WF&2D

White Fist & Two Dogs

The Well

Shading her eyes against crystalline morning light with her free hand, Hattie makes her way to The Well with her wicker-sleeved jug. The woven basket handles are generous and would make for comfortable carrying even if the jug was full, which it never is.

Hattie has acquired the habit, as others before her have done, of referring to The Well with a particular emphasis, as though the word was a proper noun.

Instead of catch-basins closer to the edge, farther back a’ways, there are wells. Some are productive enough. There is, however,  only the one capital “W” Well, and it’s maintained with a vigilance resembling a military installation.

Located in what might be called a plaza at the roughly defined center of town, The Well remains sealed against the elements in a manner to discourage unauthorized access. Not that anyone in Woebegone would ever avail themselves of the good water beyond their allotted ration.

Distribution is a daily ritual following a rigid, one might say an uncompromising protocol, established over time by the meager flow and sparse reserve of the precious resource. This protocol is overseen by the one individual whose personal nature could also be considered uncompromising, an obvious asset in this case, given the good water to be a treasure beyond price, one to be protected at any cost.

Four women are gathered at The Well when Hattie arrives.

Poor Reena Ledbedder, large with twins and miserable today, shifts her weight from one foot to the other behind Shea Buford, hugging her jug.

Shea waits with almost catatonic patience for her allotment without so much as a look or grunt of acknowledgement in Hattie’s direction, or any other. She’s still new hereabouts and the turning’s been hard with her.

Beautiful Ruthie Mallory, on the other hand, bless her sweet, child’s heart, cannot wait to tell Hattie about a dream she had the night before.

Velma Hawley’s features are pinched into a familiar grimace.

There is a smoldering hatred in the gray eyes of the self-appointed Water Mistress that refuses to be restrained. It boils out expansively and without selectivity. She seems to dislike everyone with equal fervor. How sweet, doddering old Pete could stand the lemon-sucking old bat is beyond Hattie’s ken.

The people some people choose.

That their only child is an equally unlikable, oversized, combative road-apple is no unsolvable mystery, however.

The Water Mistress has continued to measure the good water into their individual containers. Now, she’s stopped.

“Mizzy Pruitt, I heared you had a visitor come in out the blowin’ sand last night.”

“Drifter. Doody brought him to me. He was in terrible torment. I gave him some good water and he quieted right down.”

“Well, that was generous of ya. You use yer share however ya want, ‘course, but I ain’t able ta give ya any extra ‘cause of it. Tell me, though, did he look tasty?”

Hattie suppresses the scowl that would only serve to further perturb the Water Mistress, no doubt influencing the measurement of her ration for days to come.

“He looked haunted.”

The clatter of Jamie Mallory’s buckboard being drawn up the main street by Jamie’s two mules, Sister and Sarah, intrudes. Heads turn toward the noise.

Jamie, lounging against the bench seat’s padded backrest, lifts his little cap and waves to the women with a grin. “Marnin’ to ya, foin laidees,” he hails in passing and, to Ruthie, a doting, “Hoy, dorlin’.”

Ruthie and Hattie wave back. Reena’s raised hand awards her a tiny kick in the abdomen. Shea stares into the distance.

Velma heaves a resonant sigh. “I don’t have all day, ladies.”

Newt, bent over the traces, peeks out from under the brim of his hat and winks at Hattie. Her sweet man, even yet. She winks back.

The wagon turns off the main street toward the Stores. It’s tracks in the dirt look deep, suggesting a heavy load underneath the buck’s oilskin cover, but the only outward indication of the success of the outing is a pair of big, rough-looking dogs trailing close behind on heavy leads.

Velma, watching the dogs round the corner out of sight, licks her lips.

Shea Buford shuffles away, hugging her bottle of precious liquid to her bosom.

“Ruthie,” Hattie says, “why don’t you tell me about your dream, honey?”

Ruthie’s eyes slip from Hattie to the Water Mistress. Velma has resumed metering her allocations.

“Well, okay. I was havin’ a picnic momma made for me, sittin’ right by this nice little crick. There was all sorta good things in the li’l basket. I was real happy.”

The Water Mistress gives a derisive snort. Hattie keeps a look of vexation sheathed.

“But then the water in the river it becomed all icky… thick like porridge, an’ there was a fog comin’ offn it, like it was steamin’, or maybe smokin’. I couldn’t tell which it was but it made the trees an’ grass all wilt an’ die an’ I ‘member my skin sorta felt funny whur it touched me.”

Ruthie swallows hard.

“I was ‘fraid ta breathe it in an’ I tried to get up to run away, but I seed there was somethin’ on my arm like a little animal, ‘r maybe a big kinda bug thing! It had feet with toes an’ it held onta my arm with ’em an’ its head…”

The girl tremors twice, the memory vivid. Her voice is too loud.

“Top its head was awful, Auntie! Long, like a… a knittin’ needle. An’ sharp! It scared me sore much I ‘member I screamed an’ tried ta shake it offn me an’ ‘at’s when it… it smiled at me, Auntie Pruitt! A wicked, hateful smile. Then it sticked its head right inta my arm an’ it hurt sore fierce that I woked up.”

Ruthie’s eye are huge, staring into Hattie’s.

“I thunk fer a minute it was still on me! But Momma came runnin’ cuz I was cryin’ an’ weren’t nothin’ there. She tolt me be still cuz it was jist a dream, but…”

“But what, Honey?”

“But when I tolt her what happened, I seed she looked sorta funny her own self. Then she jist tolt me it’d be awright an’ sent me ta fetch water an’ not say nothin’ an’ here I am.”

Ruthie raises her arm and lifts back the sleeve of her frock. Her forearm is discolored, purple-black with a long welt at the center of the bruise. Hattie takes the youngster’s arm and probes the site with delicate attention.

Ruthie flinches, draws back with a wince and whimper, pulling her sleeve down.

Hattie’s concern for the girl’s injury balances precariously in the moment with the memory of her own similar dream not so long ago, the recollection of it grown perhaps imprecise, but the description of the little creature could not have been more intimate. She had forgotten about the smile.

The recollection sends a prickly wave under and over her. How very, disturbingly evil, it had seemed then. She happens to catch Reena Ledbedder’s eyes and sees the look of consternation in them. She knows that look.

The thing that used to be Velma Hawley braces her fists on her hips and produces an impatient harrumph. “S’prised atcho, Mizzy Pruitt.” Her voice drips condescension. “S’prised you ain’t seen such b’fore, you bein’ th’ new ‘n’ better witchy woman here ‘n’ all.”

“Instead of me,” is the part Velma did not say aloud and Hattie reminds herself that no response could be in any way helpful at this moment. Velma is in teaching mode, teaching Hattie a thing or two.

“Simple fact is, the child must’ve started her red days recent.” She fixes Ruthie with a sharp stare. “Ain’t that right, Missy?”

Ruthie looks at her shoes.

“Thought so. Them’s the times, girl. Nice hot comfrey poultices’ll take it right down inna day ‘n’ that’s that. Nothin’ ta git yerselves all worked up over.

“I’ll tell you this too, D’kin Remert sez to me th’other day the needle-head thing people keep sayin’ they seen is jist some kinda lergic reaction to somethin’ in the vironment. He sez he’s figurin’ it out.”

This last Velma has directed toward Reena, the most likely to go into a faint at the troubling thought of the needle-headed dream creature being somehow—sweet Jesus, though we’ve all gone an’ forsaken ya, please don’t let it be, you know… real.

And Hattie knows the older woman’s been speaking to her all along.

She wants as much as anything to ask Velma what it all means, knowing before she does so, she’ll get no satisfaction there. Instead, she offers a sincere, “thank you” for the unsolicited advice and hoists her jug with disappointing ease.

“Come along, Ruthie. Let’s take care of you,” she says and starts off up the street toward the Stores. “But first let’s see what the men brought back with them, shall we?”

      ~    ~

The Well Read More »

Guardian Down

Reluctant gradations of awareness begin to return without the slightest suggestion of urgency.

The first perceptions to infringe upon the heaviness is the trickling of water over rock and a distant melodic trilling, familiar, as though I have heard it before. It comes again, closer now, and then echoed back from two directions.

I have been overhearing this conversation at the tattered extremity of consciousness for some time.

My body is inert, melded to the ground upon which I lie. My eyelids are stones. It is the work of several minnits to open them. That accomplished, I have a spectacular macroscopic view of loose, pebbly soil pressed against my Face.

Movement of my limbs is a far more complicated proposition, but I am encouraged by the fact that I have such a simple puzzle to resolve. The flood of power that found expression through me could just as easily have left me a ribbon of cinders on the wind.

The act of commanding unwilling nerves and muscle to respond awakens in them delicious currents of pain. Arms and legs cramp. Hands and feet, conveniently numb before, are now sheathed in needles. My head feels as though it is inside an ore crusher. My hair hurts.

The taproot is, by its nature, also a recipient of my immediate physical anguish and exploits its intimate connections to my nervous system by quieting our shared discomfort.

I sense Brin nearby, but the tap is tenuous. Both she and her symbiote are holding on to life by the same thread.

At the last, Brin was able to accomplish not one, but two Passages with me in tow. The first to a point high in the air above the broken tableland, away from the maelstrom already tearing into the fabric of this world; its scream obliterating nightsounds as the void at its core fed on everything within reach.

Its existence was a blink in time. The shredded athrah healed. Not so the physical consequence of its hunger, but that was only one more scar upon a landscape already scarred by time and nature.

From our great height, we plunged together just long enough for Brin to observe another of the shallow chan’nons that rake the wasteland. I vaguely recall seeing it too, a fair distance further along the land drop.

Released by the power that held me only a few heartbeats earlier, a swirling darkness rose up in its place. I tried to struggle against it, but the last thing I remember is falling with Brin beside me.

I do not know how Brin, at the end of her strength, managed the second shift.

.      .      .

The sky above has turned and there is a most delicate blue halo washing over the rim of the shallow chan’non in which we lie. This is most peculiar. Gray lands do not awaken in Colors on Hevn and there is no mistake about the neutral energy of this place. But I am no longer on Hevn, am I?

My legs are unable to uphold me. Although the pain that wracked me has been blunted by the taproot, it is with difficulty that I am able to crawl the mere pace that separates me from Brin’s prone form.

I peel off her Face. Her features are in repose. She does not appear to be broken, or injured, but she has spent herself to reach this place with me.

My Face lifts away and, with my teeth, I remove my right gauntlet. The left one’s separation from the lacerated flesh beneath and the protective fics over it is not practical. The damage is significant and the least of my present concerns.

Movement is clumsy and slow, but I manage to hold Brin in my arms and caress her face, my damaged hand over her heart.

Spent I may be, but it takes not the slightest of my own energy to channel Source through me into her. Her body absorbs it like a sponge. I close my eyes and become hollow, an unrestricted channel for the stream of life-force that bathes us both.

I do not know how far away her consciousness may be. I speak to her aloud as well as through our shared connection in hope that something might reach out to her, call her back from her own private Edge. They stumble out of my throat in a croaking whisper.

“Brin… Can you hear me, Guardian? I know you. It would be so like you to give the last of yourself to save me. 

“Do you remember when we were matched? We were so unalike; it seemed we would never find commonality or accord. I believe our Warders thought there had been a mistake, that we would never Bind and they would have to start anew with each of us.

“Do you remember when that changed?

“You approached me in the gathering hall one first-rise and, in front of the Brethren assembled there for firstmeal, confronted me. You called me out for my arrogance, my inability to hear the wisdom in your Sisterhood’s training and experience, and my ‘strutting overconfidence’ in my own.

“To make your point, you stepped up and struck a blow that might have killed one less wary of you. I never told you the reason I did not return the strike, as you were no doubt prepared for it. I was stunned, not as much by the force of your blow—though it was masterfully delivered—as with the sudden clear vision of the warrior spirit within you that I had not been willing to acknowledge.

“So we grappled, spilling tables and scattering trays. The Brethren all cleared a circle around us and cheered. The Sisters looked on with detachment. You managed to slip every hold I knew and only my own strength kept me from being driven to submission at your hand until, at last it was my laughter that ended the contest. I believe you knew then it was nothing less than my joy in the knowledge that we would be Bound and avowed.

“Have you ever wondered, Guardian, why I have never taken a half-mate? Such is permitted and many of the Brethren have done so.

“I will tell you. I never sought that casual comfort because it is forbidden for Warrior and Guardian to co-habit—doubly so to be Sealed—as long as they are bound by their Oaths. And, my magnificent Sister, there is no other I cherish and trust with my life as I do you. You have unintentionally destroyed in me forever the ability to look with desire upon another.”

I trace with tender care the mark of her graduation around her eye. “You are dearer to me than my own life.”

These words I would never before have spoken aloud, spill out of me now, only to have them tumble to the ground around us unheeded. I lower my face to hers. Her mouth is slack, her cheek cool, her breath a thread.

I can barely hear my own voice, less a murmur now than a dry scratching noise. Some small part of me is actually glad Brin cannot hear my heart baring itself in this way. The rest prays she might hear and step back from the perilous Edge upon which she teeters, a heartbeat from trackless oblivion reaching out to envelop her.

As though I could keep her from it, I hold her to me and, with the last of my voice tell her, “I would not wish to journey further without you.”

A portion of the energizing draught remains in my pouch. The ones who concoct it for us in our garrisons call it opoct’pejut. We call it ‘muscle’.

I do not wish to release or jostle her, so I extract the flask with my injured hand and leaden arms. I trickle the dark liquid onto her lips, a few drops, like a kiss. I am allowed barely time to seal the flask and set it aside before a swift, blissful wave of darkness collides with me and, with Brin in my arms, I follow it down.

.      .      .

It is the heat I notice first. The air is hot, dry, oppressive. I am sweltering within my hard-wear and battledress. My exposed skin feels as though it is crisping. The source of this phenomenon seems to be somewhere above me.

High overhead in an impossible blue sky is a single disk. It’s brightness is so intense it overpowers my enhancements and I am forced to turn away from it. A fierce after-image blots my vision for several minnits afterward, fading in measured stages.

I recall Shiric’s orry and my self-assured skepticism as he showed me his shadow-replica of a bright sun. If we are where I think we are, this blinding disk is its originator. What a wonder to witness. I think, however, that I will not attempt to look into its unblinking eye again.

My flask is nearby with less than a quarter of its contents remaining. Brin’s is full, its seal intact. I slip that one into my pouch for now and from my own,  I place a few drops of the fluid onto her lips. Some will find its way into her system and tissues in time. Cognizant of my own diminished state, I finish off the last of it. My mouth and throat, raw from Helmouth’s atmosphere, respond in protest even as its unique warmth spreads through my body.

Prudence dictates, for a number of compelling reasons, that I find some form of shelter for us, not the least of which is the unrelenting heat pouring down. Water, a gurgling stream of it, searches through a rocky course, threading its way along the narrow bottom of the cleft. The moisture has nurtured plant life along its banks. A few of these are tree-like and, though small, their spreading branches offer a reasonable degree of cover.

Any other turn, I could carry Brin without effort, but depleted as I am, it is a graceless, lurching progress with my Guardian in my arms to reach a less exposed position. And water, which we both desperately need.

I let her down beside the stream, then lie on its bank to drink. I fill my flask with clear water and soak a shred of my garment to cool her. I remove her cloak, sash, her battledress and skin-hugging under-armor. I bundle some of the cloth under her head and, after cooling her body with water, cover her with her cloak.

The effort leaves me exhausted. By the time I remove my own garb and splash cooling moisture over myself, only the symbiote’s ability to mute my screaming muscles has allowed me to accomplish this much. One more thing requires my attention.

The fingers of my left hand look bad. Torn and raw, they are swollen, oozing an unhealthy fluid. I have too long neglected their care. In some lands on Hevn it would already be too late to save them. Here the unseen organisms are apparently less virulent, or perhaps the frequent immersion in Source has staved off the worst of infection. Either way, in my pouch is a kit and in the kit is a rigid container.

Its contents spray onto my damaged flesh as a bitter cold mist that skins over and the active agent begins to penetrate into the wounds. The first minnit of the reaction is savage, but anticipated, then a merciful numbness settles in and I can breathe once again. There is nothing more I can do.

I fold myself down beside my Guardian with an unintentional groan. Sleep drags me away and holds me captive for a time.

.      .      .

I swim upward through a syrupy lethargy and surface with reluctance. With wakefulness comes awareness that Brin is lying beside me just as she was before I lost consciousness: slack and unresponsive. Her breathing is shallow, but her heartbeat feels regular. She looks fragile.

The last rays of the second arc are giving way in degrees to Night while, in counterpoint, the myriad tiny shimmering lights spread across its vault begin to reveal themselves. I dress myself against the chill that should not so affect me.

Spreading my cloak over Brin as well as her own, I remain by her side through what I have begun to think of as ‘the sparkling arcs’ and watch over her in the cold luminance of the Night-disk of this land as it makes its transit overhead.

At intervals throughout the night, I focus Source through my hands into the envelope surrounding Brin’s body. My fingers and palms pulse as she absorbs the outpouring of vital energy. I leave her only twice, briefly; the second time to refill my flask at the stream which has dwindled to a trickle. When sleep returns, it is fitful and unsatisfying.

The turn that follows is much like the one before. So many colors surround me, the blue shades of sky, greens and yellows of leaves above us and sparse ground covers, the multiple hues of stone walls and the chan’non’s floor. It is difficult to trust my sense that this is truly a Gray land, but the intrinsic energy of it remains undeniable. It seems to defy all my experience. Such matchless nature would be intoxicating were I not diminished and my soul not drawn so thin.

I have found some fibrous plant material, twisting it into a few short, thin cords. They are rude, but sufficiently serviceable to fix my cloak into the low branches directly above Brin, affording more adequate shade and shield from the uncomfortable light and heat of the arcs to follow. The effort reminds me that my injured fingers, angry beneath the protective second skin, will heal more quickly if I do not continue to infuriate them.

In my pouch is aguya, a thin, hard-shelled cake prepared from the ground meal of the huku nut and a coveted substance called peshneej. It is wrapped in a tough paper that crackles as I break the seal and unfold it. The crisp outer shell crunches as I bite through it into the meaty interior releasing a burst of pleasing nuanced flavors. I take three small bites only, about a third of the cake, chewing each one to liquid in my mouth before swallowing. I chase it down with a single lingering swallow of muscle from Brin’s flask.

As before, I dribble a couple beads of it onto Brin’s lips, letting it trickle into her mouth. I feel my heart quicken as something in her responds to the presence of the liquid. Her mouth works in an absent way to take it in and swallow, and much of a great, fearsome weight is lifted from me.

I lift her head and shoulders in the crook of my arm, prop her slightly upright, and allow her a sip of water. She takes it, and another.

As the bright sun progresses through its second arc, Brin achieves a brief interval of tentative semi-consciousness during which I help her to drink water in measured, but frequent doses. Her body is greedy for it. I tell about this place in which we find ourselves. I describe the bright sun that marches across the first and second arcs of each short turn, the chan’non that shelters us, its rocky watercourse and vegetation, the varieties of flying and small scurrying creatures that inhabit it. She neither speaks, nor responds in any overt manner, but I feel her in the tap and know that she knows I am with her.

And then she lapses back into that distant, inaccessible place far from herself.

I care for the needs of her unresponsive body as best I can. I make sure her mouth and lips are kept moist as she breathes the hot, dry air of the second arc—the downward path of this world’s sun beyond its zenith. At its hottest, I bathe her in cool water, as I did the turn before, wrung from a torn fragment of my battledress.

I have watched the meager volume of the creek diminish until it is now barely more than a seep. I will need to go in search of more water soon. And food. Yet, as long as Brin remains so vulnerable, I am reluctant to leave her for more than minnits at a time.

The sun has dropped to the rim of the chan’non and shadows are quickening. I know from the previous night that cold will follow. Both depleted, we are far more sensitive to these wide temperature variations, this in addition to the observable fact that there are ambient conditions unique to this world that seem to make us more susceptible to such changes.

I disassemble our impromptu awning and lay both cloaks over Brin’s still form. Then, I set out at a quick pace up the stream bed. I do not have to look far.

A pool of still, clear water trapped in a natural basin shimmers in the failing light. It is almost a reach across and nearly as deep. My approach startles several four-legged animals of moderate size gathered there to drink. They are long-legged and lean-bodied, almost delicate in appearance, but swift. They bound into the brush and gone making surprisingly little noise. Watching them bolt away, I almost fail to notice the creature stretched out upon the moist ground between the pool and myself.

It is a peculiar thing with a muscular, tubular body like a wurm, but unlike a wurm, it moves swiftly at the sight of me with a powerful sinuous motion across the ground. It is very like a snayk, though I have never seen one on the land. As I continue to advance, it bunches itself into a tight coil, raising its flat, triangular head, fixing me with tiny, bead-like eyes. Its mouth yawns open, displaying a pair of serviceable, needle-like fangs. Its segmented tail shudders, twitching back and forth. It makes a dry rattling noise.

I approach it straight on. It springs forward to strike and my blade meets it in a blur. Its head bounces once and rolls into a gap between stones even as I stride past its flailing body to refill my flask at the pool. That accomplished, I turn my attention back to the body of the belly-crawler, twisting out its last impulses.

Brin will be, of course, too unresponsive yet. Perhaps later, when she comes around again, we will explore that possibility further. For now, this narrow prize represents a potential meal.

It takes less than a minnit to flay and gut the thing and another to bury the waste, which I do before returning to our bivouac. I hang the rope of meat in a tree-branch a long cast from our place of repose.

Throughout the night Brin rouses only once. I hear her breathing change first, then movement as she shifts her body, rising up on an elbow to look at me with bleary, but cognizant eyes.

She asks me to help her stand. Her voice is thin and dry. She wraps herself in her cloak and, providing an arm to steady her, I help her walk a short distance from our resting place. She is wobbly, but otherwise seems intact and free from pain.

Like a caat, she scrapes a depression in the rough soil with her foot and squats over it, still holding onto my hand to steady herself. She tugs at my arm. The scrap of fabric I have been using to keep her cool throughout the turn changes hands. She doesn’t return it, but raises herself upright on trembling legs and braces herself against my shoulder while she scuffs coarse dirt back over the spot.

We shuffle back to our place beside the creek bed.

Brin is shivering from the cold and, still leaning on me for support, dresses herself. Then, wrung out by the effort, she sags to the ground. I hand her my flask filled with water, which she accepts with a simple, grateful nod. She drinks. I offer her the remainder of the aguya cake. She is indelicate with it and returns the stiff paper wrapping free of crumbs.

I encourage her to take one more drink of water. She does so. Touching my face with an unaccustomed tenderness, she lays down her head and drifts away. I am content for the longest time to sit in the glittering darkness listening to the exuberant Night-sounds of tiny creatures, and watching my Guardian breathe.

My long watch affords me an opportunity to observe that the tiny lights in the Night are in motion. Their movement is intricate, as are the transits of the two larger bodies encircling this world. On Hevn there are four objects that encircle in the ever-Night above us. Their paths never alter; they rise here and they fall there, in this order, every turn identical in procession since the First Turn.

The difference is small, but I am certain the incomplete Night-sun is becoming more fully round with each turn. How could this be possible? In the oft-repeated words of my Warder, Barth, “How should I know? I’m not a Methodist.”

I wonder what the secretive Methodists might think of a world where the sun is a disk of blinding incandescence and heat and the Night is filled throughout its depth with points of light and one, a disk reluctant to show itself, seems to begin its arc across the Night later each turn.

I wonder, but I cannot imagine the answer. Methodists are inscrutable.

Sometime before the halo of the dawning of a new turn paints the sky, my back propped against the sturdy contour of a friendly tree, I doze.

.      .      .

I am unsure how much later the sound of movement nearby brings me back to the moment, awake and motionless. Brin is beside me, curled on her side, asleep, her breathing soft and regular. It was not her movement that awakened me.

My breath mists in the air. All is quiet. Sounds of movement. Animal sounds.

In the half-light between Night and first-rise, I see them, a small group of four-legged creatures, five in all, passing by in a file. They are all of a kind with heads seeming almost too large for their stout, low-slung bodies. They are covered in coats of bristly hair with sharp ridges on their backs. Their split hooves look sharp and dangerous, but not as formidable as the forward-curving tusks sprouting from the snouts of the three largest of them. The other two bringing up the rear appear to be younglings.

They look and smell very like the pugnacious pors’uc that, regardless of Color, herd together in some of the wild areas of Hevn. If these share any of the same characteristics beyond a singular ill temperament, their hearing and sense of smell is more acute than their eyesight. This may explain why the first in line, the largest of the group, almost past us along the moist creek bed, stops short with its snout in the air

Its breath lays down a brief swirling fog as the rest crowd up behind and mimic its posture. It is a burly thing, big enough to create a serious disturbance and of sufficient size to provide adequate meat to satisfy an intensifying hunger.

Other than a few bites of aguya, I have not eaten since before the last time I witnessed Gog rise on Hevn. I am afraid I no longer have a clear idea how many arcs, or even turns might have passed between that moment and this one, but dire combats have been engaged and vast distances traversed. I know, too, that when Brin wakes again, she will be ravenous as well.

Pivoting on sturdy legs, the pors’uc faces my resting place with a show of snorting and grunting that I interpret as the enjoining of a territorial dispute. I am unsure what it is about the nature of my presence that could have sparked such marked hostility. Five sets of black eyes fix me with a sharp mixture of curiosity and enmity.

I do not know what these tuskers eat. Judging by their rough appearance, aggressive posture, and my experience with their counterparts on my own world, I would guess they will eat whatever they can scavenge, uproot, or kill outright.

My fingers find the handle of the blade at my belt and curl with reassuring familiarity around it. I am unenthusiastic about a confrontation with fast, belligerent creatures in my present state, but unless they are able to shield themselves, or come armed with energy weapons, I believe I may yet hold at least a precarious advantage.

The lead brute advances. It is tentative at first, clacking its teeth together, tearing at the dirt in front of it.

Ha’eh, I know this kind. It will cautiously close the gap between us until either movement on my part, or its own proximity will prompt it to storm forward with tusks poised to disembowel, hooves and teeth to rend and tear.

Only a few more deliberate steps remain to be within range to strike for either of us. When the moment comes, it will be swift. Motionless I wait, gauging its commitment.

I observe the subtle shift of its musculature, an evident compression. I draw a silent, charging breath.

Its head jerks up and around, away from me. Its body follows like a whiplash.

A sharp concussive blast splits the air and some kind of projectile tears through the creature’s neck spraying blood and bone. The beast is flung to the ground almost at my feet, helpless, its life twisting out of it. The rest of its family, startled into flight, scatters into the brush further down the stony cleft.

I am on my feet, shield up, blade reconfiguring itself for throwing. At the far wall of the chan’non, just where it cuts away and out of sight, sheltered behind a pair of large downfallen rocks, is a human. Another Gray t’sunguc, so he appears. His weapon is trained upon me.

      ~      ~

Guardian Down Read More »

No Refuge

I have lived nearly a yonn, fifty-three yarnn, to be exact. The last dozen of them have been in the personal service of our Nee’m, The Fayne, Lord of the White Order, Master of All Hevn.

I have trained with the finest, battle-hardened warders and weaponsmasters and, like the others of my Order, I have touched and moved energies that would incinerate the uninitiated, but never have I been joined with such raw elemental power as that channeled through me by the being I once thought to be a T’sungon artifact.

I am overjoyed to be alive to tell of it.

My Nee’m calls it the Argent Flame. It was his fabled weapon, unused in over an a’yonn, and recognized by all as the unassailable symbol of The Fayne’s authority—until it was stolen by Shiric, The Oldest Enemy. I thought it an intriguing tale, at the least.

It has a name of its own, this artifact-being, one the human voice cannot reproduce. I have an image of an unrecognizable symbol sketched into my memory by a lyrical sound played on an unknown instrument. Tu’chah-j’toc, as it is referred to in High Speech, has chosen to slip from my ravaged hand.

Brin and I have been displaced from our assured shared doom, away from Helmouth, the Black land and, beyond all credibility, from Hevn itself, to I know not where. I have a suspicion, but it challenges my understanding.

The energy of this place is neutral, a Gray land. This is to our advantage, as there are worse Colors we could have landed in.

Brin landed hard. She is depleted and dazed, but seems unbroken and, for this, I am grateful.

The t’sunguc I have encountered here is also a Gray, so we refer to the denizens of the neutral lands. I sense no threat in him, nor in the creature that guards him only a cast away, snorting and eyeing me with distrust.

We are within the shelter of a rocky niche in what must be a larger geological formation. It rises behind us and away to an undeterminable height. Opposite, less than four chain from where I sit with Brin’s head in my lap, is a steep rock wall describing a rugged horizon that curves away in both directions out of sight.

Between my limited vantage point and that further wall is a chan’non, what we call the gorges that often reveal themselves between the lands of Hevn. This one is not so deep, or treacherous. I can see the tops of some kind of vegetation growing up from below and hear the sounds of water flowing and small creatures. I can smell them, smell the dampness of stone and soil, smell this human and his four-legged companion. None of it is familiar.

The greater mystery lies beyond that near horizon, and in the Night above us. It is filled with tiny lights.

I have no idea what they are, but there is a multitude of them across the arc of Night. And they shimmer, jewel-like, some brighter, some less so, each at its own unique and unhurried frequency. One steady light, however, much larger and more luminous than all the others, hangs just above the Edge—if Edge it be, for I can see nothing from this perspective but the Night beyond and these sparkling points.

 This greater object in the sky is smaller than Dimm, but casts a much brighter light. It is a cold light, like Fayne’s Eye is cold, though nothing near the Eye’s intensity. Its shape is eccentric, rounded on top but incomplete on the bottom, as if part of it had been lost, or carved away. Faint patterns on its surface, individually vague, taken together suggest an obscure face.

Perhaps the entire sky above is another clockwork device like the ory in Shiric’s workroom. Perhaps merely a decoration. Whichever, I applaud its spectacular scale. We may only guess at the artisan that put it there.

Brin coughs, and again, her body clenching with each. Her eyes open on mine. Her body ripples, stretching, and I give her a hand up. She seems steady and alert, breathing in the signature of this place, senses questing, observing the Gray. How resilient she is.

“Source is strong here. I like the feel of it,” she says. Her voice sounds husky and thin from her exposure to what passes for air in The Enemy’s keep.”

She returns her attention to me. She looks puzzled, stares into my eyes for a moment, nods understanding, and coughs again. She manages a hoarse whisper.  “We’re going to need it. Awaken Takt’ot’sutoc.”

“Awaken…?” The word comes out as a croak. Speaking, much like breathing, feels like glass fragments in my throat and lungs. Raw from Helmouth’s air, each syllable is a rasp.

Reminded of it, I recognize the taproot symbiote’s subtle presence and feedback, a layer of awareness beneath the normal din of the ambient mind, has been missing since our arrival.

Beneath my hair, in the back of my head where neck and skull join, is a fleshy bulb, now drawn into a tight little knot. I massage it with two fingers, no harder than I would my eye, and feel the symbiote responding, its petals opening, cilia twining in my hair, and its enigmatic mind reaching out to the only other of its kind in this strange land.

‘Ah, there you are,‘ Brin says inside my mind. ‘This Gray watching us… you found him here?’

‘Ha’eh. He was here before us. I let him live. I do not believe him to be Shiric’s minion.’

