Coyote and the Faceless Cowboy
Copyright © 2005 by Morgan Lockhart. All rights reserved.
Every morning for a month, Coyote set loose the chickens. No matter how early I got myself up and out of bed, ready to take him by the scruff of the neck and shake the mischief from him, he was always two seconds ahead, his blue-gray tail slipping just behind the ramshackle henhouse and into the ruddy landscape beyond.
Ma only chuckled through the frantic chase around the homestead that had begun to characterize my early mornings. Half-dressed in torn blue jeans, still shaking dreams from my ears, I grabbed at feathers through clouds of red dust and stupor, cursing the name of that vile trickster again and again. From her confinement on the front porch, Ma watched me through a veil of smoke that curled like snakes from the mouth of her hickory pipe, rocking slowly in her sandalwood rocker beneath a darkly woven afghan and snickering.
“He’s trying to tell you something.” Puff. Puff. Deep breath. Long, slow exhalation. “Best not to ignore the gods.”
I glanced over my shoulder at her uneasily, spitting brick-colored waste onto the ground and trying to evade her black-eyed stare. “He’s just trying to rile me up. That’s what he does. You know that.” I caught a slight ripple in the afghan as she shrugged, the tail of her smoke as it stole away, and the shadow of a smile before I looked away again. She said no more, and I didn’t ask it.
So I went on ignoring the gods.
Until the day Coyote set Ma loose too.
By that time the routine had become all but unconscious: roll from bed, grope through parts unknown for my jeans, stumble from the house skirting Ma’s side of the porch, struggling to adjust to the flare of an unchristened sun bleaching the red terrain, and swipe for the one-eyed hen that never got any further than running circles around the water pump. I’d long since given up on catching Coyote. His meddling had been gradually accepted and then, finally, appreciated in a bitter sort of way. The day-to-day monotony of life on a chicken farm can wear a man down. Especially the one chicken farm in all of His existence where the eggs disappeared from the collection pails when the sun set, and the rooster, however cock-sure he might carry himself around the yard, hadn’t successfully fertilized an egg in a hundred years–new generations becoming unnecessary when I ran out of new ways to cook chicken and came to terms with the fact that I didn’t need to eat, and I hadn’t needed to in nigh fifty years.
But that morning brought another shift in the routine. As I made my first swipe for Little One Eye, my hand collided solidly with the steel belly of the water pump. I leapt back, smarting and shaking my hand, trying to chase out the pain. As I struggled over just what the right damnation for Coyote should be, it occurred to me how quiet it was. A lone plank house in the middle of miles upon miles of nothing but dust and rusty red spires of ancient rock may not seem like the source of a hubbub, but when you consider that I made my living dealing in eggs, the sweet little supposed silence of that scene is a shot straight in the jaw. The farm was usually a discordance of the squawks and squabbles of ornery hens, under which ran the rhythm of the challenges the rooster sent into the desert from his perch on the patchy shingles of the henhouse roof. But today, nothing–not a squawk, not a cry, not a scratch; the silence paralyzed me as I forgot about the pain in my hand.
“Begawk.” A single distended blue eyeball gazed up at me. Little One Eye cocked her head to the other side, shifting her stare to the ball-less socket on the other side of her face. With a bit of a shiver, I looked away. It was then that I finally noticed that the chicken was standing ankle deep in a carpet of feathers and carcasses spread across my front yard, bones stripped of their flesh everywhere save the heads. Even the rooster lay still atop his perch, head facing the same direction as his toes. I noticed the smell then: faintly metallic, ripening as the sun crept into the sky. Little One Eye pecked at the ground and came up with an eye. Her head shook from side to side for a moment before she let her beak rest in my direction, but whether she wanted me to discard it or try my hand at surgery, I ignored her, as deeper troubles had settled in my chest.
I knew what I would see next, and I had to retrieve my flask of Jack from the back pocket of my pants before I could bring myself to turn toward the porch and face it. I took a long, hard swig. The rocker shifted back and forth but only by the power of the light northerner that blew through the homestead, sending small dust devils to whirl around the bodies of the chickens. The afghan lay crumpled on the ground below the porch, the hickory pipe still smoked, and the ropes that once bound her were coiled limply on the porch like the abandoned skins of rattlers.
