Tuesday, June 19, 2012

Pine Bluff

ALTHOUGH SHE HAD NEVER READ it, Aileen Eckhart sometimes imagined she was a character in that Beckett play, the one with characters buried up to their waists. In her fantasy, she was encased in white sand on a tropical beach, smoking a Digem cigarette, drinking Jameson’s whiskey through a straw, and wearing a wide-brim hat to protect her strawberry-blonde hair from the sun.
     After Mack died somewhere on the Korean peninsula in 2035, trying to stop the North Koreans from reaching Seoul, she thought about that play a great deal. Mack was an ornithopter pilot with the Royal Air Cavalry on the DMZ; he and his robot co-pilot engaged the Koreans on the first day of battle and disappeared in a ball of flame. Now, late at night, with Mack’s pillow between her legs, she would remember him and cry at her benighted plight, left alone at twenty-six in government housing at Fort Leonard Wood, Missouri.
     Six months after his death she received a check for fifty thousand pounds from the Anglo-American Alliance’s Military Insurance Bureau in Quebec City, along with a notice in English and French to vacate her house on the base. The letter stated another army family needed her house immediately. The implication, she decided, was she was no longer army. Several days later, when the two MPs arrived, one a human and the other a cyborg, and nailed a notice of eviction on her door, she bought a used Brazilian-built trailer for twenty thousand pounds, loaded it with her worldly goods, and hauled it behind Mack’s Japanese half-ton truck to Pine Bluff, Arkansas, where she rented a slot in a trailer park carved from the thick woods outside the city. For the next three months she sat in front of her trailer in a plastic folding chair, smoked Digem cigarettes, watched bats fly at dusk, and drank Jameson’s whiskey.
On a cold rainy afternoon in October 2036, she received another letter from the Anglo-American Alliance informing her Pine Bluff would be re-cycled in six months by the government’s licensed contractor for the Midwest, AN Reclamation Ltd, and she had one hundred and twenty days to move. There was a claim form included for her to record any losses caused by the inconvenience. The next day the local paper ran an article, stating every citizen of Pine Bluff had received an eviction notice. There was also a rumor circulating that Pine Bluff had been selected as the site for two new bio-rejuvenation plants: one for the manufacture of medical nano-bots and the other for AN Bio-Chemical’s patented living-skin and bio-bone.
     Long-time residents, property owners, slowly responded to the notices, choosing to file lawsuits to contest the amount of money paid for the reclamation of their property; whereas most of the renters in the trailer park cleared out immediately.  Many of the tenants had already lost homes to the Reclamation Project of 2030 and were drifting west in front of the giant steam shovels and the legion of robot workers that followed in their wake, planting trees, building wind farms and dams, creating artificial lakes and hydro-electric projects. All the renters had to do was back their trucks up to their trailers and drive away. Aileen, however, hesitated. She had nowhere to go. She canvassed her neighbors and learned that most of them were heading south into Texas. She could go there, she thought; she still had most of the loss-benefit money left from Mack’s death but she could not summon the energy to pack her things.
     Trey McAllister, the owner of the trailer park and a convenience store on the highway, asked her to help him. Just a few hangers-on like her were staying in Pine Bluff and most of the stores had closed. He intended to raise his prices and stay until the robot commandoes forced him to move. She started the next day. It had been five years since she had a job; and, at first, she found the routine troublesome. It was easier to lie in bed until mid-day, then smoke and drink until it was time to fall back into the un-made bed with the soiled sheets. But, to her surprise, getting up and going to work pleased her. She enjoyed talking with the few remaining customers and tried to forget the reclamation force would soon arrive to recycle the town.
     Six months passed and nothing happened. Aileen thought they had received a reprieve; however, on a beautiful spring day in late May, she was standing behind her cash register when a cyborg commando on a black Czech motorcycle sped past the store, heading toward the center of town, followed by twelve six-ton Chinese trucks, each carrying twenty robot commandoes. The advance force of the Reclamation Corps had arrived. She, like all the rest of the remaining inhabitants, ran out into the street and followed the trucks into the town square, where they slowed and parked. Engines switched off and the robot troops dismounted and assembled in a four-column formation in front of the cyborg, a man more machine than human, who stood in the middle of the square with his arms akimbo. Curious to know their fate, most of Pine Bluff’s citizens, including Aileen, gathered on the crumbling cement sidewalks to gawk at the silent copper-colored robots; their metallic surface gleaming in the sunlight.
     “What are they going to do?” An elderly woman asked.
Roscoe Jackson, a man in his sixties and a Royal marine veteran, stood next to Aileen and rubbed his nose. ”I was in Nashville when the robots arrived. There’ll be a commissar coming soon to take control of them and us.”
Jed Ramey spat tobacco juice on the cement and said: “We best be on our way then, while we are still free. My car’s packed and I’m leaving tonight.”
     “What will the commissar do to us if we don’t leave?” asked Aileen.
     “He’ll sort you and move you, maybe somewhere you don’t want to be,” answered Roscoe. “It doesn’t really matter though because once they roll up the infra-structure and re-plant the trees there will be nothing for you here, except critters and vandals.”
     Aileen ran her hand through her hair and realized it was happening to her again. They ran her out of her house in Fort Leonard Wood and now they were pushing her out of Pine Bluff. A middle-aged woman with a young boy by her side said: “They want us to either move to the hive-cities or to go to work for one of the agri-corps or bio-firms.”  Roscoe nodded in agreement. “There’s no way I’m moving into one of those hives. I would rather work in an egg factory than live in a cell underneath some filthy city.”
     “Egg farm,” repeated Aileen.
