White Fist & Two Dogs

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 stay there.

Several more similar dark 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, and it’s too big. 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 Ohanko’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 smooth, as if the slab was sliced from the mother rock by a giant’s carving knife.

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.

No sign of his mare.

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 Ohanko 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 in the rib cage to 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. He remembers what was in that place, and now it is 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.

Whoa there, Nellie. Wasn’t it a cube a minute ago? This isn’t a cube.

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 been 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 Ohanko’s tack are stashed in the tunnel with it.

Ohanko. 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.

He offers tobacco at the cliff edge to her dauntless spirit and the breeze carries it away.

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 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.

The weapon’s pommel protrudes just 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. It won’t stand close inspection, but then, why should it?

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. One of the branching trees reaching from below affords a reasonable, if precarious purchase to view what he realizes will be 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.

      ~      ~

Reveries —

Say now, this card here’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.


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.


“Your sister.”

“What ’bout my sister?”

“What’s her name?”

“Uh…? Charlotte.”

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


“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.”


“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 ]

.      .      .


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.




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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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?”


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.



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.


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.


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.


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.


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.”


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.


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.


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.


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.


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?”


“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.”



Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2023
All rights reserved.

In The Middle of Nowhere

Cast your gaze down here, if you will, and see the lone rider whose trail leads him through this long, winding, wooded canyon. You can well believe this is no route he would’ve chosen for himself, but the crows showed him the way, you see, and they’ve never steered him wrong before. His name, if such matters to you, is Jonas. One might say, if one was generous and thoughtful, that he is a child of colliding cultures, at home in neither one of them.

See him now, from the scuffed and trail-worn leather of his boots under the ragged hem of a graying oilcloth duster, to the crown of his drover’s hat. It shades a craggy face, bronzed by long sun and hard miles. See him well, for even though he’s traveled far to be on this lonely path, this is where his journey begins.


.      .      .


Late afternoon sun’s still baking the mesa and there’d likely be a good two hours of useable light left up there, but dusk will come quick in this break and won’t last long. A stiff, hot wind’s pressing at his back, bending the pines along the creek with a forlorn sigh, and soon it will push the light away down the steep-walled gorge ahead of him until it’s gone.

He can smell the storm coming. He can’t see them from here, forming above the mountains to the west, but he knows the thunder beings are gathering there in great billowing towers with anvil heads. It won’t do to be on this canyon floor when they finally come rolling across the high tablelands. Gully-washer’s what they call it.

A stream steps down through the rift, trickling into pools and tumbling away ahead of him in chuckling pursuit of depth and level it’ll find in the confoundingly named Canadian River, miles to the east, nowhere near Canada.

He’s just finished filling his canteen in one such small, stony basin and, reaching out to pack it away, sees the rabbit on the other side of the creek, motionless next to a prickly scrub, eyeing him with a wary focus. He slides his carbine out of its scabbard. The hare high-tails toward deeper cover and he aims, does Jonas, much too far to the left of the darting animal and squeezes the trigger. The rabbit dodges into the bullet. It catches him clean behind the ear and that’s that. You might say it was a lucky shot, but the little fellow didn’t have too much meat on him to start with. It would’ve been a shame to waste any putting lead through it.

He leads his mare into the creek and she crosses with dainty steps. He scoops up the little rabbit and, in its place, he leaves a tobacco offering.

A little crow calls overhead, winging into the shadows of the west wall behind some cottonwoods. He leads the mare he named Ohanko over that way. A rocky slope and well-used animal trail gives way to just the kind of high ground he’s looking for. He has to pull Ohanko up the last few feet. Her name means “quick” and she sure was that when he found her, just another young bangtail in a mustang roundup. She’s still plenty sound and a trig cutter, but she’s not as quick these days. Then again, neither’s he.

At the top of the slope is a good-sized piece of flat with some scruffy grass on it and the mare goes to work on that. About a stone’s throw yonder is a fair-size hollow in the cliff wall with a nice overhang big enough to hole up in out of the rain that’ll be coming along presently. He cuts a branch off a near-by scrub and sweeps out the debris and creeper-crawlers, making sure no rattler’s made itself homely there, then sets about relieving Ohanko of her burdens.

A couple armloads of downfall wood from below and a last traipse up the trail provide the makings for a fire. Thunderheads are beginning to boil over as he stands with his last real friend for a bit, talking to her in the language of his childhood, brushing her down with long strokes. Two apples remain in his saddlebags, the last of several he bought in Trinidad just before heading into the Raton Pass. He helps himself to a still-juicy bite of the biggest one before giving the rest of it to Ohanko and leads her in under such shelter as the rocky overhang will allow.

He’s dressing out the rabbit when the first fat drops begin to fall. They splatter on the sun-warmed stone and evaporate almost immediately, but soon there’s too many of them coming too fast. By the time the thunder-bumper breaks proper, he’s hunkered down by the fire with the hare cooking on a spit. The harsh rimrock above that can’t absorb the downpour, instead channels it into hundreds of rivulets cascading into the canyon.

Lightning rakes the mesa, revealing in violent bursts brighter than noonday sun, the stark contours of the canyon walls opposite. He turns the meat over the fire and, adjusting his saddle behind him against the sheltering rock, leans back to watch the show. He is content. Time passes. The earth trembles.

The storm’s moving away. There’s a noticeable interval now between the brilliance of the flash and the concussion of it splitting air. The rain’s petering out as well and, in a while, the flood thrashing at the canyon walls below will begin to recede. Ohanko has turned herself back out to forage more of the tough grass on her rugged little patch.

“Wopila, Tunkasila,” he says to the night from the edge of his sandstone sanctuary. Cupped hands fill with cool water spilling off the lip of the overhang and he drinks ’til he has his fill. “Wopila, Unci Maka.”

He tears a haunch from the roasted meat and reclines in his cowboy easy chair, chewing with determination, rubbing the drippings into his hands. The meat’s stringy and could use some salt, but it’s more than enough to keep his belt buckle from rubbing against his backbone, as old Chap was fond of saying.

Stars begin to tear small, ragged holes in the clouds.

His hunger satisfied, he sucks a morsel of meat from his teeth, pulls his bedroll blanket up around his shoulders against night’s coming chill and closes his eyes. In the storm’s aftermath, the churning of the waters below and a rhythmic cadence of runoff dripping from the weathered edge of his shelter’s vaulted roof is background music to the returning nightsounds of cricket and frog.

In that hazy in-between place that’s neither sleep, nor wake, he hears the rumble of distant thunder, deep down, rolling for miles. It’s a subtle pulsation in air and stone that’s neither disturbing, nor unpleasant, like a mother patting her dreamy babe. He drifts on a recollection of just such a vibration, almost forgotten across years that no longer matter in this timeless place.

He was maybe nine or ten winters then. He and his friend, Otter, farther from their camp than they should’ve been, had come upon tracks across the plain and followed them with exaggerated stealth. Night came before they could find the end of them, so they ate some dried meat and slept underneath a short little wooden bridge where its tracks crossed over a ravine. He couldn’t remember if they’d first heard or felt the iron horse coming in the night, but the low vibration and the rumble of its approach filled them both with dread, as did its single glaring eye. It fled by with a terrible roar and its heavy, foul breath lingered in the air long after it’d passed.

That must be what he’s feeling now, the low rush and rumble of a train approaching. It seems to be coming from deep within the earth. Somehow, half-awake, that just don’t seem right. There’s thunder deep in the rock all around and the air’s a’quiver with it and a glare, painfully bright, washes everything. Jonas bolts upright with an inarticulate warning before the iron horse can grind him under its relentless spinning hooves. His head connects with the sloping sandstone ceiling of his bed-chamber, buckling his knees. For the briefest instant, the blinding light and bone-shaking vibration are real as the pain in his crown. In the next, there’s only the ruddy light of his dying fire and the chuckle of water below.

Believe it however you will, or not if you won’t, but in that space between one moment and the other, two figures fall out of nothing but thin air and stone at his back. The smaller one, flung wide, lands hard, face down and limp. The other lands right in the fire, flinging coals and flaming bits, and rolls to his feet. He’s a big one; the other’s not. Both are decked out head to toe in some kind of all-white get-up Jonas’s never seen the like of before.

The stranger turns to him, drawing in one smooth motion what must be the biggest cannon ever held in a man’s two hands and levels it at Jonas’s chest. Its barrel looks big enough to shove a dog into. Pulling his attention with some difficulty from the gun, he sees the big man has no face, and Jonas shows him his empty hands.

Tense seconds pass as Jonas reads the moment, reads the man reading him. He’s a deep one, this stranger in white with the featureless mask. Jonas senses wariness, not hostility, and just like that, the danger has passed. The big gun disappears beneath the stranger’s cloak as he turns and kneels beside his fallen companion.

The one on the ground’s a woman, plain enough to see, featureless mask on her or no, as the big fellow turns her over and cradles her head in the crook of an arm. He hooks a thumb under the chin of his mask and lifts it. It parts from flesh with a faint hiss. He sniffs a tentative breath and holds it, tasting it, listening to his body’s reaction. Beneath the white mask, the man’s face is dark. More than dark. A piece of displaced firewood has rekindled, providing enough flickering backlight to see his skin’s black as obsidian. He doesn’t look anything like any Colored folk Jonas’s encountered, though.

The stranger drinks in the night air, releasing it with a sigh and a rasping cough; it sounds painful. He peels the mask off of his companion and speaks to her words Jonas can’t understand, though their meaning’s clear enough. The momentary flame-up past, it’s difficult to make out much detail, but her face is the same night-black and looks like it’s been bloodied, too.

Jonas finds his feet and soaks his bandana in a hollow filled with rainwater. He kneels beside the two and the dripping cloth is accepted. The stranger holds it to his nose for a moment, then wrings it out over the woman’s head. The water streams through her close-cropped hair, over her forehead and down her cheeks. She appears a right handsome woman as such things are regarded, skin black as raven feathers or not, and Jonas realizes he’s seeing her pretty clear. He glances up to find the sky awash with stars. The moon, barely past half, rides just clear of the canyon top. The stranger follows his gaze upward and something happens in his face.

Wide-eyed, open-mouthed, the man scans the heavens beyond the sheltering overhang and the surrounding rimrock. He sees Ohanko eying him back and cocks his head, turning his face back to Jonas with an unspoken question in startling, opalescent eyes. If you didn’t know better, you’d a thought he’d never seen a horse before, nor night sky neither, for that matter.

The woman is beginning to stir. The stranger applies the damp cloth to her face, wiping away dried blood. Her eyes peek open in stages. She takes a slow, deliberate breath, tasting it, and lets it out just as slowly. Her body seems to ripple once in a long, cat-like stretch and, with the stranger’s arm as a brace, she rises.

