Two Dogs

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

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.

      ~      ~

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.

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