Fly Red Fox


by Desmond Fox

Red Fox circled the coyote, tossing cold Mojave sand with her jagged steps. Sweat beaded on her face, painting streaks of dirt and blood down her blunted features with each salty drip crawling down her skin in rivulets. Half of her head was freshly shaved, the other half was ornamented with long black dreadlocks. The rest of her was only clothed in decorative hempen ropes and animal-blood warpaint. The coyote stared back with its one blue eye, bearing a toothy snarl.

This was not how she intended to use her head start, and she truly hoped the coyote would back away and run off as soon as it identified her scent, but it was hungry. She could see it in the creature’s lean body and hear the hunger pangs in her head. It was nervous too, too anxious to pounce first.

Red Fox seized the opportunity. She leapt forward into the air; her body took a shape not its own. Her jaw extended, amber hair packed her dark skin as she reconstructed herself into the shape of a diminutive kit fox. She snapped at the creature’s neck with her comparably meager muzzle, crushing its windpipe in a cloud of flesh-musk. Surprise was the last thing the animal felt before it died.

Red Fox turned back into her human shape, dipped a finger in the dead animal’s wound and painted a small mark on her face in the shape of a spiral. Suddenly she was aware of how much time she had wasted, and set back to her gait, deeper into the desert in search of civilization.
There was nowhere to hide here, everything was flat and sparse. Her only way out was to find someone willing to protect her and hide her from her tribe, but outlanders usually kept their hands clean of local traditions.

The other option was to hide as an animal, take refuge in a warren or den, but she would ultimately be rejected by the indigenous families, and use of her shapeshifting only made her easier to find.
Others had fought. She had been with the hunting parties before as a child, and watched skinwalkers chased down until they turned and bore their teeth in defiance. She had seen throats ripped out of strong men by fierce wolf-women, but in the end they were slain the same. They were painfully skinned alive then burned as a tribute to their nuclear gods.

She wished she had ran sooner. She wished she could sprout feathers and take to the sky like a sparrow, but she could not. Like all hunted, she had been hexed, feet bound to the earth. She would only fly again in her death.
On the wind she could hear the trot of horses and the calls of their riders. She had been careless, slow and now she would die for it. She ran hard. She barreled through dirt and sand, past yuccas, juniper and white firs, when she saw her only hope.

In the distance she saw a tent and a fire. There was a man with skin the color of hematite feeding oats to an elderly painted horse. If the gods were kind and their bellies full, she would find some sort of sanctity here. She raced onward, allowing her arms to become legs, and her feet to become paws. Her muzzle stretched and her body-hair thickened into a red coat. She barreled between the man’s legs into the tent, hiding in his fox furs, twitching in fear.


Osiah watched a naked woman turn into a fox, then race into his tent. He stared at the whisky bottle in his hand incredulously before he heard the roar of horse hooves beating in thunderous rhythm.

A wise man once said speak softly and carry a big stick, and Osiah’s ICS-191 GLM grenade launcher was about the biggest stick he had found so far, so he picked it up from beside his tent and prepared to wave it around a little. The weight of it always surprised him. He did a few curls, until it was as natural in his hand as the bottle.

With his other hand, he took the switchblade style comb from his pocket, brushed out his grey moustache to an appropriate bushiness, before sheathing and popping it back into the pocket from whence it came.

Osiah stepped into the tent just long enough to grab his white stetson from the pile of whimpering furs, placing it on his head.
The roar finally caught up with him, a party of ten Mojave warriors and a young female shaman were at his figurative doorstep, twenty-feet or so from his little cookfire and pot of beans.

The men wore long black braids, with coal streaks across their eyes. They wore axes slung from their hips and stared unblinkingly into the dirt-filled void beyond. The woman who rode with them wore feathers in her hair and on the ropey black rags that hung around her shoulders and waist. In her hands she held a round bottle, roiling with green liquid that seemed to jump and boil in the direction of Osiah’s tent.

“She’s in there.” The shaman muttered just loud enough for Osiah’s ears, holding her bottle high for the warriors to see.

“Should I kill this man?” one of the men asked.

“No, he won’t be a problem,” the woman responded coolly. “Our prey is in your tent, outlander. Allow my men to retrieve what is ours and you will not be harmed.”

Osiah smiled, twitching his moustache back and forth. He peered from under his hat and spoke with authority.

“Now, I ain’t normally one to tread on ceremony, or get in the way of local tradition, but I know a fair fight when I see one. And this, little lady is anything but fair.”

“There’s more to her than you know.”

“Oh, I’m sure, but ten armed men against one naked woman ain’t much better than ten armed men against one little fox in my book.”

“Then we’ll take her,” the woman snapped. Her eyes smiled, without a twitch in her lips.

“Now, I figured you’d say something like that, so-” Osiah heaved his grenade launcher in front of him, trying not to let its weight show as he put his other hand on the secondary handle. “so maybe today’s the day I get to fire this thing.”  

“You wouldn’t.” The woman contested, keeping her face the image of placidity.

“No, I would. So what are you gonna do? What’s your hunt worth?”

“It’s worth the lives of our people. She had her chance to escape, she failed. She belongs to our gods now.”

“Fine.” Osiah replied. “Let them come get her then.”



“You hungry miss?” Osiah held a spoonful of baked beans out to his guest. Red Fox was in her human form, wearing an old military canvass blanket. She shook her head.

“I’ve eaten. What you did was very kind. Most outlanders wouldn’t involve themselves.”

“Most outlanders ain’t Osiah Warren. A wise man once said, courtesy is as much a mark of a gentleman as courage.

“Wisdom, courtesy and courage are uncommon today.”

“That they are miss. That they are.” Osiah finished the pot of beans by himself, paying attention not to get any sauce in his moustache.

“They’ll be back.” Red Fox suggested, staring into the cookfire.

“Mmhmm. They want to kill you I suppose.”


“And why’s that? You seem a perfectly moral young woman.”

“It’s not a matter of morals. It’s a matter of sacrifice.”

“A sacrifice you’re not too keen on then huh?”

“I want to live.”

“We all want to live sweetheart, it’s what you die for that counts. What do they want you to die for?”

“For our people. They would feed me to our gods to barter a year of harvests and game, free of plague and murder. My suffering would promise healthy babes and rain water that doesn’t burn or make ill. My death would protect my people from violent outlanders and the hulking beasts that lurk in the night sands.

“And they let you leave?”

“The ceremony is in the hunt.” Red Fox wiped a tear from the side of her bulb nose, then scratched it as if to conceal the behavior.

Osiah plucked a bottle of whisky from the dirt and gravel at his feet offering it to Red Fox with a gesture. She declined, so Osiah took a swig himself. “Ain’t that something. So you tell me then sweetheart, if you really believe all that, you’re being selfish ain’t ya? Fatman and Little Boy are popular gods these days, yours aint the first people I seen out cuttin’ each other up for ‘em. You’re hunted for what you are, not what you ain’t. You’re a shape changer and you ain’t selfless, so why not just fly away?”

“I can’t fly.” Red Fox muttered with a wavering voice. “I’m cursed.”

“Mmm. Could’ve fooled me. I don’t know much about magic or what it is that you people do, but if that’s the way of it… What about when you were young? You knew what’s in store, why didn’t you fly then?”

“The Bleeding Ceremony.”

Osiah cocked an eyebrow in response, toying with the whiskey bottle in his hand.“Bleeding ceremony?”

“When a girl’s first blood comes, there is a ceremony. The priestesses and crowmen come to your home, drawing in intoxicating spirits with sage and feather. They sing to the gods and the phases of the moon, then a sacrifice is made by the child. If she turns, she is a skinwalker, made to live life in a cage, awaiting her turn to be sacrificed.

A cage is all I’ve known. I’ve never flown up to meet the sky, to kiss the clouds and scoff at the earth below.”

Osiah twisted his seat in discomfort.

“So what, they’ll just send more men with bigger sticks till they get what they want, huh?”


“So I guess all that really does is put the pressure on. You gotta find something good to die for little miss,’fore someone decides for you.” Red Fox was silent. “What’s the blood about, all that paint?”

“It’s a promise.”

“What kind of promise?”

“It’s a promise to the animals whose forms I take, that their deaths were not in vain. It’s a promise that I will use everything that they have given to me, that I carry the weight of their deaths everywhere I go.”
“Mmm. Now, that woman with the bottle in the black rags, she the one who cursed you?” Red Fox nodded. “Bet it’s her kind brought Fatman and Little Boy to ya’ll in the first place. Them death worshippin’ types with their nuclear gods, they know how to play a crowd.”

Osiah shared the bottle of whiskey with himself for a while as Red Fox stared into nothing before he asked. “So, from how you understand it, how’s this curse supposed to work? What’re the rules?”



Osiah rode into town on an elderly painted horse, trotting down what used to be an asphalt road between what used to be concrete buildings. Time had worn down the rough edges, and everything looked like stone now, almost natural in their desecrated glory.

He smiled and tipped his hat as he came upon some children playing hide and seek in the ruins. They ran in fear as scared children are like to do and he followed them deeper into the city’s corpse to find the new life growing from within.
Homes had been raised where there were none before. Cornfields replaced empty plots of irradiated earth. People lived and laughed where before there were only ghosts. Osiah’s presence gave to alarm as he met with large men; spears and black face paint.

“Slow down now fellas, I ain’t here to cause any trouble. I got your little girlie here, I’m just bringin’ her back. Go on, git yer shaman, she’ll confirm it.”

“He’s not lying.” The shaman stepped from her pavilion. Smoke poured from her lungs as she spoke. She ashed her pipe with one hand and lifted the bottle of green liquid with the other. The liquid inside jumped with agitated vigor in Osiah’s direction. “Where is she?”

Osiah moved forward, ignoring the impatient gladiators who surrounded him. He reached into his bag as he rode, moving his hand over the grenade launcher, grabbing a small handful of cloth. He unfolded it, revealing a dead black-throated sparrow.

“She turned into this after ya’ll left. Her little heart stopped right then. Wasn’t hard to pick up yer trail, all the mess you made.”

“Why are you bringing her back to us?” The woman’s face was still and emotionless.

“Well it ain’t my place to argue with tradition. I had a knee-jerk reaction, I’ll admit it, don’t mean I can’t be cordial an’ bring the poor girl back home.” Osiah thought about his grenade launcher, then he thought about all the children playing hide and seek staring on at him, like he was some folkloric beast.

“Well we appreciate it. Our gods are not patient ones. Would you like something for your troubles? We could provide you with a fresh horse, this one looks as though it has one hoof in the rot already.” The woman placed a hand on the horse’s neck as Osiah dismounted.

Osiah replaced the bird and pulled the grenade launcher from his bag, swinging it towards the warrior men who greeted him at the village’s mouth. At the same time, Red Fox changed shape from the elderly horse to a half-blind coyote and leapt for the shaman’s throat.

Women and children screamed and the men looked on in disbelief as their priestess died silently in the red dirt. Her face was unflinching, showing neither surprise nor terror as the life left her body through her neck.

Red Fox turned back to her human shape and spoke to Osiah in a low voice as she crouched over her victim. “What do we do now? We’re surrounded, we won’t make it out of here alive.”

“I won’t. You can fly.”

“What if I can’t? What if the curse isn’t lifted? It’s only a rumor, whispered between branchwood bars.”

“No no, you made a promise. You made a promise to that little bird and to my horse, you owe him one, you owe him your life.”

“Your stick, you can shoot-”

“No no, too much collateral damage. My life ain’t worth theirs, it’s that witch what’s the problem and she’s taken care of now.”

“The curse-”

“Don’t matter now. You don’t try you ain’t gonna live anyway, ain’t got nothin to lose.”

“You’ll die.”

“I’ll die for somethin’ I believe in, that’s better than the alternative.”

The warriors were moving in slowly, disbelief becoming overwhelmed by rage.

“Go. Git!” Osiah shouted.

Red Fox sprouted feathers from her arms. Her feet curled up into talons and her mouth turned into a beak. She shrank into a little sparrow and fluttered up towards the sun.

Osiah smiled up at her as she disappeared into the enveloping light of the blue sky. His smile faded when he heard, “No, don’t. She’s gone, we’ll use him for the ceremony. Skinwalker or not, we’ll have a sacrifice for the gods.”


The days blurred together, flickering away in the wind as Osiah was starved, naked in his wooden cage. He could see that the shaman had not named a predecessor, and those who remained seemed to be making things up as they went along.

There was no magic, there were no spells or potions or promises. They only prayed to their nuclear gods, that they might accept this sacrilegious sacrifice.

Men would visit him day and night just to explain again in detail how his skin would be flayed and his pink body seared, so that Fatman might feast upon his soul. They joked that Fatman preferred skinwalkers because they taste of every animal they had ever been. They joked that Osiah would be a filthy, tasteless morsel, that Fatman might destroy them just as he destroyed the world before theirs in response to such an insult.

Osiah only smiled wishing for his comb and a bottle of whiskey, twitching his whiskers in a starved delusion. Some nights as he stared into the bleakness beyond his cell, he thought he saw a dog, or coyote with one eye looking back at him.

A thought cycled through his mind as he was captured, a quote, something someone wise once said. It is only through labor and painful effort, by grim energy and resolute courage, that we move onto better things. The words kept Osiah at peace as the nights passed, until the evening of his execution.