She slips her mask under her cloak. They exchange quiet, unhurried words in a tongue perhaps not so much different from Jonas’s first. She looks to Jonas and the hairs on his neck stand up. Then, with a sweeping gesture, her companion turns her attention to the sky and they both stop talking for a spell.

So many of the stories of Jonas’s childhood, passed down through generations of storytellers, began with an image of an animal, or a being identified in an arguably vague pattern of tiny flickering lights. How many creatures and sky-people are up there anyway? Do they ever look down here and tell stories about the dirt-people? Mayhap these two are star-folk themselves.

The woman approaches. He can see into both of them now a peck, these dark people with their strange white regalia, and neither of them’s a threat to him. Glad of it too, because whoever they are a threat to is in for a real bad patch.

Her hands are empty. She squares up in front of him and has to lift her chin to look him in the eyes. Up close like this, she’s got deep eyes with colors sparking in them. A man could get lost for days in eyes like them. There’s some kind of markings around her right eye, too, but they’re black on black and it’s too dark to make them out.

Her voice is husky, as if she’d been gargling mescal, but her tone is reassuring. She raises her hands, shows them to him. Her palms are as dark as her face. She extends her arms, as if to caress his cheeks. He draws back and she stops, but doesn’t lower her hands, continuing to speak to him reassuring words he can’t understand. There’s no guile in her face or manner. He looks to the big man. He isn’t paying any attention to either of them, instead seems to be casting about looking for something on the ground and not finding it. Her fingers are so close he can feel the warmth coming from them. Something causes her to turn away. He feels a pricking straight up and down his spine, a chill that’s got nothing to do with the night air, and gooseflesh stands up all over his body at once. It’s not her doing.

Out on the little grassy plot where Ohanko’d been pacing since the arrival of the strangers, something is happening. Something wrong. The mare lets go a wild cry, almost a scream, and rears flailing air, then wheels and flees down the slope. There’s nothing he can do for her because something really big is forming out on that patch of flat ground. Both the strangers are pulling their masks back on. The big man has that huge gun in his hands again. An irresistible pressure pushes Jonas backward. He stumbles over a still-smoldering chunk of firewood, falls flat on his backside and fetches up hard against his saddle at the back of the rocky cavity.

A hole in the air has opened, black as pitch against the moonlit backdrop of the far canyon wall. It’s the shape of ol’ Chap’s chuck wagon dinner bell—that is, if Chap’s triangle was about the size of barn doors.

Stepping out of that blackness are horrors straight out of some Bible-thumper’s Hell. Monsters. Demons maybe. Jonas scrabbles for his carbine.

A lumbering man-shape, big as a draft horse emerges. It looks to be made of black stone. Jonas feels its footfalls as it charges forward with a square-headed blade in each hand. They glow with a dead gray-green light, illuminating nothing. Behind it is a pale nightmare, a gaunt, half-naked thing almost as big as the first, but its tiny features are set around an awful hole where its mouth ought to be. It’s making a loud, long gasping sound, like wind being sucked into a cave. Behind that one, the larger form of a sparse shrub appears to sway in a breeze that’s not there.

The stranger vaults into the air and seems to hang there, his big gun barking fire, tearing chunks off the stone man. Something bright jumps from the woman’s hands toward the ashen ghost with the horrible face, but before the spark can strike, it bends away into the black triangle and gone. The stone man bounds upward, a phenomenal leap, slashing at the stranger with its long knives. It lands with a tremor through the ground. Then the tunnel-mouthed grotesque leans forward and a roaring scream breaks over all as if the cliff overhang had slammed down atop them.

Jonas will say later that he never actually heard the wall of sound that mashed him flat against the back of the cavity. He will only remember the pressure and the pain of that voice exploding in his head, trying to rip his skull apart from the inside. He will not recall, however, the three shots he levers off from his Winchester before the darkness takes him, nor how the echo of that last report seems to chase the terrible sound away down the canyon until both die on the cool night air.

~      ~     

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.


Perhaps for the last time, I breathe wholesome air and remove my Face.

I am answered with a silence so profound I can hear my own heartbeat and the grating of the Blue’s rough hide as he shifts uncomfortably behind his nee’m. The truant energy in the endless storm outside the tower and the violent stillness of the Black force, if they still exist, are somehow outside the bubble of Shiric’s scrutiny.

I feel a prickling sensation on my right side. Brin is beside me, a slow, silent phasing into vacant space.

An expression chases across Shiric’s sanguine features for just an instant, one I have seen everywhere I have traveled, on the faces of every class and kind that has a face.

‘Interesting timing, Guardian. I thought the plan was for you to show up just in time to rescue me.’

“Did you think I would let you go to Soulbridge without me?” Brin says aloud. Facing Shiric, she lifts her chin and removes her Face. “We are Bound,” she says.

“I have been waiting for you, T’choct ot U’chah na. You may not understand why I am delighted to meet you, but I am. You are just in time.”

“I know,” she says.

It is no revelation that Shiric would expect my Guardian to be nearby. He could not be who he is and not know the workings of The Fayne’s U’chah-Aca’chi, His dread White Hammer, but his surprise surprises me. Perhaps not all-seeing after all, even here in his own den.

Shiric’s gaze is fixed upon Brin. “Signal your Brethren to withdraw and seal the Gog-forsaken White tear in my home behind them,” he says at last.

“Will you allow them to gather the dead and wounded?”

“There are no wounded and you would not recognize your dead. I will tend and honor them myself.”

Brin hesitates, bristling at the idea. I don’t like it either, but we are where we are. There is no outward sign of Brin’s sending, but she is still for almost a twenty-count.

“It is done, Lord Lecudis,” her voice is thick with emotion, “as my brother swore to you.”

“See to it,” he commands without looking at the Blue behind him.

The triangular ripple, easily twice my height and more, almost reappears. The d’moni rumbles a protest about leaving his nee’m alone with the jatjot’sunguc. That would be Brin and me. How like a mocc to depart with a vulgar insult. He is enveloped and gone, but the fluctuation remains.

“Prysm,” Shiric says, “bring my marshals.” The almost-shape ripples away.

“How is it, my friend, that you have not thought to draw the slayer’s blade from beneath your cloak, or employ the weapon at your side? It appears a formidable instrument. I am unarmed and without my ceremonial raiment—which would have been more appropriate to receive and honor you both, I suppose. I am confident you will not think less of me.”

“My warder has entrained in me that unarmed is not defenseless. Regardless, The Fayne’s instructions were specific. You are not to be killed.”

“Indeed? Yet he would allow his children to destroy my home with me in it. You know he is completely insane, don’t you?”

“He says the same about you.”

“Does he?”

“He says you would destroy Hevn.”

“I have heard his nonsense. Why would I deliberately destroy my own creation?”

His creation or not, does he think I do not know the answer? I reply as I would to a newb who does not yet comprehend the way of things. “To escape it.”

“Ah.” He manages a twitch of a smile. “I see he’s told you enough to make you dangerous, but not nearly enough to make you understand.”

There is an unpleasant tang in my throat. My eyes and nostrils are stinging.

“Understand what?”

“Why I will not break Hevn. Besides, it would make little sense to prosecute such a stratagem if I might not survive my own escape. Would you not agree?”

I would, but speaking only forces me to breathe more of this inhospitable environment’s ruinous medium.

“For now,” he brightens, “I have seeds to plant and nurture.”

I feel the atmosphere in the chamber press outward, immediately displaced by something massive intruding into the space. The thing called Prysm has arrived with Shiric’s marshals.

“Do not rush to me,” my death whispers into my left ear; I hear her in the near-silent scream of Black fury licking too near my side. To my right, I hear Brin’s ‘voice’ in the tap. She wants to know if I have a plan or anything.

The most conspicuous of the arrivals is a featureless, blunt pyramid easily twice the size of a trocc without extremities. It has an iridescent surface, like a rind. The thing is so large in this room that it might easily relocate any of the outer worlds of Shiric’s orry as they circulate in their ponderous, lonely orbits, as could any of the three d’monii accompanying this monster.

The first of them is a vicious-looking Black, lithe, sleek, and otherwise unremarkable from the rest of its kind. It is the only one of these to come armed and armored. It bares fangs at the sight of us.

The next is a dreadful, pale thing, a loose-boned figure, with long, pendulous skinflaps on its chest. It is barely covered in some tattered cloth the color of its pallid flesh, as is its hair, which falls in ropey clumps over face and arms. Its truly distinguishing feature, however, is its unhinged jaw and a hole, like a tunnel, where its mouth ought to be. The sound of its breathing is strenuous and it is plain the creature is unable to close that toothless, lipless, cavernous maw. Close-set black-in-black eyes view us with contempt.

The last is a Green mocc like nothing I have ever seen. Taller than most of its kind, it looks like a plant. Its torso and extremities seem to be bundles of twined fibers, rather than musculature and flesh. Its head, elongated to an exaggerated degree, mimics the contours of eyes and mouth without possessing either. It stands swaying gently behind the lone human in the group, another bald-pated toothpick man, like my erstwhile captive.

“Prysm has been with me before Hevn was made.” Shiric is saying. “My most faithful ally.”

I think he is indicating the pyramid-thing, but the burning in my nostrils and throat is making it difficult to breath or concentrate.

“And this is Jayle, my trusted Minister of Precautions. Step forward, Jayle, and take a careful look at these two.”

The man steps out from his associates. His bearing is proud and confident and he wears his precedence like a second badge on his black and tans.

“Jayle, I want you to meet The Fayne’s champion, his White Fist. And, as you can see, both he and his Gifted companion have been able to reach my workshop armed, unmarked, and unchallenged.”

I see the stick-man’s throat work through my tears as he swallows his pride.

“As you may recall, the First Administrator of the Academe Discipline Methodic recommended you to me as a meticulous and diligent individual, a D’kin having attained the worthy status of Technician Class Five. It was your commission to provide for me surveillance, security, and facility defense. I, in turn, have provided you every resource necessary to secure my holdings and defend them from incursions precisely like this one.”

I see confidence running away from the Minister’s face as his master stipulates his concerns, leaving him a momentary baffled expression just before unadorned fear rushes in to replace it. Realizing his commission is about to be revoked, he begins an impassioned explanation that includes, “… tried to intercept … every means available,” and lasts only a few syllables into something about “… faithful service,” before the futility of that effort occurs to him and he decides to flee instead. Not a well-thought-out strategy. With a gesture, Shiric freezes him in mid-stride, as if the air around him had solidified. The Black marshal uncoils and drags the man back to his starting position where he stands at a trembling parody of attention, awaiting his master’s pleasure.

“It will devastate First Administrator Chome to learn of your incompetence. I would wish to spare him such humiliation, but there is really no way to mask your complete failure and, by his endorsement, his failure also. I am terminating our arrangement.” He observes the play of emotions on the man’s face for a long moment and says simply, “Blume.”

The Green bends forward and touches a tendril finger to the Minister’s hand.

