Chapter Four: Gone to Hell and back again
(Or, what happened after the Intermission)
I awoke to the sounds of camp life around me while I was apparently in a teepee. I blinked slowly because every part of my body hurt like the dickens, and with a tang of grim regret I realized I knew how George must've felt after Tolly and his goons went to town on him in the alley. I sluggishly got up into a sitting position; inching upwards until I was satisfied I would not fall over, and slowly examined my body within the dim light. I was a mess with bruises all over, while my face felt crusty and taut. With no small amount of relief I realized I could see well enough by this point, so I tried to stand up, but immediately fell back down with a grunt.
The flap opened up while I was trying to crawl to it, presenting an Ano woman who was the loveliest thing I had ever seen. She smiled shyly and yelled for some help, and presently some Ano men came in and helped me on my feet. I thanked them with no small amount of chagrin and we eventually made it outside.
The sunlight stabbed me directly in the back of my eyeballs, causing me to automatically wince as tears formed immediately. They sat me down on the ground and departed as I blinked rapidly to adjust my sight. The camp consisted of six large tents with horses tied up nearby, and Ano of every description wandering about doing what it was they did while camped out. Some of the men brought back some meat that appeared to be rabbit, which I devoured again, much to the amusement of my benefactors. They chatted amiably amongst themselves like the previous night, seeming for all the world unconcerned about my condition. This raised my hackles somewhat, but I realized they probably had different ways of thinking and doing things, so I didn't say anything. Presently they handed me a leatherskin full of water and I drank it all, eliciting more good-natured chuckles. "I don't suppose any of you have some whiskey?"
They looked at me blankly, and I shrugged. "Um, 'fire water'?" I proceeded lamely, not sure if they would look upon such pidgin Ano speech as offensive.
"We do not have such things," a gravelly voice said behind me, and I turned around to see who appeared to be a chief of sorts, fully decked out in feathers, leather leggings, and years of experience on his face. His skin was darker than most and had the appearance of leather, but seeing how the younger men deferred to his presence, I figured he was the leader of the camp. "Such liquids are bad for our people, and I forbid its presence in my camp."
"Thank you for rescuing me," I offered in a cracked voice. "I'm sorry if I caused offense."
He shook his head in a majestic manner. "None was taken. I am Hawauitee, chief of this camp. You are very lucky to be alive."
"Henry Ursari, and don't I know it." I extended a hand to him, which he took after a moment of hesitation. "I owe you my life."
Hawauitee smiled kindly. "That remains to be seen. I'm afraid the men who left you to die there took everything with them."
I cursed inwardly at the loss of my revolver and, more importantly, the loss of my friend Ignatius, but the only outward indication of my pain was a grimace. "Well, it wouldn't be the first time I've been left with nothing. I'll just have to make do with what I have."
The Ano chief nodded as he bid me to stand. "Sometimes we must descend into hell before we can rise upwards. Please, walk with me."
I followed him as he toured the camp, discussing current events in New Madora. I suspected he was trying to impress me with his conversation and I wasn't about to tell him to shut up, so I listened patiently and offered answers to his questions. "If you don't mind me asking, what tribe are you a part of? I'm still relatively new to this land and I've only met two different tribes that I know of."
"We are Innuato."
"Innuato…aren't you the head tribe or something? I remember a friend of mine saying something about them." I wracked my brain trying to remember what George had said, but the exposure to the sun had cooked it a little too much.
"In a sense, yes, but not as you understand it. The other tribes defer to us because we are the oldest and most established tribe in Ha'u'ano."
Hawauitee chuckled as some children raced past us. "Ha'u'ano. It is the name of the land we live upon."
"Oh. I'd never heard it referred to as such."
"That is not surprising, as you are a white man. Most white men do not trouble themselves to learn our language or our ways, which causes a great deal of strife between our peoples."
I nodded sagely, embarrassed to the core as the memories of our actions against the Ano filtered through my mind. "Don't I know it."
"You, on the other hand…." He stopped and looked me square in the eyes, which I returned. "You are different. You do not curse us, call us 'savages', or strike the hands that help you. Why are you different?"
I was about to answer when I noticed we were in the middle of the camp by this point, and every pair of eyes was upon me. The entire camp had fallen silent with the exception of the children, and I knew right then I was on trial. I licked my lips before I answered, measuring my words carefully. "Mr. Hawauitee, I don't know if you know anything about Madoran history, but I come from a people called the Maro. At one time we had land to call our own, but we were evicted by another people during a war, and now we wander the earth with nothing to our names except the horses we ride and the shirts on our backs. We are called the 'Dispossessed' because the only place we can call home is where we pitch our tents." I looked around the gathered Ano. "I know what it is like to be despised and hated for no good reason, and I guess I sympathize with your people for that very reason."
He nodded slowly. "That is a good reason, certainly, but why do you sympathize? One can come from such a background and still hate us."
I had to admit he had a sharp mind, which is probably why he was chief. I sighed softly and sat on a stump. "I hate injustice, Mr. Hawauitee, and what's happening to your people is unjustified. It is cruel, hateful, and most of all, morally wrong. I wish I could stop it from happening, but my people have to change as a culture before that will come about. It's unfair for my people to treat your people like animals, and I won't stand for that."
He gazed into my eyes for what seemed like an eternity, and began to speak in Ano to the rest of the camp. It took a few minutes for him to do what I presumed was a translation of our conversation, and from the looks on their faces they judged me acceptable to remain in their camp. A soft murmuring indicated they approved of my views and, before I knew it, they surrounded me, touching my skin and hair with gentle fingers, uttering kind-sounding words I did not understand. I must have looked alarmed, because the women laughed with reassurance as the men smiled bashfully.
