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Adventure Western Fiction

Aiken rose with the dawn, blinking at the whitish remains of his campfire. The sun was a half-lidded red eye observing a parched and ghostly world. Aiken turned his head and blew a gob of snot out of his nose. He was filthy and foul, a creature of hard times. Soot and grime besmirched his gray uniform, which likewise besmirched his soul. He’d been unable to shed it but planned on getting a new outfit at the first opportunity. With a croaking yawn, he sat up straight, like Lazarus emerging from some hole in the ground.

The sky was purpled-over and still aflame with stars but a spreading band of violet tinged with pink slowly overtook the remains of night. Aiken stuck his stockinged feet in his creaky leather boots and pulled on each one as if it were a shackle. His only thoughts were of breakfast. With groans and curses, he poured himself a cup of cold coffee and ate a few crusts of dried bread. Trees and hills and the country in general slowly filled in around him.

His mule watched from the softening shadows. The animal was little more than a walking skeleton. Aiken would have to water it and let it graze, but slowing down was no option. He knew the bastards were hard on his heels. They would run him to ground, likely today.

He kicked dirt over his fire pit and tossed branches and leaves over it and crouched behind a rock to skylight for sign. There would be five men on horseback. He’d seen them from a distance, all riding at a measured pace, spread out, relentless. Killers, every one. They would not drag Aiken back to Fort Smith. No, they would find a tall oak or gum tree from which to hang him. The mule they would butcher for their supper. Aiken gnawed his bottom lip, eyes watchful.

Nothing.

Satisfied, he packed his small kit and struck camp. As he carried few belongings, the mule had little to carry other than Aiken. Fugitives carry few supplies, he thought, with a wry grin. Then his face turned grim again. Fugitives – deserters – also faced a death sentence.

They struck out west, riding deep into the wilderness. A thin, chalky trail ran ahead of them, the ghostly remnant of some previous expedition or lone traveler, and the mule picked its way along, surefooted and calm. Aiken liked his mule. He missed the fine horse he’d been assigned in the infantry, but so far as he knew, you couldn’t raise a horse from the dead. He had always had a way with animals, felt a connection to them. If his horse hadn’t gotten shot out from under him at Pea Ridge, he would have taken it with him. Given the circumstances, he was lucky to have gotten out with the mule.

He rode at a leisurely pace, about as fast as his mule could travel, his mind wandering. He thought about the fierce battle at Elkhorn Tavern, nearly a week ago now. The Union had driven them back with relentless artillery fire, far superior to Van Doren’s. For three days, Aiken had hunkered in the rain, inside a hole he’d scraped out using a camp spade and his own hands, listening to the shells thump and shriek overhead. Whole trees blasted apart. Nonstop debris. He’d tried escaping but the horse was cut down by fire, pitching him face-forward into a tree trunk. So far as he knew, he’d spent a whole day unconscious.

When he came to, he knew the Confederacy was a lost cause. He could see it in his mind’s eye, feel it in his heart. He’d been a fool. Pea Ridge would crumble, and the Yanks would control the Missouri border. Aiken was prepared to bet everything on it. And then what? Why, he’d be taken prisoner, jailed, beaten to within an inch of his life.

He’d scurried from tree to tree, post to post, tasting blood in his mouth, his brains half-scrambled. Shrapnel pierced the air, sometimes right in front of his face. Aiken ran, using anything to hide his flight, hiding beneath slain comrades, digging fresh holes, dodging his fellow Rebs. He wanted out. He wanted to get clear. Driven by a vision he could neither shake nor explain, he ran for his life, abandoning all he had ever known or loved.

The two days that followed were a blur of terror, panic, confusion. He got lost and staggered back into his own camp. When he heard that Macintosh and McCullough were dead, he knew he had it right. He stole a mule from a farmstead and, under cover of night, headed for the territories.

The penalty for desertion was death. He knew the posse was on him. Someone must have spotted him, raised the alarm. His pursuers were expert trackers, had to be. They would not stop until they’d extracted the Confederacy’s pound of flesh. Yet he had no intention of turning back and did not regret his decision. Such a fear of the future had nested in his brain that death almost seemed a relief. Would he ever escape the stigma of fighting for the Army of the West? Would anyone forgive him?

