Derecho- Part Six- It is Ended!

Exactly three days after I was shot, I left the Fancy Lady’s residence and headed into town to recover the boy’s body. The Fancy Lady refused to accompany me.  When I asked her why, she replied, ‘Not this time, not ever.  We aos si live long lives.  Why would we jeopardize that by tethering ourselves to a mortal?’  She looked at me long, ‘There are other ‘heroes’ then you,” she replied.

Other heroes than me…?

I said nothing, so we continued, the western sky spilling like blood over the mountains as we walked.  Upon reaching the outskirts of town, I turned around to say something-

The aos si was gone.

As before, the streets were empty.  There were signs of a storm, a big one from the looks of it, branches down, leaves everywhere, and debris.  Could this be from the night I was shot?

Ten minutes later and the church loomed before me, its spire, topped by a blackened cross.  The day was warm and quiet.

Too quiet!

As the boy indicated, they had boarded up all the doors and windows.  Soot had blackened the roof, stained the windows.  Red paint had been used to graffiti the front doors.

‘Silverheels… Burn in HELL!

A sign stood next to the street; St. John Cathedral, two services, 7:00 AM Traditional, 10:00 AM Non-Denominational.  White letters spelled out below:

Ch   Ch

What’s missing?

UR!

Gun drawn, I approached.

The doors at the top of the stairs showed recent passage.  There were drops of dried blood, leading across the threshold.

I opened the doors. The darkness beyond reeked of must and blood.

Decay.

A second set of doors revealed more, a darkened sanctuary lit by shafts of brilliant light. Stepping into that space, I feel vastness… there is an emptiness here, a feeling of hunger that can never be quenched!

The walls are black with soot, the pews charred.

I catch sight of the front of the church, the lectern, and altar.  A large crucifix, hangs from the ceiling. The cross is not empty-

A word springs to mind- defilement.

Saul has taken the Saviors place, the boys’ hands and feet have been nailed to the cross.  There are signs of violence everywhere, spatters and strings of blood, overturned pews, scattered hymnals.

The sanctuary reeks of slaughter!

I realize then what happened to the town- the same as happened in this place.  The townsfolk had been brought here for slaughter, one house, one family, one person at a time-

Taken by day and stolen by night.

Be it by the demon, the Fancy Lady, or by the Master- it did not matter.

For the boy and the town, I was too late!

I turn away from Saul’s face.  Like the sanctuary his body has been defiled, eyes gouged out, flesh rent. Blood streaks his cheeks like tears.

I approach the altar.  “Damn you,” I mutter, “Damn you all to hell!”

A sound behind me.

I turn-

The demon is as before, its pale, child-like body covered in blood.  “You live,” it says. The demon seems surprised.

“You should not have killed the child,” I say.

“He was one, among many,” the demon smiles, scythes its fingers.  Watching me, it raises one bloodied hand, licks a blade.  “Sweet,” it says, then bolts my way.

I get off two shots.  Miss both times, thunder echoing.

I drop to one knee as the demon leaps, arms, and scythes outstretched, reaching…

I twist to one side- the pew next to me explodes into a shower of splinters, as the demon passes by, arms and blades flailing.

That was freaking close!

It takes a moment for me to recover, bring lex to bare. Four shots left.

The demon bounds next to me, wings flapping, hands outstretched and raking.

I block the attack with lex, no longer a pistol, but a wickedly sharp blade.  Sparks fly.  A terrible screech fills the air.

The scythes missing my face by inches.

I twist to one side and punch the demon on the right side of ‘its’ head.

The demon rocks back- only to launch again, mouth wide, exposing needle-like teeth- I am reminded of a cat, ribbed pink pallet, eyes closed, tongue darting.

I punch again, this time in the mouth- only to draw back, hand bloodied and missing skin.

The demon continues to attack, hands slashing, feet raking.  Each time I manage to evade- but barely.

I am tiring!  My chest burns.

The demon goes for my throat, first with her hands, then with her teeth-

I push back, jamming the blade between ‘her’ teeth.  My elbow goes numb as we roll across the floor. I no longer feel pain, everything’s happening quickly.  I bring up a knee, try and catch the demon in its chest, and push ‘it’ away.

The demon hisses, spit speckles my face.

I manage to catch a breath, bring lex to bear, and fire once- catching the demon squarely between the eyes.  My shot lifts the top of ‘its’ head off, showers the pews behind it in a spray of blood as black as midnight.

The demon, black feathers spinning, veers off, only to crumple and lie still at the foot of the altar.

I drop to one knee, panting, struggling to catch my breath.  My right side is stained in red.

***

When I am rested enough, I bring the boy down.  His left arm hangs loosely about my shoulders.  I wrap his body in purple cloth and carry him outside.

I will bury him later- I have a fat man to kill!

***

The next thing I know, I find myself outside the saloon, the noonday sun beating.  How many times must it shine on me before my task is done, history made complete, I wonder. A scripture comes to mind, one taught to me as a child long ago:

‘for he maketh. his sun to rise on the evil and on the good, and sendeth rain on the just and on the unjust.’

It reminds me that my life was never meant to be fair.

I find my backpack where I left it, next to the doors of the saloon.  I sling it across my shoulder and secure the straps.  Another thought comes to mind, a way to end all this, ‘Anything that can withstand fire, must be put through the fire, and then it will be clean.’

This place needed to be clean!

I enter the saloon and see it for what it truly is- a spider’s web, a trap for the unwary.

I take the time to set my own trap…afterwards I march upstairs, gun drawn.

The aos si waits for me in the darkness at the top of the stairs.

“I pay my debts,” I say.  She does not respond.

I head towards the hall.

Little has changed since the last time I was here.  The wall has been repaired, reeks of fresh paint.  I approach the door- kick it open-

I empty the gun, thunder deafening.  Down and feathers flying, wood splinters and smoke fills the air-

A screech and flurry of sound.

I immediately take a knee, pull the ejector, drop the spent cylinder, and ram a second home.

A hand reaches out for me, more claw than flesh.  It slashes once, then twice.

Both miss.

I stand, empty a second cylinder into the bed. The bullets bite home, pock-marking the fat man’s flesh. Blood, the color of night, streaks the wall-

It is not enough.  Through the smoke and haze I can see the fat man is not dead- as the Fancy Lady would say, the Master remains.

I turn and run, even as something immense breaks through the wall behind me, gives chase!

Reaching the landing… the aos si is gone.  I take the stairs two at a time, sliding down the last remaining feet of the banister, landing on my feet.  I’m already reloaded, hands busy.

Instead of firing back towards the stairs, I fire towards the bar, and the containers stacked there- plastic jugs of gasoline from the towns filling station.  Glass bottles of whiskey.  A cacophony of exploding glass- then flame.  An immense roar engulfs the staircase and upper landing, a whoosh so loud and strong, the blast literally picks me up, and carries me through the front plate glass window, spilling me into the street.

I struggle to my feet brushing away glass.

The saloon has become an inferno of heat and flame.  Amid that flame, something withers and flails, something large and monstrous, something that tries not to die.

I watch as flames speak, their roar drowning.  Wings of black smoke billow into the sky.

The church is next-

I cheer when the spire falls.  I’d rather burn this cursed town down, then let anyone else fall prey! The scrawl was right, it was time for the legend of Silverheels to die!

When the church has been rendered to ash, I turn away.

I buried Saul on a hilltop, his grave surrounded by yellow flowers.  It happened on a day when the wind blew cold and the sun burned hot.  I marked his grave’s location on a map, made a quick notation in my journal, and spoke a few words…

‘Ashes to ashes… dust to dust.’

The boy deserved that much.

Sometime between the burying and praying Coyote returned.  The beast looked horrible.  One side of the animal’s head bare, covered in dried blood and a wicked looking gash.

Coyote limps over.

I lean against the shovel, wipe dust from my eyes.  “Bout damn time,” I mutter.

Coyote doesn’t answer.

I tip my hat back, take a swig of water.  The West continues to call, but so does the North. The North only louder-

Behind me, Fairplay still burns, its dark smoke marring the horizon.

In front of me, high over the mountains, clouds gather like crows.  Saul was right, it is only a matter of time before the next storm comes, which means it’s time for me to go.

“You coming…,” I ask.

Coyote growls. With a final glance towards the town, we move out.

The End.

I hope you enjoyed this tale of ‘Them’. If you would like to see more, then check out the short stories ‘They’ and ‘Desert Mirage’. Both can be found at http://www.smusing.com.

Derecho- Part Five- Aftermath

“Easy,” the voice says.  A hand touches my face.

Even after, consciousness does not come easy.  I struggle to open my eyes.  “Where is the boy?”

“Gone,” the voice states.

Someone tugs at my bandages; fresh pain erupts along my side.  The sudden sharp bite of tincture.

“Helichrysum,” the voice continues.  “Used to staunch the bleeding.  Willow bark and peppermint to dull the pain.  Frankincense for healing.”

Is it the old woman?  Has she returned?

The bitter taste of willow bark.  “Where am I?”  I cannot see, all is dark around me.

“You are here,” the voice states.  A hand touches mine.  “Do not struggle, least you reopen your wounds.  It is dark in this place, that is why you cannot see.”  A moment’s pause, then light appears.  The room and darkness reveal their occupants-

It is the Fancy Lady.  She stands over me, veil brushing the back of my hand.

Her hands continue to administer.  I reach out, grab her wrist.

The Lady gasps.

“Where.  Am.  I?”  I struggle to rise- only to fail and fall.  The sheets beneath me are wet, soaked in sweat and blood.

“Again, you are safe,” she says.  She frees my grip.  “We are no longer with the Master, you are in my room, under my care.  No harm shall befall you here.”

“I do not believe you.”  Everywhere she touches, my skin crawls.  “Get away from me.”  I strike out, catching her in the side.

Pain returns-

All goes black!

The next time I wake, I am alone in a room bare of furnishings save the bed.  On my left, a window, its shape boarded up.  Tattered curtains of yellow and orange flowers dangle from bent curtain rods.  On my right, a closed door.  The room smells musty, looks dusty.  Yellow and brown-stripped wallpaper hang from the walls in strips.

My wrists and ankles have been bound to the four corners of the bed.  The pillow beneath me smells of lilac and rose.

I wonder where my belongings are.

I wonder about lex.

Bandages wrap about me, from the armpit down.  The wrappings smell of antiseptic, healing oils, and herbs.

I test the bonds- tight, but loose enough not to bind.

I stare overhead.  A single bulb stares back at me.

Silence everywhere.

I think back to my dream- to Salisbury Hill, the sword in my hand, and Roland…

I think back on betrayal and my son.

I return to the demon, the one with the fake angel wings and scythes for fingers.  Was the boy even alive?  What had become of the Fancy Lady?  Who was she referring to, when she said, ‘Master?’

A timid knock interrupts.  The door opens.

I turn and lay eyes upon ethereal beauty, a young lady dressed in blue jeans and a tee, golden curls wind past her shoulders, she has a slightly upturned nose and elven features.

She reminds me of the Aos Sí[1]

The aos si were tricksters, predating man.  It was the aos si who met the Picts on the shores of Banba[2] , and set the first Kings of Man on their thrones.

The aos si created lex talionis.

 The girl closes the door, approaches the bed, fingers interlaced before her.  “Are you better,” she asks.

I know the voice, it is the Fancy Lady.

“You,” I begin.

She remains beside me, eyes dancing.  I cannot tell if she enjoys my fear or not.  The aos si have always been fickle when it comes to man, some would say arrogant.

“I thought your kind dead,” I said.

The smile remains.  “The reports of our deaths have been greatly exaggerated,” she replies.

Touché.

She reaches out to brush a lock of hair from my eyes.  “You need to heal,” she says.

Fear overwhelms me like a tsunami.  Why keep me alive?  Why not kill me outright?

Why did the fat man, let me go?

“He does not know,” she said as if reading my mind.  “I have hidden you from him.”

“Why?”

“I have my reasons.”  A pause.  She studies her hands.

“Why did you chose this town, and these people?”

“If not here, then elsewhere,” she says.  “They desire blood and fear, you know that.”  She tosses a handful of curls over her shoulder, “Besides, the story fits.”

“Story?”

“Silverheels,” she says.  “Do you not remember what the boy told you?” I am confused.  Sigh of impatience, “If only we had time,” she exclaims, “alas, we do not.”  A frown crosses her face, like a cloud darkening the sun.  “As before, I need… your help.”  The pain of asking, in her arrogance, has cost her something.  Something dear.

She speaks, eyes distant-

“You can find meanness in the least of creatures. But when God made man, the devil was at his elbow. A creature that can do anything. Make a machine. And a machine to make the machine. An evil that can run itself a thousand lifetimes, no need to tend it.”

The aos sí were a machine, They certainly were!

I look away.  Again, I am being asked for something, something I am loath to admit.  From the boy, revenge, from fate, my life, from destiny, my death, and from the aos si, a favor.

I turn back, “Help to do what,” I ask.

***

Two weeks pass, the aos sí hiding me in a small shack just at the edge of town, a mere stone’s throw from where Saul, found me.