Jayle flinches away, staring at his hand as if dumbfounded, watching the skin peel back from the contact site. His hand begins to shrivel. A thousand rhizomes sprout, searching up and outward, twining onto his wrist and arm. By the time pain manages to race ahead of his dissolving nerve tissue, disbelief has turned to horror. He beats at his upper arm with his other hand, as if he could stop the metamorphosis that is devouring him at a cellular level. His inarticulate cries spiral up and up until he is wailing at the top of his lungs, abruptly silent as the transformation swallows his heart and lungs. His legs crumple and a swell of pale tendrils writhes from the neck of his uniform, enveloping his head before it hits the ground with a moist, hollow sound. Flesh is supplanted by mucus and a budding new life-form. Tiny, pale green flowers, hundreds of them, blossom momentarily and wilt away as quickly, wave on wave of them. From the frozen scream on Jayle’s moss-rimmed mouth, a lazy fume of dark vapor rises.

Every breath I take is hot, sharp, painful. My eyes are burning, awash with tears as I meet Shiric’s solemn gaze. My voice is little more than a gasp. “This… weed. For us?” My nostrils feel as though I am breathing flame and a coal has lodged at the back of my throat. “Or… meal f…,” I choke down a lump of hot acid, “for…” and I gag on the word “troccs”, prompting at last what I most wanted to avoid. I am thrown to my knees, barking shards of hot glass from my throat. Each expulsion is a rasp, followed by an unavoidable intake of slow fire. My chest ratchets down hard as my lungs attempt to expel every last bit of the ruined air from them and, once emptied, there is nothing left but to helplessly fill them again with the same accelerating poison. I try to refuse the inevitable inhalation.

I have waited too long to act. The balance has tipped. Only the symbiotes we carry will survive long enough to translate our final experience to their larger self and to those of our Order. All we have seen and done will be known, an adequate last turn’s work, I suppose. My body, unable to obey the impossible demand I have made of it, seizures and, against my will, my lungs fill with the sweetest breath I can remember. Brin is kneeling beside me, pressing my Face to my face. I hear two distinctly different voices speaking to me at once. One is stern and unsympathetic and whispers that she told me not to rush to her. The other is light and unsympathetic and says in the tap, ‘I am here just in time to rescue you, Warrior.

My body continues to convulse. Brin lifts my Face away until the spasm recedes, replacing it again and pure air flows to me. Five more times we repeat this sequence until I have heaved what might be part of a lung onto Shiric’s polished floor. He can either have one of these lackeys lap it up or jump down his own Well, for all I care now. I spit out a last wad of metallic-tasting phlegm, wipe my mouth with the back of my gauntlet and notice my fingers are bleeding again. I brush back Brin’s helping hands. I told The Enemy I would go to Soulbridge with my Face on and that is how I rise to meet him now.

Shiric observes me with an expression of concern.

“I heard your question, ne Fist. What you must think of me. I have no desire to subject you to Blume’s exquisite touch. And I would not dishonor the memory of such a worthy adversary by allowing the mindless brutes to have at you.”

Shiric’s words sound completely sincere. Perhaps they are. I do not care.

“I have lived a long time,” Shiric says. “I learned much before I came here. More since. But I cannot comprehend why he continues to send his best against me knowing the outcome is forgone. No, brave White Fist.” His voice takes a distant tone; it sounds like awe. “You are both for the Well.”

He steps close enough for either of us to reach out and crush his throat. His face is earnest.

“You will feel nothing except the momentary peace of becoming nothing, and in that moment you will never have been. You were never here. Erased from reality.”

I do not understand, but I recognize the intensity in his eyes. The tears in them, however, are confounding.

“But your master will know,” he says, “and he will know that I know. If The Fayne you serve were more like you, I might fear for the success of my plans. I might even learn to fear him. I will not forget you, T’choct ot U’chah ne.”

My voice is barely more than gravel scraping against my throat. “Nor I you, Black Heart, in this world or the next.”

He raises a hand to make his pass, like the one that stopped the unfortunate ne Jayle in mid-flight, I suspect. As his hand moves, so does mine, reaching over my head. His eyes widen and brows arch, but his gesture continues. The tatting under the hem of his sleeve is glowing.

The phantom node I formed when I chose this course solidifies and leaps into my palm with a slap. A powerful, relentless tension suffuses the air around me. I dissolve the node and close my hand around the Flame. Disproportionate pain flares from my bloodied fingers as I do so.

The next heartbeats are divided into a series of discrete split-counts. They telescope out in front of me and time seems to pulse in unison with them.

Shiric’s stasis field is complete, enveloping Brin and me, but instead of driving our immobile forms into the Black current, into oblivion, a look of apprehension is in the process of re-mapping his smooth features. Not infallible, even in his own den.

A flood of images streams behind my eyes, most of them unintelligible. One that sparks recognition is followed by more that seem familiar, then many more, calling up memory, sparking emotion, and then—nothing. A pause, a waiting. Waiting for what, I do not know.

Shiric’s expression has completed its transition to one of unconcealed alarm. He is deciding how to reply to this unforeseen development without causing collateral damage to his precious orry. I can see the accretion of dark energy as it flows to him from everywhere, seething in a kind of nimbus around him, channeling along arms outstretched, and I wonder if the t’sungahn appear human-like because once they were human, or because we were made in their likeness.

Shiric told me that the Flame is not a thing; it is a being. In the vastness of ONE, Source flows in us both equally without discrimination, without regard to our separate origins. Beyond our unique presence and perspectives, we are of the same stuff.

A blinding radiance bursts from between the fingers of my clenched fist.

The storm of power boiling into The Enemy’s hands explodes outward toward us. I cannot tell if I see in his face naked fury or fear. The Flame answers with a ball of inexorable force that detonates from my outflung fist. It bursts through Shiric’s bolt and breaks upon him like the Churn hammering the sor’n coast. He is uprooted and hurled to the far wall of the chamber like cloth.

The Black d’moni has closed the gap between us in a blur, launching himself at us, warblade and fangs bared. Brin’s bolt meets him in the air. Shredded armor clatters to the floor with fragments of the mocc and its weapon.

Without my volition I am jerked into the air. It is not Shiric’s doing. I snag the back of Brin’s cloak with my good hand, hauling her unceremoniously along. Wherever we’re going now, we are together, as it should be.

From across the chamber, Shiric levels another bolt. Only the distant sound of arc and concussion tells me it did not find us.

The dazzling wild magik in my hand is pulling me with such velocity that it seems we must have crossed extents. I can no longer see the chamber, only a single bright blue ball with intricate shapes and contours on its surface. It is rushing toward us, filling my vision… engulfing us.

      ~     ~

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

The Oldest Enemy

Two large spheres are laying on a worktable as I pass beneath another glowb, this one dark. Three smaller orbs rest on a nearby surface. They brace a squat thing bristling with tubular appendages, each finding attachment to all the spheres and the quiescent glowb as well. Each tube pulses with a peristaltic ripple. 

Here is another sphere split in half and opened like a mellin presented for repast. Both segments appear to be filled with something damp and fibrous, rather than mechanical, like organ tissue. I cannot tell if it is merely unfinished or in the process of being dismantled. Either way, it is inert and inexplicable.

Carved into the polished stone floor, a series of lines radiate from the center of this gallery. It is twenty paces to its hub, a hecs’gonal opening as wide as my outstretched arms by twice. I do not have to see the outline of its twin above me to know that it and every level below has such an opening. This is the axis of the tower, the conduit between the Black Well beneath its foundations and the Night. The energy coursing through it is the fountainhead of Shiric’s power. Tales of this are older than any living being except The Fayne Himself and it is, in this moment, fact laid stark before my eyes. 

And now it is in the tap. All of the aca’chi will see it as well, each in their time. The Brothers and Sisters engaged in the cleansing below, have no time nor need of such now. 

The only sound is a rumor from the flood of Black power closer to me than is prudent, less a sound than an uncomfortable sensation low in the gut. I feel my crawling flesh trying to draw me away before its touch ends me.

To my right hand, a pinpoint of light, low down, catches my attention and I am presented with something so familiar and, yet, so incongruous, I am obliged to make sense of it. Wonderment and vigilance grow with each step, dualling motivations.

The luminous glowb is partially eclipsed by the Black power raging silently between us, but suspended before me within that umbra, is a lone construct. Without question it is a model in relief of Hevn, presented in a way I have never seen nor conceived. It defines not only the topography of the surface we live on, but the under-world as well. None living have seen it, we are told. Yet, here is a representation in relief of my tabletop world, above and below, as if observed from some remote station in the emptiness of deep Night. It is not as I imagined.

Above the broad hecs’gonal map of its surface, a miniaturized black sun nearly fills the sky of the nor’n hecs’drant. Mysterious Solva’s representation, cast an anomalous White, follows behind Gog’s replica at an appropriate distance. A tiny, crystalline-bright Fayne’s Eye, the glint of light that caught my eye, tracks in its deep ellipse toward the nor’n edge from the under-world, where faint little Dimm traces its own solitary path, a dull gem.

I reach out to Brin in the tap. ‘Has Gog yet risen first arc?’

‘Ee’eh. Barely had it found the Edge by a hand while you were tunneling from that mound of drack meat. Two hands now and no more.’

This sounds right. Simple calculation suggests the placement and movement of these objects around the model is as their true counterparts are positioned even now in their endless circuits.

This image of my world before me is astonishing in its complexity. I know my geographies and I have seen with my own eyes places only the Aka’chi can freely go and live. Every Color, every contour of every hecs, seems accurate, as do representations of the Wells and wellsheds flowing into the Sea of Shades, so called because of the Colors submerged beneath it. We call it Hav’k.

I see the White Well at Soulbridge. Its beam seems faint and insignificant here. Each of the great kal’uns are represented, their architectures captured in what seems infinitesimal detail. The protected freeport of Kal’un Naijin and incomparable Kal’un Fayne not the least of these. Modeled here as well are remote, less hospitable locations few other than local denizens, if any, have seen and lived to tell it; Kal’un Thudra among them, as is Helmouth itself and High Seat, Aghnot, Sinder, Xenotaf, even the representation of the heaving sea looks completely realistic, from the boil of the Churn to the Grand Cascade, its contents pouring endlessly over the sor’nees edge of this replica world, dissipating into nothing. What an elegant device.

Brin is still on her haunches against the wall. She motions to me.

Wait. Sinder, once a Black outpost colony on Hav’k’s rugged sor’n coastline, was destroyed long ago, sealed off by The Fayne and rendered uninhabitable. Yet, on the model, its six-sided symmetry is overlaid in Gray, the characteristic shade of a neutral land and its surface is blank and smooth, unfinished, a curious alteration.

