Of Gog and Magog

No Sympathy From The Devil
Immediately precedes Jailhouse Confessional

Six years of slavery ended with a bullet in both arms and I have no further use for you.

Barker turned his back, easy as breathing, turned away, stepping outside with the sheriff and not even a glance over his shoulder, as if Derek had ceased to exist, and—

You are not one of mine anymore.

—that was it.

Deal done.

Derek’s knees folded; he sat down heavily on the edge of the prison cot. The universe was shaking, tunneling black at the corners of his vision, and maybe that was blood loss, but more likely it was the edges of the screaming fit he’d been putting off for six years of breaking bones and homes and lives.

Or—

Relief.

It took him a second to recognize the feeling welling up inside his ribcage, it had been so long, but there it was, cold and clear as a new spring, folded up with panic and terror and, fils de putain, he couldn’t breathe.

The deputy snapped something about medical care, about put your head between your knees, dammit and don’t pass out, and when Derek managed to lean himself forward, braced on blood-soaked elbows, breathe like a normal person.

Which was about when Derek started to laugh, shiver-cracked and gasping, because normal was a far-flung concept and he was free.

Except for how he really, really wasn’t.

He got two good breaths, sucking in the stink of rotted Harrow-corpse and sweat-drenched men, and tried to remember the last time he’d slept without dying first. The deputy pressed him about the blacksmith, demanding details about JA’s trinkets and Barker’s burnings, asking questions in that calm-steady voice of a man bound and determined to be sane in the middle of a squall, and Derek—

Could answer.

He could speak his own mind without his chest ripping apart and his heart pouring out, and wasn’t that a kick—unless Barker’s spell was still wrapped around his heartstrings, even in the aftermath. But if Barker held the leash he would have jerked it until Derek choked; dropped Derek dead just to keep his own secrets safe before Derek could spill them.

And he hadn’t.

So Derek talked. He opened his mouth and broke Barker’s confidence, snapped it like a knee joint, answered the deputy straight—and didn’t die. Kept breathing, shivery and goddamned sore, and Jesus, if he didn’t hurt so much he would have started to get some fairly big-headed ideas about being indestructible.

The deputy was still talking, undercut by Old Seth’s gravelly drawl and Carter’s lighter, easier voice, but Derek wasn’t listening. Derek was having a panic attack on a prison bench, because it had been a hell of a week, okay, and he just wanted to sleep and not have anything terrible happen for eight seconds, and his suit was a wreck, and seriously, his arms fucking hurt.

And the devil’s son was outside and walking away.

Which was actually a little unfortunate, because Derek had been hoping for a healing, but he’d take this instead. He’d take all of this. And as soon as his head stopped lurching, he’d tell the deputy everything, tell the sheriff everything—

Except, merde, they were going to hang him.

Worse than that, they were going to hang him ironically, because he’d survived manitous and demons and living bones and giant snakes and throat-cuttings and bullets, but hemp would still do the trick.

I don’t know what’s making your blood pump.

At least, he was pretty sure.

The laugh splintered in Derek’s throat, sharp and ugly, because why the fuck not, he’d killed his fair share of folks, and worse. He’d evicted old women; kept debtors conscious while stronger, nastier men broke their legs; traded chunks of his soul wholesale for unholy magic; been the knife in the dark behind Barker’s public smile. Head of the cruelty department for Fiduciary Holdings and Trust. He wasn’t the stab; he was the twist.

And he was going to swing for executing a piece of gutter-trash and putting a hole in a dead man.

“Ha,” he rasped, because if he didn’t laugh he might do the other thing, and that was just sad.

“Lefeaux,” the deputy said, sharp and clear, like he’d been trying to catch Derek’s attention for more than a minute. “Lefeaux, are you even listen’ to me?”

Seth muttered something about fetching the preacher, and Derek lifted his head, because yes, good plan, finally a good plan. Hezekiah had his thumb on the spiritual pulse; he might have a notion of what kind of powers could beat out Barker’s magic and sink fish hooks into Derek’s—

Oh.

Oh, he was so completely stupid.

The answer was right there, plain and simple, and Derek was a screaming moron because it had come with a love note attached. He’d woken up from the Giant’s candyland fresh with the memory of a manitou ripping his heart out for the second time (third time, once you counted the giant spider-bitch, and seriously, how hard was it to actually keep his organs inside his skin?) and he’d never thought to wonder who controlled the interlopers.

He’d woken up in his own room with the stolen gold sitting on his bedside table and a playing card resting on top of the coins. The Ace of hearts, with the single heart coloured in black ink, and writing below it: ‘My gifts to you.’

A gift.

A pretty trinket, something desperately wanted, like all the other pretty trinkets they were destroying with angel swords and magical fires and Jesus Christ, JA might be the only thing around stronger than Barker.

Derek’s blood had glittered when they’d looked at it with the angel’s magical glasses.

If this week ended with a divine rapier lodged between his ribs, he was going to write a note to the universe.

Then, finally, the last thought caught up with him, and he really started to laugh. If he did have JA’s version of a present beating in his chest, the only way to put paid to this whole thing was cold-blooded murder, no time for a judge, no due process or lawyers or shiny silver stars balancing the world out — they’d have to butcher him or burn him, offer him up like that shattered violin.

Then they’d be just as bad as he was.

View
Jailhouse Confessional
Garret Gets Lefeaux's Side of Things

Garret had taken about as much watching Derek Lefeaux fall apart as he could stand. The man was shaking and grey-faced, with both dangling, shot-up arms soaked elbow-to-wrist in dried blood. He’d seen men die of shock and blood loss a time or two-hundred during the war, and Lefeaux looked like he was a good candidate to be the next one. Although the man had shown a remarkable ability to spring back from the dead.

“Lefeaux, lie down and put your legs up,” he said. He turned to Carter. “Go fetch Hezekiah, I don’t care what he says, this man needs medical help and he knows a damn sight more about that kind of thing than I do. And tell Marcus about the blacksmith. Seth, give me the keys.”

It was as natural as breathing to fall back on command skills he hadn’t used since people had called him Lieutenant, but Deputy was at least as good a title, and with the odd way Marcus had been acting, and the obvious deterioration of law and order here, he didn’t find he had much choice.

Carter gave him a measuring look, then went to do his bidding. Seth looked altogether weary, showing all the years he usually hid in the gaunt hollows under his eyes. “It’s your call, Deputy.”

Garret nodded, took the keys, and opened Lefeaux’s cell. “Go get me a basin of hot water and some clean rags. And a change of shirt for Lefeaux.”

“That might take a bit of doing—” Seth started, and Garret’s patience was at an end.

“Did I sound like I was just making suggestions?”

“There’s no call to get your ornery up, Deputy. I’m going.” Seth hauled himself to his feet and shuffled out the door.

Garret went in to steady the man. Lefeaux flinched hard when Garret laid a hand on his shoulder. A broken-sounding laugh shivered out of Lefeaux’s clenched teeth. “Watch your hands, Deputy. They’re rules about manhandling prisoners.”

“I ain’t here to hurt you,” Garret said. “Though I have to say it’s a funny thing you appealing to the rule of law about how a prisoner ought to be treated. But that’s neither here nor there. I don’t know what the hell happened while I was off to Dead End, but you’re back from what I figure was your second death in a week, and I don’t aim to let you go to your third because other folks couldn’t be bothered to see to your wounds.”

Derek raised a pale, sweat-sheened face and narrowed light grey eyes like he was having trouble focusing. He licked his lips once. “I’m touched,” he told Garret with a tone that suggested he was anything but. A note of strangled hysteria crept into his voice when he added, “To the bottom of my heart.” Then he folded over himself, choking on a breathless lunatic’s laugh.