Osiah was strapped down to a stone slab in the shaman’s pavilion. Four old men surrounded him, each looking down at his face with a thin flaying knife in their hand.

“Stop you fools.” A still voice disturbed them, unwavering despite urgent words.

“Priestess! No, this is not possible, we watched you die.”

“And the gods gave me back. You cannot sacrifice this man, to do so would call down a reckoning from the gods our people would not survive.”

“But my lady, we must give them something.”

“And we will.”

Osiah sat up as soon as he was unstrapped, turning to see the shaman Red Fox had killed. In her hand she held a black-throated sparrow, the same one Osiah had presented to the shaman days ago. He held his breath as he snapped out of his stupor by the incredible circumstance he found himself in.

“I did not truly die. When the gods gave me back, my curse returned as well. The skinwalker died in a tree not far from here. I retrieved her body to save us from the gods’ wrath.

“My lady, you are truly wise and all-powerful, but this man attacked us, what would you have done with him?”

“He did not attack us. The skinwalker did. He could have destroyed our village with his weapon, but he chose not to. He acted justly to his nature, he’s not at fault for his misunderstanding of our traditions and culture.”

“But he deceived you!”

“He also brought us the skinwalker. That, he did not lie about. Were it not for his blundering, we might all be irradiated ash tomorrow. Instead we are saved. Would you argue with my judgment?” The men were silent. “Give him his things and a fresh horse. See he leaves the village alive. Tonight’s sacrifice is very important, the gods shall impart with me new knowledge. I’ll not have his blood soiling their wisdom. And you-”

The shaman stepped towards Osiah, face placid and still as she spoke. “It has been said that courtesy is as much a mark of a lady as courage, but you’ll find no such courtesy should you intrude on my land again. Is that understood?”

Osiah tried not to smile. “Yes ma’am.”

“Good. Now get out of my sight.”


Osiah sat by his cookfire, feeding handfuls of oats to his horse. Slowly, a fox crept up to his camp. He smiled at it and stirred the contents of his pot. The fox trotted up to him, then transformed into a young woman, dressed in hempen ropes and red paint.

“Hello friend.” she said with a smile.

“Good to see you again miss, I wasn’t sure if I would. Now, you never told me your little trick worked with people.”

“I didn’t know. I’d never had to kill someone before.”

“No one else knew either?”

“No. They knew only what they were told by the priestess. They trusted her implicitly, with all aspects of their lives.”

“How about now? They still trust her implicitly?”

“Yes. More so even now that she’s survived death.”

“And what do the gods have planned for those poor people? What great wisdom did they impart on their shaman?”

“No more sacrifices. Skinwalkers are to be embraced, used to hunt, help us survive, not chained under lock and key.”


“Slowly, the god’s protection will fade, and the people will have to protect themselves.”


“They will know peace, and eventually memory of the shamen and their nuclear gods will fade away.”

“Peace through deception eh?”

“Is there any other kind?” They smiled at each other for a moment. “I’m sorry about your horse.”

“Yeah. Well, Sterling was a good horse. He was sick though, and old. There was no gettin’ around it. That night you found us, that was sorta our last hurrah. I was gonna have to put him down either way. He woulda’ liked how things turned out.”

“Good. Thank you.”

“Yeah, well, I’m just glad it’ll all work out.”

“You taught me how to fly, Osiah.”

Osiah took a drink of his whiskey and made a face as it went down, showing his teeth. He stared into the cookfire and said, “Then fly, Red Fox.”


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Brunning Divide, Ep1: Unwelcome News

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“Is my mommy and the baby okay?” The young boy’s eyes watered, tears on the verge of spilling.

Marie Suiza leaned down, kissed his forehead and tucked the blanket around him, careful not to disturb her own sleeping son. “Xander, your mommy will be fine. Your daddy is with her, and so is Mrs. Jans.”

“But they’re not doctors. Babies need doctors.”

“Your mommy will be fine. Many babies are born without doctors.”


“Really. Mrs. Jans knows what to do. She helped with my Oscar. I’m fine, he’s fine.”

The boy looked over at the other child in the bed. “He snores.”

Marie laughed softly. “Go to sleep, Xander. Tomorrow I’ll take you home to see your mother and your baby brother.”

The boy yawned. “Daddy said they’d name him Jamuson.”

“A strong name for a strong baby.” Marie went to the bedroom door and dimmed the lights, leaving a pale green glow in case the boys woke up in the middle of the night. “Good night, Xander,” she said and closed the door behind her.

“Get him settled?” Reuben leaned against the wall, waiting.

“He’s worried. But he’s only six, it’s okay to be worried.”

Reuben took his wife’s hand. “Yes. It is okay.”

“Emese is strong. It’s been a good pregnancy. She’ll come through fine. I hope.”

“We’re colonists, uncertainties are part of our life.”

“I know, but…”

“Emese will be fine. There’s always a risk where there’s to be a reward.” Reuben sneaked a quick pat to Marie’s behind.

“Reuben!” Marie pursed her lips at him, then smiled.

He shrugged. “A risk.” Sweeping a giggling Marie into his thick arms he walked toward the stairs to the second floor and their own bedroom. “Now about the reward.”

The light panels in the house flickered and dimmed. Reuben sighed and put Marie down. “Blasted lizards probably chewing through the wiring again.”

Marie echoed her husband’s sigh. “I really don’t like the wildlife on this planet. Bunch of nasty little bugs and nasty little lizards.”

“Could be worse. But, hey, we don’t need light right away…” Reuben goosed Marie, making her jump, “do we?”

Again the lights flickered. This time they didn’t stop. “No, but the boys do. You should probably go out and fix it before it gets worse.”

Rolling his eyes into a playful pout, Reuben nodded. “I’m taking the rifle. Those little creeps are gonna fry for ruining the night.”

“Be quick.” Marie goosed Reuben as he turned to go. “The night’s not ruined yet.”

“Yes, ma’am,” he said while walking away.

“I’ll check the boys.” Marie stepped quietly to the bedroom door. Cracking it open, she heard a strange chittering sound.

She flung the door open. The flickering lights cast a wavering column of light on a large black hole in the concrete floor where the bed should have been.

“Reuben!” She frantically searched for the boys. “Oscar! Xander!”

Reuben bolted through the doorway, rifle in hand, and stopped short of the hole. “What the—” He swiped on the lights. Xander lay curled in a ball in the corner of the room, whimpering.

Marie rushed to Xander. Clutching him in her arms, she searched the corner. “Where’s Oscar?”

“The lights. I g-g-got scared,” Xander choked between sobs, “I wanted to find you—”

“Where’s Oscar?” Marie shook the boy.

Trembling, Xander pointed to the hole behind Marie.

“I see the bed,” yelled Reuben. “Get Xander out of here. I’m going down.” Reuben knelt next to the hole. “Oscar! Daddy’s coming.”

Chittering sounded from the hole. A mass of legs and spines jumped out, knocking the rifle from Reuben’s grasp. Pincer like fangs attached to a multi-eyed head sunk into Reuben’s chest. He shuddered and coughed blood.

A scream tore from Marie’s throat. She snatched the rifle, firing heated blasts into the body of the giant spider.

It reared back, and squealed, purple fluid pumping from its wounds. Three more spiders erupted from the hole. Marie kept shooting. Screaming. Shooting. The spider on Reuben collapsed back into the hole. Two of the others latched onto Reuben and retreated with him in tow.

The last spider charged Marie.

She backed toward the far wall and fired the rifle as fast as it would reload—the barrel glowing hot. The last two rounds blasted half the spider’s head off. Reduced to a quivering heap, the spider collapsed on top of her. She screamed as the spikes on its carapace pierced into her body.

In its death throes the spider dragged Marie toward the hole.

She couldn’t lift it off.

Sliding over the precipice, Marie kicked hard. The spikes tore free and the spider fell. But she kept sliding on the blood-slickened concrete. Desperate, she grasped at the floor—at anything until one hand clasped the glowing hot barrel of the rifle. Her eyes widened at the searing pain, but she refused to let go. At the other end of the rifle, Xander tugged with all his tiny might.

Marie gripped the barrel with both hands. “Pull, Xander!”

He grunted and fell on his butt, his bare feet slipping out from under him. He backpedalled with both feet in an effort to ooch backward. Out-weighed and slathered in purple spider blood, he managed to hold his ground.

She forced a smile. “Good job, Xander. You can do it.” Then pain lanced through her leg as another spider barbed her from below and tugged. Her smile morphed to a snarl then a roar as she released the rifle before she took little Xander with her.

She landed on her back. Oscar’s broken, empty bed cushioned the fall. Flickering lights above her highlighted a small silhouette holding a rifle.

“Run, Xander!”

She screamed as the spider pulled her down a tunnel and into darkness.

Every morning was a struggle. A battle of mind over matter—or my head over my pillow. I wanted to sleep in. I wanted my body to rest longer. Years of waking up before dawn had programmed my internal clock and try as I might, I couldn’t beat it.

That morning I lay in bed staring at the rifle mounted on the opposite wall. Warped and melted, it didn’t work. But I kept it. At first I didn’t want to. When I was little, the damn thing terrified me. My father hung it on the wall, said it would remind me of bravery… and to never let my guard down.

Now, all it did was remind me how quickly things could go to crap.

I closed my eyes. One last effort to sleep. Five more minutes, that’s all I wanted. Then the smell of fried crelix eggs and fresh oat loaf hit my nose, instantly waking up my stomach. With mind and stomach against me, I gave up any chance of more sleep.

Hurray for another monotonous day of labor. Another day exiled in Brunning. What a dump of a town, if it could even be called a town. The spattering of dusty shanties and barns were more like a half-dead, fully-baked madman’s vision. Except Brunning was too inhuman to ever be a human contrivance. No, Brunning sprung directly from the minds of the Hibernarii, higher beings that used us lesser humans for higher purposes we didn’t have a say in. Hurray.

At least the day would end with another chance to see Marigold. If it wasn’t the smell of food that got me out of bed, it was knowing the sooner I got my work done, the sooner I could see the most beautiful girl in Brunning.

And if Brunning had a population of forty-two million people instead of just forty-two people, Marigold would still be the most beautiful girl.

I threw on my pants and clima-jacket, stepping into my boots on the way downstairs. I pounded hard on Jamus’ door on my way to the kitchen. He had the bigger room, but I didn’t sleep on the ground floor. Ever. Plus, I enjoyed waking him up every morning. My internal clock worked so well… I had to share it with my little brother.

Breakfast was on the table when I walked in. My mother stood by the stove, looking out the window, stirring more eggs on the stove.

“Morning, Mom.” I sat at the table and grabbed a bread cake.

“Morning, Xander,” she said, looking out the window into the barely lit brown landscape.

I poured a shot of black coffee. “Eggs are burning.”

“Wha—Oh!” She pulled the pan off the element. She dumped the pan on a plate and served it next to the first plate. She set to emptying more of the small, leathery crelix eggs into the still-hot pan.

I eyed the two plates of eggs. I preferred hot eggs, not burnt ones. I took the lukewarm, non-burnt eggs. Jamus could have the others.

Mom kept her attention mainly to the window, absently stirring at the eggs. I may not have been the most socially observant person, but something was off. Mom never did things ‘absently’.

“Something wrong?”

“Oh. Nothing.” She didn’t even look at me. “Just waiting for your father.”

My father, Absalom Floros, never slept in. I’d inherited my internal clock from him—only his was set on overdrive. Typically, by the time I woke up, he’d already been at work for an hour. Even my mother didn’t wake up as early as him. But my father made it a point to eat breakfast as a family. His absence was atypical, to be sure.

Jamus emerged, his dirty blond hair standing up in the classic Jamus-half-asleep style. He plopped his boots on the ground and took his seat at the table across from me.

“Morning, princess.”

“Coffee?” Jamus grumbled, holding his head.

“What? Does princess have a headache?” I ruffled his hair and clanked the earthenware coffee pot down next to him. “Hope it’s not… pounding.”

“Jerk.” Jamus glared at me and poured himself a cup. “I was awake before you attacked my door.”

“Right. Early to bed, early to rise. Except princess didn’t go to bed early, did he?”

Jamus shot a look over to Mom. “Suck it, Xander.”

“You kiss Alana with that mouth?”

“Nope, just Marigold.”

My turn to glare. “Watch it, little brother.” As much as I teased him about his weird girlfriend, he typically knew better than to say anything about mine. “You wouldn’t know what to do with a real woman.”

“Whatever. Where’s dad?” He yawned and poured goat milk in his coffee.

I shrugged. “Don’t ask me.” I dug into the eggs.”Ask the space chef.” I spat out a chunk of leathery shell. “Not a big fan of the new recipe, Mom.”

Ignoring my comment, she rushed to the back door.


She pulled back the curtain on the window next to the door and held the thick wool in a clenched fist as she peered out the window.


“Finish eating, boys.” She unclenched the curtain, leaving it open and went back to the stove in time to prevent another batch of eggs from burning.

“Crap,” Jamus whispered and slunk down in his seat.

I craned my neck. “What?”

“Dad’s back.”


“Mr. Jans is with him.” Jamus sunk further, his head barely above the table.

I looked out the window. Sure enough, my father and Sam Jans, Alana’s father, stood just outside the door. Both looked serious, even upset, conversing about something. My father had his hand on Sam’s shoulder.