"Our tribe accepts your words as truth, Henry, and we wish to call you 'friend'," Hawauitee pronounced, and the Ano cheered in their own way. Presently food and drink was brought out and they sat down in a circle, talking animatedly about who knew what while entreating me to join them. I acquiesced with hesitation, considering I had no idea what they were saying, but they talked to me as if I understood and listened to me as if they did as well. The night passed uneventfully, but pleasantly, as I grappled with the idea that I suddenly had thirty-odd friends. I fell asleep in a tent and allowed the Lady of Dreams to do her business.
I spent a week with the Innuato, learning their ways in the most basic fashion while I healed from my wounds, as well as picking up a few words in their language. A family was assigned as my foster parents and they were quite proud of my accomplishments, however small they may have been. Hawauitee was quite surprised at the speed and ease in which I learned the words, but I explained the Maro learned new languages as a matter of survival and we were quite good at it as a result. The men were also rather impressed at my ability to track, but when I saw their methods of tracking I realized they were merely humoring me, so I learned as much as I could from them. The Ano girl who opened my tent that first morning kept hovering around me, appearing to take a great interest in whatever I was doing even though she had no idea what I was saying. However, she took great delight in teaching me words and her laughter at my successes and failures made it all the more enticing to learn at her feet. I also learned about the structure of the Ano'tu'ana nation and how they interacted, which would come in handy later in my life. Unfortunately, there was little I could do in return, since they had no firearms and I was not very good at the bow or spear, so I helped out as best I could. Upon finding out I was not proficient in the bow, one of the warriors decided I had to start learning how to use it and took it upon himself to teach me as he would a child, which aggravated me something sore. Nonetheless, as the week wound down I realized I had to eventually leave to finish my business, and I could not stay here forever, as attractive as that thought might have been. I remained for one more week before I realized I was going a little stir crazy to avenge Mr. Archer's betrayal.
I brought up the subject to Hawauitee one evening while the rest of the men were singing and carving up a massive bison they had killed. He listened to my dilemma and nodded sagely once I was finished. "I understand, Henry. It is important to correct a wrong that has been placed against you; otherwise, other men will think you are not a man."
I nodded, despite the fact that it wasn't quite the reason for my desire to return. "I also have to get my stuff back. It holds a lot of sentimental value to me, and I hate to think my revolver is in the hands of a scoundrel. I also hate to think what they've done to my horse, because he won't be ridden by anyone but me."
"You should not be attached to things, Henry, for they can be taken away from you," he chided.
"I understand that, but they're all I have in this world, besides my house in Romosa."
He chuckled in response. "We are different, and that is good. Go, then, to Big River, and find your future. You did not need to ask us, of course."
I nodded. "I know…it just wouldn't feel right if I didn't ask first, considering how kind your people have been to me."
He clapped my shoulder and rose from his stump. "We will lend you a horse and food for the trip, Henry. May the Gods walk with you and guide your vengeance."
I nodded again and went to my tent, collapsing with reluctance filling my soul. I was about to fall asleep when the tent flap opened and the Ano girl peeked inside. Her face indicated she knew I was leaving and I had suspicions as to her intent. I smiled kindly and we sat there, looking at each other for what seemed to be an eternity, then I slowly shook my head. She seemed sad with my answer and departed, leaving me alone once again in the tent. I stretched out under the blankets and sighed softly, her beautiful face the last thing I remember before sleep overcame me.
I awoke to the sound of stillness and that worried me. Usually the camp was full of noise when I woke up, so I grabbed for a gun that wasn't there anymore, cursed to myself, then rose and got dressed. As I departed the tent I saw the members of the camp conducting their business while looking warily at a small band of Ano in the center area, and with a shock I realized they were Tehacote. Hawauitee was talking to them and didn't look very happy either, so I decided discretion was the better part of valor and scuttled towards a tent to overhear what they were saying but not be in direct line of sight. I had a small knife with me, so I decided to whittle a small piece of wood so as not to appear like I was listening in.
Hawauitee's tone was solemn, yet polite, and the Tehacote leader (if indeed he was their leader) sounded haughty and dismissive. They seemed to be discussing something of some importance, as the words "land", "horses", "travel", and "weapons" were uttered. Unfortunately, those were the only words I managed to pick up.
I strained to hear more of the conversation when I heard some footsteps approach on my left. I looked up expecting one of the Innuato, but nearly dropped my knife when I saw it was a Tehacote…but not just any Tehacote. His eyes blazed death and the muscles in his arms writhed under taut skin as he gripped a hatchet. His mouth was curled into a sneer and his face was repainted in the standard dripping blood motif, but I could not mistake the Tehacote we left on the trail several months ago. I couldn't forget the look of promised death he gave me as we proceeded back to Silverstone, and that look was present and accounted for on him. I must admit I was completely shocked and couldn't move a muscle; if he had decided to bury his hatchet in my head I wouldn't have been able to defend myself. Instead, he grinned hideously and shouted something in Ano, bringing the rest of the Tehacote in a flash and generating alarm among the Innuato.
Hawauitee looked at the Tehacote and then me, puzzlement on his features as the Tehacote gabbled excitedly to his packmates. The Tehacote leader arched an eyebrow, looking at me with undisguised disdain, barking out quick-fire responses to my accuser. After a moment Hawauitee interjected and asked questions of the Tehacote standing in front of me. He nodded, motioning them towards the outskirts of the camp and motioning for me to rise with a grim look on his face.
"Uh, do you mind telling me what just happened?" I asked, not really sure I wanted to know the answer.
"Bloodface says you killed his brother while he was helpless on the ground, unable to defend himself."
I grew a little hot at that. "It's a lot more complicated than that, Hawauitee." I gave him an abbreviated version of the encounter as we walked. "So, I didn't have much of a choice; otherwise, that boy would have died a lingering, painful death! It was far better to end his suffering than let him die in inches!"