In her care, I find my strength.  She makes me strong- we, however, do not speak another word.

We are machines.

On the day I can raise my hand without feeling pain I tell her, “I’ll need my gun, and I’ll need the boy!”

“The gun you can have,” she says.  “The boy, a different matter.”  She then relates to me the boy’s fate.

For long moments I remain quiet.  Anger burns.  “I want to see him!”

Sadness fills the aos si’s eyes.  “That I can do,” she says, “though the way is dangerous.  The Master has placed a guard over it.  He visits the boy often… and feeds!”

Even in death, he is defiled!

In the end, the aos si agrees, hands me lex.  The gun is wrapped in layers of cloth.  The aos si, though its creators, areloath to handle it.

Their kind hates iron!

“Doesn’t he know you betray him,” I ask, holstering the pistol?

She hands me my clothes.  She has laundered and repaired them.  I dress.

“He thinks he owns me,” she continues.  “He thinks too highly of himself, and I allow him to do so.  We aos si live long lives.  There is no need to hurry when it comes to revenge and the inevitable.”  She stares at me, blue eyes glaring, “You, are my inevitable!”

Wheels within wheels…

She hands me a handkerchief the color of sky.

“What is this?”

“The only thing that will kill a demon,” the aos si answers.

In my hand, six perfectly silver bullets.

“To kill the Master, you must first kill the demon,” she says.

I open the cylinder, remove the remaining unspent cartridges, pocket the spent brass, and reload with silver.

I needed more.  I needed to know about this fat man.  How she came to be in his employee.  Why this particular place, and for what purpose, exactly.  I wanted to ask these things and more- what it would take for me to kill the fat man in the bed above the saloon- instead, I nod and accept the gifts she has given me.

If the fat man truly is one of them, I will not need special shells, I will only need my gun.


[1] The aos sí; older form aes sídhe is the Irish term for a supernatural race in Irish mythology and Scottish mythology, comparable to the fairies or elves. They are said to live underground in fairy mounds, across the western sea, or in an invisible world that coexists with the world of humans. This world is described in the Lebor Gabála Érenn as a parallel universe in which the aos sí walk amongst the living. In the Irish language, aos sí means “people of the mounds” (the mounds are known in Irish as “the sídhe“). In modern Irish the people of the mounds are also called daoine sídhe; in Scottish mythology they are daoine sìth.

[2] In the Tochomlad mac Miledh a hEspain i nErind: no Cath Tailten, it is related that as the Milesians were journeying through Ireland, “they met victorious Banba among her troop of faery magic hosts” on Senna Mountain, the stony mountain of Mes. A footnote identifies this site as Slieve Mish in Chorca Dhuibne, County Kerry.

Click Here for Part Six…

Derecho- Part Four- Something Wicked Comes

A few steps in, and a second whickering of light.

Three more steps, a door.

The third whickering of light revealed the demon at the end of the hall.  It slouched in the corner like an aberration, wearing the skin of a prepubescent girl.  The demon appeared to be covered in smears of mud.  Her hair stringy and greasy, obscuring her face.  The demon wore what appeared to be angels’ wings, black feathers strapped across its back, its hands were like scythes.

I leveled lex.

The demon did not move.  For some reason, it had allowed the boy to go.

Light danced in the heavens.

I realized it wasn’t mud that covered the demon, it was blood, long trailing smears of blood.

The hallway reeked of slaughter.

“We were wondering when you’d get here,” the demon said, a thousand voices speaking at once.

I almost pulled the trigger, finger quivering, eye twitching.  Sweat beaded my upper lip, threatened my brow.  I’d seen ‘her’ kind before.  Not one of them, but oft times guarding them.

The demon began twitching its ‘fingers’, each scythe grating against the other.

What do you want to bet ‘she’ can move faster than I can shoot?  I was about to find out when Saul reentered the hall.

“Hey mister,” he said, “I changed my mind-

“Run,” I screamed, as the demon launched itself after him!

Lightning followed by thunder, thunder, thunder-

My first shot missed entirely, blowing a fist-sized hole in the wall next to where the demon slouched.  The next two shots connected, one punching a quarter-sized hole just below the demon’s collarbone, coming out its back and scattering a handful of feathers, the other hitting smack dab in the middle of the ‘girls’ chest- exiting and shattering the window behind it.

Neither shot slowed it down a bit!

Metal glint as the demon passes by- I twist as razor-sharp scythes slice- sudden intense pain in my right side, just below the armpit.  I scream, drop lex.  Such was the impact, I am shoved through the wall beside me, and into the room beyond, scattering sheetrock, wallpaper, and wood.  My head slams into the footboard of a bed-

Darkness!

I come to slowly, sprawled, leg kicked up, head sticky with blood.  Lex lies next to me.  I’m covered in pieces of sheetrock, plaster, and dust.

Memories return- demon, gunfire…

I look around.  I don’t see the demon or the boy.

I fumble for lex, fingers numb- all I do is push it around, unable to get a grip.  Intense agony erupts all along my right side.  A groan escapes my lips.

“It’s about time you awoke,” a voice says, greasy and guttural.

It comes from behind me.

Grabbing my right side, I attempt to turn myself around and fail.  My left leg is hung up in the remains of the wall.  I reach for lex, only to see it taken away by a hand in the dark.

The sickening stench of honeysuckle…

They!  Even as I think it, the laughter begins again.  I kick myself free and turn around-

A series of windows line the wall to my right, what would have been the back of the saloon.  There is an enormous bed beside me, its footboard elegantly carved and stained.  Red stains one outstretched claw.  It is a King’s bed, blood-red sheets, and a duvet heavy with embroidery.  Off to my left, stands a series of heavy dressers, equally impressive as the bed, darkly stained and carved.

A sudden light appears as an oil lamp is lit, then another.  Golden yellow begins to fill the room, lighting the space.

Pictures hang on the walls, painted scenes of coastlines, black volcanic rock, and the deep blue-green of the Mediterranean.  Another painting shows a schooner amidst a sea of glass, its sails limp.

The skies behind the schooner are on fire with the setting sun.

A chair sets close by, red-velvet seat, clawed legs.  Next to the chair, a closed door.  Next to the door, a pair of heavy black boots, European.

“Where are you,” I ask.  Speaking causes, me to cough, once, then twice, each time an endless agony of pain.

“I am here,” the voice says.  The bed creaks.

With effort, I struggle to my feet.

Two people are in the room with me.  One I take to be the ‘Fancy Lady’, black dress, black veil.  The other is an abomination!  A man so immense, so obese, my mind cannot comprehend.

I am reminded of an immense, bloated parasite.  It is from this individual, this man, that the stench emanates from.

Corruption… disease… waste

The man’s flesh glistens, rolls of fat, hands, little more than sausages.  The man turns to face me; he is completely hairless, almost sexless in his immensity.  And when ‘he’ speaks, my skin crawls.

I lean heavily against the bed frame, blood trickles down my side.

The fat man holds lex casually like one might handle something trivial.  The ‘Fancy Lady’ watchs.

Without warning, the ‘thing’ on the bed turns lex over, points it at me, and pulls the trigger-

Thunder and lightning-

The pain is unlike anything I have ever felt.  Like I’ve been kicked in the gut by a mule.

I am grabbed up, spun around, and thrown against the wall, as the bullet tears through my left side.  I end up face down, a sunrise of pain blossoming the entire length of my abdomen, blood washing out of me.

“I think you killed me,” I groan.

“That was my intent,” the fat man wheezes.

The world began to narrow down.  So, this is it.  This is how I die!

I am surprised more than anything.  Never in a million years did I ever consider I would be killed by lex

Nothing…

The battlefield sprawls around me, a rocky hill under a sullen sky, angry.  Dark stones stand, pennants wave.

The air reeks of blood and excrement.

This is more than battle- this is war!

Bodies cover every square inch of green, broken, and twisted amidst churned mud.

Gore crow’s circle.

I cannot find Roland.

I no longer have the strength to hold my blade, bloodied, and wet.  Its point digs into the blood-soaked earth.

Smoke billows from somewhere behind me.  Camboglanna, in all its beauty, burns.

I remove my helmet; let it fall.  The man I seek, once a boy, nowhere to be found- but he is here, and he is near!

I can feel it.  I can feel him.

Blood calls to blood- stain to sin!

Rage fills me, I rear back and face the sky, “Mordred….!”

Click Here for Part Five…

Derecho- Part Three- Silverheels

I should have steered clear-

I should have run away.

I thought of my journal.  I thought of the last time I checked my coordinates, my place in the world- Why here?  Why now?

Why Colorado?

That’s when I realized, I’d been careless since Kansas.  Ever since the gas station.  Something about the girl I’d killed-

I looked down at Coyote.  “Speak,” I said, “say something.  You couldn’t shut up in the desert.”

Saul looked at me like I’d lost my mind.

I turned to the boy, “So, you think this ‘veiled woman’, this Fancy Lady, did this?”  He shook his head.  “Doesn’t make sense.  There’s no proof-

“All the proof I need is up here,” he says, voice rising, tapping the side of his head.  “I’ve seen things, mister.”

“So, you keep saying.”

Saul fell silent; only then did I realize the piano had too.

The saloon had fallen into darkness.

In the distance, the forlorn wail of a wolf caused Coyote to lift her head.  She wanted to howl.

I pushed her nose down- Coyote snapped, teeth just missing my hand.

“Thought you said she wouldn’t bite,” Saul said, eyes wide.

“Guess I was wrong,” I replied.

****

I scanned the rooftops, all around.  Seeing no one, I motioned for the boy to stay.

Saul refused.

“Then if you can’t stay, at least be like the wind,” I said.

He gave me a grubby thumbs up.

Saul mentioned the main floor was mainly tavern and saloon, with a few rooms in the back.  I asked him about the Fancy Lady.  He said upstairs.  I asked him ‘why upstairs?’

“Cause the Boss is always upstairs,” he told me.

“You read too many books,” I said, ‘watch too many picture shows.”  He looked at me dumbly.  As before, there hadn’t been any books or television his entire lifetime.

I needed to get out more.

The closer I drew to the saloon, the worse the smell got.  I stopped long enough to wrap a handkerchief around my nose and mouth.

To Saul, the smell didn’t seem to matter.

Continuing, the sky began to strobe as lightning flared.  A storm was brewing.

Saul was right, I could taste it, there was a storm on the way- electric in the air.

I stopped before the entryway, eyes scanning the interior- a few familiar shapes; a handful of tables surrounded by chairs.  The space stank of stale cigarettes, cheap whisky, and beer.

I eased in.  The room immediately opened, wider than it was deep.

Still, it felt claustrophobically small.

The boy went to move past me.  I placed a hand against his chest.  “Easy,” I said, “We need to be cautious.”

Saul looked up at me with enormous eyes.  “But I’m being careful,” he said.

I shook my head.  “You play with lightning, boy.”

“Mom used to say I could catch lightning,” came the reply.

Layers of dust and debris coated everything.  Piles of trash, yellowed newspapers, all had been blown into corners, wrapped around chair legs, or lay scattered across tables.  What the dust and trash missed; cobwebs claimed.

Across the room from us, ran the bar, its dark chocolate surface worn smooth by countless arms.  Behind it, an enormous mirror that spanned the length of the bar, at last, sixty feet in length.  It’s surface cloudy and marred by time.  Stacked in front of the mirror stood bottles of every conceivable design.  There were square bottles, round bottles, tall bottles, squat bottles.  Most were still full, ambers, darks, and clears.

Suspended from the ceiling, what looked to be enormous wagon wheels heavy with glass jars, each jar containing what appeared to be lights.

On the far right, tucked up next to an enormous fireplace, stood a piano, its fall board up, keys exposed.  The piano’s bench lay on its side.

So, how does one explain the recent light and sound we’d both just seen and heard?

No clue.

A slight tug on my jeans.  Saul’s pointing at the piano, what’s been painted on the side, an ochre star, the size of a handprint.

They are here!

Outside, the sounds of the approaching storm continue to grow, wind blowing, breezes tugging.  The doors of the saloon creak back and forth, adding to the cacophony.  Off to my right, pieces of paper began to play ring-around-the-posy, chasing each other fitfully-

I keep my pistol up.

Like many places as of late, I feel like I’ve been here before, sometime in the distant past- maybe in the future.  I’m not sure.

My mind drifts back to the gas station, the ruins in Arizona- So many paths before me, so much history behind.

There is a line from a series of books I read years ago while crossing the Mississippi.  The author, one Caitlin Kiernan, had titled it, Alabaster.  It was about an albino angel trapped in a dystopian nightmare:

This is the ravenous stone face that Dancy’s dreamt of so many times, the same yawning, toothless mouth and…vacant, hollow eyes. Face of the thing that killed her mother…face of the smiling man from the Greyhound bus and the auburn-haired woman in Waycross with stubby, writhing tentacles where her breasts should have been, the pretty boy in Savannah who showed her a corked amber bottle that held three thousand ways to suffer, three thousand ways to hurt, before she killed him. All of them dead because that’s what the angel said…because this is where the angel said she had to go.