“Begawk?” I glanced down mid-second-swig to see Little One Eye looking up at me, beak bloody but fortunately empty. I wondered why Ma had spared her, but then Ma’s always had a soft spot for the weak, the sick, and the lame. I suppose that’s why He’d let her keep on being, though bound as she was and exiled to a chicken farm somewhere just outside of Here and leagues and leagues from There. But capable though He may be of that kind of mercy, the orders against setting her free were strict, the penalties stiff.
I could see how a man might fall under her spell. Nightly she sang vespers to the moon, low, warbling voice twisting through the darkness in a language dead before the sun had seen a day. I had chanced upon the ritual from time to time, unable to look away, though I kept a careful distance, sticking to the doorway as I watched her. Half illuminated in shadow, half shrouded in midnight, her skin was as rough and layered as sandstone, with the constitution of clay in a dried-up riverbed, fissures running through the faded brown skin. Her eyes were solid, pupil-less, and I always got the feeling she was looking at something far beyond me, something in the stories I’m told my own mother murmured. Tears flowed through the cracks in her face, raining onto the rough afghan.
Sometimes, in those moments, I got close. Real close. A woman’s tears can do funny things to a man, however ancient and formidable that woman might be. But I am what I am because of who I am, and she hasn’t managed to enspell me yet. Whenever those eyes strayed too close to my own, something inside of me would boil up and I’d retreat into the house, shutting the door on her song. I drank whiskey to help myself sleep and reminded myself of the crocodile, and that Pa had picked me for this job because I knew better than to trust her tears.
Not that I could probably have loosed those ropes if I’d tried. She’d been bound in only three places, her thighs, her pelvis, and her neck, but somehow they held her, so I knew there had to be some kind of divine power involved there, most likely more than would make a man comfortable to think about. Besides, I knew that He had his reasons for keeping her here, and I was no man to question them.
So the fact that some gaunt, flea-infested god would have the rocks to undo them, most likely for nothing but some kind of mischief, had me in the jaws of a stupefied ire.
“Damn you, Coyote,” I whispered, taking another long swig from my flask. “What prank could possibly be worth this?”
“Thinkin’ this was something more than a prank, James.”
I turned. Crouched nearby was a figure I knew only by reputation. His shoulders were set rigid like a square beneath the red-stitched roses that decorated his yoked shirt. A line of smoke drifted above his dark ten-gallon, one hand scratching the head of Little One Eye, the other drawing back and forth from his side to his face with the cigarette from which he took slow but constant drags.
The Faceless Cowboy. From what I’d heard, that was never a good sign.
But at least He had taken notice.
The Cowboy was Pa’s right-hand man, and he explained to me that He had decided not to extend the same courtesy to Ma as He had two millennia ago, when he did naught but bind her and instate her with a guardian, my predecessor. As much as it pained Him, the two of us were to pursue her, and this time there would be no mercy. Hearing the Faceless Cowboy’s words, cold and calm and distant, spoken between those careful drags on his cigarette, I couldn’t help but wonder what made Pa so certain it was for the best. While I was sure He knew more of it than I, I couldn’t help the bitter taste it left in my mouth, like I’d just been forced to swallow something stiff and unpleasant.
But when the Faceless Cowboy offered me a roan stallion, I washed out that taste with a long swig of whiskey and clambered on the horse, setting out so that His will might be done.
It would be three days before we caught up with Coyote. I brought nothing with me but the flask of Jack I’d been given when my internment began. It was the only special request I’d made in all those years. He could have fixed up anything for me, anything I could conceive of to keep me comfortable, but standing there, wringing my hat with my dusty hands, trying to comprehend all that had been set before me and why I, of all men, had been chosen by Him for this task, all that I’d ask for was a flask of Jack that would never run dry. At the time, it seemed to me that a more amazing prospect could not possibly be had. Pa had laughed, making me feel simple and shameful, but granted my wish. In those days, the thought that I might want to see life through anything but a screen of whiskey did not even occur.
I’ve gone over it many times since then, as I tended the chickens, or listened to Ma’s stories, or bettered myself with a small collection of books that I’d carefully skirted for the first decade like their leather bindings were cured human skin. The Good Book was all of the literature my father had left to me in life, and all others seemed exotic and fanciful. But in time I gave in, and couple hundred years teaches even the most dunderheaded men to think. I’ve considered everything I could have asked for: a gilt manor full of gold and silver; a train car that never stopped, just kept moving and moving past every wonder of the world; a respectable ranch with teams of hands to run her while I sipped whiskey in the shade. Instead, I’d asked for a chicken farm and a bottle of Jack, mere augmented reflections of the things I’d had in life. I wondered if Pa couldn’t change things for me. Certain, He’s got better things to do, but in the idle hours of some hot afternoon he might have found the time. But I hadn’t quite gotten around to asking. “Tomorrow,” I’d think, and the years slipped by in the dry hands of the wind.