Hawauitee grabbed my shoulders with fierce hands, his face dark and brooding. "That may be the way it is done with your people, but not with us. The Tehacote desire to die in combat on their feet, not helpless on their knees. You committed a grave insult to his family when you decided to take action, and now Bloodface will exact his revenge. He has the right to call for it and you have admitted to the deed, so now he will fight you to avenge his brother's death." He shook his head sorrowfully, pausing for a moment before continuing. "Henry, I realize you are new to our ways like a child, but Bloodface will not let this pass. He will do whatever it takes to revenge himself upon your body."
I cursed for a bit as the reality of the situation hit me like a freight train. After I finished my litany of execrations I sighed and shrugged my shoulders. "So be it, then. If I die, at least I die knowing I tried to do the right thing. How does this battle for vengeance thing work?"
He seemed amused by my stream of profanity, but regained his seriousness once I got down to business. "You will both fight with a weapon, and you will fight to the death."
"What? I'm not willing to kill a man just because he's angry with me!"
Hawauitee shrugged. "He demands it. The Tehacote are a fierce tribe, unwilling to show weakness to any opponent. If you do not kill him, he will simply attempt to kill you at the earliest opportunity." He handed me a stone knife and hatchet. "These are the weapons you will use in the battle. May the Gods go with you."
The Tehacote and Innuato formed a circle on the outskirts of the camp with Bloodface in the middle. He paced like an angry cat, eager to take out the perceived insult from my flesh. I wasn't sure about the weapons I was given, as stone weighed differently than metal and was prone to breakage, but I had no choice: I had to go through with this. The Innuato parted ranks to admit me into the circle, and I saw a glimpse of the girl; she looked sad and turned away when our eyes met. So, with a heavy heart and leaden tongue I entered the circle to face my opponent.
Bloodface held his hatchet in his right hand and his knife in his left, appearing rather proficient in the use of both. I knew I had a difficult fight ahead of me because I was not as skilled as he; granted, I had fired with revolvers in both hands before, but those are completely different from the weapons I held now. Besides, I wasn't that good with two revolvers.
We slowly moved around the circle opposite the other, sizing each other up and putting the gathered Ano out of our minds. At that point the Ano, the world, and the universe did not exist for us; instead, we were the only two living things in existence, and only one would be alive afterward. His eyes locked with mine and I saw nothing but promised pain and death within them, and that is when he rushed forward with a shout. I dropped into a defensive posture, holding the hatchet diagonally across my chest.
Bloodface slashed downward with his hatchet and I easily parried it with mine, but his left arm slashed across my face with the knife. It was only sheer luck that prevented me from being blinded; as it was, the bridge of my nose exploded in brilliant pain as the knife slid over it and blood began to flow. I backed away quickly, shaking my head to clear it and slough the blood off. Unfortunately, Bloodface simply pressed the advantage by charging again, the hatchet and knife whistling through the air in a search for my vital organs. I parried, ducked, and dodged as best I could, trying to keep out of his reach and occasionally attempting the paltry strike, which he easily deflected. A cut on my right shoulder and chest were inflicted upon me in rapid succession, and I knew I was fighting I losing battle if this kept up.
The turning point to the battle was when we both struck at each other and our hatchets collided, each shivering into a thousand pieces and sending bits of rock spraying across each other and the crowd. Bloodface screamed in rage and began to stab at me with his knife; however, this is where the advantage shifted in my favor. He had not received the full attention of Lieutenant Gunderson's knife fight training, but I had, and I used every trick and maneuver I could think of. Soon Bloodface was on the defensive as I pressed my advantage and savagely struck at him from all angles and directions, my own rage building in rapid succession.
Unfortunately, the Fates withdrew their favor from me as a particularly strong blow shattered my knife, rendering it into an inch long stub protruding from the handle. I stared at the broken stump in dismay as Bloodface looked at it with malicious glee, and I was forced to quickly back up as he resumed his attack. I could only dodge his blows as the battle once again seemed hopeless. However, I realized the only way this fight would even out again is if we grappled hand to hand, so I waited until an opening presented itself and I tackled him, the knife flying out of his hand with the impact. We rolled on the dusty ground, grunting and bellowing with each kick and punch; eventually, his hands locked around my neck and the muscles in his arms gnarled as he tightened his grip. I tried to pry his hands off but his grip was simply too tight, so I resorted to raining blows on his head and face. This only served to increase his strength and enhance his insanity, his hideous grin smeared with blood and red paint. His eyes were insane with rage and only my death would cool his madness. I strained to look around in a desperate attempt to garner sympathy and thus assistance, but the faces of the onlookers with blank with impassioned stares. My eyes flashed with inner light while darkness crawled from the edges of my vision as my hands flailed around for anything of use. My left hand touched something warm and solid, so I instinctively grabbed it and struck Bloodface in the temple with it.
The effect from the blow was astounding. His hands convulsed for a brief moment and then let go as his eyes glazed over and he slumped forward, collapsing on top of me in a lifeless mess. I saw the stump of my broken knife protruding from his temple, blood oozing from the wound. It wasn't enough to cause a whole lot of damage by itself, but when applied to the temple in a forceful manner it had the capacity for inflicting a grievous wound, which Bloodface discovered to his detriment. I inhaled violently as my body shuddered from the sheer damage inflicted upon it, and did not notice the multitude of hands grabbing me and carrying me to shade and safety. In fact, I simply passed out and fell into blissful sleep.
I had the strangest feeling when I woke up, like I had done this before and my life was merely replaying a week. It would be a torture worthy of the Twelve Hells, especially if I had to fight Bloodface week after week. I sat up with a groan, feeling every wound inflicted upon me. I somberly concluded I was getting too old for this sort of thing as I slowly dressed. This kind of adventure is worthy of any strong man, but only a member of the younger set would be able to shrug off the punishments to which I had been subjected. Some sort of mud or plaster was perched precariously on the bridge of my nose, which throbbed worse than a steam engine with bad valves. I limped out the tent to see the sun shining brilliantly in a clear azure sky, a cool breeze snaking its way lazily through the camp. Several Innuato saw me and rushed forth, talking excitedly in concerned tones and peering carefully at my wounds. I deflected them as best I could while repeating Hawauitee's name. Presently one of them understood what I was trying to convey and rushed off to get the chief. I sat down on a stump as the womenfolk brought me some food, which I devoured with gusto.