Turning away, light from the glowb illuminates a delicate clockwork spread across the chamber only a reach above my head. A number of tiny orbs appear to encircle the incandescent sphere where it floats well beyond the Black current. I see them revolving in procession around it, each one moving at its own pace, each marking out its own path with a slender, vaguely luminous trail dissipating behind, and all suspended by no apparent means. Perhaps the thing I seek is here too, traveling a circuitous path around the glowing hub. It is enough to move my feet.

A band of dust particles refracts light over my head, a hazy ring tracing its own path around the glowb, nearer the dark rush. Perhaps it was once an orb like the others, pulverized and scattered by its proximity to the Black flow. I reach up and touch my fingertips to the almost insubstantial motes. They eddy and scatter as I trace a lazy circle in their midst.

Sudden shearing pain erupts and I snatch back my hand. Beneath the shredded tips of my gauntlet, blood wells up and a vicious stinging blossoms with it.

“Well,” says a voice at my shoulder, “that’s going to cause a stir.”

It is not Brin’s voice.

Fleetingly I wonder who could so let down his guard when surrounded by such peril. It seems a valid concern. It is, perhaps, a measure of my discipline that my hand does not flicker toward my weapon. My other hand feels as if I had pressed it into a clot of borewurms. Despite that intimate discomfort, I am not a newb to jump at shadows or flinch from an unexpected sound. I have gained patience and composure sitting with my death from time to time.

Not-Brin’s words, mellifluous with an unfamiliar accent, are unhurried, conversational. “Do you comprehend it yet?”

Without turning away from the construct of orbs above me, I answer. “These are works of uncommon artistry, intricate…” a wave of fire in my fingertips clamps my jaw for a moment, “in ways most unexpected.”

My armor has directed a surge of fics to seal the damage and damp the pain. The first is faster. “This exceptional model of Hevn, I recognize, of course. I have no idea what the other represents, but I believe myself favored beyond fortunate to have witnessed it.”

“That you unquestionably are.”

“What is it?”

“It’s called an orrery.”

A few drops of blood and sealant have found the floor. One slow breath in and out; I turn to face him. The Enemy.

He looks human, though of course, he is not. Slightly smaller than me, Shiric radiates power and vitality. Bright blue-green eyes smile out of an ageless porcelain face framed in flowing white hair. Not at all the fanged and intractable monster of our creche nightstories. He neither looks, nor sounds the least bit sinister. Neither is he Black.

“I thought you would be… taller,” I say.

Shiric’s stoic expression is spoiled by the slight arching of one eyebrow and one corner of his mouth.

“Humor.” He looks me in the eyes, a good trick with my Face on. “I don’t get much of that around here. It is a quality unexpected in one of your craft.”

I cross my arms in the way that signals I will not draw my weapon first. “What does your orry do?”

“And curious too.” He turns away from me to regard his device. If my purpose were to exchange my life for his, this would be the moment. His attention returns to me. “Some would call it a pass-time. It is, in fact, my industry. What is your name, Slayer?” A subtle and powerful question.

“My nee’m has named me T’choct ot U’chah ne.”

“A worthy successor to the appellation,” he says, nodding. Those piercing eyes search me for a moment, then sweep the room. So do mine. Brin is nowhere to be seen.

“With no disrespect intended, I believe I will call you “Fist’. It is less a mouthful. Do you mind?”

“It is an honor to be so recognized, Lord Lecudis.”

“You have achieved that which some would have deemed impossible before this turn. Merely to be standing where you are now is a feat of extraordinary ability,” again finding my eyes with his, “and courage. I wish to recognize your valiant accomplishment.”

My warder, Barth, taught us early in our training about recognition and accolades being often delivered posthumously. I recall my death saying something similar. To hear this now is disquieting.

“Solva casting White,” Shiric says, gesturing toward the simulacrum of Hevn. “What an isolated and extraordinary manifestation. Are you aware that she has shown this face to Hevn only once in seventy-seven yonn? Spectacular, isn’t it?”

“Her hint at Gog-rise was dazzling.”

“I would imagine. How very coincidental that something so rare would occur on the cusp of your equally unlikely arrival here, of all possible places you could be. Would you not say so?”

“I had considered it more foretoken than coincidence.”

Once more, Shiric seems to stare through my Face into me. “Misapprehensions abound,” he says and glides past me in a ripple of black and tan robes, showing me his back once more, staring into the dust and the system of moving orbs above his head. “You asked what my orrery does, an intelligent question.” He levels a questioning glance over his shoulder, motions with his head. “Come, Fist, let me show you,” he says and approaches the bright centerpiece of his device as though I am not the Fist of White Light behind him.

The Master of Kal’un Shiir’n honors me. I am still alive and there are wonders yet to behold. I can see no reason not to behold them. Without being able to see his feet, I follow his steps as best I can.

The great luminous glowb hangs above us, larger in diameter than a trocc’s shield. I can see its surface is agitated with whorls and eddies, it seems a writhing skin of tiny storms, all of them bursting with light. He turns to me a’quarter and, with a gesture, indicates a featureless, insignificant blot almost imperceptible against the incandescent mass of the glowb. He fashions a lens between his hands and holds it for me to see within.

The blot is a sphere also. It appears to be composed of the same medium as its larger companion, a churning surface with light boiling from it. They are bound together by a slender tether of their shared substance.

Another lens forms in Shiric’s other hand, focused on a different orb, this one further from the glowb and from us. I can see it with my own enhancements. In fact, I can see almost the entirety of Shiric’s construct now from this vantage. More spheres of different size and natures encircle the central glowb at a distance and circulate around the chamber. None appear to intersect the Black current. None appear to be what I have come for.

The Master of Kal’un Shiir’n watches me with arms folded into the sleeves of his robes. He nods toward the second lens, hanging motionless in air before me. Imaged within it is a jewel, a bright blue marble with unrecognizable shapes embossed upon its surface. The marble rotates upon itself by some unseen mechanism. As it does so, a single companion body, much smaller, pocked and drab, turns slowly around it even as the pair move together around the central glowb.

Shiric reaches out to touch the lens with a finger and it deforms. The odd shapes on the surface are magnified, resolving into contours and elevations, like those I have studied on relief maps of Hevn’s topography. If consistent, these random, irregular shapes might represent uplands and downs and channons and the blue might even suggest vast pools of water… all overlayed onto a sphere, for the sake of ONE! I cannot help but shake my head in amusement at such a preposterous notion. What am I thinking? Yet, the texture and detail of the view have such depth, it would be intriguing to investigate. Instead, I withdraw and observe Shiric observing me.

“This level of intricacy must serve a purpose,” I say.

With an outstretched hand, Shiric indicates the simulacrum of Hevn, only a toss away from us. “You see this construct as a representation of your world, do you not? And it is, in a sense, an accurate reflection of it. In another very real sense, the world you know is a reflection of this one.” He is considering the model, not me. “I find it unnecessary to discriminate anymore, since I made them both.”

“You. Made Hevn.” I am unsuccessful muffling the incredulity in my voice.

“I know what your histories teach you, young Fist, but in truth, every hecs, the Colors, the Wells, even U’chah Ela’e that you call Soulbridge, all but the Colorless lands were deliberately set in place by my hand.”

“You made the White Well, but not the White lands?”

“You are correct. The White Well was a natural and necessary balance. However, as seems the reality everywhere and always, there were others who felt compelled to meddle in my affairs, in my work and my art, and their interference, their distortion of my original design, resulted in this world, the Hevn you know. It has taken a great deal of time and concentrated energy to reestablish the connection between the two, but I have had a great deal of time and, as you can see, energy is not a concern. The two have been one for nearly an a’yonn and I have had opportunity since to renew my true work in an exciting new direction.”

He waits for me to speak. I do not know what to say.

“In the same fashion that Hevn and its reflection are the same,” he says, “this reflection has a counterpart as well.” The lensed image of the blot is in his hand again, held for me to see it drawing radiant energy through the umbilicus. “This little world, was formed within its sun some many yonn before you were conceived, and pressed outward into the cradle orbit you see now.”

Its sun? A world in the shape of an orb circling a bright sun? What manner of fantasy is this? A toy? A game? His ‘industry’, he called it. How can this be? And where could they be? Somewhere beyond the Night? That is preposterous and none of it relevant to my purpose here. The Book of Turns tells us there is only Hevn, Gog, the Trae Occu, and the Night beyond, and the Night is boundless. The Enemy watches me strive to unpack this mystery. For each new wonder locked away in this room, so many more questions. How am I to contain them all?

“That tiny sphere is a world?”

Shiric waves a casual hand across the chamber, indicating the other components of his construct. “They all are.”

I notice my hands falling limply to my sides. The motion makes the left one throb. My head and body feel the same. I hear a distant voice exclaim, “Worlds!” Whoever it is sounds stupid.

Shiric’s manner is disconcerting. Of course, he may be toying with me; I have not forgotten he is t’sungahn, not t’sunguc. More than human. And the Oldest Enemy, after all. We are, all of us, bred and trained to be his adversaries. I should not believe him.

Discounting, for the moment, his revelation about Hevn, the scope of Shiric’s orry moving in slow procession above me represents, he says, a revitalization of his ‘true work’. I am seeing it with my own eyes within a place no one, certainly no t’sunguc like myself, would ever be expected to see it or, like a fool, touch it. I look to the model of Hevn and the intimate detail of its surface—the endless Grand Cascade and the contours of the under-world none living have seen, Gog’s ponderous representation, and the Trae Occu circling Hevn’s image right here within, just as they do without. I see no place for spherical worlds and bright suns.

“Where are they?”

He takes a slow breath, as if deciding whether to grace my ignorance with an answer. “Not here,” he says at last, “and yet, like Hevn, they are here. Do you understand?”

The troubling thing is, I do. He is saying there is a real place that is not-here.

He is animated now. “Very soon, Fist, this newly-formed little world will be released from its cradle and forced out into its own orbit. When that occurs, as has happened many times before, all of its siblings will have to make room. It is of moderate size relative to its neighbors and will require a good deal of space. The out-pressing shift will be quite energetic and will change the nature and character of all these other worlds—those closest to it, rather dramatically. Can you imagine it? To be able to observe these cataclysmic events as they unfold? It is one of the most rewarding elements of my work.”

I do not fully understand his talk of energetic shifts and cataclysmic events affecting worlds some unfathomable elsewhere, but I believe I can imagine the attraction it may present. His enthusiasm is real.

“Except for the Wells, which I fashioned myself, every segment of Hevn’s surface was harvested from worlds just like this one.” He indicates the second lens, still suspended motionless where I last saw it, but he little blue marble has turned its face while I wasn’t looking.

A noticeable discoloration beside one of the blue ‘seas’, resolves into a hecs’gonal stamp upon the map of the little orb’s surface. How very strange to see this familiar, natural shape in such an anomalous setting.

“This world in particular is exceptional, a rare and delicate treasure. I have been watching it for some time. I’ve reached out to it, tested it, and very soon now, as I have done in the past, I will collect a seed from it and plant it here in Hevn’s soil.”