I left the farm untouched and released Little One Eye into the desert. “Go on,” I’d said, shoving her away after letting my fingers run through the soft rivets of her neck.
She’d gazed at me reproachfully with that one little eye of hers, and I’d averted my gaze. “Begawk,” she said as I stood and moved away. When I glanced back, I noticed she was running around that damn water pump. Little fool didn’t realize there was nothing left to run from. I wouldn’t be coming back. With Ma gone, I had no purpose in this place. The thought settled like lead in my gullet. What would my new purpose be? I left it to Him–the only thing I could do–and drowned out the thoughts with more whiskey.
It served me well in those three days, helping to settle the uneasiness that comes about when traveling with a man whose face you can never quite see. Run circles around him trying to catch a glimpse if it pleases you, but he will always be somehow turned the other way, smoking quietly and giving you the impression there is something far more important than yourself occupying his attention. A number of stiff drinks managed to temper my discomfort, and my curiosity died out gently.
Only once, as we passed through the valley of the Thunderbirds and they littered our pathway with rough tongues of lightning, did I wish I could see his face. He’d led our horses calmly beneath the high columns of stilted stone upon which perched vaguely bird-like shapes of crackling blue-white ropes strung between hunks of rock, tricking me into a passive fascination. It was later, as I desperately clung to the saddle horn, my stallion tearing through the valley, the air around us charged and spitting as the ground beneath our feet split and shattered, that I wished I could see his expression and get some hint of what was to come. But I suppose that’s part of his power. He holds your fate just out of sight, teasing you with only exactly what he wants you to know, never mind that you might end up dead while he fiddles your dirge.
Try as I might I can’t shake the look in the Corn Maiden’s eyes as the flames played checkers with her long gold-green locks, leaping from leaf to leaf and swallowing them, red and then black. She stood on a high ridge that overlooked the first landscape to betray any sign of growth, of turning and tumbling and renewing, that I had seen in half past a century. The dull russet slabs had given way to sandstone in strips of tan and blue and green, and the red dust earth had shifted into a scrub that crunched beneath the hooves of the horses. The scrub was low and brownish but the blossoms on the cacti were blooming, scattering color through the landscape. Stalks of corn shot up amidst the more appropriate vegetation, swaying, though I could feel no wind.
As we drew close to the edge of the ridge, the Cowboy tugged the horses to a halt and said, “She knows. You can see it in the way everything’s a ‘shakin. She’s afraid.” I squinted, trying to ignore the ripple of pleasure in his voice, and in the low slants of morning sun, I could see the slight tremor of the fauna.
This would be our first lead. We had been traveling for three days, and none we had come across had given us a straight answer. Our meetings had been my first encounter with other gods, and I had scarce believed their presence. They were frail and miserable seeming, the whole lot of them. Raven flew low carrying his beak in his claws, and his feathers were dull and chalky. He threw riddles at us and spun off into the sky before Cowboy could finish fingering the etched leather holsters at his sides, the pair with the blackened edges that I now and then caught trails of smoke escaping from. The Hare, only a single ear flopping behind him as he dove away from us, cursed Ma’s name and swore any help he could provide, but added that he had nothing to offer us at the time.
We were restless. My flask rarely left my hand, and the pace of Cowboy’s smoking picked up by the hour. The drags he took as he regarded the Corn Maiden’s valley were the first slow, measured inhalations I’d seen him take in two days.
I didn’t realize she was a woman until there was a rustle and a hail of whispers and a soft voice said, “I know you, Cowboy.”
“And ya know what I seek, darlin’.”
“I know what you seek.”
The Cowboy took another long, quiet drag, and I watched as a tremor ran through the slick green bulk before us. It turned and the slops of the husk gave way, peeled back and sagging to the side to reveal the face of a young woman obscured beneath clusters of stringy fibers. Her eyes were large and unnaturally round, her lips standing out against her skin as though stuck there by some external force, and she was far younger and far more afraid than I had expected from her voice. The flask found its way into my shaking hand.
“You goin’ to tell me what I want to know, then?”
The eyes closed slowly and the head fell, swaying side to side. “Nay, Cowboy.”