I shot a glare at Jamus. “What’d you do? How late were you out with Alana?”

“Shhh!” Jamus looked nervously at Mom to make sure she wasn’t listening. “I swear I wasn’t out that late. I came back before you did.”

I knotted my brow. At twenty-one, I was old enough to avoid any curfew, unlike my fifteen year-old brother. Still, my mother, and especially my father, didn’t appreciate their sons sneaking around at night instead of resting up for the day’s work.

Jamus held his hands up in front of him. “I swear. Alana wasn’t even in her room when I went over there. I came back and went to sleep.”

“Why else would Sam be here?”

“Boys,” Mom set a plate and poured coffee at my father’s place at the table, “finish eating. Breakfast is over. There’s work to do.”

I grabbed another cake before Mom could take away the plate. “What’s going on?”

“Don’t worry about it.”

I didn’t like being addressed like a child, but I focused on finishing my food. Something in Mom’s tone told me not to press the matter.

Jamus didn’t pick up on it. “But—”

“Jamuson Floros, eat.” That shut my brother up. We all knew on the rare occasions when Mom threw out our full names that the conversation was over.

I’d cleared my plate by the time my father walked into the kitchen by himself. Jamus looked more than relieved Mr. Jans hadn’t come with him.

“Good morning, Emese.” My father kissed my mother and sat at the head of the table like any other morning. He nodded to my brother and I. “Jamus, Xander.”

“Morning, Dad.” Jamus spoke through a mouth full of bread.

“Father.” I nodded back. “Productive morning?”

To my surprise, Mom glared at me as she sat next to my father. “Let your father eat.”

My father gave me a weak smile. His smile faded altogether when he looked at Jamus. “Some unwelcome news, boys. But that will have to wait until after we see to the pumps.”

“Exactly.” Mom pulled our dishes away, another non-subtle hint. I had no clue what happened last night, but something was clearly bothering her. “And you don’t need your father for that job,” she continued. “I’ll clean the dishes. You two get a start.”

I pocketed the last of the bread and stepped outside, the dry heat already rising. “Come on, Jamus.”


“Jamuson Floros, go,” said Mom from inside.

I had to laugh when Jamus stumbled out of the front door and about fell face-first in the dirt while attempting to put on a boot at the same time as closing the door behind him. My brother was a big lanky kid for a fifteen year old. I hate to think I was anything like that at his age.

“You’re socially retarded, you know that, right?”

“No.” Jamus slipped on his boot. “I know that. I mean… Shut up, Xander.”

“Got your boots on the wrong feet, too. Maybe you’re just plain retarded.”

“Shut up.” Jamus made to push me.

I sidestepped and he fell flat with a clumsy thud. I started to laugh, then overheard my parents talking from the kitchen. Something weird happened during the night, something my parents didn’t want us to know about—making my interest immediate.

Jamus stood up. “Xander, I’m—”

I cut him off with a sharp shush, cupped my ear, and pointed at the wall that separated us from our parents. Jamus’s eyes widened. We crouched next to the heavy rock foundation of the house, our heads level with the floor.

“So?” Mom’s voice, slightly muffled by the wooden wall, came through clear enough.

“Not exactly.” My father assumed a tired, short tone. “Emese, Xander might be grown, but Jamus is just a boy. They’re good boys. I don’t want them upset—”

“That’s why I sent them out.”

Jamus gave me two big thumbs up, a mischievous grin plastered on his dusty face. I pushed him and he fell on his butt. “Shh,” I mouthed.

My father let out a deep breath. “Emese, some things are too ugly to know. I’m not sure even you would want to know.”

The sharp sound of a metal plate striking the table made Jamus and I jump.

“Absolom, you will not spare me the unpleasantries.” Mom’s angry voice came through the wall loud and clear. “I’ve been on this forsaken planet for the last fifteen years. I left a life infinitely more comfortable and safe. I could have stayed and kept Xander with me. But, no, we left all of that behind, and I did it for you, Absolom. So when it comes to anything that happens here. I, above any other person, have the right to know.”

A look of shock stretched across Jamus’s face. I’m sure my own face mirrored his expression. Mom was strong, but the quiet kind of strong. She never raised her voice, she never contradicted my father, and she never complained. This was the first time I’d heard her do all three.

“You’re right, Emese.”

“Of course I’m right. Now tell me what happened. Did you find Alana?”

Jamus and I scowled at each other. Alana? Jamus mouthed. I shrugged. He shrugged back. What did Alana Jans have to do with anything? I had hoped the mystery would be something more exciting, like the Hi-bernies finally calling us back to Tatmus Delta, away from Brunning. Instead my father was being secretive about Jamus’s annoying girlfriend? What a waste of time. I stood and hooked my thumb toward the field. Let’s go, I mouthed.

Jamus, still listening, shook his head.

His eyes went wide. Staggering, he fell on his butt. He sat there in the dust, pale faced, eyes staring into the distance. She’s dead, Jamus finally mouthed.

What? I pressed my ear to the warm wall.

“How can you be sure?” Mom’s hushed voice barely came through the wall.

“Trust me, Emese. When we found her dog ripped in half… Sam says that thing never left Alana’s side. Then the blood… so much blood.”

“By Yuan’s light. What did Tama do when you and Sam brought the girl back?”

“Emese, you’re not listening. Something butchered that girl, tore her to bits. There wasn’t enough of her to bring back.”

Jamus doubled over and retched into the dusty dirt. I didn’t know what to do or say. I placed a hand on his shoulder while keeping an ear to the wall.

“Poor Tama. She’s never been happy here… but now without her daughter… Poor Tama.”

Poor Jamus. Surely my parents knew the impact this would have on their son.

“Poor Sam, I say.” My father pushed his chair away from the table. “He was the one that followed the blood trail to its end, where they killed her. But enough, I’m going to help the boys with the pumps.”

At that point, Jamus and I should have gotten up and ran to the field, but we didn’t. Jamus couldn’t move, and I couldn’t pull my ear away from the wall.


“The boys,” said my father from the other side of the door.

“No, Absolom. You said they killed her. Who are they? Who killed Alana?”

“Oh.” My father paused with the door half open. “Spiders.”

“They’re back? But how? I thought we—”

“I know. Me too. But there’s no mistake. It was spiders.”

Spiders. Despite the morning heat, I had cold sweats. Spiders. That word literally knocked me on my own butt, my hand landing in Jamus’ vomit. Suddenly I was six again, slipping in spider gore, helplessly watching Marie Suiza scream and disappear into the dark.

My body shook as I fought down the urge to be sick.

“Xander, Jamus.” My father nodded to us as he shut the door behind him. “Enough sitting around. You should have been out to the pumps.” He looked to the red sun rising on the western horizon. “Daylight’s a burning.”

The familiar phrase jolted me from my flashback. My father always said those words. Everyday. He liked being clever, rolling the shortness of daylight and its intensity into one phrase. Usually he would laugh afterward, weaving all his energy into the spell he cast on those around him. Contentment, perseverance, purpose and meaning in the meaningless—he manufactured the will for the rest of us to keep going.

Today, looking at his two sons, sitting in the dust—Jamus wiping sick off his paled face, me trembling and terrified—my father did nothing but breathe deep and exhale. No anger at catching us eavesdropping. No attempt at humor. No, nothing but tired and worry.

That worried me.

There wasn’t a sufficient natural source of water in Brunning. The vast valley we lived in was a wasteland that saw rain twice a year if lucky. When the Fortitude Hibernarii faction conceived Brunning they could have sent the tech to easily generate water and lots of it, but they didn’t. Instead they sent an advance team of humans to Erimia to locate an acceptable site to start a new colony. That advance team put in the groundwork for us and the other eight families that followed my father to this dead planet.

My father said no planet was truly dead. That was the epitome of Absolom Floros—a determined optimism that found potential in every situation. His relentless and contagious attitude kept the whole damned colony running. Contagious but not universal.

Between the monotonous tasks of the morning, I found myself scanning the fields and wasteland beyond. I scolded myself. Spiders are nocturnal, get back to work, Xander. The work kept my mind busy, and I dove into it as hard as I could.

By midday we had serviced most of the pumps that fed water through subterranean pipes beneath Brunning. We cleaned solar cells and mucked out built-up sediment inside the pump housings. My father tried to send Jamus home more than once. It didn’t work. Jamus refused to go, instead plodding on with the work. Silent.

Despite everything, the morning passed quickly. Almost noon, my father finished up the last of the adjustments with his head in the Larkin’s pump. Jamus and I leaned against the Larkin’s barn, pressing into the razors-width of a shadow, and took one of our frequent water breaks.

Otherwise unoccupied, curiosity about the morning’s events itched at the back of my mind. Jamus had been quiet—something out of the normal for my little brother. My father, content to work in silence, had barely said a thing. Only the occasional greeting to the other colonists.

With a little patience and a mixture of keeping my head down and my ears up, I usually stayed informed of all interesting doings. That was if anything interesting ever happened in Brunning. Which typically it did not. But now, not only were the spiders back, they’d killed someone.

And nobody was talking. People were working in their fields or homes like normal—conditioned to go about their routine as if nothing had happened. I realized they were doing the same thing I’d been doing all morning—holding the craziness and desperation back by keeping their minds and bodies busy. Brunning was a fragile machine and we were its fuel. Despite tragedy, work had to go on for us to survive.

Survive. I scoffed. “This is pointless.” I rubbed the salty residue left on my forehead from evaporated sweat and winced as some fell in my eyes. I splashed water in my eyes to clean them.

Jamus put both hands to his face.

“Use the water. Rubbing makes it worse.”

“Huh?” He looked at me with red eyes.

“Here,” I sloshed water on him, “let me help.”

He sputtered and swiped at me.

“Your face is clean isn’t it?” I laughed in attempt to manufacture some form of levity. Someone had to break this town out of its rut, wake it up to reality. “You should be more grateful.”

Jamus glared at me, water dripping off his nose. “Jerk.” He picked up his bladder and walked toward the Larkin’s house. “I need more water.”

“Get me some too?” I tossed my water bladder at his back, just missing.

Jamus ignored it and kept walking.

“Whatever.” The low whirring sound of the pump told me my father had finished. I turned and got blasted in the face with warm, gritty water. I tried to yell, but choked until the water stopped a couple of seconds later. “What the hell?”

“Oh, sorry Xander.” My father chuckled. “I thought I heard you ask for water. I had to clear the line anyway. Thought I’d help out, you know, in the name of efficiency…” He smiled and closed the access hatch to the underground pipes.

I scowled while scraping silt out of my hair. “Right. So helpful. You done?”

“Yep.” He glanced at the sun. “Your mother should have lunch ready.” He brushed mud off my shoulder. “You’ll have to clean up before she lets you in though.”

“Ha ha.”

“You should be more grateful.” My father drank from his water bladder. When he finished, the smile had gone, the weariness back. “Speaking of which, where’d Jamus go?”

“Went moping off for some clean water.”

My father nodded to himself. “Let him be. Some wounds take time.” He clasped my shoulder. “You know that. He’ll need your help.”

Everyone in Brunning needed help. Fat chance they were going to welcome it from me. I shook my head. “Lot of good that will do. Spiders are gonna kill us all anyway.”

My father tensed. I hoped he would say something reassuring, counter my bleak outburst. He didn’t. He hefted his tool case onto his shoulder. “Your mother is waiting.”

My father and I entered the kitchen through the back door. Jamus trudged along a ways behind us, as distant emotionally as he was physically. Lunch had been laid out on the table. Cassava, red beans, and grilled crelix.

Not many things were naturally edible in our corner of Erimia, let alone palatable. The planet continued to produce regular surprised, most unpleasant. The small, fat, gray lizards that made a croaking ‘crelix’ noise practically infested our valley. While they were initially nothing but a nuisance, we’d since discovered they not only laid copious amounts of eggs, but when grilled they were way more appetizing than synthesized proteins.

After the spiders killed the Suiza family, crelix was the only thing my parents could get me to eat. Even then it took effort. Once the spiders had gone, once my father said they’d never be back, my hunger had gradually improved.

Now the spiders were back.

All morning I’d struggled to keep my breakfast down. My stomach had clenched at the mention of lunch. Nightmares danced in the shadows of my mind. More than once I’d repeated to myself, you’re not six years old. You’re a grown man.

Maybe I had matured, or maybe it was the morning’s work—the mental conditioning Brunning had worked on me—but the spiced crelix cooked in oil dominated my senses and I dug into my food without even washing up.

My father strolled into the sitting room, presumably to find Mom. Jamus leaned against the wall and sipped his water.

“C’mon,” I waved a grilled lizard at him, “it’s your favorite. Eat.”

Jamus smacked the crelix out of my hand and followed our father into Mom’s sitting room.

I stooped over to pick up the dirty crelix meat while mumbling to myself. “No reason to waste good food.”

My father returned while I was dusting it off. “Everything all right with you and Jamus?” He took his seat at the table.

“Guess he’s not hungry. Where’s Mom?”

“In her sitting room. Cali, Tenley, and some of the other women are with her.”

“Oh.” On Tatmus Delta, my family had lived a fairly isolated life. Not many visitors stopped by due to a mix of geography and class. In Brunning we never had a shortage of visitors. My father served as our honorary fearless leader while my Mom was the resident wise woman.



