McTague poked half his head out of the bushes.
He had run out of ammunition and had lost his haversack for four days since he was first hunted by the Apaches, and was in danger of going dehydrated. He surveyed the jungle with his tired, swollen eyes, opening as wide as he could. There were no arrows or red marks on the cypress trees. It appeared that the hunters had not been here.
He walked up the open plateau, wrapped in his ermine coat, trying to make a fire to keep warm. Just then he heard something whiny. Fifteen years ago, McTague's father had taught him how to tell the difference between animal, wind and human sounds, so he wasn't too worried.
"Probably a deer," he said to himself, pulling out the iron bar that had been stuck in the ground. The bar had been drawn from a flagpole, which was one of the reasons the Apaches hunted him. But what was unusual was that as it got closer, it sounded more and more like something crawling on all four feet.
McTague gripped the stick, untied his coat and threw it aside. It was winter, but McTague was accustomed to wearing one piece of clothing all year round, his livid veins winding and wandering under the bleak winter sun. But the dangers of pine forests often came by surprise. A black bear at least two and a half meters tall and weighing a ton and a half struck from behind.
McTague managed to turn around and hit the big cheese in the face with the iron bar to avoid being slapped to death. The black bear lay on the ground with traces of blood seeping from the corners of its mouth. It was waiting for an opportunity; this time no matter how the prey play dead in the front would be of no avail. McTague felt the lack in strength after over a hundred full hours on an empty stomach, and he now thought, death could befall at any moment.
The bear charged ten seconds later.
McTague dropped the bar, clenched his fist and fled from its steel-clawed arms, slamming its chin with everything he`d got. The bear recovered and slapped the McTague over to the ground. McTague felt a gnawing pain in his back, but pulled back as far as he could to lean against a red cedar. He knew that if he didn't get up, the bear would pat it alive into a delicious McDonald-made meat pie.
The black bear's eyes blended with its dark fur, leaving McTague never able to guess in which direction it was going to attack, making it the knottiest problem beside its weight.
The jumbo got back on all four feet and seemed to be sniffing something on the ground. McTague did his best not to let down the tense guard, or make himself appear overly frail. When the bear eventually jerked its head to his direction, McTague knew it was time, and rolled forward to retrieve his bar. The bear sprang up like a patch of vultures, blocking out all the sunlight. It was bearing down on him.
McTague listened. The high wind was getting stronger. When he felt the immense heaviness from top to bottom, he turned with both hands clasped in his iron bar, holding it towards the dark mass. The bear was so caught off guard that it couldn`t squeeze out even a nanosecond to duck, and the cold iron stick pierced through its belly.
For the next few minutes nothing stirred in the pine forest.
Should the Apaches have caught up, or were they watching all along? McTague was on the verge of choking in total darkness, but he managed to dig out a ventilation hole. The hole got bigger and bigger until it was big enough for him to crawl out, and left the bear hastily buried. Out from behind the bush came some strangely dressed savages. McTague let out a long sigh, blood running down his back, roses glinting on the ground. It was still fairly cold, but McTague knew he could survive.
McTague dropped the bar.
A couple of Apaches, hidden among the trees, tore the bark from their bodies and held their shotguns to his throat.
McTague felt a chill on his back, a sharp spear pointing straight at his wound as if it was playing a harp. A seeming leader dressed in sable fur took the stick from the ground in both hands and kissed it reverently. The wounded was then pelted with rifle butts.
McTague backhanded one attack but another Apache tackled him down. The leader rattled his words, plunking the iron rod into the frozen earth a few inches from McTague's ear. McTague quietly endured the pain of cirrus rubbing his wrists. He was jerked to his feet, and the sallow men sealed his mouth with the damp earth.
It reminded McTague of his childhood. Whenever he starved because he had failed his physical training, he would sit alone by the river yammering about God's injustice. His father would then always kick him into the water. "Stop whining, be a man. " He'd get all muddy and yell at McTague like a withered bear.
Although Gordon McTague forever was seducing women from those big cities in the village tavern, he never gave up on training his son Bruton to be a fierce bandit. He didn`t fail.
The wagon train marched McTague through the birch trees. Bruton gradually felt that his head was becoming heavy, and the wound on his back made him feel that both of his shoulders were dislocated. Two men with spears clattered a meter away, the wheels of the cart squeaking to McTague's left. The man in front walked briskly, whistling, swinging his leather scabbard.
