(CH. 3, PART 1)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

Bullet Two

Two men came on horseback to the ranch house as the sun was setting. As they came across the land, they appeared to float quickly, like dust across the plains in front of a strong wind.

They knew nothing of the hat shop or any other specifics about the man’s deal with Dakota Inc.  They knew that Dakota Inc. had sent them to the man, but they did not know why.  It wasn’t their place to know.  They were instructed to speak little, and to ask no questions of anyone, not even of themselves.

The heads of these two men were like cannon balls. They leveled everything.  Heads full of metal, but they had very good eyes and ears.

Nothing rattled or clinked in their pockets.  Only the howls of coyotes and wailing were in the pockets of the men.  There was no money.  They carried no extra bullets, but only what they had in their guns.  Two pistols each, and each bullet was stuck in its chamber as snug as an egg in a robin’s nest.  A greedy man takes too many bullets, Leonard always said.  Dakota Inc. carried bags of bullets and bags of money, Leonard said.  Dakota Inc. was greedy.

The men were sent by Dakota Inc., but of course they were not part of the Company.  They were part of a group of men that Dakota Inc. hired for the job, and that group of men was led by Leonard.  Leonard’s men looked nothing like Dakota Inc.  They did not wear fancy black suits, and they did not jingle or shine or boast.

The men had come.

The men were there, at the ranch house.

Before, Dakota Inc. used to send their own men on errands like this.  That was back before the War ended; before the blue army from the east came swarming to the west like the locusts.  Now, Dakota Inc. couldn’t get away with things so easily.  They could not be so open. So they hired other men to go, and made for themselves very good alibis.

The two strange men got off their horses and walked to the door of the ranch house.  Their walking was as images floating across a wavy storefront window. And like those images, they approached silently, their boots scarcely making any noise upon the ground.

Lucy and mother saw them coming and knew there was nothing good about it.  The two women held each other until the men got to the door, and then mother let go and ran to the door to meet them…to charge them. Father was in the bedroom where he always was.  Jason was off in Shadow, working for the gambler, Van Carlo.

Lucy coughed and cowered near the tiny, lukewarm fire.  She was afraid, and longed to be back in Richmond.  But all she could think about was a room with a great hole in the ceiling and the moon looking down.  A hole made by a cannonball in the ceiling of the row house in Richmond.  It was all the same, she thought.  Everything was South Dakota now.  Everything was just a room with a hole.

Mother saw the men through the window as she approached the front door.  The men were very tall and lean.  So lean that they looked as if they might disappear if they were to turn sideways.  They were dark, too, with shadows falling all around their faces in places that most people did not have shadows.  As their faces moved the shadows remained, the darkness shifting inconsistently with the light.

They looked sick and diseased in their thinness and darkness.  Death was their disease, mother thought, but they did not die from it.

Mother knew instantly that she did not care for these men.  She cared nothing.  She would not care if they simply died in the doorway. She hated the men, and even though she knew that her hatred was just an impostor of strength, it made her feel better to hate them.

‘Yes, let them die in the doorway,’ she thought as she flung open the door.  ‘Let them die there and let their bones turn white and smooth until they look as flat as the land around us.’

But her heart fell and she knew it would never come to that.  She could tell that she stood no chance against these men.  Even if she fought them and got lucky and they died in the doorway as she wished, more would come.  There were always more men to come.  Just like in Richmond.

Mother stumbled back inside the house as they came for her.  She caught her balance, and then ran to grab a broom that was resting against the wall near the door.  She turned and waved the broom at them, as if to shoo them away.  They looked like animals and she would treat them like animals…rodents and critters.  Unwelcome by all, down to the very last person in the entire world.

But then, an instant later, she decided against the broom and instead grabbed the shotgun that was resting next to it against the wall.  They were not as small as rodents.  No.  They were the wolf or the coyote.  You did not use a broom on those animals.

She felt the thin, cold trigger on her finger.  The men moved quickly then.  For men such as these must move quickly to avoid the judgment.  Mother marveled at their speed, and she did not even have time to raise the gun up to her waist before one of the men snatched it from her hands. He took it and handed it to the other man.  The other man quickly put it somewhere inside his long, gray coat, and then continued moving forward, just as smoothly and easily as if the shotgun had never been there at all.