Shortly thereafter Hawauitee appeared and smiled somberly. "It would seem the Gods have no use for you as of yet, for they have returned your spirit."
I arched an eyebrow, eliciting a stab of pain from my face. "I don't understand. What do you mean?"
He sat down beside me. "You were near death, Henry. We thought you would die because you had lost so much blood." I blinked in confusion, for I did not think I had lost that much blood and said as much. He nodded gravely. "In the heat of battle, a warrior will not notice pain until all conflict has ended. Only then can they see how close they came to death."
I winced as my shoulder ached mightily and nodded. "Well, I'm a tough old buzzard, so I don't think I'm going anywhere in spirit form anytime soon." I paused to take a drink from a waterskin. "I guess I'll go ahead and head back to Big River tomorrow."
Hawauitee nodded and rose. "I knew this would not stop you for long. The Tehacote will not trouble you on the way back, but I would not test their patience unnecessarily." He sighed sorrowfully. "Their rage towards the white man will only be appeased in blood."
I nodded. "I can't say I disagree with their motive, but I definitely want to avoid their method."
He nodded without comment and departed, leaving me with food for thought. I decided to take it easy for the rest of the day and conserve my strength for the storm brewing on the horizon.
The next morning I mounted up on the horse they lent me and with a fond farewell I departed for Big River with anger smoldering in my heart and my soul itching for revenge.
"Well, well, well…Lookee what we have here," Tolly drawled as I walked into the Gold Mine. He was leaning languidly against the bar with his buddies in close proximity, the entire lot looking as pathetic and sorry as ever. "Ah thought you were dead."
I looked at him blankly. "I hear that a lot." I sat down in a chair…or more accurately, slumped into a chair and leaned back to give a piercing stare. "I'm in no mood to trifle with you boys, Tolly; I've had a really bad month."
He rocked himself off the bar with a grunt and made his way towards my table, his boys in tow. He got close enough for me to figure out he had probably eaten a rotten ox carcass that morning. "Ah've got a score t'settle with you, Mr. Ursari," he growled, poking a dirty, stubby finger into my chest. "An' ah aim t'collect right here, right now."
All of my anger and rage exploded behind my eyeballs as my right fist lashed forward and caught him across the jaw, but I didn't stop when he collapsed to the floor. I stood up with a flash and grabbed a chair, swinging it back and forth to scatter his boys. One bravely attempted to dash forward with the intent to relieve me of my impromptu weapon, but I was a hair quicker than he; instead, he ended up shambling to the floor with glazed eyes as I smashed the chair across his brow. Now armed with the equivalent of kindling, I jumped on the boys with a shout and clubbed any that came near. One of them proved to be a little smarter than the rest and grabbed me in a bearhug as the others distracted me, but I savagely hit him across the nose with the back of my head, causing a howl of pain to erupt and him to let go of me. I was a whirling dervish, attacking any of Tolly's men with whatever came to hand, and before long the survivors decided they had had enough and fled without so much as a by-your-leave.
I turned my attention to Tolly, who was attempting to get up at that particular moment. I waited until he managed to stand up with the help of a chair and struck him across the jaw once again. He fell to the floor with a keening wail, curling up into a ball. I leapt onto him and pried his arms apart, eliciting a shriek from the man. I slammed his hands into the floor and held them there, my face inches from his own, so I stole a page from Bloodface's book and a hideous grin spread across my face as I growled threateningly. "Tolly, I'm only gonna tell you once, so you'd better remember it. You are going to leave this town tonight. Not tomorrow, not in a week…Tonight. And if I find out you attempted to get revenge on anyone before you left, I will hunt you down and put you down like a rabid dog. Having your friends around won't help you either; in fact, I'll shoot them where they stand, and to damnation with the Legionnaires. GOT IT?" I bellowed, more for effect than anything else.
Through his pathetic sobbing he managed to blubber out in the affirmative repeatedly, so I got up and kicked him for good measure. He stumbled to his feet and ran out the door as fast as he could, a growing dark patch on his dirty jeans indicating just how effective my threat was. The doors swung a few times before Legionnaire Willy came bursting through them with gun in hand, staring over his shoulder in amazement at Tolly's retreating form, then turned around to see what had caused the poor bastard to flee in such haste. He looked at me in shock and surveyed the damage. "By the Fates, Henry, what the hell did you do?"
I straightened my back. "I'm cleaning up a mess that should've been taken care of a long time ago. No offense to you, Willy, but I know your hands were tied with him, so I decided to give you a helping hand."
His face turned a few shades of purple as he sputtered. "Well, I would thank you if it weren't for the fact that you've managed to wreck the place!" The ladies were cowering behind the bar, afraid to get any closer to me, the bouncers standing guard and ready to pounce on me at the madam's signal. "You're the War Lord incarnate, Henry! And what the hell happened to you, anyway? You look like the Lord of Death stopped by for dinner."
"Mr. Archer happened. He sent me on a trip and his boys jumped me when I was asleep; they took my horse and my gear and staked me out in the desert."
He whistled. "Do you have any proof?"
"A local Innuato tribe led by a Chief Hawauitee rescued me; they'll vouch for it."
His face turned into one of helpless chagrin as the madam stormed over to me with a face that could crack stone. "You've really done it this time, Mr. Ursari! How are you going to pay for this? And you can forget about being allowed in ever again!"
I waved a hand. "I'll figure out a way, Miss Hawthorne. I give you my word. By the way, where is Victoria?"
She looked at me in incredulous amazement. "She's gone out for the day, but even if she were here I wouldn't let you see her!"
I grew worried but did not reply, so she waved a dismissing hand with a snort of derision, stalking back to the bar and talking to the girls; meanwhile, Willy walked over to me and grabbed my elbow. "C'mon, Henry…We'd better get out of here and let her calm down a bit."
