by George Potter
She didn’t know where she was going or what she was looking for, and was only certain of that basic fact of forward motion. That, for the moment, seemed good enough.
She was a thin, slight woman with terrified eyes, and she looked so out of place walking down the side of the road with her thumb out that most drivers avoided her unconsciously. Her dark hair was drawn up in a tight bun, and she wore a knit cap. She was swaddled in an oversize Army jacket in faded camo and baggy jeans over three pairs of sweat pants. She wore two pairs of socks beneath hiking boots that remained a full size too large, so she had stuffed them carefully with newspaper. Her sex and size were therefore disguised with this armor from the Salvation Army. In her right front pocket rode her only weapon, a six inch folding case knife that she had stolen from the place she once called home and a man that she had once loved and called her husband.
Almost twenty hours since her last ride, and a solid thirty miles farther west, a car finally responded to the signaling thumb and pulled over. It was an old car, a boat, and the big block engine that powered it pulsed reassuringly as it puffed thick white clouds of carbon monoxide from the tailpipe.
As she moved toward it, the fear rose up. Fear of rapists and crazy men. Fear of the compromised position that riding in the passenger seat across from a stranger placed her in. But the tingling pain of frozen hands and face fought with the fear and beat it into submission. She put her hand in her pocket, squeezed the knife for reassurance, opened the door and sat down.
Involuntarily, she sighed as the warm air closed around her. The heater was on high and the car smelled pleasantly of pine with a vauge hint of upholstery shampoo. She turned and faced her benefactor, trying to keep the wariness from her eyes and failing.
The older woman smiled, nodded, and got them back onto the road. A few moments of silence passed, then:
"What’s your name, my dear?"
"Faith." she lied.
The older woman raised an eyebrow and smiled again. "Well," she said "that’s not an important truth."
The woman who was not named Faith swallowed past a dry throat. But that smile was genuine enough, and both the eyes and tone were kind. And, more importantly, she was warm for the moment and moving at a fast clip towards her unknown goal.
"Where are you headed?" was the next question, as if that last thought had been spoken aloud.
"West." Faith replied, truthfully enough. "Just west."
The driver accepted this as if it made perfect sense, as if she picked up strangers wandering towards general compass points every day.
"I can’t take you far." the driver told her. "But every mile helps, does it not?"
Faith nodded. Suddenly she felt the urge to explain herself, to tell this stranger everything. Why she was running, who she was running from, the cloudy mystery of where she was going.
The driver laughed. "No need, my dear. That is another unimportant truth. At least for the moment. What is important is that you understand the why of things. Why you are leaving. Do you understand that, at least?"
Faith paused. Then nodded. She did.
The driver nodded back, amiably enough. "Perhaps a man beat you. Perhaps he did other horrible things. Perhaps that was not even the worst of it. Perhaps the worst of it was those long stretches where he did nothing. Those long stretches of peace that turned to dread and…"
Faith stared at the driver, her eyes threatening tears. A bizarre sensation swept through her, a feeling of vibration. The world outside the car, moving past them, seemed to haze over and cloud. The vibration reached into her body and set up a sympathetic trembling.
"I apologize." the driver said, quietly. "I overstepped my bounds."
The sensation was subsiding, but Faith remained uneasy. "I feel…"
"You feel the leaving song, my dear. More accurately, you sing the leaving song. You are not running from something, child. You are not leaving anyone. You are running from everything, and leaving everything."
Faith stared. Crazy, she thought. Just a crazy old lady.
"But…enough." the crazy stranger said. "Ten miles ahead is a restaurant that serves a fine soup and delicious sandwiches. You are hungry, aren’t you?"
Faith’s stomach growled in agreement.
The driver chuckled. "Until then, enjoy the warmth. There will be other rides, but you must remain wary, child. Promise me."
Unsure of what else to do, and seeing no harm in it, Faith did so.
The driver seemed satisfied. Guiding the car expertly with one hand, she reached into a compartment between them and brought out a bill. She reached it to Faith, without making eye contact. "Please take it." she said. "You will need it."
Faith began to demur, when the driver turned her gaze back. There was something in those eyes. Something that caused the vibration to return. Something that made refusal impossible. She took the bill, with a hand that surprised her by remaining steady.
A few minutes later they arrived at a lonely wooden building by the side of the road. Lights blazed out into dusk from two windows and the smell of soup hung thick in the air.
As Faith left the car the driver spoke a final time.
"When you began to hear the song, child — was it in a dream?"
Faith hesitated. Then nodded.
"And what was the dream about?"
Faith sighed, feeling silly but compelled nonetheless. "I dreamt of my father’s gun." she said.
"A good portent indeed." Those eyes flashed, and she sounded amused. "Make me a final promise, please.
Faith touched the money now curled around the knife in her pocket. What harm could there be?
"Listen for the cat." the driver told her. "He’s looking for you, and he’s a wily creature, but synchronicity is far from certain. Promise."
Faith did so, trying rather weakly to convince herself that this was simply a harmless madwoman asking for meaningless promises. But those eyes wouldn’t let her, nor would that vibrating sensation that had now sank deep into her, barely discernable but defiantly there.
Before she closed the door, Faith asked a question of her own.
"What’s your name?"
The older woman cocked her head. She gazed at Faith for a long moment.
"My friends call me Char." she said, simply. "And I must go. I have appointments to keep."
Faith thanked her and let the heavy door swing shut. The big car rumbled from the gravel parking lot and roared away down the road. East, back the way they came.
Faith pulled the bill from her pocket and started. It claimed to be a 40 dollar bill, and boasted a portrait of a strange man with blank eyes and a disturbing smile. In all other respects, however, it appeared real.
Just a crazy old lady after all.
But, having no other options — and less than two dollars in change — she entered the warm restaurant and ordered the soup of the day and a roast beef sandwich. To avoid a possible bad scene, she offered to pay in advance with the strange bill. It was accepted by the bored looking cashier without a blink and she was given thirty-four dollars in change in equally odd smaller bills.
She was too tired and hungry to worry for the moment. She sat down and ate, and enjoyed the warm atmosphere of the otherwise empty restaurant.
The soup and sandwich were as delicious as promised.
2. Cat Trap
She slept that night in a drainage ditch a mile or so up the road from the restaurant, belly full and with a pocket of strange currency. She had in mind breakfast the next morning before resuming her westward trek.
She found a worn and suspiciously dirty wool blanket in the trash outside the restaurant. An odd and lucky coincidence to be sure, but it had been and odd and lucky day.
The mile she walked did her in. She wrapped herself in the blanket, snuggled up under a rough overhang, and tried to relax.
She was exhausted, but her mind was keyed up and seemed to cycle over the strange happenings of the day. One part of her wanted to drift into the past and re-examine old horrors, the way a tongue wants to probe the grisly edges of a shattered back tooth. With an act of will, she refused to let that happen.
Instead, she dug into her pocket and removed the knife. With it came one of the strange bills. In the bright moonlight, she examined it.
At least it was a normal denomination — a five. But the similarity ended with the number. Rather than a smug and classic presidential portrait, there was a stylized dog. Quite a handsome one, in a pose of intent watchfulness. She smiled at it, because it appeared to be a mutt. She recognized the sleek head of a Doberman and the muscular chest and shoulders of a Rottweiler. Something about the haunches spoke of the grace of greyhounds, and the tail was a docked stub pointing in the unmistakable attentiveness of a spaniel.
She yawned and the bill grew indistinct before her eyes. She replaced it. Then she snapped open the knife and held it carefully, pointing away from her body.
So armed, exhausted, and in the silent light of the creeping moon, she slept.
In the dream she was being swallowed by the past, and it was a painful process.
She was bound again to the bed and she could tell by the raucous voices in the living room that this was a night her husband had decided to share with his friends. The fear and hate and disgust welled up and threatened to overwhelm her.
The suddenly she was a child again, opening the closet door. There, where it had always hung, was her father’s gun. The big gleaming cannon in the worn leather holster. She had only seen him use the gun once, when three raving drunks broke their door down. Her father had stood placidly in the center of the room until they smashed the door from its hinges and staggered in. Then he carefully and quickly shot them down. She remembered them falling like pins in a trick shot, how sudden and effective it was. They died with laughter on their tongues.
"It’s all right now, sweetheart." he had told her then. "There are bad men in the world, but daddy will protect you from them." Then he’d put on his hat and coat and took the bodies away.
She had believed that promise, in the way only small children can believe. She believed it so well that when she was feeling scared or nervous for some reason all it took was a glance at the gun in the closet to calm her.
She must never touch it.
But it came to her that she was not a child anymore, and that her father had been dead for ten years, and that she was bound and roped and raped just a blink away, and..
…and this wasn’t her father’s gun after all. It looked different now. Similar, but smaller. Meaner looking.
My gun, she realized.
She took it, unsurprised by the way it fit her hand, and stepped back across the blink. She walked quickly past her own bound and degraded form to the door. She kicked it open in a fluid motion and — aiming by instinct and rage — shot the four men she found there. She saved her husband for last, and smiled at him.
They fell like trick pins. She let out a howling laugh that…
…seemed to follow her up from sleep and meld into a yowl of pain.
Reality startled her and she reacted, stabbing out with the knife. Her jabs failed to wound the dark and empty air.
She looked at the knife in her hand. Stupid, she told herself. One night you’re going to stab yourself in the leg.
The yowl came again, and froze her. Not a part of the dream then. It came again and she shivered. It was unmistakable; an animal in pain and distress.
A few moments of that pitiful sound was enough to vanquish fear of the dark and the warm inertia of her bundled self. She got up and moved as quietly as possible towards the noise.
She found the source a few minutes later, thirty or so yards away from the ditch. There stood a solitary post that bristled angrily with strands of rusting barbed wire, just where the thin shrubbery along the roadside gave way to a flat expanse of field.
Tangled miserably in the strands was a large, grey, strikingly ugly cat. When it saw her it broke from the song of misery, as if being caught in such a way was mostly a matter of embarrassment. Both legs were caught, in a way that had them snagged and re-snagged by several strands of the wire.
Two liquid green eyes stared at her. Wasn’t me yelling lady, they seemed to say. Must have been some other cat.
A fierce knowledge glittered in those eyes. Knowledge of what she did not know, but the fact of its presence was certain.
She sighed, knowing what she had to do. The cat let her approach amiably enough, but that peace was quickly shattered.
It was a horrible few minutes, that seemed to last weeks. She had no recourse but to slice cat flesh from wire, and the cat had no recourse but to fight the crazy bitch attempting to free him. Three minutes, perhaps; a whirlwind of blood and mutual pain and mutual screaming. For every barb she freed it seemed the cat’s thrashing sank another deeper, and it retaliated fiercely with claws and — once, very memorably — teeth that somehow managed to pierce all four layers of pants and take a sizable chunk out of her left buttock.
Then, suddenly, the cat was free and bounding away, and her knife broke as she slipped and drove it against the post.
She stared at the broken blade, furious. "You stupid goddamn animal!" she screamed. She grabbed a stick and chased the offending beast, taking huge clumsy swings that the cat dodged easily. A few swings were all she could manage, and exhaustion left her out of breath, panting on her knees.
The cat was gone.
She laughed then, at the insanity of the world and herself. About scars earned for good intentions. How a little cat in a huge field could find such danger. How the simple decision to walk away could make the world so weird.
She laughed until it turned to sobbing, then sobbed until she felt better.
When she made her way back to her bed, she was unsurprised to find the cat there. He was placidly cleaning his wounds. He looked up at her. Some temper you got there lady. What took you so long getting back?