Garret crouched down and put both hands on Derek’s shoulders, restraining and bracing at the same time. It was a calculated movement, and if Derek had been faking those injuries and been of a mind to grab Garret’s gun, Garret might have been a dead man.

It spoke volumes that he wasn’t.

“Lefeaux. Take a breath. Breathe, real slow. Deep breath. Alright? I’m gonna lie you down on this bench.”

Derek took a deeper, steadier, breath, then another, laughter washing itself out, and managed to meet Garret’s gaze. “Really rather stay upright, Deputy, if it’s all the same,” he said. He flinched subtly, twitching his chin towards one of Garret’s hands. “You’re grabbing again.”

“You looked like you were about to pitch over,” Garret said. He turned loose but didn’t move away, instead reaching for his hip flask. “Here, have a swig of bourbon.” He started to hand Lefeaux the flask, realized how helpless Lefeaux really was with both arms shot up, and uncapped it and held it to Lefeaux’s lips. “Go on, take a drink or two. It’ll take the edge off.”

“That’d take more than two,” Derek replied, dry as a temperance meeting, but he tipped his head back and let Garret give him the drink, knocking it back like a man who’d spent his whole life in a bar. Garret gave him three generous swallows, and was relieved to see a little steadiness creep into Derek’s expression, a little healthier color flush his cheeks. He licked his lips again as Garret recapped his flask, focusing more easily on Garret’s face. “Any more bright ideas?”

“Prayerful healing if Hezikiah will lay hands on you, and laudanum and some splints if he won’t,” Garret answered. “How ‘bout I start with getting that shirt and coat off you and see how bad you’re hurt. You said Carter shot you, and Carter said he did so ‘cause you shot Doc Knuckles, is that about right? That why they locked you up?”

“Something like that,” Derek agreed. “Preacher ordered me held, and the Law stepped right up.” He sounded almost amused, in a wry, painful sort of way. “But seeing as Doc tried to kill me first, I figure we’re square. He’s not dead, by the way.” He paused, tracking Garret’s gaze to the other occupied cell where Doc Knuckles looked (and smelled) as much like a day-old corpse as any Garret had ever run across. “Well, he is dead,” Derek amended, “but no more dead than he was yesterday. Takes a headshot to knock out a manitou, and I didn’t give him one.”

“Well he sure seems dead,” Garret said. He yawned and scrubbed a hand over a stubbly jaw. ”So you blew that hole in his chest there, and it what? Knocked the manitou thing loopy? Is he gonna just up and wake up any minute now?”

A slight shrug of Derek’s shoulders turned quickly into a wince. “Probably. First time I haven’t finished the job. But I know it takes a headshot to put them down for good, so he’s got more of a chance than he gave me.” His thin lips quirked in a humorless smile. “Fair deal.”

Seth came back with a basin of water, some slender sticks of kindling to use for splints, and several strips of clean flannel bandage. “You need any help with that?” he asked when he gave them to Garret.

“I got it,” Garret told him.

Seth gave him a skeptical look. “You alright there, McEwan? You look like you ain’t slept in a week.”

Garret yawned again, cracked his spine, and took a deep breath to clear his head. “I’ll get some sleep after I sort this out. I got this.” When Seth hesitated, Garret met his eyes. “You don’t look like you’ve seen a bed recently yourself. Get some rest now, while you can, Seth. We’ve got worse coming down the pike.”

“Hm. I believe I will,” Seth said, but there was steel in his expression. Steel Garret was glad of.

Garret took the basin and bandages, set them on the cot next to Lefeaux, then dragged a wooden stool into the cell and sat facing Derek. “Alright, let’s get your coat and shirt off so I can at least dress your wounds.” He helped Lefeaux strip down, whistling softly at the damage Carter Burwell’s guns had done to the man’s arms. The bullet scar dead center of the man’s sternum was impressive, too, but it looked long healed. Something to ask about when they weren’t so pressed for time.

Derek blanched white when Garret pulled his arms free of his sleeves, and Garret gave him another swig of drink as soon as he’d finished.

“So I want to make sure I have your side of this story straight,” Garret said. “When we were in that mine, you told us Doc was harrowed, which from all I’ve seen, I believe. And what makes a man harrowed is a manitou, which is the same sort of abomination that’s controlling JA. Something that ain’t from heaven or hell, but someplace else.”

Derek nodded, wincing as Garret set to work cleaning the blood from his skin.

“And right after you told us that, you and Doc went over the side of that pit in the mine,” Garret continued, “and that’s when he pushed you off your rope?”

Derek opened his mouth to speak, stilled, closed it again, and looked at Garret with hard-edged eyes like a defiant schoolboy caught without his homework. “Look, I can’t be a genius all the time.”

Garret surprised himself, snorting on a laugh. Whatever his many brushes with death had done to him, at least some of the essence of Derek Lefeaux had survived. “Well, guess you learned yourself a lesson that time, anyway. So how in hell did you end up not dead at the bottom of that pit?”

“Big snake,” Derek said, like there was nothing unusual about it.

“Ben said the snake was one of his people’s gods, so I guess maybe it could have come from Totchnini or such like, seeing as Navajo gods intervened for us before. Not, that I’m saying those are gods, mind you. More like the Lord’s angels, I figure, but going in the guise of Indian gods. Or I don’t even know, really.” Garret looked up at LeFeaux with a shrug. “Don’t really know the things I learned in Sunday School hold much water these days. All this talk of angels and devils and Indian gods and interlopers.”

Derek’s eyebrows arched slightly. “Deputy,” he said, summer drought crisp, “are you having a crisis of faith?”

“Wouldn’t be the first time,” Garret said, surprised at himself for admitting it. “At least I’m a free man this time around.”

Derek looked up, paying proper attention for the first time since the conversation had started. He studied Garret’s face with a puzzled frown. “You saying you were a criminal, Dep? Because that kind of knocks the moral and holy ground right out from under you— Ah, no, wait. I get it.” His expression cleared as understanding dawned. “Prisoner of war. Am I right?”

“Rock Island, Illinois,” Garret agreed. “I escaped, eventually.” It looked like the bullets Carter Burwell had put into Derek’s arms had passed cleanly through, and the bleeding was almost stopped. He wrapped them both carefully with the bandages Seth had brought. “Left one might be broke. I’ll splint it for now. Hoping Kiah can fix it, but even if he can’t I think you’ll be okay if you don’t get fever.”

“I’m not—” Derek started, interrupting himself with a pained hiss when Garret pulled the bandage tight. “—sure ‘okay’ is the word,” he continued. “But it’s nice that you’re optimistic.” When Garret was finished with the bandaging and had helped him into the clean shirt Seth had procured, he leaned wearily back against the wall, looking at Garret through half-closed eyes. Sweat sheened his pale face, and lines etched exhaustion around his eyes and mouth, but he surprised Garret when he said, “Rock Island. Not many survivors from there.”

“I was lucky,” Garret agreed quietly. “Just like you. Devil’s own luck, some folks say.” He watched Derek’s face carefully. “So you got swallowed up by the snake—and I ain’t making judgments, but seems to me the Bible has a thing or two to say about serpents—which saved you dying of the fall, and somehow getting et didn’t do you in.”

Derek sighed very quietly. “If you’re going to make Devil-jabs, Deputy, can you get them over with? I’m about used up on them.”

“If I’m understanding this situation right, your former employer Mister Barker there is Old Scratch’s own personal concierge.”

“Kiss-ass,” Derek corrected, poker-faced.