Bruton pulled at the vine, which was tied tightly to his wrist, while the other end was tied to the carriage.
A flock of wild geese flited low over the treetops, and the older Apaches were immediately attracted, some even loading up their shotguns. McTague knew it was a signal from god and kicked his foot sideways into the trembling scabbard ahead of him. The flat, stretchy leather flew to the left, getting lodged in the wheels.
The whistling man's voice broke.
He stumbled and fell to the ground. McTague spun around and sprang to his feet. A man not reacting as quickly as he could got his neck wrapped around by the dark vine. McTague jerked his wrists hard, using his weight to cover the strength, and the man`s face turned pale in a second with death`s imminent arrival.
Others pressed their barrels against McTague's chest, shouted, making ape calls. McTague puffed out the mud with his tongue. "Shoot and be strangled." There was an inevitable weakness and hoarseness in his voice.
The carriage was stopped by the right rear wheel. The muscular coachee, his face painted in camouflage, elevated his whip and strode over to McTague. The strangled man gradually protruded his tongue, and the pupils began to turn upward. He was struggling to reach the straw to clutch at. The knife was hidden in his boot. As the muzzle tightened, McTague felt as though his insides were about to burst. The silence was broken by the coming of the whip. The reckless man was landing punches on McTague. Bruton slightly tilted his head, lifted his foot and kicked the man in the crotch. Only then did he notice the movement of the hostage.
Bruton was far not as stupid as he seemed. He immediately pulled the knife out from the man's boot and cut off the vine branches with one blow.
He gave the coachee another thump as he dragged along the rope with the other hand. McTague retreated slowly into the endless forest behind him. The hostage was already dead though, his elbow resting only from a muscle reflex before the moment he died. Only McTague knew.
The Apaches were burning furiously, their trigger hands shaking like wings of hummingbirds. McTague stepped back behind a pine tree, slammed the dead man's leg joint into a kneeling position, and disappeared into the darkness.
The sound of gunshots and lonely screams then came to existence.
The cluster sank deeper and deeper as the pace increased. McTague could no longer stop the bleeding in his abdomen.
The taiga was gradually enveloped in blood and the drooling, graying face of the bloodhound. The whizzing sound of spears pierced through his eardrums. All of a sudden, the phantasmagoria collapsed in front of him.
McTague smelled the damp and the decay of the river stones, but heard no deafening sound of the water. His father, Gordon, tried to commit suicide scores ago by jumping off a cliff tied to McTague. But he didn't succeed. His throat was broken by the tenacious fishing thread first, and his head floated in the dark gray waters where the reef stood. McTague leaped sideways with elbow pads over his head. He tried not to look with his eyes to check whether it was hell or heaven beneath the cliff, but there was no doubt that the fog was thick, like a meteorite crashing into an ice field. Blood stained the surrounding clouds.
Not far away, a motley falcon was ready to swoop down on McTague.
Laura Hudson just turned 45 this year.
The place where she was living, in exile, the Village of Scuwuhana, was nine miles away from the nearest river.
It was a fairyland and the only water source open to thirty-three nearby villages. And Scuwuhana was the farthest one of them.
Hudson was a battle-hardened widow. She once led the defense against the Lourzans along the Quicksand River. Now she was the mother of three dying children, a weather-beaten wrecked formation of life.
On that evening she came to the edge of the water, which had already been trampled and trodden by countless people. That was what the children lived on. Laura sat down in the slippery mud and threw the rusty barrel far into the middle of the river, watching it sink. As the sun turned an eerie phosphorescent green, the clouds began to scream. Laura looked at the deeper pool in the distance.
She couldn't take her eyes off it.
A haggard figure was walking on the riverbed. There was no time to take the bucket back. Laura stood up and deftly pulled out a dagger with a silver handle that had been wrapped around her ankle. The slender man disappeared in an instant.
Laura looked around. She was used to distinguishing between the real threats in the jungle and the visions she had conjured in her mind. The trees made only a few eucalyptus calls. Her boots slid involuntarily towards the black, shimmering water.
Damn it. Laura, half submerged and half floating, approached the direction at which the vision had last appeared. The darkness half hid her rough face.
Suddenly she felt something dart underneath the soles of her feet. The cold current hit the calves of her legs with a spasm, and the dagger drifted further and deeper away.
There came a commotion before the nightmare.
There was a whoosh as the ghost rose to the surface. Laura sank into the water with bated breath. For a few moments she didn't know what to do, spinning in the bone-chilling darkness. But soon enough, she laid fingers on something.