"Ok." she told it. "Fine. At least you’ll be a heat source. Goddamn animal."
But she was pleased, deep down. The road was a lonely place, and silent companionship beat out no companionship. Her bed heated up quicker with two, and the cat’s rumbling purr against her chest was an oddly comforting sensation.
The broken knife vexed her still. It had been her only weapon. Now she was reduced to hands and feet and teeth. An image of the gun from her dreams came to her, and she thought an idle thought:
Tomorrow I’ll look for my gun.
It calmed her. She slept like a rock, and the dreams that tried to come were chased away by a pair of green eyes that glittered knowingly in the dark.
Two days later found her walking, still looking, with more than a few changes made.
The most obvious concerned her clothes. As she headed west it seemed the days became hotter. The terrain she moved across became more arid and desolate, if no less beautiful. Field and forest gave way to long stretches of dry prairie grass and the first hints of cacti. She took to stripping down in the morning, bundling the jeans and excess sweat pants in the jacket, rolling that into a tight wad she could strap to her backpack. She kept the knit cap, as protection from the direct sun that grew intense as the day wore on. It also served to keep the sweat from her eyes. After the sun set and dark began to rise, she’d slowly re-acquire the clothes. The nights were still cold, and she was still grateful for every layer when she finally lay down to sleep.
The cat paced her as she travelled, keeping a solid hundred yards in front of her. His wounds healed with impossible speed, almost invisible by the second day, though a slight limp remained and always would. He rarely made use of the road, preferring the more challenging trail of the ditches and culverts. The plentiful wildlife also distracted him, and — both days so far — he had presented her with kills. Rabbits, prairie dogs, an unknown little beast that looked like a gopher. He’d drop them at her feet and dash back to his pacing lead, as if he were the navigator on this journey he’d joined.
She was grateful. There were no towns in sight and she’d seen only two cars since her dreamlike ride with Char. Neither of them had stopped, though the rust eaten and filthy Cadillac had slowed, creeping past her as the thin and hungry occupants stared out with less than friendly eyes. The cat had hissed viciously and fluffed into an image of malice. Whoever had been driving took that for what it was worth and moved along.
The two days of mostly silent walking honed her ritual. When night fell, she’d make camp. She looked for particularly clear and dry ditches for this, reluctantly moving onto the prairie farther from the road when her choice spots were damp or overgrown. She’d build a fire and clean whatever prey the cat had brought her, complaining to him all the while about her broken knife. She’d spit cook it and — while she waited — would try to set her thoughts in order. The cat would sit in the draft of the roasting meat and knead the dry ground with his paws, growling low in his throat in anticipation. Her stomach generally echoed him. This would be the background music of her jumbled contemplations.
While she had clear and detailed memories of her childhood and the early years of her marriage, there appeared something like a wall the closer to the present she attempted to remember. The days — weeks? months? — before setting off on her trek were the haziest and least clear. What had set her on the road? She knew that it was something that frightened her, something that had forever altered her life, yet the specifics of the event remained mired in haze.
The meat always interrupted. She’d learned to tell the moment it was done by the sound of the sizzle and the clarity of the juices dripping into the fire. She and the cat would eat in silence. She supplemented the meat with the hoarded trail mix and dried fruit from her pack.
After that, the cat would excuse himself for his late night business and she would give in to the sleepiness that a full stomach instilled in her. She’d bank the fire as best she could and lie back, staring at the stars or the clouds as the case might be. She was averaging 20 miles a day, so sleep found her quickly those two nights, and the cat never stayed gone for long. With him next to her, the dreams seemed afraid to bother her.
On the morning of the third day of travelling with the cat, she found her gun.
The sun was about halfway to noon, and the road was beginning to shimmer with heat when a gleam off to her right caught her eye. She slowed, staring. It bloomed again — about a half mile off the road, she estimated.
She considered a moment. There was no sign of a car in either direction, and she wasn’t expecting one soon. She needed to explore the area a bit anyway, since her canteen was near empty and she couldn’t be certain of finding water after dark.
But two things made up her mind for her.
The first was the return of that bone deep vibration, the feeling Char had called the Leaving Song. It had faded in the days after that ride, but was back with a vengeance, buzzing through her like a fever.
And the second was the fact that the cat sprinted towards the gleam like a creature possessed.
She sighed, shouldered the weight of her pack into a comfortable position, and set off after him.
The ground away from the road was hard packed but far from barren. In addition to the scrub bushes and prairie grass, there was an assortment of cacti and all manner of insect life.
Ten minutes of walking brought her within discernable sight of her goal. She actually smiled at it when she figured out what it was.
The ancient camper topped pickup truck had seen better days. Where wheels had once lifted it proudly from the ground, only concrete blocks stood now. She slowed her pace and took in details.
It was a Chevy, a 50’s model some voice inside told her. The round, almost sensual angles of the hood were a dead giveaway. Rust spread across the metal in a slow, inexorable tide. Rust had washed from the body through uncounted rainy seasons, digging deep red rivulet canyons in a spiderweb pattern around the truck.
The cat sat staring at the driver side door. It glanced at her, gave a rumbly meow, and returned its gaze to the window.
Faith sauntered up to it, annoyed by the odd behavior.
"You probably think it’s funny," she was saying "making me chase you through brush and bushes, but.."
The words faded as she glanced at the window.
At the wheel, grinning towards the horizon, sat a human skeleton.
"Oh my." Faith muttered, at a loss for anything else.
She wasn’t afraid though. Not until the head swiveled toward her, that permanent grin now leveled at her. The chill that coursed her spine caused her to hold her breath after a sharp intake.
It was the click of the door opening that caused her to whimper, however.
The boneman emerged slowly, carefully, as if worried his essential structure was unsound. The driver’s door creaked open and a small shower of rust flakes sifted to the ground.
Faith stepped back. The cat didn’t budge, just sat there swishing his tail in mild interest.
The door was left open as the boneman moved two steps towards her. It cocked its head, staring at her with empty sockets. The sun gleamed dully from the cracked round shape of its skull.
Faith met its eyes. Utterly non-plussed, she said, simply:
The gleam shifted as the head cocked the other way. A hand crept to the right hip. Faith followed with her eyes. They widened, partially in fear, but mainly because the sight that met her caused the vibration in her center to rev up beyond mere sensation. She moved another step backwards, and felt as if the world itself was vibrating, and she was the only still point.
Around his waist, the boneman wore an elaborate holster of deep black leather. It hung partly slack from the stripped bones.
Riding in that holster was a weapon at once both strange and familiar. The blue-gray handle that emerged, that a bone hand now hovered above, locked her gaze like a fetish. Her mouth went dry and she felt her teeth grit.
Still, the cat did not move.
"Are you going to shoot me?" Faith asked the revenant. "Why?"
The boneman stared. His hand remained an inch or so above the handle of the gun.
"No." he finally said. His voice was diaphanous and low, a distant sub-bass note throbbing in the earth. "I have waited."
"You were waiting for me?"
"Yes." There was a note of effort in that deep voice, a tone of pain. "For many years. The seasons passed and the body withered. The rains came and washed away the surface. But structure lingered, as structure will. Intent persisted, desire challenged the world."
Faith held her breath. The vibration within was almost painful.
"Now the moment arrives." The voice of the boneman drifted further toward the dissolute, becoming a sigh. "My watch is ending, the message delivered."
"What message?" The words were choked out of her. She felt as if she were climbing a wall, nearing the top.
The boneman drew the gun from its rest. He held it by the handle, and lifted it to her in offering, barrel pointing away, aimed at the red web of earth.
"Message and gift, in honest steel. Take this, and challenge the world."
Hesitantly, Faith reached for the weapon. As she took it, her fingers brushed the cool bones of the sentinel.
In that instant of contact, the vibration left her, and entered the boneman.
A memory slammed her, of herself and the gun and the stunned faces of four men. Of four explosions and how blood and brains had leapt and danced in the stark glow of kitchen fluorescent. Of vengeful angry triumph, a righteous howl…
…that passed through her like electricity, surprising tears from her.
Before her, the boneman shuddered apart, falling into a lifeless pile. Quickly, the pile itself shuddered into dust. The truck followed suit, sympathetic magic demanding its death along with its master.
A breeze picked up, out of the north, and the dust of bones and rust began their long journey across the world.
Inside her, the vibration was gone, the leaving song finished.
I have arrived, I suppose. she thought, and some deep part of herself knew that was true.
She examined the gun in her hand, enjoying the weight of it. It was a blunt, brutal and confident structure of grey steel and blue gleam. It belonged to her and she knew it.
She retrieved the belt and holster from the rapidly diminishing pile of dust. She strapped it clumsily on, figuring out how to tighten it to her waist with experimentation. The length of the belt held cartridges. They reminded her of shark teeth.
She slid the gun back to its rest and addressed the cat.
"What do you think."
The cat was cleaning himself, unimpressed by her or the spectacle just passed. In answer, he turned and trotted back toward the road.
Faith sighed, and followed. She spared a single glance back to the disappearing shrine of her sentinel. The she cast eyes ahead, following the cat.
The weight of the gun on her hip reassured her with every step. Emboldened, she set out to find a world to challenge.
4. The Quiet Place
Before the sun set on that same day, Faith would find use for her gun, and — as a result — change her name.
It was, in her opinion, the hottest day since she’d begun her journey. A few hours after the confrontation with the boneman, she had stumbled across the trickle of a creek merging with the ditch.
Relieved, she had dug a shallow little pond with just enough drainage to allow it to clear. After drinking her fill, and refreshing her canteen, she had cleaned herself as well as she was able — even washing her hair. The lack of soap was unfortunate, but she couldn’t deny the improvement in mood her quick bath brought.
Refreshed and in better spirits, she and the cat (who had drank upstream as she bathed) had set off again, grateful that the dropping sun heralded a cool breeze.
A few miles up the road, just as the sun was touching the horizon, trouble found them.
It was the same dilapidated Cadillac that had passed them two days before. It came at them from the opposite direction, first dashing Faith’s hopes, then filling her with uneasiness. Rather than pass them by at a crawl, it stopped.
Two men and a woman emerged. All were skinny to the point of emaciation, all were filthy, and all were armed. The woman had an axe. The two men toted baseball bats.
"Get inna damn car." the lead and largest of the men, said.
"Get inna car or we’ll break ya damn legs and drag ya in!" screeched the woman. The smaller man just laughed, keeping a wary eye on the cat, who once again hissed and stood his ground — placing himself in front of Faith in a show of courage and loyalty.
Faith’s reaction surprised her. Instead of freezing or stiffening up, she felt suddenly loose and easy. The center of her mind now seemed to be riding on her hip. The weight of the gun became the most important facet of existence, the absolute zero point of the universe.
The Cadillac crew moved toward her, but in lazy slow motion. Even the woman’s threat emerged as a slow and dragging mumble.
They were a foot closer to her when she marked them as range points. They had ceased being people in her calm new state, they were nothing but vectors of mass and motion. She could see the x marks on each, denoting her best targets of opportunity.
She found herself in a warm and quiet place. A peaceful bubble between decision and action, where she could take her time and do things right.
The smile that flicked across her face was noticed by none but the woman. But the sight chilled her so suddenly and completely that she tried to halt in mid-step.
Faith’s hand dropped, drawing the gun and leveling it with such speed that the motion was a blur.
Faith’s last thought before hell broke loose, aimed by her, was:
I wonder if it’s even loaded?
Finger squeezed. Pressure acted. Hammer fell.