“Take it easy on your brother. There’s not been a death in the settlement in years. Yes, Jamus is young, but his heart’s broken.”

The food in my mouth tasted like ash. On the surface I understood what my father was getting at. I understood Alana had been special to Jamus. But I needed to know how we were going to stop the spiders from happening again… dark things needed to stay in dark places. But the spiders…

I pushed my plate away. “You’re sure they’re back?”

“I’m afraid so. We’ve never encountered anything else here on Erimia that would do…” My father paled and pushed his plate away. He stood as if to leave, but paused. “Still, something about it…” My father scrunched his brow and stared out the window as if replaying a memory across his mind’s eye. “The harsh conditions on Erimia breed efficiency. The spiders are no exception. They drink all of their prey’s blood—”

“Please, I know.” I struggled against old memories.

“—but Alana’s blood was everywhere. And the dog. They took Alana’s body—”

“Stop. Stop.” A black hole in the ground and anguished screams flooded my mind.

“—why not take the dog?”

“Enough!” I stood up, knocking my chair over. “Just stop! Heretic’s Hell, just stop!”

The crash snapped my father out of his concentration. He placed his hands on my trembling shoulders. “My apologies, son. I didn’t mean to upset you.”

I stepped away from him, took in a deep breath, and held it—a trick I learned to diminish the effects of recurring nightmares. I hoped the women in the next room hadn’t heard me. For Yuan’s sake, I was twenty-one years old.

My father let me have my space but didn’t break his gaze. “I didn’t mean to drudge up unfortunate memories. Do you want to talk about it?”

Unfortunate memories. Ha. “No. Brunning needs men, not scared children.”

Nodding, he gathered our plates and put them in the sink.

Eager to leave, I made for the door. “I’ll get Jamus.”

“Let him be. We’re done with pumps for the day. I need to meet with Reese and the other men.”

The idea of a council meeting hadn’t crossed my mind, but it made sense. We needed to do something about the spiders. By now my clothes were dry but coated with silt. “I’ll come to. Let me change first.”

“Actually, I need you to go to the Thurn place. They haven’t responded to com calls. They never do. They need to know about Alana.”

“But the meeting…”

“I imagine you were heading out there this evening anyway. Better to go and be back before dark. Day light’s a burning.”

My father had a point. I spent most of my evenings away, on the Thurn’s side of the divide, but now… Night wasn’t safe anymore.

I rushed into the other room and stopped cold. Usually when the women gathered in Mom’s parlor the room carried a generally happiness. Not this time. Mom and the other mother’s all sat close to Tama Jans, who in turn sat by Jamus. Both of them cried into each other’s shoulders. Nobody spoke. Soft weeping and the whirring of the house fan were the only sounds. The whole scene seemed surreal, and the oddity of it finally brought clarity apart from my own trauma. I felt like an idiot. A selfish idiot.

My brother lost his girlfriend and I’d been too absorbed in my own fear. I’d been a self-righteous jerk to him all day. To me, Alana’s death had been about the return of the spiders, one more reason none of us should be on Erimia to begin with. But what if it had been my Marigold?

I should have offered my condolences to Tama. Alana was her only child. I should have tried to bring some comfort, mixed my tears with the others. My father entered behind me and sat next to Mom, wiping away the tears on her cheeks.

The gravity of the situation hit me in the gut. I couldn’t let myself feel it. I panicked. I told myself I couldn’t disturb the reverence of the room, and I left. I slipped into my bedroom, shed my dirty work suit, and took a shower. A few minutes later I fled the house and the mourners without a single word or gesture of comfort. I should have stayed.

But I needed to see Marigold.

From the day that my family arrived on Erimia and I saw Marigold, a dusty-faced little nymph of a kid with golden curls that reflected the harsh sun, softening its severity, I wanted to be around her. I thought I’d be the only child my age in the Brunning experiment, that I was extra baggage my parents had to tote across the galaxy. Marigold changed that. Despite family incongruence’s, we spent every moment we could together.

Erimia had short intense days and long nights. Only a few hours of daylight remained and I had to get to Marigold’s family, the Thurns, before dark, before the spiders emerged. I told myself responsibility didn’t allow me to linger at the house. Still, guilt weighed me down. What could I do to help the others? What words of comfort could I offer, when deep inside, I knew the whole misguided settlement of Brunning had been doomed from the start?

The process of building Brunning, futile as it was, wove strong people together to make them stronger. The colonists were close. We loved each other like family. Mom said love was like sending out a part of your soul that always came back better, more full, but when someone you cared for died, that part of you that you had sent out to them died with them. No matter how tough you were, losing a loved one wore at you, it cut at the mountains, it spilled across space and made the stars cry.

I knew the people back at my house felt that way. It made sense. But I had learned about death early in life and never experienced love and loss the way Mom described them. I wanted to, but just couldn’t. Something in me was off.

I’d known Alana all of her life and for most of mine. Sure she was annoying, but like the other handful of kids in Brunning, she was like family. Rationally, the loss of Alana hit home. I’d been so occupied by my fear of the spiders, or occupied trying to ignore that fear, that I’d been blind to the feelings of others.

That was wrong. And it pissed me off.

The more I hiked across the burning ground, the more my anger burned. Every individual in Brunning was part of a larger plan for survival. Jamus and Alana, together, had been part of that plan. What part would Jamus play now? I couldn’t imagine how I would feel if Marigold was killed. I hoped I wouldn’t have to find out. Worst of all, what if I learned I didn’t have the ability to feel anything more than I felt now?

I picked up my pace toward the valley wall south of the settlement, as if I could outrun my doubts. The Thurns lived in the small valley at the mouth of our canyon. Because of a sharp switchback, only a narrow promontory of canyon wall separated the main valley from the smaller one.

For most people, a trip to the Thurns meant a couple hours walk across the valley and through the narrow canyon switchback. Early on, after the spiders had been gone for over a year, Marigold and I found a faster way between our homes. A deep set crevice formed a chimney running straight up both sides of the narrow promontory that separated Brunning from the original settlement site where the Thurns still lived.

At the base of the promontory wall, I slipped on gloves and crawled into the crevice. Similar crevice formations pocked the walls throughout the greater Brunning valley—strange geologic formations with no natural explanation, none that we had deduced anyway.

I jammed my hands into pockets on opposing sides of the crevice and began to shimmy up at a quick clip, one that would push my endurance by the top. I found traversing the crevice more bearable when done quickly and with as little thought as possible.

Due to he relative darkness, mass amounts of crelix, and even more of the nasty stinging insects that swarmed during the wet season, the crevices were avoided by everyone else in Brunning. All the better for Marigold and I to keep our secret route secret.

Of course my father knew about it. My use of the crevice as a thoroughfare explained why he sent me to deliver messages to the Thurns. He could have done it himself, but it would’ve taken him twice the time, and he didn’t get along with the Thurns. Nobody in Brunning got along with anyone in Marigold’s family except of course for Marigold.

She was the anomaly, beautiful and bright amongst a dark and derelict family. But like my father said, everybody in Brunning brought value. He didn’t say it had to be equal though.

After the first minute, I hit a rhythm in my climb and blocked out any thought of the lizards and annoying bugs. My frequent visits made it possible to root out infestations before they got too big. It had taken time and many painful bites to clean the crevice in the beginning. Marigold and I made sure to keep it clean.

I made the vertical ascent using rock holds, some natural, some I’d gouged out long ago. Only a small amount of indirect light shone into the crevice, a good thing since the heat would have been lethal. The lack of light meant the holds had to be felt more than seen, but I practically had the route memorized. I probably could have climbed it with my eyes closed, although I’d never had a reason to attempt it.

My arms and legs ached by the time I reached the top. Sweat poured down the center of my back. On the surface of the plateau, I drank from my bladder before setting a steady jog for the other side. Anything faster, during the heat of the day, would have made me sick.

A couple hours from sunset, the heat on top of the plateau was brutal. My clima-jacket and hat dispelled the heat enough to manage the short trip. I kept my head down, chin tucked into my chest.

No reason to pay attention to anything other than signals from my own body. Nothing existed on the surface world of Erimia. Just wind swept rocks and the occasional bush too stubborn to die. I made good time to the crevice leading down into the Thurn’s valley, about ten minutes.

With the entrance in sight, I stopped. A cold chill shot up my spine despite the heat. Dimples dotted the sandy soil. Each one about the size of a crelix hole. Small but deep. Even though I hadn’t seen marks like that in years, I recognized them immediately.

Spider tracks.

Bile tickled my throat. The urge to turn and run home coursed through my body. But I had to warn Marigold.

Spiders are nocturnal.

I repeated the mantra while taking deep breaths.

Spiders are nocturnal.

They hate light.

Spiders are nocturnal.

The sinking sun sat above the canyon wall on the far side of the Thurn’s small valley. Shadows already consumed half of the valley, covering the well house, most of the small fields, and the orchard. It had almost reached the Thurn’s barn. Daylight was a burning. Soon both valleys would be dark pools in the Erimia dusk.

Spiders are nocturnal.

They avoid the light.

And I was losing light. I felt foolish, scared of the dark. Though it wasn’t the dark. It was what hid within it.

I retrieved a rope ladder I had rolled up in a canvas bag under some stones and tossed it down the crevice. Light shone through out the entirety of this chimney, actually more of a big crack. Otherwise I would have been hard pressed to climb into shadows right after passing spider tracks. I slid more than climbed down the ladder, my gloves blazing hot several seconds later when I hit bottom. I tore them off and shook out my hands.

The air in the Thurn’s valley was slightly humid and considerably cooler than back in Brunning. The smaller size and taller canyon walls made it so the valley floor saw direct sunlight for a much shorter period. Not only plants, but trees, actually grew unaided in the valley and flourished. The place could have been a paradise amongst the hell of Erimia. But the Thurns weren’t the best caretakers. Detritus—bits of broken tech, rusted tools, and garbage—littered the ground in various patches, covered in weeds and dirt.

Right in the middle of the valley lay Marigold’s house. All of her family lived there, but I called it Marigold’s because she was the only one out of her lazy family that gave a damn. Despite being built from a decommissioned space transport, the big house would have fallen apart if not for Marigold’s attention.

I slipped forward quietly, hoping to remain unnoticed until the last minute. I didn’t particularly look forward to meeting up with Deek or Boyd, Marigold’s older brothers. They didn’t like the sight of me. I didn’t like the sight or smell of them.

With the well-spring that fed Brunning’s water network literally in their backyard, I could never understand why those two beasts avoided bathing. It was like they were afraid of water. Idiots. Not stupid. Lazy, definitely. They only exerted energy when a clear benefit presented itself. It was hard to describe them. They were just Thurns.

I took a deep breath and did my best to stroll casually into the open.

“Hey there, Xandy Man. Wondrin’ when ya’d stop hiding behind that junk heap.”

Already tense and on edge, I didn’t respond well to being caught off-guard. I’d like to say I jumped into a defensive stance, ready for any challenge. Instead, I shrieked like a little girl. Right in front of Deek Thurn.

“Aw. Pretty.” Deek pushed away from the rusted junk he’d been leaning against and gave me a toothy grin—not a kind one, but a predatory-I-could-eat-you-alive leer. “You make noises like that when yer with my sister?”

I glared up at Deek, a good head taller than me. I’d played a weak card when he scared me—the Thurn brothers liked weak things, liked to play with them, and they didn’t play nice. I couldn’t back down now. “Only when we’re imitating you with your pigs.”

Deek’s bushy eyebrow shot up, his small eyes afire. He balled his fists and stepped toward me.

I stood my ground, despite knowing I’d gone too far. I took a deep breath and regretted it. “Damn, Deek.” I coughed. “Take a bath.” Since I had committed, I decided to sell it. “Or do the pigs like you better with that smell?”

Deek pulled back his arm, preparing to deliver a world of hurt my way. “Gonna kill ya, Xandy Man.” That close, Deek’s threat reeked of believability.

“Deek, Ma wants you back at the house.” Marigold stood a few paces away. Her sweet voice cut through the tension, stopping Deek’s assault before it started.

“Yer lucky, Xandy Man.” He shot me an ugly glare and stomped away. Then again Deek only had one glare, and it was always ugly.

“She’s waiting.” Marigold shoved her brother as he passed. “You know how Ma hates to wait. Best hurry.”

A few seconds later Deek was gone, and I had Marigold in my arms, kissing her. A second after that, she punched me in the gut.

“What was that for?” I asked while doubled over.

“You’re an idiot. I heard what you said to Deek.”

“Just a little macho banter. That’s all. I bruise his ego, he bruises my face. Me and Deek, we’re friends like that.” I took her hand, pulling her toward me. “At least he doesn’t sucker punch me.”

“Deek would have given you a lot worse.” She stood on her toes and kissed me. “Sorry for the gut shot.”

I stole another kiss. “It’s okay. You punch like a girl.”

She pushed back from me with a gleam in her eye. “Really? Do I need to try again?”

“I’m good. Thanks.”

“That’s what I thought.” She glanced over her shoulder. “Not complaining, but why are you here so early?”

Funny how girls can distract you. Especially ones with dusty golden hair streaked by the sun, hazel eyes with flecks of emerald, and a body perfectly balanced between strong and feminine. Even the harsh Erimian sun worshipped her, kissing her skin with a light tan the shade of honey. And in that brief moment, I forgot why I’d come. All thoughts of spiders, Alana, and Jamus had fled my mind, until they returned like a second punch to the gut.

