Trail of Light
“He murdered some folk up in Tall Trees. Only reason they knew he’d left was then he killed again further south. Didn’t know he’d come this far, though. He’s quick an’ sneaky, rumor has it. And real good with knives. Likes to torture folk with ’em. Leaves behind… an obvious trail.”
Between chapters 2 and 3 of Desert Flowers and Cactus Spines by Gabrielle Graham: When U.S. Marshal Adinal Webster and his companion Zalel Loratoris set out from Armadillo to track down Benjamin “Ben the Blade” Light, they know it won’t be a standard chase. They also can’t know what the spiritual consequences may be of following Light into the darkness.
Unique to this story: Torture, burning alive
Trail of Light
It hadn’t rained for almost a week, and the combination of dust and bitter sweat from the heavy sun was enough to turn a man’s freshly cleaned skin to mud all over again. Riding did elevate you above the worst of it, but it wasn’t far enough to the sheriff’s office to justify getting the horses out and muddying them up too.
“Reckon we’ll get some weather to cool this off any time soon?” Adinal asked, tilting the brim of his hat upward while he scanned the sky and horizon. Then he pulled it back down firmly, adjusted his glasses, and hunched his shoulders as if this would provide some protection against the glare.
Zalel mimicked his sweeping gaze from east to west, and shook his head. “Nope. I’ve seen skies like this all my life, an’ I wouldn’t say we’ll be seein’ rain this week or maybe next.”
This had been Adinal’s opinion already; he’d just wanted to hear Zalel say it.
“Heat’ll have to break, though, ‘fore we get any moisture.” Zalel waved a hand in the air. “Pressure has to drop ‘fore clouds’ll blow in. ‘Sides, it just poured rain — least it did over the ranch — not long ago, an’ sun after rain’s good fer plant life.”
Adinal nodded, smiling at Zalel’s erudition. It hadn’t taken long to discover how eager the young man was to read every book he could get his hands on, to learn everything printed word could teach him. This particular knowledge, however, probably hailed more from experience than study. Zalel didn’t have much experience in a lot of things, but where he did, he’d absorbed its lessons thoroughly.
“Looks like the sheriff’s office was painted up pretty once upon a time,” Zalel speculated. “Blue, maybe?”
“Good eye,” Adinal replied easily. “That was long ‘fore yer time, though, or even mine.”
“Why hasn’t anyone painted it again? It ain’t much of a sight now.”
“Folk don’t always have the money or the supplies fer a task like that… but I think most just don’t care.”
A small, pensive frown twisted Zalel’s lips (Adinal spent a lot of time clandestinely watching Zalel’s face, lips not the least), of the sort that said, “I’ll wanna talk about this later.” They’d drawn close enough to the sheriff’s, in order to see why he’d sent for Adinal today, that they needed to set other matters aside.
The interior of the building was sweltering, which had turned Palmer’s face red as usual. In the heat, he often leaned far back in his chair, propping his hat over his face and his boots on the consequently dirty desk in what Adinal privately thought of as ‘the classic cowboy pose.’ Zalel had asked during a previous visit, on finding the sheriff thus, why he rested in the patch of sun from the window and then guarded himself from its rays with his hat, rather than simply moving his desk; Palmer hadn’t had an answer.
Today, however, Palmer sat bolt upright, fiddling nervously with his worn old pocket-watch in an almost Zalel-like movement, sweating more copiously than his normally already significant level. He breathed a heavy sigh with some relief in it as the marshal and his assistant entered, but still looked agitated and grim.
“Good mornin’, Mr. Palmer,” Zalel, ever polite, greeted him.
At the same moment, Adinal, frowning at his read off the sheriff, said, “What d’you have fer me today?”
It was, unfortunately, all too easy to interrupt Zalel, on account of he talked so much. He often looked awkward when Adinal did it, as if it were his fault — or as if tasteless folk in the past had told him he talked too much; but it really only happened because Adinal hadn’t quite figured out the younger man’s rhythm yet. Eventually he wouldn’t interrupt, just naturally, and conversations would flow a little better. Assuming there was time for that before Zalel finished doing things.
“Someone’s spotted Benjamin Light down south.” Palmer returned Zalel’s greeting with a nod as he said this. “‘Ben the Blade,’ if’n that name rings a bell.”
“It does,” said Adinal, now every bit as grim as the sheriff. “South where?”
“Rio Bravo, east of Mercer somewhere. Outta my jurisdiction, and I can’t say as I regret it. Wouldn’t even like to see you go after him, ‘cept I don’t want him creepin’ in here and slicin’ my people up.” He gave a stiff grin with very little humor in it.
Adinal nodded. “An’ somebody’s gotta go after him. Might as well be me.”
Zalel, who’d found Light’s wanted poster on the board, had been tapping a steady beat against it with one knuckle. He’d also been quivering to speak throughout this brief exchange, and, since he would need to know the details in any case, Adinal looked at him expectantly. “‘Ben the Blade’ don’t seem a very creative name. Who is he? I see he’s done murder, but what’s so bad about him to put this kind of price on his head?”
“Everything,” the sheriff sighed. “Ain’t nothin’ good about ‘im.”
At this unhelpful answer, Zalel threw Adinal a reciprocating expectant glance.
“He murdered some folk up in Tall Trees. Only reason they knew he’d left was then he killed again further south. Didn’t know he’d come this far, though.” As Zalel yet stared at him, he continued. “He’s quick an’ sneaky, rumor has it. And real good with knives.” Adinal examined the little muscles on Zalel’s face as he finished, waiting for his reaction to the horrible truth. “Likes to torture folk with ’em. Leaves behind… an obvious trail.”
And indeed, Zalel’s expression pinched up into one of disgust and anger. “Then we just better catch ‘im,” he said, quiet but emphatic.
“You sure you want in on this one?” Adinal knew by now how determined Zalel could be on anything he felt strongly about — and that his unerring sense of justice was one of those things. The marshal wouldn’t try to stop his friend from getting involved simply because he’d taken such a shine to him; but he did want him to understand the risks specific to this situation.
“Palmer here would’ve said if he had any more information fer us, an’ there’s plenty of places off the road in Rio Bravo fer a man hidin’ out. We could be ridin’ fer lord knows how long. An’ when we do catch up with ‘im… well, the man’s a devil.”
“Any good with a gun?” Zalel asked, brows still knitted.
“It ain’t what made him infamous, but he must be. A man don’t survive long out here if he ain’t.”
“Then there’s no question of me not goin’ with you.”
Palmer gave another sigh half of relief and half of trepidation. “Glad to know you won’t be alone on this, marshal. Mr. Loratoris, you jus’ watch his back.”
With a nod Zalel said, “‘Swhat I do now.”
“Come on back to the rooms, an’ we’ll make plans,” Adinal suggested, trying not to show how delighted he was with that last statement.
“Sheriff, you gotta spare one of these?” Zalel hadn’t stopped tapping the poster.
“Take it,” Palmer said. “Can’t stand lookin’ at his ugly mug anyway.”
At home (interesting how accustomed Adinal had so quickly become to using that word in reference to both of them), they decided what to take with them, and where to head first, without much difficulty. And, as it remained mid-morning, they determined on setting out immediately. Zalel, as usual, had a fire driving him, and, though Adinal’s burned for more than only justice, he thought they matched mighty well in that at least.
On the trail, which was dusty enough to choke any man without a face-bandanna, Zalel immediately began the conversation Adinal had been expecting — not the one about settlers’ ability and desire to paint their sheriff’s office; that probably wouldn’t come up again until they returned. “Now, I can understand someone killin’ in self-defense,” Zalel said instead. “I’ve done it; you’ve done it, an’ I’ve been there when you have. You helped me realize it’s possible to kill a man without bein’ an awful person.
“And I can even understand why bandits kill, even if I can’t approve, ’cause they’re guardin’ their interests. An’ some murderers, I suppose, can reform and live a better life, though they’d have an awful hard time of it.” What Adinal could see of Zalel’s eyes, from the distance that separated their horses, was as steely and precise as his shooting skill. “But torture’s different. Ain’t no forgivin’ that, or even understandin’ it.”
“Man’s gotta be sick in the head,” Adinal replied, squirming a little internally as he used a phrase he’d often heard applied to people like him.
“An’ fer that I should feel sorry for him, I guess… but he can’t be out runnin’ loose.”
The marshal loved his companion for his morality. No, he mustn’t use that term. He admired Zalel’s morality, for the comprehension he showed of situations and what should be done about them, for the mixture of justice and compassion with which he approached even the worst of all men. Course Adinal admired more than that in Zalel, but thanks to those points specifically, he didn’t think he could find a better deputy. That remained a daydream, though.
From there the ride went much as their rides ever did, with conversation, observation, perspiration, and admiration, and Zalel stopping occasionally for reasons of his own — mostly his usual herb-gathering among the hardy foliage that lined and sometimes encroached upon the road, but in two instances to look at and point out local wildlife.
They encountered three fellow travelers or sets of travelers as they went, as well as some cowboys from a nearby settlement, but only one person had heard anything of the outlaw they sought. Just as Adinal had taught him, Zalel had folded the ‘Reward’ section of the wanted poster backward to where it wouldn’t be seen by anyone — thus, hopefully, deterring the shrewd that thought they had some skill with a six-shooter from chasing after the high bounty themselves and probably dying a horrible death in the process. Zalel had speculated, when Adinal originally advised him on this measure, that another reason might well be the desire to collect the payout for their own part. Adinal had admitted that they too needed to make a living.