     “My brother works in a giant egg farm up north,” answered Roscoe. “They house his family in corporate apartments, send his kids to corporate schools, and feed them in corporate cafeterias. It’s like being in the army but taking your whole family with you.”
     An egg farm didn’t sound interesting to Aileen. “Is there anywhere you can just be free?”
     Jackson waved vaguely in a southerly direction. “I heard if you can get to Texas there is a possibility of immigrating further south into Mexico. They say Mexico’s like we were in the twentieth century. Chaotic but free.”
     Trey McAllister called for Aileen and she slipped away from Roscoe and joined him. “We need to get back to the store. People will be pulling out tonight and they will want supplies, lots of supplies.”
     She and Trey worked throughout the day. By nine that night the shelves were almost bare and a caravan of vehicles moved from the city onto the freeway heading south and west. When they finally closed, she was so tired she barely made it back to her trailer before she fell asleep in her clothes on top of the wrinkled sheets. When she awoke at seven the next morning, the park was silent and deserted. The store was closed; its inventory almost gone. On its door Trey had hand-painted a message to his few remaining customers: GONE to TEXAS. Aileen went to the store’s back door and used her key. As agreed, last night, Trey had left her four boxes of food, four five-gallon cans of gas, a forty-five caliber Colt automatic, a leather holster and western belt, one hundred rounds of ammunition, and a note: “I’m headed to my sister’s place in Dripping Springs, Texas. I’ve bought another trailer park and, as I said, you have a job if you want it.”
     She loaded the trailer with her supplies and for the first time in weeks she washed her clothes and cleaned the trailer, securing everything that wasn’t bolted down already. By five in the afternoon, she was ready to leave.
Just as she climbed into the elevated cab of her truck four men in a beat-up green Chevrolet sedan blocked her from leaving her space. The engine idled, as she watched them slowly unfold from the car. Bearded and dirty, they stretched and then divided into two pairs, like wolves, two men for each side of her truck. She fingered the handle of the pistol that lay on the seat, slid it out of its holster, released its safety, and racked it. She had expected trouble on the road. That was why the gun was on the seat. Mack had taught her to shoot and she was thinking about him as she waited for the driver’s door to be yanked open.
     She had seen these men before. They lived up North in the woods; drug dealers mostly and pimps for their sisters and wives. They worked with biker gangs that roamed up and down the interstate, supplying them with manufactured drugs, distilled in the deep woods, just like their ancestors had cooked moonshine and slipped it past the revenuers in muscle cars. They were lean, inbred predators and she intended to take one or two with her. She saw the glint of a knife blade flicking open in the hand of the man nearest her door and she sucked in her breath ready to squeeze a round into his slack jaw.
     As the man reached the latch and pulled up she remembered the name of that Irish play. He yanked the door open and she fired two rounds directly into his face. The bullets made two small red pinpricks: one under the left eye and the other in the center of his nose. The bullets escaped his skull in an explosive rush, blasting out handfuls of brain and bone. The force of the rounds propelled him backwards onto the ground; the other men gasped and stopped at the sound of the gun. A moment passed in silence and then they reached for weapons, knives mostly, but a gun appeared in the hand of one of the men on the right. He raised it with one hand, turning it on its side like some new-age punk on a retro-tele show. Mack had told her a man who held a gun like that couldn’t hit the side of a tank. She raised her weapon, gripping it with two hands, like Mack had instructed her, and fired four rounds that puckered then shattered the glass of the truck’s windshield. Shards and bullets hit the man with the gun in the chest and arms. He ducked his head, covering his eyes, falling back away from the spray, and fired his whole clip into the truck. Bullets chewed the inside of the cab and struck Aileen in the shoulder twice and creased her scalp above her left ear. Stunned, she forced herself up, not yet aware of the pain, and pumped another four rounds at the men on the right, while the lone man on the left sprinted back to his car to retrieve his gun.
     As he staggered from the Chevrolet with an automatic sub-machine, an Argentinean LOCK 25, a land rover painted dark green sped into the park and stopped under an oak tree about thirty yards from the fire fight. Aileen saw a tall man, wearing a light tan rain coat, opened in the front, over a gray suit, and a dark brown hat, stepping from the vehicle. But she pushed him out of her mind; instead, she fired another burst, the last of the ammo in her clip, at the man carrying the LOCK. Missing him she lay down in the seat and flipped open the glove box searching for the other clip. She heard the LOCK bark and then felt its rounds slamming into the truck, rocking it on its springs. Then a magnum thumped once and someone screamed. Several seconds passed and the magnum sounded again, twice, thump, thump. Then it was silent. She lay still, now aware of the pain in her shoulder and head.
     “You in the truck, are you wounded?”
     She cleared her throat and shouted, “Yes.”
     “I’m not going to hurt you. I’m with the Reclamation Corps. Can you exit the vehicle?”
     “I think so.”
     “Leave your gun and step out of the truck. Help is on the way.”
     Aileen passed out in the cab of her truck and woke in a bed on the fourth floor of the Methodist Hospital in downtown Pine Bluff. When she awoke for the first time, the man in the rain coat was sitting in a chair reading an electronic pad; his raincoat was now draped over the back of his seat, his tie loosened at his neck and the top button of his shirt opened. She cleared her throat and struggled to lift her head, as he asked: “How are you?”
     She thought for a moment, letting her head fall back on the pillow. “I feel sore.”
     He stood up, placed the electronic reader on the seat and said, as he walked toward the bed: “I imagine you are. Your clavicle was shattered; they bio-rigged it with living bone and pumped you full of nano-bots. That always hurts.”
     She tried to move her left arm but nothing happened. She turned her head as far to the left as possible and discovered they had harnessed her to the bed with some sort of yellow plastic sleeve and attached four IV drips to her arm.