That last passage struck me, as sure as a physical punch- because this is where the angel said she had to go! 

Were angels directing me?

My mind turned back along distant lines.  I remembered the coal mines in Pennsylvania, the darkness that had called after me.  I remembered the ‘witches’ of Appalachia- and the trials that followed.

I remembered the horrors of the Smokey Mountains… I stopped, shook my head.  The last thing I needed was to be distracted.  The past was full of traps, I needed to remember that.

This wasn’t the past.

Overhead, the entire length of the mirror, ran a second-story railing.  A wide set of stairs wound from the floor to meet it, the baluster at its base, a Roman pillar topped by a Cherub taking flight.

The Cherub’s wings had been clipped.

“Perhaps you should stay here,” I said, grabbing the boy.

Saul shook away my hand.  “Hey, mister,” he said.

I looked down.

“Your dog’s gone.”

My what?  He was right, Coyote was gone.  One minute there, the next gone.

“Don’t look at me,” Saul said, guessing my unasked question.  “I didn’t see anything.”

For a moment I stood there- heaving a sigh, no use crying over spilled milk, I began taking the stairs two at a time.

I stopped at the top.

The smell up here was worse than it was downstairs.

Saul sidled up next to me.  I could feel the boy trembling.

Ahead of us ran a walkway, railing on one side, doors on the other.  Halfway down, I could see another hallway, splitting off and cutting back towards the depths of the saloon.  Gas lamps gripped in metal brackets, hung on the walls.

I tried the first door on the left, gently wiggling the knob- nothing.  The next three were the same.

Arriving at the cutback hallway, I drew up short and peeked around the corner- darkness.  An inky blackness that seemed to cling to everything.

At the end of the hall, I thought I could see light.

Window perhaps?

I could hear the kid’s heart beating- maybe it was mine.

I took a moment to check lex, pulled the trigger back.

A sudden whickering of light lit the hall before us, caused me to start, and Saul cry out.  An enormous boom followed the light.  Skylights lined the hallway, beveled glass inserts in thick wooden frames.

Large splats of rain began peppering overhead.

A second tug at my sleeve.  “I think I’ll head back,” Saul whispered.

“You do that,” I replied.  “Holler if you see anything.”

He nodded and moved out.  It would be the last time I would see him alive.

He nodded and moved out.  It would be the last time I would see him alive.

Click Here for Part Four…

Derecho- Part Two- Fairplay

The streets are empty.  A few streetlights glow overhead, but most are dark.  A memory, a woman’s voice telling me to ‘play all you want but make sure your home before the streetlights come on.’

So long ago.

I continue to follow the boy, shoulders tense.  I keep my hand near my gun.  My back feels as broad as the street.

Still, I follow.

As he leads, the boy turns and stares, mouth open, bare feet slapping cracked asphalt.  The heat of the day is gone, night has fallen.  With the night comes cooler air.  We are higher now, Coyote and me, climbing our way into the mountains.

I stare into the buildings on either side of the road.  Most have their windows boarded up.  All seem abandoned.

‘Beware!’ the city screams.

The boy enters the center of town.  Banners of cloth hang from overhead.  Trees line either side of Main Street, their branches unruly, untrimmed.

In the distance, the sound of rumbling.

A storm approaches.

“How much further?”

“We’re almost there,” Saul replies.

We turn a corner; I notice light at the far end of the street.

The silhouette of a church rears.

We approach the light.

In front of us, wider than the street, sprawls a large wooden structure, its face full of windows, its front covered in balconies.  Twin doors of light mark the entrance, littering the street with gold.  A large billboard overhead screams ‘Silverheels’. At one time the sign contained lights. Now, only darkness remains.

‘Silverheels.’  The same as the name scrawled on the sign outside of town.  I search the downstairs windows, the shadowed alleyways to either side, and see nothing.

More light and laughter spill from inside, followed by the sound of a piano.

I stand in awe.  Am I hallucinating?  Perhaps I am sleeping- But no.  This is real.  The music and lights are real.

“Something wrong,” Saul asks?  He’s watching me intently. From the looks of him, maybe all of thirteen.

“Not sure,” I say.  Coyote tilts her head, questioning.  “Besides the name,” I point over his head, “what is this place?”

“A gin joint,” he responds.

“Gin Joint?”

“Perhaps a saloon.”  He looks at me like I’m crazy.  “Where you been, mister?  Locked up in one of them mental institutions?”

“Perhaps,” I respond.  I’m not looking at him, eyes and ears taking it all in.

“Ever watch a spaghetti western,” Saul asks.  “Places like this are in all of them.” There hadn’t been ‘spaghetti westerns in years, at least not in his lifetime.

“Why’d you bring me here,” I ask?

“Said you wanted something to eat.  Here’s where you eat.”

We cross the street.  As soon as my foot touches the bottom stair- the stench of rotting meat.

Coyote draws back, teeth bare.

Shrouded in darkness, the boy draws near.  “We have to be careful,” he says.  He sounds conspiratorial.

“Now you tell me this.” The boy’s features remain hidden, even with light spilling. 

“Fearful things happen in here,” he whispers.

Now we get to the meat of it, his real reason for bringing me here.  “Tell me more,” I say, lex talionis in hand.  Shakespeare said it best when he said, ‘something rotten haunts the state of Denmark!’  In this place, Denmark would be Fairplay.  “Tell me of these ‘fearful things.’

Saul shakes his head.

I no longer wish to be here. Why did I follow the boy, and why so willingly? With my lips next to Saul’s ear, “Where is everyone, Saul?  And for the last time, why did you bring me here?”

Saul pushes the tip of my barrel down.  “Mister,” he begins.  His voice sounds shaky.

Everywhere I look, empty-

Empty streets.

Empty buildings.

Empty town.

Fairplay was a tomb!

Motioning to the sign overhead, “Explain.”

Saul licks his lips.  “I need you to kill someone,” he says.

“Kill someone…?”

Saul nods.  “I need you to kill the person who killed my mom!”  He looks around.  “That’s why I brought you here.”

Remember what I said about crazy? If I were smart, I would walk away, right now.  No looking back.

If I was smart- “Tell me about this ‘someone’.”

****

The someone is a ‘she’.

Why wasn’t I surprised?

We were across the street from the saloon, next to a white-washed wooden wall.

“She came in on a stage,” he said.

“As in an actual horse-drawn carriage?  That kind of stage?”

Saul nodded.  “My mom was with me at the time.”  He stops.  “Believe it or not, lots of people used to live here.”  He was motioning towards the town.  “they’re gone now.”  He stopped again, I could see his face, cheeks were wet with tears.  “Mister, you would have loved this town.”

“I’m sure I would have.”

Another pause.  “We were crossing the street, right over there,” he said, pointing in front of us.  “It was noon, and it was September.  That much I remember.  The day was warmer than it should have been.”  Hand once more swinging out, this time over the buildings, towards the mountains.  “A storm was brewing,” he said, “way up high.  We could feel it, the clouds were darkening, the sides of the mountains, steaming.  I could hear hoofbeats approaching.  Mom pushed me out of the way as this jet-black carriage appears.  The carriage is being drawn by twelve horses, each a different color, no two alike.  At first, it looked like no one is driving them, that they were on their own.  The carriage seemed to steer itself towards the saloon.  As soon as it arrived up front, it stopped.”

A moment of nothing as he catches his breath. “By now everyone’s gawking.”

As well they should be.  I would be gawking.

“Mom and I are standing right about there,” he said, “next to the saloon doors when the carriage door opens.  This ‘Lady’ steps out.  She’s dressed all in a black, holding her skirt up, while she steps down.  I remember how she was hard to see.”

“Hard to see?”  The entire time I’m keeping a sharp eye out, waiting for something to come tumbling out of the night- “Go on.”

The boy places a hand over his face.  “She’s wearing one of those veil things,” he says.  “I remember how long the cloth was.  By this time mom’s grabbing my arm and pulling me.”  He leans close, “she thinks the lady is a witch.”  He makes a sign of Warding. “At first everyone calls her the “Fancy Lady.  We found out later that she calles herself Silverheels.”

I glance across the street to the sign overhead.  The name of the saloon has become the name of a town.  “I don’t understand?”

“Neither did we… at first.  There’s some legend ‘round here called ‘Silverheels,’ happened way back during the Silver Rush, or something.  I’m talking way back, mister.  There’s even a tombstone in the town cemetery with the name Silverheels on it.”  He took a moment to wipe a tear from his eyes.  “For a while, things went along as always.  Folks continued to mine the hills for silver, farmers continued to raise crops and cattle.  Pretty much the same thing that’s been happening around here since forever- at least that’s what mom said.” He looked at me. “We moved here when I was little so she could make a new start.  My dad was dead, I never met him.”  He paused.  “I was little then.”

You’re still little.

“At first the Fancy Lady kept out of sight, only coming out rarely, and always wearing her veil.  There was this one time though, ‘bout a month ago, when I got to see her up close.  Mom sent me for eggs at the General Store.  I’m almost done, getting ready to leave, when ‘she’ comes walking in.  The Fancy Lady slides right up next to me at the checkout counter. I can remember thinking she smelled so good, like peach or something.  Anyways, I didn’t catch what she was asking for, but old man Calderson- he’s the store owner- excuses himself and rushes off to fetch it, leaving me there waiting to pay.  While he’s gone, she looks down at me.  I can see her eyes through the veil, they are as blue as the open sky, and she’s got yellow hair.  She asks me my name, and I tell her it’s ‘Samuel mam, but you can call me-

“Saul,” I add. The boy shrugs as I’ve embarrassed him.

“Anyway, I remember her voice.  It was like mom’s, kind of soft, made me feel like home.  And when she spoke it made me feel important, know what I mean?”

“I do.”  I knew exactly what he meant.  Most adults don’t see kids.

“About that time Calderson’s back.  I get my eggs, pay the bill, and leave.”  His voice trails.  “That’s the only time I ever remember seeing her,” he says.  “Isn’t that funny?”

“What’s this have to do with killing,” I ask.

“I’m getting to it,” he says, “don’t rush me.  Now, where was I… oh yes.  The killing!  The Fancy Lady likes to put on shows in the saloon- you know, adult-type shows.”  He stops to wiggle his eyebrows suggestively.

“Go on.”  I can feel myself aging- he’s taking too long to get to the point!

“Word gets out.  The town preacher, by the name of Reynolds, gets all bent out of shape- says she’s a sinner that needs to ‘come to God.’  So does my mom,” he adds, “and most of the other ladies in town as well.  Someone paints the sign outside the city limits.  Folks get riled up.”  He looks at me, eyes glittering.  “It’s like a terrible storm has done blown into town, mister.

“After that, things happen fast, dogs start disappearing, then people.  It starts with a girl named Blanch, she’s from the class beneath me, she just come up missing one day.  Not a sign nor hair, they say.  Blackbirds start appearing, big murderous crows that take over the town square.  Something bad happens at the church.  No one says what, but overnight they board up all the doors and windows.  The Preacher disappears.”

He’s almost there, I can feel it.

“A couple of weeks ago this group gets together, my mom is one of them.  They arm themselves with pitchforks and shovels.  Some have guns.  They march into the saloon,” he says, eyes turned across the street.  “That’s the last I seen of them.”

“You’re telling me your mom’s been gone for two weeks?”

“Yep.”  Hard swallow.  “Everyone else, too.”

“And it’s only just you.”

“Seems so.”  Saul shrugs.

And why am I still here listening?  Why haven’t I gone? “What have you been doing all this time?”

“Hiding,” he says.  “I come out from time to time to get food, stuff like that, but mainly I hide…”

“In the building, where I was staying?”

He nods.

I think for a moment, formulate a plan, “Tell me more about the church,” I say.  Everything else seemed to make sense- at least as much as it could.  The church, however, …

“What about it?”

“Tell me what happened that night.”

“Told you, mister, I don’t know.”

“That’s not what you said.  You said, ‘no one said what happened,’ you never said you didn’t know.”

Something crosses his face, I can see it, even in the dark.  Fear, anger, something more.  “I think the Preacher tried to do something,” he blurts, “I think the Preacher tried to confront the Fancy Lady.”

“The same preacher that disappeared.”

“Uh-huh.  The same night the storm hit.”

“Storm.”

“Yep.  The one I was telling you about. Big’un.  Blew in from up north.  One enormous wall of darkness.  Tore everything up.  Folks around here called it a ‘derecho’, or something like that!  I’m telling you, mister, it wasn’t a storm, it was her.”  He’s pointing towards the saloon.  “She’s an evil spirit, mister.  She did something to my mom and everyone else.”

I turned away, not wanting to see the look in Saul’s eyes.  Revenge! I’d seen that look before, in my own eyes.  The belief that this ‘Fancy lady’ was the root of all his problems.

My mind drifted back to the sign, to when I first arrived.

Click Here for Part Three…

Derecho- Part One- Beginnings

A derecho (/dəˈreɪtʃoʊ/, from Spanish: derecho [deˈɾetʃo], “straight” as in direction) is a widespread, long-lived, straight-line wind storm that is associated with a fast-moving group of severe thunderstorms known as a mesoscale convective system and potentially rivaling hurricanic and tornadic forces.