The gun roared. The larger man’s head exploded, a flower of gore blooming on his shoulders in the dimming sunlight.
Arm shifted. Eyes tracked.
Another roar, and the woman toppled, her heart blasted into shreds and soup. From her mouth spewed dead air and bile.
Fractional shift, a step backward to reclaim balance.
Third roar, and the smaller man’s neck ceased connecting head to body. He died with the same idiots laugh on his tongue, decapitated by the tooth of a shark moving at the speed of sound.
All three bodies hit the road within the same microsecond.
Faith dropped her arm, the gun finding its holster with new-born instinct, just as it had taken her to the quiet place and guided her hand and eye.
Of course it’s loaded. her mind answered. The sentinel was a responsible sort.
The cat turned and looked at her. The gunfire had not scared him. The look on his face could be read as approval.
Faith smiled at him. "You got balls, cat."
The cat yawned. Good shootin’, lady.
After a moments consideration, Faith dragged the bodies from the road and stretched them on the hardpack. The idea of burying them was ridiculous. Let the animals of the land have them, since they had chosen to be animals of their own will.
The car presented another problem. A search of it turned up nothing of value, and it stank horribly. The idea of driving it made her nauseous.
Still — the fact that the crew had went west and returned was evidence that a town existed somewhere past the horizon. That she was nearing whatever might be considered civilization in this place.
The car could be a worthwhile trade good.
So, before setting off, Faith recovered enough blood from her attackers to scrawl a message on the windshield:
<div align="center">"Notice! This vehicle is claimed as salvage by the killer of its former owners – would be kidnappers who picked the wrong victim. Do not touch it unless you wish to share their fate. Thank you."
She took the keys from the ignition and locked the car. She chuckled at her cold message in dripping blood.
Night found her before she found the town. Faith and Cat camped and enjoyed a dinner of rabbit. When full dark came on, she noticed the glow on the horizon.
Tomorrow, she was sure.
And so it was.
Faith arrived in Summertime City in midmorning, as the town was starting to stir.
The place was odd. Wood shacks and long cinder block bunkhouses mixed self-consciously with jury-rig repaired office buildings. Every building seemed to have its own generator. Solar cells decorated the roofs of many. Along the less than impressive river, water wheels had been constructed.
There were cars, but they mingled with horses and mules pulling wagons and dredges. She even stood and, amused, watched a steam vehicle motor by, it’s fat driver decked out in ragged top-hat and a monocle.
The pedestrians she passed minded their own business, despite the fact that there was a palpable curiosity directed at her. Most of it centered on the gun. The rest on the cat, who strode through the town with the air of a king on parade.
Faith was the opposite, studying the townies openly. Their clothing and manners were as mixed as the rest of Summertime City. Homespun and crochet mingled with Levi’s and Ralph Lauren. Hand sewn moccasin material mended ancient Converse sneakers. She saw men bow to women and women flipping the bird to people who laughed when they passed.
The children smiled and stared at her. They seemed to have the run of the town, traffic dutifully stopping for them as they played and ran along the streets on secret errands. The cat even paused and allowed a few to pet him briefly.
A half mile down the main street, Faith came to what she was looking for: a well constructed wood building with a nice tin roof and a hand painted sign:
<div align="center">Fowler’s General Goods
We Buy, Sell & Trade
Inside the store was bright and cool, the air circulated by a row of ceiling fans. The space was used to maximum effect, shelves stocked with goods of every imaginable type.
Along the back wall, behind a tidy oak counter, stood a tall thin man with a shining bald head and a high wattage smile.
"Morning, ma’am!" he said as she stepped up. "Always good to see new faces walk through that door. I’m Thomas Fowler, proprietor!" He thrust out his hand for a shake. Faith complied.
She dropped the keys on the counter. "Would the car attached to these be something you’re interested in?"
When Fowler brought his eyes up from the keys, his smile had faded somewhat. He glanced at the gun before meeting her eyes again.
"I know the car." he said. "Hell…I made this set of keys."
"Friends of yours?" Faith asked, raising an eyebrow.
Fowler snorted. "Hell, no!" He appraised her carefully. "They don’t have friends around here."
"They’re dead." Faith informed him. "They picked the wrong person to be unfriendly to."
Fowler just nodded. "Bound to happen, sooner or later." He scratched his chin. "You got the Caddy with you?"
Faith shook her head. "It’ll have to be picked up. What could you offer?"
"It’s worth 500 for parts. I’d go 600 as a friendly measure…seeing as you did the town a favor." His high watt smile was back in place.
Faith asked for quotes on a few items, to give her an idea of the economy. Finally, she nodded. "A deal."
Money and keys changed hands, the deal sealed with a nod and a shake. She examined the currency. It was coins rather than paper, but the noble looking dog was the same.
Faith inquired about a room to rent.
"Mizz Castleberry up the street runs a clean place and sets the best table in town." He glanced at the cat, who had curled up in the sun by the door as Faith dickered. "And she likes cats." He hesitated, then said: "That gun…I assume you can use it?"
Faith smiled. "I manage. Why?"
"Sheriff is looking for some steady hands and eyes for some tricky work. Pay is good, and he’s a dependable fella."
Faith shrugged. "Something to think on, I guess." she admitted. "If I decide to stay a while."
Fowler laughed. "Won’t find a better place for a long stretch. Summertime City is a good town. A quiet place, and the people are decent."
"Seems that way." Faith patted the pocket with the coins. "I’ll be back later for supplies, once I settle in and see what I need." She turned to go.
"Open till dark!" Fowler called after her. As she pulled the door open, he asked something else.
"Ma’am! I didn’t catch your name."
Faith paused. She turned slowly. The words that came surprised her. The most surprising thing about them was the truth she felt in them.
"Hope." she told him, knowing her faith had paid off and left a finer thing in its healing, quiet place.
"My name is Hope."
And, with a final smile, she was gone.
5. The Smoke Man
She wore the name Hope with more confidence than she’d ever worn Faith. She figured that maybe faith was always a thing to be lightly held and wondered over. That maybe it was the very uncertainty of the thing that gave it a worth.
She grew to love Summertime City in the idyll she spent there, and fell into the towns odd and paradoxical rythyms. What looked slow and sleepy on the surface was a sharp and practical thing beneath; she discovered that she did not need to introduce herself. Her walk through town and meeting with Fowler had been introduction enough, and on some invisible all hearing grapevine her arrival had been heralded. Even on the walk from the General Store to the boarding house she’d received smiles and bows and hat-tips, along with more than a few repetitions of ‘Mornin’ Mizz Hope.’
Carina Castleberry did indeed love cats. What’s more, cats loved her. The reaction of the scarred gray tom to the plump, shining little woman was almost embarrassing. He purred and rolled and lost himself in an orgy of petting and clumsy affection. All the while, the hidden eyes of other cats glinted jealously from one nook or another — none quite bold enough to challenge the newcomer for the attention of their missus.
"My husband, God rest him, always called me Catnip Carrie’, Mizz Castleberry said, by way of explanation, as she retrieved a dish of milk for her trail worn guest, and a cup of sweet coffee for his human friend.
Hope dealt with the pragmatics of her situation after the cat had swaggered off to deal with his. She assumed hers was far less violent and much more amiable, however. She rented a second floor room with meals for 25 coins a week. One week paid in advance with the provision for first choice to renew the deal. Once again, the deal was sealed with a handshake. Mizz Castleberry introduced her own tradition, and broke out a bottle of brandy to toast their transaction with proper good cheer.
Five of those coins had gone to secure one of the few rooms with private plumbing, and that night Hope luxuriated in a hot bath. The simple delight of hot water and brisk lye soap made her grin foolishly for an hour.
The cat lay near the door, cleaning some new wounds. These were the products of his negotiations with the resident felines. There was a certain smugness about his eyes and the indolent way he stretched that informed Hope that said negotiations had ended in his favor.
"I like it here, cat." she told him, for no reason, soaping herself up for the third time, just because.
He purred, slit his eyes, and kneaded the wooden floor in answer.
Dinner was an informal affair, held right in the kitchen at a big table that could seat twenty by the look of it. Only three were in attendance that night. In addition to Hope and the Missus, there was a resident named Albert Combers, a charming elderly man who dressed with style and spoke like a Harvard scholar.
Mizz Castleberry made plates right from the stove, where her concoctions bubbled and simmered in the alchemy known only to good cooks. The menu was salisbury steak, baby peas, early corn buttered and peppered to perfection and thick wedges of cornbread that tasted like heaven dipped in the steak gravy.
Hope ignored all manners and had thirds.
When everyone was done and sighing, Mizz Castleberry produced a bag of tobacco and rolled herself and Albert a trim smoke. Hope demurred.
The conversation became interesting after that. Mizz Castleberry had never even heard of The United States. Albert thought he might have come across it sometime in his study of ancient civilizations.
"Where are we right now?" Hope, asked, expecting laughter or questions.
She got neither. "The Borderlands, dear."
"What do they border?" was the only question she could think of.
"Something and nothing." Albert explained, butting out his smoke.
Hope excused herself then, and went up to bed. The cat was already crashed out, twitching with dreams.
She slept like a rock.
A week later, running an errand for the Missus, Hope met Ugly Jim Harris, the Sheriff of Summertime City.
They met at Fowlers. Fowler himself introduced them.
They called him Ugly Jim because, as a child, he’d been nearly burned to death in a house fire. His face was a mass of scar tissue. He looked like a skull partially covered with wax. But his eyes were blue and honest, and he radiated a sincere kindness.
"I don’t know if I’m cut out for law work." Hope admitted.
"Not asking you to take up a career, ma’am." Ugly Jim reassured her. "But I could use a hand right soon."
"Things seem peaceful enough."
"Riders will be here in a few days. Bad every year. Gonna be a doozy this year though." He looked away. "Something tells me, at least."
They spoke of payment. Beyond coinage, Hope insisted that she needed answers to questions.
Ugly Jim’s eyes narrowed. The misshapen lids gave his look an odd weight.
"You need to see the Smoke Man." he told her.
"He sets up camp outside town this weekend. He runs his business. He answers questions."
The journey to the Smoke Man was short, but Hope found herself with more company than she desired. He seemed a popular destination. She constantly had to turn folks away. They saw the gun and hoped for protection. Even after she turned them down she noticed that they stuck close.
The Smoke Man made camp in a clearing about ten miles north of Summertime City. As Faith approached she heard the boom of his trade. She understood as she drew closer.
The Smoke Man and a supplicant stood in a clearing. The machine behind them sent up disk after disk. They shot in turn. The supplicant didn’t do a bad job, but he couldn’t match the perfect record of the Smoke Man.
By the time Hope arrived she met the losing fellow as he made his way home. Despite that loss he seemed well pleased. Perhaps he was already planning a rematch.
The Smoke Man was reloading his thrower when she walked up. The thrower was a home-made affair, a challenging assortment of cogs and gears, tension and mismatched parts. I took up the entire bed of the Man’s pickup. The truck itself was the dull gray of primer, though there was a diffuse and misty look to it.
Hope studied the shooter before her. He was tall, gaunt, hair cropped short on a perfectly round head. She couldn’t judge his age, though she knew he was older than her. She saw instantly why he was called The Smoke Man. His skin was an even gray pallor, matching the truck. When he finished reloading and looked at her, she saw that his eyes were gray as well. And they held the mark of great age. He smiled at her.
"Care to sport a while?" he asked. "10 coins to enter, and I’ll back a side bet to whatever you care to lose." His grin widened, became mockingly predatory. "You win if you tie me. I’m fair that way."