Garret chuckled. “Well, I guess I know how you feel about him.”

Every last trace of humor and reserve washed out of Derek’s face in an instant. He leaned forward, almost threatening. “You have no idea how I feel about Jonathan Barker,” he said, in a low voice so full of cold, hard fury it gave Garret a chill.

“No,” Garret said slowly, “I don’t guess I do. But I expect it’s a little like how I feel about General WT Sherman, except not quite so personal.” He waited until Derek was looking him in the eye. “But he turned you loose just now. You ain’t the Devil’s prisoner of war no more. We make it through what’s coming with JA, and you’re a free man, right?”

For an instant something like doubt flickered in Derek’s eyes before he answered, “Guess that depends on you, Dep. Planning to let me out of here any time soon?”

“If you’re fit to fight and I can have your word as your parole, I’m considering it,” Garret said. “It’ll be a hard sell. Carter Burwell’s convinced you’re as much the Devil’s handyman as Barker is, though I’m getting a pretty certain idea that wasn’t by your choice. I don’t know where Marcus stands in all this, but I’d sure as hell like to have you on our side when we face down JA.”

Derek tipped his head to search Garret’s face, like he was looking for assurance Garret was speaking his heart. “I’ll fight with you," he said at length, flat and truthful. “I’ve been doing that since day one, and I haven’t sold you up the river yet. But afterwards, if we’re both still standing, then what? Intending to yank me back in here and turn me over to a judge? Because that’s not giving me much incentive to wear your leash any more than Barker’s.”

“That’s what a parole means,” Garret said. “If your shooting of Doc Knuckles was justified, then it was justified, and if the man springs back to life like you say he’s gonna, even if it wasn’t justified, it ain’t a hanging offense, since he won’t be dead. Well, won’t be your bullet killed him, anyway. It ain’t even attempted murder, really, since you said from the outset you weren’t aiming to kill. For public fighting and disturbing the peace you’d get a day or two in the pokey which you’ve already done some of, and a ten buck fine.”

Derek lifted his unbroken arm, jaw tensing at the pain, and flicked his fingers at the new scar across his throat. “I’d call this justified,” he said grimly. He glanced into the other occupied cell, then back to Garret, looking much more thoughtful. “S’that mean that if Doc wakes up, you’re gonna charge him with attempted murder?”

“That’s a distinct possibility,” Garret said. “Problem is, it’s your word against his, so it’s all gonna come down to circumstantials. I mean, if he was trying to finish what he started when he pushed you off, that’d explain why when he did his ghosty trick and went into the snake, he put that new necklace on you.” He raised a hand and drew a line across his own neck, mirroring Derek’s newly healed throat slash. “And why he lied when he came out and said you weren’t in there. But even according to you he wasn’t in his right mind, if that manitou thing had hold of him. If I had to hang a man for attempting murder when he wasn’t in control of his faculties, I’d be right back around to you from when that skinjacket had you trying to kill me and Ben and Marcus.” He looked Derek steadily in the eye. “And that’s not my intention.”

The corner of Derek’s mouth twitched up in half a wry smile. “One minor flaw with that, Dep. I shucked the skin-jacket, and I’m still breathing. Doc’s dead, and he’s still wearing his Joker.”

“Yeah…” Garret sighed. “The Law’s a complicated thing when it comes to the Harrowed. But if good deeds count in a man’s favor, I can tell you Doc Knuckles did the right thing by us in the end, when we were facing down JA in that mine. It can’t excuse him attempting your murder, but I don’t think the man’s soul is all black any more than yours is. I’ve been turning a blind eye to more than a few shady dealings when it comes to you and him, and it doesn’t give me an easy conscience, but both of you have kept to the right side of the Law more than the wrong, so far as I’ve seen.”

Derek sighed and turned sideways on the bench, finally kicking his legs up and lying down. He shut his eyes for a moment, then opened them half-lidded again, watching Garret. “Question for you, Dep. If we’re going up against JA, who’s working for the interlopers, wouldn’t it suit his purposes to put a Harrowed man in the center of your group, and make him seem trustworthy?”

Garret nodded. “That’s about what I was thinking myself,” he said. “But the Doc isn’t doing much more than decomposing at the moment, even if he was walking around back in the mines. I’ll tell you straight, I don’t aim to let him out of that jail cell even if he does wake up before JA gets here. And I know Marcus will back me up on that one. He’s got a particular horror of the Harrowed.”

“Dead sister. I heard,” said Derek.

“Then you know.” Garret glanced towards the door, but there was no sign of Carter or Hezekiah yet. “Is there anything else I ought to know? I’ve been gone a day and a night, had to ride out to Dead End and fetch back the preacher’s wife who came in on a train and got held up when the stages stopped running. She’s JA’s own mother, and JA was asking after her in that mine, so I’m hoping she can turn aside his wrath when he comes back. He sounded like he was maybe afraid of what he was going to come back as. Like maybe some part of his departed soul doesn’t want to be in thrall to the interlopers.”

For a long moment there was silence, and Garret wondered if Derek had fallen asleep, but then he flicked his eyes over with a thoughtful, “Huh.” He chewed the corner of his lip, evidently deep in thought. “Well,” he said, “Momma issues might give you some leverage. But if he’s scared of manitous, I’d’ve expected them to eat him by now. They like fear.”

“You don’t eat the whole box of salt at once,” Garret said, considering that. “Maybe JA’s like seasoning. Cause he sure as shit scares me, and a whole lot of everyone else. If they’re sucking down fear, they get a lot more to feast on if they leverage it.”

“Huh,” Derek said again. He lifted his head and really focused on Garret. “You’re smarter than you look, Dep.”

Garret grinned. “Yep, and you thought you only liked me for my looks.”

Derek laughed almost silently, laying his head back down on the cot and wincing when the movement jarred his bandaged arms. “Thought that was the Navajo,” he said.

“Ben?” Garret hesitated, then uncapped his flask, took a short swig himself, and offered another mouthful to Derek. “He’s… got his own opinions on the matter.”

Derek turned his head away, lips closed, evidently not in so much pain he wanted any more anesthetic. Or maybe feeling so poorly he didn’t trust his stomach with more alcohol, given how pale he still was. But then he looked at Garret with that same I-can-see-right-through-you look Miss Rosie had given him when she’d brought up Ben Tsosie. “Like he’s got his own gods? Amazing you two get along at all.”

“We… Have plenty other things in common,” Garret said. “And like I said, I figure his gods are really Angels of the Lord or something like.”

“Or something,” Derek murmured. He closed his eyes, evidently done pursuing that line just short of actually inquiring about Garret’s particulars.

Garret straightened, gathered up the bandaging supplies and the basin of blood-fouled water. “Alright. I’ll go see what’s keeping the preacher. And have a word with Marcus.” He studied Derek for a moment, eying bandages and the weary cast of the man’s features. If this was all the good shape he was going to be in, there wasn’t much point in paroling him. But maybe if Kiah could help…

“Anyway,” he said through a yawn of his own, “I guess it’s perdition coming down on us one way or another. Got to hope the Lord God—whatever name he chooses to go by, is on our side when JA gets here. If you think of anything we can do to turn this coming battle to our favor, I’d be glad to hear it.”

Derek inhaled, then opened his eyes again. “Keep Barker’s pocket watch,” he said. “It’s… Actually, I have no idea what it is. But he said to open it and point it at JA if I got the chance, so I’m guessing it’s something JA won’t like much.”

“Barker’s pocket watch? The one in the safe that Seth took off you?”

“Gold star” Derek let his head fall back and closed his eyes again. “If Barker wanted it back, it probably still does something. You should take a look at it with the angel glasses.”