Brin acknowledges the Gray with a nod. He stands apart from us at a respectful distance, waiting without watching, without agitation. I like his bearing.

‘And the Flame?’

‘Tu’chah-j’toc left me. It is free of its imprisonment and we are not cast into the Black Well. A fair trade, would you not say?’

‘Our Nee’m will not agree. Do you know where we are, Warrior?’

‘Ee’eh. No longer Hevn; that much is evident.’                         

I guide her attention with a gesture and she turns about to face the Night bejeweled.

Her breath catches in her throat and she makes a soft noise that makes me smile. She reaches a hand upward toward them. ‘… so very far away…,’ is the only clear expression I get from her.

I hear the note of awe in her and it moves me to regard the spectacle anew from her perspective. How far away, I wonder.

We stand together in silence drinking in this inexplicable wonder. Minnits pass.

‘This Gray will have answers to these mysteries.’ She approaches him with an easy gait and speaks to him words of quiet reassurance.

Her voice, as always, is a perfect mirror of her power. A sea of vibrant energy surges just beneath her calm surface. She carries herself with confidence balanced with just the right touch of humility—not feigned, but in the sure knowledge that the power flowing so effortlessly through her is not her own. Only by virtue of her Gift is it for her use in service of our Oath, our Nee’m and, by extension of these, ONE.

I have seen her work her art with others many times before, and am keen to hear the story this Gray may tell. Yet, I cannot help but turn my attention to search the uneven stone floor of the cavity all around me for a hint of where the tiny J’toc may have fallen from my grasp upon our arrival. Scattered remnants of the Gray’s fire litter the area, but I can see no sign of a dull glow or faceted shape among them.

Even as I determine to commit a more detailed search by sifting the debris, the air around us changes, charged with peril and dismay and the hot, metallic taint of Helmouth’s air. Brin is already donning her Face, as am I.

The now-too-familiar pyramidal shape of The Enemy’s gigantic ally is beginning to take form out on the flat area a cast beyond this sheltering rock. The Gray’s four-legged Guardian is there and I hear its scream of terror, a long, high, tremulous sound.

A sudden pressure buffets me. I had thought us safe here, at least long enough to rest, maybe mend. I should have known better. My weapon fills my hands.

The monster Shiric called Prysm has managed to pry open some etheric doorway between us and through it they come, the Black Lord’s marshals.

A gholl’guc, black as Night and bigger than a trocc, rushes out to engage me brandishing blades glowing with a disturbing luminescence. Its footfalls are so heavy I can feel them through the stone under my feet.

If the prize I have stolen away from under The Enemy’s nose is to be recovered, what better courier to carry it back to him than one with no soul, no consciousness of self to be influenced by it. It is a poor tactic then that it presents itself so readily for me to return it to the pile of lifeless rubble it is in truth.

I put air under my feet and skim the up-sloping stone roof of the cavity toward open sky even as my weapon thunders down upon the heedless thing a brisant hail, tearing at it without achieving much real damage.

Behind the animated behemoth, the tunnel-mouthed d’moni steps through the portal and out into this world The sound of her gulping air through her maw is promise of another deathsong. Her last one was terrible.

Brin’s first bolt is aimed to follow that indrawn breath and tear the creature’s head apart in a blossom of white fury. Midway to its mark, it bends away into the triangular portal, swallowed up and gone in an instant without effect.

I am changing the modality of my weapon and the gholl’guc does two things I would have deemed impossible a moment ago. It leaps into the air, high enough to slash at me with its blades. I see the poisonous light of them as they spang loudly off my shield.

For the first time since its creation, after all my time in The Fayne’s immediate employ, my shield is damaged! I can feel its weakness radiating from the point of contact.

I know exactly what it is now, this glowing matter forged into a weapon of unnatural power, although there is no time to consider the twisting rush of questions that accompany such realization.

I feel but do not hear the rumble and quake of the gholl’s bulk reuniting with the ground because the pale aberration below me chooses that moment to scream its deafening malevolence at us. The air around me withers.

The psychic and physical onslaught of that murderous Word one could never attribute to a single voice. It is a cacophony, an explosion of shattering pitch and volume and crushing pressure.

It killed four of my brothers and their Guardians, damaged two others grievously and, even through a layer of stone between us, brought me and my own Guardian to the floor in misery. Here and now, the rocky hollow in which we are momentarily contained has become a perfect acoustic concentrator, an amplifier for the d’moni’s terrible mind-splintering cry.

The force of it hurls me back and down to the ground and, through the blinding pain knifing through my head, I see dimly the shape of the gholl advancing on me. The dead glow of its blades is exactly the color of the sound promising to shred my flesh, turn my organs to jelly, and pulverize my bones.

Through a haze of blood I see a huge three-toed foot plant itself mere paces away from my face and feel the shudder of its weight through the rock beneath me. The juggernaut shifts its prodigious weight to step near enough to strike through my shield and finish me. With arms that feel like pudding I am almost able to train my weapon on the thing.

White light explodes through the thing’s leg, shearing it from ankle to thigh and spraying fragments behind. Even as the thing topples to the side, arms flailing, the killing voice chokes off. Two sharp, cracking sounds punctuate its final note, a single wet, gurgling gasp. Another sharp crack follows and the reverberations of its horrific last Word rebound from walls of stone out and away down the chan’non under the strange twinkling Night beyond.

Animated, but not truly alive, the gholl feels no pain and, crippled though it may be, continues to advance, scrabbling forward with single-minded purpose—if one could attribute to it a mind.

My body is wracked with agony, but I am not my body; my death has assured me of this. My nerves are raw. My muscles are sluggish and weak. I am bloodied and my head feels as though spikes have been driven into it. Yet, unlike that thing, I am alive. It will not have me.

I command my body to roll aside and, reluctantly, it does so as The Enemy’s puppet delivers a wicked arching chop. It glances off the edge of my shield near the right shoulder and deep into the much softer stone beneath. Here again, my shield is weakened. The buried blade comes free easily.

Small, but strong hands grasp the front of my battledress and pull me almost upright. My feet stumble into position to hold me from falling back. I almost have my balance when Brin jerks me forward several paces further, away from the relentless animated thing.

‘You don’t have time to dance with this ga’chukt! We must flee!’ There is an uncharacteristic urgency in her voice.

‘I do not have the Flame.’

‘They don’t know that!’

She is pointing to the flat area where the enormous dark triangle has solidified. Prysm has come at last in the iridescent, pitted flesh.

Beside it, swaying over the pale heap of the tunnel-mouth’s corpse is the Green d’moni, Blume. Long ropey arms of bundled fibers whip forward and, from the tips of each, a spreading pattern of tiny pods come hurtling at us. I have no doubt about the unhealthy effect of their touch should even one of them find us. With a wave of her hand, Brin sweeps them all away into the chan’non.

I will my arms to raise my weapon, open its throat, and trigger a river of incandescent plasma. It bursts from the muzzle with a sustained recoil and flows instantly just wide of the largest target I could ever ask for—Prysm’s hulking form.

The ravaging force of the beam causes the air to shriek and I lean in against it, guiding it back to the mark. The creature becomes insubstantial, its pocked, iridescent flesh the endless black of true Night. Only the triangular outline of the gateway remains.

Into that space I pour the full destructive force at my command, my Gift channeled through this perfectly crafted instrument. As if to augment its might, I find my voice and cry my fury into the blackness, too.

Brin is shouting at me. My thumb is locked on the trigger and my howl of rage is almost as loud as the roar of the beam as it rends the air between me and the blank, staring portal. Brin cries once again for me to desist, then reaches out toward me and I am cast violently backward.

From the depths of Prysm’s empty form, the torrent of my own plasma stream is returned to the place where I stood, its force undiminished. It vaporizes a tunnel into the rock behind before it winks out.

Brin’s energetic shove saved me but, before I could release the trigger, my beam carved off a section of the overhanging rock face. The slab falls with a terrific crash less than a pace from where I find myself in a sprawl. The fragment is twice as large as the air-car Brin and I commandeered earlier this turn. It topples, thundering to the shallow chan’non floor below with the sounds of breaking and crushing in its wake.

I have acted like a neo and a fool and, if not for Brin, I would be a dead fool by now. Several times over. She will be subtle, but she will not let me forget this.

Blume has produced more of the deadly pods, whipping them at us with an eerie accuracy for something without eyes. I burn them out of existence with a fan dispersal of the plasma stream, a cone of sizzling energy that touches the d’moni for only a beat.

It flinches away flailing, its bundled fibrous trunk and extremities smoldering. Before I can focus the beam into a thread to cut the Green to pieces, the ray is twisted into Prysm’s nullifying emptiness and I cut it off, lest its energy be redirected back at us again.

The gholl has coiled its remaining leg under its body. Brin is closer to it now and it springs at her with its blades whirling around it in a glowing blur. Bad move.

A bludgeon of force slams it flailing across the space between her and Prysm where several new, smaller forms are only just emerging from the open portal. The soulless thing plunges among them, scattering them without ceremony.

‘I can’t keep this up!’ Brin’s breathing is labored and I cannot miss the note of uncharacteristic dread in her sending. It is a shout far louder than her words convey.

Her energetic expenditures have been excessive, if one considers she began the turn battling by my side to the Black heart of Helmouth before being flung into this remote and unknown place. And twice now this turn, we have both been laid low by the killing voice of the tunnel-mouthed d’moni. Brin is spent.

As The Enemy himself boasted, he has a vast reserve of expendable resources to array against us and the will to do so. Conversely, our own reserves are exhausted and we are, in truth, fighting with our backs against a wall.

For the moment, however, we have opened a hole through which we might at least gain room to maneuver.

Brin throws herself into the sky on a high, arcing trajectory across the sparkling Night. I hurl myself outward in the other direction, low and fast toward what may be the Edge of this world just beyond the far boundary of the chan’non.

In a heartbeat I am beyond the near horizon to find not an Edge, but a wide, fractured wasteland that drops away onto a vast plain stretching out as far as my eyes can see.

Shield down and cloaked now, I race headlong, skimming the broken terrain. It is a blur beneath me.

I reach the drop and dive down more than two chain to the scattered scree and sparse vegetation at its base. I pull up and blend against a low rocky wall. There, the half-light above casts its radiance through a growth of thorny shrubs, tall enough for light and shadow and my cloak to afford me layers of concealment. I watch the rim above for sign of pursuit.

I have no idea the nature of the entity, Prysm, beyond what I have seen, and what I have seen is unsettling. That it is able to bend space for itself and others, is obvious, but beyond this, the extent of its capabilities is unknown. Shiric said it was with him before Hevn was made.

Before this turn, I was unaware there was ever anything but Hevn.

Five figures come swift over the wall of the drop, far apart and to either side of me. Each is hunched low astride a small machine with a narrow, elongated body. They are t’sunguc in black and tan light armor, scanning, no doubt with enhancements like my own, for any movement, alert to any sound. They continue onward into the plain without slowing.

A sixth harrier appears above the rim maybe a chain away and pauses, motionless. It begins a slow descent, drifting in increments toward me until all I can see is the bottom of the skimmer’s chassis obscuring my view of its rider.

Four disks on the undercarriage, two located front and rear and two on spindly outrigger vanes on either side, emit a low hum and shimmer with a thin blue light. The air around them shudders as the craft settles a bare span from the ground and only a toss away from me. between us seem irrelevant.

The toothpick figure at the controls steps off onto the gritty soil and its head pivots on a thin neck collared with protective armor. Unlike the others that passed before, this is no courser. The tracker’s helmet has only a half-visor, perhaps fitted with the usual visual augmentation, but it is not looking for me. This one has followed, by means of a natural Gift or an aberrant enhancement, a trace that the thorny shrubs and my cloak cannot obscure.

Its blade of a nose is tilted up, snuffling, nostrils flared, rapid inhalations expelled with force and repeated as it whirls to confront what it cannot see, jerking its weapon around to train upon me. It falls, the node that stopped its heart an inert sphere in its chest.

I cannot say why I am disconcerted that the darker-than-Night triangle begins to form upon the spot where the tracker fell, engulfing the body and part of the skimmer; it was inevitable.

Prysm is massive. Its physical presence intrudes upon the space. This close to its coming, the force of displaced air and discordant energies thrust outward from it strikes me like a moving wall. Unshielded, it hammers me against the rocky surface behind. The remainder of the hapless tracker’s machine, sheared off cleanly, skitters away and topples into the dirt.

I see Prysm’s nacreous skin for the briefest instant before it seems to flow across the interval between us. My death is standing beside me, as close as a lover, watching it. And Brin—between us somehow.

For a beat, a cold, bone-deep and unquenchable touches me as my back seems to slam hard against my Face and I am jinked away.

Almost before I am fully reintegrated, Brin jerks me forward and I stumble. So does she.

We are at the bottom of another twisting chan’non. Or the same one; I have no idea where we are, but all of my extremities exchange places at once and she folds us again.

And again.

First to a vantage point on the rim of the tableland overlooking where we’d just been. Then again back to the chan’non floor where we started. I see the scuffle in the dirt where we fell together moments before. I may have to throw up there.

Her fist is still knotted in the fabric of my battledress. She hauls me into the air toward a rocky bend in the snaking channel, and I do not need a more detailed explanation of the immediate plan. We swoop around the turn together and accelerate away as a wave of pressure surges outward from the place we’ve abandoned.

Brin is in the tap. It conveys her sense of weariness and something uncommon that feels like desperation. It is oddly contagious.

‘The shard is spinning now. Hear me. When we separated, the creature sent all of its trackers after you alone. They had no interest in me. I watched and followed as The Enemy’s ally came to take you.’

‘When I create Passage, it causes a tear in the athrah. Through it, a strand of energy connects where I was to where I am for a few counts and, until the rend heals itself, the creature is able to follow the thread, however thin it may be. I may have confounded it by superimposing the tear it creates over our own and by remaining in this twisting course, where it can’t see us to fix our location, we may elude it long enough to escape.’

We navigate perilously close to an outcropping, twisting to brush past and around the next sharp bend, still cloaked and low against the chan’non floor. I have a jarring thought.

‘We do not know how it perceives anything, do we?’

‘Ee’eh.’

‘If one of its harriers is able to mark our course from high above, Prysm can position itself ahead of us.’

“G’chah!” She cries aloud and turns her body in the air, slowing just enough that I slew into her embrace and we jink again. It is a deadly risk, but every move we make now is a risk.

We are back atop the tableland somewhere. The larger light in the Night of this land, the one that might have been round at one time, has risen higher above us. Even cloaked, we are dangerously exposed in its colorless glow without any reasonable cover to be found.

“I didn’t think of that,” she says and coughs. Her legs wobble and begin to fold beneath her. I steady her with an arm. I feel her exhaustion but I ‘hear’ her counting and think I understand.

She said folding us here created a rip in the fine energy matrix that permeates all things. If Prysm does not encounter the rend before it closes on its own, we may have bought a chance to slip away.

My mind darts among strategies we might employ against Prysm’s relentless onslaught, anticipating the change in pressure that signals the monster’s arrival.

It does not come and, in another moment, Brin’s smile returns. It is strained and tentative, but I am heartened by it just the same—for her, although I cannot share her relief.

These minions of The Enemy have no purpose beyond the recovery of Tu’chah-j’toc and the concomitant chore of killing us, or anyone else they might deem expedient. I do not doubt they will prosecute this imperative to the exclusion of all else for as long as it takes to meet this obligation to their dark Nee’m.

“Perhaps we might seek shelter there,” Brin’s voice cracks into a whisper. She indicates dusky peaks in the distance with an outstretched hand. Her breathing is rapid and strenuous. They are much too far for her to jink us both there, perilous minnits away even at our best speed straight and unopposed, unattainable if we are pursued.

“Ee’eh. We will stand here.” As much as it hurts to speak, it serves to focus my intent.

I feel her body stiffen as she resists both my illogical intention to stay and her desire to flee this exposed ground. She scans the stony wasteland around us with its sparse eruptions of low shrubbery and I hear and feel her breathing change.

She sees them now too. Tiny in the distance, the harriers are approaching, fanned wide apart.

‘Raise your shield, Guardian.’

‘The trackers will see us.’

‘They will anyway.’

The soil around our feet shifts away as our shields enfold us.

I feel her sag in my arms as I ask her to do the impossible. Then an angry heat suffuses the link between us, annoyance with herself for implying weakness.

‘Ha’eh, Warrior. I am with you.’

‘And I with you, Guardian. On my word and not before!’

A different kind of heat rises up around us. Criss-crossing purple beams play upon us, crackling in a violet corona that flares from our shields and scorches everything beyond that circle for a cast. I sense the areas of my own shield, below my knees and at the right shoulder, neither a discontinuity, but radiating weakness. I am grateful Brin’s is still intact, reinforcing all.

My weapon comes up and the nearest of the harriers becomes a brief liquid splash across the sparkling Night. The remains of his skimmer tumble away.

The beams wink out. Silence descends and The Enemy’s great pyramidal marshal is upon us.

In that interval between the cessation of the assault and our envelopment by Prysm’s nebulous portal, I reach into the vast, vibrating pool of Source energy that, even here in this unknown place, infuses all that is. I allow it to fill my aether-body and press it outward to form a node around us, just beyond the periphery of our combined shields.

It is the largest expression I have ever attempted.

It envelops us like a shell.

If this does not work, my death whispers in my ear with typical dispassion, Brin and I will die together with our Faces on. Thus, there is no reason to hold anything in reserve. She adds, too, in case I did not already suspect it, that Soulbridge is so far away, she doesn’t know how to convey it to me.

It no longer matters. Prysm has engulfed us.

Cold beyond any I have ever known seeps past the membranes of the node I’ve expressed and our combined shields. It threatens to liquefy the air around it. I reply with an outpouring of Source energy greater than anything I would have believed myself capable of shaping.

It requires everything I have to reinforce the bubble against the deadly cold of the void and the crushing pressure of the monster’s inevitable advance toward corporeality. I empty myself into the interface.

I have become like the Grand Cascade spilling its might in an endless thundering wave over the Edge of Hevn into the bottomless Night. Everything I am courses into the imperceptibly thin boundary between our annihilation and the bubble of light that surrounds us.

It feels as if it is draining my living essence to add to the wall of force and I, in turn, allow it to explode through me, expanding, feeding the ravenous boundary between Prysm’s coalescing form and the pulsing, radiant sphere that feels more like ‘me’ with every beat of my heart, more like ‘me’ than the fragile construct of tissue inside it, the organism that has already gone far beyond its limit.

I hear a wailing cry—part rapture, part agony—and feel Prysm compressing from every direction against my resistance, intent now on devouring us a molecule at a time until there is nothing left but The Enemy’s prize.

A whisper at the very fringe of awareness, ‘Now?’

The wild outcry trails off to little more than a keening sigh as the hollow vessel I have become tries to recall the reason for the question.

I am a detonation of power and there is no longer any pain associated with the imminent dissolution of my life to feed it. That ecstasy is balanced in an instant against something as simple as a name spoken in a voice that… smiles at me.

‘Narregan. Are you with me?’

Thought has long passed. The answer to the question exists at a cellular level.

‘Ha’eh.’

We jink away and the instant is marked by a dull, anticlimactic thump.

The sound of the gyre imploding is so innocuous, one could scarcely equate it with the chaos that ensues.

The remaining harriers are sucked out of the sky in the first instants. Before the screaming vortex subsides, it will consume air, soil and stone, every living thing, and all matter for at least two or three chain in every direction. All will be condensed into an unrecognizable, fist-sized mass glaring white-hot at the bottom of a deep, glass-sided bowl in the middle of nowhere.

      ~      ~

No Refuge Read More »

At Hattie’s

Hattie Pruitt has begun to worry, and that worries her a little. Before the turning she’d been a dreadful fretter. Why, she’d lie awake all night sometimes, anxious about the silliest things. Afterward, nothing seemed to bother her anymore. Now she just lays down her head and drops right off, easy as you please. Easy as pie. Easy as falling off a log.

Not that the dreams aren’t sometimes very odd. They are, but to tell the truth, she can’t remember the details of a single one of them the next morning and she doesn’t really care to. Dreams are just vapor. Why bother with them?

Thinking of it now, though, sparks memory of a dream… when? Months ago. Six? Not more, surely. Maybe.

A dreadful little creature had its needle-pointed head stabbed onto the muscle of her upper arm. She remembers her sense of revulsion, seeing it in the dream.

Yes, that one was peculiar. The next morning her arm was sore to the touch and to use it but, of course, she had to use it anyway. By the time she thought to worry about it, though, the soreness was fading.

It seemed an odd thing then, but not a problem she had to sort out. She laughed when she told Newt about it. He didn’t laugh.

What worries her today is Newt’s real late getting home and she’s gotten one of her feelings.

Newt had set out with Jamie Mallory in Jamie’s big buckboard over a week ago bound for Las Vegas, a wide spot on the Santa Fe Trail two days northwest. They’d loaded up with all sorts of tradeables, planning to meet up with as many as they could of the cavallards passing through on the Trail constant these days. An unbroken stream in both directions, they are. So Jamie Mallory says.

Some of the items they took with them were made by Remert in his shop: specialized tools and creative little gadgets, and toys, even. Hattie can’t imagine where he comes up with such ideas. They also took along some of the quilts and clothing the womenfolk had made together.

Not to seem prideful, as a good bit of the work was Hattie’s own, but their wovens and needlework are as fine as any she’s seen anywhere and she’s lived in Chicago. She knows right enough what ‘fine’ ought to look like.

She can’t remember who, but someone suggested they take along a small keg of the good water with them too. That seemed to spark some heated debate, as such represents a precious lot of the stuff; it comes up from the Well so slowly.

The idea was advanced that it might help promote some new blood in the town, or at the least, fresh consumables. There was one strident objection.

Doody, battered beaver hat perched atop his dome like a badge of office, had rapped his gavel a couple times on the counsel table, the long, wide, lacquered one, and told Silas to take a seat and quit wasting the counsel’s time being frivolous. Then he led a short meeting about how much good water might be allowable. Hattie remembers it wasn’t much. A canning jar full, no more. Most everyone seemed satisfied they’d been heard, at least.

Doody, of course, would have been elected mayor long ago if anyone gave such notions even passing consideration anymore, which they didn’t. He’d long since assumed the responsibility for maintaining an orderly forum whenever decisions affecting the well-being of the community required deliberation. These meetings always seemed to take place within his establishment anyway. He has furniture.

Thing is, Newt and Jamie should’ve been back by now if nothing’s gone wrong and here’s this awful dust storm blown up. Hattie realizes she isn’t actually worried about Newt. No, Newt can take care of himself. What concerns her most is that something has shifted.

She’s not sure when it happened, but she’s realized it. Trouble’s coming, bad trouble with this battering windstorm as its harbinger. Whatever it is, she doesn’t want to face it alone.

With naught to do but wait, Hattie leans an elbow on the chair arm and lays her chin in her fist. No doubt she could conjure some busy work, but sometimes it’s beneficial to just be with oneself and, honestly, she doesn’t much care to do anything right now but listen to the driven sand scour the town clean. It’s enough to just be and see what comes of that.

 She brushes her cheek, stretching the skin, so supple and soft, like when she was young. In most regards, she feels like she did when she was young. Where are the small wrinkles that had begun to develop around her lips and eyes before she and Newt came to be here?

The good water cannot fully overcome the consequences of weather and time; this she’s been told. But damned if it don’t appear to hold them off at a solicitous distance for a good spell. She’s seen what it has done for those who’ve been here longer. And what it hasn’t done.

Perhaps if there was more of it… but nothing’s likely to come of such speculation.

Her other hand combs absently back through what was once a handsome tumble of dark, shoulder-length hair. An uncommon streak of pure white appeared there some time after her and Newt set up housekeeping in this place, a filament at first just left of center. Now her tresses on the entire left side are like strands of snow. It all feels the same, but even now when she sees herself in a looking glass, the effect is disconcerting.

Fingers trailing now from the ends of her hair, she holds both hands out in front of bright gray eyes and examines them front and back, as though they were unfamiliar. Long, nimble fingers. The capable hands of an accomplished pianist. She used to be quite good—gifted, someone once said of her—but that was in, literally, another life. She wonders if these fingers could yet find their way through the scherzo of Bach’s Partita Number Three. Humming the melody to the wind outside, she tickles the air with delicate butterfly strokes.

The thread of the moment unravels and her hands flutter down, trailing across the bodice of her simple dress, once again surprised at how little surplus material seems to be there, and down over her flat belly to hips and legs. If memory serves, they had once been considered quite shapely, now leaner and stronger than she remembers them.

The two realities are superimposed as a fresh wave of blowing sand pelts against door and shutters and, in the moment of comparison, she is vexed by her inability to remember with any clarity how she and her Newt came to be here.

It doesn’t matter, of course, because she can no longer imaging herself being anywhere else than this improbable little hamlet with its majestic surroundings. Also, the secret treasure at its heart, the tiny, tranquil spring seeping its priceless enchantment into a deep, secret basin.

Something clatters discourteously across the roof and Hattie looks to the low ceiling, not with concern, but with appreciation for Newt’s carpentry. Like most of the houses in town, the Pruitts built theirs out of solid beams and good clapboard hauled down from the town of Pueblo a number of years ago. It’s double-walled, pitch sealed, and filled in between with something like sawdust that Remert provided. It’s insulated against the cold and snow of winter and resistant to rain and wind, too, like what’s just now sandblasting the already weathered exterior.

Inside, by the yellow light of a single lamp, Hattie sits in the rocker chair Newt made for her, listening, smelling the traces of dust in the air, waiting. A knock at the door jolts her. Not Newt, surely; he wouldn’t knock.

Before she can raise herself from the chair, the door opens outward with difficulty against the gale and Doody lets himself inside followed by a lanky fellow with a load over his shoulder. Doody hauls the door shut behind them.

“Sorry about calling so late and unannounced, Hattie,” he says.

The room’s not large and only a couple steps bring her close enough to get a good look at both of them in the lamplight.

“Deuteronomy, I think this is the first time I’ve seen you out ‘n’ about without your hat,” she says by way of greeting.

“Wasn’t about to let that,” Doody gestures toward the bluster and debris chattering against the outer walls, “take my bonnet and throw it out into the Miles. No, ma’am, that just wouldn’t do.”

He reaches a brown hand to his forehead, tips an imaginary chapeau to the woman, and continues, “This pilgrim here just blew in on the wind and needs a place to stay the night. I recall you’ve got an extra room Newt built for your momma, God rest her, and thought maybe you wouldn’t mind puttin’ him up in it.” He gives her a grin and a wink. “He says he can pay.”

Hattie looks the fellow up and down. He’s got manners enough to remove his hat, she notices, and he’s got an interesting face; not handsome, Lord no, but pleasing in a hard-edged sort of way. Looks strong, unmistakable Indian features and, equally unmistakable, reddish stubble growing out of his face. There’s a combination not often seen, safe to say. Pretty eyes, too, like new grass.

Something in those eyes is troubling.

“You got a name, mister?”

“He can’t hear you,” Doody says. “Says he had an accident a few days back. Deaf.”

“He’s hurtin’, too,” Hattie says. “Hurtin’ bad.”

“He don’t show it.”

“I can see it in his eyes.” She lifts a hand to the side of his head, touches him with her fingertips, then draws her hand back. “Oh, my…”

Jonas senses the same vague oddness about this woman that he felt from those back at the leathery man’s place, but there’s no threat in it and the woman seems kindly enough. Seems, too, she’s got a bit of a knowing herself. Or maybe the pain inside his head has become so strong it’s begun to leak out and anybody can feel it that comes close enough.

“Ma’am, I’m real sorry ta be a bother to ya…” he begins and the woman silences him with two fingers held to his lips.

Hattie takes his arm and leads him to Newt’s chair, pressing him into it with a deliberation that says she’s taken charge now and he might just as well accept the fact.

She gives Deuteronomy a wan smile as he gathers up Jonas’s gear with a grunt. She points to a doorway giving onto a small room where there’s just enough space to pile Jonas’s things near the foot of a thick feather-tick mattress set up on a wooden pallet.

Hattie fills a glass from a demijohn on a low counter with cupboard above, cluttered shelves below, and a good pitch-sealed wooden basin on top. Newt’s handiwork. She catches Doody’s raised eyebrow as she turns back to her guest with the glass in hand. She hands it to Jonas and says o Doody, “He’s in awful misery. Can’t you see it?”

“Nope. You’re the sensitive one.”

“Sit with us for a bit, won’t you? I’ll need some help with him presently.”

Doody lowers himself onto a straight-back chair by the table and affords Hattie his full attention. “I can’t think of any place better to be just now.”

It smells all right, Jonas thinks to himself. What were you expecting anyway? Yet it feels cool in his mouth and the flavor of it is… what’s that word? He heard it roll off his father’s tongue on occasion. Never thought he’d ever have occasion to use it himself before now, but this wave of liquid sliding down his throat tastes just so extraordinary, so clean and right, it almost makes him weep.

Exquisite. That’s the word.

A rush of delicious well-being washes over him as sudden as it is profound. He takes another long swallow, and another, savoring both the incomparable flavor and the wondrous flood of contentment spreading through him all the way to his fingertips and toes.

Years ago, he stood in the surf of the Pacific Ocean allowing the swells to crest and break over him. Each time he would surface and, shivering, stutter out, “Thank you, Grandmother!” And when he fell back onto the beach at last, the chilly morning air seemed comfortable by comparison to her embrace.

This feels very much the same. Except this wave rolling over and through him is a warm one. Like being lifted on breeze. Like a mother’s caress.

He can feel his muscles relaxing and the agonizing pressure of the screaming silence between his ears begins to melt away.

The little room commences to swim in a lazy way and Jonas can’t help but smile at the way it makes the woman’s face waver. She smiles back at him. Tears roll down his cheeks.

Doody watches, nodding as the familiar scene plays out. The fellow’s hard features show first surprise, then soften to assume a look of calm wonder and obvious pleasure. His knotted brow grows smooth even as the smile forms on his lips and the drifter whispers, “Thank you, Grandmother.”

Unexpected laughter bursts from him, startling Hattie and she jumps, recovering in time to snatch the glass as it slips from the man’s limp fingers.

He slumps forward. Without being asked, Doody rises to help Hattie lift the fellow out of the chair and carry him into the adjoining room, laying him out on the mattress there.

“I’ll finish tendin’ to him later,” Hattie says in a hushed voice, closing the door on Jonas’s slumber as quietly as the dry hinges will allow.

“No reason to act the church mouse, Hattie. You couldn’t wake that fellow now with a steam whistle and a cannon right there in the room with him.”

Hattie’s head lifts up, eyes to the ceiling. “D’ you hear that?”

Doody stops shuffling and cocks his head to the side, listening. “Wind’s died.”

“You know,” she says, “I think that’s about the worst I seen since Newt and me came here.”

“I’ve seen worse,” Doody begins, and then looks puzzled. “That’s funny. Darned if I can remember when, but I know I have.”

“Some memories seem to slip away in the turning. Others…” Hattie remembers who she’s talking to and she laughs. “Guess I don’t have to be tellin’ you any of that now, do I?”

Doody lays a kindly hand on the woman’s shoulder. “I’ve been here a good while. Got its advantages, it does, and I can afford to let a couple irrelevant memories slide now ‘n’ again. Seems a fair trade.”

“What about the ones that aren’t irrelevant?”

He turns toward the door, fixing to leave. “They all are.”