Light’s bald patch (when visible), his crooked nose, and his prominent ears made him a sight more recognizable than the average criminal; and their informant swore he’d seen him — traveling south, it seemed, bent on what errand the man couldn’t guess. Maybe heading for Mexican territory?
Adinal didn’t much care where he was headed, or why, saving that it would be more difficult to collar Light in Mexican territory, and that Light’s goals were always questionable. He thanked the man, and they moved on.
Course the topic of their mission and its object must come up in conversation more than a few times. At Zalel’s request, Adinal dredged up everything he’d ever heard about Ben the Blade, though the rumors had barely preceded the wanted posters and he couldn’t count on their veracity.
Zalel was still trying to wrap his brain around the idea of someone being so apparently evil, and kept coming back to the point that torture was unnatural, inhuman, incomprehensible. Adinal would have liked to comfort him, but all he could express was some variation on the theme, ‘There’s a heap of cruelty in the world.’
All in all, it took three days to hone in on Light’s path; it seemed he hadn’t murdered anyone along the way (yet, or as far as anyone knew), so it was a difficult track to follow. But they kept their eyes sharp as they entered the general area where he might be found. If he figured the law was on his tail, who knew what he might do to retaliate? If he didn’t figure, who knew when he would take a fancy to a couple more murders?
Late afternoon of the fourth day found them passing along a red ridge covered in green stuff when Zalel drew up and dismounted in a very familiar motion. “Think that’s white chrysanthemum up there,” he remarked.
“Careful,” Adinal advised. “This is cottonmouth country.”
Zalel assured him, “I promise to keep an eye out. We get plenty of snakes at home too; I know what they look like.”
Behind his bandanna, Adinal grinned. He watched Zalel scale the ridge with ease and the low red sun full on him. Course the blaze bleached out colors, which the rising dust turned orange and brown, but at least he could look at Zalel without the light right in his eyes.
Reaching the top, whose height Adinal had underestimated, the young man gazed around, taking in what must be a much better view from that elevation. Then he moved abruptly, backing down from the summit and crouching. Adinal thought for an instant Zalel had slipped, and adrenaline flooded him as he jumped from Goliath’s back.
But the next moment he realized it had been deliberate. Zalel had seen something, and was now hastily gathering the plants he’d gone up for, seeming a little distracted (though it was hard to tell from down here). Next he gave an exaggerated wave of the arm to indicate Adinal should come to him.
“Any time, kid,” the marshal murmured, and began to climb.
As he hunkered down beside Zalel, the latter pointed. “Somethin’ look wrong about that smoke to you?”
Adinal peered out at a point near another ridge that loomed even higher some distance beyond this one, far enough to be free of its lengthening shadow. He saw what Zalel meant: the smoke, rising from what appeared to be a declivity full of scrubby trees at the foot of that ridge, had an odd, thick twist to it you didn’t often see. As it rose it dissipated, but closer to its point of origin, which was invisible from here, it seemed unusually concentrated. What would cause that?
“Could be someone’s supper burnin’,” he said uncertainly. “Sorta looks like fat burnin’. Trees don’t look on fire.”
“That’d be a lot of fat.” Zalel pulled his bandanna down off his face, and, closing his eyes, drew in a long breath through his nose. “I think I smell somethin’, but I could just be imagining it.”
Mimicking him, Adinal too took in the scents of the uneven land. And he agreed; there was something wrong about the air. Exactly what, he couldn’t say, but it put his teeth on edge. No wonder Zalel had thrown himself down so suddenly.
“Suppose we should check it out?”
As Adinal turned his head toward Zalel, he felt a pang such as he’d been no stranger to lately. The young man’s brows were close together and his lips pursed, his expression of curiosity and concern tinged with the dark awareness of what he and the marshal were after on this mission… and he still appeared so fresh, so open-facedly innocent, his handsome features unscarred and his eyes not yet narrowed against the glare of a hard life; he resembled so very much what Adinal himself had once been. How he’d come out of Pike’s Basin and their two or three other rides since with that innocence intact was unfathomable.
Adinal feared this journey would be an even greater trial for Zalel, and it tore him up inside thinking about it. The last thing he wanted to see was Zalel broken by whatever they encountered before they could wrap this thing up, unable to cope with the horror and the shock — or, worse, growing harder and colder, less himself, because of it. He would undoubtedly become familiar with the ills of the world, one by one, until he’d be as jaded as Adinal… but every time he met with one, that world would go a shade darker.
Yet here they were. As Adinal had told the sheriff at Armadillo, someone had to go after the Blade. Yeah, maybe Zalel had insisted on taking part because he didn’t fully recognize what he was in for, but in any case it showed his strength of character and dedication to the protection of his fellow frontiersmen as well as any shiny badge could have done. What would happen would happen, and in that inevitability there was, perhaps, as much comfort as fear.
With an effort, in response to Zalel’s question, “I’d be neglectin’ my duty not to,” Adinal said.
The smoke rose from the southern end of the copse, so Zalel and Adinal circled around and approached from the north. The intermittent breeze had come primarily from the west, and as they drew closer to the ridge, the air grew very still.
Zalel braced himself for what they might find. It seemed unlikely to be Light himself, though this was the right area, as far as they knew. Some travelers had probably left a big kill on an unattended fire, and nothing worse than that. But it could be Light, or related to him — and if it turned out to be the murderer, they would not encounter anything pleasant in this belt of trees.
Zalel’s fingers patted out a beat on his horse’s neck. Wraith was accustomed to this, of course, but also increasingly agitated as they moved. Whatever lay ahead, the gelding could sense it. This led to a self-perpetuating loop between Zalel and his mount, each reading anxiety off the other and gradually increasing together. To his left, Adinal and Goliath seemed calmer; but Zalel could tell, based on the unusually colored stallion’s behavior, that their sanguinity was not as perfect as the man’s demeanor suggested.
They dismounted just within the dubious shade of the trees and bracken, and hitched the boys to a couple of roble limbs sturdier than those of the scrub oak that formed most of the thicket. They would complete their approach on foot. But before they’d taken more than a few steps southward, the breeze shifted around into their faces, and their quiet was marred beyond repair.
The scent, though on its basic level merely that of roasting meat, was foul, and smacked of monstrosity and danger. The smell of so much burning flesh and hair from an animal might disturb the horses, but not to this degree — which could only mean one thing, Zalel thought, especially given that animals didn’t wear the like of cotton and denim that added unique undertones. Wraith whuffed and pranced uneasily, turning gradually toward the north, while Goliath, more inclined to voice his opinion, whinnied aloud, stamped, and strained at his hitch. Neither would actually bolt even if they could loosen the ropes or break the boughs, but their desire to be elsewhere was clear.
Adinal looked over at his companion, and, between glasses and bandanna, Zalel couldn’t read his expression. He was probably, however, every bit as unhappy as Goliath, just as Zalel’s mood matched that of Wraith — though in this case, Adinal was the better trained, and Zalel the one more likely to tug at the rope (if only curiosity hadn’t driven him two steps forward for every single step he wanted to take backward).
It would be better just to get the worst over with, but, once he’d spent a minute or two soothing the horses as well as he could, Zalel’s fingers were definitely drumming on the grip of his gun as the two men moved forward without any bother about softening their footfalls. The ground sloped gradually downward, the earth a darker brown than outside the copse, until they reached what appeared to be the bottom in a little dell right up against the side of the ridge. Here the trees surrounded a large clear space, into which they stepped with some trepidation.
Zalel barely took in the dilapidated shack, something between a house and a shed, with its sagging roof; the rough well with barely a rim and its lid removed; and the four tents that had made a circle around the campfire before someone had apparently ridden through and over them. For he couldn’t look away from the fire and its contents.
Someone had piled it up high so it spilled beyond the bounds originally set for it with a circle of stones. The split firewood had been arranged around and on top of the body, but the shape of a human figure — or what once had been — remained clearly visible within the thick, greasy column of smoke and the persistent flames.
He’d been expecting precisely this, but found that expectation and belief were two very different things. Now his stomach churned and his head reeled, and he had to reach for one of the trees they’d just stepped past. It didn’t help that the full force of the smell was concentrated here, and a bandanna did very little against it.
Adinal stared long and steadfastly at the scene, then turned back to where Zalel still gripped a small branch to keep himself steady. “You all right, kid?” His tone was hard.
“Don’t… I ain’t a kid now I’ve seen somethin’ like that.” Zalel was surprised to find his own voice so even.
“You mean to tell me you were a kid all this time, and only just now did you grow up?”
Zalel chuckled faintly. Then, finding that connecting with his companion over something light and amusing and unrelated to this scene actually helped him feel a bit better, he laughed more fully. Now he knew what people meant by ‘gallows humor.’
“We gotta find the rest of ’em,” Adinal said. “Someone who’ll not stop at burnin’ a man alive wouldn’t stop after it, either, if there were others around.”
With a gulp, Zalel said, “How d’you know he was alive? And a man?”
“If he weren’t alive, there’d be no reason to tie him up like that an’ gag him.” Choosing to take Adinal’s word for it, Zalel did not point his eyes at the fire again. “An’ the proportions don’t look right for a woman, though I could be wrong.” His voice dropped. “Maybe I jus’ don’t like thinkin’ ’bout a woman tortured like that.”