I could smell the city long before I could see it.  It smelled like a slaughterhouse. Like something had died and been left to bloat in the summer sun.  “Hell, of thing, isn’t it, to come all this way, only to run into something like this.”

Coyote, constant companion, and skin shifting shaman seemed to agree- or disagree, take your pick.  Either way, she kept up beside me, nose, and ears, to the ground.

A crooked sign stood before us, crossroads, and a choice.  To the left, Buena Vista, to the right, Fairplay Colorado.

I chose right.

About to pass by, something catches my attention.  The name Fairplay has been crossed out, and ‘Silverheels’ painted in.

Feels like an omen.

Normally I don’t do cities.  Cities are dangerous.  Crazies live in cities.  Crazies that wander around waving signs and preaching ‘End Times.’

The last time I was in a city, a little no-name outside of Amarillo, I ran across a Preacher Man, black shirt, black pants, tiny white collar.  This particular Preacher Man was standing beneath an enormous elm tree.  He wore a rope around his neck- fashioned in a noose- the other end was tied to a branch high overhead.

He was standing on a rickety wooden stool preaching Revelations:

‘And when I saw him, I fell at his feet as dead. And he laid his right hand upon me, saying unto me, Fear not; I am the first and the last:  I am he that liveth, and was dead; and, behold, I am alive forevermore…

 I tried to turn away.  I tried to ignore the man, but it was too late.  As soon as ‘crazy’ saw me, be began to scream, veins on the side of his neck standing out like cords.  He must have forgotten he was tied to the tree, because he tried to approach me, hands shaking papers.  His foot slipped, the chair toppled, and he began to jerk, face all screwed up, turning purple, before becoming still, scrunched papers falling from clawed hands like fall leaves,

‘Crazy’ had been right; his end was nigh!

I passed by.

This is what I meant by crazy- but back to the town of Fairplay.

I wondered how many people lived there.  Would I be greeted with open arms or clenched fists?  Wary caution, or gunfire?  I’ve had my fair share of both.

‘I think I’ll just ‘wait and see’, says me, ‘after all, caution is the eldest child of Wisdom.’

The city sprawls before us in pieces.  A single residence here, a boarded-up business there.  A burnt-out shell in one place, overgrown ruins in another.  A massive water tower, resembling a bleached and rust-stained mushroom, crowds one side of downtown, running away from it, and to either side, a series of brick and mortar buildings and businesses.  Across from the water tower stands a massive wooden monstrosity nestled up next to a church. The church’s needle-like spire, pointing towards the heavens.

Carrion wheel overhead, diving, cawing, flocking from trees.

The city reminded me of the carcass I’d run into some miles back- the one before the gas station.

Into the stillness, Coyote growls.  Something unkind lies ahead. I stop.  Open fields to either side, before turning into city streets.  Either side, fence posts protrude.  Off in the distance hills run, their slopes rounded and crisscrossed by cloud-chased shadow.

The wind has picked up.

“I don’t like it.”

Coyote agreed.

“Eyes and ears up,” I said.  The last thing we need are surprises.

Arizona lay behind us like a bad dream, like a mirage in the noonday heat. I’d been careless in Arizona, almost got myself killed.  Only with the help of Coyote, a skin shifter by trade, did we escape, and only after the two of us had jumped off a cliff.

With the sun slowly setting, and the stars just beginning, I left the road to find shelter. It’s one thing to wander into a town unannounced, another thing to wander in unprepared.

I laid up in the remains of a metal building on the outskirts of town.  Much of the roof had fallen in, only tresses remained.  A twisted pile of two-by-fours became a fort, with just enough space for me to wiggle under and hunker down.  Coyote followed. The building stank of motor oil and dust.  Stands of ragweed and foxtail waved.  From where I lay, I could see the highway leading into town.  Nothing moved upon it. Dust motes danced in the wind, crickets chirped, and birds sang. A sudden flurry of wings, as something small and unseen wings out of sight- then silence.

I fall asleep…

Stained-glass bleeds over polished pews.

I’m in church, the ceiling overhead jetting into darkness.  Immense wooden beams crisscross, each supporting wax-laden candle operas.

I am alone.  The sanctuary is empty. The ‘spirit’ is missing.

Behind me, a pair of swinging double doors.  They creak in the wind.  Through them, I catch glimpses of night and unfamiliar stars.

I turn and face the altar. Something moves in the darkness behind it, something I cannot see.

The darkness leaps-

I wake with a start, gun drawn.  A face bobs before me.  The face belongs to a boy as black as night, with emerald green eyes.  “Who are you,” I ask.

Leaning down, wearing little more than bib overalls, the boy reaches out to touch me.  “I’m not here to hurt you, mister.  Jus checkin’ to see if you’re alive.”

“I’m alive.”

The boy smiles.  It’s a trembling thing, full of fear.

“You one of them,” he asks.

“Nope, are you?”

“No sir,” the boy replies.  He wears his hair in dreads.  “Not one of them at all.”  Only then do I notice the rusty blade he’s holding.

“Easy,” I say.  “You need to put that away.”  I nod towards the knife.  After a moment, he agrees, the knife disappearing beneath his bibs.

“Why you here,” he asks, the sky behind him darkening.

“Just passing thru,” I say.  I look over at Coyote.  Coyote stares back, tongue lolling.  “Some kind of guard dog you are,” I say.

The boy laughs.  “He got a name?

“She does,” I respond.  “I call her Coyote.”

The boy looks at me for a long time.  “Think of that yourself?”

I lower the gun, put it away. The boy backs away. I extract myself from beneath the overhanging structure, hand brushing away cobwebs and such.

“You say you jus’ passing thru,” the boy asks.

“That’s right.”

“Maybe you stay.”

“Maybe I don’t.”  Changing the subject.  “Where’s your parent’s, kid?”

The boy shrugs, reaches out to pet Coyote.  I open my mouth to protest, but the animal does nothing.

“You surprise me,” I say.  Could be addressing the Coyote, could be the boy.

The boy smiles.  A slight rumble of emptiness.  Patting his stomach, the boy asks if I’m hungry.

“What you got in mind?”

“Someplace… but first…”  He squares himself, sticks out his hand, “Name’s Samuel, but you can call me Saul.”

“Like in the Bible,” I ask. His features darken.

Or not! “Pleased to meet ya, Saul.”

The boy turns, calling over his shoulder to follow.

Three blocks later, and we enter town proper.

Click Here for Part Two:

Desert Mirage- Coyote

Then he moved on, and I behind him followed.

     From The Divine Comedy by Dante Alighieri.

  

The land had changed since the last time he was thru.  Must have been years ago.  Seemed like a lifetime.  Blood-red rock baking under a noonday sun, Joshua Tree standing guard with their shadows, endless vistas of flatness, broken rock, and dusty plains.

The West never seemed so dry.

In the distance, he could just make out the mountains.  Not big mountains, like the jagged crags of the Rockies with their peaks of white snow and ice.  No.  These particular mountains had lost their jags millions of years ago, worn down to slickened nubs of colorful rock by endless winds, countless rains, and eternal sun. 

Domed with crystal blue skies, the mountains, range, and horizon framed a land baking itself to death. One day, one moment, one degree, at a time.

Vultures, appearing as tiny flakes of ash overhead, slowly circled, almost lazily, as they made their way to the desert floor- and the figure that drunkenly stumbled across it.  Behind this first figure followed another, somewhat indistinct in the noonday heat.

Everywhere he looked lay rock.  Burnt orange, deep reds, and smatterings of green.  Horizontal bands of red and white stone, some running for miles, some not, stretched to the horizon.

He was in Hell, or at least Dante’s[i] version of it.  Sad thing was, for all the desert around him, it felt like he was entering the haunted woods surrounding Hell.

Enormous stumps of broken rock sprang from the earth all around him, some close, most further away.  In the past, these same mountains had vaulted towards the sky.  Today, they lay in shattered remains on the plains below.

High overhead, trailing in caravans, hung a rag-tag collection of gray and white clouds, low hanging. They appeared moody, almost brooding.  And for the last three months, remained dry and impotent.

The gas station was a distant memory now, burned out by the sun and heat.  Everything he had done there, all that had occurred, swallowed up by the distance.  In the end, he had walked on, leaving the body, the gun smoke, and the last sighting of ‘them’, behind.  Ochre-smeared handprints on a wooden door frame ripe with peeling paint!  Since that time, his world had become one of misery. Blast furnace heat, arid dry winds, and sun as unforgiving as a miser is stingy.

He looked back, assuring himself the ‘bitch’ was still there- she was, lean, and golden brown. The coyote followed.  He imagined her head down, tongue lolling.

The coyote had been following him since his run-in with the girl in the gas station.

The girl he had killed.

Memories: 

Of childhood days spent on the banks of the Mississippi, green, wet, and roaring.  Times as distant as the horizon, and as out of reach as the stars…

Of rainbows without end, spring rains, whispers of breezes, hints of dew-filled mornings, and silver shorn evenings.  Of grass, green and tall, tickling the tips of his fingers.

Towers of grey stone topped with tattered banners, battlefields steeped in red.  Of friends bound by blood and oaths, wars, and conflicts.

Of betrayals-

Of early morning skies, golden and red, giving way to cool crisp evenings of mauve, blue and purple.  Hints of an early fall crisp in a twilight’s haunting gloam.

Of the star Polaris riding the rim of the world, while Mercury, seldom triumphant, glitters freely in the sky, if only for a season-

Of caves and dark, broken, places-

His present circumstances returned, stealing him from the past, and casting him into the forge of now.  Reminding him of his vow to hunt ‘them’ down and put an end to them.

They had been hunting him since Creation, since the time they had been taken from the dark and scattered to the light.  For years ‘they’ remained hidden, showing themselves only in whispers and fears, nightmares in a world that no longer believed- until it was too late.  Whether pale and sickly sleeping in soil, or brazen under a noonday sun, or taking flight on the wings of night, what at first seemed to be legends and stories had become all-too-real fact.

This was the world today.

But there were other worlds, or so he had been told.  Worlds that began where other worlds ended.  Worlds that lay within the folding’s of a cartographer’s map, and beyond the boundaries of everyday sight.  In these worlds, the four cardinal points and their orphaned siblings held little sway.

Directions and distances simply were.

In the days of his youth, his father taught him the use of the sextant, the only device capable of navigating these worlds.  With the sextant, he could find roads… pathways.  In days of old, such ways were called fairy paths or ley lines.  His father named them the King’s Roads.

Whatever they were named, using the sun and moon, he could mark their time, place, and seasons, as well as his time and place among them.

In the wastes, three days before he arrived in Arizona, he was given a pocket watch by an enormous raven, what his father used to call a ‘blood raven’, for the birds seemed to haunt old battlefields and killing grounds, anywhere there was death and decay.  The pocket watch was old, tarnished black by time and age.  The raven he received the gift from had watched him for miles.  Sometimes high in the air, circling and drifting, other times perched atop telephone poles, fence posts, or tall trees.  One time the raven had been feeding on something dead, the stench unbearable.   Other times it cawed out to him loudly, before taking wing and flying off.

He knew ravens like to collect things, shiny things, glittery things.  From crystals and baubles to necklaces and jewels, the birds would often gather and deliver such treasures to their nests or hide them deep within wooden burrows.

The last time he saw the bird, it was perched atop a broken fence post, the watch dangling from its beak by a leather strap.  As he cautiously approached, one hand on his pistol, the other outstretched, the bird had dropped the pocket watch in his hand before cawing once, and in a flurry of wings, launched itself into the sky.

He never questioned his good fortune, or the gift, knowing that with it he could measure both time and distance, two factors he desperately needed.

****

He stopped, bent over by the heat, and struggled to catch his breath.  The asphalt beneath his boots felt soft.  The temperature must be well over a hundred and ten, if not more.  No breeze, no relief in sight.  He would need to find shelter soon if he were to survive.  Glancing off to his right, he spotted a shadow amongst the glare.  Stumbling once, he veered off the highway.

Somewhere between hallucination and dehydration, he managed to reach the grotto, a small shadowed space facing the road.  The rocky prominence that birthed it resembled an enormous tortoiseshell carved of red stone.  He collapsed in a heap near the back of it, backpack and hat tumbling.

The coyote followed.

Time… slipped away.

Weatherworn and red, the old woman’s features seemed to mirror the sun-beaten wastelands around him, dry, craggy, and lined with shadows.  Her mouth, lips, and teeth stained a deep ochre from chewing peyote.  The old woman spoke in visions…

Gummy cackles echo throughout the grotto, reminding him of unseen water falling into hidden crevices.  “They’re coming to kill ya, know that do ya?”  The old woman, shoulders boney, and hair the color of midnight, stood out in deep contrast to the animal pelt she wore.  The pelt she wore resembled a coyote.  She wore the animal’s skull on her head like a cap.

In the darkness, the old woman moved, her eyes glittering points of reflected light.

“Skinwalker,” he muttered, waving her away.  He was too weak, too vulnerable.  “What do you want from me?  Why do you follow me?”