The Cowboy’s cigarette paused midair. He took a moment to flick ashes into her breeze. “No?”
I glanced back at her, eyes narrowed, but when her own caught mine, I felt them widen, and something in them, I realized, was asking her to reconsider. I looked away after a moment, forcing my body into the shudder of a cough to justify the jerk.
“Never, Cowboy. I will not give up Coyote, and I will especially not give up Her. He can do what He will with me, as He did with my sisters so long ago, but I will not make the same mistake twice. I will not be the only one of us to balk in fear. The red sun will rise. Fire will envelop the land, but it’s only when it is cleansed that it can truly grow again.”
I didn’t want to watch as the Cowboy dismounted and drew himself close to her, playing with the holsters at his sides, her terrified eyes watching the action, lips parted and wet. But I did. I watched it all.
“Then, darlin’, I’m afraid the fire will start here.”
She didn’t scream. Her eyes betrayed no fear, and I suppose that’s why they haunted me. Fear is what you could expect, what would come naturally, but there was no feral desperation to be found there. They were passive and disquieted with a kind of profound sadness. A wind began to pick up. It lashed the flames from side to side, spinning them, tearing at them, spreading them violently and quickly over the whole of her shell. In the end, she looked to the western sky and cried out: “Mother, Mother have you forgiven me? Forgive me for the weakness I once had and take me away from Him. Let me join my sisters. Forgive me Mother.”
And then an odd peace settled over her. Her eyes leveled. The sadness seeped from them in glassy tears, leaving only a dull contentment to be devoured by the flames. I tried to turn away but I couldn’t, not until the Cowboy placed a hand on my shoulder and pulled me away.
“We make our way west. She betrayed Ma after all, silly girl. Good job backing me up there, James. Glad to have you by my side.”
I studied the cracks in my saddle horn, glowering under his scorn, as he set off. I took one final look back at what was now little more than a charred shell. Behind her remains, what had started as a moderate wind grew, carrying with it the dry sands from beyond the oasis. With a fury nursed long by repression, the red cloud engulfed the Corn Maiden’s valley, and I knew that by morning it would be scoured clean. No verdant trace would remain, and it would be as dry and hollow as everything else.
I reminded myself: this was Pa’s will. This is what had to be done.
I heard him before I caught sight of him, but just as I was beginning to turn, Raven swooped down beside me, treading air beside the dying fire. He let out a low, mournful squawk, and then turned to attempt to pierce me with his dark-eyed gaze, succeeding mostly only in giving me a bit of a quiver in my lower intestines. He suddenly dropped his gray-oily beak into my hands before plunging headlong into the dying fire. I juggled it with a mix of disgust and panic, not knowing what the consequences of dropping the body part of a god might be. When he emerged, flapping and cussing in bird talk, he had a blackened wooden ornament in the other claw. He wrenched his beak from my hands and left the ornament in its place. It belonged to a woman with distended eyes, large lips, a curiously innocent gaze.
Her heart, I realized, after a touch of a moment. He leveled his gaze at me, once again reaching for intimidation, getting slightly closer this time. “I am always hungry, I must always be fed, the finger I lick will soon turn red.”
“Fool bird,” I muttered, glancing to see that the Cowboy hadn’t taken notice. “There’s no time for games now. Now get before he sees you.”
“Care for it, Egg-Man.” I only nodded, shooing him with one hand and stowing the ornament deep in my saddlebags. He peered at me again, and all at once he had my flask in his hands. I growled and grabbed at the air as he darted back and forth, cackling. “Care for it!”
“Okay! Damn you, Raven! I give you my word, you crazy buzzard; now give it back!”
He dropped it into my hand and I sipped it quickly, protectively. “If you break me, I do not stop working, if you touch me, I may be snared, if you lose me nothing will matter.” I set my jaw and stared at him dumbly. He squawked in frustration and clawed at my head. “The answer,” he cried as he disappeared, blending with the ashen gray the sky was taking on, “is not in your saddle bag.”
I knocked my knees into my stallion, scowling at Raven’s path, and urged the horse to follow the retreating figure of the Cowboy. Raven had been lucky. The Cowboy never looked back. He couldn’t look back. I doubted he would have, though, even if he could.
For my part, I glanced back every ten or fifteen feet, until finally the fire was swallowed by the sandy wind, and the Corn Maiden was nothing but another dark patch of my memory, and a scorched trinket that shared the limp saddlebags with my Jack.