Hope stood her ground and smiled right back. She wished for a moment that the cat were with her, rather than lording it over the boarding house. She missed the steel his small solid form set in her spine.
"The ammo for this is quite precious." she explained, touching the gun on her hip. "But I’ll go 20 coins if you’ll answer a few questions."
The Smoke Man began turning a stout, ratcheting crank. His thrower was obviously a clockwork device. He never took his eyes off of her, and never lost his smile.
"I got fools a’coming to lose their coin to me. But it may well be high time for a coffee break." he admitted. "20 coins get you five questions. I only answer if I like."
The Smoke Man’s coffee was strong and just shy of bitter. Hope added extra sugar and made the best of it.
"Where am I?" was her first question.
The Smoke Man sipped his brew. "The eternal question." He paused, thinking. "You stand between hell and heaven, in the great gray expanse of unknown. Call it The Undecided. Folks here call it The Borderlands and be done with it."
"How did I get here?"
"That’s one I can’t answer. Only you can answer that. It’ll come to you eventually. It comes to everyone in time."
Hope accepted that. "I have the urge to go West. What lies West of here?"
The Smoke Man chuckled. "Far enough West and you find The Ends. The place where structure dissolves. Nobody knows what lies beyond that, since no one ever comes back to describe it."
"Who are you?" That one just popped in her head.
"I’m touched." he claimed. But the smile drifted away for a moment. "I’m not sure what I am. I travel. I take folks coin. I shoot. I know some things. That’s all I’m sure of."
Hope asked her final question. "Will I ever go back home?"
The Smoke Man stood. "And that’s one I won’t answer. Not my place to go telling you what Home is or means."
Hope looked over her shoulder. By the truck, a small crowd of challengers had gathered.
"Back to work, ma’am." The Smoke Man said. "A pleasure to meet you."
Hope just nodded.
As she made her way past the truck, on her way back to Summertime City — both secure and puzzled by the vague answers she’d received — the thrower thumped and sent two disks into the air. Two guns boomed. The challenger missed. The Smoke Man’s target puffed into a quickly dispersing cloud of dust and fragment.
"You made smoke out of that one." Hope called to him.
The Smoke Man laughed, tossing her that predatory smile again.
"In the end, darlin’," he told her, as she moved away "I make smoke out of ‘em all.
The cat woke her up on that last peaceful morning. Hope attempted to ignore him, and that resulted in the first and only time that he laid the claws to her. Despite her cursing and empty threats, it really wasn’t all that bad. No blood drawn at least.
After she’d wiped the sleep from her eyes and splashed cold water on her face to aid the wake-up, she was thinking of coffee when she saw the cat staring out the window, tail swishing in agitation.
And she heard that laugh.
That goddamn familiar, awful laugh.
She looked out the window and there stood Ugly Jim in the center of town, facing down three bulky men on horseback.
She moved quickly, tossing on her clothes and the gunbelt, then racing down the stairs to the porch of the rooming house. Despite her non-committal tone when Jim had pressed her on signing up for temporary deputy duty, she had no intention of allowing assholes to harass and harry her friends and neighbors. In fact, the main force behind her refusal was a gut feeling that getting paid to stand up to such assholes was on the less than honorable side of the ledger. And Hope had no desire to live on that side of the ledger anymore.
Later, she’d wish she’d stayed at the window. Had taken advantage of the height and the surprise to shoot those bastards down where they stood. Spilt milk being what it was; she may have had the instincts of a gunfighter, but the hard lessons of experience only get learned the one way.
She was coming off the stairs when she stopped. Carina Castleberry stood at the ready by the door, grimly holding a huge and ancient shotgun. The sight struck Hope as both comical and moving. The idea of this sweet and indulgent woman instantly ready to defend herself and her own caused tears and a laugh to war inside her heart. And steeled her resolution to end this situation in the town’s favor.
Mizz Castleberry saw her and moved away from the door in a manner that functioned as a vote of confidence.
Hope stepped into the sun of the morning, heart racing but will steady and strong.
Ugly Jim didn’t take his eyes from the Riders, but all three of them turned to look at the new arrival.
Hope’s heart sank when she saw those faces. Rage and fear and an old and secret shame she’d hoped to never feel again welled up inside her.
All three of the riders wore the faces of her husbands friends. His particularly close friends. The ones he’d shared with.
Rapists. Scum. What they’d done to her was horrible enough — but that was the past and a world away. What truly angered her — what caused the rage to drown out the fear and shame — was that they dared to follow her into this world.
The middle rider laughed that hateful laugh again."Looks like Ugly Jim done found him a purty Deputy."
Her skin crawled. She felt her stomach knot in revulsion.
Then she felt the soft brush at her leg. Felt the rumbling purr vibrate through denim and skin and bone and into her soul.
The cat was with her. No matter what she faced she did not face it alone. That purr settled her stomach and calmed her nerves.
She smiled. It was a vicious smile. And she was rewarded with the smile leaving the face of the rider. And a gleam of fear in his eyes.
"Mizz Hope" Jim said, quietly, eyes not leaving his enemy, hand hovering at the ready above his holster.
"Jim." she replied. "We got trouble? Seems a shame to bloody up such a pretty morning."
As she spoke she moved to stand beside him. Casually, as if she were just ambling to the General store. The cat followed in his usual way, weaving around and about her feet in a feline dance.
The riders — those hated, familiar faces — stared at her in contempt and dislike, but there was no recognition that she could see. Unlike her, it seemed that they had not made it into the Borderlands with memory intact.
Or, another part of her opined, perhaps she no longer resembled the timid and frightened woman she had been.
"Well, I guess that depends on the boys here." Jim drawled. He was as casual as her, but Hope could sense the fierce appreciation radiating from him. "How about it boys? You on a mission to ruin a perfectly good morning?"
The middle rider sneered. Then he shook his head. "Just bringing in the word, Ugly. The boss is coming. He’ll be here in three days. He wants the usual. You see that he gets it."
"Or what?" Hope said. She almost spat the words.
All three riders laughed, as if she’d said the dumbest thing in the world.
"Pretty but stupid, I see. Listen well girly: the boss gets what he wants or Summertime City burns. To the ground. And we piss on the ashes."
For a moment the rage threatened to boil over. An image of the gun in her hand and falling trick pins bloomed in her mind’s eye, and it was an image of almost impossibly seductive beauty.
"Is that the way of it?" she asked.
"That’s the way it’s always been."
The rider raised an eyebrow. "That so? You think you got the steel to change the way of the world?"
The words of the boneman came to her, clear as a bell and as sweetly chiming. Find a world to challenge.
"And then some, boy." She emphasized that last.
The look on the rider’s face was deadly. He spat on the ground before looking away, addressing Jim.
"You see we got the usual waiting, Ugly. You know what’s good for you. Best not let addle headed girls with big ideas go turning your head from sense."
And he spurred his horse, wheeled and rode out. His companions followed suit.
As the dust cloud they stirred up drifted and settled, people began to emerge. They tossed looks at Jim and Hope as they did. Quick looks for the most part, with a mix of emotions. Mostly fear. But there was a measure of respect there, as well. And more than a hint of some dark amusement.
Jim chuckled. When she looked at him, he was shaking his head. Those blue eyes in that ruined face gleamed with the same mix of emotions as the townsfolk — but the respect dominated with him.
"Mizz Hope, I must say — you don’t do nothing by half." The chuckle became a full laugh and he put a hand on her shoulder with real affection. "I’d say those riders haven’t heard a challenge like that in all their days with the Boss."
Hope considered telling him of her personal connection with these particular riders, but thought better of it. Instead, she gestured to the shade of the porch. As they made their way to a more comfortable spot, she asked some questions.
"Who is this Boss?"
Jim just shrugged. "Bandit. Old and smart and mean. Plays about three towns for this yearly tribute business. Lives well on it I suppose."
"And what is this usual they mentioned."
Jim sighed. "Coin and lots of it. Food and plenty. Dope. ‘Botics, painkillers, that sorta. And sometimes…" He paused.
Hopes chest tightened. "Sometimes what?"
"Sometimes they want a couple women. Girls. You know." Hope hadn’t known that the scarred flesh of Jim’s face could blush until then.
The tightness in her chest turned to ice. "And you think this year is one of those sometimes?"
He just nodded.
"So. What do we do?"
Jim was silent for a moment, eyes closed. Then he took a deep breath and looked her right in the eye.
"I been Sheriff for three years, Mizz Hope. All three of those years I knuckled under when the riders came. I figured that coin and food and drugs — no matter how precious — were a better price than a load of dead townsfolk, than fighting off dozens of hardasses. And they’ll come in dozens, ma’am — count on it. The Boss has an army at his disposal."
His face grew still but his eyes danced with passion and conviction.
"But I swore that when they asked for my folk…when they went beyond things into demanding I co-operate with slavery….I swore I’d be buried first."
Hope smiled at him, relieved.
"And I didn’t swear that lightly." His hand went to the gun on his hip, an instinct. "And I swear it still."
"You’re a damn fine man, Jim."
He just nodded. Then his eyes met hers again.
"And what about you? You with me? You gonna back that challenge up?"
Faith stood. She thought about who and what those men had been in the old world. She thought about the words of the boneman. She thought about the welcome the people of Summertime City had given a peaceful stranger. About Carina Castleberry at the door with a shotgun. She looked down at the cat. He was staring right back, inscrutable face radiating the only answer she could make.
She gave Jim the same scary smile she’d offered the riders. Her hand dropped to the cold and ready steel of her gun.
"You’re damned right I’ll back it up, Jim."
She looked around the street. Saw that all eyes were on her and the Sheriff. So she raised her voice to take in all who watched.
On the morning of the day The Boss and his boys were due to collect, a message arrived. The rider who brought it slid it beneath the door of the Sheriff’s office and slipped out before the sun showed his face.
The message was simple and direct: in addition to 2000 coins, 500 pounds of flour, 20 bushels of potatoes, a ridiculous amount of ammo, drugs and even small luxuries like candy and shampoo, The Boss demanded three girls. All under the age of 20. A redhead and two blondes. "Purty & Clean" the note insisted.
Jim let Hope read it and scowled along with her. "Figured they’d wait till the last minute. Let folk get used to the idea of giving in and have the loot all gathered before they hit ‘em where it really hurt."
Hope crumpled the note and flicked it toward the trash can. She brooded for a moment. "Before you came along, Jim, did folk really send what amounted to their children out to serve these scum?"
Jim whistled, a low note. She understood this to be a habit when he was collecting his thoughts. "They did, I’m sad to say."
Hope’s voice rose despite her best effort. "How in the hell could they…"
"Settle down, Mizz." Jim insisted, holding his hands out in a peace making gesture. "It wasn’t exactly as simple as all that. Hell, sometimes they had volunteers. Girls itching to get out of town and into what they figured was a more exciting life." He paused. "And not every Sheriff looked at his duty the way I do, hurts to say. More than a few were tinpot dictators just as bad as The Boss."
Hope gave him the look that meant she wasn’t in the mood for excuses.
"True as Tuesday, Mizz. And Summertime City was small and truly weak for a long time."
"Did they ever resist?"
Jim nodded, thoughtful. "Yes ma’am. This town has burned twice in the past two decades. The first time damn near wiped her off the map and she had to be resettled. The second time was near as bad but most folks lived. Just had to rebuild." He sighed. "But they haven’t resisted since then."
A sick look passed her face.
