I. The Rider
The rider sees the cabin; he sees the creak of its door; he sees the shadows that pour in from the lightless house astride the evening star that sets across the field.
Cotton, he thinks of home and weevils, sprawls like swollen fingertips or the alien reach of the Earth in the backdrop. He hears nothing, so he dismounts. A place unmarked by his map, so left abandoned by civilization and the great web of humanity that came with the telegraph wires and would leave with the atomic bombs he knows nothing about . . . save what was read in Revelations.
The kitchen is cold and the stove never touched before the morning hit some time ago.
From the corner he sees a beam of light; it slips through the wound in the wall and directs its red attention to the dead husbandman, relieved of his clothes and his scalp.
He is crucified by arrows beneath his Christ figure on the mantle; both share agony and both are much gone. At his feet lay the pistol fired once, perhaps to banish the invaders with the light from outside; it must have been night, he wagers, and carries on to the bedroom.
Above the peaceful bed dangles a naked Mary; her violations shy away the rider’s eyes and he looks to his deformed shadow on the wall, to the long fingers that sought what loot he could acquire from the dresser. Shame hunches him but poverty compels him.
A voice turns him around and the rider takes note of the cradle: a babe. She lives, despite the horror, protected by innocence or savagery’s neglect. The rider reaches for the child and feels tiny hands grasp him and tiny fingers pressing into his calloused palm. He smiles.
He fashions a cradle from cloth and lays the babe against his chest; she sleeps soundly in the presence of the rider and does not stir as the appaloosa carries them.
A nunnery some place away would be her home — for the rider is meant to give passage, as cursed men are wise to surrender joy. It’s a white sheet and their fingers have been marked by black ink. He would give this gift, afforded to her out of envy for he, the rider, was only half alive.
II. The Belle
“Would you call me by any other name?” A space between them; though others might think their distance intimate; she with her hair like honey and his so rough and dark.
“No,” the rider answers in a single breath and busies his attention with the horizon, where men abandon their duties. He does not look to her for the reason drunks do not frequent saloons. “Sunflower,” a word as alien in its affection as its origin.
She smiles at very little but his words always stir her lips. It is evening; the sky is purple and on fire. “Will you return to me, my rider?” She does not speak his name; the way he refuses hers, “When we have won the war?”
“Je reviendrai,” his hard and calloused fingers rest on the white fence that encases her home, “Tournesol.” She feels faint at his foreign words, his eyes are foreign but she does not ask for them; for they arrived from the land of red dust and coyotes.
Above the woman’s head is a yard-bound sapling; a red spider lily. Its legs are curled up with dotted yellow orbs like the swollen tips of fingers. The rider thinks he hears it sigh when she passes by it and takes hold of his hand; he does not refute it nor engage its softness.
“Won’t you ask,” the woman tries to find his eyes, though they are still set against the distant horizon; as a rider is captive to the places he has yet to travel, “If I will be here, when you return?”
“I’ll find you,” the rider stands tall and his shadow long, “If’n you ain’t.” The charm has left him. He runs his fingers down her palm as they are drawn away and he leaves through the white gate; sealing her inside with his departure.
The rider’s appaloosa cries and the woman watches in silence as dust gathers in his wake. Au Revoir.
III. The Shooting
The war has ended. Months have passed and the rider, with a great sin on his back, stops his horse at the crest of a hill. It slopes down near a river and is made of mostly dirt and dried grass. He dismounts the appaloosa, and he takes his rifle out of the saddle and he puts the stock to his shoulder because he knows that he must use it and he raises the sight to affirm this.
The white sun is high over head and he puts his knee down on the dirt and takes aim with the rifle. There is a glare behind him so he is safe from snipers but they will see him when the glare turns against the sight and that is when he must run.
He has dark eyes that look like cinders and long brown hair that lays flat under his hat with a concho band. His clothes are plain and familiar. He has cautious steps. Most remember the sound of his boots, the mean craft of his hands, his smell. It reminds them of cigarillos and the pine forests and the mornings in which he often has vanished.
Today he will kill men down at the bottom of this hill. He knows they will ride this way and that the leader always rides ahead and flanked by his friends. The left is the best shot so he will shoot him first. The other is missing an eye and will die last.
He stays longer on that hill than he remembers when he sees the men and the dust cloud. They are riding hard. He jerks the rifle switch and fires. The man on the left grabs his heart and falls. The horses come to a stop and the leader draws a dragoon pistol. He shoots nothing and falls backwards, his brains scattered on the road.
The last man tries to run and is thrown into the river and the white water runs red and he is caught on the pebbles and the boulders and doesn’t stir or is unable.
The rider comes down the hill and stumbles and lands on his backside. He curses and sits there to think things over and smokes a cigarillo he has just rolled himself. None of the bodies do much more than groan before they eventually stop that all together. Two of them die face down while the leader at least looks up to the sky and sees the birds.
The sun is still white but he doesn’t close his eyes. He dies with them open and his mouth is open too. The rider believes he looks confused when he bends over to pick his pockets. Flies already taking roost, buzzing around them.
His knife is made of a deer antler and the blade is long. He makes a small fire with some gray twigs and brush and strokes it with the knife. When this is done he goes to the bodies and cuts off one ear from each and pokes holes in their lobes and makes a necklace using some knotted horsehair then over the fire he roasts them to a crisp black and wraps them in linen. He chews on the cigarillo which is just a stub and lines up the dead men and folds their arms over their chests.