“I could make some tea if you’d like to stay and talk a bit,” Hattie says. She knows she sounds plaintive. At least the wind had been a kind of company. If Doody goes now, it’s going to be too quiet with nothing to do but think.

“Thank you, Hattie. That shit-for-brains, Maylon, took exception to the pilgrim’s looks earlier and made a bit of a mess over’t my place. I better get on back and clean up. Maybe when your man gets back, I’ll take you up on that tea and we’ll hear about his adventure.”

“He shoulda been back by now.”

“He an’ Mallory are hunkered down under cover. I expect they’ll be along come morning.”

“You sound like you know.”

“Surprised you don’t.

“Wait, you said Maylon took exception to this fellow over at your place. What happened?”

Doody points to the closed door of the adjoining room with his chin. “Gave Maylon what for.”

“You’re pullin’ my leg.”

“Am not.”

“Way I hear it, only ones ever got the best of that mean sonofabitch, ‘scuse my French, is the Cosgrove pair.” She smothers a little shiver. “One at a time at that, and I’m told Punkin whipped him the worst before it got broke up.”

“Woman, I’d a thought the same until tonight. Maylon threatened him with that mule-skinner’s knife he’s so proud of. The wayfarer there put him on the ground sniveling like a little girl.” Doody’s chuckling now. “You should’a seen it.”

“Lordy, I wish I had,” Hattie says, and the thought makes her chuckle a little too. It’s short-lived, as laughs and smiles often are in these parts, and she shakes her head in renewed disgust. “Maylon’s a belligerent, quarrelsome bully an’ no mistake. I don’t trust him at my back even a little bit. I’d like to think he may be of use to us some day.”

“You’re too generous, Hattie. By my reckoning, he’s a complete catastrophe desperately in search of someplace to occur. Should’ve harvested him when he was still a pup and been done with hm.”

Doody opens the door and pauses on the threshold before stepping out into the eerie quiet. “Maybe you’re right, though. He may have some use one day… long as it doesn’t require any common sense or good will.”

“Good night, Deuteronomy.”

“Thank you, and a peaceful night to you, Missus Pruitt.”

The simple ritual of civilized folk parting company carried out by individuals that are no longer quite human is not so much play-acting as holding on to the remembrance of what they once were in the face of an altered existence for which there are no clear rules, no prior experience from which to draw conclusions, or direction.

Closing the door on the deserted street and Doody’s retreating back, Hattie looks in on her guest. Motionless in the doorway of the little room, contemplating the man unconscious there, of one thing she is sure. She felt trouble coming on the wind earlier.

Well, here it is.

 

 

      ~      ~

At Hattie’s Read More »

The Pilgrim

Wind whistles tunelessly, but with unrestrained enthusiasm outside and through tiny gaps around the windows and doors of a large common room. A breath of fine dust puffs into the space and hangs in the pool of yellow light from two of a trio of oil lamps affixed to an old wagon wheel. It’s hung with bits of chain from the ceiling center beam. A similar chandelier, placed to illuminate the other end of the space, is dark.

A bit of wind-blown debris claps against the shutters out front on its way down the only street in town and the thing that had once been Silas Gunderson lifts its gaze from the table-top checkerboard.

To its credit, the thing still looks and sounds like Silas Gunderson always has and almost always continues to think of itself as Silas Gunderson, but it’s not. Not really. Not anymore. Still, it’d probably be easier to think of it as ‘he’, rather than ‘it’ because, doggone it, it does.

The look of annoyance on Sy’s face is genuine enough and he gives voice to his displeasure. “Fer th’ love o’ Pete, Pete! What in blazes ya waitin’ for?!”

Pete Hawley’s expression, when he pulls his attention away from the game, is one of vague perplexity. The slow intelligence that still thinks of itself as Pete Hawley looks out from behind his eyes and blinks them a few times without apparent comprehension.

“‘Fraid I’m unable ta twig yer meanin’ there, Sy. Why don’t ya quit stallin’ an’ make yer move already.”

“Wha…? Why, ya dunderhead! I been waiting fer you ta make yer blamed move fer five minutes! Wake up, will ya, Pete?”

“Well, I dunno why. I jist moved right there,” Pete says. He stabs a boney finger at a black checker near the far left corner of the board, “more’n four minutes ago. Waitin’ on you ever since.”

The thing that was Silas Gunderson slaps his thigh in exasperation. “Fine!”

He reaches out with the little finger of his left hand, the only digit remaining on it to oppose his thumb and, with them, reaches to pluck a red checker from the board, placing it onto Pete’s back row. “King me!”

“What? Wait…” Pete swivels his head to address the huge fellow slumped back in his chair at a nearby table. “Did you see whose turn it was, Maylon?”

Maylon seems an unusually broad tree-stump of a lad. A stringy mop of greasy brown hair falls over eyes set too close together beneath a low, sloping brow. A flattened nose overhangs his thick-lipped mouth, gaping open, as though his protruding lower lip was a great dangling weight. He’s got far too much chin and jaw, and he’d surely have the look of a malformed simpleton if not for a brooding malevolence in his eyes and pinching his features.

Arms crossed, he’s scowling at a clear glass of liquid on the tabletop in front of him. It’s not half full.

“Do ya think I give a shit?” says the boy without looking up. His voice cracks, unable to achieve depth and timbre to match his impressive mass, or to carry the full weight of his congenital hostility. It adds a shrill note of irritability to his sullen demeanor.

Pete turns to the only other person in the spartan establishment.

That fellow signed his name ‘Deuteronomy Potwin’ when the town was more or less chartered maybe ten-eleven years ago and he’s still willing to answer to that moniker, though everybody just calls him Doody.

Doody’s kicked back with his chair propped at a precarious lean against the wall next to a wide, sixteen foot-long plank, sanded smooth and varnished deep. It serves intermittently as bar, podium, retail counter, bench, and buffet table. He’s flipping playing cards from a pack in his hand at a tall, ratty-looking, beaver hat stationed upside-down on the only clean spot on the floor ten feet away. The area all around it is littered with cards.

The trey of diamonds cartwheels off the brim of the hat and continues tumbling under another table as Doody dislodges a smoldering stub of cigarette from his lips with yellow-tinted fingers and points it at Pete just as the other begins to open his mouth.

“Before you bother to ask,” he says, “the only reason I pay any attention to you two comedians at all is because you make me laugh once in a while, but otherwise—and I find myself deeply disappointed to hear myself say this—I’m actually in agreement with young Maylon’s demonstration of ignorance and apathy over there. I don’t know and I don’t care either.”

He taps some ash onto the floor, reinserting the butt into a brown indentation between his lips just left of center.

The jack of hearts seems to catch a draft or something and coils off the mark.

Pete looks deflated. “Igner’nce an’ apathy’s about all that’s left ’round here these days.”

Sy’s chair grates back on the rough plank floor and he unhinges himself upright. “I gotta go take a Pete,” he says.

“Hey, lemme see that flesh club you call a hand again before you run off.”

Sy extends his arm toward Doody, palm out, pinky sticking up. Doody’s chair creaks down to a wobbly four-point landing and he rises to inspect the fellow’s damaged paw.

“If memory serves, windmill gears lopped them off three… no, four days ago.” Doody says. “I was in here that morning, but clear back in the kitchen rattling around. I heard you hollering from the field.”

From the mangled remnants of flesh and bone where fingers used to be, tiny nubs, pink and vital, have begun to sprout. Sy swivels his wrist, shows Doody the other side.

“Hurt like hell,” he says. “Still does off an’ on, but I sure do ‘preciate all them that shared some of their ration with me.” He wiggles his nubs. “Another week, I ‘spect, ‘fore they feel right.”

“Good that you got your thumb out of the way.”

Doody bends over the plank, reaching below, fingers questing, and straightens with a bottle neck trapped between them. A shot glass is tucked under his little finger. He lands the glass on the plank that’s now a bar, fills it from the bottle, and slides it over to Silas.

“Why, thank you, sir. You are a gentleman.”

“Tell no one.”

Silas knocks the shot down and stands motionless, head back, eyes closed, breathing deeply.

“Do ya s’pose I could have another sip o’ good water too, Doody?” Pete looks hopeful.

“Why don’t I get you a beer instead?”

“Oh. Yeah, okay.”

Silas steps out the back door to the jakes.

Doody fetches a bottle of warm brew from a low cabinet behind the bar plank. He’s straightening up with a bottle in each hand, because as long as he’s getting one, he might just as well get another for himself, when the latch at the entrance clicks. A gust throws the door wide, casting a lanky figure at the threshold in gritty silhouette.

Maylon, his back to the door, claps a big hand over top of his glass to keep the swirling dirt out of it and his voice carries over the whoosh and rattle behind him. “Shut the goddam door! What’re ya born inna fuckin’ barn?”

The man steps through lugging his gear slung over a shoulder, a scabbarded rifle and bedroll lashed to square, Pony Express-style saddlebags. He hooks a booted foot behind the heavy door and pulls it just enough to get his shoulder behind it, forcing it closed against the wind. The latch falls into place and he steps back.

He has a baleful appearance in the lamplight. The high collar of his duster is snapped to the top, his hat pulled down low over his eyes, and the rest of his face hidden behind a bandana that might’ve been blue at one time.

Doody sets a brown longneck bottle in front of Pete and they both watch the stranger shuck his burden onto a couple chairs at the table behind the door.

Pete sips at the bitter ale and glances at the young man brooding in silence just a few feet away, elbows on the table and too-heavy jaw cradled in his palms, staring down the drink he’s been nursing for the last half hour.

The boy looks so much like his son that Pete often forgets it’s not him. Not really. No more’n anybody here’s who they used to be. Except Pete. He sure doesn’t feel any different or anything.

The newcomer unties his bandana revealing a hard face. He doffs his hat without slapping the dust off it and sets it atop the rest of his belongings. Black hair is pulled back in a raveling braid tucked down into his graying duster, which he unsnaps top to bottom and drapes over the back of the nearest chair.

Pete and Doody observe the fellow has the gaunt, wild look of one who’s been several days in the badlands. His back to the room and one hand resting on the table, he becomes still, head down, cupping his eyes with the other hand.

Pete looks at Doody, looks at the stranger, and back again to Doody. Doody shrugs.

Out of the hot sand blasting around him, Jonas’s tears begin to work with effect. It takes a couple patient minutes for him to dislodge the worst of the irritation, but beyond that and more blinking, it feels as though grit has been received into every fold and crease from his John Bs to his boots.

His other discomfort, however, has become akin to the only toothache he’s ever endured, excruciating days that felt like a knife had been driven into his jaw. Except this knife pierces his head ear to ear and the racket inside there is so mercilessly loud it’s no wonder he can hear nothing at all.

He’s given the room his back without much concern. The old timer seated alone at the checkerboard’s harmless. The other old fellow reads far more thoughtful than quarrelsome. The youngster sitting by himself, though… now that’s a different story altogether. To the good, nobody’s packing iron, not even the one in the outhouse out back.

He can see that the beefy kid’s going to be trouble; sees several ways the next few minutes might unfold. He knew there’d likely be a bit of disturbance when he let himself inside the dreary, nameless establishment, but it was shelter.

He is here now. If food and sleep are to be had, this is the place to begin.

“You all right there, Mister?” inquires Deuteronomy.

Jonas turns away from his belongings and points himself toward the plank,  stepping around the far side of the table where the brooding man-child is sitting. Maylon gets his first look at the stranger since he entered.

As someone recently said of Jonas, his appearance belies his nature.

“Oh, HELL NO!” Maylon cries, his youthful voice cracking, his chair clattering to the floor behind. “You ain’t servin’ no prairie nigger in here!”

Jonas continues past without apparent notice.

“You git him the hell outta here, Doody, or I’ll do it for ya!”

“Boy, you don’t say who stays and goes in my place. Pete, get control of your child before he starts something I’ll have to finish.”

Maylon growls under his breath, “You couldn’t finish hoppin’ on one foot if I mashed the other’n flat.”

Pete stands looking distraught. The boy’s been of his own mind regardless anything Pete’s said to him for some time, since before the turning even. Probably not likely to listen to him now and Pete refrains from making such a useless effort.

Jonas approaches the narrow, but sturdy-looking graybeard with skin like smoked leather.

Bushy, sloping brows under a sparsely thatched dome give him a droopy, disconsolate look, but his eyes are sharp and blue. He’s talking around a cigarette that appears to have a permanent resting place between his lips, a small indentation stained like the skin between the index and middle fingers of his right hand. He removes the smoldering stub and says something to Jonas.

Pointing to one ear, Jonas says to him in a quiet voice, “Had me an accident few days back. Can’t hear ya.”

Deuteronomy nods understanding.

“Lookin’ for somethin’ to eat an’ a place to rest a spell,” says Jonas. “I can pay.”

Another nod and Doody assumes the role of barkeep, producing a bottle of red-eye and a glass.

Jonas waves him off. “Just water, if it please ya.”

Doody shakes his head and, although Jonas can’t hear him over the earsplitting roar of his deafness, he understands well enough as the man says, “Sorry, pilgrim. Drinking water’s in short supply hereabouts. How about a beer instead?”

Maylon is on his feet. “What the hell’s goin’ on here, Doody? Yer actually gonna give comfort to a murderin’ redskin. When’djoo become such an Indin lover?”

“What difference does it make to you?” Doody says and holds up a brown bottle. Jonas nods acceptance, reaching into the front pocket of his Levis for a coin. Doody’s lips twitch into a little smile without displacing his cigarette as he waggles a hand in front of Jonas.

“First thing,” he says to Maylon with bare patience, “this fellow appears more breed than blood to me and if he was out to do some murderin’, a bright young fella like yourself would probably already know about it.

“And second—and this is the most important fact, young Maylon—this here’s my place and I will serve whomever I damnhell please. That includes a lone traveler looking for shelter from this wicked weather.”

Maylon is grumbling without much articulation. “You know where he’s headed same as I do I guess so I don’t know why you gotta be so nice ta him an’ so bossy ta me, ya big horse pecker.”

He raises his voice from a mumble to something requiring a near octave change. “They’s probably more of his friends outside right now waitin’ ta jump us an’ then run house ta house slittin’ throats and liftin’ hair.”

“Holy shit!” Doody says, turning toward the boy with pop-eyed astonishment. “You’re probably right!”

“I am?”

“Hell yes! You need to run out there right now and find out! We might already be surrounded!”

“I got a better idea. Why don’tcha jist give him a little kiss, Indin lover?”

Doody’s expression becomes ominous.

“That’s it. I tried being civil with you, you insolent little turd! Doesn’t work. Now go out there and lay in the street where you belong. I mean it. Take your mean, snotty carcass out of my place right now, or so help me God, I’ll…”

The boy is eye to eye with Doody and twice as wide. “I don’t guess you’ve noticed, but God don’t come ’round here no more. If’n He did, I’d cook His almighty liver over a slow mesquite fire an’ eat it smack in front of ‘im.”

Maylon rounds on Jonas with a sneer. “How ’bout you, Cochise? Wanna come outside with me for a minute?”

Jonas has seen this unfold a few different ways in his mind’s eye and pays no attention to the interplay going on before and behind him, nor to the other checkers player just letting himself inside through the back door with a whirl of dust eddying around his boots.

He empties most of the warm lager down his dust-roughed throat and, while he can’t help but think with fondness about the ice-cold brew served up at the Long Branch not a month ago, at least this’s wet and not entirely unpleasant.

“Breed or blood, I could care less!” Maylon clamps a big hand on Jonas’s shoulder. “Lookit me, goddammit! I’m talkin’ ta you!”

He pulls Jonas around to face him, unsheathing a fair-sized hunting knife at his side with the other. He’s hungry to see the fear in the eyes of this savage dressed like a man.

The placid look on Jonas’s face and the stoniness in those unexpected green eyes is not what the boy has anticipated. Maylon blinks. Jonas reaches up to the hand on his shoulder and wrenches the boy’s thumb like the spigot on a keg.

Small joints twisting beyond the limits of their design make small shattering noises. The look of wild-eyed alarm that overtakes the boy’s features is encouraging.

Maylon discovers it’s impossible to bring his knife into play while his body is desperate to distance itself from the agony of his splintered thumb.

He spins backward and down, falling against his table, which up-ends with a crash. The remainder of his unfinished drink empties onto the side of his face and down his neck as the glass bounces once with a dull cracking sound and rolls across the floor. It stops between Jonas and Gunderson, who’s fairly well flummoxed at the developments while he was otherwise occupied out back.

Maylon’s knife has gotten loose during the hasty introduction of his backside to the floor and skitters out of reach, but the fight’s gone out of him. He’s sitting with his back propped against the upturned table dabbing with obvious concern at the wetness around his collar.

The other men are frozen, staring at Maylon with a potent mixture of disbelief and anger. Gunderson rolls the glass on the floor with the toe of his boot and says to no one in particular, “That was good water, wasn’t it?”

Pete can’t seem to decide whether he’s angry enough at his son to have words, or too afraid of him to say anything at all. He’d love to beat the miserable little sonofabitch with an axe handle, but he’s pretty sure he’d wind up wearing his own ass for a hat instead.

Gunderson’s not afraid of the Hawley bastard and hauls him up with a hand and a quarter in Maylon’s shirt-front ’til they’re eye to eye and yells into his face.

“You spilt good water! You! Dumb! Shit!”

“It was him done it! He pushed me down! An’ lookit what he done ta my hand!”

 Maylon holds up his paw with the thumb cocked at an unlikely angle.

Silas helps him stand and Maylon lunges toward Jonas the moment he’s up. Gunderson holds his ground for the moment between the two of them.

“Jesus Christ! Pete, help me get yer crotchfruit out of here, willya?”

“Hey, fuck you, Silas!” Maylon screams and hurls Gunderson away with ease. The sound of more breaking furniture behind him, he charges with a clawed hand closing on Jonas’s throat. “I’ll eat yer fuckin’ heart!”

Jonas grasps the young man’s good thumb and, with an effortless twist, drives him to his knees. His voice is soothing. “Thumb’s one of them things separates us from the lower animals. If I break this’n too, you’ll just be a monkey can’t wipe his own ass. That what ya want?”

The lad is squirming, trying to find a way to relieve the pain and whimpering just a little as he finds every movement makes it worse. None of the others have made a move to intervene.

“You’ve missed the point of this lesson, boy,” Jonas says. “I wouldn’t worry, though. I can see in your eyes you’re bound to get it again.”

Holding pressure on Maylon’s thumb, Jonas makes a looping gesture that forces the adolescent Hawley first to his feet, then onto his toes. A small adjustment in force turns Maylon toward the door where the elder Hawley and Gunderson bracket him and hustle him outside without farewells.

“Well, sir,” Doody opines to the deaf man, “I can’t tell you how happy it made me to see that. What do you say we find a place for you to lay your head?”

 

      ~      

The Pilgrim Read More »

On The Tablerocks

Jonas’s route to the top of the tableland presents an arduous climb with a cumbersome load.

Hand and footholds are unreliable. A jutting stone may have nothing but a skin of soil to hold it in place. A sturdy-looking plant near to hand may be deeply rooted, or barely so, and so many of them have teeth.

A fall here would be the end, and a pointless one.

 A short but near-vertical pitch presents an impasse. It receives his consideration for a time, during which he unloads and ponders his alternatives. His purchase here, a wide stone shelf, provides few of them.

At the broken end of the ledge, a narrow, stony cleft appears unattractive, but less vertical and barely a gap from accessible.

He shoulders his lariat and, without other encumberment for the moment, steps over and up into the slot. A short climb is made long by the need to be certain about the placement of one’s weight. There is no need to hurry; he has all day.

The rock cut opens onto the next level, an expanse of lichen-encrusted stone and desiccated grass clinging to crusty soil.

He secures his rope to a solid outcropping at the top of the fissure and uses it to brace his descent. Below, the mochila is secured to the end of it and, after one last careful climb, he hauls the load up and out.

The way from here is steep, but manageable. The sun has had a good head start on him, but he can see the rimrocks and the way to reach them.

 The last pitch is grueling, a punishing climb becoming easier as he approaches the mesa top and Jonas’s world opens from a singular focus on the placement of hands and feet. He turns to face what has been at his back since his ascent began. It is a vista of the New Mexican country without a sign of human existence in any direction.

To the east, the land falls away in tatters. Fractured landscape plunges downward maybe hundreds of feet, then stretches out as far as the eye can see, an undulating plain squatting angrily in an inhospitable temperature. Southward, the same. To the west, the tips of the distant Sangre de Cristo Mountains rise from wavering heat-haze.

Unrelenting sun finds the peak of its climb up a cloudless sky and Jonas takes refuge beneath an undercut arroyo bank to wait out the swelter of mid-day.

A sidewinder’s already claimed the shade and, made cantankerous by the heat, challenges him for it. Partially obscured by a clump of tinder-dry shrubbery, its color and markings blend into the surroundings. True to its nature, the snake offers a polite warning before it strikes. It’s an insistent, stuttering buzz, a vibration so sharp in the still air that it’s easily the sonic equivalent of sparks in dry brush.

He can’t hear it. He’s shuffling off his gear as the snake uncoils to back up its threat.

Caught up mid-air, the rattler dangles, writhing in a furious, twisting knot, jaw agape with Jonas’s thumb against it. He holds the creature out at eye level as it whips itself around his arm and he begins to talk to it.

Ah hoh, sinte hla. You almost had me there, didn’t ya? Hear me well, little brother. I honor your survival in this hard land an’ your right to be here, but shade’s scarce and I don’t trust you to share this’n with me. Here’s what we’re gonna do. I’ll let you go find cool where I can’t. I got no desire to end your life, but you come back again, you’re gonna be supper. You know I never lied to ya, so make up your mind. I’m pretty hungry.”

Not for the last time, he observes the mighty peculiar sensation of not being able to hear his own voice.

The snake relaxes its grip. He hums to it as he uncoils its body from his arm and lays it out on the bed of the arroyo, releasing its head and stepping away without haste. It lies motionless for a moment or two, then throws a couple loops out into the coarse, pebbly sand and skids away. He watches it slip into the shadow of a small boulder not far, but far enough.

“There ya go. Good decision,” Jonas says and turns back to the task at hand. He cuts a couple twigs of scrub to brush out the cavity. Aside from a couple displaced scorpions, the space is clear.

Sleep is the only worthwhile activity while the desert slowly broils, but it’s fitful and unrewarding. The blaze of sun is just stretching into the horizon as he stirs himself from a troubled dream. Only part he remembers, Ohank’o was in it.

He clambers up out of the cut and surveys the no-man’s land fanned out in the sun’s slanting rays. Here at day’s end, the busted rim of the mesa presents an abrupt edge set in sharp contrast against the lower desert beyond, washed in hues of brown sugar and blood.

To the southwest the land drop begins a long, fractured curve southward into more desolation. To the west, most of a great blinding eye is perched upon the mountain tops. It stares at him across the wasteland.

Nothing moves, not even the air. Waves of heat make weirdly shifting mirrors in the distance on the parched surface of the tablerocks.

He slips back down the incline to where his belongings lay.

A tin of peaches opens with the heel of his knife. The fruit’s not pretty, but has retained much of its sweetness and the juice slides down his throat in a luscious, syrupy sluice. He sips from his canteen. There’s about a half left in it. More than enough, he thinks, then wonders why he thought that. More than enough for what?

<  To get where you’re going, of course.

From the aching silence between his ears, an answer, silent as well, but clear enough. The heat and isolation has him talking to himself.

‘And where’s that ‘zacly?’ he wonders.

<  Not far.

‘What’s not far?’

<  Where you’re going.

‘Where’s that?’

Maybe you quit chasing an idle thought around in a circle and get moving, you’ll find out.

Jonas screws the canteen lid down and stows the precious water away with an odd sense of disconnection.

‘How do ya know it ain’t far?’

<  What ain’t?

‘Where I’m goin’.’

<  Where are you goin’?

‘What… ? Why, I reckon I’m goin’ where you told me I was goin’ that ain’t far. An’ how far’s ‘not far’ anyway? Is that not far on foot, or not far by train?’

<  You’re wasting time.

‘How do you know that where I’m goin’s not far?’

<  How do you know anything? Where have you been all your life? Did you forget how this works?

‘I didn’t know when I set out. Still don’t. An’ I don’t see anything out there ahead of me in all those miles but more miles.’

<  Then why are you up here at all?

‘I was drawn this way.’

<  Is that right? What drew you, do you suppose?

‘Well, that’s about the nut, ain’t it?’

<  It is for a fact.

This leads to a brooding pause. It seems a legitimate question he’s asked himself and the desert is in no apparent hurry.

‘Had me a choice of directions and I picked one. That’s all.’

<  Why?

Some’ve said only crazy people talk to themselves. Others insist you’re only crazy if you catch yourself saying “Huh?” a lot. He’s almost sure he hasn’t been in this unmerciful heat quite that long yet. Course, the answer to the question’s simple.

‘I don’t know. It felt right.’

<  You do know. You knew the instant you heard that quiet voice behind your loud thoughts. Just like you know it now. Living like a wasicu has made you lazy, half-blood. You’ve forgotten who you are and where you came from. Are you too White now to see what’s right in front of you?

Like a key in a lock, the thought awakens a sorrow, and the anger that follows it, steeping for twenty-five years among the fat-eaters, and Jonas shouts into the still air.

“I ain’t forgotten anything! Least of all where I come from, or that I was sent away from it. I ain’t forgotten my father an’ me had everything we loved ripped away from us…” He doesn’t shout the words. He whispers them. “…for nothing!”

<  Not for nothing.

“Oh yeah? Why, then?”

<  Because if you had remained there, Sunka Nunpa, you never would have found me.

The last rays of sunlight brush the high desert and the silence, without and within, frames those words.

He is not talking to himself.

Jonas snatches his medicine bag out of his shirt and fumbles it open. He removes the object and holds it up in steepled fingers.

“You!”

The blaze of white light flaring from each of its facets illuminate the wash like lightning streaming from his fingers and Jonas almost drops it, snatching it up in his cupped hands. Radiance beams between his fingers for another moment, then fades. Almost.

<  You possess an uncommon awareness Jonas Two Dogs. This is why I have chosen you.

“Chosen…? What are you talkin’ about? I picked you up.”

<  That you did.

“What are you?”

<  I am the same as you. Slow light.

“I don’t understand.”

<  In your thoughts is a concept. Your father, Daniel, chose to call it the Inexplicable Mystery, all that is known and all that is not known and all that cannot be known. Wonder and terror is how your grandfather conveyed his idea of it to you. These have shaped how you conceive that everywhere-presence in your own moments of reflection. You and I are attributes of that same all-encompassing essence, each of us given unique expression.

That is a passel to take in all at once. Might take a spell to cogitate the whole of it. Better for now maybe to just leap straight ahead to the obvious question.

“Whaddaya want with me?”

<  Only for you to do what you do.

“That’s all? Do what I do? That’s it?”

<  Yes.

“And you’re just along for the ride.”

<  Yes.

“Well… okay. What do I call ya?”

<  It does not matter. I have been called many things. None of them are what I am.

“Then I will call you Ile Slohan.”

<  This is the language of your childhood. You have spoken it with none but your father since your separation from the People, and that was long ago in your terms. These words mean to you, ‘slow light’. You have surpassed those who have sought to name, contain, or control me before this connection. It is enough.”

It occurs to Jonas, placing the spirit-object back into the stiff leather bag, that he very much misses his grandfather’s counsel. The old man shared so many things with him, recalled now through the window of a boy’s experiences and memory. Some are still vibrant with meaning and purpose and some, not lost perhaps, but elusive.

Old Standing Elk would know how to handle such a powerful presence.

Always such thoughts lead to speculation about whether his grandfather is still alive—whether any of them are still alive. His mother. His sister. His heart-bond brother, and all the others left behind. Left behind they may be, the proud People that nurtured him, but never far from his thoughts.

Stories abound of how the Sioux nation chose to resist the overwhelming odds against them. He has heard these accounts for years. They’re not generally told from the perspective of the red man that has seen the ruthless advance and encroachment upon their land and lives by wave upon unrelenting wave of two-leggeds, the fat-eaters who respect nothing, take what no one can own, and mow down anything and anyone in their path.

Except for a brief respite while the insane Whites were at war with themselves, the Sioux have been in conflict with those led by the double-tongued White chiefs. Thus, the fate of his own band and family is a mystery that never fails to tear at his heart. Best to trust that Tunkasila will care for them as only Tunkasila can and just let it go. Anything else hurts too much and accomplishes nothing.

He tests the lashings that bind the demon blade, hoists his saddlebags, and settles his load over a tired shoulder. It’s not as heavy as his sadness.

He climbs once more out of the gulch. The mountains away yonder are caped in dusky purple and limned in gold by the failing sunlight. A single bright star hangs unblinking above them. Twilight has come and the Powers have awakened.

Wherever he’s going now, it’s not far.

 •

.    .    .

 •

The waxing moon’s allowed him to journey with passable care during the cool of night and though he’s got no good idea where he’s headed, rugged miles seem to pass beneath his boots anyway, his progress a stubborn, resolute traipse.

  

During the period between night closing around him and moonrise, progress is slow.

Jonas’s pace is deliberate, his gait narrow, sending his knowing ahead. It wouldn’t do at all to step off into a gully, stumble through a cactus patch, or  blunder into an agave.

That would be worse. Rigid, triangular leaves tapering to a needle point pierce deep and leave a wound that refuses to close. Getting boogered up out here would be a predicament all right, and those’re not the only dangers to a lone wayfarer in the dark waste.

So intent is he on his route with only starlight to give him bearing, some time passes before he realizes something is pacing him in the darkness to his left.

He does not break stride but continues walking, shadowed by an entity of the desert, alien to it, yet at home there. It is a danger he had never considered.

One does not, his grandfather warned him many years ago, engage the Powers recklessly—not unless one is prepared to attract one of those pesky life or death struggles. The risk of being transported to their realm is one of several unappealing alternatives.

They might choose to look like men. They might even offer knowledge or guidance if it pleases them to do so, but they are unfathomable and the price of their counsel is dear.

He gives voice to the song the thunder beings gave to him so many years ago. It shields hm. The shade maintains its distance, matching his pace.

A prickling sensation behind his right ear sends a shock through him and a sense of relief follows the thrill of its passing. He recognizes the presence of another. This one he knows well, a grandfather many generations removed.

His mother’s people named him Walks Far. He was a warrior of great principle and personal power when he journeyed in this world. He has chosen to accompany Jonas on this Earth-walk, although he comes in his own time and keeps his own counsel. Even so, Jonas has always welcomed the combination of strength and humility this seven-times-great grandfather brings as his spirit-guardian. Perhaps never so much as now.

Bracketed by these two unlikely traveling companions, each balancing an enigmatic equation he’ll not pretend to understand, Jonas continues into the night until long after the cold lamp of hanhepi wi, the night sun, comes out to light his way.

Waxing, she arches overhead, casting her eerie brilliance across the wasteland and it’s good she’s come, for the way has grown difficult. The ground is shattered and perilous, scarred by ravines that force him to change course roundabout rather than risk injury climbing.

He stops twice to rest, drink, test and resettle his load.

Walks Far and the desert power remain as they had been since he sensed them, grandfather at his side, peril beyond his understanding far too close to allow him to relax.

The man-shape seems to melt and flow like a candle in a fire, although nothing falls to the gritty soil at its feet, nor does its form appear to diminish in the slightest.