     Giving up trying to sit up, she lay flat, staring up at the ceiling. “How long have I been here?”
     “Two days,” he answered, moving close to her so she could see him.
     “And you, how long have you been sitting there?”
     “Not long, the medic had orders to call me when you showed signs of waking.” He touched her right arm. “I have to ask you a few questions and then I’ll leave you to mend.”
     She nodded.
“Did you know those men that attacked you?”
“I don’t know their names. I’ve seen them in the store. They usually come into town once a week with some women and load up with supplies.”
“Do you have any idea why they attacked you?”
“I thought they planned to rape and rob me.”
“What made you think that?”
“The look on their faces and the knives they carried seemed to be a clue.”
He smiled and touched the tip of his nose with the index finger of his right hand.
“Where did you learn to shoot like that?”
Tears ran from her eyes. “My husband, Mack, taught me.”
The man wiped her eyes with a cotton handkerchief he dug from an inside pocket of his suit jacket. When he leaned forward, she saw the magnum revolver holstered under his left arm.
Returning to his chair, he said: “You have a problem, Aileen. You killed a man with an unlicensed handgun.”
“It was in self-defense.”
“I know that but the gun was illegal and a man is dead.”
“What is the penalty?”
“It could be severe if the tribunal decides it is manslaughter.”
She didn’t respond. Her head swam, as she thought of Mack.
“But I might have a solution, if you are willing to join me,” he said after several seconds. She coughed, her throat filled with phlegm and her cheeks covered with tears. “What can I do?” She paused before saying, “Like this?”
He leaned forward in his chair and placed his hands on his knees. “Aileen, my job is to remove people from the areas marked for reclamation. Most of the time things proceed smoothly but in rural areas like Eastern Tennessee, West Virginia, Quebec and here we have problems. The hill people refuse to move. They burrow into their holes and caves and fight.” He cleared his throat, leaned back in the chair, and crossed his legs, relaxing into his story. “I can send in the robot commandoes but they are indiscriminate in their purging. Once the command is given, they only have one mode: exterminate. I like to employ more subtle methods and that is where you can help. I intend keeping your store open. The hill people will come in and we will follow them back to their cabins in the woods and round them up. But to pull this off I need local people to help me. That’s how you will win your pardon; you’ll work for me.”
“Who are you?” she asked.
“Commissar Tecumseh Marshall,” he answered, picking at his lower lip, “of his Majesty’s Reclamation Corps.”
“Ah,” she said, falling asleep.
Two weeks later, Aileen stood at the cash register of the store, her left arm in a nylon sling. The shelves were fully stocked and two young boys, the Reuther twins, were her assistants. Jan and Dan had signed up for the Reclamation Corps but before sending them to Saint Louis for training, the Commissar put them to work assisting Aileen.
Late one Wednesday, a teenage boy, wearing a pale blue short-sleeve shirt, coveralls, and work boots entered and looked around nervously. Aileen suspected he was casing the store and a robbery was in the offing. Eventually, the boy approached her and she gritted her teeth; she had been shot once and she did not relish a second time.
“Miss,” he said, “That Chevrolet next to the building is my father’s.”
Surprised, she paused for a moment to collect her thoughts and then responded as the Commissar had instructed her. “I was wondering when someone would show up and pick it up.” She pulled open a drawer in the kiosk and removed the keys for the Chevrolet. “Your father said someone would be along to pick it up.” He looked at her askance, his pale blue eyes shining, nervous and now suspicious. “You talked with him?” he asked. She nodded and handed him the keys, which he took and slipped into the pocket of his coveralls. “Where is he?”
“I don’t know. A black town car pulled up outside and he climbed in.”
The boy eyed her for several seconds and then turned and exited the store. She waited patiently for fifteen minutes and then went outside to see if the car was gone. It was. She then called the Commissar’s cell and reported a young boy picked up the car.
An hour later two ornthopters flew low over the store, heading in a north by northwest trajectory, followed a few minutes later by a black helicopter gunship that thundered over the premises, shaking the shelves and rattling the windows.
No more customers came in the rest of the day. The city was almost empty, only a few wealthy individuals remained, battling over a proper price for their property. At six she locked the doors and walked to her trailer. A green land rover was parked next to her slot and a young man with bright blue eyes, wearing a green uniform, sat in her lawn chair, smoking a Digem cigarette. He stood as she approached and dusted off loose tobacco from his tunic.
“Ma’am,” he said, half saluting her, “The Commissar has ordered you to accompany me to Saint Louis.”
“Saint Louis?” she asked vaguely. “Yes, ma’am, I am to deliver you to the Reclamation Corps Academy for training.”
“Trained to do what?”
“Couldn’t say ma’am but Saint Louis is where the officer training school is. I’m going with you. The Commissar thinks I’m officer material.” He smiled, flashing a mouth of white teeth.
“Let me pack a bag,” she said as the ornithopters returned. One of them was on fire, smoking and sputtering. The human pilot slumped over while his robot co-pilot strained at the controls.
“Maybe, I’ll learn to fly like Mack,” she said, entering the trailer.

Wednesday, June 13, 2012

Tuesday, June 12, 2012

Out of the Frying Pan--First Chapter of Grimoire of Stone

THREE WEEKS OUT OF MONTAGNE, the northern-most city of the Central Kingdom of the world known as Mittilagart, the Blacksmith rode his black gelding toward a copse of pines that grew thickly on a small rise above a dry ravine south of the Azul Mountains. He tugged on a thick, hempen rope, tied to the horn of a silver pommel, and urged his two white mules, loaded heavily with supplies, to follow him further up the steep hill. In the distance a fire serpent glided languidly on currents swirling above the ravines and passes of the mountains and higher still a pair of blue-back dragons circled.