“I’ll do that.” Garret left the cell, taking the stool and basin with him. He hesitated for a moment, then relocked the door. “I’ll make sure you get some vittles and some laudanum, even if Hezekiah can’t heal you,” he said. He opened the safe and extracted a simple, heavy gold pocket watch, the only one inside. Either Doc Knuckles didn’t carry one, or Seth and the others hadn’t bothered to relieve him of his effects, perhaps on the grounds that he seemed unlikely to attempt either escape or suicide in his current condition.

He was just about to release the latch when Derek said sharply, “Don’t open it.”

Garret froze, looked harder at the closed watch, but could see nothing interesting about it. “All right,” he said. “Only open it if I can get close to JA? It’s not a bomb, is it? I don’t actually want to blow myself up to take him down if I don’t have to.”

“You miss the part where I said I didn’t know?” Derek’s eyes were still closed. “Point it at JA, don’t open it beforehand. That’s all I got told. Don’t put your face in front of it was mostly implied.”

“All right then,” Garret said. He turned the heavy watch over once, then put it carefully in his pocket. “Thank you, Derek.”

There was a long, long moment of silence. Garret turned to go. Then, like it was almost a question, Derek said quietly, “You’re welcome?”

Garret glanced back, smiled, and touched his hat with a nod. “I’ll be back in two shakes,” he said. Then he went to find the others.

View
Rashomon
After Dealing with JA in the Mines

The Rashomon Effect is the effect of the subjectivity of perception on recollection, by which observers of an event are able to produce substantially different but equally plausible accounts of it.

According to Doc Knuckles, after closing the gate from JA’s encroaching army, proving his trustworthiness and his command over the Interloper that Harrows him, Doc Knuckles was struck down without provocation and murdered in cold blood by Derek Lefeaux.

Though Doc Knuckles wasn’t conscious to witness it, Carter Burwell exacted retribution by shooting Lefeaux in both arms, after which he took both Doc Knuckle’s body and the injured Lefeaux in to town. Lefeaux claimed that the Doc had previously attempted cold murder upon him in the mines, and that since Doc Knuckles was Harrowed and not headshot, he would soon spring back to life. Since there was no proof of the truth or falsehood of that accusation, the Law decided to ensconce both Lefeaux and Doc Knuckles behind bars.

Doc Knuckles, dead in all seeming, lay locked in a jail cell. His companions somehow trusting in the words of Lefeaux, a known murderer and acknowledged servant of the devil, over the Doc’s own actions, words and noble deeds.

But according to Derek Lefeaux, who managed to cheat death yet again, things were a little different. He was pushed off the rope in the mines by Doc Knuckles, who was under the influence of the Interloper, then swallowed by a giant snake, where he lay until Doc Knuckles came upon him again, walking in ghostly form, and slit his thoat. My some miracle, even this did not end his life, and he was lately rescued from the belly of the serpent and the mines by Ben Tsosie. While riding back to town he encountered and successfully dealt a fair-deal revenge to Doc Knuckles. (He reckoned since Doc’s not actually dead, they’re square-ish). In return he got shot once in each arm for his troubles by Doc Knuckle’s best buddy, Carter Burwell.

Back in Alder Creek, Kiah refused to heal him, but helpfully called the law down on his head, leaving him to cool his heels and bleed all over a jail cell while Old Seth napped and Marcus went toe to toe with his employer Jonathan Barker.

And Barker just fired him for unknown reasons.

From Ben Tsosie’s perspective, he went into the mines at the behest of Barker, who insisted that Derek Lefeaux was still alive, and indeed found the man comatose but breathing in the bowels of the dead snake god, where Doc Knuckles had sworn he wasn’t. Lefeaux told him of Doc Knuckles’ treachery in pushing him off that rope and slitting his throat in the belly of the snake.

Ben healed up Lefeaux and brought him back into town, where they encountered Carter and Doc Knuckles, and the above-mentioned shootings took place. He then parted ways with the company and rode out into the hills to do a little restorative communing with nature, where he encountered Garret on his own way back into town with Miss Rosie and a Mrs. Adams. He gave Garret just enough of an account of what had gone on to send Garret in a hurry to the jail.

Meanwhile, Deputy Garret McEwan had been taking care of other business. The day previous he’d had a talk with town madam Miss Rosie about Sharlene, one of her girls. Miss Rosie cautioned Garret that Sharlene was no longer a working girl, but didn’t seem too terribly surprised when Garret said that wasn’t what he was after. He told her Hezekiah had informed him that Sharlene was in contact with Hezekiah’s estranged wife (JA’s mother), and Garret hoped to track down the whereabouts of Mrs. Adams, since that had been the one bit of leverage they’d seemed to have over JA in the mines.

Sharlene was amenable, and said Mrs. Adams was actually already on her way to Alder Creek. In the course of their conversation, Garret learned that Sharlene had once had a remarkable violin which had come from JA, tbut she’d sold it for a handsome sum to Derek Lefeaux. Since Sharlene was planning on leaving the whoring business and heading east with the nest egg she’d earned selling her JA fiddle, and Mrs. Adams was trapped one town east in Dead End with the stages not running, Garret volunteered to escort Sharlene and go fetch Mrs. Adams.

Miss Rosie decided to accompany them, ordering her own very fancy coach as their transport. Garret rode shotgun but managed some conversation with Miss Rosie when they rested the horses. It became painfully clear to Garret that Miss Rosie had his number as far as what was going on with Ben Tsosie, but she didn’t seem apt to use it against him (and after all he was a regular customer, even if he usually preferred a French to a tumble.)

They saw Sharlene off, retrieved Mrs. Adams and filled her in on the particulars, and then turned around and rode straight back. Mrs. Adams in return filled Garret in on why she’d left Alder Creek in the first place, saying Hezekiah had been prone to anger, and had flown into a temper and struck her, leaving her no choice. That didn’t sit too well with Garret, who promised her he’d see to it no man, not her husband nor any other, ever raised a hand to her as long as he was around.

On the way back into town they ran into Ben, who was heading outbound to do some meditating. He gave a slightly confusing account of what had happened with Lefeaux. After seeing to the Adams’s touching reunion, in which Hezekiah, who was cleaned up and shaved and in a suit to meet his beloved, begged her forgiveness for his past wrongdoings, Garret headed over to the jail, where he found Doc Knuckles corpse rotting in one jail cell, and Derek Lefeaux badly injured and untended in another. There he found Carter Burwell, Sheriff Marcus Hewitt, and fellow Deputies ‘Old Seth’ Harkness and Stevie Portridge, who caught Garret up on what had led to this particular situation, although it didn’t make a whole pile of sense.

Jonathan Barker, the man from the bank, came in and pretty much spat on his former employee, Lefeaux, whom he fired on the spot. After Barker left, Carter and the others told Garret that Barker was the agent of the Devil himself, and their ally in the fight against JA, even if he was a minion of Satan. There was some lengthy debate about what to do next, and Garret decided he needed to give the orders since no one else seemed to be doing it. He sent Marcus off to see about the blacksmith who was supposed to be destroying the JA items, including Sharlene’s fiddle, which Barker claimed to have rounded up and “dealt with.” He sent Carter to give a message to Marcus, and to fetch Hezekiah to tend to Derek’s wounds.

He was not happy to see a prisoner mistreated, and was generally unsure what’s going on, but knowing that JA is on his way back as the fourth horseman, figured they’ll need all the help they can get.