“My father sent me. Alana’s been killed. I’m supposed to deliver the message to your pa.”

The smile melted from Marigold’s face, replaced by a look of mixed anxiety and anger. “They killed Alana?”

“Yeah. Last night. Jamus is a wreck, I didn’t even realize—”

“It’s getting dark. You should head home.”


“I’ll tell Ma and Pa about Alana.” Marigold gave me quick peck on the cheek and pushed me toward the wall. “You should get back before it’s too dangerous.”

“I just got here.” I slipped past her on my way toward the Thurn house. “Plus your pa isn’t ever going to respect me if I send you with the message while I scamper back home.”

“Some things aren’t worth my family’s respect.” She caught a hold of me by my jacket. “You should go.”

“I’ll deliver the message, and then I’ll go. I promised my father I’d deliver the message straight to your pa.” I grabbed her hand off my jacket and squeezed it. She squeezed back. “Believe me, I don’t want to be around when the spiders come out. I saw tracks atop the plateau. Had to have been from last night.”

“Spiders?” Her hand relaxed in mine and she looked around again. Not the reaction I had expected.

“So you already know they’re back? Nobody in Brunning knew until last night, until Alana. When did you find out?”

“Spiders killed Alana.”

“Blight’s shadow, Marigold! What planet are you on? I already told you about Alana. Of course it was spiders. What else would have killed her? Besides spiders, there’s nothing but biters, crelix, and us.”

Marigold let out a nervous laugh and then covered her mouth—another weird reaction. “This is all so messed up. Of course it was spiders.” She pulled me toward the house almost at a run. “Let’s tell my parents about the spiders, and then you need to go before…”

“Before what?” I asked, stumbling behind her in an attempt to dodge junk littered bushes.

“The dark. Before sunset,” she called over her shoulder.

“I already said that. Are you feverish? Or are you trying to confuse me on purpose?”

“Sorry. You’re right.” We stopped in the clearing around her house and she grabbed both my hands. “I’m just scared. And sad. Alana was a good girl. I liked her.”

“Yeah. Everyone was pretty shocked. Sorry.”

“Why are you sorry?”

“It’s just…” I didn’t want to burden her with all my thoughts about the difference between how I felt and how normal people felt. “Whenever I think about spiders I remember what happened the last time…”

Marigold cupped her hand on my cheek, wiping away a tear I didn’t know was there. “Oh Xander. You can’t let old memories eat at you.” She wrapped me in a hug, her head against my chest. “Try not to think about it.”

“That’s the problem.” I stepped back from her. “I block out the spiders and everything and everyone else.” I breathed deeply and pointed toward the canyon wall. “Right now my house is full. All of Brunning is gathering there and I ran away.”

I dropped my hand and shook my head. “Jamus is back there. He’s a mess. And I ran away. I drop a bomb on you and expect you to handle it like it’s nothing. I feel like a selfish jerk, a self-absorbed sociopath.”

“Oh, you are an idiot.” Marigold smiled. “You’re scared. I’m scared. We all handle it different ways. And you’re not a sociopath—believe me, I know all about sociopaths.” Marigold looked past me and tensed. “Speaking of…”

“Xandy Man!” A meaty hand grabbed my shoulder and spun me around. Thank Yuan, this time I didn’t shriek like a girl, especially in front of Marigold. Nope, I came around with my fists ready.

“Wo there, Xandy Man!” Boyd Thurn, the bigger and only slightly less ugly and smelly of Marigold’s brothers, held his hands up in mock defense.

“Sorry, Boyd.” I dropped my fists. “Thought you were Deek.”

Boyd grinned, an unnerving gesture. “Now Xandy Man, them’s fightin’ words. I ain’t nothin’ like that pig-lovin idiot.”

My face flushed. “Deek told you about that, huh?”

“Came rushin’ in the house fumin’ up a storm about it, sure enough!” Boyd laughed, something between a growl and a grunt. “Then ran out again when Pa told him to shut his mouth. Said he’s too ugly fer the pigs.”

Marigold pulled at my arm. “Let’s get your message delivered.”

“Hold up, Goldie.” Boyd grabbed my shoulder. “Xandy Man and me, we’re a talkin’ here. Git up to the house, we don’t need you fer man’s talk. Right, Xandy Man?”

“Xander needs to git before the sun’s gone.” Marigold insisted.

“Pity. Got some meat cookin’ over apple wood since this morning.” Boyd’s grin went full smile. His yellow teeth peeked through the bush overshadowing his upper lip. “Be perfect in an hour, but I’ll cut ya a slice now, if ya like.”

Marigold tugged me, hard enough to pull me a few steps. “He’ll pass, Boyd.”

Usually I wouldn’t even be tempted to accept a gift from Boyd. He was just as nasty as Deek, if not more, beneath his thin, deceptive shell of congeniality. But some juicy pork sounded great. “Well, if you’re offering, I’d hate to be rude—”

Marigold about pulled my arm out of its socket. “You’ll pass,” she said to me, her eyebrows set and lips pursed. “Bye, Boyd.” She pulling me past him.

“Wait. What’s the important message?” Boyd called after us.

I had the words half formed in my mouth, but Marigold beat me to it. “Xander’s finally gonna ask Pa to let me marry him.”

I cringed. “Why the hell would you say that?” I hissed at her, looking over my shoulder to make sure Boyd wasn’t running to kill me. Thankfully, he’d already slunk off.

The Thurn brothers treated Marigold like a slave, including the notion they owned her. It was no secret I planned to marry her one day, hopefully sooner than later. That was one big reason, among many, for Boyd and Deek to hate me.

“It’s getting dark.” Marigold ushered me to her front porch and took my water bladder. “Stay here, I’ll get you some water and send out Pa.” I would have argued, but she was right. Only a small sliver of sun still burned over the valley walls. Darkness had crept up on the valley so subtly I barely noticed until Marigold called my attention to it. A chill swept through my body, probably from the dropping temperature and my sweat-dampened clothes. Probably.

“Catch yer death.”

They say things come in threes. I sure hoped so, because I was sick of being caught off guard by Thurns. After the two seconds it took to catch my breath, I turned to face Marigold’s mother standing on the far side of the porch.

“Mrs. Thurn.” I attempted some measure of composure. “Pardon?”

For a moment, an odd, amber light shone from something cupped in Ma Thurn’s hand. It illuminated her chest and highlighted the sharp angles of her sun-baked face. She quickly hid the object in her blouse, a faint glow visible beneath the fabric where it hung from a silver chain around her neck. “Catch yer death.” She said again. “Damp clothes and night. Make ya weak. Weak things die on Erimia.”

“Yes, Ma’am.” I didn’t know if she was trying to be helpful or threatening. It was hard to tell with Mrs. Thurn. Probably both. I followed my father’s example and tried not to talk much to her, ever. Show her respect? Yes. Engage in friendly conversation with her? No such thing with Mrs. Thurn.

She stared at me like she was calculating something. If Marigold’s two brothers made me edgy, her mother about sent me over the edge. I think she liked it that way.

I waited for Marigold to come back with her father. A conversation with Mr. Thurn didn’t appeal to me much, but it had to be more pleasant than trying to look anywhere but at Mrs. Thurn, who wouldn’t stop staring at me.

“Nice necklace.” The words left my mouth before I could stop them.

“It is, and it ain’t none of yer concern.” She pulled her shawl closed and strode toward the front door, almost colliding with Mr. Thurn on his way out.

“Somethin’ the matter?” Marigold’s dad asked, switching his gaze between Mrs. Thurn and me.

“Nothin’ that won’t be better when he’s gone.” Mrs. Thurn flipped her hand at me and pushed past her husband into the house.

Mr. Thurn watched her go, then looked at me, his bushy black eyebrow cocked.

“I’m sorry, I didn’t mean—”

“Marigold says you’s got something to say. Best say it and git.”

“Yes sir. Alana Jans was killed last night.”

Mr. Thurn’s thin face went nasty. “Shame. Why ya sayin’ ‘killed’?”

“It was spiders, Pa. Xander even saw tracks on our side of the divide.” Marigold burst from the house. She thrust my water bladder and a light into my arms. “The sun’s about gone. Best be on your way, Xander.”

“If spiders be about, then dark’s dangerous,” said Marigold’s father. He craned his neck to look around. “Might be better for the boy to stay til’ light.” He looked back to me. “Just you then?”

I nodded.

“He can bunk in the barn with yer brothers,” he said to Marigold.

Standing there, on the Thurn’s front porch in the fast fading light, I faced a dilemma. Rushing home in the dark, knowing spiders were out there, terrified me. On the other hand, being alone with Boyd and Deek served as an unsettling alternative. Who knew what the two would do to me without Marigold around.

Even though the light had mostly faded in the valley, I could see enough to make it back to the rope ladder and there’d still be sun on the plateau. Maybe long enough to get me home. Maybe.

Then dark shrouded everything. The solar lamps on the Thurn’s house kicked on and a boom echoed off the valley walls, followed by a bright burst of light. Clouds raced in from the direction of Brunning. Wind rushed through the canyon and into the valley, filling the air with the smell of ozone and wet dirt.

“What the… So soon?” Mr. Thurn turned toward the door. “Ma! Storm! Close up the house! I gotta get the boys to put in the pigs an’ mules!”

Grating gears sounded as metal shutters closed over the few windows the old space ship house had. Mr. Thurn ran past me, calling for his sons.

“Uh, should I help him?” I asked Marigold.

“Xander, you need to leave. Now. It’s not safe here.” She hooked her arm though mine, pulling us toward the wall at a run. “I’ll take you to the wall.”

“You’ve seen spiders down here?” I cringed at another peal of thunder, the lightning right behind it. “Why didn’t you tell me?”

Marigold kept a hold of my arm and didn’t slow. “There’s plenty I’m not telling you. Don’t stop.”

“What’s that mean?” I about tripped over a heap of junk.

“We have to keep going. Get out that light.”

I flipped on the light. The beam bounced with each stride and streaked with dark flecks. Rain. Hot rain. It came like a blanket, drenching us. “What’s going on?” I yelled to her while wiping the water out of my eyes with the back of my arm.

“Storm! Watch out!”

I jumped over an old fuel cell just in time, landing on the other side and slipping in the mud.

Marigold stabilized me. “C’mon, we’re almost there!” she yelled through the deluge.

Another lightning strike illuminated the cliff wall close in front of us. I didn’t know what had gotten into Marigold. She’d been weird since I’d arrived. Could have been the weather—the rainy season shouldn’t have come for another couple of months, and even then storms weren’t typically as violent as this. Not even close. But the wild, scared look in Marigold’s eyes told me to trust her. I focused the light on our path, and seconds later we stopped at the wall.

The wind screamed down the crevice, whipping the rope ladder around like a jittery crelix tail.

Marigold kissed me hard and pushed me away. “Leave the ladder down. I’m coming tomorrow morning.”

“No, I’ll come back here tomorrow,” I shouted back to her.

“You ain’t comin’ back here. Be safe!” With that she ran toward the flickering house lamps.

I moved the palm light to my wrist and tackled the rope ladder. Although loud, the wind whistling through the crevice didn’t bother me. The water did. Funneling down the crevice mouth, it pummeled me and made the ladder slick. My focus on climbing remained so complete, only when I reached the top rung did I remember the spiders.

I hung there, breathing hard, just inside the crevice mouth. I kept my head down to avoid the water. Then again, I always kept my head down, didn’t I? Why hadn’t I argued with Marigold? Why hadn’t I just stayed with the Thurns? I almost took a step down.


Marigold wanted me gone. She was scared, and I didn’t think it was due to the spiders. Marigold was beautiful, but she was hard—living with her family, she had to be. If something scared her worse than spiders… I’d have to trust her. That didn’t mean keeping my head down. That meant lifting it up.

I turned off the palm light. No need to make myself an easy target. Gathering my legs beneath me and shoving the fear deep, I sprung out of the hole and ran as hard as I could. I didn’t know if there were spiders. I wasn’t taking the time to find out. I almost didn’t care. I ran as if I were chasing demons, and if I ran hard enough, I might finally catch them.

The wind pushed against me. The rain turned the sandy dust slick. The thunder and constant slamming rain drops erased all other sounds. Black clouds choked the sky behind and above me. Faint stars appeared ahead of me. I ran with my head down, just like I had when I came. This time, I told myself I did so only to keep the wind-swept rain out of my eyes.

Deep inside, I knew better. Spiders killed quick. Better to not see them coming…

The rain stopped pelting me, the wind died, and the purple Erimian moon appeared. Just like that, the storm had passed. Still I ran. Now my pounding feet sounded loud in the twilight silence. When I looked up, Brunning was closer than I’d imagined.

I didn’t slow. I wiped the water out of my eyes and ran straight for the cliff wall illuminated by Brunning’s glow. I found the crevice and lowered myself in.

My heart pounded. I swallowed out of relief. I couldn’t believe my luck. Maybe the rain kept the spiders away. I held the palm light in my mouth—I needed both hands free for the slick rock walls—and descended at a steady but reasonable pace. The moon shone directly above, lighting the way.

Climbing up is physically hard. Down-climbing is worse, especially when drenched. Focusing hard on each hold, I barely noticed the moon’s light disappear. At first, I guess I assumed the clouds had returned.

