it may devour. It is never sated, Rufus. I know. I once made a living pursuing it. It nearly consumed me.”
The Reverend was winning the fight against the outlaw he’d been as Rufus began to shave him again. Duncan Chester was nothing more than a malevolent spirit now, not a man of flesh and blood anymore. As the man spoke, Rufus squared off the Reverend’s other sideburn. Using the small scissors, he trimmed the Reverend’s moustache, and his fluff of beard. He picked up the scissors.
His sister’s scream echoed in his mind, and something he’d read long ago floated up like a ghost.
The villany you
teach me, I will execute, and it shall go hard but I
will better the instruction …
That was it. The outlaw had taught Rufus all about villany. He’d been taught that it was a hard world that promised pain and endings. Duncan Chester’s villany had cast Rufus out into the world as an orphan, an outcast, a wanderer who knew no joy until he’d found a calling of his own.
Then, a thought followed it.
“Would the churning waters of my memory really be as calmed by the angels as they would before, falling into my work, losing myself to my artistry, and finding peace? Would a splash of hot blood stop the dreams, the screaming? If I do this thing here, in this place I’ve called my sanctuary, would it be a sanctuary anymore? No. I would have to wander again, disconnected again, a stranger to the world and to myself again, a man on the run again, absorbed by dreams of blood and guilt. Duncan Chester would take it all from me. He would make me a killer, with the shadow of the rope haunting my every step. He would make me like him.”
“I’m done, Reverend. Here, in the looking glass.”
“Fine, fine. Thank you Rufus. What do I owe you?”
There was another pause.
“You owe me nothing, Reverend Tate. It’s enough to send you to the missions looking your best.”
“Please never come here again. I have done my duty by you as your barber today. There is nothing more I can give you. It is … all that I am now.”
The Reverend’s freshly shaved face seemed sallow as he nodded, almost imperceptibly. He was tired. Like Rufus, he struggled, wrestled with his worse nature even now. He’d been in Rufus’ power. Rufus had been in his. They were even.
The Reverend Richard Ethan Tate opened the door and stepped into the rainy night, slipping into darkness like a lost soul. He took the outlaw Duncan Chester with him.
Rufus stood under the light of the suspended lantern that hung in the center of the humble room, his eyes fixed on that door. He felt the earth turning beneath the floorboards of the house that was his. Far below, beneath the ground, Rufus imagined voices crying out to him.