The old woman did not reply.

In her native tongue, she is called ‘yee naaldlooshi,’ skinwalker that brings sickness.

He turns his face away.  Beyond the mouth of the grotto, he watches the road.  It remains empty, shimmering in the noonday heat.  His lips are parched and peeling.  His forehead, face, and arms feel the same way, blistered and burnt.  This might explain what he is seeing, what he is hearing.

Though, probably not.

Managing a wry grin, more for his benefit than the old woman’s, he realizes the last thing he needs is to be argumentative with a hallucination brought about by heatstroke.  Reaching out, he pulls his backpack close.  All along its length, a glitter here, a stitch of patchwork there, lines have been drawn; road maps to where he has been, and passages to where he is going.  Tales of heroics and song.  Myths and legends.  All this he passes by.  He wants his canteen, the emptiness of which mocks him.

From the darkness, the old woman speaks.  “Seen it in a dream, I have… you too, I reckon.”  In the darkness, her chin goes round and round before she spits.

He groans and turns away.  He has no time for this.

He needs water.

The soil within the grotto feels as dusty and dry as the hardpan outside.  ‘I am delirious and dying,’ he thinks.  And he would be correct- to an extent.

The old woman moves again, from squatting in the darkness before him to sitting cross-legged beside him.

He pleads for her to let him be, that he has nothing for her.  “Blood no longer courses through my veins,” he says, “only dust and dryness, and drought.”

In the silence that follows the old woman shifts, paper-skin shifting over knobby bone, until the coyote returns, golden-red and lean to the bone.

“Your life I do not seek,” the creature says.  In her coyote form, she uses her teeth to clamp down on his right wrist.  The coyote’s tongue is as dry as the surrounding desert.  Something warm trickles down his forearm and drip from his elbow.  He struggles to free himself, but he is too weak.  He attempts to draw his pistol, lex talionis, but his hand quivers too much, he lacks the strength to draw the weapon.  ‘So, this is how I end,’ he muses, ‘fitting, I suppose.  Still…’

“Relax,” the old woman cackles, “If I wanted you dead, you would be dead.  I would have killed you at the gas station.”

His mind drifts back.  He remembers seeing the coyote following him, watching from a distance as he entered the station- before all the gunfire.

What began as pinpricks of pain in his wrist have blossomed into wells of agony that burn.  He groans, back arching.  “Away,” he mutters, lips weeping blood.  “Get away from me!”

The coyote’s jaws tighten, more teeth break the skin.  “Do you think you can so easily banish me,” she barks.  “I don’t think so.  We are becoming one.  One blood, one bond, one purpose!”

He continues to struggle.  The old woman seems intent upon killing him, not so much with iron or steel, but with teeth and words.

“I come to offer many things,” she goes on.  “An alliance among the least.  This is what I come to do.”

He laughs.  It sounds terrible.  A fit of coughing grabs him roughly, wrings him to the bone.  “A dalliance…”  he spits blood and phlegm.  “This is what you offer me?  I am on my deathbed, woman!”

The coyote’s jaws lessen.  “And yet, I am here to offer life,” she says.

For a long time, nothing, only the pain in his arm and the fire in his veins.  Time once again fades.

****

The next time he turns her way, the coyote is gone.  The old woman has returned.  She sits beside him, bent like a shepherd’s crook.  She draws forth an earthen vessel of clay.  She opens it.  Bitterness fills the grotto as surely as darkness.  She places it against his lips.

“Drink,” she says.

At first, he struggles to turn away, unsure of what to think or trust.  His body betrays him.  Poison or not, he drinks, yearning to quench the thirst that burns within him.

Memories… of being ravaged by a fever in a world gone black, lips parched, throat ravaged by fire, raw and unrelenting… Into this world of pain a cooling touch, a mothers’ caress, whispered words-

****

“Away,” I moan, pushing what the old woman offers.  Bitter liquid rolls down my chin and chest.

Still, I swallow.

Memories… of green grass and greener trees.  Acers of woods and swift-moving streams.  There is a song in the distance, its melody haunting, revealing…

“Accept my offer,” she parlays, “let us be one.  Yes?”  She cackles.  In the darkness, beneath furrowed brows thick with shadow, twin sparks of bitter light glow.

Skinwalker…!  Flesh-taker!  I draw lex talionis, place it between us.  I have drawn a line, and she knows this.  She withdraws the vessel.  “Dina d’malchuta dina,” I mutter, wiping my lips.  The law of the land is the law.

“You hide,” she accuses, setting the vessel down.

“I stay alive,” I say.  “I do not hide!”

She turns to look about the grotto.  “And yet, you are here,” she grins.

She is right.  It is a bitter pill I swallow.

Rock rattles near the grotto entrance.  Lex talionis in hand, I point that way.  Streaks of dried blood line my wrist where the coyote bit me.  A man stands there.  He looks familiar.

“Elijah,” I ask, confused?  Can’t be.  Elijah’s been dead for more than a decade.

Beside me, the old woman shakes her head and smiles.  Her smile seems sad.  “That would be royal, wouldn’t it,” she says.  “He too was shunned, despised, hated by everyone except his god.  He too was hunted and sought after.  Always it has been this way- speak the truth and the world will hate ya.”

“Elijah confronted,” I state.  That is why Elijah lies dead!

“Aye, that may be, but at least he did not hide his face.  He faced his fear, the enemy.  In death he was victorious!”

I close my eyes.  If I did not know any better, I’d say I was arguing with no one other than myself.  When I open my eyes, the figure before the grotto is gone.

I turn to stare at the old woman.  She is little more than a child in stature, yet she speaks like a giant.  Strength burns within me.  Whatever she gave me to drink has saved me.

The old woman sighs.  “Enough,” she says.  “I speak plainly when the universe lies.  To survive, you hunt or become hunted, kill, or be killed. It is simple as that.  Ya?”

“Can anything ever be that simple?”

“This time, perhaps.”

I manage a smile, “You are my lhiannan sidhe,” I say, my angel of doom.

Cackling laughter “I have never known such a name, yet it may be as you say.”

My strength continues to build.  “You saved me,” I say, “and I thank you.”  I re-holster my weapon.  “You are friend or foe,” I say.  “I cannot decide which.”

“One can be neither enemy nor friend,” she says.  She pats my leg.  “Those that seek you will find you at the appointed place.  You run before them, so prepare.  Where earth and sky meet shelter and home, ancient among the ruins, you must hide.  Until then, you must rest, gather your strength, for sorely you will need it.”  I protest. “Know this,” she interrupts, “After tonight you may seek me, but I will not be found…”  With this, she fades, until only darkness and space remain.

I sleep, and in my sleep, I dream-

Of a high place.  Far beneath me lies the desert floor, a dry and brutal tapestry of red and green.  Overhead the sun continues its slow, lazy march towards the horizon.

Someone approaches-

In my dream, the boy is no more than seven years old, errant strands of pale blond hair frame an innocent face.  The boy’s eyes are the color of milk, but as ancient as midnight.

A man stands beside the boy.  The man resembles the shadow of a crook, one that has been bent and twisted upon itself, much like the old woman.

“Why do you seek your doom,” the shadow asks.

“I seek answers,” I say. “I seek justice.”

“Justice,” the cooked man scoffs.  “Justice for who?  You?  I highly doubt that.”  The crooked man leans forward.  His hand rests upon the young boy’s arm as if guiding him.  “Until Polaris rides the shoulder of the world, you will not find the answers you seek.  I am here to warn you.”

The boy and his shadow pass-

When next I open my eyes, it is dawn and I am alone.

Beyond the shadowed confines of the grotto, the desert remains.  The road remains.  While in the sky, being chased by the rising sun, hangs the pale luminescence of a crescent moon.  Beside me in the dust lie the shattered remains of an earthen vessel.  Next to it, my canteen, now sloshing with water.

I cannot explain what has happened, or the night.  Instead, I gather my things, check my weapon, and walk out into the light, leaving the grotto and shade behind.

****

An hour later I am back on the highway, thumbing for a ride I know will never come.  Miles pass, the sun glares, the wind blows.

After a time, I run across a rusted sign that leans drunkenly to one side:

Betatakin Cliff Dwelling

The road continues west, veers to the north, then east.  All the while I follow, miles passing.

I have arrived.  Spread out before me, stand the skeletal remains of what was once an ancient Navaho village built of clay and daub.  The ruins sit within and beneath, an overhanging clamshell of rock, many hundreds of feet high and twice as wide.  Many of the remaining structures, those that time and the elements have not taken down, have been marked by graffiti, swaths, and streaks of blue, red, and black paint.  Crushed and spent beer cans, countless cigarette butts, shards of broken glass, and bits of paper litter the ground.  All relics of a time when countless tourists and visitors had visited the site, only to leave their Twentieth Century ‘mark’ behind.

This is where the trail leads me.  This place.  These are the directions I had been given at the gas station- and verified by the old woman -a place ‘where earth meets sky… ancient ruins.’  I had seen the map, drawn upon the dead girl’s back, the one I had killed at the station, carved into her flesh like some terrible tattoo, lines and coordinates, leading me here.

But to what end?  And why?

It occurs to me then, as I look around at the scrub, the miles of stunted brush, and empty canyons- what a wonderful place for an ambush!

And it all made perfect sense!

I hurry forward, eyes behind and around.  I gaze towards the horizon for any sign that they might have found me. Arrived ahead of me.  Perhaps the old woman was a liar.  Perhaps she worked for them?  One never knows.  I live in a world where nothing remains, not even the truth.  This world has become a world full of tombs and open graves.  Where nightmares walk on human legs and plague the night.  Where skinwalker’s and shamans hold sway, sit behind the moon, all the while practicing a belief and religion as old as the world.

****

I arrive at the ruins and scout out a position.  An hour later I am finished, my knees and hands scuffed.  Dirt cakes my face, sweat turns into mud upon my brow, marking me with war paint-

They are close; I can sense it.

Secure behind an outer wall of broken stone, situated high above the desert floor, I draw forth my father’s sextant.  I aim for the thumbnail moon, the remaining sun in the sky.  Armed with these calculations- and after recording my location in a journal, a journal whose pages still remind me of the girl I once loved, I double-check the time, calculate again, and then compare that figure against the time left on the pocket watch.

Exactly fifteen seconds.

Somewhere along the way, I had gained a full fifteen precious seconds.  Combine that with the time I have already accumulated, even with the time lost in the grotto, and I was left with a full minute thirty to work with.

I had a chance.

An hour later, they arrived.

Of the original ten that started this journey, only three remained- two men in various dregs of blue jeans and tee-shirts and one woman in a vintage red dress.  All are dust-covered.  All sport at least one injury or another, scrapes, bruises, cuts, gouges- their wounds mute testimony to the violence they inflicted upon themselves reaching this place.

I set, crouched among the ruins.  It had taken me an hour to find this location- perfect for what I needed to do.  Taking on one of them was bad enough, taking on all three suicidal.

As expected, as soon as they crested the last hill before the ruins, the woman stopped, calling out harshly in a guttural bark.  Hunkered together, the trio appeared to converse for a moment before splitting up.  One man, whom I will call Red because of the color of his hair and unbelievably sun-burnt face, remained with the lady.  The other gentleman, I tagged as Raven thanks to his midnight black hair, struck off to my right.  Their plan was obvious. The lady and Red would charge straight ahead, while Raven would attempt to flank me.

Damn!  I was hoping they would come to me as a group.  I bring lex talionis to my forehead, the gun’s barrel ice cold against my skin.  Think, damn it, think!

In the gas station, the girl had taken me by surprise.  Here in the ruins and desert, I needed this to be reversed; I needed to take them by surprise!

Flash of insight.  Backpack stashed, I scurried off toward Raven.

I had faced their men before.  Tough and determined, they could put up one hell of a fight.  In the end, however, they could be killed.  Their young girls were the same, just as determined, just as fearless, just as ruthless.  Blink, and they would gut you from the ground up, that or chop off your head and feast on your corpse.

It was their women, however, their mageia, that were unpredictable and dangerous- too darn close to their undead goddess.

I had faced two such mageia in my life, one in the ruins of New York City near Central Park, the other outside of Omaha, Nebraska amidst the ruins of a traveling circus.  Both times it had been one hell of a fight.  A fight I had won, but at a terrible cost.  The only thing I had going for me now, was this mageia, the one in the red dress, was relatively young.

I just hoped she was young enough!

Knowing that the lady in red and her companion would have to climb a series of ladders and trails to reach my current position, I figured I’d have time to take out Raven, before having to return and finish the remaining two off.

Head low, I speed between two walls- a sheltered walkway between one level of ruins and the next.  Leaping over rusted trashcans, their sides caved in, their contents scattered, I managed two chains, an overturned bench, and two ‘Walk This Way’ signs, before stopping to catch my breath.

I took off again.

I had just rounded a series of low structures, their insides crawling with darkness when Red popped into view.  I think we both surprised one another.

Red had done well, considering the distance he would have to have traveled to get here.  The lady in red was nowhere in sight!