They hadn’t.

Something blocked the crevice top.

Big something.

No. Big somethings.

Then the chittering. I could have gone eternities without hearing that sound again.

With eight legs to maneuver the walls, the spiders had an unfair advantage. They coursed down the crevice toward me. I had made it little more than halfway down. At my current rate, they’d reach me before I reached the bottom.

With nightmares pounding at the door of my mind and nightmares steaming down the crevice, I had no other choice. I braced my feet on each side of the slippery wall and let go.

END of Episode One

For more Brunning Divide visit:

Lost DMB Files, Ep1: Reefer Ranger

Click HERE for downloadable episode

Greetings From the Editor: A Note About the Ranger

History has been unkind to John Tilly McCutchen III. Remembered as J.T. Flat Top, The Branding Iron, Johnny McDeath and other more colorful nicknames, the infamous Texas Ranger turned chief of Texicas Homeland Security undoubtedly played a central role in the early expansion and stabilization of the infant nation.

What is less certain is the nature of his influence. While common mythology has held McCutchen was a brutal strongman, dishing out unmetered violence efficiently and punitively to any and all opponents of the early Texicas, the Lost DMB Files paint a more complex portrait. At times he’s portrayed as righteous, loyal, and even sympathetic. Some would go so far to claim him a subversive and opponent to the early expansionism of Texicas despite his prominent position.

Throughout his pulp fiction career, David Mark Brown’s published works uniformly referred to McCutchen as McCormick. Not until my recent discovery of a field journal kept by Brown was McCormick’s identity matched with the historical McCutchen. This critical find has accelerated the authentication of Brown’s stories as historical accounts in disguise.

Reefer Ranger, an early lost file (#9), is believed to be Brown’s first depiction of McCutchen. Set in Matamoros, Tamaulipas during early 1914, the historic background of the gory tale depicts, among other things, a Germany more heavily involved in North America than currently believed by most. But Brown’s vivid use of detail demands the possibility be considered.

On an obscure note, I should also mention Brown’s use of ‘reefer’ appears to be the earliest on record, casting even further doubt upon its etymology, but favoring the idea of Mexican Spanish origins. It must be remarked that Brown’s depiction (and in fact highlighting) of McCutchen smoking marihuana strikes a bold contrast with everything else known about the man.

In my humble opinion I should think this an appropriate instance to apply the old saying, truth is stranger than fiction. Since marihuana was not yet well known in much of North America and the American era of “Reefer Madness” remained a dozen years away, it seems strange indeed that Brown should focus on such a detail lest it serve some historical significance. What that significance may be, we are left to merely speculate. (Oh, the professorial sport!)

For any student of history or seeker of truth, I recommend beginning your journey into the complicated mind of John Tilly McCutchen III with Reefer Ranger. Whatever you decide about the “goodness” or “badness” of this immoveable human force, let me introduce you to a central figure in the lost file universe. Reader, meet J.T. McCutchen.


Professor Jim “Buck” Buckner

Reefer Ranger

Dark fell quickly and without contest during late winter in Matamoros. Striding across an alley ripe with urine and decay, Ranger J.T. McCutchen leaned against an adobe wall. Once situated, he stilled his breathing and listened for the echoing voices of the three men he’d tracked to this unmarked cantina. Soon he heard a familiar chorus buoyed into the night air by shots of cloudy mescal.

“La cucaracha, la cucaracha, ya no puede caminar porque no tiene, porque le falta marihuana pa’ fumar.”

It was a revolutionary verse, one he had heard before. Unclear about the reference to marihuana, he knew the song to be sung often by Poncho Villa supporters. The following verse could indicate something important about the men he sought.

“Cuando uno quiere a una y esta una no lo quiere, es lo mismo como si un calvo en calle encuentra un peine.”

It was nonsense, a farce. Something about unrequited love being as ridiculous as a bald man with a comb. No matter, he hadn’t suspected these men were Villistas anyhow, nor the rivaling Huertistas. The actions of Villa and Huerta only mattered to him when they spilled across the border, which after three years of revolution was happening more often.

These were most likely simple bandits, cattle rustlers, but he hadn’t followed them across the border for a good night kiss. He sniffed the air, the end of his nose curling. As his eyes adjusted to the scant light, he spotted a crate of rotting cabbages across the way. Covering his nose with the crook of his elbow, he breathed deeply.

It seemed unlikely he’d take the men into custody without bloodshed. For a second he regretted not jumping them before they reached town.

Realizing the singing had stopped, he instinctively reached for one of his Colt .45 Flat Tops. The crunch of a boot on gravel sparked the silence. He spun to confront it, but for the first time during his ten years of service with the Texas Rangers, he was too slow. The business end of a shovel struck his brow, his skull compacting with the force of the blow. Popping lights blinded him. Spasming, he dropped his .45.

Strange, but he thought first about the condition of his hat, rather than his head. He listed and would have fallen, but another attacker shoved him hard against the adobe wall. He smacked the back of his head against the mud brick, bracing himself and wondering where his hat had gone. His vision rolled left and right as if he pitched on a boat.

“Un rinche solitario. Usted debe haber permanecido el hogar, el diablo tejano.”

McCutchen steeled himself against the coming onslaught. Bloodshed was a certainty now, most likely his own. “Wherever I’m standing is my home, you dirty Mexican bastard.”

With that a fist shot out of the shadows, connecting with his jaw. Briefly he thanked God for the support of the adobe wall. Stay on your feet, he thought. Reaching beneath his duster with his left, he drew his second Colt Flat Top. Now or never. Before he could focus and aim, the shovel swept back into view. As the shovel smashed into his hand, he forced off a round early. Then he forgot about God altogether.

“¡Dammit, el tiro híbrido yo!”

A din of angry voices rattled in his head like bees in a tin can before a fury of blows broke against him. Desperately he tried to whistle, to call, anything, but his jaw had swollen shut. He covered his face the best he could. Finally someone pulled him from the wall and threw him to the ground, where a boot to his temple ended the nightmare.

Two gun shots brought a sudden end to the violence.

“La prisa, el Villistas está viniendo. ¡De nuevo a la hacienda! ¡Viva Huerta!”

Men scurried down the darkened alley echoing the refrain, “¡Viva Huerta!” But the man who gave the orders paused at McCutchen’s body, limp and lifeless. He holstered his gun before stooping to pick up a single Colt .45, the second smothered by the Ranger’s body.

¡Rápidamente!” He followed the others, leaving a stillness behind.

Filthy water trickled down the center of the alley mixing with McCutchen’s blood. A black cat pounced from a stack of crates, chasing cockroaches past where he lay face down in the dirt. An hour later a slumped, old lady exited the cantina carrying a table cloth full of rags slung over her shoulder like a sack. So diminutive was her stature, the bundle settled behind her knees. When she turned, there in her path lay the rinche.

Ay, dios mio,” the lady whispered as she bent to check for a pulse. Her wrinkled face, round eyes peering from deep furrowed caves, was dark and ruddy like blood and chocolate. She straightened. Muttering to herself, her sack still over her shoulder, she scuttled away.

Thirty minutes later she returned with two goats dragging a litter. Grunting, she rolled his upper body into the makeshift basket of rope and clicked her tongue. The goats obediently tugged the limp body of the Ranger, cowboy hat now resting on his chest, to her house on the edge of town. Without slowing, they pushed through the heavy fabric hanging over her doorway.

Glancing over her shoulder, the old woman followed them in. Amidst the stillness a chill settled into the trough of night beneath winking stars. Moments later the goats reemerged to scavenge for scraps of garbage.

Slits of greasy light poured into the street from around the curtain door. Inside, the bent lady wrung a rag into a basin of water. Humming to herself, she dabbed crusted dirt and blood from the Ranger’s face. Unconscious, he rested upright in the basket of the litter. In the flickering light of an oil lamp the woman crossed herself in the Catholic manner while growing more rhythmic in her tune.

She lifted McCutchen’s eyelids. His eyes had rolled back into his head. She bent close to his face to block the wavering light. His eyes and the corner of his mouth twitched. She pulled down on his chin to open his airway and listened intently as his breath came in raspy, labored draws punctuated with irregular shudders. Finally she massaged his face and neck before feeling again for his pulse.

Instead of beating slow as it should, it increased in tempo, his muscles tensing. Nimbly she jumped onto the bed and rummaged on a high shelf tucked under the thatched roof. On finding a small bowl of crushed leaves, she returned to McCutchen’s side. Transferring flame from the lamp to the leaves, she breathed it briefly to life before allowing the fire to turn to smoke.

She placed the Ranger’s hat on his forehead and draped a wet rag over its brim to cover his entire face and chest. She sat close to him, holding the bowl, allowing the smoke to rise alongside his neck up into the tent she had created. The Ranger snorted and coughed. As she kept the smoke rising steadily with her breath, his quaking muscles relaxed.

Ah, marihuana sagrada.” Sacred marijuana.

McCutchen groaned. He felt he’d awoken in the back of a dark, pulsing cave. He wrestled with his senses until he heard a soft chittering, like quail hiding in brush. The sounds were incoherent.

He focused on smells, quickly wishing he hadn’t—manure and smoke the only two odors he could distinguish. What the hell? He tried to open his eyes. At first they refused, as if sewn together. Gradually a thick crust cracked and broke.

For several blinks, he saw nothing but a flickering blur. Finally the scales fell away, and he recognized his surroundings as the inside of a chink house. Plaster had fallen in several areas, revealing the wooden structure packed with gravel and mud. It wasn’t a jacal or adobe, common housing for poor Tejanos and Mexicans. It was the traditional housing for Indians.

The realization seized him with panic. He jerked, reaching for his Colts, but they were gone. Pieces of memory returned in random order. He remembered hearing the chorus to La Cucaracha, discovering the trail of two horse thieves at the edge of a thicket, and finally the dark shape of a shovel cracking him in the skull. He remembered the scrape but had no way of knowing a full 24 hours had passed.

The chittering sounds returned. Lurching, he realized his arms were tangled, or tied down. He swore, his eye and mouth twitching. His headache throbbed with his increasing pulse.

Usted no debe maldecir tanto, cursing no good por tu health.”

He flinched as an old woman, bearing no signs of fear or menace on her ancient face, pushed through a curtain that served as a front door. He flashed his eyes around the room. Nothing jumped out at him. Nothing seemed to indicate any sort of danger. His arms had only been laced through the ropes of a rudimentary litter, which, upon closer inspection appeared to be the source of the manure smell infusing him.

“Pardon my French,” he said as he freed himself and sat up.

Français?” The woman looked puzzled.

“No, no. Never you mind. English will be fine. Now if you don’t mind me asking, where the hell am I? And what happened?”

En mi casa. Los bandidos le dejaron para los muertos, pero dios sonrió en usted. ¿Entienda?” The old woman paused to let him catch up.

“Bandits. Yeah, I understand.” He slowly looked himself over. Everything appeared to be intact. He was cut, bruised and bloodied, but not so bad off, considering. His left hand had swollen stiff, most of his face an ill-fitting mask. Two thoughts occurred to him. “My hat? My guns?” She nodded her head, but stood there silently. He tried again, “Mi pistolas? Ah, sombrero?

Si.” She pointed with her lips to his right side.

He looked down. His hat, his grandfather’s Stetson, rested beside him. Crushed in the front and dirty, it was no worse off than him. He popped his neck, reached down and took the hat to straighten it. A cockroach scurried from beneath the brim.

Mi pistolas?

The woman smiled and nodded in the affirmative.

Before he could try again he caught a whiff of something strange coming from his hat. “What’s that smell?”


He narrowed his eyes at the old woman and waited for her to continue.

Marihuana para sus asimientos y su asma. Le ayudó a curar. Marihuana, good medicine.”

McCutchen bolted upright, pain shooting along his spine. “You pumped me full of loco weed? To make me better?”


“You crazy old hag! What the hell did you do that for?” He could hear his grandfather’s words echoing in his brain, lecturing him about the limitations of men who depend on stimulants and alcohol for courage.

He’d taken a vow when he first became a Ranger that nothing stronger than a good glass of wine would violate the sanctity of his body—temperance seeming more reasonable than prohibition considering his Scotch-Irish, Presbyterian upbringing. His father may have been a spineless, religious nut, but he made a dang good wine.

As he tore into the woman again, the muscles in his face jerked and twitched worse than before. “Not now.” He pressed his fingers to his face, breathing deep. Nervous tics had affected him since youth and were intensified by stress. While studying the latest criminal justice methods in Austin he’d developed successful means to discipline and control his body. He lost them among his alien surroundings.

He tried to stand. “Look, woman. I need my damn guns, and I’ll get out of your hair.”

The woman clucked softly and shook her head, positioning herself to support him. Struggling to fend the old woman off and stand without her help, McCutchen flopped backward into the litter. Suddenly she shushed him with a slashing gesture across her throat. He didn’t argue. He heard it too.

Stilling himself, he struggled to slow his heart rate and control the spasms in his face and throat. Swallowing came hard while a humming rose in his ears. Relax, dammit. But it was no use. The old woman reached under the mattress to pull out a slick Winchester rifle, lever action. She eased a bullet into the chamber.

“What the—”

She held a single finger to her lips.