I grew up with no mother but the one in my father’s stories. With wide eyes and open ears, I listened to him tell how she had gone to bed early every night because, in the light of the moon, she shifted into a rattler. That it was in this shape he had first encountered her, in the orange cast of a harvest moon, squatting over the desert scrub on his way home from Busty Betty’s Saloon. That the venom of her bite had infected him with his infatuation for her. Sloshing a glass, he had stood on the porch nightly, screaming that she danced with demon lovers on the roof of the henhouse on days when the chickens gave us no eggs. That her singing caused the dust devils that filled our lungs and left brown waste. That she had not left her people but had instead been cast out because she was a shape shifter and a witch. He was convinced that she had not died but merely changed shapes for good and stolen off into the desert, returning only to wreak havoc in his life.
Eventually, his voice would die out and he would crumple to the planks, tears mixing with the cool puddle of gin his shaking hands had spilled upon the porch. I would help him to his feet and lead him to the bed, where he mumbled and apologized and wept until dawn. In the morning, he would start out strong with a passage from the Bible to greet the sun and set out with a steadfast and strong hand into the chores, but by the time night once again fell, he was broken by gin and specters.
He died cursing her name, delirious with pain as he was trampled beneath the hooves of a mare gone crazy with disease.
There had never been a woman on the farm until Ma, and I never wanted there to be. The only dealings I had with the tender sex began on my thirteenth birthday when my father began taking me with him on his weekly trips into town to sell the eggs. Saturday we would visit Busty Betty’s saloon, and Sunday we would visit the town chapel to repent for having done so. Betty herself was a one-legged, eleven-fingered firebrand whose bed was always open to my father and, eventually, to me. She must’ve been drawn by the chicken shit musk that we shared, but whatever the reason, I was grateful. None of the other girls would deal with either my father or me–him because he was too hot, me because I was too cold. Only Betty had the patience and skill to handle either of us. But it was with our egg money that we bought her attention, and I never could forget that.
She nicknamed me Dances With Himself and told me things about my mother that my father’s stories left out. That she had been a Zuni Indian who left her tribe to marry my father, that she had died of yellow fever before my second birthday, that my father screamed her name every time he beat himself into Betty. She told me these things hoping they might help, because Betty, though a whore and a fierce one at that, was at her heart a good woman. But my memories of my mother were shaky and dark and punctuated by my father’s screams, and I couldn’t deal with women without my mouth going dry.
And so I cleansed my palate with whiskey and kept no company but the chickens, and when Pa needed someone to guard the only woman you couldn’t help but love, he chose me, knowing I was the only man for the job.
It was just after sundown and the moon hung low in the sky, the horizon still edged in a finer shade of blue than the rich navy spread of the nightscape, and I had long since stumbled headlong into my flask of Jack. Had it been any mortal flask, I would have emptied it a few times over, but Pa’s bounty is endless, and so I found my senses dulled ever further as the flames of the campfire leapt and spun before me. But I couldn’t extinguish the Corn Maiden’s eyes with alcohol. They haunted the fire before me.
I pulled myself away from it. The Cowboy stood to the north, hand drawing in and out, pausing only to flick ash into the light breeze of the early night.
“Whatchu looking for?” The words spilled from my mouth.
The Cowboy’s shoulders shook with a quick laugh. “I’ll do you better than to answer that, James.”
“Thanks,” I responded, feeling shameful. I rolled closer to the fire, closing my eyes tightly and grinding my teeth. I barely caught the Cowboy’s words as he wandered out into the night: some business of a noise that he was going to go check out, and I wasn’t to go anywhere or do anything, not likely that I was capable to anyhow.
So I was all alone and half out of my senses when they came down upon me.
A more sober man would have had an inkling of a suspicion far sooner, but I was no sober man. First the wind began to blow what resembled a tune. Then there was a tumble of a shadow, and when I groped for my flask to chase out the willies, I found myself clutching at naught but dirt, and a high, wily laugh echoed in the wind. I’d’ve finally lurched to my feet at that point if trying to do so hadn’t only succeeded in landing me face first in a puddle of vomit whose production had somehow eluded me.
I became slowly aware of the tiny beats inside of my brain, pebbles ricocheting from side to side, steady and interminable, puncturing my insides with tiny pockets of pain. With a cry, I whipped my head from side to side, trying to force them out of my ear canal. I noticed then that a squaw shaking a rattle of scorpion tails and buffalo hide stood on the opposite side of the fire.