Red’s cheeks were hollow, gaunt even, dark circles blackened his eyes, his skin was blistered, face, arms, and hands.  And yes, like all of them, he was packing ancient iron, robbed from the graves of gunslingers.

Red immediately drew and fired, a motion so quick it never even registered-

Triple claps of thunder rolled across the village, broke from canyon walls, and scattered across the plains-

In hand, ‘Justice’ tattooed in blue across my knuckles, lex talionis smoked lazily, its entire length wickedly hot.  The weapon had spoken authoritatively and with finality.  Red lay before me, sprawled across the trail, streams of ruddy red bubbling forth from beneath him.  Eyes wide, mouth open in a silent scream, he attempted to move. Once- but my shot had been true.  The bullet had entered just beneath his left eye, leaving a black dot, only to explode out the back of his head.  The second had caught him in the chest, just below his sternum.  In less than a breath, he moved no more.

I’ll give him this, he had gotten off the first shot, the shell so blistering close to the side of my head that it had severed several errant strands of hair, however, like love, war, and hand grenades, this time, close did not count.

With glares of thunder still echoing off canyon walls, the dislodgement of gravel sounded from somewhere behind me.  Spinning quick, I dodged behind the nearest stone; an elephant-shaped mass easily the size and shape of its namesake, even as an errant shot careened off the elephant’s ass, and into the wild.  Dust and debris flared around me.

Raven had reached me.

‘This will be as good as it gets,’ I imagined.  Raven’s shot had come dangerously close to calling my bluff, as well as my life.

No time left to react, I withdrew the pocket watch, held it before me, thumb wiping the dust from its yellowed crystal face.  I pressed down on the upper stud, one indent, seconds… two indents, minutes… I had never pressed it three times in a row.  Gripping my pistol, wiping sweat from my brow, I pressed the stud and began the countdown.

Time ceased to be, at least according to everyone but me.  Like a cartographer’s map, time remained a construct, and like a map, wherein folds lay unknown lands, between one second and the next lay all the time in the world- or my case, one minute and thirty seconds of non-time.

Thanks to my father, I knew how to walk non-time on the King’s Roads.

Scrambling forward, I backtracked, a cool breeze passing.  I was hoping to run into the lady in red.  If I could get her next to Raven, things would be so much easier.  I could deal with both at the same time.

They say Lady Luck is a fickle thing.

Screw Luck!

I nearly ran into myself ten seconds into my return flight, passed myself without so much as a glance at eleven, and ran into Raven at eighteen.  He was no longer before me, but heading to find me, still.  Since I could do nothing traveling the King’s Road, I toggled the stud-

To his credit, Raven knew exactly what had happened.  Before I could level lex to fire, Raven hammered it from my grip, his hands locking down on my wrists.  As one we went down in a cloud of loose gravel and dust, my knees and elbows striking rock, fists clenched and striking, hands grappling, sweat pouring.  Sudden blood as my face goes numb.  My world rocks back.  We continue to scuffle, fight, and kick- a sudden piercing sting causes me to pull away breathless.

Raven has a knife; because of this, I am now sporting a single cut across my right bicep approximately three inches long.  It is bloody as all hell, but harmlessly shallow.

A glance off to my right- lex lay in the dust and rock a good four feet away- might as well have been a hundred miles.  Raven would kill me long before I reached it.

Raven’s licking a split upper lip, his left eye beginning to swell shut.  With not a word spoken between us, for what is there to say, it is time to go Darwin.  We square off, each looking for an opening the other would desperately rue.  I could use the remaining seconds on the pocket watch, but why waste them?  The lady in red was still somewhere and would need to be reckoned with.  And I can guarantee you this. She would not be wasting any time at all!

So, mano a mano it was.

We continue to square, sweat pouring.  I dare not blink, instead; I keep an eye on Raven.  I had landed a blow on the right side of his face, dotting his eye.  Eventually he would have to blink that eye, and when he did, he would be mine.

As with everything, timing is crucial.  At his first blink, I did nothing.  On his second, we continued to circle, his left hand sweeping out, testing me.  The third time he blinked, I attacked.  Reaching in, I grabbed him by the knife hand, with a crack I twisted it to one side, before bringing it straight up under his chin.  The blade entered his throat, coursed up through the darkened ring of dirt there, and into the man’s brain- closing his mouth permanently.

I’d like to say his death came quickly, that one minute he was alive, the next gone.  But that would be a lie.  We struggled, bloody drool on his lips, nose flaring, eyes glaring.  It took everything I had to maintain my grip, keep the knife embedded and pressure applied- grunting, I twisted the knife forty-five degrees, and the light and fight left his eyes immediately.

Raven arched his back, hands out as if to catch himself from falling to death.  I lunged for my weapon- as a tattered and scuffed high-heel slammed down upon my wrist, numbing my fingers, crushing my hand, and causing me to lose my grip.  Towering over me, impossibly tall, a flash and swirl of red.  A hammering kick to the side of my head brought darkness and distance before the pain came rushing back, bringing with it all the light and noise of the world.

I lay still, not moving, desperately breathing, hand still flailing for the gun- but the lady in red was having none of that.  Barking a laugh, she picked up lex and placed it atop the remains of a shattered wall, ten feet away, her movements so quick, I could barely follow.

“Why did you do that,” I asked, gathering my feet beneath me.  Blood ran freely from the head wound she had just delivered.  It tasted copper on my lips.

The lady in red said nothing, just stared me down, her eyes little more than blackened pits.  In another life, she would have been considered beautiful even.  Petite in stature, coppery hair, high cheekbones, and pouty lips.  But she was one of them now.  No amount of makeup in the world could fix what they had broken.

Lipstick on a pig and all that!

She reminded me of the girl back at the gas station, the one that tried to ambush me.  The one I shot in the head.  She too had been young.  She too had been taken, changed… broken by them.  The only thing that saved me then. That girl had been too young to fully realize her powers.  Even with the symbols and words cut in her hand.

They do not come out of the grave fully trained, thank God!

Still watching me, the lady in red bent down, removed her high heels.  They clattered to the rock behind her.

She was meaning business.

“Can we talk about this,” I asked, buying time.  If I could just draw her away from the pistol.

She answered with a lop-sided grin.  Hands clawing into fists- the ground beneath her feet began to crack, to peel back revealing darkness… and something else.  Something that stank of grave and rot.

I turned to run.  I needed to reach Raven.  Raven still had his gun on him.

I did not make it three steps before I was tossed high in the air, only to fall down, hammered by chunks of stone, choking on dust, fresh agony in my hands and knees, unable to see.  I scrambled towards where the lady in red had placed my pistol, hoping to get there first, before she got to me, all the while tripping, slipping, and stumbling over broken rock.

In the distance, high above and all around, a low rumble was building.

As I scrambled forward the lady appeared, mouth snarled, a wickedly curved blade in hand, swinging like a lumberjack towards my head.

Eyes bleeding tears and mud, I slipped down to one knee, kicking out and catching her with the other, my blow causing her to miss, sending her blade over my head by a hair.

I could hear her cursing, even as the dust and debris cleared-

See what I was saying about inexperience.  An experienced mageia would never have used her power in such a way.  An experienced mageia would have killed me in a heartbeat when she had my pistol in her hand.

So goes inexperience!

Amazingly, the wall holding lex still stood.  I reached my hand up, even as the lady in red turned behind me.

Pain erupted from the back of my leg, a sliver that seemed to drive itself deep into the meat of my thigh.  I screamed, tumbling forward, hand desperately reaching for my pistol.  As my left knee bit into the ground, I turned, bringing my right hand to bear.  Only seconds left, I could see the lady in red reversing her swing, the edge of her blade smeared red with blood. My blood!  The next time she struck, it would not be my leg she would cut, it would be my head.  I could see it in her eyes, my death, and in the sneer on her savagely drawn lips.

Time seemed to slow down; the lady’s blade became a blur.  Hatred burned in her eyes, her mouth had opened in a scream, and the only thing I could focus on was her bone-white teeth. There were too many of them, far more than any human should possess.

She would eat me with those teeth.

As she swung she shouted something guttural and incomprehensible- a curse perhaps, or an exclamation -in a language last spoken over five thousand years ago, reminding me of black lava seashores in the Mediterranean, and a city swallowed by violence, volcanism, and the sea.

When they first arrived here!

I fell backward in a desperate attempt to evade my world, becoming one of vertigo and blur.  As I fell, I managed to squeeze off three shots.

Thunder and lightning flashed.

The first shot caught her high in the shoulder, yanking her violently to the right, pulling her blade up.  The second shot caught her just under the left collarbone, jerking her sharply to the left.  The last shot popped her head back like a Pez dispenser, a mist of red, bone, and brain tissue splashing the stone wall behind her.  She crumpled like a marionette whose strings had been cut, only to lie still.

My head hit the wall behind me, delivering a numbing, thundering blow, causing me to bite my tongue, and bringing about sunburst moments of darkness, light, and pain.

For the second time, I lay still, the rumble above growing in waves, as great waterfalls of rock and dust fell from the sky.  Betatakin was collapsing, the whole damned thing of it.  What the lady in red had begun with her magicks, it seemed, Mother Nature would soon finish!

The lady in red lay before me, face down in an ever-spreading stain of red.  Shaking off the fugue, I struggled to stand, crying out as the wound in my leg reopened-

She was there, the she-bitch in all her dusty red glory, nipping at my boots, willing me to move.

Holstering lex, I began stumbling back towards my belongings, scooping up my backpack along the way.  Rock and debris filled the air, blocking out the sunlight and turning everything pre-naturally dark.  As I moved, the coyote moved with me, whining and barking, snarling, and nipping, driving me ever forward.

We cleared the ruins, chunks of rock, some as big as semis, crashing all around me, or should I say ‘us’, dust and debris, an avalanche of rusty-red rock and soil, stunted trees, all raining from the sky.  As we ran it occurred to me, we would never make it.  I was too crippled up, we were moving too slow, and the world was crashing down behind us too quickly.  Each time I stopped to gather my breath; the coyote would be there to drive me forward.

As one, me cursing, she snarling, we continued our erratic run towards safety- until the world abruptly ended in front of us.  Beneath our feet, a good hundred feet, if not more below, ran a river, a black-blue ribbon crusted in white, snaking its way through the desolate wasteland leading to who-knows-where.

The mountainside behind us continued to collapse in pieces, high ground crashing into low.  We were caught in between, standing on the brink of a cliff overlooking a dizzying fall.  As rock continued to hammer all around us, I turned towards the coyote.  The animal was watching me; lips drawn back in a snarl, hackles up, head down.  I shrugged, “And here you thought I couldn’t find you.”  I picked the animal up.  She was burning with fever and rail-thin.  Without a second thought or glance back, I leaped out into space-

We seemed to fall forever; the coyote squirming against me, claws raking, teeth snapping- and then, just as suddenly, we were slapped into ice-cold water, so abruptly I lost my breath.

The world churned around me, muffled, disoriented, struggling to hold what little breath I could while maintaining my grip on the animal- the current seized us, tossed us about in a torrent.  I felt like a leaf caught in an undertow, the water around us, overwhelming.  I kicked out, struggling to reach the surface, which was… somewhere.  Everything was muffled. My chest burned.  Everything told me to breathe out and breath in.

First heat-stroke, now drowning…

No other choice, I had to let the coyote go.  To hell with saving ‘her’, I needed to save myself!

Sudden blinding pain as something struck the back of my head, pulled ragged down my back.  My mouth opened, uttering a silent scream of anguish, along with the last of my air.

Hands outstretched, I tried to straighten myself, as the river continued to drag me ever forward, ever deeper.  Around me, everything took on a tunneled look, black closing in.  It was all I could do not to breathe.  My chest involuntarily tried to expand- but there was no air left to draw in, only water, water as black as night and as cold as the grave-

Panic-

Suddenly, something grabs my right arm, yanking, twisting, pulling me sideways.  With no more fight in me, I surrender- as all around me finally goes black-

The next thing I know I am face down on a bed of river rock, black water draining out of me like a sieve.  I turn.  A coyote stands there, licks my face.  The damned thing looks so bedraggled, so miserable, I nearly laugh, but cough and choke instead,  “I guess we’re even,” I manage.  Then again, were we ever in a competition to begin with?

I know no more.

****

Later, after picking the bones clean, I toss them back into the campfire.  The remains of dinner, a wild hare the coyote had caught and brought to me, still dripping fat and grease.  We were under a large tree of some sort, its bark grey and twisted by the desert heat, sun, and wind.  A river, the same river we jumped into to save ourselves, rolled before us, trapped between two riverbanks of smooth stone, sand, and boulders.

I had my feet up, and my head tipped back against one of them.

Beside me lay the coyote, licking its chomps, and nipping at its paws.  We make a good pair, coyote, and me, I saved her life, and she saved mine.  This is a good thing; because we have a lot of miles to cover, and a short amount of time to get there.

Rubbing my hands through the animal’s fur, I allow my mind to drift back, beyond the ruins, beyond the gas station, to where this whole journey began- when I woke up and found myself on a pillar of rock deep within a darkened cave, dry leaves, and green moss all around.  My weapon looked different then, more like a blade than a pistol.