Twenty-five dollars for each of them. He counts on his fingers and whistles. Then, after taking their ammunition, attempts to climb back up the hill with some effort and almost loses his boot.
The appaloosa shakes her head and he feeds her a carrot then rides her back to town. The sky is a cold blue when he returns and the stars are out and the moon is transparent through the clouds. He drinks a glass of whiskey with a whore then goes to bed alone.
Sleeping in late he forgets to see the sheriff and spends the afternoon cleaning his gun and installs himself in a rocking chair on the balcony. The deputies come to see him and ask if he has proof of contract. He offers them the ears and they give him the money.
That night he stays on the balcony and he rests his hands on the railing. He looks out into the starry night and ignores the catcalls and the gunfights and laughter. He sees himself in thirty years in a coffin or is it a house? His mind drifts and he doesn’t return to the thought. Over near a desert plant he sees a coyote and the coyote sees him. They lock eyes from far away, the coyote’s are very gold. It lasts until the end of time. Until the coyote runs away.
The next morning the rider follows. And it begins.
IV. The Wendigo.
It’s a timeless hour of the day.
The sun is muted white and the snow, falling in great clumps, snaps the gnarled limbs of a black tree. The rider hears not a single bird just the heavy meandering steps of his appaloosa.
His journey has again brought him to the silence of nature; he feels grateful despite something he can’t place. It’s enough to make him pause, staring into the distance past the trees, staring like he waited for something to show itself, waiting like he were afraid to move. He sees blood slathered on the bark of a trunk and draws the repeater from its boot on his saddle, slow and unsure.
The rider dismounts, hitching his horse on a sturdy branch. He motions her to calm as the proximity of the blood put her in duress. It’s baleful, persistent dripping unnerving both horseman and horse. She whines and the rider runs his fingers down her neck until she settles.
The rider lets his attention drift from the blood-stained tree to the snow where it was most prominent. That’s when he sees the hand-print. It’s not right, it’s strange; long fingers and jointed knuckles close to inhuman.
That emptiness that spread over the forest was no accident. Everything living had fled. He understood now why the birds didn’t sing. The silence became undesirable. He heard only his heart and his trailing steps which sounded to him clumsy and loud.
He follows the blood through a winding path and his breath flees his chapped lips like scurrying phantasms. He has heard stories of these woods. Stories without moral or reason, stories told by darkened hearts. Turned so under the immense burden of what they were forced to comprehend.
He slides down a hill and comes near a frozen river where he stops. Something cried up-ahead. The rider snaps his repeater and his lip twitches.
He imagines a creature one hundred feet tall with claws as long as oaks and skin blacker than night. He imagines his bullets bouncing off its skin. He imagines his own skin being consumed to fuel the creature’s insatiable evil hunger. Then, he thinks about the other travelers. He thinks about the blood, the carnage that awaits them.
His eyes drift toward Heaven with the buyer’s remorse of conscience and bravery. He tips his hat brim away from his eyes and presses the stock against his shoulder; advancing on the sound that draw his fears and attention.
What he sees is hunched and moving its fingers rapidly inside the open carcass of a bloated thing, perhaps once a man, like the beaks of carrion birds. The figure hides in the shadows beneath a tree where the roots curl down like bars. It’s not so tall but long in the limbs, flicking away at the purified guts of the corpse.
He pulls up the iron sight slowly as to not draw its attention. The creature sobs heavily and chews, chews what makes it into the large mouth with crooked teeth. Its piss-yellow eyes are stricken with red veins; the irises a deep and fel-black. The creature looks toward the rider when he takes one more step closer to line up his shot.
He sees the semblance of hair that drapes like strings of dried grass from its balding head. He recognizes the remains of a dress that loosely fall off its deformed malnourished body. His finger curls around the trigger and he watches it watch him through the iron sights. It disgusts him and he mourns for it all the same.
When it opens its mouth, bits of gore fall loose. It screams. Screams with a sound he can’t describe and screams from a place long forgotten by men. He sees its pupils yawn and the depths of his rotten throat expand. This sound would long follow him, long after the winter had passed.
He pulls the trigger and its head jerks back violently. The sound of the rifle crack echoing out and then becomes lost in the forest. Forever. The rider lowers the weapon and the thing, it falls forward onto the carcass at it’s feet.
He returns to the river after fetching his spade and digs, digs through the hard and frozen earth. He dumps the creature first, carrying the reeking carcass respectfully if not a bit disdainfully for the odor. He crosses their arms and they are buried together; should they have a story before this he isn’t sure but their fates now are woven as one.
Pushing the spade into the ground, the rider squats beside the clump of earth that marks them. He looks around and, prepared to speak, opens his mouth—but nothing comes out. No eulogy or thought; no verse or song. He shakes his head and stands up again. A crude cross is fashioned with twigs and shoved into the dirt.
“I’m sorry“, he says.
The rider breathes his lungs full of the cold air and feels his hand tighten on the top of the cross. What does it mean? A cold and woeful gust of wind passes by him and the rider follows it away.