He heard it again, the sound of boots scuffling in the dirt outside the chink house. He gestured for the woman’s attention, mouthing the same question from before, “pistolas?” But she stared intently at the heavy curtain hanging in her doorway, as a shallow bleat from a goat ended in gurgling.

Santa María, Madre de Dios.” She kissed an amulet hanging from her neck and steadied the rifle. It would’ve been comedic, if his life hadn’t depended on this shriveled old woman leveling a rifle longer than she was tall.

Still trying to regulate his breathing, McCutchen scanned the room for his pistols. He heard more movement outside. The edge of the curtain bulged inward. This is crazy, he thought. I’m being hunted by bandits in Mexico with only a raisin and some goats to protect me. The only thing he could find within reach to fight with was a kettle. Cast iron, it would have to do. The curtain moved again.

A goat poked his head through the opening and bleated, blood dripping from its muzzle. A roar and flash ripped the stillness in two as the old woman pulled the trigger on the .30-30, working the lever action to reload.

¡Diablo en infierno!

The shack danced with the impact of hot lead. McCutchen slammed onto the earthen floor, abandoning the idea of the kettle. Plaster ripped off the walls and shattered in clouds of rock and dust in the air above him. “Son of a bitch!”

The old woman still stood in the middle of the room. “¡Dios en cielo, trae su fuego para quemar Huerta y a sus diablos!” She shoved the barrel of the rifle into a hole in the wall and worked the lever, burning the night air with gunpowder and lead.

McCutchen dragged himself through an increasing pile of rubble, searching for his Colts while his throat continued to tighten. His right eye twitched so rapidly he could barely use it. Smoke filled the upper half of the room, the thatched roof on fire. In another few minutes the fight would be over one way or the other.

The woman stomped next to his right hand, and he looked up. “¡Pistola!” She pulled one of his Colt .45’s out from under her skirts, handing it to him.

“I’ll be a son of a—” He spun the cylinder. It was fully loaded. Outside, the gunfire lulled as the bandits waited for the flames to do their work. With nimble fingers the old woman reloaded the Winchester. She pulled a tin out from under rubble on her bed and threw it to McCutchen.

“You take. Good medicine.”

He ignored her. Twitching, he leveled his Colt toward the door where the torn curtain dangled in the opening. But it was little use. He couldn’t steady his aim. His face and neck yanked to the left. He’d be able to kill a man at ten feet, maybe. At least it was night. But the fire would make it easy for the bandits to see him and the old woman when they stepped from the burning house.

The woman bent down and took the tin. She shoved it into McCutchen’s chest. “Okay, Okay.” He tucked the tin into an inner pocket of his duster.

Without waiting longer, she surged through the curtain and into the night air before McCutchen could respond. Gunfire blazed from all around. McCutchen lurched toward the opening, chapped he was following an old woman’s lead. But a bullet struck the door post.

As shards of wood and rock knocked him off balance, he hit the jam hard. Quaking, the remains of the burning roof collapsed inward.

In a shower of sparks, a roof support struck him on the shoulder and drove him to the ground. The smoldering support pinned his left hand, cooking the flesh. Smoke burned his lungs. Rolling onto his back, he heaved the beam off. Above, he saw night sky where the roof had been.

Unbelievably, gunshots continued as the old woman called down fire from heaven while the Winchester delivered it. He pulled himself into the chill night air on his belly, bear-crawling away from the illumination of the flames. A hot slug struck him in the thigh like a hornet. He gritted his teeth and rolled onto his back.

A flash, followed quickly by a pop, originated from the brush beyond the clearing the goats had grazed. Dirt kicked up next to the Ranger’s boot. He steadied his aim toward the source of the flash and let his Colt roar. After tearing off three quick shots, he continued toward the shadow of a cement trough.

He threw his back against the cold cement, gasping for breath. His head spun. Lights danced and popped in his vision as the night suddenly fell quiet. The gunfire ceased, but he couldn’t stop the spasms. Finally, overwhelmed by pain and unable to breath, he passed out.

McCutchen awoke to several sensations at once. Scattered drops of rain chilled his exposed skin and hissed among the burning embers of rubble. Numbness alternated with electricity throughout his extremities. An orange sun brushed the belly of the clouds on the horizon. Finally, a snuffling beside his head jerked him totally awake.

A goat, one of the twins belonging to the old woman, nuzzled at the crusted blood in his hair. Snorting along his shoulder, the animal tugged his duster open and sniffed the tin in his pocket.

“Alright, that’s enough. Shoo.” Lying flat on his back, McCutchen tried to wave the animal off, but even the slightest movement was difficult. He found his hat lying next to his head, brim down and relatively dry. Well that’s a stroke of luck. He propped himself up and discovered his Colt digging into his back. “Hello pretty.”

He checked the cylinder. Three bullets. No sooner than the blood returned to its normal circuits, his nervous tics began. He could breathe, but his right eye flickered as his neck jerked his whole head to the left worse than as a child. A crackling sensation returned in his shoulder and hand, like his frame had been shoved into skin three sizes too small.

He’d forgotten about the burn. Picking at the charred edges of his duster, he glimpsed the white puss forming in and around the wound. His left hand had swollen and cracked, first degree burns covering the back of it. The flesh trapped under his ring blistered and continued to cook. He tried to spin it, but it stuck fast, his meaty hand much too swollen. He shook his head. Elizabeth, why can’t I let you go?

Finally he remembered the gun shot to his thigh. Cringing, he checked behind the torn flap of bloodied denim. “Hot damn, I’ll live yet.” It had merely scratched him, taking nothing more than a bite of flesh. Coming full circle, he remembered what had brought him to Mexico in the first place. Grinding his teeth, the poison of the night’s events flowed through his veins, strengthening him with hatred.

The goat lapped water from the trough, and the need of drink gave McCutchen immediate purpose. “Mind if I join you?” Sweeping flotsam aside, he cupped his hands. After several scoops he steeled himself against the pain and rose to his full 6’3” height. He had some killing to attend to, but first.

He scanned the senseless carnage around him. A warm slice of sun burned the gap between cloud and horizon, blinding him as he peered toward the remains of the old woman’s house. He shaded his eyes and moved closer. Remnants of a pool of blood and drag marks in the dirt indicated where the old croon’s first shot had struck home, most likely a kill.

He refused to think about the woman herself. There could’ve been only one outcome for her, and thinking about it made his eye spasm.

He skirted the edge of the rubble into the clearing between the woman’s house and the wilderness beyond. The first grisly sight he encountered was the companion goat, throat slit from ear to ear, his side half charred. Pattering rain drops dappled the thick dust, disguising the blood trails. But he found one that started in the center of the clearing and worked its way toward the brush.

He didn’t want to finish analyzing the scene, but he had no choice. He owed her that much and more. Drawing his Colt, he left the blood trail and swung wide to search the edge of the brush. He recognized the prickly pear he’d loosed three rounds into the night before. At least one of the slugs had not been wasted. Blood spatter covered several pads. The trail led south toward a cluster of large mesquites, probably where the horses had been tied up. He would check that later.

Moving more quickly, he steeled himself for the inevitable.

“Good God.” In an opening surrounded by acacia shrubs McCutchen found the remains of the old woman’s body. She hadn’t just been killed. She had been desecrated. He swallowed and took a deep breath before bending over the grisly scene. The woman had been shot several times. By the looks of it, more than a few of them before she fell, and some after. In anger, one of the bandits had carved her with a knife.

He coughed, finding it harder to breathe. About to stand, he noticed something clenched in the woman’s hand. Prying back her fingers revealed the amulet she had kissed the night before. Too much unfinished business, he thought, as he rubbed the amulet between his thumb and finger. It looked Aztec. He recognized the grotesque face of the sun god at the center.

On wobbly legs he stood while slipping the amulet inside his duster next to the tin. He reached the smoldering chink house and the blood stained dirt at its entrance before his curiosity got the better of him. After confirming all tracks led toward the stand of mesquites, he opened the rusty tin.

“Crazy old bitty.” The tin contained a dozen tightly rolled marihuana cigarettes. He clenched the busted and swollen fingers of his left hand, listening to the voices of his grandfather and the old woman in competition. But his grandfather, a Ranger to the end, had gone to rest a long time ago. This woman’s body was barely cold, and she had died, in part, because of him. “Good medicine.” It was the least he could do for a woman whose name he would never know.

He pulled out a single cigarette. Stooping over the burning coals of a roof beam, he puffed it to life and took a slow drag. He coughed at first, hacking up a loogie, then settled into the familiar routine of inspecting the scene. By the time he reached the mesquites where the horses had been tied, his breathing came easier.

There had been five of them. One dead, one wounded. Out of the three remaining, one was heavy while the other two where slight. They rode away toward the south. The woman had mentioned Huerta. If these were Huertistas operating this far north they needed protection against the roving Villistas, the infamous peon cavalry of Pancho Villa. Only one place for twenty miles could provide that sort of protection. First he had to fetch his horse.

The remaining goat followed him half way to the cantina before turning around. He felt affection for the little loner, but a half-chewed up gringo rinche wandering Matamoros by himself was conspicuous enough without a goat trailing him. On the other hand, there was no point in being furtive now. No longer quietly tracking prey, his next move would be offensive. Soon enough his enemies would know exactly where he was.

By the time he reached the northern edge of town, his gate had quickened and his tic had completely gone. “I’ll be damned.” He patted the tin in his duster.

After reaching the riverbank of the Rio Grande, he pursed his lips and pierced the morning air with a sharp two-toned whistle. He bent the pitch upward and added a trill at the end. Repeating it twice, he crouched behind a yucca. It didn’t pay to be a visible target anywhere along the river these days, on either bank. In less than a minute he heard a familiar whinny as his horse, Chester the IV, trotted up from the river bottom.

Sleek and happy, Chester snorted. Not in the least perturbed it had been thirty-six hours since McCutchen left him by the river, he mulled green grass around the bit in his mouth.

“No, no. I’m fine. You?” McCutchen gritted his teeth as he swung himself into the saddle. In no hurry, and not particularly desirous of agitating his wounds further, he led Chester at a comfortable walk around the western edge of town. Having been spotted heading north toward the river, he carefully remained out of view. He wanted watching eyes to assume he had returned to Texas soil. Good riddance. But he wasn’t going home yet. He had work to do.

The two-story stone hacienda jutted from the horizon, visible from miles away. Dismounting on the backside of a knob, he indicated for Chester to stay close. With his Colt reloaded, he carried jerky, dried apricots and a canteen to the top of the rise. After making himself comfortable, he watched the comings and goings while devising his night raid.

The property for miles around belonged to Hacienda Nuevo Santander. As well, the hacienda operated over seventy acres of farmland and a mill. It wasn’t cotton, but McCutchen couldn’t tell from his perch what the mill processed. A cluster of low adobe houses crouched at the near corner of the fields. That would be the first place he’d be spotted, if he wasn’t careful.

On a slight rise to the east perched the hacienda proper. The lessor brick buildings surrounding the original stone mansion included a store, cantina, blacksmith, kitchen and whatever else the hacendado deemed necessary to live according to proper standards.

A damn waste. Extravagance leading to laziness and weakness, as far as McCutchen was concerned. Many of the Mexicans felt the same way, disassembling or crushing most of the haciendas at the beginning of the revolution.

The fact this one still prospered fit with the notion that Huerta had taken a liking to it personally. But that was none of his business. His concern was that vaqueros from this hacienda had rustled cattle from Texas ranches, including the Corona, and had recently tried to kill him, twice.

Stealing cattle and threatening the life of a Ranger were both killing offenses. That meant the law stated he could kill them twice, and he intended to. Justice was coming, but it would have to wait until nightfall. Only one thing troubled him. He’d never gotten a good look at the men, neither at the cantina nor at the old woman’s.

Gambling, an affliction of the pathetic, was beneath him. All the same, McCutchen reckoned it a safe bet the bastard that carved the woman had the Winchester. That was something. And with any luck, he’d reclaim his lost Colt too. His .45 would no doubt be gripped by the man who organized the ambush at the cantina. He’d put down whichever hijo de puta he found with his pistola, and be doing the world some good.

His plan more or less in place, he turned to his relaxation regimen to pass the time. Maybe later he’d take a nap before heading down for reconnaissance at dusk. He grunted as he crossed his legs and placed his feet on his thighs, careful to avoid the gunshot wound. Opening his palms upward, he cleared his mind.

McCutchen observed several sentinels setting up watch around the periphery of the hacienda, including one dang near the knob where he’d spent the heat of the day. When darkness fell, he slipped easily through the first line of defense.

Guessing they would switch the watch around midnight, and anxious to get the job done sooner rather than later, he moved quickly. He couldn’t have hoped for a better situation. Some of the hacendado’s men started a large bonfire to fend off the damp chill blowing inland from the Gulf of Mexico. McCutchen knew their line of sight would be diminished by the flames. The peons remained the only wildcard.

He and Chester steered clear of the fire and the buildings, choosing the spot safest from stray eyes. For several minutes McCutchen sat quietly in the saddle, observing the scene. Six to eight men sat on benches around the edge of the fire whooping and hollering while peons milled nervously across from them.

McCutchen shook his head. For amusement the vaqueros had chosen to humiliate peons by making them dance. The breeze shifted, carrying their voices toward him.

“This is some good stuff, yes?”

“Why don’t you have some?”

“Oh that’s right, I forgot.”