Oh well, times change.

How far I have come since then, the horrors I have seen, the lives I have spent.  Even though the world was ending, mine was just beginning.  This was a good thing.

“I guess it’s just you and me,” I say, stroking the animal’s fur.

The coyote growls deep, even as she pushes closer against me.  I relish the heat of her.

I turn to the sky, to the bands of darkness overtaking light.  A storm is brewing, I can feel it in the air, the way the clouds build in the distance, the taste of ozone in the air.  We need to move, and soon- but not tonight.

I manage a deep breath, and with the fire crackling, the coyote watching, and the river rushing, drift off to sleep.


[i] http://www.openculture.com/2018/06/visualizing-dantes-hell.html

People of the Knife

With the release of Book Four of the Summer People, you will be introduced to a ‘tribe’ of the Romani, known as the Churi, or People of the Knife.  The churi play an important part in Jake, and the Twin’s quest to free their parents from the insidious grip of the Serpent People.  Trapped behind enemy lines, the trio find themselves at the mercy of the enemy, until they run across the churi, ‘guerilla-style’ or ‘freedom fighters’.  The churi are a matriarchal group of warriors operating deep within the Sibilant Kingdom, struggling to throw off the Serpent Peoples yoke of oppression, fear, and slavery.

The Summer People- Book Four- An excerpt

“We range these woods seeking the adsincani, what you name the serpent people.  We burn their houses, attack their caravans.”

“So, you’re like guerilla’s then,” Jake exclaimed.  Chandra, Mar, and Rogue looked confused.  “You stay here and attack the enemy where he lives- behind the line.”

Chandra seemed to ponder the question.  “I’m not sure what this line is you speak about, but yes.  We are the churi[1] or Knife of the People.  The same as my mother’s mother, and her mother before her.  We fight so that we might gain our freedom.”

Jake turned to Ash and Eli.  “So, does that mean they are on our side,” he asked.

“We are on no one’s side,” Mar rasped, “because no one is entirely on our side.  We simply are.”  Her response brought a sharp glare from Chandra.

“This is all very confusing,” Ash said.  “She leaned forward.  “How many are you?”

“We are many,” Chandra replied proudly.  “Though we have no home, preferring leaf and bough as our roof.”  She waved with her hand.  “The forest is where we belong.”

“Are all the churi, like yourselves,” Eli asked.  Seeing Chandra’s brow furrow, “What I mean is…”

“Do we have men in our ranks?”  Chandra’s eyes grew dark.  “Ever since the disowning and shame, our men have been taken to work the mines.  It is always the same.  As soon as they reach manhood, they are removed.  They become slaves and fodder to those you name the sibilant.”  As she named the serpent people, she turned and spit into the fire.

And so, we make our introductions, even though we need none.  We simply are.  We are the churi.  We are the people of leaf and bough, shadow, and shade.  We strike from the forest and hide from the noontime sun. ~ Chandra

To understand our ways, one must know our history, and to know our history, one must walk our paths and ways.

In times of old the Romani were warriors and wanderers.  I ask, what is a warrior without their churi.  A warrior would rather be dead than caught without their churi.  Little has changed.  Since the disowning and shame, the churi have taken on new meaning.  With our sons and men taken, wives, daughters, sisters, and mothers have assumed the churi and its great responsibility.  The knives we wield today have been passed down from mother to daughter, aunt to niece, sister to daughter.  Blood speaks to blood.

In times past the churi were considered common.  No longer, our blades are sacred, venerated even, inscribed with the blood-rune of each family, their history and honor.

So, why this reverence for the blade?  After all, are we not outcasts, driven forth from our own people?  In answer I say, look no further than the Cossacks[2], and their views towards the blade.  Among the Cossacks, a small boy is given a blade upon birth, the knife placed beside him in the cradle.  The same is done amongst the Romani.  For we are churi, the chosen Knife amongst our People.  We are warriors, and we stand between the cursed sibilant and history.

Throughout generations our people have been bladesmiths, makers of churia and blades.  Many of our tribe have been armors to Kings, armies, and Courts.  Many are the knifemakers in Klingental[3], Solingen[4], Sheffield[5], Albacete[6] and Toledo[7], sacred Romani families whose names bring legion and fear.

As churi, we live and die by the blade, by the skill of our limbs, the quickness of our minds, the heat of our passions.  Our blades and skills are a way of life, and remembrance.

How it begins…

A chavie[8], would be presented with her very first Churi on her naming ceremony. From that time forward she would wear her namesake around her neck, or at her hip. The churi she wields would have been made for her by an older phen[9] or day[10] or a puri daj[11], passed down as blood heirlooms, and/or remembrances. When older, around three or four, the chavie would be given a larger Churi made for her by a day, and at the age of five or six she would be taught to ker[12] her own Churi.

As related to Ashley, daughter to the Queen of the Summer People- regarding the making of churi.

Amongst the Romani from the British Isles, the knife is often referred to as a “peg knife”. The reason for this name is rather obvious, as it was the knife that women used when “chinning the koshters”, making wooden clothespins. The churi was and is, basically, a utility knife used for just about every cutting task imaginable.

Traditionally the Churi is a recycled knife; made from older knives of the “bone” handle variety.

The most common blade style for a churi, a.k.a. “peg knife”, has always been the sheepsfoot blade.

The sheepsfoot blade is extremely versatile, and all cutting chores are done with this churi, from cutting pegs (therefore the name ‘peg knife’), to cutting an apple to skinning a shoshoi (rabbit) or a rukmengro (squirrel), to peeling potatoes, and/or defending the group or oneself against attackers. There are times when the shape of the blade may differ, but this generally only happens if the original shape of the blade from which the churi is fashioned dictates and requires it.

I made my first Churi from an old knife when I was six-years-old, relying not so much on tools, rather using elbow grease, patience and some acquired skill. The Romani churi, amongst mi fohki at least, would always be made with a sheath to be hung around the neck or, also, with a sheath for carrying on the hip. However, the neck wearing of the churi was and is the most common way. I always wear one small Romani churi day and night. It only ever is taken off when I go for a swim.

The “raw” material for a churi is usually an old kitchen or table knife, generally with a bone or wooden handle, and with a spike tang.

The steel of the blade is either high-grade carbon steel or Firths Stainless. Firths Stainless was the first ever stainless steel, and the finest stainless steel forged.

The first step in making a churi, is to acquire the blade.  Carbon steel is always a good choice, and unless you know this, looks gray to black- that which is called “tarnish.”  Rust is not an issue either, if the rust has not destroyed the spike tang.  Firths Stainless steel blades generally have the word “Firths Stainless” stamped on them.  The handles of these knives are bone if they are rather old.  Sometimes you may even find knives with deer antler handle.

Once you have got the knife (as cheaply as possible) you need to look at the lines of the blade. The shape determines the shape of the final blade. If it is a standard table knife, you then must decide where you wish to make the initial cut to shape the blade into a sheepsfoot, the traditional shape for a Romani Churi. For this you will have to use a hacksaw or cold chisel to accomplish.  After the initial rough cut, use a fine cut mil file to achieve the final curves on the top for a proper nice sheepsfoot blade.

Next comes the handle.  If you want to put on a new handle, first you must remove the old “bone” handle. If you are blessed enough to have found a churi with an antler handle, I would suggest you do not remove, but leave it. However, to remove the “bone” handle, the safest way I have found is to first scour a cut into the center of one of the flat sides of the handle with a cutting tool, then split the handle off with an old chisel.

Now that you have shaped the blade into a nice sheepsfoot shape and have taken off the old handle you can start with the new wooden handle. This must be a piece of hardwood.  The best woods to use are seasoned, and can be either elm, birch, beech, yew, ash, hawthorn, blackthorn, cherry, apple, or other.  Do not try using oak, it does not work. Yew wood makes a nice handle, but the easiest wood to make handles with, that I have found anyway, is beech. I use a nice sized piece of branch that has been seasoned for about six months to a year.  Cut a piece of a length that will be right and then with a drill bit that is just a little smaller in diameter than is the tang you drill straight down into the center of the wood you have chosen for a handle. Now take an old – and I do stress old – saucepan fill it with water, throw in the piece of wood for the handle and boil this for about 15 minutes. Meanwhile you take your blade and, point-down, clamp it, between protective pieces of wood, into a metal vice. Also get a hammer ready. Once the handle has boiled enough you take it out of the water with tongs, and holding it with a cloth, carefully put it onto the spike by means of the hole. You then hammer the handle home and do this a straight as possible. Within literally a minute or so the wood will have cooled and shrunk back and the tag will be held firm. The only tasks to do then is to shape the handle the way you want it to be and then, put an edge on the blade using a file first, then a sharpening stone. Once you have put a razor-sharp edge onto the blade, you will have your very own traditional Romani churi.

All that is left tat this point, is to make a nice, tight-fitting sheath for your blade using an old leather belt, bag, or whatever else.  Wood makes a nice scabbard as well.


[1] The Romani Churi, the making of which shall be described here in this little article, is the traditional churi (knife) of the Romanichals (Romane Chave). Amongst the Romani from British Isles it is often referred to as “peg knife”.

http://veshengro.tripod.com/id20.html

[2] The Cossacks are a group of predominantly East Slavic-speaking Orthodox Christian people who became known as members of democratic, self-governing, semi-military communities, originating in the Pontic steppe, north of the Black Sea.

[3] Close to Basel’s famous dance of death in the Dominican monastery was another Dominican monastery in Kleinbasel named Klingental after its founder Walter von Klingen. In this secluded nunnery there used to be a copy of the famous dance.

[4] Solingen (German pronunciation: [ˈzoːlɪŋən] is a city in North Rhine-Westphalia, Germany. It is located on the northern edge of the region called Bergisches Land, south of the Ruhr area.

[5] Sheffield is a city in South Yorkshire, England.

[6] Albacete is a city and municipality in the Spanish autonomous community of Castilla–La Mancha, and capital of the province of Albacete

[7] Toledo is an ancient city set on a hill above the plains of Castilla-La Mancha in central Spain. The capital of the region, it’s known for the medieval Arab, Jewish and Christian monuments in its walled old city. It was also the former home of Mannerist painter El Greco. The Moorish Bisagra Gate and the Sol Gate.

[8] young girl- not of age

[9] sister

[10] mother

[11] grandmother

[12] Make and/or forge

They-

They came from the East.  No warning.  No governmental response.  No nothing… leaving death and destruction- the tearing down of all that was built, in their wake.

They came alone!  Knocking on doors in the middle of the day, feeding like the plague, the chant, ‘Vrykolakas, vrykolakas’ echoing from bone-white Cypress walls.

Unstoppable.  Unbeatable- stealing bodies and souls!

Little by little our world fell, one country, one state, one child at a time, until in the end only desolation and ruin remains.

That’s where I enter the picture- riding like the Fifth Horseman of the Apocalypse… and I carry retribution with me.

As with all plagues, there must be a reckoning.  I bring the reckoning!

     But it was long ago, and it was far away, oh God it seems so very far, and if life is just a highway, then the soul is just a car…

(1993) Album notes for Bat out of Hell II: Back into Hell by Meat Loaf [booklet]. Virgin (CDV2710 – 7243 8 39067 27)

It was obvious from the stench and miasma that the animal had been dead for at least a week, matted fur, distended abdomen, all four paws pointed to the sky, a riotous feeding frenzy of flies playing tickle and tease.

Death can be contagion; as such he chose to steer clear.

The sun continued to beat down, baking the highway and countryside.  If he didn’t find shelter soon, it would do the same to his limbs.

It had been a hundred plus for as long as he could remember, and it looked like today would be more of the same.  There was no breeze to speak of, only whispers, and a cloudless expanse above.

Looking over his left shoulder, twin strips of asphalt bled off into the distance.  Before him, much of the same, just as blistering, just as motionless, and just as barren, which is why he chose the off-ramp in the first place.  He needed to find someplace else to be- someplace different than before.

With the world upon his shoulders, and what remained on his back, he continued his determined shuffle West, one dusty footstep followed by another.

Everything exposed was already blistered and red, his lips peeling, eyes nearly blinded from glare.  And yet, he continued as he always did, determined.  Driven.

Haunted.

‘No one ever said it was going to be easy.  Then again, no one ever said it would be this hot.’ His thoughts, like his words, seemed as baked and hardened as the asphalt beneath him.  “I could always break into a rain dance…” he began.  Then again, one look at the heavens above said no, deadpan steel-blue skies with not a cloud in sight.

It would take a hell of a lot more than a rain dance to break the current drought; it would take God drowning the world.

Upon reaching the top of the off-ramp, he had a decision to make.  He could cross the road before him and return to the highway below, in essence continuing his previous journey into the sun, the direction his shadow seemed to be leaning, or he could hang a hard right and head towards more of the same low rolling hills he had just previously traversed, or he could veer left towards the town of Summersville, population six hundred.

 Water running low, judging from the slosh at his left hip, the idea of running into people, if any still lived, haunted him.