Jim smiled, a ghastly thing she had grown used to and now admired for its sincerity. "But the Riders took their losses as well. It’s also true they haven’t asked for girlfolk near as often since that last Burn. Summertime City killed half those that came for ‘em, and put ‘em to route eventually."
Hope smiled. "We gonna have any trouble with those that might prefer to appease?"
Jim shook his head, dismissive. "Naw. They know my mind is set. Those sort cleared out the minute you agreed to fight."
"Good enough. And the rest can be counted on?"
Jim stared at her for a moment. "My folk are decent and somewhat simple, Mizz. They don’t itch for trouble. But they ain’t cowards and they know the way the world works. Never doubt that."
Hope just nodded. Instead of an apology, she said "Then I think you need to drop that Mizz shit."
Jim was truly puzzled. "Ma’am?"
She laughed. "And that ma’am shit while you’re at it." She stood up and put a hand on his shoulder. "If we’re going to fight this scum back to back I think you should call me Hope."
Once again, Ugly Jim Harris proved he could blush.
"Now." she said, turning to the door. "Let’s go get us some volunteers."
Hope and the cat and Ugly Jim sat staring at the citizens of Summertime City arrayed before them. Hope was near tears, causing the smile she couldn’t repress to wobble slightly.
Three hundred and six men, women and children had shown up, from the ages of 6 years to 86. They were armed with everything from pitchforks and hay scythes to the one old codger who’d lugged a dusty but functioning hand cranked Gatling from some ancient shed. They stood there, scared but with spines straight, and gave their word to fight to defend their homes and families and neighbors.
It may have been the finest moment of her life so far, and she caught the Sheriff wiping a tear himself here and there.
It took most of the afternoon to sort the best prospects into some sort of fighting force. They had nothing spectacular planned — just a direct ambush when the Riders got close enough to take fire. The real trick was letting them get close enough with trust intact. Hope and Jim agreed that half The Boss’s boys wasn’t good enough this time. They had in mind a complete victory — and maybe an end to the whole damn cycle.
The girls were the key to that little trick. Hope ended up with 16 volunteers under the age of 20, willing to play reverse Trojan Horse. They ended up being more trouble than the young men and boys when it came to their desire to serve - to the point of several brawls breaking out.
But eventually she had her three. Two pretty, clean blondes and a pretty clean redhead. The two blondes were twins — Gina and Georgia Montrose. They won their place because they’d inherited beautifully made and highly concealable little derringers. Hope would no more have these girls play bait unarmed than she’d send them swimming with anchors attached.
The third had to borrow a gun but won her place because she was the only redhead in town. She looked familiar to Hope. The resemblance lingered until she caught a glimpse of her from the corner of her eye and realization crashed down.
The redhead grinned pure sunshine and her blush was hard to catch under all those freckles. "I’m Betty Castleberry, Mizz Hope. Carina’s grandgirl." She stuck out her hand all formal like. Hope hugged her instead.
"I been meaning to come by Gran’s and meet you. She talks a mile a minute on you. All good o’ course. But Mam’s been sick for a while and I got six brothers and two sisters to look after, and…"
She was interrupted by the Gran herself, shotgun at the ready. Pride and fear warred in her expressive face with no clear victor.
"You be careful." was all she finally said. "Gran’ll be up on the bank roof."
"Now you follow directions, Gran." Betty warned her. "Don’t you be lookin’ after me. We all got our parts to play."
Hope was torn from the tragic little scene by Jim’s voice.
"Places folks! We got dust sighted and on the way! Half an’ hour tops."
Faith felt the cat at her feet, responding to her own fear and pride. She took deep breaths and counted heartbeats. She forced her mind to relax. She willed the cold heart of the gun to invade hers.
It was time.
The fight was on them.
It would be years later and small details of that fight would still come to her, often in dreams, surprising her with their ability to move and effect her. Little glimpses, small sounds, stabs of remembered fear and vicious joy.
The Last Firefight Of Summertime City, as it would come to be called, was not the worst piece of action she’d see in her life. In many ways, it was the most successful and clean. But it happened at the very beginning of her transformation from one thing to another. It was the fire that burned the last of her old self away so that the newer, stronger, harder self could grow in its place.
And, like all fires — no matter the need for their renewal — it hurt as it burned.
It was not a battle of individual heroes. It was not a set piece of heroic stands. It was, like most serious warfare, a brutal and pragmatic thing.
They set their blonde and amber bait amongst the loot of food and coin and luxury. There on the main street, alone and lonely. One force of gunmen(led by Jim) occupied the roof of the bank. Hope’s gang laid low on the roof of the saloon.
Like a ritual, the riders came. They gathered indolently in a wide arc flanking the face of the town. There were close to a hundred all told, all armed with rifle and pistol and plenty of ammo. All on horseback save The Boss, who travelled in a caravan wagon pulled by a mule team. The Boss hung back several hundred yards, waiting for his treasure.
A dozen men entered the town to escort that treasure out. They were less than a hundred feet from their goal when Hope gave the order.
Rifle fire rained down on the would be kidnappers from the saloon. Of the twenty under her command, she had set ten to concentrate on death from above. She led the other ten down the back of the saloon and around for another angle of fire.
At the edge of town, from the stonewalled safety of the bank roof, Jim’s fifty volunteers opened up on the rest of the riders, gathered so thoughtfully in such a nice group.
Hope screamed at the three girls to take cover. They ignored her, preferring to instead add to the lead headed towards their kidnappers.
That was the moment when the world, and time, and sense broke apart. What followed was a shattered twenty minutes that would only come to her over the course of the rest of her life. A bit here, a piece there.
Of the gory sprawl of a dozen dead men and horses. Of the escort not a single creature made it out alive.
Of a pretty blonde girl weeping, with a once blonde head in her lap now stained red with blood.
Of the roar of men and women fighting for their lives, and the roar of men dying for their mistakes.
Of those who fell before her own gun, so like trick pins as the sharks teeth caught them again and again.
Of the deep red calm of reloading, as if she’d performed these motions a million times.
And of the cat, moving through out it all, between bullets and blood and bodies, seemingly indifferent. Graceful. Leading her.
And that moment when the broken army outside their town turned to flee, and the folk who only had pitchfork and scythe set on their trail like hounds, the bedeviled turned to devils. She was in front, urging them on. To the caravan of The Boss, frightened mules swinging it dangerously around in flight.
And the image that stopped her in shock, that caused her to drop to her knees in horror. The angry, scared and hateful face in the window of that caravan.
The face of The Boss.
The face of her husband.
A face filled with recognition.
Moments, broken and shattered. Some moments never last long enough.
Some moments take the rest of a life to deal with.
"…and to thy care and mercy we commend them O Lord, these our beloved."
Hope stared at the face of Ugly Jim Harris in his casket, a ruined face that had gained something approaching beauty in a proud death. A slug had caught him in the leg just before the Riders broke, and he’d tumbled off the bank and broke his neck. Went painlessly the doctor said.
Went proud, Hope knew. With principles and duty intact.
She lingered a moment by the casket of Gina Montrose, and spoke silly comforting words to poor Georgia. The abandoned twin cycled from fierce pride in her sister to crushing despair, but seemed basically all right to Hope.
The rest of the dead, 11 in all, she knew only fleetingly or not at all. Still, she paid her respects and spoke to the families. They had all died for the same cause, had all died facing one of life’s bad days. They deserved what she could give them.
And, outside town, 64 unmarked graves marked their triumph.
She made her way back to the rooming house with a heavy heart, the cat trailing beside her as usual. He had escaped the battle without a scratch despite being in the thick of it. Much like herself.
The respectful nods and greetings added to the heaviness she felt. She was treated as a hero in town. Perhaps she was being given the reverence that Ugly Jim could not accept. No matter — it just made her decision harder.
She cried as she packed, knowing that she was going to miss this place. It was an awful moment. She had come this long way, walked this hard path, and found the closest thing to a home since the death of her father. And now she had to leave.
How awful that love for a place can push you away as surely as hate.
Carina and Betty and Albert were waiting for her when she came downstairs, back from the services. Carina in the wheelchair, healing from the slug that had grazed her spine. She began to weep when she saw the packed bag and the travelling clothes Hope wore.
"Please, Mizz Hope…" Betty spoke for her. "We need you. This town. Gran. Me."
Oh, she was tempted. But it wouldn’t be right. Instead she just hugged them and said goodbye.
The tears dried as she moved away from Summertime City, onwards into the West once again. The direction the caravan wagon had fled.
The old feeling returned, the bone deep song of the road. And in place of sadness came anger and the steady pulse of desire.
A desire for answers.
A desire for revenge.
And the immense desire to see them come to the same point on the horizon, even if she had to travel to The Ends to do so.
The cat resumed his travel pattern as if they’d never paused. He scouted and wandered and circled her.
Behind her, unknown as yet, other cats followed, shyly for now. Some from Carina’s house, some from the streets of the town. Cats suddenly possessed of a desire to follow this strange woman and the brutal grey tom who shared her aura and her fate.
From the center of this tangle of woman and cats and their mingled desire, Hope extended her arm, and waved a thumb at the random.
They walked until a ride came.
The walk was dreary and unrelieved by a single ride for the first fifty or so miles. Then she reached the Highway.
The terrain had changed to slightly hilly scrub forest, somewhat harder going but cooler in climate. Both game and water were more plentiful, and shelter from sun and night’s damp were easier to find.
Hope became aware of her shy following congregation slowly, in stages. First was the actions and attitude of the grey tom. He growled often, looking into the distance, especially when camped and continuously while food was cooking. She at first feared that darker visitors hid amongst the shadows. But every morning she’d find gifts of game and the tell-tale prints of cats. They seemed to ring her campsites at night in a rough circle, just out of sight but close enough to keep an eye on her.
She was amused at first, then curious. Why were they following her? What did they expect to gain from this trek? She supposed that it didn’t matter in the end - as soon as she caught her first ride they’d be left miles behind. A twinge of guilt accompanied that thought. She hoped they’d be able to find their way back to whatever home they’d had before she’d passed through. She’d never meant to be a pied piper, and didn’t appear to have the callous heart to do such work.
This was, of course, before she discovered that cats — in the Borderlands at least — had their own secret paths of travel.
It was late on the third day after leaving Summertime City when she crested that last small hill and caught sight of the Highway. She’d been hearing it for hours before; at first puzzled at the odd sound, then disbelieving when it became familiar enough to recognize. Seeing it washed away the last of the disbelief, but did nothing for the disorientation that the sight brought.
In the old world, she knew, the Highway would have been common. In fact, it would have been less than impressive. It was merely a four lane paved blacktop that ran a true East/West rather than the smaller, barely two lane cracked asphalt trail that had led her northwest from Summertime City. It would have been a road to roll her eyes at in her old life, a stretch where she’d have to drop the Buick down a notch in speed or risk a ticket.
But here, in the Borderlands, it trumped every unusual and weird event since she’d arrived. Not so much for the size of the thing, but for the traffic.
The past fifty miles had seen not a single car or truck or bicycle pass her, either way. The Highway was busy. Not rush hour busy, but a steady stream of vehicles made their hurried way both east and westwards, rushing along to unknown destinations on errands mysterious. The vehicles were — much like the gaudy collection that motored about Summertime City — an eclectic mixture of eras and technologies.
The sight of the Highway, its sudden vitality and speed, both excited her and made her uneasy.
Nevertheless, she made her way onto it, glad to find a wide shoulder suitable for walking. She headed west, thumb out, a single cat by her side and perhaps a dozen more in the overgrown field that flanked the Highway, pretending secrecy.