V. The Burning
The dried up field had marks of black ash laid out to the horizon. In the distance, the reaping fire devoured those wheat straw that polluted the field. It was early afternoon when they set the blaze and the two men stood on the white dirt and watched the smoke veil over the blue sky like night rising from an abyss.
The rider licked the rolling paper and curled it into a cigarette. He never could master this skill and often his tobacco was too much or too little and peppered from the edges. A match was struck on the ivory handle of his pistol. Beside him the farmer lifted his hat to wipe his sweating brow. He had short, white hair combed to the side and wrinkles down his forehead. A pair of spectacles rested on his nose which was wide at the nostrils and he had simple, brown eyes.
All they could hear was the crackle of the controlled fire. It’s hot, dark red spines wisp up and weaved through the currents like fish in a stream. The rider shook out the match as it shriveled up and pitched it to the dead earth.
Dirt and grass became black under the inferno which reminded the rider more of a stampede of cattle if that cattle were made of hell and all that passed beneath it became as ash and sizzled to a final desolation. Both farmer and rider knew the promise of the destruction. The reward for the sacrifice. That the violent burning would heal the wounds it had inflicted. The land would be rejuvenated.
That is a wonder. The rider said. Smoke plumed from his chapped lips.
It is just the way of things. The farmer knelt and took up some dead grass in his hand and rubbed it under his thumb. It broke apart into smaller pieces and eventually he dusted it from his palm. Has been a long time.
Somethin about it feels significant.
It is a big fire. I reckon it could be overwhelmin. The farmer said, unconcerned.
The smoke sprawled out over the sun and it vanished behind the darkness. Only a faint gleam of its white eye could be seen through the screen. The rider took a waterskin the farmer offered and had a drink as the sight had made him thirsty.
We live in a perilous world, stranger. I fear sometimes mankind is like them wheat straws. That it takes a good burnin every now and then to get us fresh and prosperous. The farmer with his face like dried clay stared out at the fire.
That is what is the word. Dis-con-certain. The rider dropped the rolled cigarette and made sure to squash it under his boot tip. What is a man to do with that kind of truth?
Let it happen. The farmer answered easily.
I do not think I can abide that. You ought to always do somethin.
Even if its a guarantee?
Even if it is. The rider said, indignant.
What is that yonder? The farmer made motion to a stooped shadow wandering from the West. It weaved in the heat.
The rider hooded his eyes and squinted.
It appears to be a fella. Another farm nearby?
In lieu of answering, the farmer started to approach the shadow. Eventually it did reveal itself to be a man. He was short and wore overalls over his barrel chest. He had a thick beard and in his right hand he held a shotgun. The rider felt his stomach sink. For beside the weapon on the man’s wrists were broken manacles.
Is there somethin you need, friend? The farmer said.
A horse. Water. If you would kindly. The man said.
Surely, where is it you come from?
Town back that way. I am in a hurry, so if you would oblige me.
Course, son. Why don’t you pitch that gun here. We’ll get you what you need back at the farm.
The man lifted the shotgun into both hands. He squinted at the farmer who put up his hands instinctively as the weapon was raised. The rider tensed, his hand down at his thigh where the pistol waited in the scabbard.
Easy now. I do not want trouble.
Well you got it. The man said.
Beyond them the field burned. Its hot fumes wafting down wind over them like a nervous breath. Stillness and silence fell over them and in the distance the crackle of the flames made their muscles twitch. There was no movement.
But in the distance clouds gathered. Clouds of dust. They heard the hue and cry of a posse gaining on their position. There was a crack of thunder as the shotgun went off and knocked the farmer back onto the dirt. The rider had already drawn. His aim deadly and the sound hidden under the shotgun’s blast.
The bullet had put a hole in the escaped convict’s eye and in the back of his head a large, black and charred exit wound. Blood pooled on the ground between the farmer and the convict, congealed into indistinguishable red. The rider merely sheathed his weapon.
He approached the body of the farmer and knelt down. He checked him for life and shut his eyes when he found none. Still the fire roared in the distance. From the smoke screen vultures emerged like beasts from another world. They circled overhead while insects broke through the dried, cracked earth. All anticipating the rider’s departure. He worried they would follow him, he worried they had good reason.
The posse neared and he took up the farmer’s body into his arms. On his skin the blood was already crawling. He turned to head back to the farm and trailed the length of the fire.
There was not much left to be done and he felt no immediate sorrow or saw in the events any portents. It was just the way of things. It had been, for a long time.
VI. The Departure
The Sodom mornings and Gomorrah nights; sky fire frames a town trapped in the enclosure of primitive mountains which have seen stranger things in the dust of their eyes. They look on casting long shadows and swaying reflections under their god the white desert sun.
A drunk cannot see them it is to dark but he does choir and shatter bottles on the brothel porch. He is not alone and a passer-by vindicates himself by shooting him down. Smoke is all that remains and joins together with the drunk’s spirit where in peace they venture to the hereafter unseen.
Disapprovingly these ancient, distant mountains merely frown.
The rider feels all this but he does not see it; trapped within the haze of prosperity. But richness, he knows, is fickle and fleeting to a man who lives harshly. So for a breath he is rested and like a breath soon exhaled.
He watches fingers, not his own but soft and slender, trace over storied scars and design new ones yet unwritten. He taps the cheroot ash into the whiskey as he can abide wastefulness.