Sheriff Marcus Hewitt, meanwhile, left off outside having just completed a conversation with Barker. All his beliefs that Barker would unhesitatingly screw over the people of Alder Creek appeared to be valid, but of course there wasn’t really any option but to let Barker “attempt” to gather all the items. With only three days before JA’s return, there was just too much ground to cover without his help. His intention was to go check out the blacksmith, then go back into the jail and tend to whatever the hell was going on in there.

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October 7, 1879
Reaping What Was Sown

From the Diary of Garret John McEwan
October 7, 1879
Wildlands North of Scully, California. Weather grey.

Marcus is as near to dead as I’ve ever seen a man, and I honestly don’t know if there’s any way to save him. We were ambushed yesterday by Indians with guns as we followed the stage-robbers’ trail. The Indians spotted Ben was a healer and wanted to take him, I guess, but they damn near killed him first. They had a sniper picking us off like we were ducks on a frozen pond.

They shot Ben full in the face, knocking him to the ground. Marcus and myself were quick to return fire, while Lefeau rode up to aid Ben and was shot himself for his troubles, despite Marcus’ and my efforts. We were outflanked and outgunned, and could sorely have used Carter’s help.

One of the Indians unhorsed Marcus, then made a valiant attempt to ride him down. As they were shooting from a distance and up close, I took to the ground to present a smaller target, and was nearly trampled myself. I thank the Lord for quick reflexes that spared me an ugly death.

Ben used his Navajo arts to heal himself, though he seemed concussed even so.

Lefeau used conjured magic in our defense, tossing playing cards like they were knives or sticks of dynamite which burst into flames as they landed on the enemy. If not for the fact that Lefeau was aiding us, I might have had more qualms about the source of his power, for it was certainly not in the seeming a God-given thing. But it is said the enemy of my enemy is my friend, and judge not lest ye be judged.

Between Marcus’ and my guns, Ben’s arrows, and Lefeau’s conjuration, we were able to eliminate the threat near to hand, leaving only the sniper. Ben had taken additional injury, so I pulled him into the shallow gulch from which our tormentors had emerged, together with Marcus and Lefeau. We had cover there, but before we could formulate a plan, Marcus came out of the hole and remounted, taking off after the sniper like he was was still fighting with a full army and heavy artillery at his back.

I had no choice but to light out after him, admonishing Ben and Lefeau to remain low, but Marcus was well ahead of me and I lost sight of him when he went behind some rocks where the sniper was taking cover. Next I knew, Lefeau had ridden up with me, and the sniper was engaged in hand-to-hand with Marcus. Marcus took a knife deep to the gut and crumpled, groaning. I managed to get my last shot off into the Indian’s shoulder, but the bastard didn’t drop. He turned, screamed some challenge in Sioux, and loosed his shotgun direct into Marcus’ face.

It was like seeing the coming to fruition of the evil Marcus sewed the day before, allowing his prisoner to be executed while defenseless. Lefeau seemed to have no more of his conjuring cards, for he resorted to his derringer, which finally dropped the brave. But too late.

When all was done, the Indians lay dead, their ponies captured, and Marcus was barely recognizable, breathing his last. Ben rode up then and applied miraculous healing, sealing up the terrible wounds in Marcus’s face and body, but though my friend looked whole again, his eyes did not open.

Ben said the reason was the evil in the land, and our only recourse was to continue to the Valley of the Bones, to try to free the imprisoned Indian god and right the wrong that made it impossible for him to heal Marcus. I cannot countenance a god who is not God Jehovah of the Holy Bible, but I have seen enough in these latter days to convince me that there could well be an Angel of the Lord known to the Navajo as a god, imprisoned and suffering, bringing blight to the land.

We secured all and made to head on, when I caught the sound of horses approaching, so we hid ourselves once more in the crevice, fearing the Sioux who had attacked us may be from a larger party. Instead we saw a party of white men riding fast, who carried on without noticing our presence.

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October 5, 1879
Dishonorable Deeds

From the Diary of Garret John McEwan
October 5, 1879
In the Vicinity of Scully, California. Weather bright, with wind.

If I needed any further fuel for my suspicion of Mr. LeFeau, I got ample of it today. We rode out early on the trail of the man who sent the telegram, heading for the area known as Three Mesas. With a little effort, Ben and I were able to discern signs that a wounded man had passed this way on horseback. There were blood drops here and there, and bruised plants where plants existed.

Coming up on the Three Mesas themselves — aptly named, they stand like pillars in a tight cluster with nothing much around them — we found a spot perfect for an ambush, and indeed it looked to have been used as such. Based on what Doc Knuckles said about his travels to Scully, it was clear this was the place he had his near-fatal encounter with the outlaws who stole his horse and gear.

The main part of the trail continued past that point, but the blood-trail we were following split off to the right, going around the side of the mesas. Ben uttered some words in Navajo and did something with his hands, and suddenly where he had stood a red-tailed hawk fluttered. He soared up, then came back, assuming his natural form and reported that there was nobody in sight, but there was a cave, the entrance of which was on the right-hand mesa towards the center of the circle made by the three.

Since the mesas together comprised a small enough area, we split up, leaving our horses ground-tethered and out of sight. Marcus and Ben took the path to the left, going behind the farthest mesa, and Carter and LeFeau went right, while I pressed my back against the nearest of the three.

I was for a cautious approach, but LeFeau went straight for the cave, with Carter close behind. Carter gave out a shout, drawing Marcus, Ben and myself in. There we found our quarry, a pale-faced and unkempt man, and a prodigious smell of blood and putrefaction. The man was gut-shot, sweating and groaning, and begged for our help.

It took much persuading to get the story of what had happened to the stage out of him, for he spun several tales before he finally relented and gave up the truth. LeFeau leant upon the man’s injuries, a cruelty, but I supposed a necessary one, since the outlaw was otherwise not inclined to veracity. What we learned was that those hired to guard the stage had conspired instead to rob it, and he had been one of them.

Since there was a threat his allies might come back, I went to stand guard at the cave mouth. The rest I heard, but did not see.

Once the deed was done, he said, they had planned to take the gold to Boonesville, which they believed to be a ghost town. When they learned it was inhabited, the leader of the outlaws decided instead to take the treasure to a place known as the Valley of the Bones. Ben seemed to know this place, for he made a sound of horror at its name.

The injured man said he tried then to back out of the pact, fearing his lawless comrades less than the Valley of the Bones, a cursed place where none who enter may take anything but their naked selves out again. His fellows turned on him and shot him, but he managed to flee before they could finish him off.

He could give no clear accounting for why he had sent the telegram, nor why he had fled to the Three Mesas cave, and he allowed, when questioned, that though he had not participated in the killing of the stage drivers, he had intended to before the plan to enter the Valley of the Bones was concocted. He begged Ben again to heal him, and I believe Ben was going to do so, when the report of a small pistol rang out.

I spun around to find LeFeau holding a smoking derringer, the prisoner’s brains splattered behind him. Marcus stood mute, but he had his shooter in hand as well, and wasn’t aiming it at the man who’d just committed cold murder. It took me more time than I would like to admit to even adjust my mind to what I was seeing, but when I had, I pressed Marcus hard for an explanation. The first words out of his mouth chilled me to the core: if LeFeau hadn’t put the prisoner out of his misery, Marcus had been prepared to do it himself.

If you’d asked me beforehand, I’d have never in a thousand years told you that I would find myself explaining to my friend, the Sheriff of Alder Creek, that we were the Law, and it was our job to bring the criminal to Justice and see him hanged if the judging fell that way, or lock him up, or, if the will of the judiciary be so, set him free. To take the power of judging into our own hands was the worst kind of vigilantism, and to shoot an incapacitated prisoner in cold blood…

I’d seen the Yankees do it, and I’m sure a Reb or two went down that dishonorable path in the exigencies of war, but it is not our place or our way.