The last time he was around people there had been gunfire.  Lots of gunfire.  “And that’s the last thing I need.”  This being said, “Looks like I’ll be hanging a right after all.”

An hour later found the highway all but swallowed up by the hills he had just entered, his shadow escaping as the sun continued its sky-high climb.

During his trek, he had stopped once, long enough to take a sip of water, brush the hair from his eyes and shift the pack on his back.  His tee-shirt, both weathered and worn, lay thin on the shoulders and continued its pattern of sticking and un-sticking.

Whether blistering hot or chilly as all get out, this part of the country couldn’t quite seem to make up its mind- and the further west he went, the worse this condition became.

He had been born long ago, to a good family.  His father, though strict, had taught him everything he would need to know on how to survive and become a man.  His mother had taught him all the finer things in life, such as what herbs to pick to flavor a soup just right, or how to care for his wounds.  She also taught him how to enjoy some of the simpler things in life- the way shadows seemed to grow long in the fall, or how a particular beam of sunlight could break free from the clouds and hi-light a particular patch of ground in the distance.  There were other things as well, how clouds seemed to roll and roil just before a mid-Summer’s storm.

The silence in the fields momentarily drew his attention elsewhere, away from his memories, until he realized that these fields were the same as all the other fields he had passed thru, non-descript and knee-high in grasses and weeds, all rolling green.

A single speck trolling a sullen sky caused him to absentmindedly reach for his journal.  He had a habit of chronicling his journey, had been since the beginning.

He often found comfort in the art of sketching what he saw, nothing grand or all that inspiring, but like his mom, he found joy in the simplest of things.  Once he discovered a wildflower, white petal crowing green leaves, struggling against the elements, eking out an existence between the cracks of an asphalt highway.

Another time it was a weathered and oddly tilted fence post.  The fence itself had long ago vanished, having returned to rust and dust, but in mute testimony, the post remained, another bent and aged squatter wandering the greater plains, much as himself.

According to his latest figures, he had covered almost thirty miles since the morning.  Not bad considering that his feet, back, and shoulders ached it would be a whole lot easier if he were to list what didn’t ache, rather then what did.

     The sun was a good three fingers from the horizon when he came across the mile marker, a reflective green and white rectangle approximately twelve inches long and half as wide.  The sign itself was attached to a galvanized metal pole and held approximately five feet off the ground by two galvanized bolts.

The sign read; Mile 244’.

Allowing the pack to slide from his back, he gently lowered it to the ground before opening.  Reaching in he quickly and carefully retrieved three objects.

The first object he retrieved was the most important, his father’s sextant.  This instrument he kept in a worn and threadbare black bag.  The second object was equally as important as the first but for an entirely different reason, his journal, chronicler of events.

The third and last object to be retrieved was a well-worn and much-thumbed copy of The Farmer’s Almanac dated 1982.

Three-quarters of the way through the journal lay a thin red ribbon.  Opening the journal to this point; today’s entry, he hesitantly lifted the ribbon, closed his eyes and inhaled deeply- the faint scent of lilacs remained, and continued to amaze him even after all these years.

Lowering the ribbon, he set the opened journal across his knees and removed the sextant from its protective bag.  With nary a shadow behind him, he raised the sextant to his eye, sighted in on the Moon, a silvery smudge barely a fingers width above the horizon, and measured the angle between it and the sun.  Locking and rocking the instrument, he made note of the indicated angle in degrees and seconds in the left-hand margin of his journal.  He then opened the Farmer’s Almanac, cross-checked the angle he had just measured, to the correct table to find the time in Greenwich Mean, before comparing this figure to the intricate watch he wore on his left wrist.

‘Still off by more than a minute.’  Considering that his watch was constantly being updated by the atomic clocks located deep beneath the U.S. Naval Observatory in Washington DC[1] this seemed an impossibility, one he chose to ignore.

His next two measurements, which he also jotted down, indicated his longitude and latitude- his current position in the world- 38°25’2.08″N by 96°33’25.35″W.

Finishing, he carefully repacked each item, tightened his straps, and then re-shouldered his backpack before continuing his journey north-

There was a place he needed to be, a sanctuary some would call it, others Nirvana.

He called it home.  And according to his measurements, he still had a long way to go to reach it.

Nightfall would catch him stretched out in a local grotto, eyes heavy, heels kicked up to a velvety black sky full of unknown stars spinning high overhead.

And in that darkness, he dreamt-

     Of a time when he was yet a child.  His father would take him out into the great night and point his face towards the heavens.

‘Do you see that’, his father would ask?  He would shake his head no.

‘See what Daddy?’

With his father’s lips only inches from his ear, ‘Those seven stars right there.’

Following his father’s lead, ‘That’s the Big Dipper, a very important group of stars, son.  So important that they could save your life one day.’

‘How Daddy…?’  How could pinpoints of light possibly save his life?

‘Do you see how those first three seem to form a handle, while the last four form the dipper portion?’  He shook his head.  ‘Let your eyes follow those last two stars, son…’

He did.

‘Now imagine a straight line being drawn across the sky with its beginning, its point of origin, being those two stars.’

Sudden realization, like a shade being withdrawn, ‘I see them, Daddy.’

‘Good. Following our imaginary line, notice that after only a few degrees, we run into what appears to be a much smaller dipper, one in which the handle seems inverted as if flipped inside out.’

‘Yes-

‘That bright star, the one the Big Dipper points too, that’s Polaris, son, what we call the Northern Star.’  His father faces him, ‘If you are ever lost, my son, if you ever lose your way, just seek out the Northern Star- it will always lead you home.’

This would become a lesson he would never forget.

Morning- and with it an alien landscape.

In many places, like old bones or relics from a time long past; shale, granite, and limestone thrust themselves up from the earth, while high overhead, the same desolate sky.

He would suffer three more days of this same heat, this same desolate terrain, before running across the first real signs of ‘them’ since his run-in at the gas station, all those many miles back.

The Gas Station:

Like a mausoleum, it seemed to raise itself from the rocky soil, with its sandblasted walls, dusty brown paint, and streaked glass.  An abandoned- long-abandoned- filling station, its four walls streaked in shadow and ochre blush.

One large garage door was all that remained of three.  It was closed.  The remaining bays, minus doors, were nothing more than blotches of darkness glaring out across the highway- like a dead man dreaming in the noonday sun, the entire structure seemed to be slumbering.

A large plate-glass window remained intact in front, with no signs hanging, its surface streaked in ripples of gold and blue… rainbows of refracted and reflected light.

The front door, currently situated at an odd angle, hung open, its darkness beckoning, while at the same time repulsing- a yawning threshold to a much darker interior.

The station’s pumps were long since gone, only the twisted remains of rusted pipe remained, poking up from an oval-shaped concrete island.  Overhead, what used to be a canopied awning, now skeletal and torn, its four large posterns pointing at odd angles towards the sky.

The parking lot around the filling station lay broken and shattered, with tufts of yellowed prairie grass waving in-between.

Pretty much, the place was a pop-up picture opened to the American countryside in a book about dirt.

His mind drifted to the same gas station; some forty years prior-

Entering the station proper, his senses had been immediately overwhelmed by a variety of smells: the deep damp stench of oil, gasoline and compressed air- the sharp tickle of fresh rubber mixed with Wrigley’s Double mint Gum?

There was something else as well, something he couldn’t place-

Across a grease-smeared and scratched glass counter stood a register, unattended, much like the station itself.  Beside the register, a three-tiered rack of Wrigley’s gum, rows of green, blue, and yellow.

On the other side of the register lay a stack of ratty edged maps, a cup of broken and chewed pens and pencils, and one of those four by four boards with a nail driven through it.  Impaled on the nail, a mishmash of old receipts stacked an inch thick.

The wall across from the counter held a dusty rack of Ever-Ready car batteries, besides it, a dented can overflowing with greasy shop rags.

A tattered calendar turned to December 2019, seemed to round things out, hanging limply above the battery rack.

Other than an overturned chair behind the counter, and a coat rack holding an umbrella beside the door, there was not much else to catch his eye, or hold his attention-

Move forward forty years-

One hand on the door frame, I cautiously entered the gas station.  Instead of oil, gas and compressed air, my senses were assaulted by the stench of dry rot, disuse, and dirt.  Yellowed wallpaper, peeling in strips, lay on the worn linoleum floor, along with mounds of dried grass and weeds.  An abandoned bird’s nest of daub and mud adorned three of the corners.

A stack of worn and fingered phone books lay haphazardly stacked against the far wall.

The glass countertop of yesteryear had been replaced with plywood.  There was also no register.  Gone were the days of Wrigley’s gum, paper widgets holding business receipts, and a year-old calendar opened to December.

I paused a moment to gather my thoughts-

Sudden thunder, thunder, thunder as the wall next to me hammer twice; sheetrock lifting outward before exploding in a cloud of white dust.  Instantly my hearing is gone, what was initially sharp, has become muffled silence.

I immediately drop to the floor, fragments of wall raining down around me.  From the darkness beyond the office, three brilliant strobes of light which seem to reach towards me in ever-expanding rolls.

My world has become one of cordite and gunpowder, smoke, dust, and debris.

Right hand reaching, I feel the steel before I pull it, Lex Talionis- the Law of Retaliation.  In one smooth motion, I bring its comforting weight and steel to bear-

The last time I was in this situation had been back at in Omaha- Three souls lost their lives that day, all by my hand, and all because of ‘them.’

Always, they seemed to be ahead of me, while I remain what feels like, three steps behind.  At least at the diner, there had been some warning, some notice given, I simply hadn’t wandered in oblivious… not like here and now.

Back then my entrance into the diner had been preceded by a star, its shape seemingly painted by a child’s hand, chalk white, on the top step below the front entrance.  Next to a crescent moon, I’d learned to keep my eyes open.  Not this time though, there had been no star painted outside, no crescent moon above the door, no upside-down ‘For Sale’ signs propped up or hanging in the front window, only ambush and gunfire.

They were getting smarter.

Strained silence with after-images of light floating and darting.  Outside, a golden-red coyote pauses in mid-stride, seemingly caught halfway between this side of the highway and the next, its head turns towards the station, ears cocked, tail tucked.

Between one breath and the next, she is gone, vanishing into the afternoon’s silence and glare.

The coyote had been in Omaha as well, only afterward, not before, like some harbinger of doom!

That, or death!

Rolling to my right, would bring me beyond the counter and into the space between it and the wall, directly in front of the backroom door.  I feel it may be my only chance at surprise, and probably what the other party feels to be my only recourse as well.

A moment before I act, my eyes are drawn to my right hand, to the word ‘Justice’ tattooed in blue across the knuckles, and crosshairs blazoned across the first joint of my trigger finger

I roll out and bring ‘Retribution’ to bear, while at the same time squeezing off two thunderous rounds, afterimages of light and smoke.  I continue to move, bringing myself to the other side of the door frame, out of breath but heartbeat steady.

My backpack remains where I dropped it, just outside the front door.

Silence reigns.

A glance assures me that the coyote is gone… only then do I notice the sign, a star, finger smeared in white and ochre on the linoleum floor just inside the threshold where baking sunlight meets the floor.

Beads of sweat break from my brow and run down my nose.

A fly is buzzing around, making itself a nuisance.

Errant strands of hair stick to my face.

It is the little things that are irritating in times like these.

In the stillness there is movement- I lean to the left- in time to catch her under the chin with my pistol as she steps from the room.  A single shot, and a thunderous roar, lifts the top of her skull, showers the ceiling and doorway with brain and splinters of bone.

I quickly roll to the right, sparing myself most of the mess.

A single tear of red slowly makes its way down my cheek.

I wait for what seems an eternity.  Most of the time they hunt in pairs, lie in groups.

Not this time though.

Afterward, and sometime later, I regain my backpack, holster Lex Talionis- and stand above her, hands on my hips.

For all she has become, she remains a child- they all do, dirt-smeared face, vacant eyes, and dark stringy hair.  She’s dressed in little more than rags.  She’s also lost a shoe in the struggle afterward- the struggle to hold onto life as it slipped through her fingers and bled from her skull.

Still clasped in her extended left hand, ancient iron, an old-time six-shooter, the kind you find in Westerns.  Her right hand is clawed and crowned with dirty, broken fingernails, smeared with white and ochre paint, the word ‘Croatoan’ carved in the center of her palm.  Her wrists are chaffed and torn, evidence of her countless bids for freedom.

Today she has gained that freedom- just not the freedom she desired.

It was close this time’ One day, maybe soon, it will be my time to lose a shoe-

But not today.

That night, with the stars, burning bright, and a small fire flickering between me and Mid-night, I weep.  Not for today, not even for the girl, though I have wept for such before- No, today I weep for the promise of tomorrow and all the tomorrows to follow.

Sometimes I feel like I’m the only thing standing between my old world, and the world they wish it to become.

‘Ayin tahat ayin.’  Justice, blind or impartial, retribution will find a way… and I will not rest until I hunt them all down, all the ‘theys’, and put an end to this nightmare once and for all.

Until that time, I ride.



[1]  Margin of error: +/- .000000001 of a second every four hundred million years.