This is my current work in progress. I’m posting a chapter at a time, pre-first-draft, as it comes out of my fingertips onto the keyboard. I’ll be releasing new content every Friday night, unless something crazy happens (in which case you may have to wait a day or two). It will be raw. There will be plot holes. There will be typos and turgid prose. Everything will be subject to change. As I complete each part, I will take it down, edit it up real pretty, and put it up for sale on Amazon as part of the serialized novella.
Kind souls who donate at least $5 to the project will get a copy of the final illustrated omnibus when it is completed. You can also help support the project by buying a copy of Part I, which is available now on Amazon.
For previous chapters, go here.
Part Two: Gears of Wrath
Zarahemla was floating high above the desert. Long networks of dry riverbeds crisscrossed the land like cracks in old plaster. A stagecoach rolled across the barren flats, resembling a giant cockroach. Wild horses ran in thin columns like ants.
His aches and pains were gone, and he felt light as a tumbleweed. He wondered if he had died.
Esther’s voice, the whisper of a breeze, called to him. He turned to the sound.
She sat on an old Army cot with her knees pulled up to her chin. The flickering lamplight bathed her in an orange glow, softening her weathered features. She looked vulnerable. He wanted to reach through the bars that separated them and comfort her.
“You got a pretty face,” Two Crows said.
“And you are still coming down off the hops,” Esther replied.
Zarahemla looked back at the insects skittering across the cracks in the ceiling and sighed. “Don’t care,” he said, although something told him he should.
“They gave you enough to make an elephant dream,” Esther said. “You have been high for two days.”
“It’ll be fine,” Two Crows said. “I’ll get you outta that cell … in a bit.” He rolled over on his side and smiled at her. “Why you in a cell anyway? Pretty thing like you shouldn’t be locked up in a cage.”
Esther groaned and picked up a pitcher of water. She walked up to the bars. “Come over here.”
Zarahemla heaved himself up and shambled over to her with a foppish grin plastered on his face.
“Mr. Two Crows…” Esther said.
“Wake up already!” she screamed, splashing him in the face with the icy water.
“Dadgum,” Zarahemla cussed. “Whatcha gone do that for?” Water streamed from his beard and pooled around his boots on the rough flagstone floor.
The old cot groaned in protest as Two Crows sat down heavily. “Two days?”
“Two days,” Esther confirmed.
“Where are we?” he asked, rubbing his temples. “Wingate?”
“Believe so,” Esther said. “I spent most of the trip slung over a horse with a bag on my head, and our hosts were not particularly chatty.”
“No worries, I’ll just have a chat with Cap’n Ward and we’ll get it all sorted out,” Zarahemla said.
“Ward? He’s dead.” Ether’s voice was flat. “Nakai slit his throat like a spring lamb.”
Zarahemla cussed softly and said, “Jed was a good man.”
“He was stupid,” Esther scoffed, “letting that witch control him like that. He was weak.”
“And you handed your baby over to her without a fight,” Zarahemla snapped back. “You know how wily she can be. It’s her knack. Skin-walkers ain’t all nice and cuddly like werewolves or such. They’re at the top of the food chain out here.”
“This is stupid,” Esther said, pacing. “What are we doing here? Every step I take with you, we fall back five. I swear to Heaven above you got a curse on you.”
“Mayhap. Didn’t ask you to come with,” Zarahemla reminded her. “Iffin you recall I was agin’ it from the start.”
“Aw, hell and horse shit.” Esther threw the tin pitcher against the bars and flopped down on her cot, staring daggers into the ceiling.
She tried reciting the capitols of all thirty-six states, but she was still fuming. She looked over at Zarahemla, prepared to shoot another barb in his general direction. He had taken off his shirt and was wringing it out onto the hard packed dirt floor. Esther noticed his wounds had been cleaned and expertly restitched. She was handy with a needle, but she admitted she was not that good. Whoever the surgeon was here must be an expert, she thought, and they were lucky to have him. Most regimental doctors were butchers at best.
Two Crows sat on his cot, resembling an effigy of a contemplative deity carved from richly oiled teakwood. A new constellation of burns from the electric rifle joined the landscape of scars that covered nearly every inch of his heavily muscled body. It was not the first time she had seen him in various states of undress, but she never grew weary of looking at him. Lately she had trouble being discreet about it.
He noticed her staring, and put his shirt back on self-consciously.
Esther felt color rising to her cheeks and cleared her throat. “So what’s the plan?” she asked, sounding more awkward than she intended.
Zarahemla stared into his massive palms and rubbed them against his eyes. “We wait, Mrs. Henry.”
“Not much of a plan,” Esther said.
“Is what it is.” Two Crows shrugged. “Once I get word to Washington, we’ll get this mess cleared up. But it will take some doin’.”