It is a simple puzzle with very few parts. “Sinder,” I say.

“Oh!” For a moment he regards me with undisguised pleasure. “Oh, well done, young Fist! Well done!” Shiric’s attention shifts to Hevn’s image, to the blue marble, and back to me. “Failed Sinder will cease to be and, in its place, something new and wonderful. I can hardly wait to see it.”

“Nor can I,” I agree.

His laugh bursts from him rich with mirth, reverberating off the walls of the chamber for several long moments and flutters to the floor like a lost bird. I can guess at the joke.

“You are the most delightful guest I’ve had in a very long time. The humans I employ are either fearful, unimaginative drones or presume themselves so cunning and indispensable that conversation with them is like playing Nexis with a child, tedious and unrewarding. And the moct’unguc—have you ever tried to converse with any of them?” He shakes his head. Snowy locks fall in his face and he combs them back with his fingers. He claps his hands, rubs them together. White eyebrows arch as if a thought had just surprised him and he asks, “So, my friend, would you like to see the treasure that’s brought you all this way?”

There is, apparently, no end to the revelations this turn and I can see no reason to be discourteous to the reputed enemy of all life on Hevn.

“You honor me, Lord Lecudis.”

“I’m afraid you’ll be disappointed.”

He motions for me to follow and leads me back to the edge of the Black maelstrom at the room’s core. I am so close to the flow of dark force that, beneath my armor, my skin is trying to drag me away from it whether I want to go or not. I most definitely do. And, curiously, I do not.

The reason I do not, I notice myself thinking with some certainty, is that the Black flow and the whisps of power appearing to flag from its periphery, will not harm me, but would, instead, embrace and empower me in incomprehensible ways. It is in such a way my death reminds me not to believe everything I think.

 I follow Shiric’s eyes. Suspended within the hecs opening above me, at the periphery of the flow, an eddy of writhing Black threads is in flux, constantly being created and dissipating around a cube the size of an infant’s fist. Its surfaces are smooth, muted gray, unimpressive.

“Not much to look at, is it?”

I cannot answer. My death is beside me and she, too, wants to know if this drab trinket is what I have risked everything to find.

Shiric is as close to me as the fury of the Black force. “Do you know what it is, Fist?” His words are conversational, patient. He is in no hurry. “I mean, do you comprehend the nature of the thing you were sent to retrieve?”

“Every child of the White knows this,” I say. “The Argent Flame was sent here with The Fayne in the first cycle of Hevn to be his weapon against the rising tide of unrestrained t’sungocc, Helmouth’s expanding influence, and a symbol of the power of the Lords of Order. After the Naijin Accords, The Flame was set as the centerpiece of the Counsel Hall at High Seat. Two hundred eighty-seven yarnn past, it was stolen and the Hall destroyed in a breach of His Law by your own…”

Shiric holds up a hand. “Your rote history is tediously accurate up to this point, but you have no understanding of the truth about Tu’chah-j’toc.”

He stares at the thing floating in the space above as if he is speaking to it, rather than to me. “It is not an object to be possessed. Nor will it confer its power to any and all who hold it. It is an entity, you see; one constrained by its nature to fulfill a purpose. Its course may be directed by agreement, but it has its own will and it has the power to define the manner in which it will fulfill that purpose.”

“What purpose?”

“Another good question, Fist, and one without a good answer. Whatever agreement was struck between Tu’chah-j’toc and the so-called Lords of Order, only they know. Undoubtedly the Fayne knew as well when they assigned him to bring order to Hevn, but your nee’m is not that one. The first Fayne died half an age ago defending the Hall as it was destroyed by, as it turns out, a very different sort of threat, not of my making. I merely seized the opportunity to take the prize then, with the intention of bending it to my own will and purpose. I have been unsuccessful. I believe now that if circumstances favorable to its intent were to align, it might even be able to undo much of my work and, of course, that I cannot allow. I would destroy it in a heartbeat and be done with it if I could, but as you can see, Tu’chah-j’toc will not allow itself to be unmade.”

I cannot but wonder at The Enemy’s motive for such candid show and tell. Maybe I am the only person he has engaged in substantive conversation for untold yarnn, but almost assuredly it is because he knows I will never leave this chamber. If this obscure thing he claims is the Argent Flame is a snare, why not a more compelling one? Shiric, with his resources, could surely fashion a better decoy than this piece of Dimmstone.

“It is a vexation to me, but I will not allow my Enemy to have it back to use against me. I am sorry your sacrifices were for nothing, young warrior, but here it is and here it will stay.”

Again, and with disturbing accuracy, he seems to find my eyes. “I would see your true face,” he says and once more I am dancing the blade edge. The shard of chance is spinning crazily.

“The air here is not good for me.”

“It won’t matter.”

“Then I will go to Soulbridge with my Face on.”

“As you prefer, T’choct ot U’chah ne. It is the least I could grant The Fayne’s intrepid champion.”

A massive triangular ripple in the air frames a d’moni officer, a Blue that resolves and kneels before his nee’m. The phantom shape is gone without ever having been there.

Their exchange is hushed, ardent. I can hear enough of the Blue’s rasping report of the conflict below us. Intruders spread deeper into the Keep than expected… losses and damage… concern for his master’s safety.

Shiric waves a dismissive hand. The mocc straightens, towering over his nee’m in an attitude of relaxed attention, but his eyes are on me.

“Your Brethren are much like yourself, young Fist, imaginative, unyielding warriors all. A powerful force to have running unchecked through my halls. It is fortunate that I have a far greater number of expendable resources with which to meet them.”

“This is no siege breaking upon your outer rampart, Black Lord. The Brethren will bring this tower down around you.”

“A remote possibility, but I thought you would have grasped the larger view by now, White Fly. If they do that,” he spreads his arms to indicate his orry surrounding us, “all of these worlds will perish.” Again the blue-green gaze. “Including yours.”

Here is a novel thought, one that could not have occurred to me before this moment. If I were to believe Shiric’s fantastic story of spherical worlds and bright suns and Hevn’s conception and its intimate reflection here in this place, then in no way could I have considered the consequences should these constructs be damaged. I am considering it now.

“Lord Lecudis,” I say, searching for words I never thought to put in order before. “In my ignorance, I did not balance the weight of these shadow-worlds against the cost of my success or failure. I have failed my aca’chi and my nee’m. My life is rightly forfeit, but I think neither of us wants the end of this world, or any other, this-turn. Allow the Brethren to disengage. Upon your Word, they will withdraw at once from the tower, from Kal’un Shiir’n, and from the Black Land complete.”

“Never to return.”

“I swear it.”

He regards me in unhurried silence. His features are inscrutable.

“I don’t know. Should I accept your life for theirs, there would be talk among my subordinates of an uncharacteristic clemency. It would set an awkward and unsupportable precedent. Next thing you know, I’ll be out on the parapet dabbling in watercolors. Perhaps, instead, I shall simply flood my home with the breath of the Well. Your master can begin afresh building a terrible new Hammer, and then expend that one against me as well.

“So many courageous young lives wasted. And for what?” He extends one long, articulate finger upward. “That?”

The sleeve of his garment has fallen back to reveal stark tatting on his flesh, razor lines in unrecognizable patterns. I have the sense he is not talking to me alone anymore, but his eyes are on me and, in them, I see the shard of chance balanced on its point. I am sensing an outrageous path. It requires immediate action.

Right or wrong, live or die, in this moment the act itself is pure, and it is done.

“Let it go!” Shiric’s voice compels obedience.

Did he just read my thoughts? Did he perceive, or was that merely the conclusion of his extemporaneous speech?

Perhaps for the last time, I breathe wholesome air and remove my Face.


Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Into Helmouth

I have the sensation of falling. My descent is roughly the width of my outstretched hand, but I plop with a graceless, reflexive jolt into a resilient surface. It was a moving target, after all.

I am in the rear seating area, just behind the pilot. Next to me is a startled t’sunguc, a Gray human. He is a stick figure, attired in the standard black and tan uniform of those in The Enemy’s employ. No insignia. An observer. He has a narrow, hairless head with a nose like an axe set between tiny, close-set black eyes. These are presently wide with surprise. The creature’s mouth is a lipless slash, partly open as if about to utter a command or warning. His head jerks to observe Brin in the front next to the pilot. One of her hands is pressed against the pilot’s head, the other might be in his lap. The observer swallows hard and turns back to consider me. His eyes are narrowed, filled with hatred.

My Face is featureless, so by way of clarification, I raise my weapon and cause the barrel to flare open as it telescopes toward his head, enough he can glimpse and feel the core of fury within. No heavy projectile for this one. I would not wish to blow out the side of our misappropriated transport. There are more finely controlled energies at my disposal. I am rewarded with a cringe and a satisfying ripple of fear across his disagreeable features.

“Rather than paint your quadrant of this fine craft with you, Observer, consider this. You may yet live to see the next turn. I have no pressing desire to end you, but know that if you betray our presence before we can beg an audience with your nee’m, no force on Hevn, not even he who owns you, can stop this one,” I indicate Brin with a nod, “from taking you to the edge of the world and hurl you screaming into the Night.”

The gash under his nose opens again, but slack this time.

Brin, finished with the pilot, swivels her seat to face the man. He recoils. I flair the last muzzle segment with a sharp, deliberate clack. His attention divided, she clasps the sides of his head and I snub my weapon.

In every life, moments arrive that test one’s spirit. These moments are the culmination of choices made in this direction or in that connection, but always come down to an instant, that shard of chance, in which every subsequent outcome pivots on a decision made balanced on the edge a blade. There is no preparation for such an instant, there is only the willingness to act with complete commitment and trust in one’s own ability.

Faith is a word. I think it is meant to suggest the clarity of perception one obtains by acting in just such a way and, over time, the certainty that no matter the result of the act, live or die, the act itself is in harmony with the intent and flow of Source; it is, in that moment, pure and potent.

My body relaxes as the air-car whispers its way into the inner kal. My mind reminds me how vulnerable we are here and wants to dart to every possibility of failure. What if…? Will we be immobilized by dark forces before either of us can react or simply be struck from the turbid sky by black lightning?

I am aware of this wheel in my surface-mind spinning itself aimlessly. It is natural and I give it no weight. My heart is light. My choice is made, and I shall flow with it until the next choice presents itself.

No dark lightning reaches out to consume us. No phalanx of defenders rushes to surround our craft as it settles into its berth. More than half of the dozen bays are occupied by similar craft, but for the moment, the dock is without activity. Brin waits apart by the moored air-car with the pilot and the observer and I approach the bay’s threshold.

Above, the canopy billows and coils like a bowl of snayks, illuminated at intervals by vented flame from below and energies raging within. It is like the river at the Sor’n Gate, but inverted. Yet, against all reason, the air here is clear and without turbulence. I risk one step out onto that sheer calm to see just beyond the dock’s verge what none of the Brethren have ever seen.