She caught her first ride less than a half hour later.
"Glad to have the company ma’am, being honest." Glynn Felbeck told her with a smile and only the slightest glance at the gun on her hip. He also smiled at the cat, who regarded him coldly from the dash where he’d stretched in lazy splendor. "It gets lonelier’n hell on the road to Golden."
Hope nodded, mind still on the never seen flock of cats she was rapidly leaving behind. She still felt a little guilty, despite the fact that she hadn’t exactly lured them after her.
Glynn — a bearlike young man with flaming hair, beard and boyish eyes — took care of his truck, that much was certain. Despite its obvious age, the Chevy gleamed with the sparkle only loving maintenance can impart. The bed of the truck was loaded down and tarped snugly. Whatever Glynn was hauling was secure enough. Despite healthy curiosity, Hope didn’t ask and her driver didn’t offer. She figured it was none of her business.
"You headed for Golden?" he asked, voice trying for amiable but his tone giving away that he hoped for company all the way. And his eyes betrayed the fact that he certainly wouldn’t mind getting to know his passenger quite a bit better.
"I’m headed as far West as I can get." she told him, rather charmed by his attention.
He nodded wisely. "West is the way to go. The whole Middle Reach is falling into the shit, you ask me. Damn CRA bastards are getting ridiculous." He spat out the window in disgust. Then looked a bit ashamed. "Pardon the gesture, ma’am."
She laughed. "No worry. And my name is Hope, not ma’am." she reminded him.
His smile grew in size and scope. "That’s a pretty…" he stopped and stiffened as he caught sight of something in the rearview.
"Aww fuck." he muttered, going pale.
"What is it?" Hope asked, craning her head around to look.
On the distant horizon, faint but growing brighter, was a set of flashing lights.
"Fuckitallllltohell!" Glynn whispered fiercely. He instantly slowed his truck to a point, took a deep breath and concentrated on driving as solid and unassuming as possible.
"What’s the problem?" Hope asked again, beginning to get nervous. The cat was eyeing the approaching lights in a way that she didn’t care for.
Glynn glanced at her nervously, but turned his attention back to the road. "CRA Troopers. Smuggler Patrol by the look of ‘em."
"What the hell is this CRA?" she asked, confused.
He goggled at her for a second, then managed a weak smile. "That’s right — you’re fresh outta the East. East of Sum City is all Free Territory, ma’am..uh, Hope." He swallowed hard, trying to force himself calm. "Same as the West from Golden on." He kept glancing in the rearview, almost hypnotized by the approaching lights. Hope could also hear the beginnings of a familiar siren wail.
"But we’re smack in the middle of the Middle Reach, and that’s under the control of the Central Reach Authority. They’ve been around forever, based out of Port Louie on the Big River."
"They’re…what? The government?"
Despite his fear, Glynn spat again. "Claim to be. Claim all sorts of shit. Claim everybody gets together ever so often and votes on who runs the Reach. Nevermind that I got no clue how that gives them any right to do anything to those of us don’t bother to indulge in their ritual. Never mind I ain’t never actually met anyone who claims to have done so. They claim it, they levy taxes, and they got the guns to back it up."
Hope sighed. "Yeah. Government." She remembered something. "You said Smuggler Patrol."
Glynn was silent, but nodded.
"And you’re awful nervous." She grinned. "What are we smuggling, Glynn?"
His silence stretched on a bit. Then he shrugged. "Worst thing you can get caught smugglin’."
"Drugs?" she guessed.
He looked surprised. "Naw. Food."
Hope nearly choked. "Food?!"
"Food." he repeated. "Soybeans mostly, and some choice beef in coldboxes. Grown in the Free East, needed in the Free West. Untaxed by the Unfree Central Authority that claims it has the damn right. Food. One of the few things even scared folks won’t suffer without."
Her head swam. But she held onto the practical. "And what’s the penalty? Massive fines? Jail time?"
Glynn’s smile had little humor. "The penalty is on the spot execution."
Hope heard a growl. She glanced at the cat, but discovered that the growl was coming from herself.
Glynn seemed to shrink. "I…I…apologize for getting you mixed up with this…"
She waved him off, pushing the rage that threatened to rise down at the same time.
"Don’t apologize for being a decent man, Glynn." She could hear the siren wailing like a demon now, and make out the bulky armored car that was rushing towards them, red and blue lights strobing in angry flashes. "Can you outrun them?"
He shook his head. "No way in hell."
She sighed. "Any chance at all that they’ll just pass on by? After someone on up the road, maybe?"
"I think they might have been tipped. Last town I was in, I got the feeling that one fella..well…" He looked guilty again. "Like I said, ma’am. I’m sorry I…"
"My name is Hope, dammit!" she snapped at him. "And I told you not to apologize for decency! Don’t apologize for giving a woman on the side of the road a lift. Don’t apologize for trying to make a living hauling food to folks who need it! Don’t apologize for shit brought on because arrogant fuckers think they got the right."
She began to load her gun. The process soothed and steadied her.
"They think they got the damn right. The right to interfere with other people who ain’t doing them a damn bit of harm. The right to harass peaceful people for their own gain. They claim they took a vote or made a vow or got the word from God himself. All bullshit." She slapped the gun closed and laid it in her lap. She stroked the cat, who was as relaxed as warm butter.
"All they got is their own arrogance. Their own greed and lust and desire for power. And guns." The cat purred, a rough rumble against her hand.
"But I got a damn gun, too." She looked him in the eye. "Do you?"
He was looking at her with something like awe. "Yes m…Hope. I got a shotgun under the seat."
She nodded. "Then, before they get any closer, how ’bout you swerve us over into that field? Give us a bit of time to prepare them a proper reception."
Glynn, despite fear and awe and what looked a damn sight like his own approaching death, laughed loud and long. "You sure about this?"
She smiled at him. "Glynn, all they got is arrogance and guns. But we have guns too. If everybody with a gun decided they’d had their fill of arrogance and stood up, they’d be outnumbered. They’d find out quick what their right amounted to."
He smiled back at her. His eyes gleamed with something new.
"Brace yourself." he said.
She grabbed the cat and did so.
The squeal of the brakes on the Highway sounded like a battlecry.
That was where it started she figured later. The legend of The Woman Who Hitch Hiked With Cats. That was where it started, in that moment in a field in the middle of no where, when a CRA Smuggler Patrol with a hot tip got more than it bargained for.
They were expecting a single man and a shotgun and an easy bust.
They weren’t expecting a berserk Viking with flaming hair and beard, laughing joy as he blasted them with a wild assortment of everything from three inch magnums to bird shot.
They weren’t expecting the thin, black eyed wraith with the hell dealing pistol who never seemed to miss. Who walked into their own fire with no fear and sighted with the cold precision of the Devil herself.
And they certainly weren’t expecting the goddamned army of cats that swarmed them from the field, attacking with rabid ferocity, seeming to come from nowhere and everywhere. Cats that circled the devil woman like protective demons. Cats that seemed to replace every fallen animal with two. Cats that blinded and tore jugulars and the thick veins in wrists and seemed to know exactly where to go to bleed a man to death.
And they didn’t expect to end their day dead and strapped naked to the Patrol cruiser, a gruesome frame for a message on the windshield in huge letters of their own blood:
<div align="center">FUCK YOUR RIGHT.
A message that was soon on the lips of every smuggler and rebel and anti-authoritarian rabblerouser in the Middle Reach. A message they’d hear again and again, tied to the rambling but seemingly unstoppable path of The Woman as she made her way west through CRA territory.
As the legend grew, and resistance rallied behind her.
As the power of the CRA crumbled and fell to a writhing death:
<div align="center">FUCK YOUR RIGHT.
It was a long walk later, and many rides, and a thousand fights, and weeks and months, but she passed out of the Middle Reach and into the Free West.
The border was marked with a sign that had once read "You are now leaving the Central Reach Authority." It was now defaced by the slogan she’d first left on a windshield a thousand miles east.
She chuckled at it, and kept walking.
The cats were all around her, a secret silent army that formed and reformed like waves against the rock of her self. The tom, far from his growling original attitude, now proudly stood as their king. Only he was allowed the place of honor by her feet, after all. Only he was allowed food from her hand and the touch of affection. His subjects were allies and accepted, but he’d fight any and all that tried to intrude upon those privileges.
Hope left such things to him.
She’d stayed on the trail of The Boss. He fled ever west and she’d followed. He was leaving his own path as he went, it seemed: dark stories told to her after dark by ride after ride, in town after town.
She was philosophical. She’d find him eventually. Then she’d have her answers, and her revenge.
She laid camp her first night in the Free West about a dozen miles from the defaced sign. As she was settling in, sleepy, she was thinking of the approaching fact of The Ends, and wondering if her confrontation with her past would happen before she reached it. She hoped so.
She was getting ready to turn in, when she saw the headlights approach. She waited for them to pass on, but they moved towards her with determination.
She reached for the gun and stood. The cats surrounded her, fearless and loyal. They were ready for a fight.
But something about the headlights and the sound of the engine was familiar. Something about the shape of the truck as it pulled up.
She was still and ready as the motor went silent and a door opened and closed.
The tall, grey man was smiling as he stepped into the light of her fire. His rifle was strung across his back and his hands were out in a gesture of peace.
"Why, Mizz Hope." The Smoke Man said. "Fancy meeting you out here."
In every sense that matters, there is quite a bit of magic to a simple campfire. On the deepest level of elemental truth, the basic act of forcing dead, cold matter to give forth light and heat is the very heart of what magic is and will forever be. Life from death, action from the void.
Between human beings there is magic in the campfire as well. The flickering light scaring away the shadows can act as a portal for wisdom. Can allow truths to be told that would sound false in the light of the sun.
The Smoke Man obeyed the ritual as he sat at Hope’s fire. He nodded a greeting to The Cat and his army. They accepted his presence with silent politeness. He brought forth a pouch and a pack of rolling papers. To an offered fire, one brings their own offering: be that a drink, a bite, a smoke or a story.
"Care for a smoke?" he asked.
"I don’t use tobacco." Hope informed him.
"This isn’t tobacco." he admitted with a smile.
"I don’t smoke pot either."
"Nor is it cannabis." His fingers rolled with simple deft motions.
Hope smiled. "What is it?"
"Called dreambreak. Only grows in the Borderlands. Some say it opens the mind and the memory when they’d rather stay closed." His eyes were unreadable when he finished the smoke and put it to his lips. He lit it and took a long, crackling drag. Hope smelled the herb then, faintly. It hinted at spice and something deeper. A musky scent, like the den of a burrowing animal.
"You still don’t know how you came to be here, do you?"
She shook her head no.
"This could help." He offered her the smoke.
She considered a moment, before finally taking it. She had little to fear from the Smoke Man, who was the only person in the Borderlands who had ever answered any of her questions.
She didn’t choke. The dreambreak was surprisingly smooth. Spice and musk, yes — and the surprise of a peppermint aftertaste, that turned sweet as it lingered on the tongue.
She took another drag. She held the smoke until it expanded to the point of pain in her lungs. She let it go, and watched the ghostly whorls emerge from her mouth, dancing through shifting focus, bright and somehow…significant.
It’s already affecting me, she understood.
Across the fire, the Smoke Man’s grin seemed to grow. "Just let it come. Don’t fight it. Relax and let it come."
"Why are you helping me?" she asked, while she still could. Around her, the night grew distinct.
"Maybe you’re helping me." he said.
And then she was gone.