Her eyes were a sunset in deep winter by the firelight, and her skin rich and loamy. She was nearly sexless, only the slightest humps on her chest and the long hair flowing to the earth lending to her the concept of womanhood. Still, as I looked at her, my hands shook and I stumbled as I tried once again to rise, failing again, and nearly tumbling into the fire.
From behind her, the wire-framed shape of matted blue-gray fur that had been the bane of my farm for thirty days slinked into the firelight. The coyote is really a pathetic sort of creature, so you can’t help but feel a bit sorry for harassing one, but this did not stop me from lobbing the nearest stone at him, failing miserably.
“Coyote,” I slurred. “You little troublemaker, do you realize what you’ve done?”
“The q-question James,” growled Coyote, “is do you you know, know what you’re doing?”
“I’m retrieving her, Coyote. It’s what Pa sent me to do and I’m going to see it done.”
The squaw was suddenly before me, her hand upon my neck, and my cry became a wheeze between the crushed walls of my windpipe.
“You would help him destroy the Mother of creation? Do you really understand what that means?” That rattling was once again in my brain, accompanying the tone of her voice, which was rich, smooth, instrumental even.
“Let him go, Kokopelli. We need to talk, talk to him.”
She released my neck and I heaved in a breath, coughing it out just as quickly, as I pulled up half the ground below me with it.
“No, I don’t suppose I know,” I croaked, running my hands along my bruised neck, glaring up at the shadowy pair. But I noticed then, looking at them hard, the bare patches of skin where Coyote’s hair seemed to be falling out, the desperate pant of his breath, and the dark rings about Kokopelli’s eyes, the shriveled quality to her breasts, the broken flute at her side. She noticed me look at it and placed a hand over it protectively, narrowing her eyes at me.
“But I do know that she’s dangerous. That she’s outa control”
Kokopelli scoffed. “What’s the day without the night, James? What’s harmony without discord?” My mouth hung open limply, and Coyote stepped forward, pausing to scratch himself, a patch of fur falling away when he was through.
“James, things, things, they are not always as you have known them to be, Ma is no crrrriminal, She was Pa’s parrrtnerrrr. She is as great as He. He wants powerrr… nothing but powerrr….”
I shook my head. I couldn’t hear it. “No, you’re fallen, you were cast from His light and want revenge, but I won’t turn… I’m a faithful man, all the things I may not be, I have faith in Him.”
“Well, you shouldn’t,” growled Kokopelli. “I know you don’t have it in you to love a woman, James, but think about what you’ve been asked to do. She isn’t just a woman. She’s no woman at all. She’s the Mother.”
“And what does that mean? What has that ever meant to me? Pa knows what he is doing. Pa knows what’s for the best…”
I realized by the time I finished that I was screaming at them, the drink and the pain in my head sending me knee-deep into delirium.
“Quiet! Quiet! The gunslingerrr will rrreetur –” The r caught in the base of his throat, tumbling and rolling out in a throaty growl.
“He already has.” On a nearby ridge, the Faceless Cowboy was illuminated in the moonlight, the smoke of his cigarette glowing softly. For the first time, he didn’t simply play with the holsters. He had a gun in each hand and they blazed brightly with pure blue flame. I recognized them as a set of Colt .41 double-action Thunderers, flames licking the length of their barrels. “I know you two know where she’s gone. Now ‘fess up. ‘Fore we see if these things still have the kick they did two thousand years ago. I’ve been keeping good care of ’em. I’d love to see if’n my work’s been fer good.”
“You wouldn’t,” hissed Kokopelli.
“I’m Pa’s divine Hand. I do what I say, darlin’.”
He cocked the guns for emphasis and pointed them directly at her chest. She shrank back only momentarily then drew herself up again, but Coyote found no such courage when one gun shifted to him.
“Here. Here. Here.” The words tumbled from his mouth in a high, screechy panic. “She went over to Here.”
The Cowboy’s cigarette jerked in mid-air but he quickly smoothed its path back out. “Ahh, that would explain the trouble we’ve been having. James, looks like ya may be good for something after all. Much obliged, Coyote.”
I heard myself shouting in protest before I even realized what was happening; call it drunken foresight. A bullet leaving a trail of blue sparks arched past me, tearing a hole through Coyote’s neck from which a high, sonorous rush of desert wind swept out, carrying with it the howls of a countless number of grieving packs all confessing their sins to the moon. He should have been able to slip into a shadow before it hit, but more than just his fur had been eaten away, and the trickster dissolved into the night.