He dozed lightly in his threadbare saddle, half-listening for clues. Birds maintained a steady chorus from the canopies of elm and black walnut; a chatty wind pushed stringy clouds around a cobalt sky. There was no trace of human activity, not a fence post or line of smoke. They ambled along, drifters in a gray landscape.

Out of nowhere, a low, throaty grumble sounded. Aiken snapped awake, his hand going for his Army-issued Colt .45. The mule rose up suddenly beneath him and he lost his grip, pitching backward. He saw a flash of tan and gray, and the mule screamed. Aiken tumbled through space and hit the ground on his shoulder. The air burst from his lungs in a poof.He rolled, getting tangled in his overcoat. Warm fluid splashed his face, and he saw the lion take down his mule, claws flashing.

“Goddamn!” he cried, drawing his .45, thumbing back the hammer. The mule died before his eyes, screaming, eyes rolling white. Aiken took aim at the muscular creature that had his pack animal in a death grip.

He fired a shot into the fray and heard the cat shriek in agony. It flailed in a dust cloud, tail thrashing. He saw a blood-red maw and two hateful, alien eyes. The mule kicked its last, its neck cruelly slashed. Aiken heard the low grumble again and fired a second round. The ball knocked the lion off its legs. After a few moments, nothing else stirred.

Aiken released a slow, pent-up breath. He doubted he was hurt, though his ears rang from the pistol shots. He stood motionless, watching the cat, its massive form slumped across his mule’s hindquarters. With another tired, mournful sigh, he holstered his pistol and set about retrieving his gear.

By nightfall he had reached a clearing from which he observed a large, walled encampment. Aiken crouched low in the brush, his clothes in tatters, his boots all but heelless after his march across the prairie. The country had opened up, flattened out. The massive wall before him loomed like an ancient thing from another part of the world.

Hewn from timber and assembled with expert care, the barrier reared skyward, dark and knobby. Aiken could see where limbs had been hacked off, leaving whitish spots on the timbers. With an abundance of caution, he skirted to the north, careful not to make a sound. He saw no guards, no signs of activity. A familiar rotten stench permeated the air.

At last, he found a gated opening on the west side of the structure. He peered in at the little village inside. A few large shacks, a barn. Bodies, ravaged by carrion and coyotes, littered the ground. 

Aiken set down his gear, drew his pistol and advanced. They might have supplies, something he could use. He entered the compound, squinting in the fading light. The stench of blood crawled up in his nose and sat there.

After a while, he saw an old man standing on the front porch of the largest shack. The old man held a rifle on him. Aiken holstered his gun and raised his arms in supplication. He cleared his throat.

“What happened here?”

The old man gestured with the rifle. “You leave out, now. You get on out. There’s the road.”

Aiken glanced over his shoulder. “Don’t see no road. What happened here? You got any water?”

“You light on out.”

“I need water. Food.”

“Got nothing.”

“What happened here?”

“Indians.”

“Indians? What Indians?”

The old man worked his jaw quietly. Aiken realized he was missing an ear. “Tonkawas.”

Aiken nodded, glancing around. “Who are you people? What is this place?”

“You get on out.”

“I ain’t leavin’ without supplies. You got food?”

The old man gestured again, his face tightening. “What are you doing here?”

“I was set upon by a mountain lion. I see a well over yonder. Might I get a drink?”

No answer for several moments. Then the old man gestured again. “Help y’sef.”

Aiken took his hat off and ladled water into his mouth. It tasted brackish. When he was done he dropped the ladle and wiped his mouth on his sleeve.

“How long y’all been out here?”

The old man held the rifle waist-high. “One year.”

“What made the Tonks come after ye?”

The old man shrugged. “Misunderstanding.”

Aiken nodded, staring at a young white woman who’d been stabbed in a dozen places and scalped. A fetus protruded part way out of her belly, the cord wrapped around its faceless head. The dirt was black with dried blood.

“You the only one left? Sole survivor?”

The old man gave a small, sad nod. “Where do you come from?”

“Back east.”

“What uniform is that?”

Aiken felt himself redden. “Oh, it’s one I got off of a dead feller. It ain’t mine.”

“It ain’t?”

“Nope. Don’t fight for no sides. No future in it.”

Aiken looked slowly around the compound, thinking there was no future here, either. “How come ‘em to kill all y’all? I count a dozen dead.”