“Course you don’t,” Zalel said hotly. “Who would?”
Grimly Adinal reminded him, “The man we’re after. He’s nothin’ too particular ’bout who he kills, or so they say.”
“You think he was here? Or is here, right this minute?”
“We better hope he was here. Else we got two torturing murderous sons of bitches to track down.”
Again Zalel laughed faintly, though it wasn’t really all that funny. And he noticed Adinal didn’t look away from him until he’d released the branch and demonstrated he could walk without swaying. Wordless for the moment, they began a closer examination of the camp.
Adinal checked the tents, while Zalel moved to the well. Peering down, he found the water level so far below that, in the diminishing horizontal light, he couldn’t make it out. Based on the long, bloody drag marks leading to where one of the stones that had formed the well’s dubious lip had fallen into the darkness, he really would rather not see.
“Body in the well,” he called over his shoulder.
“‘Nother in one of these tents,” Adinal replied, emerging from the latter wiping his hands on his trousers. “And I think I know who these guys are. Were.”
“Who’s that?” Zalel went to meet him standing in front of the building, looking hard at its closed door and boarded-up window.
“Anselmo’s boys. I recognize the one in there.” He pointed over his shoulder, back at the tent. “Small-time bandits, mostly thieves rather’n murderers.” Again he sent a meticulous gaze sweeping around the camp. “They got themselves a pretty nice setup here: not far from the road, so there’s plenty of victims comin’ by — but far ‘nough from it, an’ tucked away in this corner, so’s not to be wandered in on by casual travelers. Wouldn’t stand up to a real search, but for some short-term highway robbery, it’s ideal.”
“Which makes it ideal fer Light as well.”
“An’ the gang didn’t kill each other,” Zalel guessed. “They wouldn’a bothered to set all this up–” Now it was his turn to gesture over his shoulder– “if it were just a squabble over spoils or somethin’.”
Adinal repeated his nod. “Lessee what’s inside.”
Zalel couldn’t help looking at his friend with admiration, despite the gruesome circumstances. Of course Adinal was far more experienced than he was, and had no doubt met with scenes like this before — his complete steadiness at these sights and smells proved it. But that granite coldness didn’t run deep, even if the marshal might like others to think it did.
Because Adinal had been friendly, considerate, and respectful all along: a perfect gentleman. He’d welcomed Zalel into his home and his work, he’d read and chatted with him, and he’d demonstrated that his sense of justice sprang more from the desire to keep evil away from innocents than a delight in collaring and killing. Even just a minute ago, when Zalel had reeled a little in reaction to the slaughter, Adinal had satisfied himself that his companion wasn’t about to give way before he’d started his investigation. He’d made a joke to help Zalel get a grip.
And a man that could balance those aspects of himself — the hard strength required to do his duty in a situation like this alongside care and understanding for others — was one in a million. Zalel felt he could learn a sight more from a man like that than from all the books in the world. Not that he still didn’t want to read all the books in the world.
The lock was broken, but the rust that had overtaken it indicated it had been out of commission for quite some time. The hinges, however, gave never a creak as the door swung open, so they must have been oiled recently. No lantern shone within, only what light peered around the two figures as they entered, or crept through the cracks in the walls. But it smelled like blood.
Adinal pushed the door entirely back until it stuck on something, then moved out of the way so Zalel could step in beside him. They stood still a moment, and as Zalel’s eyes adjusted, as the shapes in the single room grew clearer, he shuddered. By the time his vision had become about as accustomed to the shadows as it was likely to, he wished to high heaven it hadn’t.
Two of the heaps on the floor were certainly bodies; Zalel couldn’t be sure about the rest. And though it made him queasy all over again, he also felt his anger resurging. Even bandits that had probably done murder didn’t deserve this. To truss someone up and gut them like a quail… what kind of rusty serrated soul did a man need to have? If Zalel knew anything at all in his lack of experience with Adinal’s type of work, he knew this: Ben the Blade had to be found. Just the awareness that someone out there could strike again as horrifically as this, cause this kind of unspeakable suffering in more people, brought Zalel’s blood to a boil.
One of the bodies moved. Zalel drew in a gasp and took a twitching step to one side. Little as he liked to in this stuffy death-scented air, he had to breathe deeply a few times to beat back his startlement. His fingers tapped faster than ever on his gun in its holster, but at least he hadn’t drawn and fired just because something spooked him. He congratulated himself for that.
Adinal had noticed it too, and gave Zalel a sharp nod of approval before going toward the body that evidently wasn’t yet a corpse. His footsteps sounded wet and sticky about two paces on, and Zalel tried not to consider what he was treading in.
The marshal crouched down and, after taking a good closer look, drew his knife. As he began working at the ropes that tied the man’s wrists behind his back so tightly the hands had gone as dark as the room around them, he said, “Hey, fella. Can you hear me?”
At first the bandit could only croak. Perhaps he’d used up his voice screaming for help after he’d been left to die in the blood from his numerous wounds. But after several seconds he managed to rasp out, “Bastard… go after ‘im. Give ‘im what’s… comin’ to ‘im… from me.”
“We will,” Adinal assured him, still wrestling with the ropes.
The man gave a crackling groan of pain. Close to, Zalel could see that, though his wounds would certainly kill him, they weren’t so bad that they would kill him quickly. Someone had deliberately stabbed and cut in such a way as to leave the bandit to suffer a slow, agonizing death.
Even if they could get him back to a doctor, and even if the doctor could possibly treat him, his hands had probably been without circulation too long to be fully usable ever again. Besides, he’d lost so much blood. And what would they be saving him for, anyway? The gallows? Zalel could hear the creak of his own grinding teeth.
“Did anyone get out?” Adinal had sawed through enough of the knot to start picking it apart with his fingers.
“Anselmo…” It looked like the man might have said more, but as the rope finally fell from the deep indentations in his wrists, he gave a sudden hoarse shriek and writhed on the floor. As this must have disturbed several of his wounds, his cries were ongoing. Adinal stood straight and stepped back, shaking his head. The bandit’s ankles were still tied, but the marshal couldn’t help him while he thrashed around like that.
“It’ll be the blood pumpin’ back into his hands,” Zalel said. “Might’ve been kinder to leave the rope on.”
“A man shouldn’t die tied up like a hog,” said Adinal darkly.
Eventually the bandit grew still, panting raggedly and whimpering. Adinal resumed his work, asking as he sawed at the lower ropes, “How long since Light left?” But the man just gasped and shook his head slightly.
“Doubt he has any idea how long he’s been lyin’ here,” Zalel said. “Pain’ll do that to you. But it can’t’ve been long, or there’d be more clotting, and that fire out there woulda died down.”
“A burning… A fire like that can go fer hours. But I think yer right.” Adinal put his knife away and undid the cut knot. Zalel noticed now that what he’d taken for shoes or socks in the shadows were actually the man’s feet, as purple as his hands.
It seemed the poor victim had run out of energy, for he only groaned again at the renewal of circulation to his lower extremities. He lay flat now, his arms beside him on the floor, his head tilted back slightly toward the rafters and the wall behind him.
“I’m sorry to be the cause of more pain,” Adinal said. “But it’ll all be over soon.”
Zalel looked at him, at his inscrutable, almost invisible face and his determined bearing. And he knew before he asked. “What d’you mean by that?”
“I mean,” said Adinal slowly, “I’m plannin’ to give this man a merciful death.”
“Please,” the bandit gasped.
Zalel’s feelings about this didn’t rightly fit together and give him a coherent impression of his own reaction, but he guessed it really came down to whether he considered it right or wrong to kill someone this way, for this reason. “I was just thinkin’…” His voice sounded unusually loud in the thick air. “We can’t possibly save him, not with all those wounds, an’ even if we did it’d only be fer a noose. Ain’t that right?”
Adinal nodded without speaking, allowing Zalel to work this out for himself.
“An’ when an animal gets hurt beyond healin’, you try to put it down as humanely as you can.” It had been a rough lesson and a day of tears when his mother had taught him that.
“Please,” the man on the floor repeated. His left eye was covered in blackened blood, but his right was wide and desperate.
“An’ he obviously wants it,” Zalel finished. He stood straight, removed his hat, and ran a twitching hand through his hair.
Adinal drew his LeMat. “Turn yer back.”
Gratefully doing as he was told, Zalel attempted to identify some of the other things in the room so he wouldn’t be tempted to look. He didn’t want to see it, but curiosity, morbid or otherwise, was like an itch all down his spine. He didn’t want to see it, but he wasn’t sure whether it would even be real to him if it happened out of sight, or more like all those newspaper articles he’d clipped and collected at home.
He heard Adinal shift, heard the click of the hammer, heard the bandit whisper, “Thank you…” And then the shot, like thunder in that enclosed space.
Adinal didn’t look at Zalel as, after holstering his gun and reaching down to close the dead man’s one good eye, he scanned the heap of objects to his left trying to make out what they were. He told himself it was too dark to attempt reading his companion’s expression, so he might as well not bother, but he knew that what frightened him was not the literal darkness.
Therefore he almost gasped in relief thirty seconds or so later when Zalel joined him rummaging through the bundles and said, “Looks like luggage. Suppose someone was travelin’ to set up house somewhere, an’ the bandits relieved them of all their stuff?”
