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
“This is the Man We’re Looking For”
Zarahemla Two Crows blinked hard and shook his head. His ears rang with an awful buzzing and the trees seemed to dance before him. Twin custom Smith & Wesson .577 revolvers trembled in giant hands as he swept the edge of the clearing. He was sweating like an ice pitcher, despite the cold of the night.
He tried to speak, only to find his tongue stuck to the roof of his mouth, dry as the Mojave in June.
It felt like it would rip clean in two if he moved it.
The widow Esther Henry stood beside him and cocked the hammer on her Sharps rifle.
“Nakai?” she asked.
Zarahemla nodded. The Navajo witch, the most powerful of the skin-walkers, was close. He could smell her.
“Where is my son, you thieving whore?” Esther shouted into the darkness.
Zarahemla looked down at her sideways and raised an eyebrow. Harsh language wasn’t the young widow’s usual fare. She shrugged unapologetically.
He squeezed his eyes shut and tried to concentrate as the lingering effects of the peyote hit him in nauseating waves. The dream journey had lead Zarahemla to the knowledge that his old enemy, the Man with Bronze Teeth was alive up to his old schemes, but it had also left him confused and weak. He hated weakness.
The wind shifted and he tested the air. His other senses might betray him, but Zarahemla had the nose of a jackalope. He could trust that. He caught the scent of boot leather and gun powder on the breeze, of hard-ridden horses and unwashed men. He was surprised he hadn’t noticed their foul odor sooner. It floated heavy on the wind and burned his nostrils.
Somehow managing to unglue his swollen tongue, Zarahemla called out into the night, “You can stop skulking around, boys. I can smell you.” He fought to keep his hands steady as the tremors worsened. Sweat ran down his brow and stung his eyes. Esther gave him a worried look.
“I’m right as rain,” Zarahemla croaked.
Esther nodded and returned her attention to the forest as a man hidden in the shadows addressed them, ordering them to disarm and surrender.
Zarahemla cocked his head to the side and sniffed. “Cap’n Ward? That you?”
A lantern flared to life and a young cavalry officer stepped out of the trees. Two dozen other cavalrymen followed, leveling their rifles at Zarahemla and Esther. The officer held his lantern aloft, illuminating a square jaw thick with stubble. Carefully oiled brown hair fell in ringlets under his Stetson.
“Well, I’ll be a monkey’s uncle,” he said. “If it ain’t Zarahemla Two Crows.” He smiled at Esther and tipped his hat. “Capt’n Jed Ward, Ma’am. United Stated 3rd Cavalry.”
“The late Mrs. Tom Henry,” Zarahemla said, motioning to Esther with his chin as his let his pistols drop to his side. She nodded to the captain and lowered the barrel of her rifle a fraction of an inch.
“My condolences, Ma’am—” Ward said.
A young Navajo woman in a torn dress ran up beside Ward and pointed her lips at Zarahemla. “That’s him!” she screeched. “That’s the zhinni who killed my brothers and your men!” Her hair looked like two squirrels had nested in it over the winter. She grabbed Ward’s arm and wept, pressing her body against him.
“Who? Him?” Ward shook her off his arm. “I doubt that.”
To Zarahemla he said, “We’re tracking a sonofabitch who slaughtered six of my men. Real sick bastard. Cut ’em up like a butcher. Shot three Injuns, too. This poor creature barely got away after he insulted her—” Ward lowered his voice. “—Repeatedly.”
“Poppycock,” Esther said.
“That bilagáana was there too,” the Navajo girl said, pouting seductively at Ward with full lips and wide eyes. “She helped him!”
“Cut the act, Nakai,” Zarahemla said. “It won’t work.”
Ward looked puzzled and scratched his chin. “You know this girl, Two Crows?”
“She’s a damned skin-walker,” Zarahemla replied. “Been playing you for a fool.”
Ward jumped away from Nakai like she was a leper and drew his revolver.
Nakai dropped to her knees and clasped her hands. One shoulder of her dress fell—a little too conveniently, Zarahemla thought—revealing bruises and lacerations down her neck and breast.
“Please,” she begged. “Don’t let him hurt me again!”
Ward met Nakai’s gaze and paused, uncertain. He lowered his revolver.
“Dadgumit,” Zarahemla muttered to Esther.
Nakai smiled and her voice took on a tone of command. “This is the man you’re looking for,” she said to Ward. “You will arrest him at once.”
His eyes fixed on Nakai, Ward addressed his second, “First Sergeant, this is the man we’re looking for. Arrest him at once!”
The troopers closed in, rifles held ready, fingers hovering over their triggers.
“What do we do now?” Esther whispered.
“Keep your head down. I’ll handle this,” Zarahemla said.
“What? You will get perforated like a colander before you take one step.”
“No bullet or blade made by man can hurt me, not so long as I have my beard on my chin.” Zarahemla grinned. “The prophet in Salt Lake City done blessed me.”
“Is there anything you are afraid of?” Ether asked.