Marcus, to his credit, rode up to me later, as we headed back to town, and confessed to the burden of guilt he carried as a result of his act. He’d lost his head when his blood was up, thinking about the stage-robber’s treachery. Ben told us the land out this way was cursed, with spiritual emanations rising up to turn a man’s heart cold, so maybe that explains Marcus’s actions. But it doesn’t excuse them.

It’s a hard day when the Deputy has to contemplate arresting the Sheriff, but in the end, I decided against it. LeFeau is another matter, but as I wasn’t eyewitness to the shooting, and Marcus seemed more than disinclined to press the matter, I suppose the Foreign-born Easterner will get away with murder this day, carried out right under the Sheriff’s nose.

In truth, I found myself in the peculiar position of lying to the undertaker when I went to find decent burial for the criminal. The man demanded seventy-five dollars, which I have not even a half of to my name, and wanted to know how the man had died. Some strange trick of unearned loyalty had me holding back my opinion of LeFeau’s culpability and telling him the criminal had died while fleeing the law—a half-truth the undertaker saw straight through, though he could not guess the reality.

In the end, it took Marcus’ persuasion to get the dead man a Christian burial, and I slept that night with a feeling I was as guilty as my fellows. I wasn’t the only one who took the turn of events amiss, for in the morning, we woke to find a note from Carter: He couldn’t hold with such contemptible men as would summarily execute an untried prisoner, and had left before dawn to return to Alder Creek.

I can’t say that I blame him.

Addendum to October 5, 1879

I forgot to mention the other queer finding we made at the Three Mesas. While I was standing watch, I spied at the peak of one of the mesas, a glint of something metal. Ben, in his hawk form, flew up to investigate, and returned with a compass needle. When I balanced it on my knife, it spun, but pointed more to the North East than true North. It seemed to have been placed on that Mesa for some purpose, but none that I could divine. I wrapped it in a bit of doeskin and tucked it into my kit, and intend to get a good compass at the store tomorrow, to affix this unusual needle into. It’s a curiosity.

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October 6th 1879
Why not to hassle Indians, and other such desert lessons.

“You should try less negativity.” – Ben Tsosie, October 6th 1879

As trail-companions went, Navajo Ben was mildly annoying and mostly useful, which ranked him head and shoulders above his twitchy trail-scout deputy and the drunken, snarl-brained sheriff, and put a severe crimp in Derek’s day when the man got himself shot in the face.

Five Indians—six, with the sniper—weren’t a lot, but they beat out two ex-army couyons, one Louisiana card sharp, and one stunned Navajo by a wide margin, and Derek was having some real annoyance that Carter Burwell had taken to his heels, because they could’ve used a sharp-shooter right about now.

Bastard, soft-bellied kid.

Garret unloosed his gun and Marcus took the brunt of the Indian leader’s attention, making themselves good targets to focus on, while Derek goaded Baron right up to the milling Indians and flung himself down off the horse. Ben was bleeding out into the desert dust, half his face slick with red, eyes wide and shocked. Derek didn’t have a whole lot of healing magic, but he had enough to grant a little vigour—a shot of adrenaline charged in a jack of hearts and whacked down onto Ben’s heaving chest.

Ben arched, gasping a deeper breath, and—

Mercifully didn’t die. He steadied. Stood. Glared clear-eyed at the Sioux who’d almost blasted his brains across the landscape, and wiped a hand across his forehead. Wounds melted closed behind the touch, like his skin was made of soft candle wax. Derek saw at least one of the Sioux braves swallow hard.

Then the leader flung himself onto Marcus’s horse, knocking the sheriff to the dirt, and tried to ride him down, and things got a mite confusing for a while. Garret dropped at least one brave with his .44; Derek took the head off a second with two thrown cards and another burst of magic; Ben cut an arrow through the third’s throat.

Pain seared, bright and stunning, as Derek caught an unlucky bullet just beside his naval; it knocked the wind out of him, and ruined both his shirt and his mood. Ben took a second hit, dropping to one knee as blood sprayed dark over the sand.

Garret was on the ground, having smartly unhorsed himself to present a smaller target. He dodged the pounding hooves of a brave’s horse, rolled to his feet, grabbed Ben by the arm and yanked them both down into the crevice, yelling at the Navajo to stay put and keep his head low. Marcus dropped the leader off his stolen horse with a neat shotgun blast. The final brave went down in a welter of magic and bullets.

Which left one sniper hidden somewhere among the rocks, popping rifle shots at them.

And Marcus got stupid.

Well, stupider.

“I’ve got this,” he said, with a fleeting, bruised grin, and swung his shotgun over his shoulder. Remounted and pointed his horse right at the sniper’s nest, kicking the bay into a gallop.

Garret swore and flung himself back out of the hole, leaping astride his own mount, and charged after the sheriff. Derek raised his eyes briefly to heaven and took a hitching breath, pressing a hand over the gut-wound spilling warmth down his right side.

“Get out of the hole,” he told Ben, teeth gritted. “They’re gonna need our help.”

He didn’t stick around to see whether the injured Navajo listened or not. He flung two more cards, jack and ten of spades, at the sniper—but it was a long shot, and neither connected. Baron danced under him as he swung back up into saddle and whipped the unsettled warmblood into a gallop behind Garret. Marcus unloaded both barrels of his shotgun and took return fire in the chest, losing his hat but staying horsed.

Then he jumped down.

Derek didn’t see the full picture of what happened next; the sniper’s sheltering rock blocked his view, and a galloping horse didn’t make the most stable platform to observe from. But he saw Marcus heft his shotgun, flipping it in his hands like he intended to use the stock as a club—

And then Marcus was staggering back, reeling away from the rock, pouring bright new blood all down the front of his dusty blue shirt. His legs folded beneath him, dropping him down bonelessly in the dirt, and Garret screamed. Cursed with frothing, murderous rage and reined his horse in, cracking off a shot that clipped the brave in his shoulder, but didn’t drop him. Derek flung another two cards, wasting his last breath of magic on a hit that went wide.

Coolly ignoring them, the Indian stepped forward and shot Marcus in the head.

In the frozen, breathless moment, Derek saw Marcus’s hand flex once, then still. Blood splattered the dirt in an uneven halo.

The Indian flung his arms back, crucified wide, and screamed a savage war cry. Challenged them both while Marcus lay unmoving at his feet, like a felled deer.

Garret’s next sound was inhuman, like something dragged up from the hot place far below, but his gun was empty. Derek was out of magic, energy, and patience—but he was closer, and he still had his gun. He unpocketed the derringer and unloaded a shot into the Indian’s chest, dropping the bastard in the dirt. Which left Marcus bleeding dry, Garret cursing a blue streak, and Derek’s fondness for California deserts reduced by a severe fucking lot.

He pretty much fell off his horse, catching his breath as pain snarled through his gut, and dropped down by the fallen sheriff. The damage was far beyond his skills, and he had no magic left; he clamped his hands over the worst-bleeding wounds, pressing down onto cloth that squished underneath his fingers. Ben rode up a half-minute later and knelt down with him, weaving fast-handed magic. In minutes, the bleeding slowed to a trickle, then stopped. Some of the wounds knitted closed. Marcus didn’t wake.

Behind him, Garret hissed a startled breath between his teeth.

Derek staggered to his feet, blood-slick to the wrists, bracing himself for whatever was about to bite them where it hurt.

And saw the riders in the distance. They were closing fast, horses kicking up dust. There was no time to do anything but bolt.