            He had purchased the mules in Montagne with silver furnished to him by the Priests in Ciudad. The cover story he spread throughout the city was that he was moving his smithy from the capital to the Santa Rey pueblo north of the Azul Mountains.  His real mission, however, was to deliver three bullae, priestly edicts: one to the Cardinal in Santa Rey, one to the head of the Brotherhood in the Martinelle pueblo, and one to the bishop of the Nord pueblo.  Before he left Montagne, Father Gonzales introduced him to an Argyll prospector, Mime, who drew a series of maps, showing him the way to the Santa Rey pueblo, identifying the last known location of indio camps, the highest infestation of dragons, and any burning cities along the route.
            After the officious Argyll left, smelling of cinnamon and tobacco, Father Gonzales said, “Your ultimate mission must be secret, even to you.  Do not lose the bullae and do not open them.  It is better you destroy them rather than let them fall into a stranger’s hands.  North of the Rio Concho you will find many people who hate us.  Be careful of strangers and especially the ones that call themselves Freedmen.”
            “The Freedmen, are they making trouble again?” asked Stern.
            The priest caught Stern’s eyes and grasped his hands: “They refuse to serve the Emperor; these godless ones; the ones who walk alone. They continually vex us.” Still gripping his hands, he asked, “Shall I hear your confession, Moses?”
            Afterwards, Father Gonzales handed him a silver talisman. “Take this.  It was made before the war, before the burning cities and the great dragon plague. It was forged by one of our greatest smiths.”
            Pulling the chain of the talisman over his head, he said sternly, through pursed lips, his anger barely in check. “Father, promise on the sacred book to take care of my son.”
            The old man grimaced, embarrassed by the fact that the priest had illegitimately fathered a son with an Argyll woman, while on campaign in the jungles of the south, and said, “He is in God’s and our hands now.”  The Blacksmith frowned because he didn’t believe in the priests anymore nor in their infinite mercy, although he went to great pains to not let the Black Robes know it. As he turned to leave, he asked, “Tell me my mission one more time?”  The old Black Robe thought a moment and then automatically recited his spiel, the same message he gave to every ranger they sent north: “The Empire must survive. We have gathered a great deal of knowledge about the dragons but we must learn more about their origin, if we are to vanquish them; we must learn where they came from and why they are here.  You are carrying a message to the Black Robes in the north, to the furthermost reach of the empire, instructing them on how to help us reach our goal. Once there they will reveal your next assignment.” The old man paused and sighed. “Moses, the world is almost empty now; the dragons rule the lands outside the Empire and the peoples of this world are descending into chaos and ignorance. If we are ever going to rebuild, we must do it before our order disappears completely. Remember, we are the children of the sacred North.  We must find a way home.” The old man turned and raised his hands in prayer, then shrugged at the sound of Stern’s silver spurs singing on the seared marble of the sanctuary as he strode away.
Days later, stopping at the crest of yet another hill, Stern stood in the stirrups and leaned forward over the gelding’s neck and surveyed the north, his eyes scanning the area up above a range of middling mountains, where dark, threatening clouds, surged toward the south. Suddenly, a sliver of silver lightning split the bruise-black clouds and the mules, in a panic, jerked the line. As he pulled harder on the rope, forcing the skittish mules to move closer to him, he whispered to them in Lingua, the language of the Central Kingdom. From the bottom of the hill, in a dry ravine, his two dogs, Phobus and Deimos, barked, turned and ran toward him, and he smiled grimly, as he turned his horse toward a forest that spread across the valley.
            Hours later, underneath tall pines, Stern swung out of the saddle and untied the mules. The gelding pulled at a clump of grass, as Stern led the mules into the trees, where he stretched a rough hempen rope between two firs that towered above him and swayed gently in the rising wind. With the mules tied off, he extracted two leather feed bags from a wooden pallet on the nearest mule, partially filled the bags with dry oats, and wrestled them over the mules’ ears.  As the mules ate, he unloaded both pallets and carried the supplies deeper into the woods, where he unpacked them, covered them with a waterproof tarp, and fastened them to the ground with six steel pegs he had forged in his shop in Ciudad.
Later, he found the grazing gelding and removed its saddle and rubbed it down with dried grass before he filled its feedbag with grain, then carried the saddle into the woods, away from the mules and the horse, and placed it beneath a rock that extended from the curve of the hill and formed a rough and ragged roof. He slid the single shot carbine, which he had also constructed in his shop, from his saddle’s boot and examined it proudly. He had fashioned the carbine from an ancient, discarded plan that one of the blue-skinned Argyll prospectors had retrieved from the wreckage of an ancient city on the banks of the Rio Concho and sold him for the outrageous sum of one gold angel.