Zarahemla chuckled and holstered his guns. “A razor, mayhap.”
Esther snorted and backed away slowly, lowering her rifle.
“On your knees,” the first sergeant barked.
“Yeah, that ain’t happening, Top,” Zarahemla said, cracking his knuckles and rolling his neck. He was a massive man, easily towering over the tallest trooper in the glade. Each of the troopers paused in mid-step, forgetting for a moment that they were armed with enough firepower to take out a medium-sized pueblo.
Zarahemla could feel the fight rising in him, clearing his mind and sweeping away the peyote fever. As a child he would wrestle chupacabra for fun. Two dozen trail-weary cavalrymen almost seemed unsportsmanlike.
The first sergeant noticed the hesitation in his men and snapped at them like a whip. “Brooks, Caudill—disarm him and slap him in irons.”
The two troopers slung their rifles and approached Zarahemla. Caudill, a Herculean brawler with matted red hair and cauliflower ears, pulled a large pair of manacles out of his haversack. Brooks, twice as burly and only half as pretty, reached for Zarahemla’s pistols.
Quick as a polecat, Zarahemla slapped Brooks’ hands away and grabbed him in a bone-crushing headlock. Caudill moved in, only to find Zarahemla’s hobnailed boot in his gut. Flexing his tree-trunk arms, Zarahemla tightened his sleeper hold on Brooks.
Caudill recovered, drew a Bowie knife, and lunged.
With a final squeeze, Zarahemla felt Brooks go limp, and let him fall to the ground. Side-stepping over the body, he dodged Caudill’s flashing blade and landed a solid blow on the brute’s jaw. Bone cracked and Zarahemla stifled a yelp, cradling his broken hand. The red-headed man grinned and lunged again.
This time Zarahemla embraced the attack, enveloping Caudill in a great bear hug. The trooper stabbed repeatedly in short, quick jabs, but every time he thrust the knife would turn in his hand and graze harmlessly across Zarahemla’s body. Caudill’s eyes widened in confusion. Zarahemla brought his heavy brow down hard against the bridge of the man’s nose. Blood erupted in a fountain and Caudill collapsed to his knees reeling.
Zarahemla landed another heavy boot to the side of Caudill’s head, and the big man fell hard into the dust. The other troopers, who had been hooting and hollering encouragement to their comrades, fell silent.
“Dadgumit,” Zarahemla cried. “Can’t you see that woman done bewitched Cap’n Ward?”
Nakai looked back at them innocently as she clung to the young officer. Ward stared at her, smiling like a lovesick schoolboy. She brushed her lips against his ear and he frowned.
“Shoot him,” Ward ordered.
The first sergeant paused. “Begging your pardon, sir,” he said. “Innit this man a Federal Agent? Can’t just cut him down like a common cur, begging your pardon, sir.”
Nakai’s eyes flashed. “You heard the Captain,” she hissed at the first sergeant. “You have your orders.”
The first sergeant nodded sharply and turned to his men. “You heard the old man, lads. Orders is orders.”
“This is ridiculous,” Esther said To Zarahemla.
“Ready!” the first sergeant cried. The mass of troopers leveled their rifles.
“Just keep your head down when the hornets start a-flying,” Zarahemla replied.
“Aim!” the first sergeant cried. Zarahemla found the command amusing, as the troopers were within spitting distance.
Thunder rolled across the moonlit glade as thick smoke and flame belched out of twenty Spencer carbines. Esther hit the ground as the 350 grain, .52 caliber slugs screamed over her head, ricocheting off rocky outcroppings and sending shards of stone flying in all directions.
She was shocked to see Zarahemla still standing, an immense, ghostly form in the billowing white gun smoke.
He was laughing in that gravelly way of his, like a bear coughing up briars.
“My turn!” Zarahemla bellowed.
He plowed into the formation of troopers like a bull moose, tossing men left and right. Several troopers tried to tackle Zarahemla from behind, hanging off his back like remoras as he laughed and swung his meaty fists.
From under the fog of gun smoke, Esther caught sight of Captain Ward and Nakai. The skin-walker had taken on a sinister aspect and seemed to loom over Captain Ward, clutching him tight with spindly limbs. Knifelike talons pressed against his throat. Esther rolled away from the brawling men and brought up her Sharps rifle. She double-checked that the percussion cap was still positioned correctly and the hammer was fully cocked. Sighting down the front bell of the high-powered Malcolm scope mounted on her rifle, Ester pulled back the heavy rear pre-set trigger. Click!
Nakai’s eyes widened at the sound, impossibly quiet against the din of Zarahemla’s melee with the troopers, and she glared at Esther through the smoke.
Mother hen grew teeth, did she? a voice like rancid rum-butter echoed in Esther’s head.
“Get out of my head, bitch!” Ether cried, moving her finger swiftly to the front hair-trigger. She jerked as rough hands hoisted her off the ground, and the shot went wide, ploughing into Nakai’s arm.