How much to see you? He whispers and his eyes survey the naked whore on his chest. She is tan and black haired, which falls in curtains down the seductive lines of her back, and as beautiful in sweat as she is in paint. Red lips curve into a secret smile as she breathes her words against the rider, uno dolar.
How much to kiss you?
How much to touch you?
Mm. Diez dolares.
How much to lie with you?
She laughs; a girlish, sweet sound. Veinte dolares.
I owe you quite a bit of money. The rider reaches to the gun-belt which drapes from the bedpost. The money is unfurled and he hands it to her between calloused fingers. She accepts and stretches across him to place it on the night stand. He feels her naked body glide across his chest soft and supple.
The whore eases to rest her chin on his shoulder and kisses his throat. He asks, How much to love you? She laughs again, Es demasiado caro. He laughs as well, the sound low and pleasant though unfamiliar. His fingers capture hers and draw them to his heart. Usted es un hombre guapo, she sings.
What does that mean to you?
He nods with a smile. Through the open window there is creeping daylight; the sky is blue, the sun pale and the hour is so that the drunks are sleeping and the groans of the dying have passed. It is silent in the town and the mountains rest well. Quédate aquí. She rests her leg over his.
I cannot afford it. He finishes his cigar and drops it into the whiskey glass.
Me da igua.
The rider gets up from the bed quickly and his naked body is rough and mean; the scars white and numerous. He draws up his trousers and begins to button his shirt. The whore watches him, concealing her frame under the thin sheets though sits straight backed. Her lip is captured by teeth and her dark eyes calculate him.
Tiene miedo, she accuses.
He buckles his gun-belt and abandons the room the door slams shut.
She darts to the window and the cool morning air touches her skin like the rider and her misty breath fearfully regards the empty street until he appears. Though the incline of a hat obscures those rugged features she knows it to be him by the carriage of his shoulders and the appaloosa which he confessed was named after his mother.
She did not know him, however spent a lifetime in his arms.
The rider does not look up and passes by in a slow trot.
The whore weeps.
VII. The Swamp
He knows that soon it will be dark.
The rider passes beneath a massive root which spurns the earth and falls into the depths of the murky water. The swamp seems endless and fog toils on the surface of the deep primordial recess; the only semblance of active life. He regrets now the absence of a compass but feels that in this place you are lost so long as it desires. Great, burdensome trees rise up beside thin, skeletal cousins that reach toward heaven.
This place, he thinks, is surely Hell.
The water is black like night and occasionally disturbed by the wind or a low hanging branch; he notices neither fish, insect, nor reptile and this unnerves him some. All places have some sort of life to inhabit no matter the harshness of the land; it abides to the survivors. This swamp, however, feels alien and twisted. He does not blame the beasts for abandoning its shelter. Mossy pillars force him to dunk low as his appaloosa trots slowly on the muddy ground; he can tell her hooves are sinking and keeps them moving to avoid that danger.
As they stop near the shore unable to travel further he sees the reflection of creation in the clouded lake. He sees the tree shadows and his own shadows swimming on the surface. There is a sudden snap and he is set upon by a figure.
They tumble to the soft, wet earth. The rider goes for his gun but the arms grappling him are too strong. He desires his knife but the handle is pushing against his belly as the attacker pins their weight upon him. All he can see are the wildling furs which cover them and the void of their cowl.
They raise a dagger made of deer bone and he uses his free hand to strike at their face knocking them off into the mud. He leaps into a crouch like a bobcat and his iron is drawn quickly; leveling on the figure that slithers back with their primitive weapon. A silence falls between them and the rider reaches slowly for his discarded hat.
It emits a horrible screech and lunges at him. The air is poisoned with gun smoke and the attacker falls backward; black-blood soaks into the ground as if the swamp desired it so gluttonously. Standing to his full height, the rider dusts off his hat before fixing it onto his windswept head. Approaching the figure he kneels and removes the trappings about its face. What he sees is horrifying.
A mummified face looks up at him, shriveled and wrinkled like old leather. The hair is long and flat against the skin in grassy tendrils. It appears as if this creature has dwelled in the bog for years and it’s dead flesh absorbing the filth into a solidified layer of skin. He prays and fires another round into its head before holstering the Colt. “I ain’t never once thought of such a thing,” a quiet musing before he carries on.
He journeys onward through the swamp. A long and treacherous path nearly takes from him the appaloosa who so valiantly continues on. They reach a stretch of land just as the sky turns steel blue and clouds frame about the remains of a white light now oppressed by the falling darkness. There are only a few thin trees in this field and a forest framing the backdrop.
He notices a hut or a shambled cabin brooding beside a trunk of a once great thing. He could not rightly describe it as a tree, nor the bones of some creature, but held qualities of both dead.
Nearing it he almost sees the shelter inhale and exhale but this illusion is erased by a long blink. His horse is hitched and he draws his iron once more; approaching with predatory caution upon the creaking front door.
His finger-tips push it open and he prepares to step inside. There is candle light from within and just as he opens his mouth to speak a claw of darkness seizes his shirt and pulls the rider inside; there is a second crack of gunfire then silence.
VIII. The Serpents
He awakes in the swamp but it is not the swamp. The rider wipes from his mouth a poisonous green substance and staggers to his feet. Essence fills his eyes with clouds.