The moon is riding above the western range upon the occasion of Jonas’s second respite and, readying himself once more, he observes the first pale suggestion of the new day offering faint outline to the eastern horizon. Night prepares to relinquish its hold on the world.

Drawn by that fact alone, perhaps, or to the thing secured to the mochila slung on a weary shoulder, or maybe to the spirit-object nestled above his heart, the shadow that has paced him through the night closes in.

Jonas drops his burden and meets it on his feet, bracing for a struggle he neither wants, nor can avoid.

He has faced life on its own terms since his childhood ended, most often alone. Since the day the crows led him away from the caravan a week ago, he has lived on a knife-edge with the unknown on each side. If this is what he’s come alone into this no-man’s land to do, then he is here and he will meet it full split.

The thing approaches, reaching out.

At his right shoulder, Walks Far has drawn his bow and taken aim at the uninvited one’s heart. Whether it has a heart or no, Jonas can scarcely imagine what effect his grandfather’s serrated spirit-arrowhead might have on such a one, but it has been given pause.

It halts a dripping arm’s length away.

The stand-off ends with a wailing cry Jonas perceives only as a new pressure in his ears. The shadow turns and flees toward the deeper dark of the mesa rim with a speed no living thing could match.

Jonas has held his breath and clenched his jaw tight in anticipation of the shock that must surely come from a physical clash with a night power and releases both. A shudder rattles him. He inhales cool, dry air now made sweet with reprieve from a nameless fate.

He feels a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

“Pilamaya yo, Grandfather. I am grateful for your protection. Wopila!”

Walks Far taps the thing on Jonas’s chest.

He feels a sharp chill and again the familiar prickle as Walks Far touches both of his ears. The sense of a weight pressing in against the blaring silence in them increases. The echo of the tunnel-mouthed monster’s killing voice is so silent in his head it is deafening. The pain and pressure are enough to force him to pull away, but he does not.

Then Walks Far is gone like vapor on a breeze, other inexplicable spirit business to attend, no doubt.

Jonas takes a few tentative steps. Those went well, so he takes a few more. A small low-growing plant with smooth, tough-looking leaves that shimmer in the moonlight catches his eye. He gives it the gift of water and returns to his belongings where they lie in a heap.

The demon blade is still secure in its makeshift containment. He allows his legs to fold under him and snugs the lashings anyway. Easier on his back down here than bending over, but now he’s got to overcome gravity again and it seems to be increasing as the new day approaches. Sleep would be welcome.

He has several more hours before the new day’s heat will drive him to find cover. He satisfies himself with some jerky and a long pull from the canteen before gathering up his load, striking out once more in the light of the lowering moon.

Dawn breaks with a pastel wash of colors across Earth and sky, painting the distant mountains and high desert. The moon witnesses the event, watching the sun rise in ponderous progression from the eastern expanse before itself settling with a final wink behind the peaks of the Rockies’ southern arm.

By the time Jonas’s strides carry him to a vaguely defined trace across the otherwise trackless waste, the sun has reached more than halfway to its zenith. it stares down with a harsh, oppressive glower over Jonas’s shoulder as he reads the dusty imprints crossing his path.

The tracks curve southwest between the ragged edge of the mesa to his left and a low, wide butte that’s been jutting up in front of him the last mile or so. A few carts and heavy wagons, draft animals and riders have passed this way in both directions, but only one recently, headed northward.

The fluted ribs of the butte attract Jonas’s interest with the intent of finding shelter from the furnace of mid-day. He resists setting a brisk pace in that direction. He can maintain this plodding march that far without pushing himself beyond endurance. Besides, he’s following a wagon trail a wasicu child could pick out. The going is easy by comparison to the previous day and night.

He minds his steps, scanning the hard ground ahead for track or print. A shallow wheel rut here, a line of softer, gravelly sand stirred by hoofs there and nearly covered since by some scouring wind, all serve to mark at intervals the route he first reckoned.

The bluff ahead is looming now and he casts his eyes across its face, seeking some accessible refuge from the blaze of midday arrived with a vengeance. High in the air above the weathered pinnacles poking out from the near corner of the butte there is motion.

Perhaps twenty or more turkey vultures, turning in a lazy boil on the rising air, spiral hundreds of feet above him, weightless. Jonas is a motionless speck on the mesa top, staring upward.

A single windrider peels off from the top of the column and glides high above the line of the mesa rim.

The rest of the committee follows the leader in their own time in an eventual, but orderly file. Not a single wing flaps as Jonas watches them soar in procession maybe a mile ahead of him, then catch a new updraft and begin climbing once more in a patient eddy.

Jonas can see another such convocation in similar occupation beyond them where the mesa jogs sharply south and maybe another much further on, but the haze is making it difficult to know for sure. Curiosity demands that he turn to look behind.

Three more columns of the great birds are aligned there as well. One such group is even now crossing between him and the sun. Watching them pass overhead, having never witnessed, nor ever heard of such a congress, Jonas determines that regardless the heat, he is bound to follow their lead.

For several hours he tags on this convention of his grandfather’s spirit helpers. They are stretched out ahead of him all along the sheer drop to his left, riding air more than a thousand feet above the lower floor of the desert plain. None of them yet have flapped a wing.

Jonas is not at all surprised to see that the faint wagon trail he noticed before has marked out the same route along the rimrock.

Well before the last of the sky travelers has soared beyond the range of his vision, a stiff hot wind is pressing at his back. Raw gusts are kicking up off the stovetop, swirling dust and flinging tumbleweed.

He pauses to retrieve the duster from his mochila. The afternoon sun slides toward the mountain sentinels, standing now well off his right shoulder as he shifts his load onto it. He pulls his bandana over nose and mouth and squints against the windborne grit, seeking refuge.

The butte that might have offered such is far behind him and no other outcropping formation is visible above the tableland’s surface. One of those deep gulches would be welcome about now. The rising gale presses him forward.

What was earlier sharp discomfort and pressure in his ears, has added a penetrating spike to each side of his head, and his mind, aching for any familiar sound, has produced instead a senseless ghost of noise upon which no sound intrudes. As a whole, it’s become a powerful annoyance. Along with the fierceness of the wind and the pelting, stinging, driven sand and the soundless wail and the pain of it, is a memory riddled with questions.

What were those horrors that stepped out of the hole in the air? What happened to the two ebon star-folk? Did the Power that rests at this moment over his heart come with them? Does it belong to the big man with the cannon tucked up under his cloak? The woman?

No.

With so much he does not know, this is certain. Ile Slohan belongs to no one.

A tumbler brushes past him in high pursuit of a twisting dust spirit. It stops abruptly maybe a hundred feet away and hangs shuddering crazily in the air as  curtains of dust fold in waves across his blurred vision.

Approaching the suspended knot of dry brush, Jonas sees what it is through slitted, watering eyes. It’s caught up on something fixed in the ground.

He dislodges the wad and it flies away, leaving behind a rectangular piece of wood nailed crosswise to a post set deep in the rocky soil. Inscribed there, in letters crude and bold, is a single word.

“WOEBEGONE”

      ~      

On The Tablerocks Read More »

Nowhere Man

The blackness takes on shape and definition. It hops in front of his eyes, picking at something on the ground near a boot someone has left lying about. The boot has a leather cord wrapped around it at the graft, braided back upon itself as if it was intended to remain there.

Several more similar shapes are busy squabbling over a small, inert form not far away.

Without the slightest forewarning, the boot moves, and by the time he concludes with some conviction that the boot’s on his own foot, the crows have flown away.

On unsteady legs, Jonas stands and thumps his head on the stone of the sheltering overhang, driving him back to his knees with a groan. The pain in his skull helps restore some of his clarity and, since he’s now so close to it, he turns his curiosity to the object of the little crow’s attention.

Amid the cold, scattered remnants of his fire, lying cocked on a cushion of ash, is what appears a single gaming die.

On second thought, that can’t be it. The corners are sharp, not rounded off like you’d expect a gaming cube to be. The surfaces are smooth and dark and got no pips on them. He plucks it out of the ash.

It’s cold and heavy, like gold is heavy, although this appears to be made of some polished, but otherwise unremarkable slate-gray… something. If it’s metal, he doesn’t recognize it. Maybe stone. Maybe valuable.

He rises again in a crouch, testing his feet under him as they carry him into the sunlight spilling over the edge of the canyon rim. Its warmth is a luxury. Morning sunlight. How long has he been unconscious?

Able to fully unfold himself, stiff muscles stretch out and bones crackle. All the parts seem to be in place. Rolling the kinks from neck and shoulders, he takes stock of his situation.

Aside from the cold debris from his fire strewn about, the remains of the roasted hare lie well picked over by the crows and the flies are having a holiday with what’s left. Its condition suggests that it was just last night.

Jet-black fragments of some dense material are scattered all roundabout the rock shelf, conspicuous against the weathered sandstone. There’s not much of it, not enough to be the shattered remains of the stone man. None of the bits are much larger than Jonas’s hand, except yonder, one that appears to be a foot with three splayed toes, each almost a yard long.

Much harder to miss is the long knife, one of a pair the stone man had been brandishing about. It’s driven into the ledge at a crazy angle, still emitting that weird, unwholesome glow.

And yet, not often is Jonas taken completely by surprise, as now at sight of the yawning tunnel opened up at the back of the cavity, too close to where he was sprawled out and senseless. It’s perfectly round, near level, and wide enough he could crawl inside it, if he were of a mind to. Straight into the rock, it’s cut so deep he can’t make out the end of it. Calloused fingers slide across the surface of the aperture. Smooth as glass.

Scratching his head, Jonas moseys out toward the grassy patch where Ohank’o’d been grazing last night. She’s nowhere to be seen. Instead, beside a broad, squarish, black depression in the soil, is a corpse. The cavern-mouthed thing lies with the back of its head blown out.

Jonas will offer no tobacco for this monstrosity. It’s apparent the crows have ignored this feast. He is confident even heca, not known to be particularly fastidious, will not touch this carcass either. The flies aren’t picky though. They never are.

At the edge of the incline, he scans the canyon floor below. The creek, having scrubbed the floor of the ravine during the storm, still flows, but with none of last evening’s enthusiasm, keeping to a course carved in stone over years uncounted.

A few small trees lie crushed at the base of the cliff beneath a massive slab of sandstone that wasn’t there when he first climbed up here to make camp.

Scanning the face of the overhang above, it’s easy to spot the scar of unweathered stone where the piece had sheared away. The surface looks glass-smooth.

What in the name of the just and terrible wisicu God went on here while he was stupefied? And where is everybody? Mind you, not that he cares to see the monsters again, but he’d like to know what happened to the star-folk, at least.

Ohank’o. She had fled down the steep path in her terror, even before that killing scream split the night, gone in the rush still surging into the canyon from the storm’s downpour. If she was able to come back, she would have by now.

There’s something else amiss here, but he can’t quite put his finger on it. Something’s been wrong since he awoke.

He shouts for Ohank’o and realization arrives in a rush, so obvious if it’d been a snake, as his grandfather was known to say, it would’ve already bit him.

He knows he called out her name in a clear voice, one he knows is even now repeated back from the canyon walls, but there is nothing in his ears but silence.

He can feel the vibration of air moving through his throat as he steps up and delivers an enthusiastic boot to the rib cage of the pale dead thing on the ground. He can’t appreciate the sound of bones snapping, but he can feel it, even as a mist of flies lifts up, eddying madly at the disruption, settling once more to the banquet.

The square of black earth close by is bigger than two of him laid end to end, a wrongness upon the world. He is not willing to step nearer to it.

A slight discomfort in his hand reminds Jonas he’s been gripping the little blank die, or whatever it is. One of its wicked corners must’ve poked into his palm.

He holds it up. There’s a drop of blood in his hand and maybe it’s a trick of the light, but for just an instant the cube glimmers. He turns it this way and that way a few times. Odd how sunlight doesn’t even seem to reflect off any of its numerous facets.

Wasn’t it a cube a minute ago?

Why did he think it was?

Because his Gift says it was. Like a memory of something he didn’t even know before. Always good to pay attention to that.

Each corner of the cube has changed, as if carved off clean and identical, forming triangular facets instead of points. He wraps his fingers around it. The shape of it feels good in his palm and he wonders what could have pricked his hand earlier. That’s bothersome, but right now, the sun has been up for a couple hours. He needs to move.

A small medicine bag has laid close against his chest for so many years there’s now a place over his heart where the red hair won’t grow. The bag itself is stiff, the leather cured and discolored by compounded time and sweat. Jonas places the little object inside it, pulling the drawstring tight, and slips it back inside his shirt.

There’s dried blood on his collar. His bandana too.

The demon blade, still canted at an angle in the stone near the ledge, is another matter. Reluctant as he is to touch it, he understands without a doubt it must not be left behind. He has no idea why this is so, but he knows it is.

The handle is sized for a hand much larger than his own and wrapped with some kind of supple leather. He wraps his fingers as far as he can around the curve of the grip.

And snatches his hand away with a jolt.

A man shackled face down and spread-eagled, trembles and writhes and howls in what sounds like ecstasy as the flesh is peeled from his back. His offering is prepared and fashioned onto the handles of two identical blades of unknown design.

This is one of them.

He grips the handle with both hands and a grimace and heaves. At first there is only the resistance of stone seizing the blade, then a smooth, frictionless release.

It’s not as heavy as he’d imagined. Almost five feet long, pommel to its squared leading edge, the blade is light enough to balance well against the weight of the narrow bolster and the skin-bound handle encasing the tang. The butt of the tang is pounded into a flat, thin button securing the handle. The button glows with the same dead light and there’s a symbol engraved on it. As for the blade itself, it tapers wider at the tip than the heel and its edge, even having hacked through stone, is razor fine and flawless.

Jonas lays the fearsome thing out in front of him and sits back on his haunches wishing he could scrub that bloody image from his memory.

How does one carry such a perilous object without becoming victim to it? No doubt, the blade will slice through any binding it touches.

He pulls a few strips of rawhide from his bundle and a pair of leather gloves from a pocket of his duster. He is as surprised as he is grateful to discover the gloves shield him from grotesque visions as he carries the cleaver, or so he’s come to think of it, down the steep path to the floor of the canyon.

A loose chunk of something small and black rolls under his boot and, catching his balance, he grasps the blade’s spine lest the unwieldy thing flail downward and amputate something. Whatever unpleasantness might follow from contact with the weapon’s sickly glow, the gloves seem to have insulated him from that as well.

His dread of the thing now less palpable, he lays it aside and, undressing himself, goes about his necessary. Damp gravelly sand is easy digging with a stick.

The creek pools into a good-sized stony basin nearby. He drinks his fill from it, then climbs in. Blood’s dripped from his ears and down his neck, dried brown and flakey. It scrubs off with his bandana, leaving a discoloration on the surface of the pool, a ribbon that finds the current and spills away.

The water’s embrace is a cool one and he reclines, watching the flicker of tiny birds as they dart among shafts of morning sunlight. A single crow dives overhead. Its beak is open as it passes and he knows it’s telling him to move along.

He retrieves the rawhide strips from the water and slips from the pool. The earth under his bare feet reminds him that they have grown soft in boots. He wrings out his bandana and wraps it around his head, pulls on his gloves, and lets the sun dry him as he works.

One of the trees shattered beneath the overhang has caught his interest, a cedar sapling that might have been twenty feet tall before the slab of sandstone came crashing down against it. Jonas guides the cleaver’s impossible edge along its trunk.

The weapon’s length and oversized grip make it a clumsy tool, but raw wood slices like butter. A pair of thin planks, each slightly longer and wider than the blade, is the work of minutes. He binds them together with the dripping rawhide, sandwiching the blade between them.

He dresses and climbs one last time up to the shelf in the cliff face. It’s a patient climb with the cleaver slung under a shoulder in its encasement.

The contents of his saddlebags are re-evaluated. His duster, canteen, rifle, a good bit of jerky, and a couple airtights of fruit pass the first round of consideration.

The shirt he’d chosen for travel is bloodstained, unfit to represent him in the walking hanblaceyapi he senses ahead of him. He shucks it off. He will need all the armor he can muster in the days to come. It will be the dude shirt or nothing. It’s been rolled up in its paper wrapper since his night out in Dodge.

The paper and twine are saved for later use.

There are a few small personals in his warbag, plus his new bandana, flint and steel, a waxed tin full of tinder, a whetstone, two boxes of ammunition, his gun cleaning kit, and three books bound in oilcloth. These too meet the first-round assessment. There is no second round.

The remaining apple’s starting to look withered. Breakfast finished, he tosses the core over the ledge.

His saddle’s too much of a burden to consider packing out. He shoves it into the glass-walled tunnel. All remaining non-essentials and Ohank’o’s tack are stashed in the tunnel with it.

He pushes the plug he’s created as far back into the hole in the wall as he can without crawling inside. Then he crawls inside and shoves until his boots are at the lip of the opening. That oughta do it.

The scattered bits of his fire and last night’s meal add a certain dimension to the other evidence of inexplicable goings-on. Slashes through native rock, cliff faces sheared off, shards of the stone man strewn about, and the body of the pallid monster, all tell a tale that would challenge the skills of any of his childhood friends.

Makes Noise and Little Weasel would each trample the area trying to figure it out. Hard Head would stand apart and view the place from different angles and times of day, then seek advice from the grandmothers. Jumping Otter might understand that he was still alive and come looking for him.

That would be something.

He offers tobacco at the cliff edge to Ohank’o’s dauntless spirit and the breeze carries it away.

He bundles up his duster, stuffing it into the remaining free space in one of the saddlebags. The lashings on the demon blade’s containment are tightened and the whole bound inside his bedroll, then secured to the mochila beside his rifle scabbard. He loops his lariat over it.

The weapon’s pommel protrudes enough for the gray-green glow of the engraved butt-cap to telegraph its presence. His old bandana, bound in place, makes a suitable cover that won’t stand close inspection.

Shouldering his caboodle, it’s a load to be humping across inhospitable terrain.

There’s no arrow-shaped cloud overhead to point the way.

Back upstream and maybe four days hard march the way he came, he could meet up with traffic on the Trail somewhere south of the Turkey Mountains and continue his journey to Santa Fe from there. That would be the wise choice, to be sure.

Downstream, hemmed in between sweeping sandstone ramparts, always down and somehow… away from, not toward. It just doesn’t feel right anymore.

Maybe it’s his Sight suggesting a choice that seems to run counter to common sense and self-preservation. Maybe it’s the peculiar little object in his medicine bag now become the loadstone to a destination chosen the moment he picked it up. And maybe his own spirit guides are heyoka.

Not farther on from his broken campsite, a natural cut in the rock face was a flume pouring into the canyon the night before as the thunderstorm passed. There’s not even a trickle now and it looks like his route to the top of the tableland.

The transition into the cleft entails unreliable hand and footholds and his awkward burden threatens to dislodge him again and again. When he reaches a place beyond the rock face where a tumble to the canyon floor isn’t the very next thing, he drops his load, lies back against it, and waits for his heart and breath to catch up.

Here, the vegetation has crowded as close as it can to the edge, close enough to hang on against sun, wind, rain, and ice, hang on long enough to root into the porous stone where lichens have opened the way. Shrubbery has forced its way into ancient rocky breakdowns and cavities where soil has had time to accumulate. Sparse grasses and tough vines with teeth compete with them for moisture.

The mesa rim is visible and a good hike from here, but there appear to be game trails farther upslope, and the wind is at his back. Jonas re-settles his load over his shoulders and adjusts his hat.

One foot in front of the other, he makes his way in the deepest silence he’s ever known.

      ~      

Nowhere Man Read More »

Reveries —

Say now, this here card’s face down. Ain’t that interesting and borderline mysterious? Reckon it to be the hole card, and don’tcha wonder what it is?
Well, let’s go ahead and just take a peek at it, shall we?

The Long Branch is a lively place with a five-piece band providing musical background to the spirited goings-on. Although it’s still early evening, the crew is lucky to find an unoccupied table there and goes about holding chairs down with their backsides while Mister Kunkle springs for a bottle of good whiskey and sets it down with a clutch of glasses.

Jonas declines. He doesn’t like all the things that make drinking whiskey so attractive to everyone else, no matter how smooth anyone says it is. You can’t rightly call it a ‘taste’ when it burns all the way from your tonsils to your toenails, dulls your senses, upsets your stomach, and blurs all perception. Neither does he care for the morning after, that least of all. He turns the glass placed in front of him upside down before it can be filled and rises from his seat.

“What’s a matter, Two Dogs? Y’ain’t drinkin’ with us?” That’s Leland.

Bob Kunkle stops pouring and looks after Jonas.

“No coffin varnish fer me. Clouds my judgment.”

“That’s the general idea,” Kunkle says with a laugh.

“Thanks just the same, Mister Kunkle.”

“It’s just ‘Bob’ tonight, son.”

“Thought I’d get me a beer, Bob. Somebody mind my seat.”

Budge downs his shot and, seeing Bob still looking after Jonas’s retreating back and braid, reaches up and taps the bottle in Bob’s hand with his glass.

Bob looks down at Budge. Budge holds up the glass. Thunder rolls out across the prairie.

Jonas weaves between a couple tables toward the bar. A few patrons are bellied up to it, their animated conversations adding to the growing din that will, in time, threaten to drown out the band’s renditions of popular good-timey tunes. Polite dialogue will have to be conducted at a near-shout and it’s often not far from polite shouting to just plain shouting, followed by the throwing of hands and the hasty ejection of those engaged in undiplomatic pursuits, preferably before the breaking of the furniture commences. You get the idea. Welcome to Dodge City, pilgrim.

There’s a fair layer of tobacco smoke hanging heavy from the high ceiling in the long main room of the saloon. Placed at discrete intervals throughout that blue-white cloud, several oil lamp fixtures provide adequate lighting to see the pips on one’s cards at any of the tables arranged below.

Seven or eight cowboys laid together end to end might reach from one end of the bar to the other. By the end of a rowdy night like this one’s shaping up to be, you could probably find seven or eight cowboys already prostrate; all you gotta do then’s just line ’em up.

The barkeep demonstrates his maintenance of the top’s high gloss by sopping up a ring of moisture with a rag and buffing the spot with a dry cloth. He’s done it so many times he doesn’t even register the act in his consciousness, much like scratching his manicured beard, or tweezing his ill-fitting underwear from the sweaty terrain of his nethers.

Behind him are a couple framed pictures of somebody or other. They bracket a large mirror with the business end of a Texas Longhorn mounted atop it. The horns are about twice as wide as a man’s outstretched arms; one big sumbitch, that one was. Any true Texan, of course, would tell you that one’s a juvenile, and obviously a runt as well.

“What can I get ya, drover,” says the barkeep. He’d seen this one come in with the MacDee boys and, despite his personal opinion of persons of native extraction, his demeanor’s professional enough.

“Nice place.”

“Not a better one in Dodge.”

“Hear tell you’ve got cold beer.”

“That’s a fact. We have ice and the beer’s positively frigid. Quarter a pint.”

“Well, that sounds a fair trade.” Jonas spins a quarter on the bar. “How do ya get ice?”

“We manage,” the barkeep says, taps the beer and, by the time the coin stops spinning, passes over a tall frosted glass with a perfect head on it.

Jonas takes a long pull on it. Cold as mountain spring water, it goes down with a near-bitter, hoppy flavor that almost draws a grimace. It has a surprising, nutty aftertaste, though.

He wipes the froth from his upper lip. “That’s practically a miracle.” He lays another quarter on the bar. “Pretty sure I’m gonna need another’n.”

Elbow on the bar, sipping at the frosty brew, Jonas surveys the assortment of patrons spread out around the long room.

Four men are clustered together at the bar drinking and talking amongst themselves, cowhands. Another three at the end of the bar playing chuck-a-luck using an hour-glass shaped wire basket called, if memory serves, a birdcage, conjured to minimize complaints against unscrupulous hosts rolling trick dice.

There’s the beginning of a crowd around the faro table against the wall between the entrance and the bar, a prime spot worth a handsome percentage to the Long Branch from the fellow running the bank there. He looks shifty to Jonas’s eyes, but his game’s a popular one.

In the foreground there’s a couple unoccupied tables, recently vacated, and another two with men playing cards around drinks and finger-food. Beeson’s band on the opposite wall is just putting their instruments aside for a spell to wet their whistles and have a smoke.

To the rear of the hall, more tables are arranged, a few already occupied. Seated at one of them close by are the men of his outfit, still sharing the bottle Kunkle bought for them. They’re not here to get stupid-drunk. Not on purpose, anyway. To be sure, that’ll no doubt happen somewhat later this evening at the Lone Star dance hall. This here’s just a chance for them to grease the chute.

A couple of other tables in the rear seem to be manned by locals, a better-dressed sort, keeping to themselves. They’re not here to ‘see the elephant’, in the parlance of the just-passin’-through. This is their elephant and they see it every day. No, they’re just not ready to go home yet, that’s all. In fact, if there’s any circus in town, it remains the constant cavalcade of itinerants, most here for a couple-three days at best, then gone and forgotten, to be replaced soon enough by more just like them.

More people are coming in through the bat-wing doors to get out of the rain that’s starting to pelt down from a slate-dark sky.

Jonas notices Leland and the ‘Colonel’ traipsing through the crowd to take a turn at the faro table. Bob Kunkle’s behind them as well and stops to put a friendly hand on Jonas’s shoulder.

“Son, I just wanted to tell you something,” he says. “You’re one hell of a ranny and none here would dispute that. Calum thinks very highly of you and that’s saying something. He’s sorry to see you go, but he asked me to make sure you’re off to a good start. I know you had travel arrangements to make, that’s why I had Budge pay you in full this morning. I have another twenty dollars to help you on your way. Calum says he hopes if things don’t work out for you down there, you’ll come back. Personally, I don’t suppose we’re going to see you again, so … well, I wanted to wish you luck and a safe journey.”

The elder businessman has a right firm handshake and palms the proffered twenty-dollar piece into Jonas’s hand.

“Thank you kindly, Bob. I’m grateful. You know I already said my goodbyes to Mister MacDonough and Missus Anne. Meant what I said at supper. And I truly appreciate the bonus.”

Jonas holds onto the older man’s hand a moment longer. Something… just a little farther ahead, something troublesome, has suggested itself.

“You’re welcome, Jonas. You watch your ass out there, son. That’s wild country,” Kunkle says and turns to make his way to the faro table.

“Bob…”

Only mildly inebriated and in no particular hurry, Kunkle turns back. “What is it, son?”

There’s a well-practiced reluctance in him to let on about what his knowing shows him, but he likes the man. “This here’s wild country, too. Later tonight, if someone tells you about a… I don’t know, some kind of real good deal. A once-in-a-lifetime, can’t-miss opportunity and wants you to come outside where it’s quieter to talk about it… just don’t.”

For a minute, Kunkle’s stumped. His gray-bearded jaw works as though he thinks he ought to be saying something, but can’t figure out what. There doesn’t seem any humor hiding in Jonas’s face. At last, all he can do is nod and say, “Is that all?”

“Just try to keep a couple o’ the boys around you when you’re comin’ and goin’ tonight. Okay?”

Once more a pause and questing look, just to make sure Jonas isn’t pulling his leg. No, he’s heard something somewhere about this man and his intuition.

“Okay. Thank you, Jonas. I will. “

“See ya do.”

Jonas watches him join Leland and Stick at the gaming table. A fair-size crowd has been drawn in around the bank, jostling now to place bets. He’s both baffled and amused by the peculiar antics of these players. That they’re so eager to trade their hard-earned money just to see a random pattern of cards turned up on the remote possibility the result might be fortunate seems plain contrary to good sense.

His interest is lured by a burly mountain of a man there among the punters at the faro table, easily a disheveled, hatless head and shoulders above the rest of the bunch and almost as broad as any two of them. Not a drover, surely. A man that size might break a horse’s hocks were he to mount up.

Shaggy hair and heavy dark beard, little piggy eyes, he looks like a grizzly bear. But it’s not the man’s size, or appearance that’s drawn his attention as much as it’s the anger radiating from him. He’s drinking and, from the sound of him airing his lungs over there, losing too.

Jonas has a sudden glimpse of the man’s face, just inches from his own, snarling with bared, bad teeth and he flinches, slopping beer onto the floor even as the image dissolves.

“Ah beg yoah pahdon theuh, drovuh. Ah hope ah didn’t stahtull yoo.”

Jonas recognizes the well-dressed gentleman near his elbow at the bar as one of the three men he had observed playing brag at a nearby table before his brief, disquieting vision.

“No. Reckon I was wool-gatherin’. Get any on ya?”

“Not at all, suh. Ah am drah as a bone.” A pregnant pause ensues as the gambler looks across the bar, clears his throat with a noisy cough into a white kerchief and enunciates, louder this time, “Ah say, ah am drah as a bone!”

Several thirsty customers farther down the polished surface, the bartender is scooping coinage into his apron pocket and pouring. He snatches up a shot glass, fills it on the fly and deposits it in front of the dapper Southerner.

“Thank you, Benjamin. Yoo ahh a credit to yoah profession.”

Benjamin’s response is all but drowned out by a chorus of exultant shouts from the faro table to the accompaniment of groans and curses. A couple cowboys, just in out of the downpour outside, are shaking themselves off near the end of the bar and calling out for the ‘bar dawg’. He hustles away to attend them.

Jonas regards the fellow next to him. Physically a mite smaller than himself, the man exudes a confident, commanding presence. His crown of ash-blond hair is contrasted by a dark moustache that angles over curling lips, masking the unintentional appearance of a sneer that’s purely congenital. His nose fits his face.  The real puzzler, though, is his eyes. Intense and wickedly intelligent, they are nonetheless red-rimmed and rheumy. His skin is pasty, waxy-looking. The man coughs into a kerchief, a damp barking sound. He dabs at his lips before folding the cloth upon itself one-handed and into his vest pocket.

The fellow presents the archetypal appearance of a well-bred southern gentleman in crisp white shirt with a silk tie and vest atop pressed black-striped trousers bloused into polished boots. Of course, people tend to show the face they want you to see, don’t they?

Jonas’s grandfather taught him they have another face and how to look for it. He called it the ‘spirit-man’. This one’s spirit-face, shows him a decisive individual, as quick and dangerous as a rattlesnake coiled next to him here at the bar, casual-like.

The gentleman empties his drink, gesturing with the glass at the room in general before placing it with a deliberate thump onto the bartop and muses aloud in a slow, syrupy drawl, “It would appeah to the jaded obsuhvuh, lack mahsayulf, to be a kand of dance. All these solitareh individyools engaged in a slow-motion hoedown of intentional social dis-traction, lubricated by copious amounts of alcoholic beverage and a fond, almost pathological desyuh to be a winnah at somethin’ at least once in theyah miserable lives. Wouldn’t you say?”

Jonas takes another sip and allows, “Reckon I might, if I thought ta put all them words together at once.”

Now those intense eyes turn back to Jonas. “Yoo appeah to be a man of some native heritage, ahh yoo not?”

“Most places these days, that’s not considered fashionable. Maybe let’s talk about the weather instead, why don’t we?”

“Yoah appearance belies yoah naychuh, suh, that’s all. No offayense intayunded. Wheah do yoo hail from, if yoo don’t mahnd mah askin’?”

“Dakota Territory by way of Saint Joseph. You?”

“Antebellum Jawjuh, by way of Philadelphia and every shithole saloon and den of iniquiteh between Dallas and Deadwood befoah mah recent advent heah in this  beacon of cosmo-politan societeh. And yoo, suh, ahh a gentleman foah askin’.” He extends a pale hand. “John Holliday, Dee Dee Ess, at yoah suvice.”