He leaned the gun against the rock and untied a waterproof slicker and a blanket from the cantle of the saddle, removed the mochilas, and slung them, the slicker and the blanket under the rock roof.  Lying on his back, using the saddle as a pillow, he stared up through the pine needles and observed black clouds passing quickly over him. A storm was brewing and he expected the rain to fall at any moment; and, with the clouds and the wind picking up from the north, he knew the temperature would drop. Standing, he tugged the black slicker over his head, and set about gathering twigs and broken branches to make a fire beneath the rock, where the two dogs lay, stretched out near his saddle, watching him, their pink tongues lolling from their square jaws, saliva curling thickly across their wide paws.  Clicking his tongue, he attracted the attention of the female, who moved toward him, but he ordered her back. She was pregnant and he hoped the puppies held off until he reached the Santa Rey pueblo and the compound of the Black Robes.  He bought the dogs at a baratillo near the zocalo of the capital city from an old mestiza, who had reached out and grabbed his robe as he passed.  “Father,” she said, ‘buy one of my puppies.”  He remembered bending down and uncovering a paper box where four black puppies, asleep, lay in a warm huddle like worms, unearthed.  “Four coppers for each.  They are weaned and ready to go. They will make good breeding stock. Or if you are a gourmand, then a delicious meal or two.”  They were perfect as best he could tell.  Their line seemed pure so he bought two and put one in each of the pockets of his black robe.  As he walked away from the zocalo he felt their reassuring warmth in his pockets, balanced like the two revolvers he now wore on his hips.  Back in his shop, he built a wooden box, filled it with fresh hay, placed an old horse blanket on top of it, and moved it near the fire.  He laid them on the blanket and placed a bowl of milk near them.
            Brushing away his memories, he tended his small fire beneath the overhang, sat back and filled his pipe from a leather pouch, containing tobacco, slices of dried apples, and currants. The single-shot carbine leaned against the back of his makeshift dugout within reach and one of his revolvers rested in his lap, with the hammer half-cocked.  He smelled the coming rain, as he pushed his worn sombrero off his head and his black hair fell forward into his eyes.  Rubbing his left hand over his thick blue-black beard, he yawned and leaned against his saddle and closed his eyes.
            The first cold drops of rain splattered onto the red sand in front of the overhang and a raven, seeking shelter and maybe food, landed in a fir tree near his rugged rock roof, shook its wings free of water, and turned its head from side to side.  The two dogs, startled by the bird, snarled, while the skittish mules strained against their rope.  The gelding, too, seemed restless.
 The Blacksmith opened his eyes and peered into the rain as he pulled the silver talisman from beneath his slicker and his black linen shirt with his right hand and un-holstered the second revolver and pulled the hammer back with his left.  He pushed himself further back under the rock into the shadows of the overhang and rubbed the talisman, not because he thought it provided him with any help, but because it had been made by a man like himself, a smith, who worked with metals, blessed by the priests. Seeing nothing but the sheets of rain and the silhouette of the drenched bird, he relaxed and, overcome by a sudden inexplicable fatigue, he fell back asleep and dreamed he was working in his shop. Later, he awoke to the sound of a twig snapping; the dogs heard it, too, growled and moved forward, ready to attack. The Blacksmith whispered to them to sit. Minutes passed, and he heard nothing else, until a rattler twisted out of the rain. He aimed at the snake but Deimos moved in front of him, ready to pounce, blocking his shot. Suddenly, a black arrow flew out of the rain and darkness and penetrated the snake’s head, pinning it to the ground, its tail thrashing wildly in the rain, flicking dark drops of water toward the man’s boots and the dog’s eyes; then, from the shadows, a voice calling in Lingua said: “I‘m a friend. Don’t shoot.”  The Blacksmith, pulling the hammers all the way back on the twin revolvers, readying them to fire, called out to the voice: “come forward!”  A short, slight man appeared, holding a bow and arrows in his left hand and a steel knife in his right.  With a wide grin that showed his mouth of white teeth, he moved forward toward the snake and cut its head from its body in one fluid stroke and then grabbed the rattlers and shook them. The dogs snarled and backed away, as the Blacksmith aimed his guns at the man, who stood before him, naked in the driving rain, shaking the snake’s tail and grinning widely.
            Friend, please,” the man said with a laugh.
Where did you come from?” asked Stern.
            With his arms raised, holding a knife in one hand and the remains of the rattler in the other, the man said in his strange accent, “You have some tobacco for me and maybe a little dried meat?”
            The Blacksmith asked, “Who are you?”
            “I’m nobody, Black Robe. I’m just a hunter in these mountains.”  He pointed back over his left shoulder.
            “I am not a Black Robe.”
            “You come from the Black Robes. My nose is cold and wet and yet I can still smell incense and cinnamon on your skin. You are not one of those crazy indio prospectors nor one of the blue-skin Argyll; maybe you’re one of the first ones?”
            “What do you know about incense?” he asked, as the question of the “first ones” passed over his conscious mind.
            “Don’t worry Black Robe.  I’m not your enemy. Your enemy lies there.”  He pointed toward the Azul Mountains in the north and said: “Where the burning cities light the night and the undead track the living. “
            “There are no undead; only perverted men.”
            “If you say so Black Robe, then I’m sure it must be true. But maybe you have never seen a lunar bruja, a moon witch, in her white robes, flying through the night on one of those infernal machines?”  He squatted down near the fire and rubbed his hands. “I’m very hungry. Doesn’t your book tell you to feed the hungry?”
            “You are no indio.  What are you?”
            “I’m a drowned man, who is hungry, cast from the sea into the desert,” he said. “Feed me now.  This rain is cold and I’m tired.  Let me stretch out beneath your rock roof and sleep next to the warm dogs. Let me sleep like your shadow.”
            The Blacksmith noted the dogs had calmed; their heads rested on their paws and they were almost asleep.  He released the hammers on the pistols, easing them down, as he motioned the man to come closer.  As he approached, the Blacksmith detected a bitter, rank odor; the feral smell of a predator.  He had smelled it before, when a mountain lion sprain upon one of his pack animals in the Coral Mountains down south near the waist of the world, where he met Mara, his son’s mother, before they coupled in the rain under a coaba tree in the dark jungle.  That time he had escaped but the pony he rode died before he could kill the cat.  He had also smelled it when he stumbled upon a female coyote and her pups in a den in the desert, south of the Rio Concho.  It was a mixture of musk and rot, piss and sweat.