Where is the road?
Where is the horse?
The gun, still at his hip, he smells the bullets and the gunpowder.
Where is the road?
There is no road the trees are higher and higher. No, he clings to his heart and slumps against the slime coated figure of a tree.
He’s returned to the swamp. Someone has poisoned him. The cabin, in his mind, is a horrid visage. He tried to gather the terrain, the rider weakly trekking through the humid air. His knife is drawn to cut through the thickness of it like passing through a spilled drink. His mind is turning inside out, pictures of skinned cattle filing the back of his gaze. Screeching cries and metal against metal.
There is a chicken dancing in circles, headless and alone, so he draws his gun and fires at it but it doesn’t die, because it isn’t there.
Then they appear. His eyes take in the horror and he drops to his knees to scream and slam his fists into the mossy floor. He cannot comprehend these visions…
You have insulted my home, the cosmos beneath the swamp screams.
Snakes, snakes a thousand feet long and a thousand feet wide, god-snakes, with stars for eyes dying, dying, collapsing inward in violent cosmic orgasms reaching distant specks of dust where the bacteria trembles beneath the sovereign germ, snakes, snakes butchered by machetes and red teeth under the dark sun of swamps, under the canopy arms.
You have killed the guardian, the moaning agony of the saint of toxins.
The swamp, basking in his fear in the shadow of the snakes whose yellow adamantine fangs dig volcanoes of putrid lava onto the earth, whose yellow adamantine fangs bring geysers upward and melt his flesh, bending prostate to the god-snake eyes, hailing their malevolent hiss, hailing their sadistic forked tongues which are alive like arms, which embrace him like a mother, which devour him into the swamp.
You have undone the weave, the empty vessel, the turning of the spinneret.
The rider is overcome and his skin flayed out to fill the void of the empty pool. He is the swamp and it soaks into his skin like a thousand hungry teeth. Beneath the crust of the earth god-snakes slither without purpose but purposeful. Beneath the crust of the earth they call to the rider, the swamp, they reach for him and he loves them.
Stay with us, forever, the wrinkled gray fingers of the witch.
He reaches for this hand and his arm is living in the murk, his skin is the unfathomable depths of the swamp. Though, he sees a pair of golden eyes. What is this?
The road, the reason.
He abandons the fingers to their dismay and shifts his direction to seeking these mystic glowing spheres. They move farther and he follows, the gray fingers reaching out to him but he keeps moving forward. Those eyes, they are brilliant, and cut through the unseen of the swamp.
His hands reach for them and close around them. The water pushes back and he emerges from the deep the air filling his lungs. He swims ashore and crawls along the ground soaking wet, his hair of veil of brown curtains. Poison is plunged from his stomach, warm and disgusting vomit splashing along the muck.
Something threw him out of there and he turns to see the fading bubbles from the water. He understands what he has to do and gets to his feet. The gun is soaked and the powder useless, but he has his knife, and there is time until he can reach the cabin again. Time to regain his strength.
Relentless and vengeful determination carries the rider toward his destination. It is as he left it, a ramshackle, haunting assembly of wood. Wood made from the swamp trees, wood dragged through the mud, and weathered by the storms. He sees beneath the door candlelight and draws his knife. Nearby, the appaloosa is hitched to a tree.
The rider kicks his way in.
Dark, dreaded hair frames the fiendish old and leathery face of a crone. She is hunched in brown rags and her long, gray nails are familiar to him, like a bad dream. She stands by the candle which is hardly illuminating the room, by a bowl of something foul, and a dead rat hanging from the ceiling by its pink tail.
He notices her eyes; one is simply black like his own but the right is afflicted with a strange iris pigmentation that makes it bright lavender and deformed, shaped like a butterfly. She screams and attacks him with a broken antler.
His arm is cut and he stabs the knife into the crone’s forehead, above her brow. She chokes and blood runs down the line of her ugly features, between the cracks of her filed teeth. The rider stares into her butterfly eye, grabbing her body as it begins to fall and easing it to the wooden floorboards.
He says his prayers like a good man and cleans off the knife on her rags like a bad one.
Stepping outside and mounting his horse, he follows the northern star from the swamp, nursing the wound on his arm. Behind him snakes drape from the trees above the cabin, many snakes, thousands of snakes, slithering in pursuit of an ancient promise.
They go beneath the crack of the door and the broken windows; they go along the crone’s corpse, into her mouth, into her body. She drowns in the blood and the snakes.
And the swamp is fed.
IX. The Vision
This is the passage; a fanged tunnel where the stalactites drip with something not water and burns on his palm which caught a drop. He looks down the tunnel and hears his voice again. It is a dream or he has died, at last, and proceeds toward the darkness knowing it is as strongly behind him as it is before him.
The rider is free from the light.
He walks slow and feels occasionally a rock under his foot. It is kicked away to avoid falling; the bouncing echo follows him and runs past then dies. At the end of his path there is an eye of light. Soon it grows like hands opening in offering. It does not feel warm but blinds him and he shields his face.
The rocks beneath his feet crush softly and he pauses. No longer in the tunnel; the rider stands in the naked forest in winter. He feels his skin bump with the cold and the hair on his forearm rising like blades of glass. There is a grave marked haphazardly with twigs. He knows this grave. The wind teases his neck but it sounds like a woman’s laughter.