Esther threw her arms up, exasperated. Patience was a virtue she found difficulty exercising when it came to Two Crows. “And meanwhile my son is out there, somewhere, with that man—that man with the—“
“Bronze teeth,” Zarahemla said softly. “I know. Listen, Mrs. Henry, we done fell headfirst into a cesspit and no amount of thrashing around is gonna get us out. We’re neck-deep in it now.” He motioned to the thick adobe walls and heavy iron bars. “Beyond these walls are a few score bored troopers with no Injuns to fight since ol’ Colonel Carson drove ‘em into the mountains or marched them halfway across the desert to rot in the camps. These boys are just itching to put a bullet in something. Don’t get me wrong, there’s good men out here, but a good number of ‘em came out after the war because they got a taste of blood and wanted more, and they ain’t got nothing to do but snipe coyotes and count tumbleweeds.”
“I thought you feared no blade or bullet,” Esther said sardonically.
“I don’t.” Zarahemla shrugged. “But I don’t see the point in stirring the shit pot any more than we have to, neither. Even if we got away, we’d have the 3rd Cav nipping at our heels the whole way. It ain’t prudent.”
Esther was about to try a new angle when a heavy door swung open and a detail of troopers with electric rifles marched into the stockade. They turned the hand-cranks on their backpacks and held the sparking batons at the ready. The first sergeant entered and stood by the bars in front of Zarahemla.
“Major Goodwin wants a word with you,” the senior noncommissioned officer said brusquely. He motioned a guard to unlock the cell doors. “No trouble, Mr. Two Crows, you hear?”
Zarahemla nodded and said, “Just a misunderstanding, Top, is all. We’re on the same side.”
“Save it,” the first sergeant curtly replied. “You laid out a good number of my men and the CO is dead. It’s above my pay grade, you being a Federal agent and all, otherwise I’d have you bound to the flagpole and flogged to an inch of your life—and then I’d feed you to the buzzards.” He looked at Esther. “Both of you.”
The first sergeant spun on his heel and marched out of the room. The troopers clapped Esther and Zarahemla in heavy shackles and motioned with their electric rifles for them to follow him.
They were pushed out into the searing light of the noonday sun. Soldiers milling around the camp paused to gawk as the prisoners were lead across the dusty parade ground. Overhead the flag of the Union snapped in the breeze, emblazoned with golden crossed sabers and the words “Blood and Steel.”
Sagebrush and brown grass rustled in the arid wind, accompanied by the incessant droning of cicadas.
Hardly worth the designation of a fort, Wingate was little more than a scattered hodgepodge of corrals and clapboard buildings ringed by low hogback mountains. Many of the structures served double- and triple-duty as barracks, mess hall, and armory for the troops stationed at the remote outpost. Zarahemla and Esther were led into one of the larger buildings and deposited in a small room dominated by a large pinewood table. Motes danced in the blades of sunlight slicing through the high, barred windows.
Without a word the troopers left, closing and bolting the door behind them.
Zarahemla slumped against a wall and inspected his manacles while Esther stood on tiptoe and tried unsuccessfully to get a look outside. She gave up and sat on the table, rubbing her wrists under the chafing iron shackles.
“So who’s this Major Goodwin?” she asked after several minutes.
Two Crows just shrugged and scratched at his beard. He sniffed at the air. “Dunno, but we’re about to find out.”
On cue they heard the bolt being drawn back and the heavy door opened. Their previous escorts entered and took up positions around the room, followed by the first sergeant. A pale, chinless man entered, surveying Esther and Zarahemla with the same unpalatable disinterest one might afford a possum run over by a stagecoach. His richly tailored uniform sported the white shoulder straps of a judge advocate, embroidered with gold oak leaves.
“Major Goodwin,” the first sergeant announced, snapping to attention and saluting.
The major set a large notebook down on the table and wet his pen with the tip of his tongue. He scratched something in the ledger and turned to Zarahemla. “Do you know what you are charged with, Mr.—” He consulted his notes. “—Two Crows?”
“Nothing that ain’t right nor correct,” Zarahemla said.
Goodwin ignored him and started to tick off the charges on his fingers. “The brutal murder of six enlisted men in Canyon de Chelly. The deaths of three young Navajo men, at the same location. Resisting arrest. The aggravated assault of—” He turned to the first sergeant. “—Is this right? ‘No less than one and half score enlisted men and junior officers’?” The first sergeant nodded. Major Goodwin scratched another note before continuing. “Attempted escape. And, last but certainly not least, the murder of one Captain Jed Ward, commanding officer, ‘B’ Troop, Third Regiment of Cavalry.”
“Horseshit” Esther said. “Those Injuns were skin-walkers—they attacked Mr. Two Crows and your men. And Captain Ward was killed by the witch, Nakai, after she bedazzled him and his men into trying to kill us.”
