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.
~ ~ ►