In solitude he sees the mist of his breath and a figure between two dark skin trees. It is a doe who touches her nose to the ground and stares, black eyed, at the rider. He tries not to move but smiles when it does not run. She walks slowly toward him and looks up to meet the gaze of the rider. He reaches out to touch her fur and finds his hand passes through.
The doe is gone. He stands in the desert at night. There is a howl and he sees the stars which are numerous overhead. A candle guides him to a table in the open air and it has two chairs. Cards are laid out in a game of poker; there are no chips only bullets. He reaches to turn the next card on the deck; it is the eight of spades.
The card becomes a gun and he stands on a hill near a forest. It is spring or summer; everything is green but still night. He does not see the stars anymore and a campfire is smoking making his hand look orange in the dark. His Colt is aimed at something; a figure. This person is half a person and his hands grip leg stubs. The rider cannot see his face; the shadows have swallowed it even as he tries to scream for a name.
He cannot move his arm and the gun fires. He did not pull the trigger but he cannot stop it from shooting and it does, many times, till the bullets are gone; till the rider is screaming. When it stops he drops the weapon like a flame and it is eaten by the earth. He sees now that the figure is no longer a man but, in the fire light, a bible. Its embroidered words reflect golden and he sees the shadow of the bullet marks. They are bleeding—the book is bleeding.
The rider screams himself awake and his skin is crying in the dark.
X. The Deer Woman
The rider once heard a story of the deer woman. It is said she has lived in the mountains for a thousand years and appears only to feed on travelers. She lures men from the path as they journey and, upon their approach, tramples them to death. The rider made no plans for such a fate when he arrived at the river bed, removed his repeater from the boot as he sat patiently on the saddle of his appaloosa. It was only an hour after noon and his shadow was long on the earth.
Water flows easy down the river and snakes between the mossy red stones that roll across the mountain range. He feels the sky over head pass by like a shielding hand. The rider shoulders his repeater and surveys the field. The campsite is not far ahead. Somewhere near the banks of the Del Norte.
“Where’d you boys run off too?” He mutters and removes his hat to wipe the sweat from his brow.
He sees the tattered remains of the tents and the short flagpole that identifies the base. He dismounts and hitches his horse to the post near a wagon. There are still crates inside marked with the initials: U.S. He takes hold of the repeater with both hands.
Inside one of the tents he looks to a cot. It is stained with blood. He takes a knee and reaches for a piece of torn clothing that is colorless save a red stain. The rider sniffs it briefly and notices a strange odor mixed with the blood. He stands and snaps the repeater into action; something has moved outside and stands behind the tent.
“Who’s that then? Come out!” His words are cut short as he moves from the tent and sees a figure shadowed by the glare of the sun. The rider protects his eyes till they adjust and finds himself in confused awe.
She is said to appear, at times, as an old woman, or a young maiden, or simply a deer. He wonders if he is grateful for the form she has assumed today. Her hair is wet and tendrils of it look like dark water against the smooth, natural beauty of her face. He thinks of the sporting women in town and the intense pale of their skin. He thinks of the good women on the farm and their plump bodies. The rider has never seen a person so evenhanded and of the earth and finds his repeater lowered without thought.
Her eyes are wide and frightened, black like gems. Briefly, he thinks, her look is one of familiarity but he recalls nothing. She shouts, “Haamee, unha hakai nahniaka?” and steps toward him violently. She wears little else but the rags of a simple dress and he sees the scar that traces the front of her neck. The woman grips a bayonet tightly.
“Easy, darlin’, I don’t speak that,” his brows furrow and he recoils from her advance. The rider tightens his grip on the repeater in response but keeps it lowered, “Eh, habla usted español?”
The bayonet is softly drawn from the belt and he watches the steel catch burning sunlight. Another step is taken and he raises his weapon; aiming at the woman. “Stop right there, girl!”
“Haamee, unha hakai nahniaka?” She shouts again and holds more malice, though he notices a touch of hesitation in the movements of the knife.
“Nu nahnia tsa, Iluea’he! Haamee, unha hakai nahniaka?” She glares at the rider and finds herself staring into his dark eyes; her anger is mixed with pleading. He casts his repeater to the dirt as if it were made of fire.
“No weapon,” he holds his hands up and sounds a bit annoyed, “I ain’t the army, alright? I’m just a man. Just a man sent to do a job. Comprende?” He meets her black eyes and sees his own distorted image.
“Man,” she says in a poor accent, “Tenahpu?”
“Tenahpu?” His hand stays away from his Colt in fear of his own reflexes. He breathes with relief as she nods, “Nu nahnia tsa, Iluea’he. Tenahpu,” the woman gestures from her chest to the rider.
“You kill these men, Iluea’he?” The rider motions to the camp and though he inquires, he does not expect an answer.
“These men,” she speaks quietly, “Kill me.”
“What?” The rider steps toward her and feels his feet suddenly swing upward. The wind teasing his hair as his hat falls free. He thinks he hears a flute but the water from the river grows loud. His eyes close slowly and he crumbles to the red earth. His breathing is paced and tired.
He hears her make a dismissive sound, “Tch.” And then it all goes black.