The witch screamed, raking razor nails across Ward’s throat. The captain fell to his knees, gurgling bloody foam as a fine red mist sprayed out before him.
Esther spit and kicked at the two cavalrymen as they tore her rifle from her hands and dragged her away from the fight. She felt cold iron clasp down on her wrists. The last thing she saw before they pulled the heavy bag over her head was a mule deer with a shattered foreleg bounding away into the night.
“Zarahelma,” Esther screamed, “she’s getting away!”
The glade was littered with moaning and unconscious men. Zarahemla turned to Esther’s voice in time to see troopers dragging her off into the woods. He leapt to pursue when a sharp bugle sounded and more cavalrymen poured into the clearing, hedging him in.
“Fresh fish!” Zarahemla grunted, cracking bloody knuckles. “Was wondering’ when you boys would show up.”
Adrenaline surged through his body, making his head pound. The wounds from his encounter with Nakai’s brothers had reopened, weeping through torn stitches under his heavy duster. He squared his shoulders, ignoring the stinging pain, and prepared to charge.
Three troopers suddenly broke formation. They wielded heavy batons that crackled with energy as they turned hand cranks on the portable Faraday Wheels mounted on their backs.
Zarahemla took a step back and cursed as the men with electric rifles advanced. They moved cautiously, spreading out, trying to encircle him. Zarahemla could not let that happen. He knew the moment they surrounded him, the fight would be over. All it would take was a solid blow to the back of his head, and he would go down.
The young trooper on the left was the strongest—and by far the most overconfident. He spun his baton lazily as he advanced, the electricity glowing in wide, looping circles. The central trooper, a fresh-faced boy without even the shadow of a beard, moved herky-jerky, jabbing at the air between them with his baton like a nervous wind-up doll. The wiry old veteran to Zarahemla’s right was more cautious.
Zarahemla feinted to the center, making the greenhorn flinch and jump back, before making a wide leap sideways to his left. His maneuver set him in front of the brawny one, leaving the others lined up directly behind.
The trooper lunged, stabbing his baton like a spear. Twisting to the side as the baton crackled past him, Zarahemla caught the man’s hand while simultaneously driving his other fist into the side of his head. Keeping his lock on the trooper’s wrist, Zarahemla pivoted and hit him under the ribs with a stiff uppercut. The burly man fell instantly, doubled over in pain. Zarahemla ripped the baton free and spun to parry the greenhorn’s attack in a shower of sparks.
“Balls finally dropped, eh son?” Zarahemla said.
The youth responded with short, choppy stabs and wild strikes. What he lacked for in technique he made up for in spades with sheer unpredictability. Zarahemla let the young man press the attack, and when the moment was right—he struck with the stolen baton. The young trooper spasmed and fell as the electrical current surged through his body.
“I think we’ve had enough fun here, eh?” Zarahemla said to the corporal as he dropped the baton beside the two writhing men at his feet. “Let the woman go. I’ll go my way, and you boys can go yours.”
The other cavalrymen let out a chorus of jeers and the corporal rolled his shoulders to loosen them. He gave Zarahemla a toothless grin and said, “Not bloody likely, Mac.”
Zarahemla put his hand on the butt of his revolver. “Don’t want to shoot you, friend, seeing as we’re on the same side and all—but I will.”
The corporal turned the hand crank in his backpack and began to circle Zarahemla. “I’m callin’ your bluff.”
“No bluff,” Zarahemla said. He drew and fired into the man’s leg.
The corporal laughed and rapped on this thigh with his knuckles. The leg echoed like a tin bucket. “Lost it at Brandy Station,” he said. “But they fixed me up right good. Now, Mac—my turn!”
The corporal leapt forward with a speed that belied his age and struck out with his baton. Zarahemla thoughtlessly parried with his revolver. The high voltage current enveloped the gun with blue light and shot down the length of Zarahemla’s arm. He gritted his teeth and fought to stand as his knees threatened to buckle. Several troopers raced forward with heavy netting and ensnared him, pulling him down to the ground. As the corporal continued to prod him with the electro-rifle, Zarahemla fruitlessly kicked and swore, entangling himself further.
The first sergeant called out for the troop surgeon. A tall man ran over, producing a large syringe from his medical bag. He looked at Zarahemla and then to the first sergeant. “He’s a big lad, it’s gonna take most of what I got,” he said.
“Just get it done, sir,” the first sergeant replied.
The surgeon nodded and walked over to Zarahemla. “Corporal Swift, stand down,” he ordered. Swift gave Zarahemla an extra prod for good measure before stepping back reluctantly. The surgeon instructed the other troopers to hold Zarahemla steady. “You might feel a slight pinch,” he said to Zarahemla, driving the enormous needle deep into his thigh.
Zarahemla howled and swore. He groped for the needle, but the surgeon slapped his hand away. The glade began to spin and his eyelids grew heavy. His limbs felt numb and he floated above the earth.
Eventually, everything went black.
To Be Continued…
For previous chapters, go here.
© copyright R.A. Williamson, 2014
All rights reserved.