In the first vision she and the cat are in a very familiar hospital room. She recognizes the room, having spent two horrible weeks there. She doesn’t know why the cat is with her, but she appreciates his company.
They stand in a corner and watch. In the bed, invaded by tubes and dying, lies her father. Sitting before him, all weeped out, holding a shoe box, is herself.
How small and thin and weak she looks, Hope thinks. How feeble.
"You brought it." her Father says. It isn’t a question.
The old Hope simply nods.
"You’re a good girl." her Father tells her. He always told her that. His voice is thin and weak and raspy. The cancer has taken all of his strength, all of his energy and vigor. It hasn’t taken his will, yet. That much she knows. If it had, he couldn’t have requested this final favor from her.
She sits the box on the nightstand. She kisses her Father goodbye. She hugs him for a long moment and even finds a few more tears to shed into his chest. Finally, she stands. She hesitates. She leaves, unable to say anything more.
From the corner, Hope and the cat watch what follows. Hope knows what is coming, and — in her old life — often wished she’d been strong enough to stay by her father’s side as he did what he had to do. That she’d had the will and strength to hold his hand as he’d taken his life. He’d ended the pain as a sane man, with his mind and memory intact. She’d been too weak to do so. Too weak and too scared and too childish.
But she isn’t that person any more. She’s not weak, or scared, or childish now. She’s a woman of iron and cordite, a dealer of death and justice. She’s grown and ancient in the way of the hard path.
She and the cat step up to her father as he struggles with the box containing his old gun. The tubes that get in his way are torn unceremoniously out, and he ignores the increase in pain. All that will be over in a moment.
As he places the gun to his temple, hand shaking but sure, something focuses in his eyes. She steps as close as she can. She wills him to see her.
Her ghost hand takes his free hand. That big strong hand that protected her for so long.
A smile flickers at the corner of his mouth. Perhaps he sees her. A little. Enough.
"I love you Daddy." she whispers, and he pulls the trigger.
It is messy and awful and sad, but she doesn’t look away. She owes him that much.
As the flurry of the aftermath happens, she is surprised when the ghost stands up from her father’s dead body, the ghost of his gun still clenched in his hand. He looks insubstantial but somehow stronger in death than in those last moments of life.
He sits there on the bed, as nurses and doctors rush and sigh and shake their heads in sadness and pity. He seems to listen to a faraway voice. Finally he nods, and smiles.
He stands up and, carrying the gun, walks out of the room.
She follows him, with the cat. They follow him as he leaves the hospital, and the manicured grounds, as he finds a road and heads west. His stride is determined, his manner happy and purposeful. As she follows him he seems to grow ever more substantial. More solid.
After a long time, he comes across the old truck. She begins to understand when he takes the gun belt and holster from the front seat, and straps them on. As he drops the now familiar gun into place.
She climbs into the passenger seat as he takes the wheel. As they drive into the desert. He navigates by that unheard voice for a while, until it apparently tells him to stop. He does so. He settles back, to wait.
He will wait here for a long time, she knows.
She gets out of the truck, opening and closing the door unnoticed by the ghost of her father. A ghost that is no longer a ghost here in the Borderlands. A flesh and blood man who will wait past a second death, and turn to bone, and finally dust, waiting for her. To deliver that gun to her hand.
She smiles at him there. He looks patient, content even. A little smile lingers on his face. His head is cocked as he listens to that unheard voice, and his eyes are closed as if hearing a lovely melody. Perhaps the voice is singing to him. She hopes so.
"I love you Daddy." She says again, and starts to leave.
Reality warps and folds in upon itself.
She is sitting at the campfire again. The tears on her cheeks surprise her.
The Smoke Man reaches the still smoldering dreambreak to her again. She is not finished.
She takes it. The taste this time is one of citrus, and a slight burn like cayenne as the flavor fades. The smoke from her mouth eddies in a great whorl, shifting color from white to blue, to join the black of night as she fades and travels again.
The courtroom is as silent as the grave.
"Guilty." the foreman of the jury announces.
The silence ends and the great circus erupts. The judge bangs for order with no success. It is over, at last — after months of testimony and tears and accusations. It is over and the husband killing bitch has been found guilty, just as she was judged by the media and the public before she ever set foot in this courtroom.
Her tales of rape and abuse were not believed. Her stories of why she killed her husband and his three friends. To make matters even more horrible, all four of her victims were decorated police officers. Paragons of virtue and pillars of their community. Their records were spotless and their names respected. The idea that they had gathered every weekend to rape and humiliate the small and quite plain woman before them was ridiculous. It was obviously part of the murderous psychopathic fantasy that her deranged mind had created. She was jealous of her husbands success and reputation. The suicide of her dying father had been the final push over the edge of madness. Three noted psychiatrists testified to this.
She and the cat sit in the back, lost amidst the circus of the guilty verdict. Hope keeps her eyes on the timid and washed out woman being led, handcuffed, from the courtroom. The woman who shows not a single emotion. Who rarely even blinks those puffy, sleep starved eyes.
She and the cat stand and follow as the bailiffs lead her towards her cell. The sentencing will take place the very next day, the judge has decreed. The most predicted outcome is the electric chair. There is a certain grim satisfaction to the reporters as they make note of this, as they prepare the news for a slew of special editions.
Hope follows the woman. She knows what is coming.
She sees the wife of one of her victims before anyone else. Watches as the red haired, scarecrow thin woman steps up, face a mask of hate and pain, and shoots the murderess three times.
"Die you murdering whore!" the red haired scarecrow screams, before the bailiffs tackle her, releasing the bleeding, silent murderess, who crumples to the floor.
She is not surprised this time, when the ghost stands up from the dead body. She simply follows as her past self discovers that the handcuffs are gone. She remembers thinking how lucky she was that all three bullets missed her. How she had a chance to escape. How she took it and ran.
Hope and the cat follow, easily, knowing every step now, but curious. Drawn to watch.
They follow, as she flees through the streets of the city. As she steals an outfit from a clothesline. She grows substantial as she does so, already in the Borderlands, the city but a copied memory.
As she makes her way to a Salvation Army, where she outfits herself for a trip.
As she hitch hikes west, forgetting as she goes, remembering only the terror and the reckless desire to flee.
Miles from the city she encounters Char — old Charon — who picks her up and ferries her across a Styx of solid black flow, a river of asphalt.
Into the Borderlands proper. Into the great Inbetween. She runs, seeking revenge and retribution against the bastard who continued to hurt her even after she’d killed him.
Chasing the ghost of her husband into the land of the unquiet dead.
Reality demanded attention.
She gasped. The still burning stub of the dreambreak singed her fingers.
Her body tingled with an almost electric charge as she emerged from the throes of the vision.
It was near dawn. Mellow grey light seeped up over the horizon. The rising mountains of the Free West were etched in shadow in the distance.
The Smoke Man regarded her. She tossed the stub of the dreambreak into the guttering remains of the fire.
"So. Now you know." he said. His voice was gentle.
"Yes." she told him. "Thank you."
He shrugged and stood up. She followed suit.
"Now what?" he asked.
She considered. After a moment she smiled. "Nothing has changed." she told him. "I just know why I’m doing what I’m doing. I still have to hunt the bastard down and put him away. Not just for myself, anymore. Whatever evil he carried in his heart he brought here to the Borderlands. He harried the people as The Boss for however long it was before I crossed over on his tail."
"That’s not a very Hope-ful attitude to take." The Smoke Man reminded her.
She nodded. "That’s the truth. But maybe the time for Hope is gone. Maybe I’m yet another person now."
He chuckled, shaking his head. "Names as a tool and a purpose."
That struck her as proper. "It’s not just for me, now. It’s for those he abused after I sent him here."
"Charity." she agreed. "From now on I am Charity."
The sun broke over the horizon and the day dawned clear and bright, the beckoning mountains beneath a cold blue sky. She gathered her supplies as the cats prepared for travel.
She turned the offer of a ride down. "I give Charity. I don’t accept it."
"As you like." The Smoke Man said. She watched him head back east. She knew she was not done with him yet.
West they moved, Charity and her army. The day brightened, the clarity of her purpose pushed her on.
West, towards the Ends. Towards revenge. Towards conclusion.
To spread the Charity of a cold, hard heart.
She knew who she was and where she was going, but the fact of the matter remained that: the ends await. This is a truth all human kind must eventually admit, a blunt admission of pragmatics no matter how optimistic or mystical minded.
The basic template of existence is the mystery.
Thousands of days and that many or more miles away she’d find herself in a dark and noisy saloon.
She was wearing a much older body; a thing of dense muscles and leathery skin. A face filled with wrinkles and a long crown of iron grey hair pulled back and plaited into a practical mane. Her eyes, if anything, had grown sharper as her body grew more brittle. There was nothing of weakness about her, no hint of softness, no flash or glimpse of mercy.
She was pure Charity now, charity of the blackest and most honest sort. She’d made a vow to rid the world — a second world even — of a monster who walked like a man. Her own pleasure and enjoyment had been set aside to accomplish this end. Her own life curtailed to chase this duty.
The saloon was dark in more ways than simple lack of light. They were very near The Ends here, very close to the blank grey wall of roiling mist that marked the border of the Borderlands. The grey chasm that ate the bleak desert terrain. The grey from which no traveller returned.
Stories abounded about that mist. A cult of rejects made a religion of it — camping near it in tattered tent cities, sending prayers into its unresponsive face. They claimed to hear voices from the blank wall of grey, hear songs of eternal sadness and the weeping of old gods. The muttered confessions of ghosts.
Occasionally, she’d heard, the mist shifted by some cosmic whim and entire tent cities were lost. Vanished. Gone when morning light touched their scoured grounds again.
Such was the price of so flippant a religion, she figured.
Kerosene lamps burned in the saloon, since electricity refused to flow here near The Ends. Motors wouldn’t crank. Watches stopped ticking and even levers failed to shift as much.
Physical laws broke down, it was said. And mortal laws? Justice and fairness?
She laughed aloud, just thinking of them. Such human laws were chancy in even the most stable of times and places. Near the Ends, to hope for them was a fool’s errand.
She touched the bulky talisman that hung from her neck, gently. She felt the smooth cool touch of bone and let it relax her. She laughed again, a bit louder, thinking of Justice and fool’s errands.
Across the room three men sat at a table, speaking pretty lies to a pretty young girl. Charity had been watching them for the past half hour. She wondered what the child was doing here. She was out of place here near The Ends. This was a place for the worn and near broken, the aging and the dull. She was a jolly thing, lively and sweet. She moved with quick liquid grace and the fiery red of her hair seemed to scar the dark of this rotting saloon.
What was she doing here? Charity guzzled the last of her piss warm beer and pondered that. Lost or a runaway, she figured. A fugitive from an ugly past, hoping for a brighter future in a dark place she was too young and stupid to hate and fear on sight. Another pilgrim in search of justice and fairness in a world scant of either.
And she laughed a third time. The third time proved the charm. The three men and the pretty out of place girl looked at her. The men looked wary. The girl smiled an innocent smile.
"What’s so damn funny, old lady?" one of the men asked.
"No need to be rude…" began the young girl, but she was shushed by the other two.
The speaker raised his voice. "I said what’s so damn all fired funny?"
Charity took a deep breath. She wondered if the fool had realized they were all alone in the saloon. That they had been all alone from the moment she’d stepped through the door. Those with good sense and not intent on tonight’s rough pleasure had exited quickly as she sat. Even the owner of the joint had hauled ass as soon as he set the complimentary beer in front of this woman who radiated power and purpose. You got to know such things when you spent time near The Ends. They reacted with the atmosphere, created something like a halo.