“You’re too busy dancing.” The vaqueros cackled with laughter, firing off rounds in the air and at the peons’ feet. The raucous startled the horses tied up opposite McCutchen’s position. Dumb bastards. Villa could ride in with an army, and they’d never hear it. Finally they quieted down as the leader picked up where he’d left off.

“Besides, you’re too poor and ugly to smoke the General’s personal marihuana.” A vaquero choked and blew smoke, the others laughing at him.

Finally the pieces started to fit. The crop McCutchen had seen during the day was cañamo, marihuana. Even if Huerta smoked incessantly, the only reason to grow this much this far north was for trade along the border to obtain information, weapons and favors.

Whatever benefit McCutchen experienced from the plant, these men were obviously too boorish and undisciplined to enjoy. It spurred an evil inside them. Intoxicated and cruel, the jackals turned violent on the huddle of peons. A burst of gunfire scattered the workers toward the adobes. The image of the eviscerated old woman flashed in his mind. Marihuana had been responsible.

McCutchen thought a couple vaqueros had broken out in a scuffle until realizing the one who seemed to be el Jefe had snuggled up with a peon woman. She tried to defend herself, and he turned rough. Slapping her, she fell back, almost tumbling into the fire. A cry came from one of the adobes. So the were watching. If he could take out the first few vaqueros maybe the peons would help, or at least not get in the way.

El Jefe stood and spat on the girl while she squirmed on the ground. Then McCutchen noticed it. On the bench beside the man rested a rifle, the old woman’s Winchester. As el Jefe approached the girl, he chose to draw a knife, rather than a gun. He threatened her with it lewdly.

That left no more than six men against the six bullets in his Colt. He lashed Chester with the reins. The two of them, horse and rider, drew within yards of the fire before the vaqueros realized a terrible apparition bore down on them.

Gazing dumbly into the darkness they first spotted Chester’s flaring nostrils, then McCutchen, as he swung his right leg backwards over Chester’s rump. He spun around completely to make a running dismount. The Ranger needed every bullet to count.

With his momentum carrying him toward the vaqueros, McCutchen focused on the first among them to respond and squeezed the trigger. The cylinder rolled, the hammer fell, gunpowder ignited and a singular hole appeared in the man’s forehead. Again, McCutchen squeezed the trigger. Fire lit the end of his barrel. A second man fell with a sudden hole to the forehead.

Chester continued at full bore. Leaping over the fire, he clipped a burning branch and showered sparks on the retreating men. McCutchen slowed to a steady walk, mechanically working both hands as if he held the second .45 in his left. In reality the right had to work twice as fast. He pulled the trigger a third time, and a fourth.  Two more men fell, skulls vented to the night. But it wasn’t enough.

A bullet whizzed past McCutchen’s head. The immediate crack, like axe on wood, meant it’d been all too close. He whistled for Chester and bolted toward the adobe buildings, putting the bonfire between him and the remaining vaqueros, including the son of a bitch with the knife.

Only two more rounds came close. Reaching for horn and stirrup, McCutchen snagged Chester at full gallop. But as he shifted his weight into the saddle, Chester slumped and dove headfirst into the ground. The sudden change of momentum flung McCutchen sprawling over the horse’s head.

He hit hard with no time for pain. Dirt pelted him in the face as a bullet missed low. To make things worse, he heard el Jefe ordering someone to go for help.

McCutchen scurried back to the fallen horse who rasped up a mixture of blood and foam with every labored breath. “Dammit. I’m sorry, boy.” He took shelter behind the horse and felt the animal’s warm body jerk with fresh bullet wounds. Now he was in for it. No horse, no element of surprise and only two more bullets.

Angry at himself for stupidly losing precious seconds, he reloaded his Colt with rounds from his belt. He tried to think. If one vaquero rode for help only two remained. If he could get them and find a horse…

A slug tore through the meat of his calf, interrupting his thoughts. His body hummed with pain. Every nerve fought to override his ability to reason. But he had to think. Something was wrong. He wasn’t in their line of fire. Like a shotgun blast, it came to him.

The glint of fire light on steel flickered in an adobe window. He rolled to his left as another flare revealed a rifle barrel spewing hot lead. The bullet struck Chester mercifully in the head. With no cover and no choice McCutchen pumped his good leg, hobbling toward a narrow opening between adobe homes.

Only a couple of stray shots pursued him, the vaqueros possibly reloading. He braced himself against the cold adobe and tried to think clearly, but he was losing the battle. The peons had turned against him. Stupid Mexicans were all alike—willing to shoot the guy helping them just because he’s a gringo. Or did they know he was a rinche? How could they know? But who the hell else would charge in here alone?

His line of thought wasn’t helping. Furious, he couldn’t stop. All the piss poor treatment he’d taken from Mexicans over the years. Even the children hissed, “Rinche, pinche, cara de chinche,” calling him a mean Ranger with the face of a bug.

He was only doing his job. And a damn fine job at that, protecting worthless, ungrateful trash. And now Chester. The best damn horse he had ridden, shot down by some snot-nosed peasant. Not even a hardened bandito, but a peon who couldn’t recognize help when he saw it—a peon growing marihuana and spreading it into his Texas! An encroaching darkness absorbed him.

The gravel crunched behind him. Faster than God, he spun and pulled the trigger.

¡Maria! ¡No, Maria!” A woman’s wailing echoed off the adobe walls.

He inched closer to the body he’d just shot, now slumped on the ground. He kicked the head out of the shadows. It listed into a sliver of moonlight in the narrow alley. McCutchen made out the shape of a woman’s face, a woman’s hair. He knelt down. It was the girl el Jeffe had threatened with his knife, no more than 13 years old. Her dress torn, a dark stain spread across her chest.

“Jesus.” McCutchen stood woozily. He’d never shot a woman. Never in all his years of bringing justice to these God-forsaken borderlands. And only a girl at that. Sobs came from a nearby adobe.

“Shut up! Shut the hell up, you hear me? Comprende English?” McCutchen limped around the back of the adobe into the open night air. “I ain’t no bug. I ain’t no badman. I’m the God-damned law! You hear me?” He fired into an open window. “You caused this, not me!”

Something behind him caused him to turn. The hair on the back of his neck bristled. Something big moved in the dark a hundred yards off, or a lot of somethings. A single shot echoed from the direction of the sentry on the knoll. He flinched, but it hadn’t been aimed at him.

Suddenly the night air boiled with angry voices. “¡Viva la revolucion! ¡Viva Villa!

“Son of a bitch.” Of all the nights for Villa to attack the Huerta stronghold, it had to be tonight. Of all the dumb luck. McCutchen limped as fast as he could toward the last adobe in the row of buildings, a large square structure standing thirty yards apart from the others. In the daylight it appeared to be the best built, and in this case, the most likely to stop bullets. It also had no windows, only huge double doors.

War whoops shattered the quiet like church bells on a Sunday morning. Momentarily he thought about bolting, simply running into the brush and letting the Mexicans kill each other. But he couldn’t do it. He wouldn’t scurry into the desert like a bug. Sons a bitches, he still had a job to do.

He shot the lock off the heavy wooden doors and swung them open enough to see inside. A stack of kerosene lanterns sat next to a bucket of lighters. Good enough. He shut the heavy doors behind him, drowning in the pitch blackness. Shouts from outside grew louder. Groping in the dark, he found a four by four beam meant to barricade the doors from the inside, and dropped it into place just as bodies slammed against its callous surface.

He turned toward the lanterns, found one and lit it. “What in the name of all things holy?” He held the lantern high until it revealed an armored vehicle and crate upon crate of weapons. Several of the crates open, he didn’t even recognize some of what he saw. They were guns, he just hadn’t seen their sort before.

A large pile of rifles lay spilled at his feet. Behind and to the right, several boxes originally reading “Vasićka” had been scratched out and relabeled, “granada.” He pulled off one of the lids.

“Bombs.” The box was filled with handheld bombs. He’d heard of these, explosives with a fuse or that detonated on contact. He stepped away slowly. The auto loomed to his left. Beyond that, a stack of machine guns, like the ones the cavalry carried, but newer. German. Overwhelmingly, the crates where imprinted with German. He’d seen enough of the language in the hill country around Austin to recognize it without a doubt.

The pounding on the doors grew louder before coming to a stop. Gunshots splintered the wood. The heavy doors would take a battering, but they wouldn’t last forever. He jumped onto the runner of the truck.

A large machine gun had been mounted to its bed with coils of ammunition ready-fed through the device. He’d never driven an auto or fired a machine gun, but he’d driven a tractor since he was twelve and seen the military work the contraptions several times. “This is crazy.”

Snatching two granadas, he scurried back to the truck. To his relief it started. He put out the lantern and stood behind the wheel, waiting for the doors to give way. Within seconds, the beam splintered and fell to the ground. As the two giant doors swung outward, the low rumble of the gasoline engine greeted the confused mob.

McCutchen chucked one granada and then the other as hard as he could. Both exploded simultaneously, knocking him back into the driver’s seat and deafening him. He jammed the truck into gear and shoved his foot down on the pedal. Spitting gravel against the back wall of the adobe, he shot out a short distance before slamming on the brakes as soon as he cleared the doors. Groans and swears filled the immediate darkness while shooting and yelling filled the further distances like coyotes calling to each other.

With his good leg he leapt into the back of the truck to wield the machine gun. Here goes. He depressed the trigger slightly. The recoil shook him to the bone. Holding on, he clinched his jaw to keep the teeth from rattling out of his head.

Anything that moved, he lit it up, until finally nothing moved. He released the trigger, giving the gun a chance to cool and taking the opportunity to untangle several more feet of ammunition. From his vantage he saw directly across the fields to the old hacienda.

Foolishly, every lamp in every room had been lit, or perhaps the lights were electric. The Huertistas had pulled back, retreating across the field toward the stone walls of the hacienda. The Villistas, on the other hand, had responded to the machine gun fire, thinking it was intended for them.

A cluster of horses pulled away from the main regiment, riding around the field toward McCutchen’s position. “Come and get me, boys.” As the lead horses got within fifty yards, he opened it up. The pealing thunder of the gun erased all sounds of life. His eyes, rattling in their sockets, saw nothing but death.

Then a click and a whirring buzzed around his head as the barrel spun but the ammunition jammed. Amazed it had lasted this long, he jumped down and took one last granada from behind the seat. As several Villistas regrouped and bore down on him with guns blazing, he chucked the bomb into the yawning darkness of the munitions shed and worked his good leg as fast as he could toward the fields.

This time the explosion rippled like a chain of firecrackers, until eventually fumes from the kerosene combusted into a fireball that lit up the night like high noon. The concussion, followed by a wave of heat, launched him headlong into the furrows of marihuana.

Santa Maria.” The lead rider, tossed by the explosion, landed yards away from McCutchen. Shock registered on the dazed revolutionary’s face as he realized a chewed up gringo leveled a pistol directly at him.

Without another thought the Ranger dispatched him. “Mary can’t help you. The time for prayer is over. Judgment has come.”

McCutchen picked up a burning splinter of the wooden doors and limped around the edge of the field, lighting the last stalk of each row on fire as he went. He arrived at the bonfire, pleased to see the Winchester waiting for him. Holstering his Colt, he clutched the rifle in his hands.

“No gods. No prayers. Only justice.” He reached inside his duster and clutched the old woman’s amulet. He’d intended to throw it into the fire, but thought against it.

He continued his uneven progress through the blazing field of cañamo, a single, sinister silhouette cutout against the flames he left behind him. Halfway across the field the alarm sounded for retreat. The remaining Villistas gathered in clumps along the road and lashed their horses toward the west and south.

McCutchen reached the great stone gates as the surviving Huertistas scattered, gathering whatever horses they could. Right inside the gate, barking orders, stood the man the Ranger had hoped to find. While the man waited impatiently for his horse to be brought to him, McCutchen limped steadily forward.

His clouded thoughts could think only one thing. Justice demanded to be paid in blood. The marihuana-fueled lawlessness of Mexico would not reach Texas while he still drew breath, and he was breathing now.

At thirty paces, the bandit turned to face him. A charred rinche recently back from the grave several times over was the last thing he expected, and the sight clearly unnerved him. McCutchen wanted to be sure before he shot the man down, so he let him draw first.

Steel flashed and gunpowder flared, but the bullet went wide. More importantly, as McCutchen drew his .45 he knew with a certainty he’d been fired on with his own gun. From twenty-five paces he pulled the trigger, putting one bullet in the Mexican bandit’s eye.

He took his stolen Colt from the dead man’s grip, using it to shoot the man who finally delivered the ringleader’s horse. The horse snorted but didn’t bolt. McCutchen recognized a mutual spark burning in the beast’s eyes.

“Whoa there,” he calmed the animal. “You’ve got a new boss now.” Hoisting himself up with the horn until he could swing his injured leg over the horse’s rump, he stroked the animal’s neck. “Chester V, that’s what I’ll call you. Now hyaw!” He lashed the animal with the reins and galloped out the front gate, heading toward home.

As he mounted the little knoll, he stopped to look back at the carnage outstretched below him. “La Cucaracha indeed. Everybody knows it’s the roach that lives in the end.” He spat and turned to go, now at a walk. The next day reports would reach Brownsville of a great battle at Nuevo Santander. Many dead and many wounded. But nobody would ever know a rinche had started it, or that a rinche had finished it.


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