Jonas straightens long enough to participate in the learned ritual of courteous introduction and the obligatory shaking of hands. “Jonas Goff. Pleasure, Mister Holliday,” the rote reply. Holliday’s hand seems listless and cool.

Without prompting, the barkeep has re-filled the gambler’s glass. He knocks it back as if it was mother’s milk and replaces it with affection on the smooth hardwood, all the while scanning Jonas’s face. Without looking away, he flicks a finger, scooting the glass across the bar. It skims to a halt in front of the bartender. To Jonas he says, “Mah frayends call me ‘Doc’. Oah they would, if ah had eneh.”

As if rehearsed, one of the players occupying a table close at hand cranes back in his seat and calls out, “Hey, Doc! You playin’ or what?”

“Oh deah,” Holliday says to Jonas. ” Would yoo cayuh to join us in a game of chance, Mistah Goff?”

Jonas resumes his recline against the bar, and takes another long draught from his beer. The bartender, Benjamin, has refilled Holliday’s glass and set it next to the man’s elbow.

“Thank ya kindly, Mister Holliday. I hope you won’t think me rude if I decline.”

“Piteh.” This time Holliday allows the liquor to trickle down his throat. “Dakota Territoreh, yuh say? That would sugjayest …” he pauses, ruminating, “… Siouxan parentage, if ah’m not mistayken. They ahh curentleh a feus and angreh people, causin’ all mannuh of commotion.”

Jonas’s response is barely audible over the hubbub around him, “They always were fierce. As to ‘angry’, well I reckon they’re that now, too.” He gives Holliday a meaningful look. “How ’bout that weather?”

“Yayus. Do yoo suppose it will evah stop raynin’?”

“Always does.”

“Goddammit, Doc!” Again from the impatient fellow at the nearby table. “You comin’ back ‘r what? You got a lot o’ my money ‘n’ I aims to get it back from ya. It’s yore deal. “

Holliday replaces his empty glass on the bar, turns to address the anxious one seated at the table. His features and voice are placid, unlike the ferocity in his eyes.

“A little decorum please, Mistah Tuhnuh. Ah admiah yoah optimism, suh, but if yoo will kindly obsuve, ah am currentleh engaged in polite convusation with my good fraynd heah and takin’ refreshmint. Yoo may continue without me foah now. Ah assuah yoo ah will retuhn strayt-away to collect the remainduh of yoah foahchoon.”

He endures another brief fit of wet coughing into his kerchief, then with a deep breath, leans back against the bar in a reasonable duplication of Jonas’s posture. He gestures with a pale hand. “That theyuh is a daisy of a shuht, if ah do say so.”

So engaged is Jonas listening to Holliday’s lyrical, silver-tongued discourse, he nearly fails to step out of the path of the man-mountain he observed at the faro table earlier, bulling his way between the two of them. A huge hand swallows up Holliday’s still empty glass from the bar and bangs it on the polished surface. The barkeep looks up from his current station farther down the line, “Hold yer horses there, galoot. I’m comin’.”

The creature makes a noise that sounds like a growl.

The barkeep, determining that expeditious satisfaction of this one’s immediate needs will be most beneficial for all, positions himself in front of the giant. The beast holds Holliday’s empty shot glass up, like a gnat trapped between thumb and forefinger, and grumbles, “Whiskey. Bigger’n nat.”

Benjamin plucks the glass from the man’s paw and magics it out of sight under the counter. A pint pilsner is filled with lightning and he waits, does Benjamin the barkeep, even as thunder booms across the prairie, for the obligatory coinage to hit the bar before he hands it over. Another shot is placed in front of Holliday.

Jonas watches the big man’s hand engulf his glass and pour the contents of it through a narrow slot in his beard beneath his flattened nose. A shudder runs through the enormous frame as the wave of liquor shocks its way down into his gut and he utters a low bestial roar that turns heads. His head turns, too, mean piggy eyes fixing on Jonas.

“What’re you lookin’ at?”

“Can’t rightly say,” says Jonas. “I ain’t a scientist.”

“Huh?” The bear glowers without comprehension and is in the process of deciding whether this flea might be more entertaining if it were squashed flat.

“Aye beg yoah pahdun, suh,” Holliday says, reaching up to tap the man’s broad shoulder. Jonas steps back a pace to give the big fellow room to do a creditable, if aggressive about-face, accomplished with barely a wobble.

“Whadda you want?”

“Ah believe yoah very intelligent, albeit, grammaticaleh flawed inquireh has left mah frayend heah castin’ about foah a rejoinduh. Ah suspect he has suitable foahmal trainin’ with which to foahmulate an appropriate replah, but moah than likeleh, he simpleh has the good mannuhs to keep his response to himsayelf. Ah, on the other haynd, have a suffishenceh of the foahmah and none at all of the lattah. If yoo will permit meh, ah will endeavah to respond to yoah quereh in layman’s tuhms.”

The giant stares at Holliday as if from a great distance, squinting through a haze, breathing through his beard.

“Hwat he’s ‘lookin’ at’, as yoo have so eloquentleh framed it, is the product of an unfoahtunate con-gress—an act of tuhpitude between a woman, no doubt beyond huh prime childbearin’ yeahs and of questionable moral fibah, and a prahmate of distinctleh simian charactuh.”

At first, the fellow rankles at too many words he doesn’t understand coming in an unbroken stream and he’s just seconds from reaching out with his skillet-sized hands to make the words stop when Holliday’s voice seems to penetrate the thick growth of hair in his ears. A scowl furrows the big man’s brow as he looks around the saloon in bewilderment, striving to remember what led him, besides whiskey, to this moment of unaccustomed vexation. He turns back to Jonas, looking him up and down with a sneer.

At eye level, Jonas is looking into the man’s chest. Thick brown hair spills out from the open front of a ragged flannel shirt.

“Indins killed my pa an’ my brother. Took my sister away t’make ‘er their squaw.” The grizzled face leans down inches from his, snarling. “You got Indin stink on ya.”

Huge fists ball up, ready to pummel the half-breed into a mudhole. The bear-man’s intention and breath are lethal.

“What’s her name?” Jonas asks.

“Huh?”

“Your sister.”

“What ’bout my sister?”

“What’s her name?”

“Uh…? Charlotte.”

“That’s a pretty name. Do you remember her face?”

“Huh?”

“Do you remember what Charlotte looks like?”

The scowl has withered. A long pause, during which the snorting breath through his oft-broken nose slows, ends in a drawl, “Yeah, kinda. She was little.”

“She looked up to you. And you looked after her, didn’t you?”

“Yeah, I s’pose I…. What’re ya…?”

“It weren’t your fault, ya know.”

“What? What weren’t?”

“There was too many of ’em. You blame yourself for not bein’ able to help Charlotte; you blame yourself for livin’ when the others died and there was nothing you could do. It wasn’t your fault.”

“How duhya …?” His brow’s pinched. A frown remains, but one of confusion and an awakening grief never far from the surface of his consciousness, not yet washed away by the whiskey. Jonas can see it in the man’s eyes as his sorrow replays itself in his mind.

“You were scared, but you fought ‘em anyway.”

The distance of years is in the bear’s eyes now. His voice is a low rumble, the timbre of the thunder outside. In this one’s throat it amounts to a whisper and the word seem to tremble out of him. “Oh, I was sore afraid. Kilt me a couple of ’em afore I heard her screamin’…”

“Callin’ out your name.”

Something catches in the bear’s throat and hangs there. “Screamin’ fer me ta save ‘er. But they was a’ready ridin’ off with ‘er an’ all our hosses.” His musket-ball eyes have tears in them.

The giant looks in Jonas’s eyes and sees nothing there but a reflection of his own unquenchable sadness. The fight has gone out of him.

Jonas can feel the presence behind him; not a threat, of that he’s sure. He watches the big fellows eyes dart away from him to the new arrival.

Holliday’s turned his attention that way as well and his voice is cheerful. “Weyull, this is a pleasant suh-prise. Good eav’nin’, mahshal.”

“Gentlemen,” says the voice behind him and Holliday makes introductions as if the behemoth between them was nothing more than a shadow.

“Mistah Goff, this heah’s Chahleh Bassett, town mahshal. Mahshal, this heah is mah good frayend, Mistah Goff.”

Bassett’s “Howdy,” in response is perfunctory and he doesn’t offer a hand.

“We wuh just havin’ a pleasant convuhsashun with this sagebrush Goliath heah about the…”

“Can it, Doc. You got some’m else to do?”

“Not pah-ticulahleh.”

Bassett turns his attention to the looming bear-man. His voice and bearing are stern.

“Tommy, what did I tell you about mixin’ it up with the customers in here?”

Abashed, eyes downcast, the giant says, “Not ta.”

“An’ what did I do last time you started a fuss?”

“Throwed me inna jail.”

“You like it there, didja?”

“No, sir.”

“All right, you get on outta here now. I mean it. Go home.”

“Yessir.”

“Don’t let me see you again tonight. An’ you know you’re not hard to spot.”

“Yessir. Kin I finish this here drink first?”

“You had enough. Off with you now.”

Tommy’s adequate bulk revolves and he begins his slow trek toward the exit, careful not to jostle anyone in the process. Bassett doesn’t bother watching him go, instead gives Jonas the stinkeye. Pointing to the bone-handled knife at Jonas’s belt, he says, “You’re not likely to unsheathe that toothpick, are you?”

“It would not occur to me to do so in such gracious company, Marshal.”

“Then, good evening to you both,” he says with finality and steps off to say his howdy-dos to some of the locals at the back of the room.

“Weyull, suh,” says Holliday. They’re both watching Tommy standing just inside the bat-wing doors as a couple cowboys let themselves out, adjusting their hats and attire against the wind-driven rain. He’s looking out as lightning crashes, illuminating the downpour drenching the town and turning the street beyond into a shallow mud river. “Ah have now officialleh seen evreh-thang. Ah thought he was gonna squash you lack a grape at a squayuh dance. You ahh a sorsuhruh.”

“My pa taught me it’s a better choice not ta hurt someone if ya don’t haffta.”

“Ah’d say you huht that fella about as deep as he’s evuh been.”

“Nah. He’s been carryin’ that around with him for a long time.”

“Indayd. Well, mah hat is off to you, suh,” and remove his hat he does. “And ah retract mah uhliuh offuh to join owuh little game. No offeyence, but ah don’t believe ah want to gamble with you, if you take mah meanun.”

He glances at the table nearby. An empty chair there with his frock coat folded over the back beckons and he smiles. “Now if you will excuse meh, ah must finish shearin’ these heah poe lost lambs befoah they scampuh off. It has been a distinct pleashah to mike yoah acquaintance, Mistuh Goff. Fayuh you weyull, suh.”

Again the deceptively limp handshake.

Beyond Holliday’s retreating back, Jonas witnesses an unexpected tableau unfold. Gigantic Tommy, about to step out into the tempest, collides with a much smaller, if equally furious storm rushing in out of the rain. The big man’s unmoved, but the smaller fellow finds himself on his back on the boardwalk and scrambles up with a rage far greater than his diminutive size. Jonas hears Rubin Strawn’s shrill voice shouting into Tommy’s belly, “Jeezus fuckin’ Christ! You goddam Texans are like flies!”

A rattle and roll of thunder masks Tommy’s growling reply.

“No …” Squirrel’s voice is clear enough, though. “… cuz ya eat shit an’ bother people! Now git outta my fuckin’ way, ya big, dumb, hairy buffalo turd!”

A hand almost the size of an iron beaver trap gently bunches itself into the front of Squirrel’s slicker. The swinging doors flap a couple times and, as they come to rest, both men are gone into the night. The band starts up again with a lively rendition of ‘The Yellow Rose of Texas’.

It would seem Holliday noticed the exchange in the doorway, meeting Jonas’s eyes with a bemused look before seating himself to reassert his influence over what some call a game of chance.

Jonas looks to the rear of the saloon where Marshal Charlie Bassett has been holding forth with some of the community fathers and either did not observe the brief altercation at the door, or did not care to intervene. Handshakes around now, he’s about to continue his rounds.

Newell is at Jonas’s side. “Good riddance to ya.” He offers a half-grin and claps Jonas’s shoulder. “Keep yer hair on longasya can.” His amble toward the table where Holliday just sat down looks confident.

Benjamin taps a last, ice-cold beer for Jonas, buffs a blot of liquor from the bar, hitches his drawers and moves on to engage a loquacious old-timer in idle chit-chat between calls. Jonas’s fellows are warmed up now and off to the dance hall and surrounds for some merry-making and carousing. He’s got a train to catch in the morning. So-longs and good-lucks are exchanged. There are no futile promises to keep in touch; it is still, after all, a big, wild country.

The heart of the storm has moved further out onto the plain, although showers persist. Jonas has no aversion to the rain and is in no real hurry to escape it. He’s halfway back to the Wright House when sounds from behind of booted feet running on the boardwalk cause him to step aside into the doorway of a shop. The marshal hurries past with a younger man in tow.

Bassett’s saying, “How long ago?”

“I just finded ‘im,” says the other. “Couldn’t be more’n a couple minutes an’ I comed right away ta git ya, Marshal.”

Both men cut between two buildings into a narrow alley as a third man comes running from the other direction with a kerosene lantern and follows them in.

Jonas is right behind.

The third fellow, a deputy in black long-coat, wide flat-brimmed hat, and sporting a walrus moustache, holds the light up as Bassett kneels down in the mud beside a body stretched out face-down. It’s not the body Jonas expected they’d find. The deputy’s asking the young man what he saw.

“I jist finded ‘im like this.”

“What were you doing back here?”

“Finished my chores at Mister Hoover’s store an’ goin’ ta home. Honest I was. Hear’d a tussle an’ hollerin’ ‘n’, ya know, figgered I’d look-see.”

“See anybody else?”

“It were purty dark. Lightnin’ real far off, though and might’a seed a man walkin’ off ‘atta way.” The youngster points down the dark alleyway.

“What did he look like?”

“I dunno.”

Bassett’s heard enough. “Give me some more light here, Wyatt.”

Even before Bassett manages to roll the huge corpse over, Jonas knows it’s Tommy’s body lying there in the mud. No question about it. The thing he isn’t prepared for, the thing none of them are prepared for, is the shocking fright-mask of Tommy’s dead face.

Eyes are bulging and bloody, blood has poured from his ruptured ears, mud and blood have matted his beard and saturated the front of his shirt and trousers. His lower jaw has been pulled out of its sockets and some of his teeth are scattered about on the ground along with a smooth, blood-slicked mass of tissue big as a fist.

Bassett recoils and drops the grisly remains with a splash and a curse.

The shambles of Tommy’s face stares uncomprehending into the rain and for just an unnerving instant, as distant lightning paints the clouds overhead fluorescent, his protruding bloody eyeballs seem to shine out with an eerie glow.

“Dear Mother of God,” the marshal whispers to no one in particular.

The youngster is emptying the contents of his stomach against the nearby wall.

The deputy, holding the lantern high, is a dispassionate one, studying the thing with the devastated face and the area around it for evidence.

“Charlie,” he says through the soup-strainer on his upper lip, “look’s as though someone reached down his throat and pulled his heart out.”

“Is… is that even possible?”

Pointing, “Well, there it is.”

“See any tracks?”

“I’d say we’ve stirred this mudhole plenty good enough. I’ll look further up the way after we get this poor bastard out of the rain.”

“Jeb!” Bassett calls to the younger man, “Jeb, damn it, boy! Snap out of it and give us a hand gettin’ this mess inside. Grab his legs.”

“N-no! No, sir, I ain’t touchin’ that!”

“Stop acting like a damn idiot. It’s just a body and we can’t leave it layin’ here. Now help us pick him up.”

Backing away now. “Huh uh!”

Jonas steps into the light and, reaching down, begins to gather up Tommy’s legs.

Bassett, having failed to mark Jonas’s presence before this moment, registers his surprise with a sincere, “What the bloody Hell?”

“I reckon that’s more right than you know, Marshal,” Jonas says. “Where we takin’ ‘im?”

Bassett recovers his bearing. “Jeb, you get your sorry ass over to Doc Milburn’s and wake him up. Have him meet us at the jail. Wyatt, leave the lantern for now and grab a side. This ox weighs a ton. And you, Mister… Goff, isn’t it?” He grips under a massive, lifeless shoulder and lifts with a groan. “Out to the street and go right.”

.      .      .

[All right, I will admit to violating Elmore Leonard’s rule about the use of patois. I did it with full intention and, I’d like to think, a degree of discretion in the reader’s favor. Castigate me if you will, but I stand by my dialog as written. There, I said it.  ~DRLE ]

.      .      .

Blink.

Well before dawn, Jonas finds his grandfather making preparations for their journey. Crows Come Around is there, too, receiving last minute instructions from her father while Jonas brings up the horses. Before first light, the camp is behind them.

Early on the third day, Standing Elk brings Jonas inside the roughly circular ring of stones upthrust from the earth like the fingers of a giant hand. They sing together the songs his grandfather taught him as a smaller circle is defined using stones gathered from nearby. This circle is almost wide enough for Jonas to lie down inside it if he curls up some. Around this his grandfather sprinkles tobacco and sage and tells Jonas he is not to step outside the circle except to go to the bushes. A sturdy digging stick is laid beyond the circle for that purpose.

The old man hands Jonas his drum, then assembles his canunpa and loads it while Jonas drums and sings the pipe-filling song. His youthful voice carries far, although there is no one within miles to hear it. Holding the pipe out in both hands, Standing Elk presents it to Jonas. Lastly, he gives Jonas a smooth pebble about the size of the tip of his little finger.

“The spirit of this sacred pipe is a strong one and will protect you,” Standing Elk says. “The circle in which you stand is sacred and will protect you. If you find yourself becoming afraid, remember these things I have told you. Remain awake and alert at night,” he tells the boy, “and sleep if you must during the day. Pay attention to everything.”

The wicasa wakan turns to leave and Jonas asks, “What about the little rock?”

“When you get thirsty, put it under your tongue and suck on it.”

Jonas watches him ride away leading his own pony behind until they are out of sight.

The days are warm, but when the sun is high, there is no relief from it. Jonas wishes there was some way to save that heat, because the nights are cold. Both seem to stretch on forever. He sings the songs he knows and some he makes up. When he gets cold he dances.

Hunger does not bother him. He finds it easier to ignore than he ever would have imagined possible. Thirst, however, attempts to stalk him at the most unexpected moments. Singing his prayers only makes his mouth drier, but he discovers that if he meets thirst’s onslaught with the inflexible strength of the tiny stone—a fragment, so it tells him, of what was once a mighty boulder, holding yet within it the full extent of that same great, patient power—thirst will retreat for a time.

Late on the fifth day, a storm boils up and stands over him for the longest time, thundering and snapping at him in a furious voice he can almost understand. It pummels him with hard wind and hail. He stands his ground, shivering, holding his grandfather’s canunpa. When Jonas, like the ground around him, is white with a crust of icy pellets, the pelting stops. The storm pauses to take a deep breath, then releases an avalanche of chain lightning striking across the land as far as he can see in every direction accompanied by a cold, soaking rain. Jonas feels the thunder trying to shake him out of his circle. A copse of trees in the distance to the north is shattered by dancing lightning as he looks on.

Jonas decides if Creator is going to send rain in such quantity, some of it is bound to get inside him if he opens his mouth and raises his face to the storm to sing the song the thunder beings are teaching him at this very moment.

The little pebble is pretty good at relieving his thirst. This storm song is better. There is much rumbling and gnashing from above and several more waves of punishing rain wash over Jonas before he learns the words to the song and the storm relents. It moves grumbling away into the darkness. The night is a long and cold one.

The next day dawns clear and bright. The heat of mid-day is most welcome now. He sleeps. Twilight is approaching when he awakens. He goes into the bushes so that he won’t be compelled to leave the protection of his circle later when surrounded by night’s enfolding mysteries. It is well that he does so. It occurs to Jonas as he sets aside the digging stick and returns to his circle, that he has no idea whatsoever, no hint of what is around the bend for him now. The silent knowing that is so natural to him has become, over these last days, an awkward not-knowing. Each new moment has become uncertain and immediate. The slow transition from twilight to deep night seems to take a long time.

There comes an instant where it seems to Jonas the moonless night has fallen with a bone-jarring crash. All of the standing stones come rumbling to the ground around him at once. What he sees and hears as he stands trembling within his alter, alone in the darkness, is a story Jonas himself will have to tell when, and if, he chooses. Terror and wonder circle each other in a dance that reaches across the arc of the night.

In the morning the standing stones are again where they belong as Jonas redistributes the smaller stones of his alter back where they came from. With a glad heart, he offers tobacco and his gratitude, first to Wakan Tanka for this perfect day, next upon the bare ground that has been the center of his universe for the last four days and nights, to Maka Ina for her gift of life. He gives thanks to the Keepers of the Seven Directions for their protection and to his spirit guardians for walking with him on this twisting path.

He cradles the sacred pipe in the crook of his left arm and begins walking in the direction his grandfather set out five days ago. He feels good, as if he could walk all day if necessary.

Less than a mile lies behind him when he sees a lone rider approaching leading a painted pony. When they meet, Standing Elk slips to the ground and motions for Jonas to sit with him. He nods with approval at the young man’s bearing and, without a word, collects his pipe from Jonas’s outstretched arms. A skin bag full of medicine is placed in Jonas’s hands and the old man gestures for him to drink it all. The liquid is vile-tasting, but will make his stomach feel better when it begins to wake up. He gags down the last of it.

His grandfather nods again in approval, opens a small cloth bag and shakes several choke-cherries out into Jonas’s hand. Jonas is sure he will never forget the extraordinary tang of the juice on his tongue as the fruit pops between his teeth. Likewise the sweetness of the cold water running down his throat from a stream some miles further on as they make their way back to their band’s encampment.

There remain miles to go and they ride through the tall grass single file with Standing Elk in the lead. The afternoon sun is beginning its long slide to meet the western horizon and the gentle rocking of his pony’s gait is soothing. Jonas’s earlier energy has waned, but sleep will not be possible for some time yet. He begins to hum a song to himself. It has a melody unfamiliar to Standing Elk and he listens as his grandson repeats it four times without alteration. Without turning to look back, the old man speaks for the first time since they reunited.

“What is that song, Jonas Two Dogs?”

“The thunder beings taught it to me in the storm the night before last, Grandfather,” he says.

They ride on in silence for a time. Without looking back, Standing Elk says, “There was no storm night before last.”

When the two return to the camp, Crows Come Around has prepared a thick berry soup called wojapi and roasted meat for them. Jonas defers to the elder, of course, who declines, insisting instead that Jonas is the honored one this night. Later, the two of them sweat alone in the initi and talk about what Jonas has seen. They smoke the canunpa Standing Elk filled and handed to Jonas five days ago, followed by a brief water ceremony at the creek. At last, exhausted and wrapped up warm in his own buffalo robe, Jonas sleeps like the dead.

The next morning when he awakens, everything has been made ready for them. Jonas and Burns Red meet at the south edge of the encampment where it seems most of the band has turned out to see them off.

Old Ghost Horse sits astride his warhorse at the rear of the gathering like a granite wall. Coarse black hair streaked in white cascades over copper skin almost the same color as his buckskin breeches. They, like his moccasins, have been decorated with elaborate quill-work. In spite of the chill autumn morning, his chest is covered from neck to navel only by a buffalo bone hairpipe breastplate. His headdress is an imposing bonnet of eagle feathers trailing down his back – each one earned over a lifetime as a canny hunter, a formidable warrior, and a clear-headed, decisive leader.

Jonas’s pony capers, impatient to be away, as his father secures their few bundled belongings to the military saddle on his own horse, a good-natured paint mare provided for this journey by his hunka father, Tajuska. The saddle is the same one that carried him into the world of the People thirteen years ago. Now, however, his injury makes riding even more laborious and painful than walking. Leaving behind his beloved wife and all those he’s come to care for notwithstanding, the assured agony of the long journey ahead fills him with an unanticipated aversion, as though any more need be added to the heart-sickness he can barely contain within himself and is determined to conceal.

Life among these people has shown him that they take everything life gives them with seeming equanimity. They do not wear their emotions for all to see. He would not think of embarrassing himself or his family by doing any less.

Burns Red steps away from his horse and stands as straight as possible to meet the two men approaching him. Two Bears remains an imposing figure. The years have not softened his heavy-muscled physique and he carries himself with all the unself-conscious confidence of his namesake. The ugly scar below his right shoulder blends into the lattice of scars on his chest from numerous Sun Dances. Beside him, Clouds Dancing’s sinuous frame looks almost frail, although it is not, and he strives to keep pace with his larger companion. His limp is conspicuous. Burns Red greets both men as brothers.

Clouds Dancing has brought an elk robe and, in typical style, throws it into Burns Red’s arms with a grunt. Sentimentality is not to be found among warriors. The fur is long and luxurious and firmly held, although the hide itself has been worked with great patience until it feels as soft and supple as a baby’s skin.

Two Bears gives Burns Red a fine smoked leather sheath for the bone-handled knife he once used to part Burns Red’s scalp. The heavy material is laced with stiff rawhide and looks like it will last forever.

Behind the big man, his half-side, Sweet Water, looks to Crows Come Around with a question in her eyes. Crows nods approval and the other woman hands Burns Red a small bundle made of woven reeds. It’s filled with pemmican for the journey. Burns Red reaches out to each of them in turn, brushing their fingers with his own, offering his thanks with a sincere, “Pilamaya yo.”

Jonas is aware of Standing Elk’s imposing presence in front of him. The face his grandfather shows him is filled with warmth and approval. The fingertips of the old holy man’s left hand tap once firmly upon Jonas’s forehead, the other against Jonas’s heart. He reverses them and thumps his parting instruction into the boy. Without another word, he turns away seeking out Burns Red and the two of them stand apart from the group for a while, speaking together in quiet tones.

Tajuska looks on. His stoic countenance betrays none of his dismay at Burns Red’s departure, yet another son taken from him by the unfathomable workings of Spirit. Many Tears is inconsolable, although one would not know it from her stony expression if one did not look to see the salty streams in the crevices of her face. She makes not a sound.

Jonas’s sister, who the others have begun to call Whirlwind, stands before him hugging her shawl around her. A willowy girl, her fine features and wavy hair are characteristic of her mother’s lineage, but the intensity in her dark eyes is all Lakota. She reaches out a fist and thumps it against his chest.

“If you do not save this Turtle Island, Brother,” she warns him, “I will be very disappointed in you.”

In her hand is a small cangleska, a medicine wheel fashioned of porcupine quills, each quadrant dyed in a different color. It looks a delicate thing, but precious, fashioned with her patient, clever hands. She holds it out to him with a shy smile.

Otter embraces him with a broad grin and hands Jonas the braided leather cord that had bound them together years ago. Jonas stares at it for a long moment with dawning recognition, then at his friend. No words are necessary. None would be adequate.

And at last Jonas stands before his mother, gripped by warring emotions; the boy wanting nothing more than to hold her and be held by her, the young man unwilling to shame either of them with an emotional display.

“Hear me, young warrior,” she says. “All things are as they should be. Trust your vision. Trust the power of the currents pressing on you to carry you where you must go. If you do not resist them, they cannot break you.”

Jonas’s reply catches in his throat and refuses to release his voice.

“I am proud of you, Wakiyela,” she continues. “You are a piece of my heart.”

She clasps his hand in both of hers, a lingering press, warm and strong and far too brief for his liking. Two small objects remain in his palm upon her release, her elk tooth earrings, made for her by the man who was Whirlwind’s father many years ago before he crossed over to the other camp, before Jonas’s father came among the People.

There are two eye teeth in a bull elk’s head made of the stuff his father calls ivory and they are highly prized. Gifted in such a way as this, they symbolize deep affection, an offering of no small significance.

Wopila, Ina,” he says with difficulty around the knot in his throat. “You honor me, Mother.” Gripping the treasure in his fist, he begins to turn away, hesitates. “I will see you again… in my dreams.”

“And I you, my son,” she tells him. “Go now.”

She looks to her husband one last time. He holds the beaded quill medallion she made for him as though it was her hand in his. She stands as solemn and unbending as any warrior and, at the last, shows them both the smile that will light their individual darkness for the rest of their lives. Later, when she is alone, she will cast her tears, grateful for the sweetness she knew from her man and her boy, knowing that she will miss their strength around her in the time to come, and then she will cut off her hair.

As Jonas looks back for the last time, he can see, as through a curtain of mist, his friend calling something after him. Otter’s face looks older. Behind him stands his mother and sister, older too, both straight and proud beside his grandfather. The old man raises his left hand to him and his mother flies apart. Where she stood, a hundred crows separate and explode outward in every direction. Their bright black plumage fills the entire world with a deep, enfolding darkness.

Otter’s shout carries to him from a great distance on the beating of their wings.

“BEAN-HEAD! WAKE UUUP! “

Blink.

      ~   

Reveries — Read More »

Reveries ——

One cool morning as summer is turning the corner to autumn before Jonas’s eleventh winter, Standing Elk has a dream. When he wakes from it, he calls Ghost Horse and Burns Red to his tipi. Their talk is brief, but the old man is filled with an uncharacteristic agitation. He gathers a few things and leaves the camp alone. Before the sun is high on the sixth day, he returns, gaunt and visibly troubled.

Many gather about him, but he is not ready to talk. Food is offered, which he refuses. Crows Come Around brings him a bitter medicine tea and stands over him like a storm cloud until he drinks it down.

Still grimacing, he directs a handful of warriors to prepare an inipi and calls for Jonas Two Dogs to personally find and bring in thirty-seven stones for the fire. They are not to be gathered from the nearby stream.

It takes Jonas several hours to complete the task. Jumping Otter and several other friends attempt to help him, but when they carry in their stones, Standing Elk waves them off and their stones are discarded. When Jonas is finished, his grandfather offers tobacco into the fire pit and tells Jonas to build the fire.

Channels of dry wood are laid out in each of the four cardinal directions, filled with kindling material and a base is formed. Jonas stacks his thirty-seven stones upon it, singing a stone-honoring song as he does so. Lengths of heavier wood, gathered in quantity by the warriors, are stacked nearby and Jonas builds a cone of these, open at the top, enclosing the stones.

Jonas exchanges a few words with another boy whose recent name means Makes Noise Walking, and hands him a generous chunk of jerked meat. The other acknowledges, then joins others gathering with drums and songs. Standing Elk watches in silence for a time before turning away. Other preparations must be made.

A buffalo hide bundle is unrolled and Standing Elk prepares his alter atop a low mound between the fire pit and the doorflap of the lodge.

Two forked sticks, barked and polished, are set in the mound and a short, sturdy twig of the same type is set in place, bridging between them. A shard of obsidian is pressed into the soil beneath it.

Beside this pipe stand, a buffalo skull with horns painted red would have peered out through empty eye sockets, had they not been stuffed with sage. The old man’s staff is driven into the packed soil in the center of the mound. A small, forked horn fashioned to the end of the staff holds his eagle-wing fan looped onto it with a strand of sinew. It flutters on an evening breeze. Twilight has come.

Jonas strikes spark to the tinder of the fire’s east gate and nurtures it to life. In minutes, the cone is engulfed in flame. The spirit of the fire dances and it reaches out as he tends it, urging Jonas to dance with it.