I nodded and followed his lead, my face dark with simmering wrath. We made our way to the Legionnaire office without further interruption and walked inside. He sat down with a sigh and I sat opposite, my desire for revenge cooling in the aftermath. "Henry, if what you say is true then Mr. Archer is gonna' come looking for you. He's not one to leave loose ends flapping about."
"Good," I muttered. "Let him come, although I suspect Obadiah will show up instead. He's the one that does Mr. Archer's dirty work."
Willy nodded and poured two cups of coffee, sliding one over to me. "Tell me what happened, and don't try to paint yourself in a good light," he growled as he leaned back.
I told him everything, not particularly concerned if he was in Mr. Archer's pay by this point. I had a bone to pick with Mr. Archer and I was going to knock down anyone who got in my way, including Willy.
To his credit, he listened to everything without interruption, nodding occasionally while sipping his coffee. Once I was finished he sighed and chewed on his lip. "Yer in a difficult position, Henry, but I think you already know that. Like I said, once word gets to Zill he's gonna come gunnin' for you."
"I know, and I'm ready for it. I just wish I had my old gun back."
He nodded. "Damned shame, that. It's just wrong to take a man's gun when he's alive and helpless, and I don't care who it is doing the takin'." He sat up and rifled through his desk, pulling out a rather well-kept Argos Arms revolver, which he slid over the desk towards me. "There ya' go. I got it off a man who was attempting to rob the general store, and he's six feet under, so I don't think he'll be coming for it anytime soon."
I took the gun with relief because now I was armed. He handed over a box of bullets and I reloaded quickly. "Do you have a leather pouch or something I can carry the rest in? The Innuato don't believe in leather pouches, I don't think, because they didn't give me one."
He chuckled and tossed a well-worn pouch to me, which I grabbed with a hurried "Thanks" and poured the rest of the ammo into it. "I need to check on a few things first."
He nodded. "Be careful, Henry. If you don't kill him first he'll kill you, and he'll be defending his life and property."
I nodded and rose, heading towards the door. "I know your hands are tied, Willy. If I die it won't matter anyway."
I walked out before he could reply and headed towards Victoria's house, hoping she was home. I dodged through alleys in the hopes of evading any of Mr. Archer's men, as I didn't want to start a gun fight in the middle of town. Presently I found myself at Victoria's door and knocked rather hard. I waited for a moment, scanning both ends of the street, and the door opened with Victoria beyond bearing a surprised look. "Henry?" I ignored her, sidling into the front room and shutting the door, parting the curtains to look at the street one last time. "Henry, what in the world is going on? You disappeared without so much as a 'by-your-leave' and Archer's men were asking about you -"
I placed a finger against her soft lips to silence her. "Hush. Mr. Archer's men ambushed me and left me for dead in the desert, but as you can see I'm alive and well."
Her mouth formed an O in surprise. "What? Whatever for?"
"Because they found out I had a conscience," I said with a scowl. "They didn't like that very much, apparently."
"Oh." She blinked, her cheeks flushing red. "Wait a minute…" she exclaimed as I stalked into her kitchen and looked for food. She came up beside me with an intense look of concern on her face. "Look, if it's that bad, just leave! Once you get out of the county you would be out of his reach."
I looked at her with a mouthful of bread and butter. "I can't," I managed to say around the food. "He has my gun and my horse."
She blinked. "Well, you can get another one, can't you? Surely you have enough –"
I interrupted her by grabbing onto a brooch pinned to her dress. "Your mother gave you this, right?" She nodded as I savagely unpinned it. "Now, imagine you are me, I am Zill Archer, and the brooch is my gun."
She sighed softly, gently retrieving the brooch from my hand. "Point taken." She replaced it on her dress and sat on a chair. "You're really going out there, aren't you?" It was more of a statement than a question.
I unfolded a kerchief and put food on it. "Yes I am, but not just because he has my prized possessions. He is taking advantage of everyone in town, doing things that are just plain wrong, and getting away with it. It's just wrong, Victoria, and I aim to stop him and his band of thugs." I folded the corners of the kerchief and tied them into a knot, turning around to see her standing behind me, her misty eyes brimming with heartfelt emotion. "Oh, Henry…" she said as she enfolded her arms around my shoulders and passionately kissed me. "You are such a brave man."
I managed to smile as I lost myself in the embrace. "Well, I try to do the right thing, after all," I said as we separated after the kiss. "It's the Maro in me." I grew concerned when her replying smile was tinged with sadness, and I hugged her tightly. "Don't worry about me. I'm a tough ol' dog, and it will take a lot to bring me down." I gave her a peck on the cheek and began to grab more items from her pantry. "Maybe once this is all over, we can get out of this town together and go back to my house in Romosa. I'll also pay you for the food I'm taking today –"
"I'm so sorry, Henry," she interrupted softly, but before I could ask her what she meant I heard a whistling sound, followed by a blinding flash of pain and light, terminating in deep darkness.
I sluggishly awoke, my eyes puffy and sandy while my head felt like four railroad teams were laying track within. I realized my hands were behind me and bound tightly, but my feet weren't so constricted. I struggled to raise my head, but it was no use. My old noggin was nearly done for, considering how many times it had been smacked. I made a mental note to not put my back to anyone when a door creaked open and searing light pierced my eyeballs. I put forth every bit of willpower I possessed and shakily looked up to see Obadiah coming in with two other men in tow.
"Well, well, well…welcome t' tha' guest suite, Mr. Ursari," he intoned lazily as he pulled up a chair in front of me and sat down. His look of boredom was belied by the furious gaze in his eyes. "You are a very hard man to put down, you know. The boys would'a sworn you were dead when they left you."
A broken laugh echoed through the room, and I realized with a start it came from my mouth. "Well, the Fates love a lonely man."