It is so close that, were there sufficient light, I might see my reflection in its mirror-perfect surface, but it is darker than black, as if carved from Gog’s own matter. The central spire of Kal’un Shiir’n rises without blemish, seam, or portal from its prodigious circular base to a needle point. It pierces the festering sky and, around it, chained lightning seems not to radiate, but to gather. The Black Lord’s stronghold. His throne. His prison.

I comprehend the implications of the scene. Shiric’s spire is built directly atop the Black Well and all the incomprehensible power of that elemental mystery is channeled and concentrated, coursing through it. To Him. Shiric Mael’efac Lecudis. The Oldest Enemy.

I motion to my guardian and she approaches. She steps out onto the air beside me and takes in the majestic abomination that is The Enemy’s keep. I see that she too understands and she steps back into the dock.

Master, do you see this?‘ my silent sending.

Ha’eh, my Fist. I see it.‘ My Lord Fayne’s whisper is velvet thunder in the back of my head. ‘Press on. I have provided a distraction for him. Nine of the Brethren and their Gifted have breached the Nor’nees Gate and cut a path toward the inner kal. They and fifty more await your sign.

There is nothing more to say, or see.

A distant patter resolves into the sound of running feet in the access corridor to the rear of the dock. Brin briefly palms the forehead of each of the hostages and climbs into our moored craft with the pilot. Shiric’s man and I stride unhurriedly toward the access alcove.

A clutch of humans in black and tan rush into the dock with undisciplined disregard for the possibility that a real adversary may be close enough to dispatch all of them. By their attire I make them five pilots and an equal number of observers, like my hatchet-faced companion of the moment. They barely notice us in their haste to launch themselves into the melee my mighty Brothers have brought to their front door.

Hunched, slump-shouldered, head bowed, eyes down, hair spilling over my face, I shuffle along ahead of the observer. His eyes are dull and his jaw slack, but he walks with convincing deliberation, ‘guiding’ me along the margin of a high, wide, and brightly lit passageway with the pilot’s blaster pressed into my back.

The light-bending properties of my cloak would only aid in bringing attention to our already curious tableau. Instead, it presents a mottled Gray appearance. It looks filthy and drapes around me with a sodden heaviness. I have removed my Face, an obvious giveaway, and have resolved to breathe little; the air here is fierce. I am just another victim shambling toward the Pit. The wavering portal at the end of this corridor seems very far away.

There are a few humans, Blacks mostly, a few Grays, traveling these intersecting ways. Those few appear to be functionaries, studiously oblivious to us.

As we approach the crossing of another major way, a growing clamor from the leftmost course prompts me to stop. My captor blunders into my back and rebounds, but keeps his feet under him. A cadence of boots and shod hooves and a rhythmic clap of armor and weapons reverberate in these broad halls as two tightly regimented cadres of Black d’moni cross our path just ahead. I keep my head down.

The moct’unguc code has been seeded into every Color, where they spawn in modest numbers and great variety. The characteristics of the species, even their general appearance, may be vastly different from one Color to the next and, as with people, their individual natures depend on environment as much as their genetic bias. What they all seem to have in common is a predisposition to despise and, whenever practical to do so, kill the t’sunguc. In High Speech, it means “the lesser”, humans. Whether they be neutrals from the Gray lands or Color-born, humans have nothing in common with d’monii beyond a general physiological similarity and mutual abhorrence. These moccs spawned in the Black lands are berserkers bred only for combat. Here are forty-eight of them.

Both squads charge past at double-time and, if any notice us, we are of no consequence.

As if in counterpoint, a raggedy gaggle of troccs comes lumbering behind them, driven by d’moni handlers. The knuckle-dragging Troct’unguc-she’chah are huge, the smallest of them head and shoulders above their overseers. From their pin heads to their powerful legs and enormous feet, they look like walking pyramids. Dim-witted and pugnacious, what they lack in intelligence they more than make up for in physical strength, resilience, and a near-mindless appetite for violence. Only judicious applications of bribery and torment keep them in rudimentary check. This herd stampedes past without noticeable organization, but their handlers keep them moving forward and that is, apparently, enough. All are heavily outfitted. Some carry what amount to artillery slung over sloping shoulders, others lug, swing, or drag along personal armaments. All wear cobbled-together pieces of black and tan armor and they gallop past with a blissfully stupid expression on their malformed, idiot faces.

I hate these creatures at an instinctive level. For an instant I struggle against the ridiculous urge to draw my weapon and go to work on this mob, but it passes with the last of them pounding out of sight, no doubt to bolster the inner kal’s defense.

I am about to congratulate myself on the success of my camouflage when the last of the troccs’ handlers, a hulking Red, halts in the middle of the crossroads glaring at the two of us with ferocious orange eyes. A symbol tattooed beneath her left eye marks her as an officer.

On cue, my captor stiff-arms me from behind using the blaster as a prod and I manage to stumble forward convincingly. Our goal is only a cast away. Together we step out into the crossroad and past the d’moni captain. She clamps a scaly hand on the shoulder of Shiric’s agent, speaking in a strident language I know all too well. I maintain a submissive posture. I believe she is poised for me to give myself away. I also know that in moments, the fog will lift from my hostage’s mind and I still require him to open the portal.

I look up, just a sidelong glance, enough for her to see my face, see what I am. She stops barking at the observer and looks confused, then alarmed, probably by the node I formed inside her throat. She jolts, releasing the observer, and powerful, spastic hands reach out. One grasps my cloak, the other, her throat. I put my Face back on. Recognition and disbelief collide in her eyes and she arches to deliver a crushing blow that never falls. I leave her crumpled against the nearest wall where she will be found by the next passer-by, unmarked.

The observer is beginning to shake and mumble. I grab him by his twig of an arm and hustle him the remaining distance to the portal at the end of the hall. He does not resist.

The exchange with the Red captain, brief as it was, has brought my captive’s consciousness closer to the surface and, with it, a foggy notion that he may have done something to displease the Black Lord. Fear is a terrible motivator, and he is far less afraid of me than he is of his nee’m. He fights me now for control of his mind and body so desperately, in fact, that blood is seeping from his nostrils and urine is streaming down the front of his uniform trousers. Without Brin’s talents, I will lose this fight.

I feel almost sorry for this wretched little man, an insignificant one among a legion of Shiric’s sharp little ears and beady little eyes to listen and observe, cruel lipless mouths to report or convey orders, all valuable only because they can do what Shiric himself cannot. They can leave this place. The price for that freedom is, of course, they must return. My charge is now struggling to fulfill that imperative.

Circumstances have evolved to separate me from Brin. I cannot complete my mission without her. Once this portal closes behind me, it is sealed, and she will not be able to reach me. Nor, without her, will I be able to open a new portal for the Brethren inside the tower. Entrapped alone inside the power conduit of the Helmouth Well with The Enemy and his marshals arrayed against me is not exactly how I would choose my song to end. Although, it would make a stirring song, would it not?

We stand together, Shiric’s creature and I, inside this numinous gateway bridging the space between where we were and where we are going, as if they were separate realities. I feel sorry for him, but I need the portal to remain open just a little longer. His body contorts with the violence of the struggle within. Long, boney fingers of one hand tangle in a kind of knot that resolves itself into a gesture, a pass, and bloody too-thin lips open to speak the Word that matches the symbol he has made in air. I solidify a node inside his mouth large enough to wrench his jaw open. He raises the blaster and triggers it. Nothing happens. I take it away from him.

For many in the human lands, the measurement of the passage of time is important. There are several methods devised to accomplish this, all employing some arbitrary context to define incremental cycles. Nearly all, however, are based upon the one unchanging sequence: the transit of the black sun across the Night above and below the world. While advanced cultures throughout the Colors have found more complex measurements useful, the Brethren have always preferred natural rhythms as points of temporal reference. Heartbeat, breath, internal tempo in accord with the cadences of the world each lend themselves to synchronicity with it. Silent knowledge follows. These were some of my earliest lessons.

One slow breath in and out. Tension flows with it from the body into nothing. Eyes close, muscles relax.

Another long breath. Weapon fills my hand. Shield raises.

And another. Air swirls beside me as Brin blinks in. The gag in my hostage’s mouth dissolves into nothing and he chokes out the Word. The portal closes there and opens here.

I am the Fist of White Light, flung from my master’s hand into the heart of darkness. I am swift, bright death to His enemies.

The unnatural doorway melts open and the hapless observer crumples to the floor.

The portal foyer is a broad semi-hecs chamber, large enough to accommodate all of the squads I saw pass by on my way here. At once. Or something much larger.

We are not alone. Three moccs in black and tan, a team in place to monitor and, ostensibly, guard the portal, seem unprepared for our arrival. The first and closest to me may have seen what hit him. The other two, at opposite segments of the room’s arc, shake off their disbelief and open up with weird, organic-looking weapons, but I am already in the air. They train their weapons upward to track me. Brin looses two bolts and the skirmish is over.

She reaches out to me as I touch down and our hands twine in a Sign. We speak the separate Words our nee’m spoke to us. A ring of White energy leaps outward, expanding unimpeded by material or ward, across and beyond the boundaries of Helmouth even unto the Edge where the Night must surely be torn by its passage. Such is The Fayne’s authority. The way is open and the sign is given.

At each end of the portal foyer, where the sentries had been posted, vaulted archways remain standing, mostly, as the only points of egress. Beyond is a pitch-dark, cavernous space. My enhancements allow little beyond shadow shapes and much movement. A cry rises, taken up by an unseen host. A low thunder of feet, hooves, wheels, clattering armor and weapons precedes a stream of troccs rushing us from each of the arches, howling, brandishing an impressive array of slashing and pummeling implements. Projectiles ping off my shield, some of them heavy enough to feel. None of them even close to a drak carcass in freefall.

I open the throat of my weapon and a beam of white fury carves a tunnel through the troop pounding in from the left, lighting up the space beyond. I see the scale of the place. It is enormous and teeming with The Enemy’s minions. I allow an extra beat or two to sweep the beam through some of them before it cuts off. The rest of the archway collapses.

The herd charging in from the other direction has begun to bunch up as I turn their flanking column to ashen mist. Their d’moni handlers, cursing and prodding, are attempting to get the brutes to fan out. They see me snub my weapon to my hip and open my arms to them and they are swift to seize the moment. Their charges launch at us again.

A hail of projectiles presses me back and I shape a node as large as I am able, making it a gyre. I send it hard into a surging wave of gibbering meat. A satisfying amount of blundering and sprawling occurs before the gyre implodes with an innocuous thud.

Air screams into the sudden emptiness and the brutes give voice to an unfamiliar instant of panic. Brin and I hold our ground until the vortex subsides. Weapons, armor, flesh and bone are homogenized into an amorphous wad of metal and gristle simmering in a shallow pit. It is not large, maybe only a dozen were drawn into the gyre’s heart. A good number more on the extremity are down. The remainder of the mob is disorganized, some fleeing over top of their handlers.