They warned those with sense.
"You mute, old woman?" the speaker went on. "Just an idiot laugh left in that empty old head?"
Charity smiled at him. The weight of the talisman around her neck soothed and grounded her.
"You ever hear of the legends they got a bit east of here?" she began. Her voice was strong and loud. It surprised the men. They seemed to shrink a little. "The legends of the Woman Who Hitch Hiked With Cats?"
The wariness in the eyes of the men grew bright and painful. They tensed. "I ain’t in no mood to hear fairy stories, lady." said the speaker, but his voice broke on the last words. And that was the moment the girl chose to speak up.
"Why, I’ve heard them!" she said, excited and please. "Been hearin’ ‘em my whole life seems like." She closed her eyes and recited, with the air of one telling a favorite story:
"The Woman Who Hitch Hiked With Cats moves through the world on a path all her own. She came from someplace beyond and her destination is not for common folk to understand. The cats who follow her speak to her in a secret language, and those folk who help her on her path are rewarded in a thousand different ways."
"Shut up that nonsense!" one of the men hissed. But Charity over rode him.
"You go on, honey."
"On her hip is a gun as old as the world and almost as big. With her travels an army of wild cats who know secret paths across the land."
The three men heard enough. They were up and guns were drawn.
But they found that a gun was already waiting for them. They hadn’t even seen her move.
"You go on over by the door, honey." she told the red haired girl. "Stay there. Listen. But get ready to run."
The girl backed away from the standoff. But she had the fire, well and true. She stayed. Stared. Her eyes were intent and curious.
Charity smiled at her, then turned the smile on her targets. "Girl tells a story well, don’t she?"
Silence. Electricity coursed the room.
"Well, I know a story of that Woman. One ain’t nobody heard. Want to hear it?"
The men just stood frozen. She looked at the girl. Warming her heart, she got a little smile and an even tinier nod.
Oh, there was fire in this one.
"One night the woman had a dream." Charity began. Her voice became quieter, but her eyes never wavered. "In the dream that first cat — the one who had been with her on the whole hard road — had came up to her and found a voice to speak. This struck the woman as odd until she realized — the way you do sometimes — that the cat had been speaking to her in dreams since the day she’d met him."
"’Mizz’, the cat said ‘I’m getting old and this here game were playing is getting tired and lonesome.’"
"The woman was taken aback. ‘What game are you referring to, Cat?’ she asked."
"’The game where you pretend I’m a cat and I pretend I’m a cat and such.’ he told her. ‘It’s just tiresome.’"
The youngest of the men whimpered and his hand twitched. Charity shot him three times, carefully paralyzing him, and had her gun back at its exact point before anyone else could even breathe different. The thud of the body to the floor was ignored. So was the whimpering. Sweating increased. Blood pressure rose.
The girl, to her credit, didn’t flinch.
After a moment, Charity continued.
"The woman got all insulted and acted like that cat was crazy. The cat was an old hand at his and just told the story again, patiently."
"’I ain’t no Cat, Mizz. I’m just a part of you that you got separated from a long time ago. Your spirit, some might call it. Your will. That fire that makes a person a person.’"
"’You shut up!’ that stupid ignorant woman said. She didn’t want to hear it."
"The cat ignored her, and went on. ‘I’m old and tired of this form, Mizz. Time for you to do what you need to do.’"
The oldest of the men, the one who’d spoke first, broke. He screamed and fired. He missed by a mile.
Very carefully, almost regretfully, Charity blew his head off.
Centimeter twitch, bone and muscle and skin and tendon like steel. She blew the second man’s head off even as he tried to apply pressure to the trigger.
In the sudden silence came a laugh. From the floor. The paralyzed man laughed like he expected nothing less.
The red haired girl helped her pull him outside, where there was a little more light. The girl eyed her like a vision gone bad.
"You need to head on back home now." Charity told her.
"No home to go to." the girl said.
"Well. Away from here will be an improvement."
The child smiled. "You’re right." She turned to walk away, then stopped. She looked Charity in the eyes when she spoke.
"I’m glad I got to meet you." she said, simply. "I’ve been hearing about you all my life. When I was a kid I believed in you utterly. When I got older, not so much." She laughed. "It’s a nice thing to know that the faiths of your childhood are not in vain."
Charity nodded. "What’s you name?"
"Annie." the girl told her.
"A good name." Charity said, with the hint of irony.
"Good enough." the girl agreed. Then she turned and walked away.
Charity focused on the dying man in front of her.
"Where did he go?" she demanded. "Your Boss?"
The dying man smiled at her. "I’ll tell you if you finish the story." he said, voice slurring.
Charity was startled. "What?"
"The story about the cat." he reminded her. "I figured where it was going. I…I know how tales go." he said. There was a pause. "You ate him, right?"
Charity actually laughed. She produced the talisman. It was the gleaming skull of a cat. The empty eyes were as black as space.
"Yeah." she admitted. "When I woke up he was dying at my feet. Old and tired. I petted him a little and he was gone. But his voice was strong in my head. I skinned him and ate him. Shared bits of him with the braver of his army. Then I set his skull on a fire ant pile and let them fashion me this here talisman."
"He was always you, and with you he stays." the man said, blood bubbling on his lips. "I won’t say I’m sorry or anything like that. But I’ll ask you to make it quick."
"Where did he go?" Charity demanded, but her voice was soft.
"He ran into The Ends." the man admitted. "He’s gone. Please. End it quick."
She did so.
Then she headed for The Ends.
She didn’t truly believe it until she neared that ugly grey curtain and saw the abandoned caravan wagon. She caught sight of one of the mules — skinny, near starved, almost wild from abuse — grazing nearby.
She followed a set of tracks until she came right up against that grey border.
Charity stood there, staring into that blank grey wall, and the footprints that staggered so recklessly past it. She stood there feeling the cold emptiness inside, as it echoed the cold emptiness of that grey expanse.
After these miles and these years. After these struggles. Could this be all there was to find? Another set of footsteps leading into the unknown?
Go on, a secret little voice inside whispered. Go on. Keep following. Keep on his trail. Don’t let him escape. She trembled, listening to it, torn.
"Don’t listen." said another voice, familiar and not secret at all.
She turned, gun coming out and up in reflex.
The Smoke Man stopped, hands out in peace.
"He’s gone." he told her, plain and simple. "Gone and past chasing."
"I failed." she interpreted.
He laughed. The laughter held no mockery, no bitterness. It was a laugh of true friendly humor. "Oh, Lord woman. You are too hard on yourself. Ugly Jim was right about you. Nothing by half. Nothing."
"He escaped me." she said. Tears threatened. For the first time in years past God’s counting, her vision wavered and tears threatened. Rage and frustration clashed inside her.
The Smoke Man shook his head, still chuckling. "You terrified the man." he told her. "You hounded him. Even death didn’t give him escape, you followed him even there. You followed no matter the space or the obstacle he threw up. Every mile he got brought him stories of you growing ever closer."
The talisman grew warm. She felt it invading her body.
"You hounded him." he continued, obviously enjoying his words. "All these years, all these miles, and every one brought him tales of you on his trail." His smile grew fit to split his face. "Tales that tore him apart. Tales that made you a queen and a goddess and a goddamn hero. Made you what he’d pretended to be for so long in that other world. What he’d lied himself to be. And the thing that ate him the most, the thing that harried him past all reason was….why, he knew the stories about you were true." That smile no longer looked even the slightest bit pleasant. It was a portrait of revenge, well and true.
"You hounded him, lady. You hounded him right off the edge of the fucking world and into the certainty of extinction. Hounded him with fear and shame and the plain old ugly facts of the matter."
The tears were falling now, but they were a different sort. The gun in her hand sank away, but The Smoke Man didn’t move. Through the prism of those tears she was stunned to see the trails on his own face.
"You hounded him." his voice was quiet, almost a prayer. "Mostly you hounded him with the fact that what your Daddy said was true — no matter what he took away, no matter how hard he hurt you, what your Daddy said was true. You were a good girl."
The Smoke Man turned and spat, into the grey Ends. As near to the clumsy footsteps as he could reach.
"You did him in." said the quiet voice that did not waver despite the tears. "Good riddance. Good girl. Thank you."
And she saw that the shape of the Smoke Man was becoming vague. Dissipating.
The gun was at her side now. "What are you?" she asked. There was no demand, only a desire to know.
His voice was already growing indistinct. But he answered.
"No man is born evil." he said. "In fact, to become evil a man has to kill what is good in him and send it away, into the Borderlands, to trouble his whims no more."
She tried to step up and hold the Smoke Man’s hand as he faded, but he was beyond that now.
He glanced at the implacable grey curtain. "That creature killed me long ago. Sent me here long ago. I’ve been walking this ground for a long time. I did what I could. Life is a trapshoot, and we take our shot. We grab on every chance hit to stay in the game. If we manage to get the chances to stay in long enough, we might get good enough to hang on till something right happens."
Charity fell to her knees and tried to cling to him. She failed, he was truly smoke now, almost gone.
"I was killed long before he set eyes on you. But somehow I knew about you. I waited for you. I hung on till I got to meet you. I felt him come and knew you’d be on his trail."
She wept without shame. He faded.
"Go back east." came the whisper. "Time don’t matter much here. Go to the east and look for your home."
She barely heard his last words over her own grief.
"I’m glad I got to meet you, Annie. I love you. You’re a good girl."
And then the wind took the last of him.
She sobbed for a good long time, and the universe was kind and let her have the peace to do it.
When she finished, she stood up. She dusted herself off. She looked around.
The world abided. From every hiding spot curious eyes peered out. They waited, wondering what came next.
She sighed. She stretched. She hoisted the backpack up and secured the straps. She turned away from the grey nothing of the ends of the world and started walking.
"Let’s go, dammit." she told the cats.
And so she headed back east, in search of a place she’d once known. She wasn’t certain of finding it, of course, but certainties were not the point.
The point was the journey, and that blazing need, that desire. The seeking of a thing was the worthwhile part of living, not the finding.
As she travelled the cats came to her. Ferals from the wilderness, barn kittens who got the itch and urge to travel when she passed. They followed her as birds follow the seasons, as leaves turn to follow the rain. The came to her and fought for her, and loved her up close and from a distance. They responded to something in her that was like themselves, some strength and independence. Some instinct to move together but to never be herded.
To an instinct to forever hunt.
As she travelled the legends whirled and grew around her, shimmering and splitting and becoming great sagas and simple cautionary tales. They became boogie stories and bedtime treats. They became sermons and drunken jokes. They became stories great and simple and none of them were any more or less true than the others. That is the nature of legends. The beating heart of myth.
Legends. Myth. Explorations of that eternal basic mystery, and the simple truth that the investigation of it is what matters.
Of the grim, quiet wanderer with the kind heart and a soul full of justice.
Of the army of cats that travelled on secret paths and could not be left behind.
Of the huge steel gun that sounded like thunder.
Of the fall of governments and the rise of new nations.
Of the slaying of dragons herded off the end of the world.
Of the jet black talisman with the space dark eyes.
Of poor Faith, brave Hope and grim Charity.
Of the woman who hitch hiked with cats.
When I was a child, I spake as a child,
I understood as a child, I thought as a child:
but when I became a man, I put away childish things.
For now we see through a glass, darkly;
but then face to face: now I know in part;
but then shall I know even as also I am known.
And now abideth faith, hope, charity, these three;
but the greatest of these is charity.
(For Claire and Sharon, and all the other daughters of Columbia. I love you, sisters.)