Garret loaded Marcus up onto horseback, sweeping Marcus’s dropped shotgun up in the next movement, and vaulted onto his own appaloosa stallion, dragging up Marcus’s hanging reins. Ben leapt astride his own painted mare. Derek staggered back up onto Baron, thankful the dappled grey had calmed a little. They fled back to the crevice the Indians had first slithered out of, not ten minutes previous, dismounting and dragging the horses down out of the view.

For the first time, luck was on their side. The second group passed by without stopping.

Derek took four rattling, cold-thumping heartbeats to press his forehead against Baron’s sweat-slick shoulder, inhaling the steadying scent of hard-working horse, then turned to look at the gasping party. Ben was healing himself, breath coming hard, still red-slick from temple to jaw. Garret was reloading his gun, attention split twitchily between the fading sound of hoofbeats and Marcus.

Derek looked down.

The sheriff was a tall man, built broad and heavy-boned, but laid flat on his back and blanched pale, drenched in blood, he looked just like any man who was too damn stupid to know the difference between brave and reckless.

Dying, in a nutshell.

Which cut their party down by another one, out in the middle of a desert with voodoo in the sand, strange visions at night, and Indians that carried guns. Surrounded by dead men who’d likely get back up and want to start chewing on them soon.

Derek started violently when Ben laid hands on him, almost reaching for his knife, then stilled when he realized what the Indian was about. Stinging warmth flooded through his belly as the bullet slid free, dropping to the black volcanic rock with a dull clink, and his flesh sealed back together. The feeling was wholly unsettling; Derek swallowed queasiness.

Ben pulled back, giving him a look that was no more friendly than the glare he’d given Derek when he’d explained that he needed to go out into the desert to make it right. But at least Derek could stand without pain knotting him in half.

The adrenaline was likely going to take a little longer to wear off.

He gave Ben a dry look. “Still think I’m being too negative?”

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October 5th, 1879
Dream Bud 1

The floor tilted beneath Marcus’ feet as he made his way towards his bed, miniature dust clouds kicked up from the unswept floorboards as he passed. Putting his hand out to steady himself from falling over, he unceremoniously collapsed into the comforting softness of his mattress. Drunkenly, eye-sight roaming about the room like a storm-tossed ship, Marcus kicked off his boots before closing his eyes and letting his sodden brain drift off to sleep.

Sounds within the small house faded away, the perpetual rocking of the bed easing to stillness. Marcus slowly opened his eyes, his mind sharpening as the moments passed. Around him the moonlight shrouded buildings of Alder Creek stood, eclipsing the abyssal darkness of the surrounding desert plains. Silence roamed the still streets. Easing himself off of the porch bench, Marcus walked down the faded pathway towards the town proper. Sitting lonely in the distance, the white church smoldered with a feeling of rightness. Crowning the steeple, the iron cross glowed with a smoldering yellow-white light, wreathing the crest in a darkness penetrating yellow haze.

A flapping from overhead drew his attention away from the warm enticement of the church grounds. Following the sound brought his gaze resting upon road leading to the center of town in the distance. Marcus shuffled along, the eerie otherness of this place fully wrapping itself about him, holding him tight in invisible bonds. The buildings shifted in height as he moved amongst them, growing taller as he passed by them until the road behind was obfuscated in shadows. Ahead the creek running thru town could be heard playing its babbling melody. Just past the bridge, the four corner posts of the town square stood rigidly guarding their corners. In the center of the square existed a barren tree, small in stature, branches empty of life. The tree floated above the ground on an orb of earth, the roots hanging exposed from the nourishing soil. A silver sheen outlined the tangled branches.

Standing before the tree in wonderment, eyes taking in the etherealness before him, a sense of familiarity trembled in the core of his being, stomach fluttering with nervousness. The tree…here? Impossible! Mind reeling from the strangeness of it all, Marcus looked around at the still buildings that towered monolithically around him, before turning back to take in the image of the tree from back in Decatur, Georgia. As he adjusted to the truth that stood before him, the moon shifted its’ gaze fully upon the square and a figure that had sat beside the tree in darkness stood and moved forward into the shimmering light.

“Fear not, dear brother,” came the soft voice of Marietta. The slender form of Marcus’ sister moved closer, her long black hair perfectly framing her face. She was wearing the same dress he had last seen her in, as nicely kempt as always. Her presence assuaged his fears and quieted his discomfort, whilst bringing on a much different, stronger, rush of feelings. Marcus moved quickly to her, wrapping her up in a great hug.

“But how is this? How can you be here with me?” The emotion in his voice contrasted starkly with the bearish figure whispering before her.

“I’ve always been here silly. I never left. One would expect, though, that you’d think on me more than dote on a silly gun.” She pointed to the east, her finger tracing an invisible path across the unseen distance towards a far away spot where a shining beam of silver light streaked into the heavens.

“I left you behind. I lost you. I’m sorry.”

Gently she placed her hands on his upper arms, staring up into his downcast eyes. The weight of his decisions could be seen crushing down the fiery spirit that burned within. “It’s okay. It’s not your fault.”

He looked at her, “But Chester…Ma…”

She shook her head. “That’s none of your doing. We’re here to talk about what is.”

Guiltily Marcus looked into the serene visage of his sister. “You mean the man up north. The one I killed.”

“Marcus Hewitt! You best not be talking to me like that. You know better.”

“Well, I done killed him! I sure as hell wanted to and I didn’t move to stop that man from the bank. That Derrick fella. We could have saved him. We could have brought him back to town. All I saw was the evil lurking inside, though. The Manitou lurking, watching and waiting…”

Moving away, Marcus turned, looking out from the tree. As his vision roamed it came to rest on the wooden eyes of Garrett staring at him from a lifelike wooden carving embossed mystically on the corner post standing firmly at one corner of the town square. Marcus looked quickly around the town finding a familiar face on each of the other three surrounding him, judging him. Doc Knuckles, Carter Burwell, Hezekiah. All staring, eyes following his every movement.

“You see! They know the truth!” he shouted. “They know I could have saved him…should have saved him.”

A hand once again reached out comfortingly, pressing against the back of his shoulder. “You’re only human. We all make mistakes. It’s how we face those mistakes. You’ve the aura of a protector about you, brother. You stupidly charge into situations that no sane man would warrant to even think on. It’s the guilt of going against your nature that’s tearing you up inside.”

The hand left him and the voice moved away. “You can’t keep running, you know.” Marcus quickly turned around, watching as his sister walked back towards the tree. “I can’t rightly forgive yet either,” he shouted at her.

Stopping before the tree, she stood quietly peering at the lifelessness of it. “I know.”

Marcus watched as she stood there unmoving, a million thoughts screamed across his brain at that one moment in time, a single wish trying to will itself into being. “I can follow my nature, though.”

Glancing over her shoulder, Marietta smiled at Marcus lovingly. “That’s enough for now.” Reaching out, she placed her hand on the base of the tree and disappeared. The silver sheen brightened along the edge of a barren branch, pulsing outward towards the empty tip before slowly fading away, leaving only behind a newly formed, unopened bud.

Marcus felt the weight on his shoulders slowly slip away, and as the darkness crept inward towards the square enveloping all that remained, the image of that one simple bud retreated with him back to the comfort of his bed and the slumber of the peaceful.

“Marcus! Get on out here ya lazy bum!” roared the noisome voice of Garrett. “We ain’t got all day!”

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October 4, 1879
Creepy Crawly

From the Diary of Garret John McEwan
October 4, 1879
In the Vicinity of Scully, California. Weather continued fair but turning to chill.

[The following entry is written in a CSA military code Garret once used to pass scouting messages. Translatable by anyone with the knowledge of that particular cipher, but not readable at a glance.]