More wood is added to maintain the chimney as the previous layers burn away. By the time the stones are glowing, the circle of singers around the sacred fire has, at his grandfather’s bidding, gone. Coals have been banked up against the stones and just enough additional wood laid over top to keep them roasting.

 The night is cool and clear. The waning moon is barely more than a bright, razor-edged sliver in an ocean of stars when the five individuals Standing Elk has instructed to participate in this lodge are gathered.

Crows drums and the pipe filling song is sung as Standing Elk assembles his canunpa, fills the bowl with cansasa and prayers, and stands it upright, propping the stem on the small framework he built. He turns then and enters through the low doorway of the initi on hands and knees.

Jonas hands a set of antlers to his friend the noisy walker, and follows his grandfather into the initi. Burns Red and Crows Come Around follow next. After them come Burns Red’s hunka mother and father, Many Tears and Tajuska, the latter taking his place in the circle to the left of the door.

Standing Elk calls for nine stones. Makes Noise carries them to the doorflap one at a time using the antlers. Tajuska receives them with another set of antlers and arranges them in the central pit.

The first is placed in the center representing The Great Mystery. Many Tears brushes it with sweet grass and Crows lays a bead of pine resin upon it. Mellow, green-smelling smoke curls up.

The next four stones are set upon the cardinal points, sun-wise from the west. Two more, representing Father Sky and Mother Earth are set beside those in the east and west respectively, and the last two are place at points the wicasa wakan indicates for reasons only he knows, pointing with his rattle.

The doorflap is lowered and, in the resulting darkness, the glow from the stone people is all there is. The aromas of sweet grass and copal combine in the expanding warmth. A single hand drum reverberates and a song is sung to call in spirit guides and guardians. Heat rises.

Grandfather calls for nine more stones. Another song is sung as they are brought in and placed like the first. The doorflap is closed and another song is sung in the darkness, and still the old man says nothing of the purpose of this gathering. Nine more inyan find their place among the others and at last, as the doorflap closes, Grandfather splashes the water of life from a vessel beside him onto the hot stones. The breath of the Great Mother breaks upon the dome of the lodge and falls back down over the occupants like a hammer.

In the blackness, Burns Red is already lying flat against the cool, moist earth. Jonas has backed away from the heat of the pit, pressed against the framework of the lodge, hugging his knees. The tender flesh inside his nostrils feels as if it is on fire.

Standing Elk’s rattle breaks through the hissing of the stones as moisture fries from them. The rhythm is steady, not a beat at all, but a swishing, swirling sound. Spirits crowd around him and the old man begins to speak.

“My daughter has told us all the story from her long-ago people of how Raven stole the sun from the Sky Chief and carried it back to the world. That is a good story and brave Raven’s gift to the world was great. But Raven put the sun too close to the world and after a while, Grandmother began to suffer. Rivers and lakes began to dry up and the tall grass withered and the buffalo could find nothing to eat and there was no rain and there was no shade anywhere. The world was dying. Unless something was done, the People and all the creatures would die with her.

“The animal chiefs came together to figure out what to do. Each of them, in turn, tried to move the sun farther away. Each of them failed. Deer, Elk, Wolf, Fox, mighty Bear, even Cougar … none could jump high enough. So too, none of the wingeds could fly high enough either. Raven had reached her limit when she set the sun in its place. Finally, Coyote came to Heca, the vulture chief, who was busy preening his dazzling feathered raiment and asked him to help.

“‘Why don’t you ask Eagle?’ Heca said.

“‘Eagle is busy carrying the prayers of the People to Creator. You are the only one who can do this and your reward for saving us will be great,’ sly Coyote answered. ‘You will be able to eat anything you want. Imagine it. The world will be an endless feast for you.’

“So Heca spread his powerful wings and soared up to the sun. With his head, he pushed the sun away until the world was safe. The resplendent feathers of his wings and body were scorched black and the magnificent plumage on his head, once the envy of all the winged ones, was burned away by the sun until it was gone. Today the heads of all his descendants show the mark of Heca’s sacrifice.

“Heca’s reward was indeed great, but as is often the case with Coyote, not at all as Heca expected. He was able, as was promised, to eat anything he wanted… but only after death had taken it first.”

Standing Elk’s rattle continues to weave a hypnotic susurration around them all without variation. The ancient stones sizzle in the pit.

“Vulture is the purifier,” he says after a time. “He eats the things that would kill other creatures, helping Great Mother restore wholesomeness to the world. Those who do not know his story, or understand him, call him ‘ugly’ and turn away in disgust from the thankless work he does, his part in the Great Circle. On the ground, Vulture doesn’t look like much now, but in the sky, none but Eagle can match him.

“Vulture has come to me many times in my life. He has taught me stupendous lessons of healing and shared with me his gift of far vision. I tell you these things so you will understand that when Vulture came to me in a dream seven nights ago, his message carried iron.

“Vulture showed me a vision of terrible destruction in a place of great darkness, a world made of pieces, and another world in pieces. Unci Maka. This world.

“Vulture told me that he cannot stop this by himself, nor can any of the great animal chiefs help prevent this ruin. He told me that Bear, Horse, Wolf, Eagle, and Raven all believe the balance rests among the People and he now agrees with them.

“He lifted me up and showed me from a great height where I must go to find the answer to this mystery.

“When I awoke, I spoke only that I had dreamed, but left to go to the place I had been shown. Two day’s ride to the west is a place where old stone people stand up out of the ground like a hand. There I sat with my canunpa and waited for Goes In The Center, a distant grandfather who walks with me. He came to me in that place and I was shown what must be done.”

The spellbinding rattle ceases and grandfather calls for the door. Makes Noise is in place and the flap is drawn open without delay. The flow of cool air swirling into the lodge is a luxury and the starry night beyond seems bright to eyes grown large in darkness. Standing Elk calls for the remaining stones but one.

Jonas had not realized how much the previous sets of stones had cooled until the doorflap is back in place and the nine newest grandfathers stand upon the shoulders of those already in the pit, radiating the fire contained in their ancient hearts. Standing Elk splashes water over them.

Jonas is grateful that here, in the complete darkness of the lodge, no one can see him huddling away from the heat, low against the ground where he can draw cooler air from just above the damp earth.

His grandfather’s voice whispers beside his ear, “Sit up, Jonas Two Dogs, and be present. Now it is time for you to understand your path.” He says it in English.

Many Tears begins a gentle heartbeat on a hand drum and Grandfather’s rattle spins up to a sound like running water. Jonas straightens himself into a hot cloud. Standing Elk’s voice cuts through to the heart of the matter.

“The vision I have received and the path that leads through it is shrouded in mist. There is much I do not and cannot know. Goes In The Center has warned me also that much of what I have been shown cannot be told.

“The spirit guides have deep understanding and, in that world, there are no mistakes. Mistakes are something we humans must experience on our own. With luck, perhaps we will survive our mistakes long enough to learn the lessons that will carry us from the head to the heart.”

The sound of swirling water fades away.

“Tomorrow, Jonas Two Dogs will accompany me to the place of the stone circle where he will cry for his own vision. When we return, after he has feasted and rested, he and Burns Red must leave us.”

Jonas is sure he heard that wrong.

“If the breaking of the world into pieces and the end of the People is to be prevented, it is necessary that father and son return to the wasicu world as soon as possible and never return.”

The drumming stops half a heartbeat after the word and a heaviness falls in the darkness without a sound. Standing Elk splashes more water over the stones. The sputter and hiss of water boiling in the bottom of the pit only serves to amplify the hush filling the lodge.

No one speaks. Many Tears weeps.

Standing Elk calls for his canunpa. The doorflap is swept open. Makes Noise hands it in to Tajuska, who passes it to Many Tears, who passes it to Standing Elk. Behind it, a cupped stone. In it are coals from the fire.

Standing Elk cradles his canunpa, snatches up an ember between thumb and middle finger, lays it atop the mixture in the bowl and begins to draw from the stem until the cansasa catches. He plucks out the coal after it’s done its work and drops it without haste into the pit.

The pipe is passed sun-wise around the circle. Twice. Three times.

Jonas draws some of the aromatic smoke and lets it out again without a thought to the nature of the rituals that were old before there were horses on the plains. He doesn’t care. He is empty. A song of gratitude to the spirits for coming among them with their guidance and protection, releasing them again to go their mysterious ways, is sung without Jonas’s participation. He is distant from this place, numb and cold within, despite the enfolding heat.

Later, in his turn, Jonas crawls out of the lodge, stumbles to the creek, and lays in a shallow pool below a riffle. It cradles him in cool oblivion, soothing his reddened skin, washing away tears no one will ever see.

A meal has been prepared when he returns to his parent’s tipi. He wants nothing more than to hold to his mother and comfort her as she comforts him. Instead, Tajuska and Many Tears are there as well. Burns Red is lying on a robe near the guests and both he and Crows are busy with practical matters.

His grandfather, too, is there and, in that moment, Jonas’s stomach is a knot of grief and anger. He pushes away the offered food, even though it smells good. His agitation at the presence of this man who has called down the end of his life among the People is intolerable. He makes to leave and manages only one step in that direction before Standing Elk is between him and his exit.

For a moment, the challenge in Jonas’s green eyes is lightning between them. Standing Elk’s voice is not unkind.

“Stop acting the fool, takoje, as though only your feelings have value. I told you already you must understand your path. You have no choice. Do not let your emotion cloud your judgment. Sit down and eat, Jonas Two Dogs. You will need all your strength in the days to come. We both will.”

Jonas swallows the bitter words in his throat and does as he is told.

His grandfather sits with him, sharing their food, and Jonas sees something in the old man’s eyes as he looks at Crows. It occurs to him that his grandfather feels as deeply as any of them the finality of the separation to come and Jonas understands something he did not know before. His anger has nothing to anchor it and it melts away.

His sleep that night is fitful, visited by worrisome spirits and unnamed fears.

Blink.

Miss Schultz is standing alone on the prairie. Miles of grass in every direction. She’s decked out in a calico work shirt, heavy trousers and boots, and her hair’s swept back, as always, in a bun as cruel as a hangman’s noose. She’s packing a big Sharps fifty with a cartridge bandolier across her mighty Teutonic bosom.

‘Alone’ may have been the wrong word. She is confronted by a thousand buffalo.

With a feral snarl curling her moustache, she shoulders the plains cannon and takes dead aim at the biggest tatanka in the herd. The hammer falls on the chambered round with a disappointing ‘click’.

Great horned heads turn toward her as one and two thousand dark eyes look into her soul. She shouts at them in a voice shrill as it is proud, “I will not tolerate such impudence from a little animal!” The greatest tatanka of them all exchanges a brief perplexed look with his neighbor, then both lower their horns and lead the charge in. Miss Schultz drops her gun and fouls her drawers.

The image conjures an involuntary laugh that escapes as a sort of bark and snort. Jonas slaps hand over mouth too late to stifle the sound.

This amuses several students nearby and a ripple of laughter quickly develops into a classroom disturbance. Emily Bench, however, is not so easily amused and peers over the top of her spectacles with what she knows to be a stern countenance.

“Jonas, did you have something to add to the lesson?”

“No, ma’am. I’m sorry.”

“Something humorous perhaps about England’s colonization of India?”

A tenuous silence is underscored by an exchange of snickering whispers.

“Dickie! Morgan! Would you two like to sit in front for a while?”

Mumbles of ‘no, ma’am’ from the back of the room.

“Then be still, please.”

Mumbles of ‘yes, ma’am’ from the back of the room.

“No, ma’am,” Jonas says. “There was nothin’ funny goin’ on there.”

“No? Perhaps, then, you would like to share the humorous non-sequitur that caused you to disrupt my lesson.”

That seems like a bad idea. Pretty Mary’s watching him with an unreadable expression, aware that he’s aware of her, daring him, perhaps, to make them all laugh. He gives Missus Bench a sheepish smile.

“No, ma’am. I ‘pologize for the outburst. Won’t happen again.”

Later that afternoon, as books and materials are being put away in preparation for dismissal, Missus Bench wanders among the desks. She stops next to Jonas’s seat and asks him to please stay afterward for a few minutes.

Little escapes notice in this environment. Dickie Barnhart, on his way out with his sidekick in tow, shoulders into Jonas and offers to have “a talk wit ya too when yer doan.”

Jonas shrugs him off and the two toughs exit laughing into the afternoon together, no doubt with mischievous intent. Mary blows him a kiss over her shoulder and skips down the steps, giggling with three of her friends.

With the classroom cleared, Jonas approaches the teacher’s oak desk at the front of the room without apprehension. He can read Missus Bench easily. There’s nothing in her but a kindly woman’s genuine concern. He takes a seat beside her desk and she sets her paperwork aside.

“How is your father?” she inquires without apparent preamble.

“Well as can be. Do you know my father?”

“Yes. I’ve met and spoken with him twice. The first when I was interviewed for this job after your previous teacher vacated precipitously, and again shortly after the New Year. He was inquiring about your progress once I had moved you to the sixth grade level.”

“An’ how am I doin’.”

“I believe you know the answer to that as well as I do, young man. For one thing, I can’t help but notice your speech has acquired even less sophisticated mannerisms, peppered with colloquialisms and frequent grammatical irregularities. I know you know how to speak English better than that. You don’t appear to associate with the young hooligans under my temporary care. I suspect this tendency is rubbing off from those with whom you work after school.”

“I guess I don’t give much thought to how my words come out of late. Hadn’t even noticed I was doin’ it.”

“‘Doin’ it’, Jonas?”

He laughs. “Fellows I work with don’t much speak the English language formal like you or my father do. Given my appearance, they don’t much favor me anyhow. If I come off all high ‘n’ mighty proper with them, it’s asking fer a whoopin’.

“Honestly, Jonas, that sounds like an excuse, not a reason.”

 “I began to learn the language of the People before I was introduced to English. Not only are the words different, but the ideas behind the words are different. Father started early teaching me to speak his language, but I don’t…”

Emily watches Jonas search for the right words, content to wait for him to find them.

 “I don’t think in English. I can, but most often I don’t. To be truthsome, the—I think the word is ‘vulgar’—language of the common folk seems more natural on my tongue an’ doesn’t tangle up my thoughts in the way ‘proper English’ does with its endless rules an’…” Jonas seems to be searching for an elusive word. “Conturdfictions? No, that ain’t right.”

“Contradictions.”

Nodding, he echoes the word, “Contradictions.” He finds her eyes, holds them for just a moment, and says with a good-natured grin, “Precisely.”

“I suppose I can see your point,” Emily says, “although I cannot wholly endorse it. You made it well, however.”

“I like words. I respect what can be done with ’em. My father is a fine example of what a sharp instrument the language can be.”

“Your father is an articulate gentleman possessing a unique perception.”

“That’s kind of you to say, ma’am, an’ I suppose he’s almost despaired of trying to correct me these days. Guess he’s just happy I don’t speak Lakota in polite comp’ny anymore.”

“I think I can understand that, too,” she says. “However, we have digressed.

“The point I wanted to make was that you are a good student, Jonas. I see you as a well-mannered, perceptive, reasoning young man.” She looks at him straight on now with a serious expression. “These are qualities of someone who can make a difference in our world. I believe you could make such a difference if you continue to pursue your education, despite your…” It’s Missus Bench’s turn to search for words.

Jonas finds them for her. “Inconvenient heritage?”

She turns a wince into a wan smile. “You carry yourself well and that is very much in your favor, but I can see it is an occasional obstacle for you, nonetheless. And for others. How does that make you feel?”

“Wish it weren’t that way. Mind you, I don’t mean that I wish I weren’t who I am, but that it didn’t matter to folk so. Way I figure it, the measure of a man’s not about where he comes from any more’n a cat born in an old oven’s a biscuit.”

Emily Bench’s smile softens her squarish face. It’s a face often considered somewhat masculine that makes her appear a harder, more formidable presence than the gentle soul revealed in moments like this. It’s the face of a mother, if only the temporary mother of other people’s children and, behind her large spectacles, her eyes are kindly, looking always for the best in everyone.

“What do you want to be, Jonas?”

“If by that you mean, do I want to become a man of letters, it seems my path’s leadin’ me elsewhere.”

“What do you mean?”

“You asked about my father. One day it’ll be up to me to keep roof overhead an’ food on the table for us, ‘stead of him. That’s why I work after school now, to put some aside for the day, but I ‘spect it won’t be long before I hafta take on a regular job to make ends meet.”

She’s not ready to give up yet. “You know, even though it doesn’t pay him monetarily, your father has been active in this community. He has a strong sense of civic responsibility and his greatest commitment has been to education. I know he would want you to stay in school as long as you can.”

“I know.”

“I believe you could accomplish great things if you finish your education.”

“Maybe. Maybe great things don’t necessarily wait for paper sayin’ yer ready to take ’em on. Whatever happens, I can only go where spirit leads me.”

Emily opens her mouth, then closes it. She looks at the paperwork shuffled on her desk, sweeps her gaze around the empty classroom, and returns her attention to the young man sitting patiently, waiting for her to remount her argument, but she cannot. Her position is well-intentioned and she knows she’s right, yet she heard his words with clarity. There is nothing in them to refute.

Blink.

Jonas’s career as a mail rider with William Russell’s glamorous sounding, but often life-threatening enterprise comes to an abrupt end as the Pony Express folds after only eighteen months in operation. Its closure is brought about, in part, by fiscal problems that might have been surmountable, and with unarguable finality by the completion of the continent-spanning telegraph network. Fifty thousand miles of wire connecting points across the nation makes the dangerous ten-day, cross-country journey unnecessary. Meanwhile, conventional mail delivery continues by way of previously established overland and sea routes.

Civil war comes, as his father predicted, leaving Jonas uneasy, weighing his dwindling options. His father’s increasing disability stays him from lighting out as he had intended, distancing himself from a fight in which he has no stake. He feels conspicuous and vulnerable. A growing atmosphere of terror, fueled by credible reports of indiscriminate violence against civilian populations by both sides in the conflict, suggest that an able-bodied young man not in uniform may well be shot on sight out of hand as a suspected guerilla fighter, spy, or deserter.

Some work on a Wells Fargo stage route keeps him mobile for a time at least.

For many years, St. Joseph has been a favorite jumping-off point for pioneers setting out to make new homes in the West. As the war ushers in an era of bitter violence, some folk are prompted to cast their hopes for survival and a brighter future toward the Northwest Territory. Jonas’s father introduces him to Calvin Mortimer, who’s outfitting a party for just such a journey and Jonas signs on as the man’s second assistant and outrider.

Mortimer’s seasoned first goes only by the name Grainger. He’s a knowledgeable, capable hand, but withdrawn and unfriendly. Jonas negotiates a satisfactory pay advance with Mortimer, which he gives to his father to offset living expenses until his return, and sets out in a cold rain one morning in March with twelve families bound for Oregon.

The way has been made perhaps less perilous over twenty years of use, but is nonetheless an arduous six-month journey at best. The terrain is often difficult and the weather uncooperative. Cutoff routes and ferries make navigating the many river crossings far less dangerous than in earlier years and the infrequent Indian encounters, while tense, have been known, upon occasion, to end without hostilities.

Of the fifty-three individuals that left St. Joe in early March with eighteen wagons, forty-two souls arrive at their destination in Oregon City late August.

The return trip with Mortimer and Grainger takes almost seven weeks. Mortimer is pleasant enough company, but Grainger has been barely civil throughout and Jonas gives him little reason to interact.

It is a still, cool, late afternoon on the last leg of their trek through Kansas when they are set upon by a rough and tumble band of seven Confederate raiders.

The first gunfight of Jonas’s life is preceded by an intense visceral thrill as he ‘sees’ the image of the cadre approaching and experiences a kind of heat he will later associate with violent nature and intent. Precious little cover is to be found, a few skinny trees and some low rocks, but nothing substantial.

He knows already the two men with him will not understand or heed his warning, but warn them he does before spurring his mount in a wide, flanking maneuver. When the riders see and advance on them, there is no parley, no truce, and no quarter, only a furious exchange of gunfire.

Jonas is treated to a rigorous, adrenaline-charged education in the art of riding the currents of his Sight when death is riding alongside. Fluid possibilities race behind his eyes, a cascade of images like he’s never imagined. On the one hand, the certainty of a bullet speeding toward his flesh. On the other, choices.

He guides his roan with his knees, shifting out of the path of unforgiving lead and shoulders his Henry rifle. Without even the appearance of attempting to aim, he sends a bullet of his own in reply. One of the attackers is lifted from his saddle and hurled to the ground.

Jonas can hear his companions returning fire, but it seems distant, inconsequential. He is in the calm center of the storm. Conviction and choice blend in an effortless, inevitable flow. More slugs whine past him in slow motion as he weaves the roan through them. Three more times his rifle thunders and four more spirits cross over unprepared to seek their maker even as their bodies tumble into the dry grass.

Mortimer is unhurt, but Grainger is down. Both their horses are down too. Jonas sets out to round up the raiders’ horses while Mortimer dispatches the soldiers he and Grainger brought to the ground before binding Grainger’s wounds.

Later, as he walks among the dead, his dead, Jonas is surprised to find that he feels none of the remorse he thought he might, only an unemotional acceptance of the fact. He feels more regret as he ends the suffering of the wounded animals.

With Mortimer’s help he gathers the bodies into a circle, propped upright with backs together. Fallen weapons are laid in their laps. The remaining horses are relieved of their easily identifiable burdens and tack. Two are resaddled for his companions to ride and the rest are turned out to run where they will. Lastly, as twilight approaches, Jonas withdraws a handful of tobacco from the leather pouch at his belt and casts it to the seven directions. It’s not a blessing to the departed, but gratitude for the Gift that runs in him like a river.

.      .      .

The following spring, as the Conscription Act is signed into law by President Lincoln, Jonas takes one more trek with Mortimer who agrees to pay all in advance to Jonas’s father before they leave St. Joe. It’s an unconventional arrangement, but Mortimer considers himself to be Daniel’s friend and understands Jonas’s concern for his father’s health and upkeep. Besides, the Wagon Master entertains no doubts about Jonas’s loyalty, his value as a second, or his aim.

Grainger will not be joining them on this trip, having lost an arm to the injuries he sustained.

The fellow hired on in his stead is young, strong, and in a hurry to depart. A months ago, he’d been a foot soldier in the Confederate Army defending the rebel-held city of Independence. A skirmish there, one of many, he says, left him helpless to staunch the wounds of his best friend who died sobbing in his arms. Jonas recognizes Morgan O’Brien immediately, of course, but the sneer and the aggressive schoolboy posturing have long since been wiped away.

Morgan will drive a mule team pulling a smaller supply wagon. It’s Mortimer’s innovation, outfitted mostly with materials for wagon repair, tools, some general-use items and four outboard water barrels.

Only eight families and twelve wagons have converged in train this time and the way is beset with difficulties, both natural and mechanical.

Experiences of many previous parties has shown that drinking the water along the Platte River section of the Trail is almost guaranteed to visit a deadly outbreak of cholera on the travelers and Mortimer has taken adequate precautions. Consequently, there are no losses to disease, instead the unforeseen becomes the leading cause of attrition. Misadventure and acts of God take the fore. The party is plagued with breakdowns and accidents.

Jonas will ponder many times upon the unfortunate fact that he’s not always permitted to see what’s about to happen to someone else. This small detail is illustrated vividly as the party’s making what would seem to be an unremarkable river crossing on the Lander Road through the mountains of Wyoming. Mortimer’s decision to take the shorter route to meet the main Trail at Soda Springs in Idaho also means negotiating a rugged series of passes and fording the Smith Fork of the Bear River before making the final ascent through the Salt River Range.

The watercourse appears swift, but suitably shallow and seven of the nine wagons remaining of the original dozen make the crossing without incident. Following them is an ox-drawn prairie schooner with a grim-faced Quaker named Jeremiah, crusty patriarch of the Buckmaster clan, perched high on the seat urging his four reluctant beasts into the rushing water. Jonas is helping two small girls across to join their parents when the realization comes and he knows it’s already too late for him to influence the outcome.

The wagon has strayed, for whatever reason, from the line taken by those that went before. The oxen plunge into an unseen drop-off and, trapped in their harnesses, flounder wildly for footing.

Buckmaster is scared, flailing the traces, and hollering unintelligibly.

Mortimer, on the farther shore, wheels his horse and dashes forward to assist.

Jonas is too far away to do other than shout a warning to Mortimer and give his mount heels, provoking the gelding to greater speed toward the shore where he literally drops the children in the arms of their mother. He spins the roan and kicks it roughly toward the commotion.

Mortimer is just coming alongside the wagon from the rear as the oxen thrash in panic against the current in the hole. Jonas lets out a piercing whoop in an attempt to catch Mortimer’s attention, wave him off, or at least slow him down, but his warning is lost in the rush of the water and the shouts of fear and alarm from both shores. One of the oxen in the rear of the team’s already drowned, but two in front gain sudden purchase and heave in a new direction, jerking the wagon abruptly to the side and into the deeper water.

The sharp snapping sound of a wheel breaking apart seems to arrow through the commotion. The current does the rest. The wagon slews crazily and pitches over onto its side taking Mortimer and his horse down underneath. Only the old Quaker bobs to the surface at last, slapping the water wildly, unable to swim. Jonas plucks him up and hauls him to the shore where he stands gasping, looking dumbly at the deadly wreckage.

It takes Jonas, Morgan, and several other men the remainder of the afternoon and into the night, working in the frigid, swift-running water by the light of kerosene lanterns, to extract the wagon and replace the wheel with one from the supply buck. Numbed with more than the cold, Jonas receives, by virtue of his prior experience on the trail, the responsibility as Wagon Master.

Mortimer’s body is buried the following day in a stony cairn overlooking the ford that took his life.

The party plods on toward their destination in a series of what seem painstakingly slow, but otherwise uneventful steps. Mortimer’s maps and the rambling directions of an old-timer at Soda Springs bring them eventually to the Applegate Trail and at last into southern Oregon.

The terminus of the journey is the thriving little hillside township of Ashland Mills, maybe a day’s hard ride from a placer mining community called Jacksonville. Jonas collects the Wagon Master’s salary, pays Morgan double what was agreed and wires the rest to his father in St. Joe.

By first light the next morning, he’s gone without any polite God-be-withyas, pressing his roan to a brisk pace northward. Elder spirits are calling him to the ancestral home and he must answer.

Blink.

General Lee’s surrender at Appomattox marks the end of the Confederacy. A few weeks later, President Jefferson Davis is apprehended by Union troops in Irwinville, Georgia. It’s probably no coincidence that barely six months after the curtailment of hostilities, Jonas is seated in a cane-back rocker on the porch of his father’s modest home in St. Joseph, sipping lemonade from a tall, sweaty glass.

Although Daniel is now wheelchair bound and his health failing, his demeanor remains unfailingly affable. His delight in his son’s return and welcome company is immeasurable and, for one timeless afternoon, he is able to glimpse through his son’s eyes a land of unsurpassed, haunting beauty he has dreamt of, longed to see, and never will.

With deliberate care, Jonas’s account is framed in the most evocative language he knows, paced with the same measured cadence his grandfather used when storytelling. That familiar rhythm, almost forgotten across intervening years, is not lost on Daniel and for a time, carried along on Jonas’s narrative, he is completely immersed in another world.

Jonas tells him of rugged hills and wide valleys blanketed in forest, skirting mountains swathed in mist. In them are trees older than the People, standing in silent groves, solemn observers to the passage of seasons uncounted. They reach so far into the sky that clouds hang in their branches.

Woodlands give on to crystalline pools and surprise lakes, some of them so broad they might be inland seas, and none of them more unexpected or wondrous than the one cradled in the caldera of a primordial volcano, miles across, unfathomable, impossibly blue.

Wild rivers gouge out deep defiles on their way to meet the cold Pacific Ocean. Within these raging courses, salmon the size of ponies leap and surge against the currents to fulfill a compulsion only slightly newer than the stones that define the riverbanks.

From the high desert to meadows bursting with riotous colors to secret shaded bowers festooned with moss, laced with ferns, and guarded by granite sentinels, the terrain is so exquisitely alive, teeming with four-leggeds of every size and kind, birds of every description and color, and the whispers of the old ones in the wind; there are barely words in any language to convey the wonder and complexity of it.

Jonas recounts every remembered detail, transporting Daniel to the world of his beloved wife’s lost people. In the end, tears stream down Daniel’s face. It is drawn and pinched by persistent pain, but they are not the tears of his physical torment.

They fall from great dark curtains hanging heavy over wooded mountainsides.

They splash from rock face, leaf and twig, and percolate through the accumulated carpeting at the feet of ancient Standing People.

Trickles, minute rivulets, congregate and confer, bubbling and tumbling into streams, filling pools so deep and pellucid they seem to be still…

Until, having rested, they spill over and come rumbling down through natural flumes cut from native stone, racing, thundering in brilliant turquoise churns and through canyons carved with their irresistible force.

Quickening to meet others like themselves, their singular might multiplies, widening across verdant valleys, no longer rushing, but pressing onward.

Seeking always that one indisputable finality, Daniel’s tears merge with the endless sea.

It is a gift no one else could have given him.  

The day his body is laid in the ground in St. Joseph, Missouri, a small ceremony is attended by a solemn, square-jawed woman of middlin’ years, and a long-haired, hard-faced cowboy with green eyes. Danny’s personal journals will be bound in an oilcloth, packed away in the cowboy’s saddlebags. Nothing much will remain to mark Danny’s passage, other than an intricate quillwork medallion woven with careful, calloused hands onto the modest stone cross above his grave.

Blink.

Jonas is the last to arrive for supper at the Wright House dining room.

The only wrinkle in an otherwise agreeable afternoon came as he was taking his leave of Miss Cordell’s establishment. He almost ran smack into that pipsqueak, Squirrel, coming in still on the prod and mean as a snake. The young man had words for him as he shouldered past into the parlor, though none of them nearly ruinatious of Jonas’s generous mood.

“Mind yer bits an’ pieces, Rubin,” he said. “There’s at least one in there plenty meaner than you think you are.”

Inside the restaurant, all but two members of the MacDee outfit are at hand and in high spirits. Several display recent familiarity with the barber’s craft and the scent of lilac water’s present among them as well. Mister Ashby suggests restraint of their boisterous inclinations while dining in this fine establishment, so’s not to embarrass themselves or Mister Kunkle directly, nor Mister MacDonough by association. Agreed and, aside from the occasional hoot and horse-laugh, the level of commotion from their table near the back of the dining room decreases appreciably.

The anticipation of revelry to come is a powerful appetizer, evidenced by the swift demolition of a platter of starters with nary a break in the jovial discourse. Jonas’s new shirt elicits comment, an equal number of compliments and barbs, as expected. Luis Montes is among the former, running the fabric of the bib, buttoned all the way up formal-like this evening, through his fingers and, in his fractured English, asks Jonas if “they es mas like these one”.

“Lo siento, Luis,” Jonas replies, “Ellos no tienen mas como este.”

“Ah,” Luis sighs with obvious disappointment. “Todo esta bien, hermano.”

Jonas catches Jubal’s eye across the table and asks, “Where’s George?”

“Wasn’t my turn ta watch ‘im.”

“He’s back at the camp with Foo Que an’ the dogs,” says Leland. “George says he didn’t have a good time in Topeka or Abilene and didn’t figure he’d have a good time here neither. Him an’ Foo ‘re keepin’ eyes on the wagons an’ remuda.”

