Two Dogs

Jonas meets White Fist, discovers Ile Slohan, and his life is altered. Again.

On The Tablerocks

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

<  Not far.

‘What’s not far?’

<  Where you’re going.

‘Where’s that?’

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

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

‘How do ya know it ain’t far?’

<  What ain’t?

‘Where I’m goin’.’

<  Where are you goin’?

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

<  You’re wasting time.

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

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

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

<  Then why are you up here at all?

‘I was drawn this way.’

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

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

<  It is for a fact.

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

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

<  Why?

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

‘I don’t know. It felt right.’

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

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

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

<  Not for nothing.

“Oh yeah? Why, then?”

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

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

He is not talking to himself.

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


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

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

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

<  That you did.

“What are you?”

<  I am the same as you. Slow light.

“I don’t understand.”

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

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

“Whaddaya want with me?”

<  Only for you to do what you do.

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

<  Yes.

“And you’re just along for the ride.”

<  Yes.

“Well… okay. What do I call ya?”

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

“Then I will call you Ile Slohan.”

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


.    .    .


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


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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The thing approaches, reaching out.

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

It halts a dripping arm’s length away.

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

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

He feels a reassuring hand on his shoulder.

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

Walks Far taps the thing on Jonas’s chest.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


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

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

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

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



On The Tablerocks Read More »

Nowhere Man

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Wasn’t it a cube a minute ago?

Why did he think it was?

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

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

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

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

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

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

And snatches his hand away with a jolt.

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

This is one of them.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

The paper and twine are saved for later use.

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

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

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

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

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

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

That would be something.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Nowhere Man Read More »

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 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, 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 Ohank’o 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 Ohank’o 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 at home there, then sets about relieving Ohank’o 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 Ohank’o 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, 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, and leans back to watch the show. He is content. Time passes. The earth trembles.

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.

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. Ohank’o has turned herself back out to forage more of the tough grass on her rugged little patch. Stars begin to tear small, ragged holes in the clouds.

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 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 sound of churning 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.

One of them, flung wide, hits hard, face down and limp. The other lands 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. Wresting his attention with some difficulty from the gun, he sees the big man has no face, and Jonas shows him his empty hands.

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 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 light 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 from 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, just past half, rides just clear of the canyon top. The stranger follows his gaze upward and something happens in his face.

Wide-eyed, he scans the heavens beyond the sheltering overhang and the surrounding rimrock. He sees Ohank’o 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 and lets it out with the same deliberation. 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 within a 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.

Jonas 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. A fierce prickling sensation runs 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 Ohank’o’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 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 in the moonlight. It’s the shape of ol’ Chap’s chuck wagon dinner bell—that is, if Chap’s triangle was 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 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, tearing 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.

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