If I never in my natural life see another tarantula it will be too soon. We bedded down for the night at the inn above Scully’s main saloon, myself and Marcus taking one room, and leaving the other to Mr. LeFeau and Carter. Ben betook himself to sleep in the scrub outside town as he usually does. Marcus being a snorer, and myself not being ready to retire, I went to ease my boredom with Ben under the stars for a bit.

We passed the time in our usual manner, and then made to sleep, as it was a nice night and I saw no need to disturb Marcus by returning to the saloon. We had shut our eyes when Ben suddenly lit up, alarmed, for something was creeping on his leg. Before he had reckoned what it was, a spider nearly a hand-span big sank its poisonous fangs into Ben’s flesh, which pained him greatly and made him writhe and twitch. My first effort to knock it loose were useless, but after a scuffle I managed to dash it away into the recesses of Ben’s tent.

I pulled him free of the tent so the vermin could not reattach, but in the cold air a dreadful sensation took us both, as hundreds of the spider’s deadly offspring swarmed over our skins. Before I could protest, Ben took hold of me like I was no more than a sack of wheat and slung me over his shoulder. He then raced into town with a speed to rival a steam engine. It took my breath clean away, but it also freed us of the pestilence , as the spiderlets were flung off us by the rushing of the wind from his running.

He didn’t stop until we were through the saloon doors, this being a bit of a consternation, for in plain fact neither Ben nor myself had on one stitch of clothing between us. My boots, my gun, my knives, and all my garments, and Ben’s as well, were still within his tent, and likely spider-riddled.

There seemed to be some dust up in progress at the saloon, which our untimely arrival interrupted, possibly to the benefit of the peace of the town of Scully. Carter and Mr. LeFeau were standing either side of the saloon doors, and there was a man inside bleeding from a shot arm, and another several showing fresh blood and bruises where fists and smellers had collided.

The saloon’s denizens took a long look at Ben and myself, and turned back to happier pursuits. Carter, too, seemed to take no more than casual notice of our state. He asked what was the reason for our haste and undress, but seemed satisfied when I said we’d shed our things in an effort to rid ourselves of the spiders.

LeFeau, however, is another matter. He gave me a shrewd look, remarked we seemed unusually sweaty from such little exercise, and made some comment about a mark he could see where Ben’s hand had been upon my hip. I returned his interest with as cold and threatening a stare as I could muster under the circumstances, and he let it drop, but my unease with the man, which was already considerable, has jumped a hundred fold.

We beat haste up to Marcus’s room, and Marcus, bless him, seemed to take it as nothing out of the ordinary that Ben and I were naked as the day we were born. He was far more interested in returning to sleep than in probing the reasons for our undress. We both slept the rest of the night in his room, and went out at dawn to retrieve our things.

The spiders were gone, leaving no trace.

View
October 3, 1879
Stage robbed!

From the Diary of Garret John McEwan
October 3, 1879
In the Vicinity of Scully, California. Weather cooler.

In the midst of settling the matter of the displaced Coloreds from the encampment, Marcus received a telegram from Scully saying the stagecoach, with gold bound for Alder Creek’s bank, had been robbed.

A Mr. LeFeau, private security man for the bank, had arrived that very morning to confer with Mr. Jonathan Barker, the Boston banker from Fiduciary Holdings and Trust, and so we found ourselves pressed to find the missing stage and stolen gold. We tried to wire back to Scully for further details, but Leonard Bolton, who runs the telegraph in addition to being unelected Mayor, said the lines had just gone down, probably cut by Indians.

Having no decent alternatives, Marcus, myself, Ben, Carter, and Mr. LeFeau set out for Scully ourselves to see if we could find more insight into this matter.

Mr. LeFeau gives me an uncomfortable feeling. He has a hybrid accent—half Cajun, half English—and dresses like a big city undertaker. He sits a horse like one, too, and I am sure his backside was red by the time we arrived in Scully. There is something shifty about his eyes, and he carries himself like a man accustomed to getting his own way. I can’t see a weapon on him, which strikes me as odd for a security man. I have to presume if the bank hired him to protect their gold, they knew what they were doing, but I can’t say the man puts me at my ease.

We are bedding for the night here, with the intention of picking up the trail of the man who sent the telegram on first light, for there are inconsistencies in the story we have unearthed so far, not least of which being that the man who gave the report was treated for gunshot but claims the stage was robbed by Indians, a patent falsehood unless they were apostate Indians. Even Ben, who is only half blood, will use no firearms.

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October 2, 1879
Night Foxes

From the Diary of Garret John McEwan
October 2, 1879
In the Vicinity of Alder Creek, California. Weather fair and dry, high clouds.

Marcus has made two more deputies. Old Seth, an Alder Creek man, was made deputy principally for the fact that his hindquarters never leave the chair in the Jailhouse. It’s either the most brilliant or the stupidest move the Law has ever made, but my heart says Seth’s loyal to the right principles and will uphold the peace in Alder Creek if it needs upholding.

We’ve also deputized Mrs. Stevie Portridge, a Negro woman, married to a white man by the name of Jeb Portridge, who was living in a shanty town up-creek. She’s a shootist of much repute, to hear young Carter Burwell tell it. He came into town to apprentice himself to her, and she’s clearly a force to be reckoned with.

Mr. Portridge is dying of the Consumption, and Carter convinced Mrs. Portridge to bring the poor fellow in to see if Kiah could lay hands on and cure him, but Kiah says the Lord’s will has put Mr. Portridge’s redemption beyond the reach of prayer. He is in the mean while installed in the Parsonage, with his wife nearby and a girl from the encampment to serve as nursemaid, whereby he can be well looked after as he contemplates his final days.

Leonard Bolton, our putative Mayor of Alder Creek, voiced his concern that the Coloreds not be allowed into town, owing, he said, to their contagion. His and some other commentary we heard put Marcus and myself both in mind of some of the old breed of folk who still consider the Negro and the Indian to be more animal than human, but this is a Modern Age, and Jefferson Davis himself freed the slaves almost fifteen years ago, so if that is what this town is about, then Alder Creek is in dire need of a change of heart.

Marcus and I took a delegation up to see what the shanty town was about, and whether there was indeed rampant Consumption amongst them. We found a population of Coloreds living in poverty, some few sick indeed with Consumption and other ails, but many well. While we were there, the camp was attacked in the night by what we first took for common hooligans. In fact the perpetrators were the ‘Night Foxes’ of the story we heard at the Henharp Ranch, and though it looked like a common lynching at first, what we saw that night was pure Devilry.

They shot at us even after we identified ourselves as the Law, and they set the entire encampment ablaze. Several of the Negroes were killed, and others gravely wounded. We returned fire and felled some of the attackers, but one rose in the air on his mount, and when we had nearly brought him down with gunfire, the rider opened a pit into the sulfurous deeps and descended where we could not give chase.

The horse fell to earth, and it was indeed a corrupted creature, with wings like a bat’s sprouting from its withers. It died of a broken neck from its fall, though would have likely died of the gunshots in it if it had survived the plummet. When we burned its corpse, it gave a stench fouler than the most putrid of rotting dead.

Marcus and I, as Agents of the Law, moved the refugees in haste into the abandoned hotel in Alder Creek, taking it by Right of Eminent Domain to secure the public welfare. The dead were buried in the church yard to prevent their corpses from walking again. Only the Coloreds free from illness shall engage in commerce in town, and the sick among them shall remain confined to the hotel, with Deputy Portridge to safeguard the agreement, this to satisfy the townsfolk and keep the peace.

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