He shrugged. "It'll soon be very true," he casually remarked as he pulled out a revolver and placed it against my forehead. His finger tensed and slowly squeezed, the hammer sliding back in slow motion, only to snap forward with a click and…nothing. The men laughed gustily to themselves and even Obadiah managed a slight smirk, but there was a measure of irritation in his face. "You don't flinch very easily, Mr. Ursari."
I returned the smirk as best I could. "Well, I'm an army man, so being shot at is nothing new. Your revolver also has an open cylinder, so I could see it wasn't loaded."
He snarled and pulled back, slamming the gun into my temple, evoking more stars and blurring my vision yet again. "Uppity bastard!" he snarled, and pulled back for another blow.
I tensed up to prepare for the next hit, but the door opened again and a smooth baritone voice cut through the tension. "Obadiah, there is no need for violence," the voice commanded, which I immediately recognized as Zill Archer. "Mr. Ursari deserves our respect for all he has done; surely that counts for something." Obadiah got up and Mr. Archer sat in his place, his fingers interlaced over his belly. "Mr. Ursari is a survivor and a very tough opponent…your men should take notes."
I coughed a bit from the dust and licked my lips. "Well, Mr. Archer, I have no alternative. I have to survive if I want to live."
He nodded paternally. "Of course, Mr. Ursari…I agree with you 100%. Every man must be able to survive the toughest obstacles life throws at them in order to grow up, raise a family, and send their progeny into the world so they, too, can go through the same motions." He leaned in close and smirked as a snake would to a potential meal. "Unfortunately, you will not experience that part of life, as you will be dead." He pulled a gun out of a holster and with a start I realized it was mine. He noticed the gleam in my eye and smiled craftily. "Ah, you recognize it, don't you? I can only imagine what must be going through your head; although, I'm sure it is a series of words not fitting for mixed company." The other men chuckled as he raised the gun to my head. "Goodbye, Mr. Ursari."
If I didn't believe in the Fates I would've sworn another celestial agency was acting as Providence for me and mine, for at that very moment the sound of dying men and screaming Ano erupted from beyond the door. Obadiah and his men turned as one with incredulity on their faces, and even Zill paused for a moment. "What the hell is that?" Zill barked, his confusion and fury evident on his face. Obadiah didn't need to be told what to do, so he snarled at his men and they opened the doors.
The image that presented itself was worthy of the Twelve Hells: Zill's men were desperately fighting off scores of Tehacote and Innuato, but both sides had inflicted a heavy toll upon the other, as bodies on the ground attested. Obadiah was thunderstruck and I daresay Zill was similarly stunned at the sheer violence before them. However, Obadiah was never one to let the grass grow under his feet and shouted crisp orders to regroup in the shed. The men fighting outside who could hear immediately danced back into the questionable safety of the shed, firing over the heads of the Ano to cool any pursuit. While they were getting situated I was working furiously on breaking my bonds, my muscles writhing underneath the skin as I strained against the hemp cords. Their attention was fully absorbed by the carnage before them and I silently thanked the Fates for the shouting which covered the sounds of the chair creaking and giving way. Unfortunately, the Fates acted in their usual fashion and, before I could fully free myself from the hated bonds, the doors slammed shut to the sound of muffled pounding and the occasional scream of an unlucky farmhand caught out in the open.
Zill whirled around, his face contorted into one of animalistic rage. He brandished my Montag and brusquely shoved it into my face. "Why did you bring these damned brownies onto my property?" he bellowed.
It was my turn to be shocked. "I didn't bring anyone here, Mr. Archer; I came alone, or I thought I had. I don't let other people do my fighting for me."
His finger tightened on the trigger and, for one brief moment, I thought my time on this earth was at an end. However, his eyes narrowed in thought and he pulled the gun away. "No, I don't think you did bring them…that isn't your style." The Innuato had renewed their assault on the door by this point, cracks forming in the wood from their hatchets, howling alien imprecations in their tongue. I even recognized a few of the words.
"They are angry at you, Mr. Archer," I quietly informed him. "They say you have taken their land and killed their people, and they want your head."
Everyone looked at me with a look of surprise. "I'll be damned," Obadiah muttered. "You understand them?"
I nodded. "A little bit, but it's enough. Unlike you, I don't consider them stupid animals or ignorant savages," I snarled. "They've had all they can take from your kind, Mr. Archer, and they're not gonna take it anymore. In a way, they remind me of my own people in Madora: Lying patiently until it is time to strike."
Zill raised my gun with a level hand. "Well, bid your people and your friends goodbye, Mr. Ursari," he said, a flash filling my eyes and a roar echoing painfully through my ears. The now familiar darkness overcame me as the door beyond them gave way, Innuato spilling inward with implacable hatred on their features and eyes promising a painful death.
I rose once again from the darkness to find myself in a room filled with distinctly feminine articles, and I was a bit nonplussed at the faded pink sheets covering my form. I could only see out of my right eye, and from the looks of it the other was covered with bandages. I made out two voices in the corner, and when I turned to look I saw Doc Crane talking to Victoria and giving her something in a bag. They heard my movement and he smiled. "Well, I s'pose this is one I can count as a success," he chuckled good-naturedly, returning to my bedside. "You're one lucky man, I can tell you that."
"Not sure I would consider myself a success," I mumbled dejectedly. "The damned Ano stole my fight."
He gingerly patted me on the shoulder in a fatherly sort of way. "Well, you should be thankful they were there, as they were the ones that brought you in."
I started visibly at that revelation. "Wait…what? I thought the Tehacote hated cities."
Doc Crane shrugged his shoulders. "I'm ot sure who they were, as I do not know the different tribes by sight. But they brought you in with very worried expressions on their faces, and I guess it was the leader explained to me that you needed to be healed. Even gave me a few crowns for my trouble."
I slowly blinked, the details of the battle still hazy in my mind's eye. "It had to be the Innuato, then." I sighed softly, the Lady of Dreams already casting her hand over my body. "The Innuato."
