Death Riding

 

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West of the Pecos, there is no law.

West of El Paso, there is no God.

- OldTexas Saying

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New Mexico, 1884

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Chapter 1 - Peyote and Dead Men

Day broke clear upon an unmottled azure, promising murderous heat. A breeze teased the yucca plants, which responded with delighted sways, merely pleased to be alive. A black horse with a shifted saddle drank from one of the deeper pools of a muddy riverbed, alongside a pony with nothing more than a cotton blanket on its back, and a frayed leather sheath containing a Winchester rifle. The horses knew they would be staying there. Their riders were not moving.

Next to the pool, the riverbed dried to scaly layers of earth, disintegrating even in the soft breeze that tickled the yucca. The bed bent here, drifting southward, and on the left bank was a large rock, normally home to Gila and rattlers, but on this clear bright deadly day, to a man.

The man wore black to match his horse, and as the light increased he could see the equine forms at rest. He stared at them, divining their genus, species, and he hoped, purpose. They confused him, filled him with dread. They looked horrible.

Quentin Arkmann had first heard of peyote when a long-toothed gunman with whom he had occasionally partnered and whom he later killed in plain view of an entire town, Big John Asgar, told him of his experience with the cursed root. Arkmann had passed only a green eighteen years at this point, and was annoyed when Asgar demurred on his requests to describe the effects of the substance, preferring to sum peyote up with a phrase unfamiliar and shocking to a good Kansas farm boy. Blinking, Arkmann had asked Big John how in the world peyote could do that to its mother, assuming it had one. Asgar had laughed all the way to the saloon, and thereafter made a point of describing as many things as could be conceived of as motherfuckers.

But now, with the yucca swaying and the horses drinking and the firewood cold and ashen, Arkmann had to allow that Big John had been right. If he’d memorized the Bible like old Reverend Fuller, gone to school back east and learned English better than the Queen, Arkmann would never find an apter description of peyote. It was that, and more, but the more defied definition.

As if in concurrence, Arkmann felt the sick rise up again in his gullet, leaned over and felt the fire empty his belly for the umpteenth time. His vomit was quite liquid, and it flowed down past his leg towards the riverbed. As it went, it became faster, rushing suddenly like a torrent, growing in size, knocking over rocks and tiny shrubs and the horses, which fought against the flood with paddles that grew from their feet. Valiantly they surged against the tide, which emptied into a giant boot, which troubled the world no more. And the horses’ paddles became hooves again, and stamped the earth skittishly, leaving prints in which blood welled up.

Gradually the sound of hoof-clops became louder, until Arkmann realized that there was another horse than the two in front of him. It was behind the rock, in the distance, and it was powerful, Arkmann knew. Reaching his right hand around the butt of his Schofield Model 1871, he leapt to his feet, and hit his head on the outcropping of rock, and fell facedown upon the earth.

When he came to the sun was higher, but not yet overhead. He felt the earth beneath him, soft and kind, refuge to wanderers. His head pounded, he felt again sick, gagged, but nothing came. In this he was lucky, for underneath his open, dirty mouth was the Schofield. When he picked this up, he again saw the earth well up red in the contours where it had been. Arkmann thought of his boots, his expensive black boots, and imagined the prints they left in dust, and saw those prints red behind him, all across the desert. He imagined Holster ambling behind him, with red hoof prints as well. He imagined them climbing the Sierras to California, and dipping their feet into the Pacific. But it was no good.

Hunter, said a voice behind him, possibly his own. No, definitely his own.

Hunter, Hunter, Hunter are we. No, definitely not his own.

“Who’s we?” said Arkmann to the ground.

Hunter, Hunter, Hunter are we.

Arkmann stood up carefully, and heard again the distant sound of the approaching horse. He held his Schofield and tried to scan the distance, but the sun was already too bright, and wherever he looked the glare from rocks assaulted his eyes.

Hunter, Hunter, Hunter. Kill a dirty punter. Have a girl and munt’er. Hunter, Hunter, Hunter, are we.

“Who’s We?” said Arkmann again, more to himself than anyone else. His eyes began to adjust, and he could see the shrubs and yuccas beyond. They were dry, and some dead, he knew. But enough green existed to make him feel surrounded, claustrophobic.

Coming for you, Hunter.

Arkmann sat down again behind the rock. He cocked the Schofield, felt the chamber turn beyond his fingers, felt assured by its coiled strength. Only he worried that the serpents might escape their place, wriggle out over his hand, bite him and not his enemies. He shut his eyes, shook his head. There ain’t no snakes in my pistol, he said to himself, There ain’t none. For a moment his arm seemed alive with crawling things with glittering eyes and jeweled fangs. Then he breathed, un-cocked the Schofield, and holstered it.