Leland’s head swivels to follow a waiter delivering pie to a nearby table. “Me, though…” he says, “I am smack-dab where I b’long.”

Chap, giving Jonas a knowing wink and an elbow jab, says in an uncharacteristically low tone, “You are one lucky sonofabitch, ya know it? I knowed you was a chopper, but… Miss Faith Fine-as-cream-gravy Cordell?” He shakes his head as if clearing cobwebs and shoves thick fingers through the worn-out, wiry pot scrubber that passes for hair atop his freckled head. “How’djoo manage that?”

“Lucky. You said it.”

“Well…” The imp muses briefly whether or not ‘luck’ is an injin concept, decides he has no idea and, finally, inquires. “Well?”

“What?”

Chap gives him a goggle-eyed look of anticipation. “Well?!”

“I got a hot bath and a shave.”

“Bullshit. I know I heard you whoop once.”

“She dropped the soap and had trouble findin’ it again, okay? Leave off it now.”

Mister Kunkle, resplendent in what appears to be an expensive tailored suit with a silk choke-strap, has taken over Budge’s father-figure role for the evening. He has something called an ‘aperitif’ brought in for everybody and Mister Ashby stands to offer a toast.

“Boys, I’ve worked in a lot of places and run more’n a few outfits in my day. This here’s the finest bunch of drovers I ever seen. I’m proud of every one of ya and here’s to ya – even if ya do smell like a field o’ damn petunias.” Glasses are raised all around amid murmurs of approval.

Each man around the table stands and takes a rough-hewn crack at finding some heart-felt consideration suitable to the moment before emptying his own glass.

Leland seems slightly embarrassed at finding himself next in rotation without a moment to summon something witty to say.

“I used ta know a clever toast that now I can’t recall. So raise yer glass ta anything… and, uh… let’s drink until we fall. Howzat? Cheers, boys!”

Shakespeare it isn’t, but glasses lift and a wave of nods and chuckles circles the table.

Stick’s moustache and beard have been trimmed and waxed in the style of a Southern gentleman, to the point that several of the men have taken to calling him “The Colonel”. He clears his throat and, contrary to his typical laconic style, he stuns his cohorts with an extemporaneous rhyme.

“We’re gathered here for supper. When we’re done we’ll have some pie. Then head on over to the Lone Star and drink that damn place dry.” Hoots go up, hushed as Stick raises a hand for silence. “You’ll choose the sweetest little thing to cut a caper, or you kin try. But I’m purty today. I’ll steal ‘er away. An’ while I do it, here’s mud in yer eye!”

His own glass lifts in salute to a chorus of approving laughter that appears to startle some of the more genteel diners nearby.

Budge says with a wide disfigured grin, “Damn, son. You know ya just strung together more words at one time than I’ve heard ya say in the last three weeks.”

“He’s a ding-danged poet lariat!” Leland proclaims, making both Jonas and Kunkle laugh out loud, each perhaps surprised that Leland was capable of conceiving the pun. Kunkle regards Jonas as if seeing him for the first time

The amusement subsides and Jubal’s voice rumbles up from the depths of his personal torment.

“Been thirteen year since the end of the war made me a free man. Free man…” He sighs with a kind of resignation. “There ain’t no ‘free man’ with skin like this. Free, mebbe, ta go from killing Rebs to killing them that’re worse. Savages what ain’t really even human beings… no offense to you, Jonas, or yourn.”

“None taken.”

“… in hopes that I could trade their lives fer some respect. Never got me any, though, an’ lost all it for myself in the bargain. I got to be a good killer, but I weren’t ‘free’.”

Chaps voice fills Jubal’s pause with a stage whisper, “Free enough ta make the most de-pressin’ toast ever in the in-tire history o’ drinkin’.”

“Shut up, ol’ woman. I’m almose done.”

“Hurry up ‘fore I start bawlin’.”

Jubal gathers up the raveled thread of his earlier thought. “Fact is, I do know what a free man feels like. Mister MacDonough an’ all y’all’ve never treated me like anything other’n that, an’ I’m grateful for it. Might sound strange comin’ from me, but… God bless Mister MacDonough an’ all y’all for giving me a place to find what I needed the most.” He lifts his glass to the group with a bleak half-smile. “Guess I could’a jist said that at the git-go, huh?”

“Amen and hallelujah!” Chap sounds off in agreement. “Next!”

The Montes brothers stand together. “Es esta una fiesta, o un funeral? Nunga guardes nada para una ocasion especial. Estar vivo es la ocasion especial! Mucho gusto!” They drain their glasses in unison.

Voices keen to be out from under the tombstone of Jubal’s near-demoralizing offering, including Jubal himself, endorse the sentiment, echoing, “Mucho gusto!” and turning heads, once again, their way.

Newell has chosen to husband his money for a stake in a card game later on and his appearance, relative to his peers, is rough. “I ain’t much at speechifyin’,” he admits. “I jist came to eat. Thank ya, Mister Kunkle.” He empties his glass and waves off.

Jonas’s offering is simple enough. “I was taught that life’s a circle. It don’t often seem like it, but if it is, we’ll meet up again. An’ if it’s not… well, it’s been a good ride with you fellas anyhow. I’m grateful to know ya.”

Glasses raise around the table in what, for most of them, will be farewell. Seems someone told them he’d be gone tomorrow before any of them regained consciousness.

Mitakuye oyas’in,” he says. Obligatory drink down the hatch and seat of his new britches in the chair, he bids the round continue.

Chap stands, all five foot two of him. He lifts his glass high and says in a fervent voice, “Gentlemen, here’s to the hole that never heals!”

Gathered together in this jovial company, it’s as if the long days, the punishing miles, the unforgiving weather, and Chap’s “breakfast sausage” count for nothing today weighed against this carefree time. Besides, Kunkle’s paying. Not to mention the hours of unrestrained debauchery to follow because, you know, there’s also that.

Before the wave of merriment dies down, Leland leans across the table and, with what might be a serious expression, confides, “I saw one all sorta scabbed over once.”

Chap leans Leland’s way with an equally solemn look, tufted eyebrows lowered, like a physician hearing a patient describe his symptoms. “Didja doink it anyway?”

Funny how abruptly silence can descend upon a group. Leland’s mouth opens and closes. His eyes drift away from Chap’s and begin to search the table to find everyone hanging expectantly on his reply. His cheeks flush and his lips move as though forming words, but no sounds come out. He gives Chap a little shrug and shakes his head. “‘Fraid to.”

Chap’s barking guffaw is joined in chorus by the majority of those assembled. Mister Wright, the proprietor, completes a dignified beeline across the dining room and politely requests a curb to this wild exuberance. Mister Kunkle placates him and he goes away.

Order restored, Kunkle pours another round, then stands and waxes poetic about how lucky they all are to be in cahoots with a fine man like Calum MacDonough, which they all know, and about the nobility of the hard-working cowboy, which they really don’t, although they are pretty clear about the ‘hard-working’ part. Bein’s as how he’s Mister MacDonough’s partner and everything, and it is his treat, after all, everyone at the table keeps a buttoned lip while he wanders off on a side trail after some maverick thought or another. Then the food arrives and his exposition tails off, replaced by a stirring chorus of knife, fork, and spoon music.

The waiters cart in platters of buffalo steaks the size of cow chips, mashed potatoes floundering in gravy, corn and peas, both of them tender and sweet, and biscuits so light they resemble nothing so much as hot, flakey little clouds, fluffy goodness crying out to be slathered in butter.

Stick holds one of them up real careful-like so’s he don’t crush the delicate little morsel and calls across the table, “Hey, Chap. These here’s differn’t from them lead sinkers you been servin’ up the last few weeks.”

Chap levels a baleful squint at the humorist. “They’s nothin’ to ’em. Got no substance. A man could starve plumb to death eatin’ ’em.”

Chuckles around the table.

“Anybody else care to make a bright comment ’bout my cookin’, you’ll all be eatin’ nothin’ but whistle berries an’ sonofabitch stew on the road back.”

Dining sounds resume and subsequent conversation turns to non-grub related topics. The meal is superb, but otherwise uneventful.

As the last of the plates are being cleared away, Mister Kunkle offers cigars around to those that care to partake. Most oblige. Jonas doesn’t smoke. Someone suggests that the party move on to Chalk Beeson’s Long Branch, a fashionable saloon just down the boardwalk a piece. The ‘aye’s have it and the board is abandoned in favor of a more exuberant venue.

The Montes brothers take their leave, heading toward the somewhat less cultured pursuits of the south side and pass, henceforth, from our ken.

The evening sky is overcast, the air still and humid with the promise of another thunderbuster, a common enough occurrence in this country. The familiar bouquet of smoke, liquor, and dust mixes with the pervasive stench from the stockyards, almost obscuring the characteristic aroma of muggy air beginning to electrify.

Jonas feels the gradual charging of the atmosphere and observes the influence it has on the men around him. It manifests as a quickening of the step, a keen-edged, if unfocused excitement. He’s wary of this sort of enthusiasm. Mixed with a sufficient amount of alcohol, it can lead to all manner of disturbance of what some refer to as “The Peace”.

Such wariness has always served to keep him out of the kind of trouble that often leads to either incarceration or lead poisoning, either of which will spoil a perfectly good evening.

Blink.

       ~      

Reveries —— Read More »

Reveries ———

There’s a place in your head where memories are packed away, like old photographs. Some of them are grown fuzzy with neglect, near lost in the haze that comes before forgetting. Others are sharp and clear because they’ve been brought out many times. Maybe they’re real happy ones. Maybe they’re not. Those that aren’t, if we put them back away, the rough edges get worn down with time and don’t scrape us up so bad when we’re able to hold them up in a better light. In such a way, even the good memories are made better over time. Oft’ times in them we’re reminded of how we wish we’d been then and, maybe too, how we hope someday to be.

Right now, though, there’s nothing in particular playing betwixt Jonas’s ears. In fact, he’s not thinking about anything at all. He’s splayed out at the back of the shallow cavity like a child’s puppet with the strings cut. His eyes are open, but they don’t see. Even so, back in that place where recollections are crowded in and pressed down, there are images. They’re dim and blurred into fog around the edges and, just like playing cards being laid out one by one on blank green baize, they just sort of turn up now and again, recognizable and vivid.

You go on ahead, look in on them, why don’t you? He won’t mind. In fact, he’s going to be far away for some time. You might as well see how it was with him before what happened happened and changed everything.

 

.      .      .

 

You might care to contemplate the handsome devil on the face of this card here, for instance.

The fellow’s name’s Budge Ashby. The men call him Mister Ashby. He’s the trail boss and foreman. Six foot something, tanned leather, steel gray eyes, and no apparent sense of humor. A fair piece of his left ear’s gone missing some years back along with part of his cheek, the product of a disagreement with a mountain lion, so he says without it sounding like he’s bragging or complaining. Certain others might suggest it was a set-to with his ex-wife before they took separate trails. Budge, if queried in the proper circumstance, might allow they’re the same.

Budge works for Mister Calum MacDonough. That’d be the older gentleman next to Budge there with the eagle’s face framed in gray mutton chops and a soup strainer moustache. He looks fierce, does MacDonough.

It’s a fine morning in late spring, eighteen and seventy-two, and Jonas is at the gate of MacDonough’s compound inquiring of the older gentleman and his ramrod with the scarred face if there’s work to be had. Perhaps coincidently, there is.

MacDonough likes Jonas right off, though he prefers to hire younger men as a rule. It’s beneficial to start with one that might have a few good years in him. Some will break down from long days on horseback and hard ground come up to meet them, the harsh conditions of a cattle drive to market in its season, and the boredom of endless chores when it ain’t that season.

More than likely, though, many will expire from drinking old Chap’s buffler-piss coffee.

This one, though, is different. Half-breed, no doubt about that. Not a young man, either, but he sits up straight aboard that spirited mare and his face has a surprising openness to it, a likeableness, you might say. He’s plainspoken and polite, apparently’s had some schoolhousing. So he gets a rugged handshake from the old Scot, a bunk, meals catch as catch can, and twenty cents a day.

Budge being Budge says, “Welcome to the MacDee, Chief.” They are eye to eye and close enough to read each other just fine. He doesn’t stick out his hand.

“If there is a chief hereabout, Mister Ashby, I figure it’d be Mister MacDonough here. But if it’s gonna please you ta call me by reference to my heritage, just call me ‘Two Dogs’ an’ be done. That ‘r Jonas’ll be fine.”

MacDonough’s mutton chops puff out. His gaze shifts from Jonas to his second.

Silence. A nod. Something Budge’s damaged face lets his mouth do might be a grin or a snarl. “All right, Jonas.” He still doesn’t offer his hand, nor does Jonas, but it’s enough.“

By week’s end, Budge observes that Jonas reads animals and people better than about anyone he’s known. Before month’s end, his uncanny skill at gentling even the rankest widowmaker in the paddock has earned him a good bit of currency with his bunkmates. Perhaps the thing Budge likes most about Jonas, though, is how the man keeps his senses open and his mouth shut. Lotta folk could take a lesson from him on that score.

Can’t say that Leland Farnsworth and Stick Dern warmed right up to him. As with any older hands in an outfit like this, all newcomers are required to pass through a rigorous breaking-in period and the half-breed is eyed with a fair amount of initial skepticism. It wears off.

Blink.

The older children have taken to calling him Sunka Nunpa, it means two dogs. It’s meant to be a joke, an insult, and they laugh when they call him this name. His playmates, too, are becoming antagonistic, a word that means nothing to him yet. He understands only that their play is becoming rough and they hurt him. He cannot understand why they have distanced themselves from him, and this is a deeper hurt.

His father reminds him that “dog” is the embodiment of companionship, loyalty, and protection. He tells his young son that the children, without intending to do so, have given him a strong name. Crows Come Around agrees and tells him so.

Jonas has passed his sixth winter. He gets into a lot of fights. Also, about this time, his Gift begins to manifest. This is convenient, in that Jonas begins to lose fewer of these fights. By the time he is seven, few of the older boys can hurt him, but he is unable to defend himself against their hurtful words. He becomes aggressive. Sunka Nunpa shows his teeth and they are very sharp.

One day in early spring, his mother catches him fighting again with a boy about his age. Jumping Otter is quick and tenacious, but a scuffle has become a tangle and Crows separates them with a firmness neither is willing to resist.

As is now often the case, Jonas started this fight. He says it is because the other boy said bad things about his father and mother. Crows determines it is time for a lesson. In the presence of her father, Standing Elk, an elder of great influence among the hoop, and Otter’s parents, she speaks plainly about her concerns and intentions. There is agreement.

Jonas’s right ankle is bound with a length of braided leather cord to Otter’s left ankle and the cord is woven back upon itself so that it cannot be untied. With the parents of both boys standing with him, Standing Elk instructs them in words they dare not disobey. They are to remain joined in this fashion from moon to moon, with the stern warning that neither of them may cut or unravel the cord for any reason. If either does so, punishment for both will be swift and severe. The boys believe him.

The first days are difficult beyond any expectation, marked by each boy’s stubborn insistence on leading the other at every turn. They endure endless ridicule from the other children until Crows and some of the grandmas threaten to do the same to every one of them if they don’t cease their torment and leave the two alone. It works for a time.

The boys fall down a lot. They eat, sleep, fetch water, go to the bushes—everything—together. The more they resist the lesson and each other, the harder everything becomes and, at the beginning, their resistance is strenuous. The elders watch their antics with much amusement.

Before the first week is done, however, the boys have begun to figure out that there is a rhythm that is neither one, nor the other, but a tentative abandonment of each self to become a new one. With mutual dependence comes mutual regard and trust. By the end of the second week the elders watch with childlike wonder as the two run together and play games with the other children. Soon after, nothing short of amazement is evident in the faces of all who witness the boys mounting a pony together with improbable ease, taking turns riding backward.

Perhaps the most astonishing development of all comes during their final week, as many of the children begin binding themselves to each other at play. Uproarious laughter at their own clumsiness precedes an earnest striving to accomplish the feats of the now revered Bound As One. This game will be replayed by youths of the band for many years to come.

Jumping Otter and Jonas remain inseparable after the cord is removed at month’s end.

Jonas has gained a new appreciation of the inter-relatedness—again a word he doesn’t know yet, although the principle is clear—of individuals to each other, as are the People to Maka Ina, the Great Mother. This new appreciation includes an altered awareness of himself and the gift growing within him. Sunka Nunpa does not have to bite to be strong. It is enough to know that he can. The lesson does not have to be repeated.

Blink.

Well, look at Budge now. Notice how the lines in his face are deeper, maybe even a little dustier. His hair’s starting to match up with his eyes. Some of the other stuff of memories is there in the background if you look close. Some of it’s vague, like the shape and detail of buildings, one pretty much like another, or the faces of people passing by, unremarkable and disremembered. Some others, though, are as sharp and undeniable as the ever-present dust and stink of the stockyards, the noise and heat, and the shuffling sounds of a small, but expectant knot of men gathered roundabout Mister Ashby at the livery.

“Mister Kunkle sends his ‘pologies that he couldn’t be here to tell ya himself, but he’s down at the telegraph office burnin’ up the wires ta get this thing straightened out. ‘Til he does, though, this here is what it is. Thirty dollars right now for each of ya.”

A good deal of foot-shuffling and furrowed brows congregate around the trail boss.

“Last thing he said to me was he ‘spects to have the rest of your pay by close of bizness tomorrow. Plenty o’ time to make any last buys before we pull out day after.”

The new kid says, “All them Texans is been runnin’ loose out there all night, cleanin’ the place out ‘for we even git there. What’re we s’posed ta do?”

“All them Texans ‘re in the same fix as us,” Budge says and begins to peel off bills.

Newell, first in rotation, says, “Hold on now. Yer just gonna give me thirty dollars and tell me to have a good time? For maybe two days? Boss, I could lose half that in ten minutes at a decent poker game.”

“Well, then, don’t do that.”

“I said a ‘decent poker game’. I’ll reel it all back in, ‘course, an’ all them others too, but I need the rest to cinch it up.”

“I know. Nothin’ I can do, New.”

He pipes up like there was an impromptu rodeo going on outside. There wasn’t, but everyone heard him real good. “All ya! Don’t go askin’ no adds. I don’t have it. Yer gonna hafta spread out bein’ drunk ‘n’ stupid for a while. Ya hear me?”

More foot-shuffling, sullen nods, mumbled acknowledgements.

Budge begins again to distribute the available cash with a fatherly admonition, “and then you go git yerselves cleaned up. Ya all smell like a few hundred miles of sweat and cowflop.”

.      .      .

It’s been the custom, these last few years—six winters, by Jonas’s count—for the MacDonough outfit to get the bulge on most of the Texas drives this time of year, probably because they only have a couple-three hundred miles to traverse from their roundups in east Colorado and up in the sandhills while their Texan counterparts have several times that mileage to cover.

Most recently, the Kansas State government, in their ongoing efforts to protect Kansas cattle from a nasty little tick carrying splenic fever, moved to shift the quarantine line further west for the umpteenth time and Dodge City has become, practically overnight, the undisputed cow capital of the world.

Depending on wherever they started from and when, there could be thousands of head still on the come from any which way and Dodge City’s more than happy to be on the receiving end of all that traffic. Beeves funneled through the stockyards here are loaded onto rail cars as fast as beef can be prodded on to them and shipped straight away east to the Swift and Armour packing houses in Chicago.

It appears a good size Texas herd was driven into the yards last thing the day before and MacDonough’s crew shut the gate behind their last steer this very morning. There’s likely to be a ruckus or two in the town tonight with a throng of slicked-up, liquored-up, horny hell-raisers running loose in a community whose main attractions are designed to separate every one of them from their earnings.

Thank merciful Jesus there’s a deputy on hand at the Deadline day and night to assist them that can’t read the big “POSITIVELY NO FIREARMS BEYOND THIS SIGN” sign, thereby upholding the ordinance northward of that demarcation. Were this swift disarmament of those launching themselves into the city’s commercial abundance not the case, the inevitable and promiscuous distribution of hot lead would develop with disturbing frequency, to the detriment of the downtown community’s promotional image of refinement and order.

Of course, for those with intentions of a less savory nature, or those unwilling to relinquish their firearms for whatever personal reasons, the south side of the tracks offers all the same distractions with almost none of the unnecessary sophistication, nor inconvenient law enforcement. In short, Dodge City is a destination to accommodate every taste, vice, and personality disorder.

.      .      .

“This’s bullshit, Budge!” says the new kid they call Squirrel.

“Mind your mouth, Rubin,” says Budge.

“I don’t give a hatful o’ piss how ‘this’s what it is’. Ain’t right a’tall, an’ I want what I signed on for.”

“Are you still talkin’ to me, son?”

An all-enveloping quiet break out in the stable.

“I ain’t yer son an’ you ain’t my pa. I signed on ta git paid when we git to Dodge an’ we’s at Dodge. I want my money.”

Budge has dredged up an unusual amount of patience. “And you’ll get it. Soon as…”

“What? Tomorruh? Nex’day? I by God wannit now. I know he gave you ‘nough.”

“He gave me enough to take care of everybody for now. That’s what I’m doin’. What you got’s so important can’t wait a few hours?”

Rubin Strawn signed on late. Stick’s the one came up with the name Squirrel, in part because of Rubin’s energetic, twitchy nature, but more than likely because of his needle nose and buck teeth. Stick didn’t like him from the start. Rest of the crew took their own measure, like they do, and decided they didn’t like him much neither. By then some of the trail was already behind them and more of it was in front of them and the youngster did manage a passable job most days.

“What I got’s so important’s my binness. He gave ya enough ta take care of everbody. I don’t care ‘bout everbody.” Rubin jerks a thumb behind him. “Some a them’s all ‘parently fine you be holdin’ ‘em up fer what’s rightly theirn. I ain’t.”

Leland Farnsworth, whose patience is not what you’d call legendary, is standing next to the agitated young man.

“Shut yer pancake-hole, Squirrel,” he says. “He told ya it’s a banking problem. Budge look like a banker to you, does he?”

“You stay outta this, fat man. I want what’s comin’ to me.”

Leland squares around to the boy. He’s half again the kid’s size but leans in and says all quiet, “If you can’t get roostered up here an’ find yerself a nice whore with at least half of yer tin left over in the morning, yer an idiot. Pure ‘n’ simple. I ‘spect no matter what you do, Squirrel, you prob’ly will get what’s comin’ to ya.”

“Goddammit! Stop callin’ me that, ya ignernt tub o’ horseshit!” The kid’s shouting has taken on a high-pitched, girly quaver there at the last. Any minute now he’s liable to begin stamping his feet.

Rubin’s hand twitches for his pistol.

He’s not really fixing to shoot anybody, but like any green youngster in a senseless rage, he must think somehow everyone will take him more serious if he waves some iron in their faces. He’s right about that.

His slaps empty leather. Wide-eyed, he whirls with a handful of air to face Jonas, standing there calm-like, holding the missing revolver muzzle-down at his side.

Rubin spits a curse and hauls back to smear the smug half-breed’s nose all over his Jesus-hatin’ face. He has a glimpse of a fist the size of a ham whipping into the side his head before he stretches out on the straw-covered planks like a gunnysack full of potatoes.

Leland offers Budge a sheepish shrug. “Sorry, Mister Ashby, but he shouldn’ta called me that.”

“No, ‘s okay, Leland. Boy’s got a lot to learn, I ‘spect. That is, if you didn’t kill him just now.”

Jonas opens the cylinder, empties the cartridges into his hand, kneels down, and slips the revolver back into its holster. Rubin begins to stir.

Budge bunches the front of Rubin’s shirt in a fist to help prop the kid up. With the other, he pulls some bills out of his own shirt pocket. He stuffs them into the front of the kid’s britches.

“Here you go, Rubin. There’s your pay. In full. Outta my own pocket.” He scowls into the lad’s bleary eyes. You can tell it’s a scowl because you can see his teeth clenched through the place where he has no cheek when his teeth are clenched.

“We’re all square and done now, ain’t we, boy?”

Rubin doesn’t look like he’s sure where he is yet. “Uh… I guess so.”

“Good. Pack up your gear. You and your nag get outta this stable an’ outta my sight. I don’t give much of a damn where you go, either, long as you don’t ever let me see your rat face again.”

The youngster blinks, slack jaw, eyes registering comprehension.

Leland gives the kid a bit of a shove to get him started on his way and Rubin does a little trippy dance, turns back, and opens his mouth. Jubal happens to be closest to him, says something terse in Rubin’s ear. There doesn’t appear much encouragement in the faces turned the lad’s way at the moment. His Adam’s apple works up and down.

“Fuck ever one a you goat-humpin’ bastids,” he pronounces. He accomplishes a shaky turn on a heel and stumbles out toward the corral, spurs a’jingle.

Budge gives Jonas a nod, returned. Jonas humps his warbag over his shoulder and strides out into the sun, stink, and wind-driven dust.

Blink.

Let’s call this one Queen of Clubs… but don’t let her hear you.

People are awful fond of saying—and if you’re one of them, you know who you are—that beauty’s only skin-deep. The implication being that a pretty face doesn’t necessarily lend itself to a lovely personality, or conversely, a heart big as Texas sky and gentle as a mother’s kiss might be sleeping there underneath even the most grotesque physical appearance, just waiting to bust out. Goes hand-in-hand with the old ‘eye of the beholder’, ‘book by its cover’, and similar forms of sheep-dip. Now if you bother to ask the students of Miss Wilda Schultz’s grade school class there in St. Joe—except maybe Bernice Farmer, who’s folks told her she could go to Hell for saying anything unkind about anyone—some’ll likely tell you that, same as the south end of a north-bound cow, some ugly penetrates clean through to the bone.

Miss Schultz is what folks in these parts call ‘a big woman’. She’s not fat, she’s big-boned, zaftig, some might say. As her fashion dictates, her uniform consists of dark, high-necked, long-sleeve dresses of an unflattering cut that dust the floor as she marches about the classroom in her stout, mannish shoes. Her straw-blond hair’s pulled back into a bun so severe that the skin of her face seems stretched tight against angular cheekbones, her lips drawn into a scowl. The glower’s accentuated by a heavy, pinched brow that threaten to cave in over top of her piercing blue-gray eyes if not for the flying buttress of her nose to brace it. It’s long, narrow, and crooked as a snake’s back.

One student once pointed out in a passed note that hers is a perfect witch’s nose. You may be sure she intercepted the note and made a stinging example of the impertinent little larva. Well, a witch’s nose it may be, but instead of sporting a wart on the end, she’s grown a dainty moustache underneath. Why, yes indeed, she is a spinster. How’d ya guess?

What Miss Schultz might lack in stimulating male companionship, which she’s come to abhor anyway, she more than compensates for by surrounding herself with other people’s children and, in so doing, has come to understand why some animals eat their young. The neediness of infants and toddlers makes her want to scream, but she finds a degree of satisfaction in the process of elementary education and the oft thankless task of instilling discipline in the minds of malleable youth.

There’s a word that sums up her perception of her charges: pupae. It stems from the same Latin root word as pupil, she’s certain of it. If only the squirming, rambunctious little maggots will sit still and pay attention long enough for her to wrap them in a chrysalis of knowledge and order, she can then bring about the metamorphosis, coaxing forth responsible, worthwhile young adults that will become active participants in a bourgeoning society in much the same manner as the disgusting little worm emerges from its cocoon as a beautiful butterfly.

She’s kidding herself. She knows it. Sadly, most of them will amount to nothing, despite her remarkable, albeit underappreciated efforts. The boys will all become common laborers, worker bees that live only to toil, drink to excess, and make babies that will also grow up to amount to nothing. Two little hooligans in particular, Dickie Barnhart and Morgan O’Brien have already distinguished themselves as destined to become criminals, although not very successful ones. The girls, sweet little angels they may be now, will become either homemakers or harlots well before they’re old enough to know they had a choice.

Miss Schultz would despair for the future of the race itself if not for the occasional individual that presents in her classroom that rare combination of obedience and intellect. These she views as exemplifying the true purpose of her calling: the nurturing guidance of these prospective contributors to the worthy fields of scientific study and exploration, the Arts, or statecraft. As it may be, those who, like herself, fail at the aforementioned, albeit through no fault of their own, might still carry on as educators instead.

Gerald Flitcroft, son of a dry grocer and Mark McIntire, whose father is a driving force on the city council, both show promise, as does pretty little Mary Duncan, despite the fact that her father’s a bog-trotting Irishman, no doubt a drunk, and possibly even a Republican. What a treasure Mary is, though. She’s Miss Schultz’s most diligent helper, staying in after class while the other children run willy-nilly like a pack of wild Indians at recess. Yes, there’s potential here she can cultivate.

It is apparent to her when Jonas first arrives in her classroom, however, that he is not going to be among the select few. She doesn’t like his look at all. Cut his hair and dress him however you will, he’s got the unmistakable appearance of the savage about him.

She can see in him the product of an unholy union between a white man, no doubt a wretched, sheep-sodomizing individual without benefit of a moral compass, and some filthy, godless heathen whore. And here it sits, this… this little abomination with hands folded on its desk, pretending to be civilized and attentive.

The way the child refuses to meet her eyes when she’s talking to him annoys her very much. Someone told her once it’s Indian custom not to look another directly in the eyes. Ridiculous. If he’s going to amount to anything at all, he’d better learn to abandon all such nonsensical practices and behave in the manner of civilized people. He will bear scrutiny, this one.

Even though Jonas is twelve years old, she places him among the second and third graders. It’s obvious he can already read and write above that level, but there’s no reason to advance him further until he demonstrates suitable progress in other areas, and she will place considerable weight on his development in citizenship.

As time goes on, she has to admit (though not aloud) that Jonas’s attendance and punctuality are exemplary and he exhibits a quiet self-control in contrast to many of his peers. He’s an inquisitive, rational young person that absorbs information like a sponge. In almost every regard, he is a model student and yet she can barely tolerate the little bastard’s presence in her classroom.

“Look at me when you’re talking to me!” she will say to Jonas during oral exercises in class and Jonas will look in her direction, but won’t meet her gaze. She’s now convinced this is nothing more than his habituated adherence to an inane heathen custom and she’s resolved to break him of it. The truth is, Jonas is repelled by the woman’s prejudicial manner and treatment. He cannot bear to look at her through the windows of her spirit. What he’s seen there already is unnerving.

The day Miss Schultz loses all hope that Jonas will ever fit into real society is an otherwise uneventful one, the dreary, gray Monday afternoon of May first, eighteen fifty-four. She will remember the date because, in a way, it’s the date itself that sparks the incident.

The children are lined up at the door in two proper files as always—boys in one, girls in the other—in preparation to be excused for the day. She is patrolling the space between them with a firm countenance to discourage the tendency toward fidgeting and horseplay.

Mary Duncan is erasing the chalkboard at the front of the room, one of her assigned chores at day’s end as teacher’s helper. In the upper right corner of the board, Miss Schultz maintains the current date and asks Mary to change the date for her.

Behind her, Jonas is watching Mary with adoration. Her sweet face, her hair in ringlets, the way her youthful body moves with fluid perfection. She’s every bit a pubescent boy’s dream. Without thinking, Jonas asks Mary to change the date for him, too.

Miss Schultz sees the little trollop look up from her task, indulging Jonas with what could only be a coquettish smile. She makes a mental note to have a stern talk with Mary very soon about proper deportment of a young lady and the smutty intentions of young boys even as she rounds on an astounded Jonas and snatches him off the ground with both hands around his neck.