            The Blacksmith holstered the guns and reached into his saddlebags, pulled out some beef jerky, and carved off a piece for each of the dogs.  He then cut a smaller piece for the man and one for himself. The man crouched down on his haunches, smiled and chewed the beef strip, as Stern observed him through half-closed lids. He was lean; his skin darkened by the sun. His black hair was wet, braided into one long strand that was tied off at the tip with rawhide.  His face was hairless and gaunt and his pupils were black and large, almost covering the white. He wore only a loincloth; a leather bag on a wide strap hung nonchalantly over his left shoulder. 
            The Blacksmith broke the silence between them by asking once again, “what are you?”
            The man held the Blacksmith’s eyes and said, “I’m a hunter from North of the Rio Concho.”
            The smith fingered the hammer of one of the revolvers.  “You don’t look like one of the Freedmen.”
            “I’m not a cannibal, if that is what has frightened you, Black Robe.  That is only the Easterners anyway, the ones that live near the great gulf at the mouth of the wide river.  I was cast onto the Big Waste and adopted by a tribe of indio near the Sun Mountains, the home of the father of the dragons, to the west of Santa Rey. That’s how I know you are a Black Robe, sent by the Sacred Father to study dragons.”
            Stern cut off another chew from the jerky and stuck it in his mouth. “Castaway are you?” he asked, with a note of derision in his voice.
            The man ignored the tone and the question. “I’m curious, Black Robe.  Usually your ilk travel with a column of dragoons up from the south and they certainly do not try to cross the Azul Mountains alone.”
            “I told you I am no Black Robe.  I was once but no more.”
            The Blacksmith passed a large canteen over to the indio, who took several short swallows, and then handed it back.  A clap of thunder shook the rock above their heads and rain ran off of the rock and down the hill into the ravine.
            “How do you know where I go?”
            “I crossed your trail three days ago and I have followed you.  If you continue on this route you will cross into the Azul Mountains and then come to the Rio Concho.  If you do this, I think you will surely die.”
            “Assuming you are correct, what do you care if I die or cross the Rio Concho?”
            The indio waved his hand vaguely. “I do not care.  I’m just curious.  The coyote is a very curious animal. Usually, the Black Robes and their Argyll allies search the ancient cities for something.  What do they seek, these Black Robes?”
            “They are looking for history, for the past.”
            “Power is there.  Knowledge and technology is hidden in the burning cities.”
            Stern pointed at the man’s belt: “The knowledge to make a knife like the one on your hip.”
            “A corpse gifted me this knife, Black Robe.”
            “And where did the dead man get it? Someone made it from steel.  Do you know what steel is?”
            “The knife comes from the original ones.”
            “Exactly,” answered Stern.
            “Are the Black Robes looking for their ancestors?”
            “That’s as good an answer as any.”
            The man swallowed the last of the jerky and the Blacksmith cut off another piece and tossed it to him across the fire. Sparks flew up as the meat passed through the flame.
            They chewed in silence until the Blacksmith asked, “If you were going home to the Santa Rey, how would you go?”
            The man scratched his inner thigh before answering. “I would not cross the Rio Concho north of here.  There are too many dangers; too many dead lands.  I would go with the sun to the west toward the Sun Mountains.”
            “That’s dragon territory.  Even the dragoons are afraid to go there.”
“Go west until you can see the night glow of the burned cities on the edge of the Sun Mountains and then turn north.  You will find a town there, a free town, called Camaron. There are about two hundred souls there, civilized indios, and people, who fled the cannibals, the sickness, the witches, and the undead.  From Camaron you can go northeast and cross the Rio Concho south of the Santa Rey pueblo.  One of the ancient roads runs from Camaron to Santa Rey. It is crumbling now but it is still there and you can make good time on it.”
“Doesn’t the road run through the burning cities?”
“Of course, but you get off and go around.  Everyone knows that.”
“Where did you learn the common lingua?”
“From the people in the Santa Rey pueblo,” said the man, who looked away, as if he were lying.
“Not the Black Robes?” asked Stern, noticing the deflection.
“If I learned from the Black Robes, I would be a Black Robe, just as you are.”
“How did you keep up with me for three days?”
“The coyote runs faster than you.”
“I have heard that some indio can shift shape.”
“What are fairy tales to the coyote?”
The rain fell steadily as they talked.  When they had finished eating, the Blacksmith handed his tobacco pouch to the indio, who fished a short corncob pipe from his leather bag and filled it with the sweet tobacco. He returned the pouch to the Blacksmith, who refilled his pipe and lit it with a twig from the fire. 
“The bitch will soon birth,” said the man.
“How do you know?”
“I can feel them.  There are three.”
“They will come soon.” The man chuckled. “Go to Camaron, sell the puppies there.”
“That’s a hell of reason to go days out of my way, just for a litter of pups.”
“It could save your head and your liver.”
The man shivered.
“You cold?” asked Stern, pulling his slicker close to his body. “Temperature is dropping.”
The Blacksmith pulled the gelding’s blanket from behind his back and threw it to the man, who quickly wrapped himself in it and fell asleep. 
After he finished his pipe, the Blacksmith fished the three rolls of paper from his saddlebag.  Each roll was wrapped in soft leather, sealed with red wax by the seal of the Padre.  “The bullae are too important to be lost. I will go west to Camaron,” he thought, as he pulled the arrow buried in the head of the snake from the ground and examined the primitive flint stone with its hundreds of tiny cuts. “The man probably made it himself. Here is what the old Black Robe was talking about. This man has the knowledge of steel but not the capacity to make it. Only civilization has the ability and the means to make steel.”