“I’d say that’s a good assessment.” Adinal rifled the contents of a crate whose lid had been pried off none too dexterously and lay splintered to the side. “Small household goods…”
“Clothing in this one.” Zalel held up a dress from the bag he’d been examining. “Gingham.” Its pattern could not be made out in the shadows, but it would clearly fit a grown woman.
Adinal’s heart sank even farther than this business had already depressed it. Unwillingly, he stepped over to the other body and rolled it onto its back. Despite the vicious, brutal wounds — the signs of exaggerated, abandoned movements with a long knife — the man’s bearded face and the familiarity Adinal found in it, identifying him as another of Anselmo’s boys, caused him to let out a faint sigh.
The sound of Zalel’s search had paused, but at Adinal’s noise of relief he resumed. “This stuff’s fer two people,” he stated positively. “Men’s clothing, women’s clothing, all the same sizes. But there’s too much of it…” Ever since he’d talked his way through accepting that the wounded man needed to be shot, his voice had been even louder than usual. He seemed too big for this horrible place.
But Adinal turned his thoughts to the matter at hand, though he didn’t precisely respond to Zalel’s last comment. “Limited in scope as they may be — mighta been,” he mused, “these fellas weren’t stupid enough to rob folk on the road an’ then leave ’em behind an’ come here. It’d be too risky; anyone mighta followed them, or drawn a bead on the direction they rode off. They musta gone to the trouble of incapacitatin’ their victims.” Would they discover even more dead bodies along this bloody trail?
Zalel shook his head. “What I meant was: there’s too much here fer two people to carry on horseback.”
Adinal snapped his fingers. “Course. I shoulda seen it. Even bandits would have a hard time gettin’ a load like this back to their hideout.”
“Suppose there’s a wagon somewhere hereabouts?”
“We’ve seen all we’re gonna see in here. Let’s head around back.”
Even with the smell still rising off the fire, even within the cluster of trees and brush, the camp felt expansive after the close building. And even in the fading day, the light seemed piercingly brilliant. Zalel looked far less out of place here; he didn’t belong in the shadows with tortured bodies and stolen goods. With the usual trust and openness in his eyes, he met Adinal’s gaze, with no hint of bitterness or disapproval — none aimed at his companion, anyway, which gave Adinal strength.
Behind the shack was a long, much-used hitching post, a trough whose contents had been splashed all over, and a feed bin far less run-down than the building it leaned against. No horses stood there, but signs of their presence were everywhere.
The remains of a rope still hung from where it had been tied to the hitching cross-bar, and when Adinal examined the end, he guessed Anselmo had taken that horse; the cut looked hasty, as if someone had been in a mighty hurry to get away. Why the bandit hadn’t used a standard hitch in the first place, like any rational person, baffled the marshal for a moment; but then he reflected that a thief would trust no one, and might therefore want to make it more difficult for even a comrade to steal his horse.
He lifted the lid of the feed bin, and found it half full of very dry roughage, the dust of which made him sneeze. Then he turned to join Zalel in staring at the ground, where the mud created by the shoddy trough showed a chaos of hoofprints — and two parallel flat tracks mostly overriding the rest.
“This ain’t no way to keep horses.” Zalel sounded almost as sour about the conditions here as he had about the horrors inflicted on humans they’d already seen. But with an apparent effort, he adjusted his priorities. “So there was a wagon.”
Adinal hesitated to step forward, not wanting to muss the marks, though the warm air had already toughened up many of the shapes in the earth. He crouched down and examined them as best he could without getting too close. “Three horses here, would you say?”
Zalel squatted beside him, reaching out to drum a pattern along the curve of one indentation. “Looks like pretty fresh shoes on this one.” He peered at the others, the tilt of his head gradually increasing as his eyes swept the ground out to where the brush started again. “Yeah… yeah, I’d agree with you: three horses. One a good heavy workin’ animal.”
“Fer the wagon,” Adinal nodded as he stood. He gestured to the hitching-post. “And one carrying Anselmo, prob’ly as far away as he can get. I’d bet he’s still ridin’. The third…”
“Horse Light came in on?”
Again Adinal nodded. “Which leaves the question: did our postulated couple escape on their wagon, or…”
“Did Light throw ’em in the wagon an’ tie his own horse up behind?” Zalel finished for him.
Now, still stepping gingerly in case they ended up needing to revisit these indicators, Adinal did move out toward the wagon tracks. Zalel followed, also picking his way, talking as he did so: “If Light killed those two, we’da seen the bodies. If the bandits killed ’em, we’d never find the bodies. We gotta follow Light, whatever’s the case, but I’d sure feel easier in my mind knowin’ what happened to those people.”
The tracks led from behind the shack and up out of the clearing into the trees, where branches had been hacked away and undergrowth beaten back to create a path that must have been just wide enough. For about twenty yards, the muddy prints and the softer earth provided a clear trail; but as the dirt became harder and more mixed with pebbles, leaves, and other debris, the signs faded. Still, those twenty yards were enough.
Pointing, Zalel said, “Definitely tied his horse behind. See here: the hoofprints are the only thing ever on top of the wagon tracks.” Adinal had noticed this much, but Zalel went on as usual. “An’ this horse behind was walkin’ all the way up to… right there… where he went to a trot. So he weren’t chasin’ after anyone.”
Adinal looked at him. “Turns out havin’ a ranch-hand along on a chase is even more helpful’n I thought.” Crinkles appeared beside Zalel’s eyes, and Adinal knew he was smiling behind his bandanna. Forcing himself to turn away instead of gazing his fill, Adinal added, “Time we were gettin’ back to our own horses. I doubt this here spot’s gonna tell us much more’n it already has.”
“Yeah,” said Zalel emphatically. “We can pick up the track on the other end of the trees; it has to come out somewhere.”
As they walked, opting to go around the back of the building where they wouldn’t have to see the fire again, Zalel talked more easily than he had the entire time they’d been here — ironic, considering what he began with. “To tell the truth, it makes me a little nervous leavin’ Wraith unattended near a bandit hideout. I can’t well imagine anyone hangin’ around, like you said, but who knows who else is lurking in the area — or attracted by the smoke, like we were.”
Rather than anything he could say or do, Adinal reflected, Zalel might be driven from this life by his love of horseflesh. It was… a surprisingly comforting thought. But he pushed it away and said, “I’da put out the fire if there hadn’t been a body in the well.”
Zalel shuddered visibly, fingers again tapping audibly against his holstered gun. “There’s another reason I want to get back to Wraith: my stomach’s been actin’ funny ever since we stepped outta the trees back there. ‘Spect yers has been too.”
“Hazard of the job,” Adinal shrugged. He wasn’t used to men that could admit to this kind of weakness, especially so candidly and without shame. They stood straight or they cracked; they would not bend. Which just set Zalel even further apart from your common gunslinger and made Adinal admire him all the more.
“Well, this time you’ve got an herbalist with you,” said Zalel firmly. “We can’t stick around long, but it won’t take a minute to mix us up something to drink that should help. No reason to stand it when you don’t have to.”
And so it was that, as they rode out of the copse to circumnavigate it and pick up the wagon’s trail on the other side, Adinal’s mouth tasted strongly of chamomile and peppermint, flavors he would probably associate with Zalel from this day on.
Zalel remained unusually silent until after they had dismounted and determined Light’s direction of travel as best they could. It wasn’t the easiest country for wagons, and the tracks seemed to be heading back to the road. Having returned to the saddle and pointed their own horses’ heads toward the road, their conversation began.
“I suppose that’s one of the horrors you’ve seen that’s run you past yer proper age,” said Zalel.
“That’s right,” Adinal replied, and meant it, regardless of his specific intent when he’d made that comment.
“I understand now why you said there’s a heap of cruelty in the world. It does somethin’ to a man, seeing somethin’ like that. It’s made me believe you. That is, I believed you before, but maybe not all the way down into my soul.”
Despite the draft Zalel had mixed for them both, Adinal felt a little sick. “Are you…” he ventured, “all right?” Because it all came down to that.
Zalel sighed, his hands rhythmically patting Wraith’s neck on either side. “Suppose I am,” he said at last. “No matter how many steps there are in between settin’ off on this chase an’ catchin’ the fella, I can still keep in mind that we’re doin’ good work. Somebody has to do it, an’ maybe it’s better we do, since we can stand to, than anyone else.”
Adinal opened his mouth to speak again, to agree, to press the matter of Zalel’s current state of mind… and realized he didn’t know what to say.
“But fer all the cruelty in the world, I still think it balances out,” Zalel went on without prompting. “Someone like Light’s tough to stand up against, but I know plenty of good people too — my family, and you, and even fellas like Sheriff Palmer an’ the hands at the ranch (most of ’em, anyway). Fer every Light out there, we’ve just gotta work harder, be better; that’s all.”
It was moments like this that made Adinal want to bring their horses close together and reach across to pull Zalel toward him for a heinous, desperate kiss. The young man was right: for every Light out there, there was a freckled, pragmatically pure, bright-eyed hero with a dazzling smile and a heart to match. Zalel might be following Adinal on this mission, but Adinal would follow Zalel anywhere.
He had planned on raising the subject of the bandit at the camp, and his decision to kill him, but after everything his companion had said of his own accord, Adinal no longer felt he needed to. Just now Zalel had included him in a brief list of ‘good people,’ and earlier recognized the rightness of Adinal’s choice… No reason to drag it all out again.
So in response to the statements that had gone before, he said, “Yer a good kid.” He cleared his throat. “A good man.”