Shaking him, she shouts in his face, “How dare you mock me! You are an insolent little animal! I will not tolerate such impudence from a little animal! Never, never mock me again!”

Jonas’s hands are clamped onto her wrists to keep his neck from snapping as she brandishes him about like a terrier with a rat. Miss Schultz is in a transport of righteous rapture until, for the first time, she meets the boy’s eyes. There’s no fear in them, only a cold green fury that slices through her rage like a knife across her throat. In fact, as she casts him away from her against the wall, she raises a hand beneath her wattled chin just to make sure there’s no gash opened there.

The rest of the children are frozen. Mary has dropped the eraser and stands with a hand to her mouth in dramatic dismay. A couple older boys begin to laugh at Jonas as he picks himself off the floor, their mirth quashed by a murderous stare from the big woman breathing heavily there in the midst of a disorganized, demoralized crowd of children. Most are standing in mute anticipation of the next thunderbolt. A few are huddled together by the door in doubt as to which of them may be her next victim. A couple younger girls are crying. Jonas is standing with his back to her, arms folded across his chest and Miss Schultz feels somehow beaten.

She says in a voice shaken, but icy, “Class is dismissed. Everyone may go except Jonas.”

The door bangs open and the herd stampedes out without a trace of the customary decorum enforced by the woman who watches only Jonas walking away through his scattering classmates.

She calls out to him, orders him to return this very minute. She considers rushing to catch him, maybe shake him some more, but some of the children have turned to see what she’ll do and she realizes it’s already far too late for that.

His retreating back will be the last she will see of him.

Blink.

At almost ten winters, Jonas is able to speak English well enough to converse, even though there is only his father and grandfather with whom he can share the talk.
From the days of his earliest memories, Jonas’s father has shown him how to walk in the wisicu world. Although young Jonas cannot see the purpose in it, he has an inquisitive mind and his father has been able to keep him engaged in learning something that his peers do not know. He is learning to read and write it too, something the People have never before done with their own language.

Burns Red takes Jonas aside. A copse of birch trees stands several hundred yards to the west and they make their way toward it. Walking alongside his father, opposite the crutch—a sturdy forked branch dressed out and bolstered in the crook with a cushion of thick cloth and hide—Jonas adopts a measured pace to match his father’s broken cadence.

As is often their way at such times together, father and son converse in English and the language of The People, back and forth, as Jonas strives to grasp and convey ever more complex ideas and relationships. Burns Red is moved to speak his heart.

“The knowing you have within you, my son, is a Power. It is a gift from Wakan Tanka and I know this because it is the same in me.”

Jonas looks at his father with a silent question and they stop walking. Burns Red raises his hand to indicate the birches, closer now, their bare branches just beginning to bud with new life.

“Near the top of the tallest tree, do you see the hawk there?”

Jonas’s eyes are sharp, but he does not. “No, Father,” he says, then watches as a red-shouldered hawk soars low over the treetops, catches wind, and lights in the branches near the top of the tallest tree. Burns Red hitches forward and continues walking.

“This power must not be misused, neither selfishly, nor in anger. Such a gift, if abused in such a way, may be taken away. Consider your grandfather. He too has such gifts and I know you can sense in his presence that he is a man of considerable power. Do you see how he uses his power?”

Jonas reflects on what he knows about his grandfather as he searches for words in English to convey thoughts that do not flow in English. “He helps the People.”

“You are correct. His life is one of service to all. He has chosen to give his knowledge and power for the benefit of the People. Do you think he has done this so the People will honor him?”

“No. I think the People honor him because he has chosen to do this.”

“Your grandfather is a good example of the right use of power.”

“What about you, Father? Are you not a good example?”

Burns Red’s laborious gait slows to a stop. He hangs into the crook of his crutch and pats it with his hand to draw Jonas’s attention to it. “Think of me as an example of what may happen when you know what you must do… and do it not.”

“What happened to you, Father?”

“We will not speak of that now.”

They walk in silence into the trees, their footfalls muffled in the duff beneath a network of greening branches. Warm sunlight filters down, dappling a natural kaleidoscope composed of scores of intersecting birch bark corridors. Much like the vivid interplay of light and dark around him, Jonas’s thoughts are turning over his father’s words.

“If you know before someone takes something from you, or harms you, is it misuse to stop them?”

“That is a very good question.”

The dull ache in his hip and leg has sharpened and, bracing against this crutch, Burns Red lowers himself onto the narrow trunk of a tree, fallen and wedged against another. He looks up into his son’s face and turns a grimace into a smile.

“Those things we have been given by Creator are for our use, but we do not own them. Some, like food and water, we use quickly and what we do not use is returned to the earth. Other things, like a buffalo robe, or a knife…”

Burns Red draws from its sheath a bone-handled blade made of a remarkable white man’s steel. “Even our sacred things may stay with us for a time, but they are only ours until they are not. We give things to others because we understand that they need the thing more than we do. If someone wants to take from you what you are still using, you may ask yourself, which of us needs the thing more? You have the right to protect what is in your safekeeping, but in the end, a thing is only a thing. Things get passed on, used up, lost, broken… but there will always be more things. Do you understand?”

Jonas nods. “Things are only ours until they are not. But, how will I know which of us needs a thing more than the other?”

Sharp-edged rays of sunlight slant through the branches and Burns Red is transfixed by his son’s green eyes intent upon him.

“The larger question you have asked is about protecting yourself, your family, and your hoop. I have always believed that to defend one’s life and the lives of your loved ones is always right use of power. I still believe that. Remember the lesson you have learned with Jumping Otter. An adversary is not always your enemy. Things are rarely what they seem, and it is better to be kind than to be right. There are warriors here who will disagree with me about this, and they will not be kind about it. I believe first it is better to turn the fight away, than to cause harm.”

“I don’t understand, father. Do you mean run away?”

“I did not say ‘turn away from the fight’. I said ‘turn the fight away’. You will not show your back to an adversary until you show him first there is greater benefit to him by not engaging with you.”

“But if I must fight?”

“If you must fight, recall that any fight at any time may be life or death. Sing your own deathsong as you enter it. Try to let that one show you how not to kill him. You will see the way, if it is there to be seen. And, if not, be swift. Do not gloat. Regard the spirit you have released as sacred, returning to the Circle.”

“I do not have a deathsong.”

Burns Red nods, reaches a hand to touch his boy’s face. “One more thing. There is a white man’s word that is a very good word to know and remember. It speaks to the gift of knowing that those like us possess. The word is “discretion”. Do you know it?”

“No, Father.”

“Walk softly. Talk little. Act without calling attention to yourself.”

“Hoh, I do know this word, Father. Our word, ‘inila’, means more than dis-creshun, but I see it means that too.” 

Burns Red pulls himself upright and embraces his son. “My heart is full.”

Blink.

He crosses the Deadline at the railroad tracks and turns up Front Street toward the Wright House. It’s not yet mid-day and the streets are crowded with carts, wagons, men on horseback, and clusters of men on horseback with wagons. Pity the errant pedestrian.

Jonas threads a path through the crush and bustle to the opposite side of the street without incident and makes his way along the busy boardwalk.

At the Wright House there are a couple surprise vacancies. Two Texas drovers checked in yesterday. One’s going to spend the next couple nights in jail and the other has new accommodations up at the boneyard.

His second-floor room’s clean and made up with curtains on the window and an oil painting of a peaceful mountain stream over a low dresser on the long wall. The dresser sports a ewer of water in a ceramic wash basin and a hurricane lamp. The bed’s springy, firm with minimal squeaking, crisp linens, a down comforter, and a feather pillow. Just down the hall’s a necessary shared with the other guests on the floor. An indoor toilet… damned if civilization hasn’t hauled off and made itself right at home out here on the prairie.

Back downstairs for a look around, it’s apparent the Wright House isn’t just the finest hotel in town, but has developed into quite the diversified concern with a first-class restaurant and a well-stocked general store, all on one stick.

Inside Wright’s store, Jonas discovers an unexpected variety of provisions, toggery, sundries, eye-catching oddments, and chingaderas on display. It’s a lot to take in.

He settles for two boxes of cartridges for his Winchester, some spicy jerky, a bandana, new socks, and a pair of Mister Levi Strauss’ rugged indigo denim ‘waist-overalls’, as they’re called. The material’s tough and whoever figured to copper-rivet the pockets on was one smart feller.

He’s preparing to post up on his account when he spies the shirt. He’s passed it by two-three times wandering the store, but now he can’t keep his eyes off it. It’s the color of deep red wine with a bib front, a dude’s shirt and no mistake.

“Just in off the train from Chicago yesterday,” the clerk informs him. For some reason he couldn’t explain, he’s taken an immediate shine to it, but it’s the buttons made out of sacred mother-of-pearl that’s the capper. Well, that and it’s a fit.

All his fresh acquisitive’s folded up tidy in a paper-wrapped package, tied off with twine and tucked up under his arm as he strides out to the street. The essences wafting out of the restaurant makes him stop dead a minute to savor the aromas of seared meat and vegetables in butter. His stomach reminds him it’s wolfish. He reminds his stomach it’s been hungry before and still no worse off for it. He’s got other business to attend before sitting down to reload.

Blink.

As it invariably will, word of the incident gets around. When she is approached two days later by a representative of those who hold her contract, Miss Schultz shows him the bruises on her wrists, encouraging him to infer that she had been protecting herself from an unprovoked attack by the savage little beast. She isn’t positive the perfunctory little man accepts this interpretation, but she feels confident she’s provided reasonable doubt.

Early Friday morning, when Miss Schultz arrives to open the school and prepare the day’s lesson materials, a man is seated on the steps waiting for her. Upon her approach, he rises with obvious difficulty, bracing against crutches, and greets her with a gracious smile. He’s a tall fellow, pale, and gaunt. If he could straighten himself, they’d meet eye-to-eye, but as it is, she’s able to look down her oft-broken nose at him. He’s well-dressed for a cripple and clean-shaven, but with an unruly thatch of hair that, in the sunlight, is the color of fire. Another Mick, she laments with a sigh and eyeroll.

He introduces himself and says he is Jonas’s father. This catches her off-guard, as he is clearly not the depraved copulator of sheep and squaws she had envisioned. In an effort to reconcile this conceptual discrepancy, she allows as how this fellow offered to adopt Jonas after the boy’s removal from whatever primitive Hell he came from. The idea makes such good sense to her, she endorses it without objection and returns his polite handshake, inviting him inside where they can talk.

“I realize you have work to do before your students arrive, Miss Schultz. If you will indulge me, I will only take two minutes of your time and I’d prefer not to climb the stairs.” His voice is mellow and unhurried. “Besides, it’s such a pleasant morning. I’ve been listening to the birds while I waited for you.”

He gestures toward the tree-lined street where wrens and towhees flit among oak and elm. Sparrows and swifts dart overhead. A cardinal takes wing in a momentary blaze. At least a half dozen different kinds of songbirds are within earshot, calling out their boundaries, proclaiming their mating worthiness, or perhaps singing for no other reason than because they can. Miss Schultz hadn’t noticed them.

Impatient now and trepidatious about this fellow’s intentions, she sets her bag in front of the steps with a deliberate thump, folds her fleshy arms across her massive bosom, and does, in fact, stare down her nose at him, daring him to challenge her disciplinary measures. “As you say, Mister Goff, there is work to be done before class begins. How may I help you?”

“I heard about the disturbance in your classroom earlier in the week. I’m sorry you had to experience that.”

“What did Jonas tell you about it?”

“Jonas? Oh, Jonas didn’t mention it at all. I heard it from an acquaintance whose child attends the school.”

“Oh? Which child?”

“I want to assure you; I did not come here to question your methods. When I asked Jonas about what happened, he told me he was responsible; he had spoken out of turn and you had reprimanded him for it. Nothing more. It sounds to me as if the story has been embellished in the telling for dramatic effect and the entire situation has been blown far out of proportion. Would you not agree?”

Wilda Schultz is unprepared to hear these words. She realizes that her posture has been a defensive one from the start and quite contrary to the image Jonas’s foster-father is attempting to paint of her just now—one of a reasonable and responsible educator whose actions have been misrepresented by irresponsible gossip and perhaps even outright fabrication. Her crossed arms and haughty manner seem to be shouting a vigorous rebuttal to this far more desirable description of her and she drops both like hot stones.

“Why, yes. Yes, I most surely do agree,” she manages to stammer out and forces a humorless laugh. “You know how children are.”

The man’s laugh, on the other hand, is effortless and rich. “Yes, madam, I believe I do.”

“Thank you for your understanding,” she says with sincerity.

“Not at all.” He begins to gather his crutches under his arms as if to leave. She hoists her bag and he hesitates. “One more thing, if you please.”

She restrains a groan and turns back to face him with a pained expression she believes to be representative of a smile.

“Only a few more weeks remain before class is in recess for the summer. Jonas has taken on a job at the mill and won’t be returning until class resumes in the fall. I’m confident at that time he will cause you no further unpleasantness.”

“I see,” she says. “We will miss his valuable contribution to the classroom, and of course, he will have to take the grade over next year, but I’m sure it’s for the best. Thank you so much for taking the time to stop by, Mister Goff. It has been a pleasure to make your acquaintance.”

“The pleasure was mine, madam.”

“I really do have to be about my morning work. The children …”

“As do I. And I know you will care for those young ones as though they were your very own. Good day, Miss Schultz.”

The day’s a demanding one and at intervals throughout, Miss Schultz’s thoughts return to the unusual conversation of the morning, but it isn’t until later that evening over a bland supper that she begins to ponder the possibility there was perhaps more than one message in the words of the queer cripple with the burning red hair.

Blink.

This tall drink o’ water here with the blaze of red hair’s name is Daniel Goff. He’s a memory composed of personal experience, stories heard told by them that knew him, and those the man wrote himself in his own journals. He’s the strapping son of Welsh and Irish immigrants who settled in Independence, Missouri, roundabout eighteen twenty-six when he was but nine winters. They built themselves a thriving dry-goods business there, supplying trappers and pioneers heading into the Western frontier. Danny’s their middle child.

 

As a lad, he’s quiet and introspective, for the most part, with an appetite for books, an odd, but decent kid, patient and kind with people, even those that can’t do for him. He excels in school and never seems to get into real trouble, no mischief, nothing in fact to attract much attention to himself. He’s a boy, of course, and random accidents can happen to anyone, after all, but trouble seems to miss Danny complete. On the rare occasion it heads right at him, he always seems to know which way to move out of its path.

Since about the age of five, he doesn’t question his knowledge of what will happen if he chooses a certain course of action over another. He will realize, in time, that everyone can’t do the same. His father will advise and instruct him to keep that knowledge to himself.

Danny’s fascinated by the Indians that interact in and around Independence, mostly the Otoe and remnants of the Missouri, as well as the occasional Osage snuck off the reservation. He’s anxious to communicate with those he meets that don’t speak English or French, learning signs in common use by most of them and bits of language.

Danny harbors an unspoken admiration for their hard, immediate lives. Their deep connection with the natural world is something he doesn’t often observe in his own people. He’s reminded that the Church views the native people as savages, deeming their practices pagan and unholy. Reckon sometimes they are. Also seems to Danny that a great deal of unholy savagery has been perpetrated in the name of the Church and he sees that as a bore-sighted conceit.

Nor does he hold with the notion that the White race is, by some arbitrary definition, superior to the native folk and, by right of that superiority, lays claim to land and resources that has been husbanded just fine by those same poor backward savages for centuries. That they’re then displaced and herded like cattle onto reservations, often far from their sacred places and the lands and game that had sustained them, seems to Danny’s naïve young mind the very pinnacle of arrogance and avarice. Of course, Danny also knows better than to voice such blasphemous opinions in polite company.

While still in school studying cartography, he apprentices with a surveyor. He is meticulous and seems to have an aptitude for what he perceives as a craft. By the age of twenty-two he’s learned both trades and takes work with the US Army. He hires onto an expedition to map the wilderness out to the Missouri River with a fellow named Joseph Nicolett. That’s where his life takes an unexpected turn, something he didn’t see coming at all.

Blink.

Well, here’s a real pretty face-card for you. Queen o’ Diamonds. This hothouse flower’s name is Faith Cordell. Today, three years after she and her sister brought their business to Dodge, she still has her face, her figure, and all her own teeth. More than many of their girls can say.

Hope it doesn’t upset you, seeing as how that little peach-colored shift she’s almost wearing’s soaking wet, plastered up against her like she’s got nothing on but a sunny smile. Oh, and, by the way, if you’re thinking that’s a straight razor in her hand, well, you’ve got yourself a keen eye there.

It’s early afternoon and the wind’s up, as it often is in Dodge this time of day. Cordell’s establishment is easy to find and Jonas steps inside with a swirl of dust, the package still under his arm. It takes a minute for his eyes to adjust from the bright mid-day sun to the subdued light of the foyer. Through the doorway, the parlor walls are adorned in rich burgundy fabrics and the floors are carpeted with Oriental rugs. Long divans encircle the room and a couple deep chairs are placed here and there with a side table next to each. The entire room is a study in red and purple hues, illuminated by lamps around the perimeter and a central chandelier all turned down low to create a smoky, sensual ambience. The effect is further enhanced by a cloying layer of tobacco and incense, cheap perfume, liquor, and sweaty relations.

This is the slowest time of the day around these parts, but there’s a couple cowboys on one of the divans with one half-naked girl lolling between them and a well-dressed businessman with a plug hat seated alone reading a newspaper. Three soiled doves, maybe the only others up at this early hour and unoccupied, are lounging together on another sofa looking at first glance, ripe, sultry, and disinterested, respectively.

The plump blond at one end with her legs curled under her, has a sweet, chubby face, lots of flesh under a filmy negligee, and she’s doing a pretty good job at the moment looking demure. Next to her, a dusky Mexican woman with a cruel mouth, tips her bodice to showcase her endowments. Her smile is disturbing, like a snarl.

Jonas’s spine floods with ice and his balls clench back into his body. He’s never seen one of these before.

This is not a woman. It’s not even human.

His grandfather would have called it a ‘crawler’. A young Navajo man he got to know while working for Fargo whispered of a dire creature of merciless appetite. His people gave it a name that made Jonas’s flesh prickle just to hear it.

Skinwalker.

Whoever this woman was once is gone. An abhorrent thing of grievous intention animates her body. The Jesus-people would probably call it a demon, but of course, if past experience is any guide, the Jesus-people have the uncanny ability to see demons everywhere. Whatever it is and whatever the wasicu Hell it’s doing in this place is none of his business. Jonas sends a sincere prayer to Creator and his spirit guardians that he’s given it no outward sign of recognition.

The third whore, a younger girl with flowing brown curls and sallow complexion is ignoring him, attending her nails with a studious, regal mien. She looks sick.

A wide stair at the far end of the room divides at the landing mid-way, each giving onto a mezzanine and private rooms on each side. Miss Cordell descends with a light step and crosses the room to meet the dusty trail hand with a package under one arm and hat in hand.

He has strong features and dark complexion, long black hair tied back, bespeaking Indian blood, but the red stubble on his cheeks and chin suggest a genealogy best not explored in depth. Some places that might matter; here he’s just another horny drover. At least this one shows some manners.

Her smile is still one of her best features and she favors Jonas with one of them.

He watches her come on with a grace that’s part lady, part puma. Her dress is an expensive one, cut of shadowy purple velvet. It hugs her body like a second skin and buttons to the throat. Small feet in simple heels peek beneath the hem. Auburn hair cascades over her shoulders and down her back.

Jonas recalls a rank bronc in the paddock named Hammerhead. Stick Dern named her that after she’d dusted every one of the hands, including Jonas. Twice. He knows for a fact Hammerhead never threw him half as hard as that smile.

“Hello, Cowboy. You’re getting an early start; I like that. I’m an early bird too.” She offers her hand. “I’m Faith.”

He takes it with surprising gentleness; not a cowboy’s pump handle handshake, but a sinuous ripple that turns her palm down and tips the wrist upward. In more urbane circles, a bow and polite kiss on the back of her hand might follow, but this a whorehouse in Dodge. He’s been accused of some things in his life, but ‘urbane’ was never one of them.

Unsure where the lump in his throat came from, he swallows most of it and says, “Jonas, ma’am. I was told I could get a hot bath here,” and he wonders if he could sound like any more of a bumpkin.

He tries to release her hand, but she holds on, leading him deeper into the parlor. Leading him toward the sofa.

“In a house of pleasure, all you want is a kiss, is that right?”

“Yes, ma’am. I mean no, ma’am. I mean… ” He takes a breath and shows her an easy grin. “Reckon just the bath just now, if you please.”

Miss Cordell gives the couch a sidelong glance. “Don’t see a girl you like?”

Jonas meets her eyes and they match her dress. “I do, though I couldn’t rightly call her a girl.”

“Oh?” No doubt she’s been sizing up men, what they say and what they want, for some years with apparent accuracy. She’s sizing him up now. “What about her caught your eye?”

“Got a smile that’d likely paralyze and subdue most men without them even knowin’ it happened.”

She shows it to him again.

She beckons to the pretty blond who, given her generous proportions, rises from the couch with a dancer’s ease. Her gown billows around her as she approaches. For all her soft roundness, she moves with grace.

The sickly brunette is still fussing with her nails. The dusky predator has assumed a lewd sprawl on the divan, watching beneath hooded lids. Jonas will not meet its eyes.

A swirl of delicate fabric settles beside him as the blonde woman takes his arm, pressing it against her body.

“Sherri, would you please escort the gentleman back to the baths?” Still holding his hand in hers, she gives it over to Sherri. He doesn’t resist. “And do have Carlos brush his hat and clothes out for him.”

He can feel the skinwalker’s eyes at his back as Sherri leads him away.

The bath room at the rear of the establishment isn’t large, but there’s room for three deep tubs, each separated by curtains of fabric hanging damp and heavy to the floor. The atmosphere’s steamy, smelling of damp wood, mildew, and cigar smoke. An adjacent tub is occupied and Jonas can hear playful sounds issuing from behind the curtain.

The package containing his freight he places on a shelf behind the tub as Sherri begins to unshuck him with a playful efficiency. Chubby fingers stray over his body as she does so, caressing him with an unaccustomed familiarity.

She begins to lift his medicine bag over his head. He stays her hand, removes it himself, and stuffs it into his boot, the one with a bit of leather cord woven around it. The other boot receives his belt and his hat sets atop both.

She offers him a helping hand into the tub and giggles as he flinches at the water’s temperature. The man, Carlos, tending fire under the big drum out back, is hauling in buckets of hot water intended to keep the clients steeping in comfort. In less than a minute, Jonas is submerged to his nose, drifting with eyes closed in delicious, buoyant bliss. A rustle nearby calls his attention and he peeks out to see Sherri fixing to take his things to Carlos as she’d been instructed.

“Hoh, there, little bird. Leave your man the hat for brushin’ an’ just have him burn the rest, if you please. Trail stink on ’em prob’ly never comin’ out.” He answers the question in her eyes with a nod toward the bundle on the shelf.

She winks and puckers a kiss in his direction just as the adjoining curtain is swept open with a snap. A wild-eyed troll occupies the neighboring tub. A shock of hair on either side of his balding head has been transformed into soapy wings and half a cigar is smoldering in his wide, grinning mouth, surrounded by a bristle of cactus stubble. Behind him stands a big Colored woman wearing only a surprised expression. She’s brandishing a scrub brush in one hand.

“Two Dogs! You sorry excuse fer a fuckin’ bull nurse!” Chap’s voice is equal parts gravel and mule’s bray. “Can’t an old man get his tallywhacker yanked in peace around here?”

Hau, kola! Kiss your mother with that mouth, do ya?”

“Hell, no! Your mother!” A guffaw, a cough, and Chap’s cigar stub fizzles on the floor, eliciting a resigned expletive.

The big woman is pointing the back scrubber at him like a sword. “Now dat’s what I been talkin’ ’bout, honey.” Her voice drips molasses. “Why doan we git yo wrinkldy ass out dat tub?”

“How ’bout you round me up another ceegar first, Porcelain?”

She lowers the sword, just a little. “You shore dat wone be shrivelt up foe I git back?”

Chap stands, sloshing water to the floor where it sieves between the planks. His eyes are almost level with the woman’s collar bones and he says, “Don’t you worry ’bout ‘ol tag-along, darlin’. When the time comes, my South will rise again!”

Jonas flinches from the view of Chap’s narrow, white buttocks to watch Sherri, still giggling, flutter toward the back door with his old clothing in her hands. She closes the curtain behind her.

“Ohh! Ain’t you the sweet-talkah?” Porcelain strains the seams of a silk robe and lumbers out the door. The slap of her bare feet on the floor recedes down the hallway.

Chap sinks back down in the water, lounging with his arms on the rim and a contented grin on his ogre face. “Damn,” he says to the ceiling, “but I loves me the dark ladies, I surely do.”

“Well, you got yourself a servin’ platter-full there, biscuit wrangler.”

“Ain’t that the truth? Say, where’s yer chippy got off to?”

“She just came to take my clothes out for burnin’, that’s all.”

“She looks a real purty handful too, she does. Both hands, now’t I think on it.” Chap demonstrates.

“Mmhmm.” Jonas settles back into luxurious warmth.

“Didja hear ’bout Squirrel?” Chap, without a cigar or a woman to occupy his mouth, has little else to do but bend a friendly ear. “Me ‘n’ George were loadin’ supplies ‘n’ missed the show. Pulled on Budge’s what I heard.”

“Had him the fleeting thought, it seems.”

“No matter. I seen that little bed-house desperado shoot. Couldn’t hit his own ass with a handful of banjos.”

“His doin’s none of mine. I’m all done talkin’ about him.”

“Oh. Well… okay. Hey, afore I fergit, Bob Kunkle’s buyin’ steak dinner over’t the Wright house six o’clock. Then a bunch of us’re goin’ over ta the Lone Star. You comin’ with?”

“Well, I dunno. I was thinkin’ about readin’ a book all night instead.”

“Yer chock full o’ shit. Do you even know that?”

Carlos shuffles in with a pail in each hand. “Seniors?”

Jonas waves him off and Chap waves him in.

“Seems the only book in the room’s a little Bible somebody left behind,” Jonas says, “no doubt for my salvation.”

“Welkl, they’re too late fer that.”

“Reckon so. I’ll let Mister Kunkle buy me supper, though.”

“Whatcha ya gonna do after?”

“Sleep in a bed.”

“No, ya goat-roper, I mean after we’re done here in Dodge. Budge says ya ain’t comin’ back ta the MacDee with us.”

“I’m not. Headin’ to Santa Fe. Maybe Albuquerque. The winter cold up north’s startin’ to make my bones ache, so I thought I’d take a ride, see someplace I’ve never been. Someplace warmer.”

“Back fer roundup next year?”

“Doubt it.”

“You headin’ through the Waterscrape, are ya?

“Me an’ Ohanko’re taking the train to Pueblo. Figure from there we’ll head straight south, fall in with the trail traffic on the Upper Crossing.”

“Smart choice there, boy. Cimarron Cutoff’s terr’ble dry an’ them crazy injuns out there’ll bury ya inna sandhill jist ta watch the ants eat yer eyeballs out. After that they start gettin’ mean.” He scratches around the quills on his jaw. “Train’ll save ya few weeks an’ that’s sure. When ya fixin’ ta leave?”

“Tomorrow morning. Already got my ticket.”

“Well, I’ll be damned.” Chap gives him a sober look. “I’m gonna miss yer ugly face.”

“I’ll remember you, kola. You’re a good man. I’m prob’ly not gonna miss your shitty coffee, though.”

“A few days o’ that belly wash them freighters an’ skinners call coffee, you’ll be cryin’ fer some o’ mine an’ you know it.”

“Thinkin’ I’d rather have ants eat my eyeballs.”

“Okay, I take it all back. Fuckya!” the ogre grins. “I ain’t gonna miss yer face OR yer sorry smart ass when yer gone after all. Good riddance, I say. An’ after that I’m gonna wipe m…”

The rest is garbled as Jonas slips beneath the water, letting it lift him until only his eyes are above the surface, blowing little bubbles through his nose, and watching steam curl.

A vision forms in the mist looking remarkably like Faith Cordell. He wipes hair from his eyes.

She’s wearing a peach-colored chemise. Her luxurious hair is put up on top of her head. Her legs are bare, pale, and carry her with feline elegance just far enough into the room to observe both men.

Chap’s eyes and mouth widen and he manages to choke out, “Aft’noon, Miss Cordell. Yer lookin’ perticurly fetching t’day.”

“Why, Mister Denny. I didn’t see you come in earlier. Janice must have greeted you. It’s a pleasure to see you again.” She sounds like she means it.

“Pleasure’s all mine right ’bout now.”

“Is Porcelain taking good care of you?”

“Sure is.” Chap grins his troll grin and gives her an exaggerated wink. “Tit fer tat, ya might say. She’s off getting’ me another ceegar right now. Bit later on, reckon as how I gots me a ceegar fer her, if ya take my meanin’.”

She laughs, a soft, bell-like sound, and pulls the connecting curtain closed. She draws up a low stool beside Jonas.

“Cowboy, I know this is going to sound like a bunkhouse joke I’ve heard a few hundred times, but I can think of a couple good reasons right off why I’d do something impetuous like this. Do you need to know what they are?”

He shakes his head. “No, ma’am.”

“You said all you wanted was a hot bath and you look like you need a barber. I don’t have a lot of time, but I’m here to give you both. Are you going to fight me?”

“No, ma’am.”

A snort from the other side of the drape.

“You’re not a supporter of the tonsorial arts, I see.”

“Haven’t had much truck with barbers since I left home.”

Carlos comes in to top off the water, leaving the steaming buckets with Faith at her silent direction. Behind the drape in the next bay, splashing and grunting and a curl of blue smoke mingles in the general haze.

“Where’s home?”

“My father took me to live in Saint Joe when I was about eleven. Went to school there and he figured I’d fare better if I presented a more refined appearance.”

“Did you fare better?”

“Some.”

“Hold your nose.”

Her fingers slip into his hair and she presses down until his head submerges. Feet and legs poke out the other end of the tub and water sluices out onto the floor. A strong pull brings him back to the surface. She pours some thick, floral-smelling liquid over his head and begins to suds him up, massaging his scalp with strong, questing fingers, then combing them through its length in long strokes and back again, working his hair to a lather. Jonas has abandoned himself to her ministrations.

“You might want to close your eyes until I rinse this out.”

She hoists the first bucket with little effort and pours the contents over his head in a slow stream. Jonas feels froth streaming down his forehead, but the overflow a minute before has soaked Faith’s smock. Translucent now, its contours are now hers. Angry hornets fly into his eyes, obliterating the image of Miss Cordell’s silver dollar nipples. Jonas makes no sound, but the liquid fire filling his eye sockets demands at least a grimace.

“Told you.” The tiny bell laugh.

She empties the remainder of the first bucket over him while he agitates the soap out with his fingers, and the other bucket to finish and rub his stinging eyes. By the time his vision begins to improve, she’s brushing shaving lather onto his face.

“It looks like you shave with your knife,” she says.

“Gets it done.”

“It might be good enough for the girls you go with. Do you trust me with this?” She shows him the straight razor.

He shows her his throat. “Do I have time to sing my deathsong?”

“Oh, honey,” the sweet bell laugh rings him once more to his toes. “No.”

Blink.

      ~      

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2023
All rights reserved.

Reveries ——— Read More »

Scroll to Top