 The fire died and the Blacksmith crossed himself and silently recited his prayers in the ancient language of the church before he lay back and fell asleep.
During the night, the rain stopped and sometime before morning the man left.
The Blacksmith awoke about an hour before sunrise, coaxed the fire into life, and boiled some coffee. Phobus and Deimos were nowhere to be found and the mules were restless, waiting for their food.
After the Blacksmith fed the animals, he inventoried his supplies.  Everything was there except for a long hempen rope he suspected the man had taken.
 As the sun rose, the day became hot and humid. Water rushed through the ravine below and Stern could not leave his camp until the waters receded.
Late in the afternoon, he crossed the ravine and rode west away from the Azul Mountains, heading due west toward the Sun Mountains and the pueblo of Camaron. He camped that night on the banks of a turgid stream, filled with the runoff from the hills to the east, and slept fitfully, waking before the sun rose. While relieving himself on the edge of his camp, he gazed up at the stars in the now clear sky and focused on the moon. The Argylls that lived in the crumbling adobe cities around Ciudad believed that before the coming of the dragons, before the fires and the sickness, the gods opened up a crack in the sky and shot the Northerners into their world. According to the legend, the gods chose the fittest and smartest and tied them onto a silver arrow and shot them into the sky. On Mittilagart they built great pyramids and floated on barges on canals in fertile lands to the south. But the gods left the fissure open, letting the dragons through that brought desolation, drought, and dread to all the people of Mittilagart.
A coyote yelping in the desert interrupted his thoughts and out of habit, he turned back to his chores and said a prayer, as he boiled coffee and ate iron rations, which consisted of dried nuts, berries, oats and wheat squeezed into a square bar. 
Two days later the Blacksmith noticed a cloud of dust in the south, moving parallel to him.  He led the mules up onto a small rise and stared at the dust until he could discern riders, maybe five or six of them.  He cursed the man, who sent him west, away from the north, where it was easy to hide in the folds of the land. He waited throughout the morning for the riders to disappear over a hill and then he cut back south to cross their trail and fall in behind them. Later in the day, as he approached an arroyo, a giant kakapo crossed his path, startling his horse and mules.  He pulled firmly on the reins; and, after a few seconds, the horse calmed. But suddenly hundreds of the flightless birds appeared on the horizon, running north, cutting him off from the arroyo and forcing him to turn north and run ahead of the stampeding birds; otherwise, the flock would have taken him and his animals down. In the thundering rush of the birds, he heard his errant dogs barking and he saw Deimos biting at the birds’ legs as they tore up the earth in their fright. Damn their eyes, he cursed the wayward dogs and whistled for their return. 
Finally, he found some rugged rock to protect him from the flood and the flock passed around and beyond him, as he reined the horse and the mules to a stop behind the strength of the stones. Safe, he turned back toward the west and entered the desert, where the sand was thick and red and large cacti dominated the horizon. Because of the broken terrain he could no longer see further than a couple of hundred meters and the dust in the south had disappeared. In the afternoon he spied a herd of dromedary moving languidly to the west.  He had considered buying camels rather than the mules in Montagne but in the end he preferred the mules to the foul smelling dromedaries. The next day, he ran upon a caravan of Argyll prospectors; twelve of them, each riding a donkey, and each leading ten pack animals: a motley collection of camels, mules, donkeys, and llamas.  He kicked the gelding to catch up with the train.  The Argyll wore colorful shirts and pants and tall straw hats.  When they saw him, they pulled up and raised the shortened flintlocks preferred by the dragoons in a salute.  He waved at them and announced he was a friend in their language, the language of his dead wife and his orphaned son. They waved him in, calling out in their sing-song voices for the Black Robe to join them.
He camped with them that night on a hill covered with tall cacti.  As he listened to them telling their stories about winged serpents, blue-back dragons, and silver arrows, he felt good for the first time in weeks. They served him frijoles in a red clay bowl and tortillas. When he finished he cleaned the bowl with a corn tortilla and washed it down with fresh water from a leather bag. As the Argyll slept, he sat by the fire and smoked his pipe. A raven landed on the thick arm of a cactus near the fire and he suspected he would soon see the man, he now identified as Coyote. As if on a cue, he heard the yelps of a coyote and the roar of a mountain lion; Deimos moaned in her sleep and Phobus lifted his head. One of the Argyll turned in his blanket and called out for his wife or lover.
As he rode out the next morning, waving to the Argyll that were turning to the northwest, while he continued due west, he saw a coyote on a rise, watching him.  The animal lacked fear of the Blacksmith; and as he drew nearer, it ran across his path and Phobus and Deimos, disobeying his command to heel, chased after it.  The coyote turned north and the Blacksmith imagined he heard the voice of the man saying: “turn north now.” He ignored the voice in his head but when the dogs did not return, he turned north to find them. As he rode, he blew a silver whistle but he heard no response. Toward sundown, he camped in a formation of red rocks, great boulders spread around the mesa like children’s blocks.  A kilometer from the rocks, he caught the outline of five men, riding hard toward him from the southeast.  He kicked the gelding and forced it into a full gallop, as the mules brayed in panic behind him.  Up among the rocks ahead, he saw Phobus and then Deimos, barking and baying at him, to ride to safety. He rode into the rocks, slid from the saddle, pulled his carbine from its boot, climbed a giant red sand stone, and lay flat on its top. As the five riders drew near, he recognized them as indios and took aim.