The old man shrugged again. “Seemed to be a language problem.”

Aiken smiled grimly. “How large a party?”

“Large enough.”

“They take hostages?”

“Three, including my daughter.”

Aiken nodded. “Sounds to me like Comanche. Maybe Apache.”

The old man stared solemnly. “Tonkawas.”

“Where’s their camp?”

A brief nod. “West of here. Two days.”

“Nobody left to ride out and bargain for your daughter?”

A slow shake of the head. “No one.”

Aiken fell silent a while. “You got a change of clothes I could maybe have?”

***  

He rode at dawn, a solitary traveler on a thin and skittish horse. Aiken pointed the creature up a narrow path into rock-strewn high country. Above the tree line he could look back down into the valley that held the little settlement, its walls unable to hold back death. Then he rode on.

The old man had provided him clothes (blood-stained and smelly) and a few extra pistol rounds. Aiken had taken the boots off a dead man; they squeaked now on his feet, a bit too tight, but acceptable. The soles were decent, anyway. He still wore the same hat. The .45 rounds clumped together in his coat pocket. The sun came up, and the day grew warm.

He had decided to try and negotiate for the girl’s life. The old man called her Olivia. She was 18. The Tonks doubtless had already violated her, but there was a chance she could still be saved. She might come back with a child in her belly, but anything was better than a life of torment in a strange land.

He followed the path for most of the day, pausing only to water and feed his horse. The sun was a glass eye through which the hostilities of the universe flowed like eternal fire. Shadows of horse and man stretched out. He caught himself humming songs he’d learned in army camp.

Toward dusk, he pitched up beneath a willow tree on the bank of a lazy river. In another day or so, he might reach the Tonkawa camp. Or, he might meet them somewhere in the middle. The path he followed had to lead somewhere. He figured it ran straight into the heart of savagery.

Riding on the next morning, he realized that the courage he thought he’d left in Pea Ridge had come flooding back to him. He saw himself maybe marrying Olivia one day. Perhaps they would have a child of their own.

The day fell into decline. Aiken paused beneath a ridge for a sip from his canteen. As he sat his horse, the air filled with the rattling of a viper. Before he could react, his horse was flailing vertically, shrieking in panic. Aiken flew off, cracking his skull on a shelf of rock. He hit the ground unconscious.

He awoke at dusk, his eyes gummy with blood. Grunting, he shoved up on his elbows, searching for his horse. It didn’t take long to spot it dead on the ground. Two more inches and it would have landed smack on his leg. Aiken tried sitting upright but the pain was too much and he fell back, gasping.

Low, guttural voices reached his ears.

“Fuck,” he whispered, reaching down his leg for his Colt. A shadow fell across him, and a man stood silhouetted against the sun. Round-shouldered, long-haired. Aiken heard chittering, whispers. The crunching of feet on sand. His fingers closed around the wood grip of the pistol and he hauled back on it, the barrel clearing the leather.

Someone grabbed a fistful of his hair and jerked his head back. The sky reeled in his eyes; Aiken saw the dipper forming overhead. The knife raked viciously across his forehead, peeling the flesh away from the crown of his skull. A hot jet of blood splashed his eyes, drenching his face. Aiken let out a high, girlish shriek. Without benefit of blade, the Tonk removed his scalp bare-fisted, wrenching it loose. Aiken screamed until his voice gave out. He fell over, clutching at his skull and finding only a slick smoothness there.

A cheer went up; exclamations in a tongue from hell. Aiken gathered his breath for another scream, only to have it knocked out of his lungs by a sharp instrument digging between his shoulders. His chin thudded into the dirt and he bit his tongue in half. He could taste the hatchet blade. Aiken uttered a hacking cough, spitting blood in the sand. Laughter arose. His last, fleeting thought was that they were about to butcher him like a steer. He saw himself flayed, skinless, minus his ears and eyelids, a half-dead freak.

As his attacker wrenched the blade out of his spine, Aiken used the opportunity to fill his mouth with the muzzle of the Colt. Before he could squeeze the trigger, another blade came down, separating his head from his neck. The gun discharged, hitting a Tonk in the chest. The next day, the tribe held a ritualistic funeral, cremating their brother’s body on a ceremonial bonfire. A young woman observed from the shadows, praying for a redeemer.


April 12, 2021 20:32

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