Farther back from the actual event, blistering profanity and threats, both dire and plausible, begin to stir enthusiasm for mayhem once again. Any mayhem. It is their nature. The handlers are overrun as the Brethren and their Guardians together have followed our beacon through the breach we’ve made and begin pouring into the fray. They fan outward through the remaining troccs and their d’moni guard, through the vestibule’s outer wall, and into the tower’s defenses beyond. Swon jinks in with Orlah beside her. He shoulders into me. Behind his own Face, he is grinning like a maniac.

“Just like you to leave little for us to do,” he shouts over the mounting clamor.

No blood-chilling battle-cry or clarion blare is raised to herald their arrival and wither the defenders’ resolve. The Faceless are silent and final. Yet so, the low, pulsing concussion of heavy projectile weapons, the crack and fizzle of energy cannon, and a brisant hail of bolts are punctuated by the thrum of implosion vortices, as some of my brothers have learned the gyre’s shaping as well.

I can hear them all singing. The Sisters too. I hear them in the tap. And into the tap I tell them, ‘These are all low fruit. Shiric’s marshals have not yet joined and, by The Fayne’s grace, we are here to greet them. Bring it down.

Orlah punches my chest as Swon charges into him and they are gone in a shimmer. Unlike my brother, Swon is the thinker and, just like my own guardian, she knows how to deploy him to greatest effect.

I blow out the alcove ceiling and Brin and I glide through into the chamber above.

It is dark, cluttered with inanimate shapes and, for the moment, we are unopposed. We hug to the curve of the outer wall where it joins the next level above, Brin feeling her way without haste, searching for something our nee’m assured us would be here. Somewhere.

Reverberations from the battle spreading through the halls below precede eruptions into this level. Blazes and multiple flashes give us enough to see the tell-tales of the tween we are seeking. Brin heads toward it and I follow, covering behind.

A susurration at the edge of my awareness gains volume and dimension. It sounds like a rasping, in-drawn breath by some behemoth, one like the first gatekeeper, only more profound and… agonizing. It seems to be coming from everywhere. Coincident with this great inhalation, comes a riot of panicked cries below us and the clamor of hundreds of feet and hooves scattering, retreating in all directions. Complete disarray.

It feels as though all sound has been sucked away from us.

A screaming thunderclap roar, a raw wail of rage and horror and inhuman suffering breaks upon us like a sustained explosion, pitched to draw blood. There is, in it, the concussive force of Hav’k pounding a Churn-side seawall and the mind-numbing cacophony of a chaos storm. I am disconcerted to find myself on the floor.

My head feels split open and I do not know if it is blood or tears streaming inside my Face. Something is moving among the Brethren stunned or damaged by their proximity to that deadly siren. The tap does not filter their last instants of terror and fury as they are consumed by what they never saw. Shiric’s marshals have come to fight us.

Brin drags me upright and up into the tween. I let her haul me long enough to shake out the blur in my vision. The motion awakens a throbbing in my head and my body is beginning to respond to being pummeled into the soil not that long ago. I have no time for pain. We continue upward through darkened spaces, haste and caution in equal measure. The harrowing voice rises up again, but a distant agony this time, curtailed by a muted rumble of explosions. The battle has bought us time.

Brin turns to me in the air and pulls me to a stop, signing a warning. The way continues upward, but it is warded. I would not have seen that.

Our feet touch down in a high chamber only as broad as the Judgement Arena at High Seat. A large glowb hangs suspended a cast away, providing the sole illumination. The room’s circumference and the pitch of its tapering walls indicate we must be very near the apex of the spire. Outside these walls, wild energy scours the glassy surface, a subliminal thunder. Shiric’s sanctum must be above us.

No defenders wait to engage us, but the space is not empty. A scattering of worktables, their surfaces strewn with engines and objects I cannot identify, commands the area near us. Beyond them, a pillar of darkness pierces the center of the chamber.

Brin is scanning the surroundings, feeling for the intangible pressure of violent intention. She leans in, touches her Face to mine and, in that place behind my senses, I hear her. ‘I need a minnit to renew.’

Each of her expenditures have a cost and she has expended much. Even inside this keep with its Seals and wards, the flow of Source cannot be cut off. She leans her back against the wall and slides into a squat.

I snub my weapon and put my back to the wall, easing down beside her. Arms across her knees cradling her head, she does not look up. I remove my Face. The air is hot with a biting, metallic edge. It will not do to take it in deeply, nor for long. I wipe the congealing blood from my face.

In my pouch I have a draught that will restore vitality for a time. I am sure Brin has her own, but I offer to share mine with her and she accepts it. Without hesitation she removes her Face, wipes blood from her mouth, drains half the flask, and hands it back. She replaces her Face and lays her head back in her arms.

I swallow half the remaining liquid and, donning my Face again, stand to investigate The Enemy’s workshop. The thing I seek is near; I can feel it. I don’t know why.

“Let me know if anything comes to kill us,” she breathes to the floor.


Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

Knocking On Helmouth’s Door

I am standing upon the edge of a sheer promontory overlooking Helmouth, waiting for the black sun to lift above the edge of the world. I am waiting for a sign.

I have been waiting here twenty-three turns. Some would find such protracted expectancy tedious. They are not with me. I will hold this space as long as I am able. Waiting, I have sung my prayers, sat with my death, and from her drawn strength and perspective. She is without concern for moments past, or those to come.

Far beneath me, the basin valley is blanketed with the black breath of the Well at its heart. Random bursts of flame and unchained energies illuminate the boiling poisons from below.

The air presses and swirls around me, brushing my face, fanning my hair, filling my nostrils—sweet, without a trace of the taint driven on the scouring winds beneath my vantage. In this place, the gust precedes the rising. If a sign is to come this turn, it will be now at the black sun’s first glance over the nor’n edge.

The horizon blazes with a halo of purest white barely longer than it takes to tell of it. Shiric’s Fangs, towering in the distance, are set in stark relief against the featureless dark of the void by that single, brilliant flash. Even as the afterimage of those spires fades from my vision, a sliver of darkness blacker than the Night, peeks above the rim of the world.

At the touch of Gog’s power, ghostly hues coruscate among the edge lands. A wave of dancing colors floods across the surface of Hevn, and, as the wake passes through, the ground beneath my feet begins to show its own Color. Great Gog rises, a grand silhouette. I don my battledress, my weapons, my cloak, and my Face as the land around me radiates a deep crimson cast.

The Brethren and Guardians have seen the white aurora as well and I send a gesture across the distances separating us. Events precipitated hundreds of yarnn past speed now toward conclusion. I embrace the air beyond the precipice and drop into the cloud squirming against Helmouth’s walls.

A viscous wind sluices past me as I plummet in darkness. I am not afraid. The confrontation approaching summons me. There is an implacable peace flowing to me from my own discipline and precision. I feel the influence of my nee’m, The Lord Fayne, and encompassing that, the everywhere-presence of Source. Their power blends within me, coursing, resonating like a chord. I am the Fist of White Light, flung from my master’s hand into the heart of darkness. I am swift, bright death to his enemies.

Beneath the effluent of Helmouth’s engines, I alter my trajectory. Straight as a beam I hurl myself low across the blasted landscape toward the outer wall of the mighty kal’un surrounding the Well. Monolithic black ramparts loom ahead, their upper reaches cloaked in whorls of smog. Spaced at intervals along these faceless, carved cliffs are buttresses of dark metal, dully reflecting jets of flame and plumes of incandescent gas escaping from exhaust ports along their pitted spines. Each outflung structure terminates in a watchtower. I observe regimented activity in and around these outpost garrisons and upon the interconnecting roadways, but I am unconcerned with it. I am invisible – just another wraith in a land that spawns wraiths like bloodflies in a stagnant pool.

I could glide over top those lofty battlements and from there arrow straight to Helmouth’s heart, but ‘could’ already would have done so and did not. A Seal, an unlawful power set atop these fortifications, connects them to the void above the world. No living thing can cross that barrier. It has been tried.

Without slowing, I veer to parallel the wall at a distance. The Sor’n Gate is not far and if I am to breach the outer defense, that is where I will begin.

No alarm has yet been raised. My advance has been swift and direct. Alone, cloaked, and shielded, I must seem insignificant, a speck blown across a dark wasteland only to be dashed helplessly against the impregnable might of these colossal walls, if I am observed at all.

My boots settle into the dead soil of a low hillock of mostly heavy machine waste less than a chase from the Sor’n Gate. I stand among the fragments of a grove that once towered here, suffocated and shattered now.

Few of my Order have penetrated this far into The Enemy’s domain. No scout, no infiltrator has survived long enough to map its defenses. What is known has come from their efforts piecemeal and a few agents of The Enemy apprehended and put to the question, most often with little gained from the exchange. The Fayne’s far-seers apparently cannot see much here either. Even the Gifted do not attempt passage in this place after the first few who tried were lost, returned to us still lost, their taproots burned out.

I pause to observe and allow my symbiote to record the scene before me.

The Gate stands open outward by half from the palisade of the Outer Wall. It is composed of two solid slabs of smooth, unreflective material, preposterously large in comparison to any other kal’un’s gateway anywhere on Hevn. The means of their manufacture is beyond the scope of any known craft, except perhaps the secretive Methodists. This would be their work. I can only wonder what manner of creature or engine might be massive enough to require the use of such a portal.

Flanking the Gate on either side, stand a pair of sentinels carved of some dense black stone. Whether machined or shaped by uncommon means, I cannot determine, but each is a colossus, magnificent and grotesque, armor and scales and war faces from night-fever dreams. Each has been dressed out by untold ranks of artisans to an unexpected degree of detail.

A chase distant from the Gate in each direction, watchtowers thrust out onto the plain like flaming iron fists.

Behind the Gate, a mighty portcullis stands open only enough to issue a controlled stream of workers and vehicles in and out. Some of the vehicles are sleek, moving swiftly above the ground with obvious purpose, constructs of the Methodists as well, I have no doubt. Others are huge, lumbering machines. A convoy of them, laden with cargo, is heading ees-ward on the connecting highway with its accompaniment, armed and armored. I see also numerous gaunt, hollow-eyed humans crowded into carriers or walking in knots along a treacherous margin of this thoroughfare and intersection. Most of them are Grays. I note as well, striding unimpeded among the shuffling human foot-traffic, much larger, powerful figures in armor, the Moct’unguc-she’chah, those we call d’moni.

Visible behind the portcullis, layers of heavy industry are laced and interconnected by pipeline and conduit. Stacks belch fire and darkness. A precipitation of soot and particulate waste drifts everywhere within like a snow of shadows. The sounds of stone being ground to powder, screaming metal, and tormented lives issue from that portal.