Kokopelli’s rattle was launching through the air toward the Cowboy when the second bullet hit her square in the chest, right between those shrunken mounds. The air filled with the sound of a deep resonant music that intoned with the packs to climax into a cadence that had me pawing against the ground, writhing with frustration, as she too dissipated. I crawled to my flask, which occupied the space where Coyote had been, and clutched it to my chest, spitting words at the Cowboy.
“They told us what we needed to know! They told us! What had they done?”
The Faceless Cowboy appeared above me, smoking just as calmly and passively as ever as he said, “Pick yerself back up, boy. We got a difficult journey ahead of us tomorrow. Don’t make me put you down like another of these lame dogs when yer usefulness just finally made itself known.”
He drew away into the dark night and I found that no matter how hard I might try, I could not stop the whispering. “What had they done, Pa, what had they done…”
But Pa never answered.
I died on a Tuesday in mid-winter, barely 25 years old, coughing up blood on the floor of the henhouse. Busty Betty had died some six months before, pink satin sheets stained and splattered with the same thick red mucus that now covered the chicken scratch. I didn’t visit her deathbed, and I did not go to her funeral. I heard of it one night as Harebrained Hal and Wyatt Henders took all my egg money in the course of ten unlucky hands of five card stud. I had stopped frequenting her bed the day she tried to hide the first lacey white hankie from me. I tore it from her hand and stared at it. “I’m sorra,” she whispered. “Real sorra.”
I left her room without a condolence, without condescension, without a plea, and every week from then on, I took my social whiskey at Harebrained Hal’s tavern down the street, a much dustier and more disreputable locale but at least one without a dying woman haunting my peripheries. When I finally heard the whispers that Busty Betty’s was up for sale, the statuesque proprietress having finally succumbed, only then did I ask for any news.
When it became apparent that I was to share in her fate, I stopped lingering in town altogether and allowed only the chickens to witness my slow deterioration. I began to stumble and fall as I tended their nests, much like I had fifteen years previously when I first began to hit the bottle, only now, it happened even in those rare moments when I was as dry as my arid surroundings. It continued to worsen until the moment I collapsed against their scratch and could no longer rise. I gripped a cross that I had taken from my father’s cold neck and begged for forgiveness, for repentance, to find my way into the Holy Father’s forgiving light. Up to that time, I had shared in my father’s religion only slightly, but every deathbed makes a believer.
And when my eyes opened, I was looking at Him, and He told me that I was to have a fate beyond death, a fate that no other man was quite suited for.
I beamed. I groveled. I wept for what was the first and only time in my existence. I had never been worth anything, and here in His light, I was something. There was justice, somewhere, and it was in Him.
But it was exactly for my worthlessness, for my interminable worthlessness, for the empty hole in my chest that I filled with nothing but Jack and bad memories, that He had chosen me. Trusting that I would never think beyond these bitter tasks.
Well, so much for an all-knowing God.
My eyes fixed on the Faceless Cowboy’s back as we rode. The faces of those he had killed, in Pa’s name, haunted the roses that adorned his shirt. I tried to close my eyes, to look away, to level myself, but I couldn’t. Some time just after dawn, I’d woken, uncurling myself in a painful haze, with Raven staring at me from above, outlined against the blazing morning sun. With one eye I stared at him dubiously. He spun in a slow circle and then dropped his beak at my feet. The thing picked itself up from the ground and began to clatter at me, while his body gazed down from the sky with quiet, passive eyes that must’ve given up trying their tricks on me. “A pale box without hinges, key, or lid. Yet golden treasure inside is hid, what am I?”
I couldn’t help but feel that he was mocking me, owing to the answer, and to my background, but I just looked away and replied, “That’s an old one, Raven. You running out of material?”
“What, what, do you give up?”
I spat greenish spittle against the ground and curled back up again. “An egg, Raven, it’s an egg.”
“Ahhh…” Raven’s body swooped down in a dusty shower of faded black feathers and retrieved the beak. “But more. More it is, Egg-Man. Your outsides are pale, your insides, though, are they gold, or are they Yellow?”