He smiled and patted my shoulder once again, standing up to depart. The last thing I saw was Victoria's beautiful face with an expression of sorrow, concern…and pride.
I kept floating in and out of conscious, greeting friends whenever I had the energy to do so, but I mostly saw Victoria. She took care of me in her house, and as much as the feminine frippery grated upon my already sore nerves I was privately pleased she had taken an interest in me greater than that of a customer.
It was George who explained everything to me on what I discovered was my fourth day in convalescence. "Yes, the Innuato came to us and explained the situation, so we took you to the doctor," he said quietly as we sat on the porch. My left eye was healing quite nicely, but Doc Crane said to keep the bandage on a little longer, which aggravated me to no end. The other parts were healing in fits and starts, so I was a jumble of oddly felt pain and injuries. "We gave him all the money we could, but we know it is not enough."
I waved a hand dismissively. "Don't worry about it. I'll square it with Crane." I got into a more comfortable position before continuing. "What happened, George? Why did the Ano come after Archer that night, of all nights? And what happened to Zill?"
He shrugged. "Not sure. It's possible they followed you and used your intent as a method to express their own frustrations at the same time, but unless I can talk to Chief Hawauitee it will be a mystery unsolved for the time being." He shifted in his seat. "As for Mr. Archer…no one is certain what happened to him. The Tehacote disappeared as soon as there were no white men to fight, and no one knew what he looked like. I suspect he is dead along with the others, since Tehacote never leave a survivor."
I nodded slowly, noting my desire for revenge quietly draining away. "Oh well." I fell silent at that point, not really knowing what else to say. However, a familiar whinnying sound caused me to look up in a second, and I saw Ignatius moseying his way towards the porch with the reins dragging in the dirt. With a whoop of joy I stood up, all injuries forgotten, rushing towards the old coot and applying a death grip to his mane as if he were in danger of going away. Ignatius is actually a sentimental old fool at heart, despite what I have written about him, and he quietly nuzzled the side of my head in grateful recognition. I patted his thick, corded neck with savage joy and rubbed his ears.
"I knew you would rejoice in his presence," George said with a grin. "The Innuato found him wandering around after the fight and recognized him from your descriptions. They brought him here with the help of To'no."
"They are a tribe that breeds horses for the Nation. They are superior horse riders and have retained that title for generations. You'll be surprised to know he even let them ride him."
I looked at Ignatius with feigned shock. "You old bastard…You're slipping in your age!" Ignatius merely cast a lazy eye towards my direction and dismissed my observation with a snort. I laughed and hugged the old horse with fierce abandon, unconcerned as to how others would perceive my display of affection. After all, it was Ignatius.
"So…Is this the 'other woman'?" Victoria called from the porch, a sly look on her face. I turned to her and chortled. "Throughout my life, Ignatius has been the dependable rock within it. I fear nothing when I'm saddled up, and neither does he."
She smiled and descended the steps, giving me a fierce hug; George, I noticed, had discretely disappeared. "Henry, I am so sorry –"
I pulled away and placed a rough finger against her delicate lips. "Hush. Don't say anything more." I smiled kindly and chastely kissed her; after all, we were outside and people would talk. "Victoria, I want to know if you'll come to me to Estoga. I have a really nice cabin out there, waiting for a woman's touch."
She looked at me, her face indecipherable. "But, Henry…I thought you hated the whole 'woman's touch' thing."
I smiled crookedly. "Let's just say I've had a change of heart. I don't wanna do the 'slinger thing anymore…it's a young man's game and I'm getting too old for it. Big River taught me that. I need to settle down and put it all behind me."
She looked at me for a very long time, her eyes searching my face, and then cast her eyes downward after an interminable silence. My heart grew heavy with the burgeoning stillness between us, and my smile slowly disappeared as her answer became apparent. I exhaled softly as my soul gently turned sour and cold. "Well…" I began, clearing the thickness out of my throat, "I guess that's that. I'll…uh…I guess I'll get my things and head home, then." I led Ignatius to a post and tied him up, patting him on his thick neck, before going up the stairs and entering Victoria's house for the last time.
"Well, I can't say I'm glad to see you go," Willy offered cheerfully, "but you're a whirlwind that doesn't belong here." He chuckled dryly as I sipped some coffee in his office. "I think things will go a lot smoother now that Zill's hold on Big River is broken. Tolly is gone, too, and I ain't cryin' over that. I feel badly that it took you to do what I couldn't, but my hands were tied in this instance." He gave me a penetrating stare that wasn't fooling either of us. "O' course, I could haul you up on charges of disturbing the peace, but I think a fair warning's gonna be satisfactory in this instance."
I shrugged noncommittally. "Sometimes a man's gotta go outside the law to get things done. I certainly don't hold you responsible for any of it." I smiled bitterly and arose. "Well, the sun's getting higher in the sky and I really don't want to cook in the middle of the afternoon. Ignatius is bad enough as the only company on a several week journey."
He smiled warmly as he rose with me and shook my hand. "You're a good man, Henry, and I am glad I met you." He escorted me to the door and outside where Ignatius was awaiting impatiently. "Are you sure you don't want to stay? I could really use a deputy like you, ya' know."
I smiled as I mounted up and gently tugged on the reins. "No, Willy…I'm a whirlwind, remember? I'll end up being on the bad side of the law, and once is enough for me. Goodbye, sir, and may the Fates smile kindly upon you!" I waved as I departed, never bothering to see his response.
I quickly passed out of Big River, not out of any sense of urgency, mind you, but because I didn't want to see Victoria's face. She made her decision and I had no alternative but to go along with it, even if I disagreed with her reasoning. Maybe she was a city girl at heart, which meant taking her to the country would've been cruel and unusual punishment. But I know if I had seen her once more time, I would've been reluctant to leave Big River, and that would've been cruel and unusual punishment for all involved.