When they reached the road, they moved at a slower pace. Plenty of dust hovered over its flatter stretch, but that meant nothing; any traveler, or even just a stray breeze, could have kicked that up. Still, it hampered visibility, and in the twilit haze, tracks were more difficult to see.
The signs they did make out seemed to confirm their speculation that Ben the Blade had taken to the beaten path to their right. If he had a couple of abductees with him, they must, Adinal judged, be hidden somehow — unconscious, probably, with a cover — or else anyone that rode past would catch a whiff of something fishy. Light hadn’t gotten this far by being careless, and those pursuing him would need to exercise just as much caution.
He hated doing it, but eventually he had them both dismount, light the small lanterns they carried with them, and walk their horses on opposite sides of the road, keeping a sharp eye out for any indication of a wagon heading ‘cross country. It was better than losing hours upon hours waiting for clearer illumination, but it still felt like proceeding at a tedious crawl. How he wished it had rained recently!
After a long bend in the road around a belt of trees, Adinal could suddenly see the glow of a campfire — no, multiple campfires — that went in and out of sight between large shadows. A wagon circle, he judged as they drew even with it and stopped. Without any need for a signal, Adinal and Zalel converged close to the center of the road to confer.
“D’you think Light’s out there?” Zalel held his lantern low so its glow wouldn’t interfere with his vision as he peered toward the circle.
“Nobody seems to be runnin’ or screamin’,” Adinal said somewhat dryly, “so I doubt it.” The smaller shadows that moved occasionally in front of the fires appeared relatively relaxed.
“Suppose they mighta seen him?”
“It’s worth checkin’. We’re powerful short on leads right now.”
So they began picking their way across the land between, careful to lead their mounts around dips and holes that might have hurt them — which meant the humans sometimes found themselves in dips and holes that might have hurt them; it was not a comfortable walk in the dark.
And then — “Not a step closer ‘fyou know what’s good for ya.”
Adinal was glad to notice Zalel imitating his movement as he let his horse’s reins fall over one wrist so he could put his splayed hands in the air without letting Goliath go. The first light of the rising moon glinted off the rifle pointed at him; of course their little lanterns, now dangling from thumbs like hanged men, had made them easy targets, though they’d certainly needed them.
“Now, now,” Adinal said. “We ain’t lookin’ fer trouble. Just some news.”
“You a negro?” asked the voice behind the gun suspiciously.
“Yes, sir, and a U.S. marshal.” Adinal kept his voice level. “Followin’ a wagon along the road yonder, headin’ south. You seen it?”
“A black marshal.” It was a tone more of wonder than any disapproval, but he surely wouldn’t have commented thus on a white marshal. The man added something along the lines of, “What will they think of next?” as he turned away. “Hey, Tucker, you been sittin’ on your ass ever since we set up — you seen a wagon pass by on the road?”
The answer came from what sounded like the other side of the camp, and couldn’t be made out clearly from where Adinal and Zalel stood. But the rifleman turned back to them and said, in a far friendlier tone than before as their story was somewhat confirmed, “Says he seen one not two hours since.” The voice yelling across the camp continued, as if its owner had a lot to convey but no desire to get up and move closer. “Covered with a tarp?”
“It would be,” Adinal nodded.
“Movin’ mighty slow…”
“Horse hitched to the back?” Zalel wondered.
The rifle shifted. “Yessir.”
Adinal asked, “Any sign of him leavin’ the road?”
The stranger, after two or three tries to get his distant informant to shut up and listen, relayed this question, and an answer in the negative quickly returned. It seemed reasonable. Light might feel fairly safe following a road in the darkness, especially in a wagon that didn’t belong to him and whose maintenance he cared very little for; but setting out over the countryside in the deep shadow, even supposing he had a lantern, was an iffier business. Still, the moon had finally shown its face…
“Thank you folks kindly,” Adinal said. “We’ll be on our way.”
“Best of luck to you, Black Marshal.” The long barrel didn’t waver as Adinal and Zalel turned in a wide curve and eventually headed back the way they’d come.
“You might’ve scared some respect into him if you’d told him yer name,” Zalel suggested, though he didn’t sound certain.
Adinal let out a sigh of sardonic amusement. “Enough folk’ve heard the rumors, or read the papers, that they’d importune us longer if they knew who I was. Anyhow, he weren’t so bad.”
“It just don’t sit right,” Zalel replied as their feet touched the hard earth of the road, “hearin’ a total stranger call me ‘sir’ while he keeps harpin’ on yer blackness — even if he didn’t outright insult you.”
“You’ve got quite a streak of justice in you,” Adinal remarked smilingly, moving to mount his horse. “Let’s put the lanterns out now the moon’s risin’.”
Zalel complied. Even under the stars, Adinal could tell he hadn’t finished with the subject yet. As they took to a trot, secure for at least a little while that they would miss no signs of Light changing course, it required less than twenty seconds for the young man to get his thoughts in order and open his mouth again.
“Here!” came Adinal’s hushed call.
They’d dismounted again and resumed watching the sides of the road closely as they walked. And now Zalel saw what Adinal had as he hurried over: clear signs of some large object having pushed through the bushes and crushed the grass in two lines that headed off over the rough terrain toward some point they couldn’t properly see, even in the moonlight.
Goliath, who’d been growing increasingly impatient during this second instance of being led slowly by a man that insisted on crouching down all the time, whickered and pawed once or twice as Adinal now tried to pull him off the road. He wouldn’t behave himself until after Zalel had murmured soothingly into his ear and allowed him to snuffle his hair and shoulders as if there might be hidden treats there.
Wraith, though more willing to do as he was bidden, then had to mimic the other horse, and Zalel’s hair was quite damp by the time they were all on their way, each man with his horse behind walking abreast of the other, following the wagon tracks.
Zalel bit his lip against starting a conversation. There was plenty he’d like to bring up, but this wasn’t the time; he saw no signs of a camp, but if Light had been moving slowly, as the folks in the wagon train had said, he couldn’t be too far ahead now. They could conceivably come across him in any little hollow or cluster of trees.
What they did come across was relatively fresh manure. Horse droppings on the road meant just nothing at all, but here it was a solid confirmation of the trail. They moved a little more quickly after that. The tracks bent gradually around eastward, until they approached once again a series of increasingly tall hills Zalel and Adinal had traversed earlier. The road had dipped and risen, switching back in one spot, and there’d been a blasted route through part of the highest rise whose stone walls they’d watched with wary eyes, hands close to guns. It wasn’t the most hospitable territory, which made it all the more likely to hide any number of outlaws.
The wagon must have been a beast to get over this land, and Zalel started to think he wouldn’t be surprised if Light had abandoned it somewhere around here, perhaps killing any prisoners it contained, before heading on to whatever hideout he had in the hills. But finding his feet falling more evenly, and bending to examine the ground again, he noticed a couple of bare patches becoming clearer and clearer in the three-awn and shortgrass. He and Adinal had each taken the track of one set of wheels, so the width of a wagon lay between them, and the hard-packed earth of the growing path ran in lines ahead of them with approximately the same space in the middle.
Based on how much of it the surrounding flora had consumed, Zalel speculated this wagon-trail had been out of use for many months, but it must lead to something of interest: an abandoned settlement, perhaps, or an old cemetery tucked away somewhere. Whatever its destination, he was sure they would find the Blade there. Adinal obviously agreed, for he suggested quietly, “Let’s ride a bit.”
Zalel answered with a nod, and soon they were moving at a trot on horses suddenly brought back to full alertness and their duty. Still he tried to restrain his natural inclination for conversation. Their wordlessness seemed to wrap around him, however, making his skin prickle uncomfortably, though the temperature was mild. The waning moon cast eerie shadows, and very often illuminated without delineating. He didn’t even notice how much firmer than usual was the pattern he tapped against Wraith’s neck until the gelding tossed his head with an annoyed whuff.
“Sorry,” Zalel murmured.
Adinal made a soft little sound that might have been a laugh.
The path led them into a belt of Spanish oak, which it continued through, and the trees prevented their seeing much — though the indications of a wagon having recently passed that way were clear. The next sign they found was literally a sign. The letters painted on it were large and red, but cracked and worn and, in the shadows of leaf and bough, difficult to read. Adinal had actually dismounted, crouched before the boards with his lantern, removed his hat, and set his head at an angle so as to make the most of the light before he had any success. And all for merely, “Danger – Keep Out.”
“I can think of one danger ahead,” Zalel remarked, “but it’s not one I suppose folks’d put up a sign about.”
“Let’s go on foot again. Might be a good idea to look fer a place to tie up the horses.”
“D’you think we’re close?”
“Yeah… I’ve just got a feelin’…”
Zalel trusted Adinal’s instincts, so when they came to a spot where a gap in the trees opened onto a small clearing to the left, he paused. “This seems as good a place as any.”
Once again, Goliath was not pleased to be led off the path, and they all made a sight more noise than either of the humans could be happy with; but they found some grass poking out through the crackling dry mulch in the clearing, so the horses could amuse themselves with that while the marshal and his companion went on. And thereafter, it wasn’t but a few more minutes walking before the trees began to thin.