I swiped for the bird half-heartedly, knowing that the task of coordinating a sitting position would’ve been an epic task at that point, and that hitting a god, though half-mad and decaying he may be, was far beyond my abilities. Still, he had called me Yellow, the one glove I could not help but retrieve. He cackled as the action spun me across the ground and then tripped his way up through the air currents, leaving me with no other wisdom.
But I felt my hand frequently touch my saddlebag as Cowboy and I set off a couple of hours later. I couldn’t bear to open it, to touch what lay inside, but I traced her outline and counted the steady thuds inside my chest to stay my restlessness.
We parted ways at the edge of a forest, which he explained to be the border with Here. My world. The human world. The Cowboy couldn’t follow, and he tossed the holsters onto the ground before me. I checked that both guns were there before I bent down to pick them up, trying not to take my eyes from him. He’d been rough and rude on the ride over, belittling me for crying over Coyote, his sway more assured than ever as last night’s victory inflated his chest. Before he left me, he asked, “You sure you ain’t going soft on us, boy?”
“No. You can trust in me.”
As the Cowboy began to walk back toward his mare, I spoke up. “What’s going to happen to me? When this is done?”
“Don’t rightly know. Does it matter, though? Your whole damn life been a nothin’… don’t know what you’d hold onto it for.”
I looked down and when I looked back up, something inside me was burning. “You know, you’re right, but if that’s true, Cowboy, what do I have to lose?”
The Faceless Cowboy fell to his knees. My first shot was a near miss, hitting his leg. The second, though, went straight through the place where a heart should beat. To my surprise, his shirt grew dark and thick with something like blood. There was no great wind, no thundering cloud, no rebellion of the elements to speak of, nor any choruses of grief.
“I should’ve known you…” He buckled in pain, screaming as his words cut off. “Father,” he shouted. “Father, where in the hell are ya? Ain’t I served ya? Ain’t I done all you ever asked and more? Father, you listenin’? You is, isn’t ya, and you just watch. We ain’t nothin’ to ya, nothin’, just, means…” He shook with a violent string of hacks, and the ground before him was splattered in a thick black blood.
He heard my steps and then the hammer lock in my shaking hands, though he didn’t, couldn’t, turn to see the second Colt pointed at his head.
“You got more guts than I thought, boy.” He straightened his back and picked up his cigarette from the ground. He held it in his hand for a pause. It had broken in two. I gave him one last drag of the smoldering half. “Do me one favor, boy. Smite that son-of-a-bitch, will ya?”
I nodded, knowing he couldn’t see it, and through the smoke, I saw his body topple forward, disappearing into the dust before it could hit the ground.
The shadows of the wood unnerved me as my feet thudded against the ground, dizzy and panicking at what I had just done. I could never remember a time that I hadn’t been able to see the sun, or at least the moon, hanging above me, letting me know that I still had some kind of bearing. Between the chests of the powerful trees, I felt lost and uncertain, like I had gone blind, or drunk myself out of reality. When I finally broke through to a small clearing where a cool stream skipped over the earth, I realized I was shaking as relief flooded me.
I knelt down beside the stream and splashed water onto my face. I reached for my flask of Jack, but when I tried to drink, I found it was empty. Real world, real rules, I supposed. I dipped the flask into the stream and brought it up, drinking the water down quickly. Its shocking purity was unsettling after all those years.
The holsters fell from my hands onto the ground beside me, and I bowed my head. What had I done? I had betrayed Pa, and where I had thought there would be a sense of righteousness, there was only regret and fear.
I stared at the holsters, and in a moment, without even thinking, I’d thrown them into the stream. There was a great column of steam that rose straight into the sky, and I followed it up, followed it up to where my father had searched for Him when he died.
I no longer knew what I was looking for, and I was sure my end would come soon.
“I hope you’re out there. I hope you know what I did for you. I hope you remember that, when…”
My voice broke. The near shape of a figure slipped through the shadows of the trees, and that voice, I swear I could hear that voice intoning with the rhythm of the wind rolling through the leaves, which broke in a pattering of successions like how I’d always imagined waves upon a shore. I listened. For the first time, I let myself really listen, and when Her song finally shifted out, and for the second time in my damnable existence, I felt tears prick the corners of my eyes.
I stood shakily and set off into the wood, following the stream. In the distance, I saw an old man kneeling beside the stream with a pan, his overalls faded and beaten, a moth-eaten cap resting on his head, shoes cracked and chewed by the earth. He was drawing a pan up and out of the water. He glanced up at me with eyes white and milky.
I bowed my head. “Hello, Pa.”