That’s fine, Hunter. That’s just fine.

“Dammit, who’s we?” he shouted, ignoring for the moment that nothing about “we” had been said that time. He snapped open his eyes, to see beams of scorching white light burst through the sky. They struck the horses, and made them grow, made them huge. They took off like falcons, screaming into the bursting skies, warriors sounding unspeakable war cries on their backs.

He was sick again, heave dry again, wipe his mouth uselessly.

I guess you won’t be killing me, Hunter.

Arkmann stood again, sweat beading on his spine, determined to gun down the first man he saw. But when he looked back, he saw no man, nor any horse, nor anything save the sky and the yucca swaying in the breeze. Annoyed, he aimed his pistol at the nearest tree, and pulled the trigger. The Schofield barked impressively, but no one apart from Arkmann noticed. Even the yucca disdained to give off a burst of shattered leaves.

He refused to sit again, but cast his eyes forward, meeting the horizon, hungry for motion of any kind. Possibilities fell aside, his surroundings fled rearward, as the voice came again:

Hunter are we. I know. I made you.

In the shimmering distance a rider in grey trotted towards him. He was well too far for Arkmann to make clear his size, his face, but nevertheless Arkmann knew him. He had seen him, feared him. He had watched him, long ago, make pools of blood in the backs of men and toss a rope around a twelve-year-old foolish enough to wear a Union soldier’s blue coat sent home and cut to size. That he appeared on the horizon at this distance made him giant. Arkmann had always thought so.

Mine, Hunter. It all comes to me.

The grey rider turned, and seemed instead of coming toward Arkmann to be riding hard along the horizon, now disappearing, now back, and larger than ever. The sky seemed to darken, to hearken back, to become again 1863. Arkmann again saw men fleeing, through the desert instead of town, and being picked off not by cavalry but by monstrous serpents hiding amidst the yucca. Arkmann wanted to call out to them, to beckon them over to the rock, but he dared not.

One man alone stood his ground and did not flee. One man alone did not fear the monsters, nor seem to worry at the grey rider’s new approach. One man alone noticed Arkmann, looked at him with great intent. This man was in black, and he walked towards Arkmann with a green light behind. His voice also sounded like Arkmann’s, but it was not, yet not in the same way as the grey rider:

Rove to and fro through the streets of Jerusalem, Look, now, and learn, Search her squares; If you can find a man, One man who does right, And seeks the truth, Then I will pardon her.

“What are you?” said Arkmann, hoping he did not know. The Jeremiah was too obvious a clue. Green light began to wash around all, dull yet all-consuming, all-reflecting.

Boy, you know what Ah am.

“Do I now,” said Arkmann, and again the Schofield barked, and again Arkmann’s aim was somehow bewitched, as no sign of the bullet’s impact was noted.

Ye can’t kill me, boy. Ye know where Ah am, and where Ah am Ah can’t be killed. As Arkmann stared at him, the preacher’s mouth and eyes glowed, his voice struck at the base of his heart. Drunken whelp. Fool. Dead soul clinging to a body. Bereft of truth, of light, of heart, I come to give ye shriveness. Hear me or be damned everlasting. To a fire that makes your insides feel like powder, and your soul like flint. Ah come, for ye must listen to me.

Arkmann raised the pistol again, but could not summon the confidence to fire. He swallowed again, hard, wishing he could vomit all the devil-weed out of him. But no matter how much he ached, it would not come. Instead, Reverend Obadiah Fuller of Lawrence, Kansas, dead these twenty years, kept coming, amid the disfiguring light, which emanated even from the plain wooden cross he wore always around his neck.

Ah am no delirium, boy. Ah am a voice to warn thee. The blood on thy hands cries out. Ye will come a day when ye will choose thy service. Either heaven or hell rejoices at thy choice.

Arkmann shifted his feet, swallowed his dry throat, and listened for the grey riders hoof-clops. He saw nothing, feared the rider would get the drop on him. He shifted his pistol to his left hand, pulled his throwing knife, and tried to be still with the ancient races riding fiery stallions to the Happy Hunting Grounds.

He’ll choose wrong, said the grey rider, and Arkmann felt him closer. I know him.

Reverend Fuller turned, addressed the man whom Arkmann remembered wrapping a rope around the preacher’s neck and dragging him behind, and said, without taint of enmity, That he’s a killer, Ah grant. But no law of God or man says he must remain so. He has another calling.