When visibility increased with the diminution of the oaks, they stopped of one accord. Ahead, the wagon trail seemed to vanish abruptly over the lip of a drop-off of some sort. Drawing nearer with great caution, Zalel found that the moonlight was playing tricks on him, for in fact the trail plunged in switchbacks to the bottom of a deep gully. He couldn’t make out clearly what he was seeing down there among the jagged shadows and stark bone-white patches, but he could hear the sound of running water. A mighty flood must come through here whenever it rained, so they were luckier than they’d realized that it hadn’t for a while.
“It’s a mine,” Adinal murmured. “Must’ve shut down years ago, or I’d have heard of it.”
With this clue, Zalel now thought he could pick out shapes at the bottom, and a square of deeper blackness that must be the entrance. But nothing moved; there were no signs of life. Adinal went very still, tilting his head so the light caught the curve of his cheek and jaw, rough with several days’ stubble. He seemed to be holding his breath, and Zalel, realizing he was listening for any hint of activity, did the same.
Finally Adinal shook his head.
“Are we goin’ down there?” Zalel asked.
“I can’t hear a thing, but I figure we better.”
“Guess it would be too much of a coincidence if he came all this way up a wagon trail leadin’ to an old mine an’ then didn’t go in.”
“Or this could be a trap fer anyone followin’ him. But we can’t stand here all night debatin’, an’ that’s where the trail leads. Let’s go.”
There was something nerve-wracking about the descent. Walking into a dangerous place hoping to confront a dangerous man and whatever further atrocities he might have wrought there… risking plummet or flood or torture… Zalel wasn’t afraid, exactly, but he was definitely jumpy. It just didn’t feel right, and he had no real way to deal with that. He concentrated on breathing properly and making his footfalls as quiet as possible, and that soothed him a trifle.
Nothing noteworthy occurred on the way down, but he grew more tense as he and Adinal picked their way across old mining equipment the folk here hadn’t thought worth removing, over a stream that had probably been routed for use when the place was up and running, and toward the entrance. The framework of shoring posts looked relatively stable, and from here they couldn’t see any collapse… but they wouldn’t, in the darkness beyond.
And now Zalel could hear something. He leaned forward, closing his eyes against the distracting stimulus of oddly shaped metal that made patterns with its own long shadows so the bed of the gully looked like a graveyard of huge rusty spiders. He definitely heard something. Mixed scents met his nose, too: wood-fire smoke, maybe baked beans, and… horse. Hay. Manure.
In these light conditions, it proved nearly impossible to signal anything to each other, but eventually they were both moving forward again — forward and in, testing every step, to where they could see next to nothing. But as Zalel’s eyes adjusted somewhat to this next level of darkness, he became aware of uneven orange light ahead and to the left. Someone had a fire burning in here, as the smell of smoke had indicated.
Beyond the empty wagon not far inside, the horses evidently stood off to the right, and at the moment seemed content enough, if their limited noise was anything to judge by — and Zalel was a good judge. As he turned to the left, he started a bit when Adinal touched his shoulder; fortunately, his feet did not shift, though his body stiffened. Adinal evidently wanted to go the same direction, and he maintained the contact so they could keep track of and guide each other. Despite having been startled, Zalel felt particularly in tune with him at the moment, as if they shared more thoughts than just a common intent.
Tin scraped on tin — anyone that had camped under the stars would know the sound — and as they crouched to look around what must, for lack of a better term, be called the corner of the tunnel, they could see the silhouette of a man seated between them and the fire. The shape of the ears was unmistakable. They’d found their target.
The smell of baked beans, positively identifiable now, confirmed Light’s current activity. If he’d spent the time since arriving here on putting up the horses and eating dinner, there might be hope yet for any hostages he’d taken — though Zalel couldn’t make out anything beyond the flames.
Adinal tugged very gently on his sleeve, pulling him toward what appeared to be a pile of rocks to Light’s right. Zalel complied, and they scrambled as quietly as they could around and into cover. It was tricky business, avoiding the scattered stones, and took most of his attention; so he was startled, a great deal more this time, when Light suddenly spoke.
“Them’s good beans. ‘Spect ya want some, doncha.” He cackled like a man much older than they knew him to be. “But there’s no use feedin’ the damned, eh?”
Zalel felt Adinal’s hand move slowly from his arm to his neck so as to indicate his intentions without spooking him, then remove his hat, which the marshal set aside somewhere. Zalel nodded; it should be easier to see without being seen if his head resembled a rock more than the top-end of a cowboy. Still, as he and Adinal attempted to arrange themselves so they could both peer around the pile to where Light sat, he realized this would be more difficult than he’d anticipated.
He squeezed Adinal’s arm and then released it. Dropping entirely to the ground, he felt Adinal’s restraining hand slip off him as he wormed his way out from behind the pile and into the shadow of a minecart standing almost adjacent. A couple of stones shifted, but Light was talking again and, in the echoes of his own voice, seemed to take no notice.
“This here’s a mighty fine shotgun. Good huntin’? Or ya just use it to fend off those’d take yer goods?” He cackled again at the irony.
From his new vantage point, Zalel could see the space in front of him more clearly (and hoped Adinal could too, now there was only one body to arrange strategically behind the rock pile). The chamber, of sorts, that Light had evidently made his hideout was blocked on one side by cave-in, under which disappeared the rusty tracks the minecart stood on. The flickering fire illuminated this fairly well, except for a black crevice near the ceiling that might lead past the avalanche or might lead nowhere.
Against the foot of the chiseled wall opposite where Zalel and Adinal hid, steel glinted, but it took several moments for Zalel to parse what he was seeing there: a haphazard mess of guns of all descriptions. What that meant he didn’t exactly know, but it looked ominous somehow. Had Light brought them here, or had he found them here?
In the blackness behind him, Zalel could feel a shiver of moving air and a sense of vastness, which seemed to stir and thin the smoke from the fire. And with the chilly draft came a new scent, faint but recognizable when it pierced the others in the chamber: that of decay. How the mine was formed and what might be back there he couldn’t tell, but he thought it would be unwise to go too far in that direction. There was no reason to, in any case, as all his attention must be pointed toward Light and his captives.
The latter lay, bound hand and foot and with ragged cloth tied around their faces and between their jaws, on the other side of the fire from their kidnapper. Zalel could clearly see the wide eyes of one glinting in the flickering light, their movement indicating that this person, at least, still lived.
Light, a scrawny, unwashed, partially bald man with horribly dark teeth when he grinned, held a long gun in his lap, fiddling with it. It took him two tries to break it, and then he fumbled with the shells. Zalel frowned. Had this murderer never handled a gun before? Why was he loading it anyway, when he did his work with a knife? A long one hung from his belt, so why the shotgun?
Once he’d managed to get the weapon back together, he jumped to his feet. “This ain’t the only one I got, see?” he said in his crackly voice. He pointed the shotgun every which-way, and Zalel ducked back behind the more complete protection of the minecart. “Got this one offa that pretty boy I hadda kill too quick back there.” Zalel peeked again, and found Light waving the shotgun in one hand and a pistol in the other, a finger recklessly on each trigger. Then, carelessly, he tossed the pistol over his shoulder into the pile of guns, where it clattered dangerously among its fellows.
“An’ thissun…” Light bent and retrieved another pistol from something on the ground — a grimy bag, Zalel thought. “This was that other boy’s. Tied him up and took my time with him.” He ran an utterly disgusting tongue over the barrel of this pistol, and Zalel honestly wished it would go off and shoot him in the head. It didn’t seem too unlikely.
Light was wanted dead or alive. Bounty hunters, Adinal had said, generally preferred to bring such targets in dead, because it meant less trouble for them. But Adinal was a U.S. Marshal, and had also warned against the dangers of vigilantism. Collaring a man meant he’d at least get a fair trial, or something like it; killing a man meant you’d dealt out his punishment with your own hands, so you’d best be sure it was warranted. Zalel highly respected this way of thinking, and wanted to live up to it. Just, at the moment, he couldn’t see a way of taking Light alive, backed up against a stockpile of firearms and a couple of hostages as he was.
A third gun and a fourth joined the others while Zalel pondered, with Light gleefully describing what he’d done to their former owners. Zalel wondered if they were any of them loaded, and whether they ever went off when Light chucked more and more onto the pile.
“Know why I take these things?” the murderer grinned, ghastly in the firelight as he made his way around to his victims. “Ain’t no good to me as weapons, no.” He prodded one of the bodies with the end of the shotgun, eliciting a groaning whimper from behind the gag. “No, no, guns is power. Take a man’s gun, ya take ‘is power.” He poked the second captive, who made no noise; Zalel shifted uneasily.
He couldn’t even go for the ‘dead’ option and shoot Light now; with the way the man held that shotgun, it could go off at any moment and kill the prisoners. He must think of a way to get the murderer away from his hostages to where he could be dealt with efficiently. Adinal was surely pondering the same question, but since he hadn’t done anything yet, he probably hadn’t come up with anything either.
To have any chance at taking him alive, they needed to distract Light, lead him from this part of the mine, get behind him. But if he thought someone might be outside, coming for him, what would he do with his captives? They needed a distraction he would attribute to something other than a hostile presence.
As Zalel considered the available resources, a workable plan in its entirety hit him as if between the eyes. Tense, heart fluttering, he watched for his moment. And the very instant Light lifted the barrel of that shotgun away from the couple on the ground, Zalel sent a bullet into the rock wall just above the trophies the murderer had taken from those he’d killed.