Major Goodwin looked at Esther with a pained expression of supreme boredom. He returned to his ledger. “Skin-walkers. Witches. Badazzlement,” he said as he scribbled away.
“Ma’am,” he said to Esther, “that makes for a thrilling penny novel, but the court-martial deals in facts, not the superstitions of savages. You’ll have to do better if you have any hope of avoiding the hangman in Fort Bliss.”
“Court-Martial?” Esther was incredulous. “We are not soldiers!”
“I am the law here,” Goodwin said blandly.
“You’re new around these here parts, Major, ain’t you?” Zarahemla said.
“New enough not to buy into all this fiddle-faddle that has the men jumping at shadows. I, Mr. Two Crows, am a man of science, and I don’t fancy things that go bump in the night. President Lincoln, God rest his soul, was a great man, but even great men are deceived by foolish superstitions. Founding the ridiculous ‘Office of Physical Inquiry’ is a black mark on his otherwise honorable service to our country.”
“Psychical,” Zarahemla corrected. “As in ‘not cotton to natural laws.’ There are things that go bump in the night, Major, and whether you believe in them or not, they believe in you.”
“Indeed. Fortunately, President Johnson is a rational man, and is already taking steps to remove this leech on honest taxpayer’s money.” Goodwin slammed his ledger closed, signaling the conversation was over.
Esther began to protest, but Zarahemla shook his head and she bit her tongue. The major turned sharply and exited the room, followed by the first sergeant and his men.
“What did he mean by that—about President Johnson?” Esther asked after they were alone.
Zarahemla grunted and chewed on his beard. “Bah, the old codger’s been trying to shut us down since he took office. Seems like his mission in life is to undo everything good old Abe fought for.”
“So what do we do now?” Esther asked.
“Nothin’,” Zarahemla said.
“You can’t be serious,” Esther said.
“Serious as a one-eyed fox in a henhouse,” Zarahemla replied. “They want to take us to Fort Bliss? That’s fine by me. That’s where I was headed anyway.”
“Oh, was it now?” Esther tried to cross her arms, but the manacles got in the way. “And what, pray tell, is in Fort Bliss, besides an overeager hangman?”
Zarahemla cocked his head to the side, as if he were listening to something far away.
“And another thing,” Esther continued ranting. “Those homey little idioms of yours make no sense whatsoever. ‘One-eyed fox in a hen—‘”
“Hush woman,” Zarahemla said, walking over to the window. Standing on his toes, he was just able to peer over the lip of the sill. “You hear that?”
“Hear what?” Esther said, exasperated.
“Listen—“ he whispered.
Esther harrumphed, but closed her eyes anyway, if only to humor him. She could hear men making crass jokes, horses fighting in the corral, a farrier working his forge. Straining her ears harder, she made out low voices in the next room, cicadas on the wind, the flag snapping in the breeze.
“What am I listening for?” she asked.
“Listen,” Two Crows hissed.
Then she heard it, a low thrumming sound, like a steam engine, far away. She opened her eyes. “There are no trains out here, not for hundred of miles.”
“Come,” Zarahemla said. “Look.”
She walked over to the high window. Even on the tips of her toes she could barely reach the sill with her fingers. “I am a tall woman, but not that tall,” she said, looking at Zarahemla pointedly.
“Ah—” Zarahemla paused, uncertain.
“Give me a boost, you great dolt,” she said. “Nothing to be shy about.”
He scratched his beard and hawed. “Don’t seem proper, Mrs. Henry.”
“Saints alive, man. Just lift me up already.”
Zarahemla gingerly put his hands around her slim waist and hefted her up to see out the window. He peered out beside her and pointed with his chin into the distance. She looked at his profile. For a moment all she could see was his glacier blue eyes, lined with those charming premature wrinkles that crinkled in the rare moments that he smiled. She felt the warmth of his callused hands through her shirt, the gentle strength that held her aloft. For a moment she forget herself, and moved to kiss him.
“See? Out on the horizon,” Zarahemla said, oblivious.
Esther coughed and followed his gaze She saw nothing usual. “What? Where?”
“On the horizon. There.” Zarahemla jabbed his chin out further.
“I see a bunch of brown, more brown, and then even more brown,” Esther said. “And then—oh, wait—I think I see—no—maybe—what? A dust storm?”
Esther squinted against the harsh light. A low, rolling cloud was forming on the horizon, billowing black smoke and red dust. Slowly, giant shapes began to take form, colossal man-like constructs plodding heavily across the desert. The giant machines belched smoke and ash, shaking the earth as they approached. Esther looked at Zarahemla in alarm. He smiled.
“Buffalo Soldiers,” he said.
To Be Continued…
For previous chapters, go here.
© copyright R.A. Williamson, 2014
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