The grey rider laughed. It was a thin, high laugh that seemed to move along the ground, echoing. The law that claims him is the true law. The Law of the Hunt. He kills that he may eat. God nor man won’t stand against the Belly.

God and man both contain it, said the Reverend.

True, said the grey rider, and both are driven by it. War and peace, crime and punishment, death, taxes, and whores all serve the almighty Belly. What words have you, pale preacher? This land belongs to me. You follow after, and pretend to matter. But the Belly will throw you off as it may. Hunter, we needs must ride.

Blessedly, the sick rose again, and Arkmann heaved again, and this time spittle flecked with substance lurched from his mouth. It was but a thimbleful, but it felt better.

When Arkmann stood again, Reverend Fuller had drawn himself up, and the soaring headhunters riding flaming pegasi had become six-winged angels, of which four wings were used to cover their glory. The preacher’s black smock had become a white tunic, the small wooden cross a white sword. He pointed the latter at Arkmann and said: Know me, Boy. I am the principle of Conquest. I define phenomena and they behave accordingly. The poetry of the Lord’s Book commands more firepower than all the legions of Hell. You know this is so.

Again the rumbling, thin laugh. He knows nothing of the kind. He serves me. I am his father. He hunts.

Arkmann, reeling, leaned against the rock and stared at the bright green sky. The six-winged angels were tearing across the sky, one screaming, one chanting in a language unknown. He hoped one of them might crash into him. But instead the debate wore on.

Words are nothing unless they command me. A bullet through a bible makes it trash.

Not if the words touch hearts. The seed planted in good ground will ever grow true.

Not if I poison it.

You expend much to stop me, to kill my fruits. Where are yours?

Fruits are not my work. Squeezing them is.

Squeeze me, then. Where is thy rope, damned one?

The angels burst. The sky looked on. The land groaned. They were on him, and in him. Cackling. Punching. Howling their pain and cursing the other. It was so. Arkmann, staring up still, gave it no longer any mind. He could see, above the shadow image of the angels’ immolation, a path past the skies.

“Death. Death, it’s Namo. What knowledge?”

Arkmann opened his eyes and belched. Before him, Namo of the Chiricahua was laughing at him. “Death, do you always wake so?”

Namo was all of his name that Arkmann could ever remember. It was a long name in his particular Apache tongue. He had told Arkmann that his name meant High Fist in the Wind, but Arkmann had no plan of using that either. For his part, Namo had, like his band of Chiricahua, always known him as Death Riding, which Namo had, in return for Arkmann’s courtesy, shortened to simply Death.

“You have cut one short, Death?”

Arkmann sat up. “What?”

“This one,” said Namo, gesturing forward. “You have cut him short, and robbed his clothes.”

Arkmann looked at the dead Indian as though for the first time. He had a flash of insight, of chasing him for someone else, of laughing at his lack of clothes. Or had he found him there, and laughed? Arkmann stood up, and, with Namo, made a closer inspection.

The Indian lay there, stripped to his bare arse. He had no totems or signs that marked his tribe, nor feathers in his hair, nor tattoos on his skin. He was merely a man, dead. An exit wound splayed outward from his back, in the middle of the left ribcage.

“What knowledge, Death?”

“Dunno. Cain’t remember.”

Namo stood up. “I know him not, Death. He is not Yavapai.”

“He’s not anything now.”

Namo laughed again. “You speak rightly, Death. He is not even food for horses. We could leave him here, and men would not know it.” He walked over to the riverbed, where he had left his own horse, and looked at the dead man’s pony. “This horse is good. Will you keep it, Death?”

“You can have it for some food and water, Namo. I’m crawlin’ inside.”

“Food and water you will have, and plenty. I come to bring you to Opler. Big Wolf wants you.”

“What I do, Namo?”

The Chiricahua looked at him for a moment. “You know men with guns, Death. A man brings guns across the Big River. Many guns, with many shots. We track him several days, but he sees us not. A fat man, with a boy to his right. Big Wolf asks if you know him. He wants the guns. War comes.”

Arkmann belched again. “Don’t it always.” He reached into his Stetson for a kerchief, mopped his brow. It was damn near noon. “We won’t get far in this heat, Namo. We got time to catch him?”

Namo took the reins of his horse and his new pony. Arkmann thought of asking him for the Winchester, as his old Henry rifle had developed a jam. But he could take his share of the spoils.

“We have time, Death. We have the day and night. More time than that, no man needs.”

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Chapter 3 - The Iron Cart

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Chapter 4 - Kin To You

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