A peregrine falcon circled above his head and he heard its screech on the wind, as he squeezed the trigger of the carbine. The round struck one of the attackers square in the chest, pitching him backwards off his painted pony’s bare back. He ejected the empty casing, placed it into his vest pocket, and inserted another round. In that short moment, the other horsemen drew even closer. He fired a second time but missed. He then drew one of the revolvers and fired almost point blank into a second indio, who had ridden to the base of his rock and swung at him with a wooden mallet.  A black arrow thumped into the rock and then a second slammed into his left shoulder, protruding like a black flag.  Squealing with pain, he dropped his revolver; his vision blurred and he felt faint.  He steeled himself against the pain and picked up the revolver and shot two rounds at his antagonists.  The three survivors withdrew and pulled their horses up outside the range of his pistols. Reloading his carbine, he aimed and fired. A pony buckled but its rider rose unharmed, as the three men withdrew behind a rise.
The Blacksmith cursed the pain in his shoulder. As he watched blood drip onto the red sand stone, he pulled his sombrero onto his head to protect himself from the sun and wondered if he should try to reach the canteen still fastened to his saddle by a strip of black leather. He knew if he moved off the rock, the indio would surround him, so he pivoted to see the position of the sun and calculated he had another two hours of light. Once it was dark they would take him and his mission would fail.  He might kill one but not all three.  He pulled the silver talisman from beneath his shirt and began to say the last rites.  He mumbled the ancient Lingua words softly and a tear rolled down his cheek.  He loved the Church and all of its rituals and it was probably the thing that he missed the most but after Mara’s death he found could no longer tolerate their prejudice and hypocrisy. Deimos whimpered and he turned on the rock to see her.  She was anxious for him but he could not help her now. He wasn’t afraid of death but he mourned the failure of his quest.  He had been entrusted with the holy patents, the three bullae, and now he feared he might fail and if he failed the Black Robes then his son, who they had taken from him, would suffer.
He needed water so he crawled backwards off the rock to the ground where his animals waited patiently. As soon as his feet touched the ground, he heard the indio shifting to new positions.  Phobus growled and moved toward the south, while he untied the canteen and swallowed several mouthfuls of the water.  His thirst quenched, he slipped the carbine back into the saddle boot; for the coming fight he would only need his knife and pistols. He took the gelding’s reins and led him and the mules deeper into the rocks. As he passed, a rattler coiled under a rock rattled its tail, warning him off, and he steered the horse and mules away from it. Within the mound of red rocks he found a small space that resembled an antique arena with only two paths leading into it. To reach him, the indio would have to use one or the other or climb over the rocks.  He led the animals to the northern wall and then he moved to the opposite side, where he could watch both entrances into the arena.  He found some shade in a recess in the rocks and sat down.  Drawing his pistols, he rested them in his lap and stuck his knife into the ground next to him.  Phobus was lying in the shade across from him and Deimos was near the mules.  Cicadas clicked the only sound and he suffered the pain of his wound, as three sparrows played in a mesquite bush and a spider spun a web in a crevice in the rock.
He awoke with a start; the arena dark and the cicadas silent.  The mules were moving about but he could not see the dogs.  Suddenly, he heard the snake’s rattles and then a scream.  One more man down, he thought.
The moon rose and cast an eerie glow over the red rock; the stars were brighter than the night before and the Blacksmith saw the outline of a man on the rocks up above the mules.  He took aim and fired both guns and the figure fell and rolled across the rocks and then dropped to the floor of the arena, where Deimos and Phobus tore into his body. After a time, the cicadas started their mechanical song and the Blacksmith watched the moon cross the sky above the arena’s floor. He dozed off several times but he quickly caught himself.  Once he awakened in the middle of a snore. The moon was directly overhead and it filled the arena with light. Three figures, barefooted, wearing white robes with hoods, stood arrayed in the middle of the arena. The middle one, the tallest, disengaged from the display and walked slowly toward the Blacksmith, pushing the hood off her head. Her feet shone a luminous white in the moonlight.  For a moment, he imagined they were Northerners, come to take him home to their paradise in another universe, parallel to his, but he shook his head and said, “Clap trap.” He pulled the hammers back on both the guns but he heard a voice in his head that said softly, gently, sweetly: “don’t shoot.”  Bound by some magic, he could not stop the guns from falling into his lap. She stood at his feet, bent down on one knee, and leaned toward him.  Her long black hair fell forward covering her green eyes. She pulled the hair from her face and pressed her lips against his, then withdrew slowly. “All is well, my friend,” she whispered so low, he leaned toward her to hear. She smelt of cinnamon and smoke and her presence comforted him.  She touched the arrow and a savage pain pierced him and he cried out.  He had never experienced such pain.  It was as if his bowels had been opened by a great sword. How could a woman so beautiful cause him so much pain?  He cursed her and tried to lift his guns. She whispered into his ear. “Be calm; the pain will pass. The arrow was dipped in poison. That is why you sleep.” She held him down as she licked the blood from around the arrow’s shaft and sucking the blood and poison from the wound. He must be dreaming, he thought, as he faded slowly away into a deep sleep. In a dream he heard a howl and he saw a great black wolf pad into the arena. At its side were his dogs, Phobus and Deimos.  The wolf jumped into the air and landed at his feet and the woman turned and then calmly backed away, while Phobus and Deimos growled at her two companions. Before he awoke, he dreamed another dream. He was standing on a hill overlooking the mouth of a wide river that emptied into the Middle Sea with the same woman, now wearing red robes, standing beside him and whispering into his ear. “I love you.”  And he answered, “and I you.” She then raised her arms and began to float into the air above the rushing river and he heard a great horn and saw a white boat with a paddle wheel, like the ships that arrive at ports from the eastern continents. She extended her hands away from her body and spoke in a strange language, guttural and harsh, which he somehow translated: “Do not fret I will find you in the end, but first I will send a woman warrior to you on an island in the North and she will birth the sisters of your son.”