That familiar touch. It was a man.
Laura hauled the body ashore with the hawser that connected the bucket. The rust of the sun would soon be completely gone, and the sleepless moon would soon rise.
Laura stomped on the man's stomach hard but nothing happened. Dark purple blood oozed from several deep depressions near the spine. Compression fracture. Caused by strong currents and river stones.
Suddenly Laura found something. The body's owner was trying, by all means, to reveal his identity. There was a tattoo hidden between the thin strands of hair at the back of his head. B.M. In an instant the body shook and grasped her hand. The bloodshot eyes began to come to earth.
"Bruton?" exclaimed Laura.
The hollow back of McTague slowly unfurled, and Laura could clearly witness the fresh blood flowing through the withered, purplish veins.
This was a dead body. Long dead.
Laura kept convincing herself. In her nightmares, she saw the eyes of her three children oozing russet pus and glistening with a dim green light. They were so hungry that bile dripped from their noses.
The man bulged from the ground. Laura put a cord around his ankle. The woman didn't know if the man recognized her. Nineteen years ago, the Lourzans’ martial-archer Jeremy Kilgour beat McTague to half-death with a rhinoceros shield in a sneak attack. The smell of brains and decaying needles wafted from the bushes. No one dared to approach.
Then, officious farmers reported hearing the tearing of the flesh by flint tufts, as vultures devoured the carcass of a lion. Laura rushed under the tree, her lower leg cut by the full length of the black roses, and a fig fell sock on the mangled pile of human pate.
The silver ornament around the remains of the body suggested his identity. Far into the forest was a trail of blood. Her husband had disappeared. Although everyone said that Kilgour deliberately took off the jewelry and put it on Bruton's neck to protect his tribe from revenge, Laura saw the clue at a glance.
She knew the length of her husband's cock.
McTague simply dropped them. And now the woman still had to collect his man's body. Laura couldn't tell what she was feeling at the moment. She felt that she would be telling her adult children a story with an unknown ending.
Laura silently picked up the bucket on the wetland. A bicep's ache reminded her that McTague was being dragged, he was on the run, his head buried deep into the blood-red clay.
Laura could not resist being pointed at by the ragged pedestrians along the way. The bullying and oppression of Scuwuhana had taught her to be a silent widow. There was no one in the village who did not despise her. She was one who could not keep her husband. Laura didn`t know when the wandering dead stopped whispering to each other. They watched her in stillness as if enjoying the last rites of a tragic film.
Dozens of pupils of every color exuded a mixture of pity, dirt, indifference, and blessing. The men flowed toward her in the shape of a coffin. Laura suddenly realized something. She looked back in the glare of the crowd. To the end of the rope was only a half-buried bucket in the mud. Behind her, as far as the sight reached, there was only the trace of a zigzag field, ploughed, along the piedmont.
Four miles south, in a shack, the dim light reflected three neatly lined beds. Three boys on their last breath. One man on his knees sobbing.
Frozen in slurry and vine juice, the hemline made Laura`s steps wobble all the more.
But she knew it was not enough to freeze her hands and feet. The man was leaning against one of the three white linen beds. Laura`s inner outermost wall of abatis instantly filled with a sense of awe.
She couldn`t tell what the man was doing, but it was clear that his back was twitching like a wounded tiger. The closer she got, the more visible were the deep cuts in the man's back. Muscle filaments as thin as whitebait were peeling off the sides of the kidneys, and a web of eggs covered the spine close enough to witness the black maggots gnawing it. There seemed to be some creatures moving that emitted a faint glow. Every time the man gave a spasm, numerous dusty, gray and black cysts followed him up and down.
Laura looked at the stone axe on the wall. The man must have fought a terrible battle. Perhaps he had ripped open the crocodile's belly with his bare hands in the depths of the pool. Perhaps he and vultures hunted the bones of lionesses on the plains. Perhaps only black bears had this kind of power.
The man turned his head in a flash.
The man who had pretended to love her had changed. He came just to take away the three tepid bodies. A split second, then Laura gave up all her previous fantasies.
The man looked terrible. One side of his face was completely destroyed by a blunt instrument, and the other half was swollen drastically with cold water. She watched him pull the bloody liver out of his throat. Blood was flowing all over the ground.
It was Kilgour.
And now one of her children was gone. Memory tricked people, with a paleolithic love, till woman realized there was no dummy for widows.