A wide, turgid river winds across the ruined land this side of the Well. It springs pristine from the highlands of the Well basin’s nor’n rim. It falls into Helmouth and finds its way to the ground. It curves around Kal’un Shiir’n’s Outer Wall and past the bustling Nor’nees Gate, where it is bridged by a causeway. This much I know from my geographies and what has been gleaned. Steaming tributaries of waste vent from apertures along the base of the Outer Wall all along its sor’ward course to this dismal ditch. Here the river seems to ooze rather than flow between barren shores, a mottled pudding with phosphorescent eddies.

Drifts of caustic foam accumulate against desolate banks. Volatile elements combine beneath an undulating surface causing blisters to rise up and burst, disgorging a spew of sizzling, gelatinous venom and stains of brightly colored pus. A hidden current of some glowing goo surfaces, bursts into flame and folds under again, snuffed with a sibilant hiss. All along this serpentine midden, a fume rises. It swirls on a polluted breeze and settles as a haze in the lowlands. I am grateful I cannot smell this place.

Near my vantage point, the entire volume of the river funnels into a narrow chasm. The flood of chemical stew and slag cascades into the under-world in a maelstrom. A plume of corrosive vapors, ghosts of flame, and an endless guttural cry of despair mark its descent.

Arranged in a crude semi-hecs on the wasteland between the Gate and my place of concealment, a human settlement sprawls, bracketed by the guard towers and a questionable degree of separation from the river. It is a low, greasy-looking khenn. I note the patchwork of hives and hovels, the garish centers of social distraction, and the desperate, distorted beings huddled behind flimsy walls. I feel pity for them, and revulsion.

Movement on an unexpected scale steals my attention from the plight of these lives in the shadow of the Black Kal’un. I see the nature of it and my death is at my side, sharing with me this instant of disbelief.

Both of the gigantic monuments flanking the Gate have turned and are bending down, horrific heads cocked in an attitude of curiosity. Their gazes are fixed upon the hillock where I stand.

The left one straightens and lifts its head. Its mouth opens too wide, revealing rings of backward curving fangs. A wail splits air between us.

“Do you have a deathsong, Narregan?” my death asks.


“Begin singing it,” she says.

The giant to the right moves forward with an agility unimaginable in a thing so immense. One metal shod hoof crushes structures in the humans’ gate-khenn like grass. It shifts its weight and its right arm whips toward me. Attached to a ring in its fist is a cable and something the size of Gog itself is flailing down upon my hillock. I hear it tearing the air and feel the pressure of it as I am touched, turned out, and folded upon myself.

The sensation lasts but an instant. I feel the shockwave and hear the concussion of exploding terrain somewhere behind me. I turn to see a dark globe, bristling with spikes, buried in a crater where the hillock, my death, and I stood a moment before. A hail of rock and debris falls all around. I am untouched and realize these watchers may be able to detect my shield. I allow it to collapse, trusting my cloak and our position to obscure us.

‘You cannot always count on me to rescue you at the last instant, Warrior,’ Brin’s sending in the tap between us.

Brin. My Guardian. Each of the Brethren is bound to one. I am hers.

‘And yet, you continue to do so,’ I answer.

‘As do you, Warrior. I will stay with you now as closely as I can. Don’t move.’


‘Just wait.’

The gatekeepers are on the hunt. The first, having sounded warning, now advances onto the plain with a square-bladed headsman’s cleaver in each hand, each one as long as nine of me. Razor edges whisper through the air as it pivots, scanning the terrain with too many glowing amber eyes.

The other gatekeeper drags its mace free, plowing a furrow through what might have been a market district of the gate-khenn. It squats nearly to the ground, then begins to creep forward on all fours, low, its scaly muzzle only a span or two from rooftops, oblivious to the panic and devastation beneath it. Its head sweeps back and forth, nostrils flared. It makes a noise in its throat like boulders grinding together. Its face turns upon us. It roars and levers itself up and its weapon with it, whipping it around its body in a tight, screaming arc that will surely sweep us away.

Energy streams from Brin’s hands, her bolt severing the whipcord from the ring in the monster’s fist. Unbalanced, the giant topples backward onto Gate-side traffic, already in complete disarray. Uncontrolled, the hammerstar hurtles toward a new target. The first gatekeeper flinches back as it blurs past, a miss, but the trailing cable delivers a brutal lash across its chest, flinging it back against the rampart. Brin’s arms are outstretched, full attention fixed on the projectile, redirecting its course, augmenting its velocity. It has begun to glow.

Armed with a metal ring in its fist and raging, the nearest sentinel lurches up and toward us. I form a phantom node and seat it deep between the behemoth’s eyes. It takes a halting step forward, reaching. I solidify the node and quadruple its size. The thing’s forehead splinters. The top of its head splits apart. Half of it falls away in pieces. The colossus contorts and falls upon the gate-khenn, limbs thrashing.

The defenders of the outer kal have mobilized with impressive speed. A squadron of d’monii have begun to issue from out the Gate with a rolling gunship. An airborne combat platform swarming with smaller attack craft has already launched toward the fracas from the nearest garrison tower to our left. Too late.

Brin’s wild missile bludgeons through the approaching air-craft and slams into the watchtower. The resulting fireball reaches the outskirts of the gate-khenn and everything still airborne within the blast radius joins a cloud of shrapnel and slag expanding outward behind a punishing shockwave. I pull Brin to me and hold her close, my shield and hers reinforcing each other until the pelting diminishes. Brin is small and supple, resonating with power, and I indulge a peculiar sensation of peace the moment affords.

‘There is our way in,’ she says, and we jink again, unfolding a lingering instant later in a fracture high up in the Outer Wall, above where the buttress and watchtower used to be.

Still wrapped in my arms, Brin lifts her Face to mine. ‘Did you like my fireworks?’

‘Extravagant. You are an artist.’

She nods in unselfconscious agreement.

The remaining gatekeeper, its stony flesh cracked and pocked, one arm shattered away below the elbow, stands howling with rage and frustration, turning slowly, looking for something to kill. Looking for me and Brin.

She hooks my cloak, pulling me deeper into the cleft, and we begin picking our way through the crumbling material, unstable both above and below. The organized defenders will rush to secure the much larger breach lower down. There the concentrated force of the detonation, fed by severed pipelines of who-knows-what kind of combustible exhausts from deeper within the kal produced a rupture gaping in the heretofore impenetrable Outer Barrier. Big enough to let a small army in.

The far end of the fissure is a tight squeeze. I let my shield drop once more. We are high above the ground level of the outer kal, a full two chain high by my estimate—at least six hundred spans—and fairly wedged into a hairline crack in the great battlement. An insignificant scratch it must seem compared to the yawning damage where a squadron of d’moni-spawned constructors and grunt soldiers is beginning to converge below, arraying themselves to guard the aperture until repairs can be affected. No doubt The Enemy himself has turned his attention to the disturbance on his kal’un’s sor’n boundary.

An air-car approaches from the direction of the black-walled inner kal. There, beyond a landscape of heavy production, I glimpse the pinnacle of a glass-smooth construct, a black needle poised to penetrate the writhing vortex cloud above it, dark lightning streaming at its tip.

I hear Brin’s footfall behind me and leathern wings slap air just ahead.

A dozen drack riders in close formation pass by, lightly armored, heavily armed. Each is mounted astride a flying atrocity—mostly teeth, talons, and spiked hide.

It is too early in the game to engage any of the massing companies, either on the ground or in the air as they flock to the carnage at the Sor’n Gate. The din and bustle of regimented d’monii gathering below is punctuated by handlers barking orders, a piercing, rapid-fire harangue. Any engagement at this point will surely draw the Black Nee’m’s most specific attention.

The last pair of riders pass. I form a node in a fracture above the opening and expand it. A weakened section of the wall several times my size breaks free and falls away down the sheer inner face. I fall with it as it plunges into the smoke haze, drifting free of it a moment before it thunders into the crowded avenue below. Another moment and the ensuing commotion is behind me.

I weave with deliberate speed through the smog and ashen snow, through a maze of infernal industry. I pass the boundary of a mine. Heavy machinery and workers of several varieties mill about the gaping mouths of shafts stabbed straight into the tortured land. The din is fierce. I veer to avoid the intense heat of the smelters. My shield would protect me, but I am reluctant to use it again.

Curious that I would think of re-activating the shield at this moment. I am not sure if I actually hear, or feel the wings beating at my back before the talons strike. My shield solidifies ahead of the blow that might have torn my spine out through my armor.

I allow myself to fall, as if damage has been done, on an arcing trajectory that carries me near the boundary of a processing facility. I hit the ground and roll onto my back. The drack is plunging to rip me apart. Its head is rimmed with spikes thrust forward, wide-open beak lined with razors, all four feet poised to rend, powerful toes splayed, each tipped with a scimitar. The beast’s rider is no threat at all. He is holding on for his life as his mount’s descent nears a bone-shattering conclusion.

I swing my weapon up and put a slug through the drak’s brisket. The hapless rider, saddle, and a fountain of giblets trace a new path to the ground as the thing’s carcass craters me into the ashen soil. Even shielded, it hurts. I pry myself out of the crushed mass and stand on uncooperative legs, covered in gore. I drop the shield for now, a precaution, and the pulpy mess sluices to the ground around me.

Brin looks amused at my unsteadiness and plucks an errant bit of entrail from my cloak. ‘No doubt the rider alerted his unit before his drack struck you down.’

Even as I realize she could have shifted me away from the force of the blow that rocked my bones, I can feel some of her power streaming to me. It makes my skin prickle, but the pain eases and I am grateful she did not interfere. My blood is up.

‘We must assume there is a squadron enroute.’ I point toward the dark spire. ‘Can you jink us there?’

‘Ee’eh. It’s warded. I could get us closer, but not inside.’

Just discernible in the distance I can see a tight knot of winged forms approaching.

‘We are flat-footed now and visible. We need to move.’

‘Wait.’ Brin resists my attempt to pull her forward with ease and points to the boiling black that is the sky in this land, back in the general direction of the Outer Wall.

The air-car I spied earlier is speeding in our direction. It seems on an intercept course with the oncoming air cavalry detachment. And us. Perfect.

Brin is silent for a moment, eyes fixed on the craft. Then she is gone and the air shudders where she was. I turn to the airborne harriers, closer now and fanning out to bracket me. I am without cover here. Cloaked, I know the riders cannot see me yet, but their chargers can. On signal, I see their weapons come up. They are close enough now to begin strafing. I would meet them in the air, but I must trust my guardian. Just a few moments more.

The air wrinkles beside me.

‘Make yourself small. It’s tight up there.’

I wrap my arms around my knees, chin to chest. My stomach seems suddenly to be connected to my ears and I am certain I can feel the soles of my bare feet behind my eyelids. Brin bends space between us and the air car, even as the ground around us begins to erupt.

~      ~     

Copyright ©  David R L Erickson   2022
All rights reserved.

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