The rider wakes to the crack of fire. He sees very quickly that night has come and the sky is filled with stars. The camp is still abandoned save himself and the woman who squats with her arms around her knees, staring at him. Her eyes are blacker in this light and she looks like a ghost.
His head is crusted where the blood dried, a rock must have struck him in his fall. Sitting up, slowly, he feels the dirt under his palms and the weight of his Colt in his scabbard. She didn’t strip him of his weapons.
“Evening,” he says with a dry humor and rubs the bridge of his nose. Nearby his horse is still hitched and undisturbed. “Not afraid of guns?”
“No,” she prods the fire with a twig. “I’m not afraid of guns.”
The rider settles on the ground and watches her through a sidelong glance. “So you speak English?”
“Now I do.”
The rider shakes his head. “You learn it while I slept?”
“Maybe,” she is suspicious of him and the strange mercy she has shown seems to stem from regret or at least from something beyond her control. He sees that she holds the bayonet in her hand tightly.
“You planning to stick me?” His agitation came from the wound and he rubbed it while looking apologetic.
“Coyote told me not to, despite my wishes.”
“What happened to the soldiers? Whose Coyote?”
“The earth ate them; they are with the worms and the snakes. Their kin.” She speaks and he watches the fire illuminate her black eyes. It’s both frightening and beautiful.
“What’d you mean these men killed you?” He almost regrets asking and turns to face the woman. He doesn’t see that the fire is cast strangely against his face and clenches his jaw when he witnesses her recede back in further suspicion.
“I came with my village to bring food to the fort. We were brought here, against our wishes, but made the best of the circumstance. We came with supplies. They killed us. Men and women and children equally, with knives and guns. I screamed till I lost my voice. I cried until they slit my neck when they were finished,” her voice is cold and distant. As if she had enough time to dwell on this and looked to blame the rider for her pain; but she didn’t and she couldn’t.
“They threw us in the river where Coyote found me. He said I could repay those men if I accepted his gift. That night the earth ate the soldiers and I watched them drown in dirt and soil where they spilled my people’s blood. They screamed as we screamed and I was not sorry. But Coyote would not let me leave this place. I was told to wait for a marked one, like me. I will use his tainted soul as a vessel,” she says this with a touch of malice.
“I ain’t got no mark,” he says defensively and couldn’t look at her either. He feels a knot in his stomach tighten and he tries to stop himself from picturing her story with images violent and unsettling. His shame seems baseless and he looks apologetic as if he had been one of those soldiers. He could have been; at some time.
“You do but you cannot see it with your eyes, tenahpu.” She finally looks to him and her eyes had narrowed. She hated him, the rider knew, and he stands up to move away from the fire. He feels a strong urge to be cold. “Now you are going to take me out of here. Like Coyote promised. Then, at last, I can sleep.”
“Must have been in the sun too long, girl. Ain’t no Coyote make a promise like that, I’m not taking you nowhere.” He stares off across the pines of the mountain range and sees the light-less glow of the moon.
She stands and holds the bayonet up as if preparing to stab him, “The golden-eyed Coyote told me you would come, wanderer. And it is you that I will follow. That’s the only way. But if you are not him then you are just another fool to me.” She took another step toward him and the bayonet is raised.
The rider turns and retreats slowly, his hands up defensively. He pulls his Colt. “Easy.” He sees that her black eyes are swollen and sore looking. Sleepless. His mind fills with visions of golden-eyes and it makes him shiver with familiarity.
He nods hesitantly and looks to the ground, his gun-hand lowered. Perhaps a mistake, as she lurched toward him swiftly and caused him to fire off a shot. It must have missed for she came at him still, tripping him down onto the ground. The old blade of the bayonet held to his throat.
Iluea’he grit her teeth. “Your bullshit ends here, tenahpu.”
“Alright, Iluea’he. Alright. Alright! You can come with me.” He lets the Colt go from his grip and it lands heavy on the dirt.
“I hate you, tenahpu. So we are clear. And I spit at your curse,” she does so and it hits the tip of his boot. “You will take me from this place as Coyote said. Now we go,” the woman points toward the distance.
“You got a real nice way of showing appreciation, lady.” His tone is bitter and moves past her, suddenly no longer afraid of her weapon. His Colt is returned to the scabbard and he puts on the hat. Moving toward his appaloosa he unhitched her and slips the repeater back into the boot.
The rider sits astride his horse once again and offers his hand to the woman.
She stares at his palm and takes hold of it, lifting herself onto the back of his saddle. Her arms wrap around his waist with no shortage of reluctance and she remains quiet, she looks away from him. He doesn’t mind the silence and kicks his spurs, starting to ride out from the campsite.
Over the travelers there is a full moon. It glows brightly but does not illuminate the dark world. The stars, like eyes, watch them with the shimmer of tears. The void-like distance between them could not be wider on this night.
XI. The Road Agent
Miles go without words and the sun passes to the moon then again to the sun. It is as it was; cycles of silence where the breath of the wind is loud and disturbing. The rider chews on his last cheroot and exhales the smoke from his nose. The woman is behind him and frowns while watching the horizon over his shoulder; she grips her wrists around his stomach tightly.