If the rest of the mine had collapsed, it couldn’t have been more horrifically loud than that shot. Ben the Blade hopped up and down in place, directing his wrath at the pile of guns, one of which he clearly believed had gone off — just as Zalel had intended — but his probable profanities were lost in the roaring echoes of the blast and the residual ringing in Zalel’s ears.
As the throbbing aftereffect gradually faded, the sound of the horses’ panicked screaming whinnies became more audible — just as Zalel had intended — to everyone in the chamber. He wouldn’t actually have hurt the animals, of course, but spooking them with the explosion of gunpowder was a perfect way to draw Light out from his corner.
The man must really be mad, for when he recognized the new noises for what they were, he chucked his shotgun into the heap, and ran toward the place beyond the entry where the horses thrashed, without even taking a light with him. He quickly realized his mistake, and came back for a smoky-glassed lantern, which he lit with a twig he pulled bare-handed from the fire. This time, he moved toward the sound of terrified horses at a calmer pace, which meant they had him.
Adinal leaped from behind his cover, and had his revolver pressed to Light’s back before the murderer had taken two steps past the marshal’s hiding spot. “Set yer lantern on the floor. Drop yer bowie knife — slowly — an’ put yer hands up,” he commanded. His words were a little difficult to hear after the gunshot and with the horses making such a ruckus, but Zalel must be recovering from the ringing in his ears more quickly than he’d thought. Perhaps he was becoming more accustomed to the reverberating sound of bullets.
“Well, howdy, there, Anselmo!” Showing not a trace of fear that could be seen under these conditions, Light cackled again; it echoed even more prolifically this time. He did as he was bidden, though. Zalel watched with a certain measure of tension as the man drew and then discarded his long knife. “Didn’t think yed have the grit to follow after what I did to yer crew! Take it yer sorry y’ever invited me to join ya.”
His words, and perhaps the remaining rebounding noise, must have concealed the swish of the knife hidden up his sleeve, for Zalel hadn’t seen it coming — and neither, it seemed, had Adinal. With the desire to take Light alive, the marshal wasn’t as quick on the trigger as he might have been. He did get off a shot — and Zalel felt a twinge of guilt when he immediately thought of the animals in that direction — but Light had already twisted out of its path as he spun. He slashed across his opponent’s gun hand, causing a slight cry of pain from Adinal, who dropped his revolver. Then Light was on him.
Zalel caught his breath and stood, no longer feeling the need to hide. The two men wrestled, one attempting to cut and stab, the other to keep the blade back. The lantern was kicked by somebody, and cracked against the stone wall of the cavern, filling the air with the scent of kerosene. In the resultant uneven flicker that competed with the campfire, the match played out in a moving mosaic of orange and black.
He drew his Schofield. This wouldn’t be like shooting at enemies arrayed across the ledges of a canyon wall, nor even at moving targets scrambling between the shelters of buildings and rising ground. The light and motion confused his eyes, and the sound of still-panicking horses his ears. It was almost more than he could bear, but he had to bear it. Adinal’s life was at stake.
Calm. Breathe. Stand steady; don’t fidget. Watch for the shine of the knife in Light’s hand where Adinal holds his wrist to stave it off. Listen for the direction of Ben the Blade’s unsettling laughter; never mind the echoes. Light is shorter and more wiry, and moves like a struggling spider: all limbs and joints. You’ve gotten this far; don’t fold at the bitter end.
He took his shot.
The two prisoners, a man and a woman as their rescuers had suspected, had walked out of the mine under their own power, but remained woozy and in a state not unlike shock. They’d seated themselves wearily on a heap of gears that had been knocked or had simply fallen from a derelict crane, and were now massaging their hands and wrists, feet and ankles, where they’d been tied up (fortunately not as brutally tightly as that man back at the bandit camp).
“Careful not to touch that junk anywhere yer skin’s broken,” Zalel advised. “Lockjaw’s no picnic.” He turned to Adinal and added, “You too, marshal. Lemme see that hand.”
The wound Light had given him stung and bled copiously, but didn’t seem an immediate medical crisis. He held it up for Zalel to examine, and the blood gleamed like quicksilver under the moon.
“I’ve got a couple of herbs’ll take the pain down,” Zalel said as he removed from a pocket full of miscellany a folded handkerchief, “an’ help fight off infection, but I won’t be surprised if it swells up a bit in spite of that.”
Light’s mount and the cart-horse, which they’d freed to roam the gully for a few minutes and calm down, kept making motions that attracted Adinal’s eyes, tense and watchful as he remained after the events in the mine — but, as if he were made of rubber, his attention continually returned to Zalel.
“Course that’s with Wraith,” the young man continued, snapping the handkerchief open and folding it corner-to-corner for length, then twice over for thickness. “Right now we just gotta stop the bleedin’, an’ protect you from–” he gestured around them before returning to his task– “a whole world’s worth of rust.”
Zalel’s face was a ghostly canvas of sharp shadows and hidden details, but Adinal had spent enough time studying him that he thought he recognized his expression: the one he sometimes wore when he got defensive about his abilities and age. Simultaneously, his movements, though efficient, seemed uncertain, even wary, as if he were recoiling or shying from something.
Adinal believed he understood. Just as he’d wanted to ask earlier — yesterday, by now — whether his mercy-killing of that bandit had changed Zalel’s attitude toward him, so now Zalel wondered what Adinal must think of his having killed Benjamin Light the way he had.
The subjects of assisting both the captives and the horses, of getting back to their own mounts, and of making camp when they were some distance away passed Zalel’s lips as he worked. Once the handkerchief-bandage was in place around Adinal’s hand, Zalel turned away in the direction of the prisoners, and said, “I’ll do what I can fer them now.”
At the same moment, thinking Zalel had finished speaking, Adinal said, “I’m gonna take another look inside.” And when Zalel winced visibly, he added, “I’ll be quick.”
And it was an effort to step back into the darkness of the mine. Even the makeshift torch he pulled from the fire rendered the cavern no more hospitable; it only threw into higher relief the odd shapes around him, as if he were on an alien world. He hastened to learn what he needed to know, retrieve his hat and Zalel’s, and get out again.
Zalel was talking to the couple, who weren’t much older than he was, and waving an arm in the air to make some point or other, when Adinal returned. The husband and wife, seeming to lack the energy to speak up for themselves after everything they’d been through, were taking Zalel’s obtrusive tones on the chin; Adinal wondered whether they actually heard anything he said or were giving those slight nods by rote. The marshal approached in silence as Zalel finished, and handed the woman a shoe he’d found in the wagon when he’d looked it over.
She stared at the object for a moment before taking it, then slipped it on. And lest Zalel ask some inappropriately timed question about her choice of flimsy footwear, Adinal said to him, “Can you work yer witchcraft on those horses?” He handed Zalel his hat. “Tack’s in good condition–” he jerked a thumb over his shoulder at the gaping entry– “an’ so’s the wagon. We should be gettin’ on.”
That slight hesitancy in Zalel’s movements returned as he donned his hat and nodded. “I ain’t a witch, though.” And normally he would have come up with something cleverer.
Adinal didn’t like to see this, but also didn’t worry much. Zalel was precisely the opposite of private and brooding, and they would undoubtedly have a chance to talk about what troubled him the very moment he felt comfortable doing so. Meanwhile, Adinal had some witchcraft of his own to attempt.
“Well, folks,” he said levelly, looking at the seated couple and removing the hat that hadn’t been on his head for more than two minutes, “the worst is over. But we’re not outta the woods yet, as the sayin’ goes. I can’t leave you in the wilderness to find yer own way.”
They looked at him with tired eyes that glinted in the moonlight, and neither spoke.
“It’s prob’ly best you come back to Armadillo with us. Then we’ll send a party out to collect yer things from Anselmo’s camp an’ clean the place up, an’ you can get started on yer journey again after you rest a while.”
The couple glanced at each other, then back at Adinal, and hesitantly nodded.
“Only hitch is: we need to take Light’s body with us. I beg yer pardon for talkin’ ’bout him at all,” he added as the woman shuddered. “I’d like to use yer wagon.”
The man took a deep breath and let it out in an unhappy sigh. “I think we’ve had enough of that wagon for one lifetime.”
“Understood. Can you ride? An’ you, ma’am?”
“We can ride,” the man answered.
The woman volunteered, “We planned to buy some cattle and stake a claim further west.”
“An’ there’s no reason you can’t. Here’s what I suggest. We left our horses not too far from the top; if my assistant there’s amenable to it, you, ma’am, ride his horse. You, sir, take that one.” He pointed to Light’s horse, which, docile under Zalel’s hand, now approached. “I’d offer mine instead of stressin’ yer nerves knowin’ whose beast yer ridin’, but mine ain’t the friendliest. We hitch up yer cart-horse to the wagon again, Mr. Loratoris there drives it, an’ we beat a quick path back to Armadillo.”
Perhaps trying to resign himself to mounting the horse of a murderer that had kidnapped and threatened to torture him and his wife, the man buried his bruised face in his hands, which he then dragged upward through his hair. The woman said, “You’re mighty thoughtful, marshal. Wouldn’t have expected that of a black man, but it’s welcome.”
Adinal stifled a sigh.