It was evening before I finally called it a night, pitching a tent and setting out some grain for Ignatius after tying him up to an imbedded rock. You folks may think horses are tame little creatures with nary a thought towards escape, but none of you have had to deal with Ignatius. I once tied him to what I thought was a heavy rock, only to wake up the next morning to find he had dragged it several hundred yards down the road. I don't think he was deliberately trying to escape, but one never knows what truly goes through the mind of a creature like him. The night passed uneventfully with bats and owls as my only company, catching the nocturnal beasts that skitter through the darkness. The next morning I broke camp and began the next day of many on my way back to Estoga.
It was probably early afternoon when I came across a ghastly sight: Crowds of vultures hovering over the shimmering plains, circling in ever-tightening circles over what appeared to be a feeding frenzy. That only meant two things: A dead animal or person. Out of sheer curiosity I nudged Ignatius forward, crinkling my nose at the smell of flesh cooking in the hot sun. As I got closer I received my answer: Several men long dead lay on the side of the road, their features unrecognizable. I noticed their gear was on the side of the road, a curiosity alongside the Death Lord's work, since the scene was usually the result of bandits. I got closer and the vultures protested mightily, squawking and hissing at my unwanted intrusion. Ignatius turned his ears backwards and rumbled menacingly, and the vultures got the message real quick and backed off. Some of my readers may think vultures are predatory creatures of the worst sort, eager to pluck the eyeballs from a living man, but this is the furthest thing from the truth. They are cowardly creatures at heart, unwilling to risk harm to themselves from any creature remotely threatening.
I dismounted and went through the carelessly placed gear, hoping to find any ammunition for the gun Willy lent me. However, as I perused the contents of the packs I came across some familiar items, and as I emptied everything I realized these were items from Obadiah's men. I swore mightily when it dawned on me that these men were scavengers who saw or heard of the carnage at Archer's ranch and ransacked the place, but it wasn't the items that made me swear like a sailor. Buried amidst the usual accoutrements of the standard ranch hand was my Montag Thunderhawk, a little worse for wear but unmistakable in appearance. I gently picked it up as if it were a foundling child and, I am not ashamed to admit, offered a full prayer service to the Fates right then and there. Sure, the missionaries said one can only conduct a service to the Fates in a proper church, but protocol be damned; this was my gun and the Fates had dropped it back into my hands. I recited all 26 stanzas of the "Prayer to the Fates" within the Book of Fate I had on my person (although I had to double-check numbers 14 through 26) and sprinkled some water from my skin like the missionaries do, just to be on the safe side. I gathered what few items were useful and was about to leave when I heard a low moan coming from behind a low hill. Gripping my familiar friend tightly I proceeded around the hill, prepared for a ghost, Ano, or not-quite-dead scavenger.
A man was tied down to some stakes and, from the looks of it, had not completely escaped the predations of the vultures despite his status as one of the still-living. As I got closer I nearly dropped my gun, for Zill Archer was the man tied to the ground, his face blistered and his once fine clothing torn, dirty, and spotted with old blood. I holstered my revolver and came up beside him, struck dumb with the bounty before me. He feebly turned his head and would've jumped had he not been tied down. Fear oozed from every pore of his being as he licked his cracked lips with a leathery tongue. "He…Henry? Henry Ursari? The Fates have graced me!" he wheezed through his parched throat. "The Fates have delivered me from this ignoble death!" He actually managed to look relieved. "Henry, free me and whatever I have is yours. Obadiah is dead; he was killed by the brownies that ambushed us. I have money stored away, and it is yours to take if you just free me!"
I looked at him a very long time and then slowly shook my head. "No, Mr. Archer. Even if you did have money I wouldn't take it."
He blinked furiously. "But…but…but you accepted my money before! What difference does it make now?"
I kneeled down beside him, my eyes surely blazing with rage. "Because I had no choice, and I casually looked the other way while I was taking it. I'll have to answer for that someday, I'm sure, but I won't take your money now."
His body writhed with impotent rage as he struggled against the ropes that bound him. "You fool! You damned, cursed, blasted fool! I offer you riches and power, and you refuse?"
"Yes I am, because I've known people who get money and power, and it usually goes to their head real quick. In fact, you're going to lay here, just as you ordered your men to lay me out in the same manner. The Fates smiled upon me and delivered me from death…you'd better start hoping they do the same for you." I stood up, adjusting my hat against the hot sun. "You're a snake, Mr. Archer, and I'm sure you'd bite me again if I saved you from your predicament. Snakes never forget a slight, and I know you don't, either." I departed from his location, inured to his feeble cries for help and supplication. I swung up onto the saddle and clicked my tongue, leaving the ruined cattle baron to his fate, whatever it may have been.
I realize some of my readers are probably scandalized and horrified to the core by my callous disregard for a fellow human being in distress, especially considering the juxtaposition of circumstances in which we found ourselves. I will also refrain from any justification of my actions, because two wrongs do not somehow cancel each other out and I will not insult your ethical and moral intelligence in arguing for it. Truth is, I wanted him to suffer for not only what he did to me, but what he did to the Ano'tu'ana, to the good (and bad) people of Big River, and to Victoria, of whom I'm sure that blackguard had some scandalous information against. I wanted Zill Archer to pay for his crimes, dragged into the Tempter's hollows kicking and screaming amidst the promises of suffering. I wanted his last thoughts to be of all the people he had crossed and the people he ordered killed while keeping his own hands clean. I realized at that point that the Ano were truly far more civilized than we gave them credit, because I was certain they would not have left him to die, despite the possibility of betrayal. What they would have done afterwards is anyone's guess, but I suspect he would not have come out of that encounter whole. I am neither a holy man nor missionary, and have never misled anyone to that fact, so if you think I had any moral reservation that was an assumption on your part. The wastes of New Madora are unforgiving to the novice, which is a lesson that seemed to have escaped Mr. Archer. You never betray the people below you, because you may find yourself in their situation one day, and old grievances have a habit of visiting themselves upon the aggressor.