There are coyotes laughing in the brush and they are far from the river now. A valley yawns and they travel down the throat; the appaloosa’s hooves caked with red dust. He notices the sky is gray and feels her startle when the thunder strikes. The rider toys with the cheroot between his lips.
“Throw it down!”
His hand is already on the handle of his Colt though at the command he freezes; coming down from the ledge is a man in brown with a mask covering the lower half of his features, his features are covered in dirt. He carries a repeater rifle and keeps it trained on the rider; he seems unconcerned with the native woman.
“Throw it down I says!”
The rider removes the Colt slowly and tosses it to the dirt. “Rifle, too!” And the rifle. Rain begins to fall gently and it’s barely a drizzle but the red dust turns to dark mud. He spits his cheroot to the ground.
“What you got, Mister? Let me see the cash!”
His voice is young and the road agent’s hands shake feverishly. He does not meet the rider’s gaze but instead finds himself surveying the equipment on his saddle and on his person. The rider swings his boot over the saddle and drops down to the mud; these actions taken slow to not startle the road agent. The woman joins him and she sets her black eyes viciously on the young man.
“Easy! What are you doing?” The road agent moves his repeater barrel between the two.
“Settle down, son. Just want to talk. You ain’t got to do this. We haven’t much money, between the two of us, just travelers headin’ to town. Comprende?”
“I do not care how much money you have, Mister. But you have money. Now pitch it here!”
“Alright, partner. Hold on. I got to reach for it. But I ain’t got no weapon, trust me?”
“Yeah, Mister. I trust you. Now pitch it!” He snaps the repeater and keeps the weapon on the rider.
As his hand moves for his vest he clips the button and brings up a fold of some money held together by a burnished silver clasp. The rider prepares to toss it when something shoots past his vision.
“What!” He cries.
The long, rusted form of a bayonet has pierced the road agent’s eye diagonally and in an instant he dies, crumbled into a pile on the mud. Rain comes down harder and his dust covered face is washed clean by blood that pools to a dark shade.
The rider turns to her and his face is twisted in a confused anger, “You killed him for fifteen dollars! The hell is wrong with you!”
“I have no time for thieving white men. We leave now, tenahpu.”
The rider bends down to pick up his Colt, the mud is wiped from it with his sleeve. “He ain’t no man. Was just a boy, can’t you see that? Wager he was just lookin’ to make some money. You took away his life,” his voice is quiet as the gun is slipped into the scabbard. He does not look at her until he has reclaimed his effects. “Fifteen damn dollars.”
She meets his eyes and sees that there is disappointment and shame in them, but she lifts her chin and walks past the rider to the horse.
“I have seen death dealt for less. For nothing. Not even fifteen dollars.” The woman replies, thoughtfully.
The rider climbs onto the saddle and helps her up. He feels the rain beating down on the brim of his hat and he pulls it closer to shadow his eyes. He does not speak and they gallop away from the road agent’s body.
Miles go without words and the thunder screams.
XII. The Train
The rider sits in the aisle seat as the woman insisted on the window. She feels the cloth of the dress he bought her; it is cotton and blue. Though she hates it she does not protest and simply retains her silence as the town begins to fade to the slow, heavy breaths of the moving train. He closes his eyes to sleep but finds that he cannot.
Outside they pass through the canyon and she watches the river alight with the midday sun. The rain has come and gone and she is grateful. Behind them people speak but say nothing, she does not care to understand their voices. A glance is passed to the rider and she sees him staring at the floor boards.
“Where are we going, tenahpu?”
“Somewhere,” his tone is dry and he looks over toward a sporting woman seated with a pastor. He smiles a bit and tips her his hat when she looks his way with pretty eyes.
The native woman wrinkles her nose and stares out of the window again. “You are still bitter about the thief,” she does not ask and her hands fold into her lap.
“Bitter ain’t the word,” the rider puts his attention down the aisles.
“Where are we going, tenahpu?”
He is silent for a moment and moves his dark eyes to the woman; noting again that he can see himself in her black stare and how much that upsets him. But the rider pushes his hat brim up anyway, “East, toward the sea.”
“Why?” She is not repulsed by the idea of the ocean though her glance is curious.
“There’s a place across the ocean; a hilltop in the desert where a man was killed. He was the son of my God, figure that’s the place we should go. If we seek to ask forgiveness for anything,” he folds his arms across his chest and sits back, looking away from her once more.
“I am not sorry. It is you who seeks forgiveness,” she reminds him.
“You ought to be sorry, for killin a man, even if he was a hardcase. Just decent to do.”
“Is that why you are cursed, tenahpu? You killed and were not sorry?”
“You got a tiresome amount of questions. Let’s just try to rest,” he resigns to silence after that and his hat brim is tugged low. The rider tries again to sleep and finds that he cannot even close his eyes.
The woman frowns at him and watches the window; it is dirty she notices. Outside the red mountains frame a distant land and peak out like fingers above the green trees. She thinks to smile at this but it never comes. A whistle blows outside and startles her; the rider does not see it.
She thinks about the sea. This place is unfamiliar and the farther away the iron train takes her, she knows, the farther away she is from anything she has known. The water reminds her of the grave and the sky is not so bright anymore. Her fingers wrap around her hand and she grips it tightly; in the reflection of the window she has noticed her face and the smiling scar that traces her neck.
Another whistle blows but the woman does not stir.