The process of discussing the proposed plan with Zalel, who immediately agreed to loan Wraith to the unfortunate woman; bringing the tack out of the mine to get Light’s horse saddled up, and learning from Zalel that evidently Light had been better to his animal than he’d ever been to any human; using the tarp from the wagon to wrap Light’s body, and some rope he’d left behind to lash him tight; loading the resultant package onto the conveyance; hitching up the somewhat reluctant cart-horse, who, the couple informed them, was named Blithe; and leading the latter with his load out of the mine again took a decent amount of time, and the moon had passed its apogee so its light no longer reached the floor of the gully. They were forced to grope somewhat to find their way to the switchbacks and start the ascent, all of them glad to leave the place behind.
The man had pulled his wife up behind him on Light’s horse, while Adinal and Zalel sat on the wagon, so once they’d reached a visible part of the path, they moved relatively quickly. Then Zalel introduced the woman to Wraith as Adinal reunited with Goliath, and they made their uncomfortable, shadowy way through the trees. Finally out in the open again, Adinal reckoned it had been a good idea to plan for a camp before returning to the road, since the Steelwrights (he’d finally learned their name) did not appear capable of going much farther at the moment.
He and Zalel got the tent up and a fire going, and then, respectively, heated some tinned food and set about making hot cocoa. At first the couple looked puzzled at Zalel’s insistence that they drink this, but when he explained it would help their circulation in addition to keeping them warm — both of these offering a certain measure of prevention against shock — they accepted the tin cup he’d offered them and, with the addition of sugar to taste, drank it down. Then they all shared the hasty stew Adinal had put together from soggy vegetables and some chunks of beef, without the usual beans to hearten it; he thought it might be too soon for beans.
Usually he and his companion tried to find a spot near a stream or well to make camp, but in this situation they had chosen the first available place where the tent would rest more or less evenly on the ground. Now what water hadn’t gone into the stew and the cocoa went into their third and final pan. Zalel explained the virtues of the herbs he mixed in, and eventually offered a clean cloth soaked in the stuff to the Steelwrights.
They were scratched and bruised, with chafing where they’d been tied, but nothing worse than that, so Zalel declared he would save the rest of the medicament for Adinal. The couple cleaned up as best they could, largely tending to each other’s wounds, and almost immediately thereafter disappeared into the tent for some much needed sleep.
“Let’s get you taken care of,” Zalel said, reaching for Adinal’s hand. “No tellin’ what kind of filth that monster had on his knife.”
Adinal knew the time for discussion had arrived, and he wanted to get in first. He thought about how Zalel had comforted him, probably without even knowing it, when he’d been concerned about the impression his actions might give; he wanted to offer Zalel the same service if he could.
“That was a great thing you did down there, an’ a mighty fine shot in the dark. You saved these folks–” gesturing to the tent with his free hand– “an’ me. Again.” The hot water made him hiss in renewed pain as Zalel began to dab the blood away from his cut.
“We saved these folks together,” Zalel said. “And it don’t count as savin’ yer life when you’d’ve got the upper hand eventually.”
Adinal shook his head. “You didn’t go back into that place with a light, so you might not’ve noticed: there was a mine shaft just behind us that entire time. Light musta known where it was, but I surely did not, so the longer that little grapplin’ match went on, the more danger I was in.”
Zalel faltered just for a moment, looking up at the marshal with wide eyes. “I…” He swallowed and nodded, then returned to Adinal’s hand. “I felt it, an’ smelled it, but I guess I didn’t put two an’ two together.”
“I’ll give you a pass this time,” said Adinal, teasing wryly. “Nobody who can kill a man with one shot under those conditions can be accused of failin’ to take in his surroundings.”
Zalel had already retrieved some proper bandages from his saddlebag, and now he began tying up the cleaned cut. “Wha’d’you think was down there?” he asked uneasily.
Grimly and immediately Adinal replied, “Corpses, by the smell. I’d like to send some boys back there to try to fish them up an’ see if they can’t be identified, but it’s gonna be hard enough gettin’ someone out to Anselmo’s hideout to recover these folks’ goods.”
As Adinal spoke, Zalel’s brows drew together into an expression of angry determination. “I’m glad I killed Light. He deserved it even ‘fore he started threatenin’ yer life. And I know what you said about bringin’ criminals in alive, but I had to do it. But… the way I did it was…” Finished with the final knot on the bandage, he took Adinal’s hand between both of his and locked gazes with him earnestly. “I’d do anything to save you, but…” His eyes fell. “I just never expected it’d be shootin’ a man in the back. A man who didn’t even know I was there.”
So Adinal hadn’t managed to quiet Zalel’s concerns preemptively. He would have to deal with them head-on, then. After that look and ‘I’d do anything to save you,’ which had beaten a sweet-hot path into the depths of his heart, he felt he had the strength for this and more.
“The rub of my career,” he began, “is that at times I can’t behave like a gentleman.” He mirrored Zalel’s action by taking one hand that would have slid away between both of his own and pressing it. “Sure, when someone calls me out, where there’re clear-cut rules ’bout paces and number of shots an’ so on, that’s one thing. But if you keep yerself from attackin’ a murderer who’s attackin’ yer friend, just because his back’s to you an’ he don’t know yer there… it might be the gentlemanly thing to do, classic’lly speakin’, but it’s also insane.”
“I told myself I wouldn’t ever shoot at anyone who weren’t pointin’ a gun at me first,” Zalel said quietly.
“A knife’s as good as a gun in a situation like that. Far’s I’m concerned, Light shot first. Anyone’d agree with me, but I know you gotta reconcile it with yer own conscience.”
Frown fading into a more pensive expression, Zalel mused, “It had to be done. I suppose if it feels like fightin’ dirty, then that’s just what you call the rub: doin’ something that feels low but has to be done. I see what you mean: you don’t have the luxury of bein’ a gentleman.”
Adinal nodded sadly. “What you wanna avoid is gettin’ so it doesn’t bother you anymore. When it doesn’t feel so dirty, when you start to accept it or even enjoy it, you’ve lost yer way.” He’d seen a fair few lawmen fall like that, and vowed never to be one of them.
Something about Zalel’s unhappy expression seemed to have eased slightly. “I guess, then… I have a better idea what to expect ridin’ with you.”
Feeling his chest tighten, Adinal strove to speak evenly as he asked, “Enough to put you off it? It’s been a tough experience.”
“Not yet,” said Zalel immediately, to Adinal’s great relief. “Yer right. If I hadn’t been there, who knows what might’ve happened? You get a powerful lot done on yer own, but sometimes you need someone to watch yer back, gentleman or not.”
“Always,” Adinal smiled. “And, you know, I don’t think anything could make you less of a gentleman. Yer a gentle man, Zalel Loratoris, and I hope you never encounter anything that roughens you.”
Zalel returned the smile, which came as another relief. “Thank you kindly, marshal. I might not mind it so much, though, seein’ as you’re a gentle man too — under that rough surface.”
A hundred possible responses came to mind, but Adinal only had his pick of two or three. “You’ll never prove it in court,” was the one he went with as their hands finally parted.
“You know yer guilty as charged,” Zalel replied with a grin, moving to clear their things from around the fire.
“You should get some sleep. I’ll watch.”
“That’s no good; you’ll have been up all night.”
“I’m used to it. ‘Sides, it’ll only be a few hours ‘fore we need to get underway.”
“Why leave so early anyhow? Why don’t we let them sleep as long as they want? That way you can wake me in a few hours, an’ we’ll both be a little more rested.”
It was true: Zalel would always be a gentleman. Adinal still hesitated, though. “It’s gonna be slow goin’ with the wagon, and now we’re feedin’ four.”
“If you start to fall asleep on Goliath’s back, he’ll bite you.”
Adinal laughed. “It always comes back to horses with you, don’t it? Well, I can’t deny we could all do with some rest after what we’ve been through. You go to sleep, and I’ll waken you after while, then.”
Finished tidying the campsite, Zalel wrapped himself in the one blanket they hadn’t offered the Steelwrights, and lay down beside the fire. Quickly he settled into relative stillness and steady breathing, though what he might be pondering as he drifted off was anyone’s guess. And Adinal did keep watch, but mostly over Zalel; he would hear any danger approaching before he saw it, and could point his eyes where he would.
He watched him, and he ached.
But as the sky paled with approaching dawn, transforming the sinking moon into a transparent echo of its former brightness, so too the grim experience they’d had faded as before the rising sun, a weak glow before a strong; and Adinal found some peace of heart simply sitting here beside the most brilliant light of them all.
Gabrielle Graham is a good friend that writes excellent original fiction. She lists Desert Flowers and Cactus Spines as Red Dead Redemption fanfiction, though all she used from that canon was the map, so I suppose you could call this story of mine, by extension, RDR fanfiction as well — though I’ve never played the game and had to look up what few references I used here. Anyway, I started this in early-mid-December as a giftmonth present. Then I finished it as a… late Valentine’s Day present… I guess?
Yes, I greedily and shamelessly took up half of the time that passes between chapters 2 and 3 of Desert Flowers. And even with an entire week at my disposal, I had to drop convenient clues into the characters’ laps to hasten their progress XD
Yes, a bandit group with six members would probably have at least six horses. I chose not to deal with that, as illogical as it makes that part seem, because I wanted to steer clear of anything like suffering for all horses involved. (Seriously, I really considered putting some dead horses in, but I just couldn’t stand it.) If Adinal and Zalel didn’t comment on this incongruity, it’s because I wouldn’t allow them to.
Yes, there is a fight in an abandoned mine. How many western adventure stories am I likely to write in my lifetime? I had to get my tropes in where I could!! Mmmmabandonedmine.