The two men turned mother around and roughly pushed her into the house.  Lucy tried to scream, but only her coughing came out, and this was a sound just as loud as and even more terrible than screaming.  She tried to stand, but in her fit of coughing her body convulsed, and she tumbled forward into the fire.

The fire.  Just moments before she had been kneeling in front of it, and with a coal had been drawing a picture of a little bird on thick paper.  But now she was face first in the fire, and when she pushed back, she burned her hands badly, and then she did scream.

She stood up quickly, shaking violently, and then fell to the floor, on top of the picture of the little bird.  The weight of her body and her dress smudged the picture and blurred the lines together and wrinkled the paper.

Lucy rolled over to look at the picture, and saw that it was ruined.  This greatly angered her.  She saw that the picture was crushed and smudged, and she screamed in rage.  Then she took the paper and threw it into the fire where it burned to ash, just before she fell back down on the rug.  The ash rose and floated away.  Flying, she thought to herself in the midst of her rage.  Flying beautifully, just like a bird should.

The men still did not talk or make much of any sound at all.  Even the sound of their boots on the floor was muted.  Their violence was their sound, and it covered up all other sounds around them.

Lucy was still screaming, but then the screaming turned once again to coughing, and mother was comforted just a little by this.  It meant that Lucy was still just dying from the cough and not from the fire.

Mother turned and beat her fists against the men’s coats.  She smelled the smell of duty on them.  It smelled just like it did in Richmond: a horrible, dusty, unwashed, nomadic smell, and all manner of the smells of nature.

Her blows fell with no more effect upon the men than the swish of a horse’s tail. One of the men made a casual sweep with his arm and knocked her down. As she fell she reached up with a clawed hand and tore something from the man’s chest.  It was cold and hard, with sharp edges.  Was it the man’s heart?  She closed her fingers around it, and then crashed onto the floor.  The cold, hard thing dug into her hand and drew blood, which seeped between her fingers.  She looked up at the man, and saw a hole torn in his vest just where his heart would be.  She waited for him to collapse and die, but he didn’t. Useless heart, she thought.  She drew the hard thing to her and decided she would keep it, and hide it from the man.  She would take something from him, just like he had come to take something from her.

“Where is your husband, woman,” the first man said.  He had the voice of a coyote: a soft rumble, followed by a howl. “He is in the bed,” the first man continued, answering his own question.  Then he continued speaking to mother:  “Help me find him.  I know he is in the bedroom.  We have come for him.”

Mother couldn’t think straight.  All she could do was scream, “He has no boots!”

The second man spoke, and he had the voice of an eagle:  screechy and abrupt, with the beginnings and ends of his sentences sharp like dagger points.

“We must take him.  He will go far.  South Dakota is very large.”

“Oh no, oh no, oh no!” mother screamed.  “Is it a dream?  Please tell me it is a dream!”

“It makes no difference,” the first man said.

             Mother staggered to her feet.  She moved away from them awkwardly, and stood next to Lucy who was on the floor near the fire, sobbing and coughing.

            “Then they sent you,” she said.

            “Yes,” the first man said.

            “And when did you know you’d be called upon to do this to us?”

            “We knew from the minute Dakota Inc. saw you get off the train.”

            Mother buried her face in her hands and began to sob.

            “Eyes.  Eyes everywhere.  I knew it!  How can a place so empty have so many eyes?  Eyes everywhere, where so many other things should be.” She fell to her knees, next to Lucy and continued to sob greatly.

            “I would take the noise of the cannon; the thundering noise and the heaviness of Richmond and the War.  But this quiet, and all of these watching eyes,” mother said.

            “It is true,” the second man said.  “We know what Dakota Inc. knows.  And yes, they have many eyes.”

            “Though perhaps they are not all in the right places,” the first man said.

            The second man turned quickly to the first man.

“I think you should be more careful with your words, Rifle,” the second man said.

            Mother shook her head and stared at the floor.

            “Done in,” she said.  “And not even by men.  At least the blue soldiers were men.  But these?  Dakota Inc.  They are trains on twisted tracks, casting huge, iron shadows.  And you they pull you behind them and us they run straight through.”

            Then she looked up at the men defiantly.

            “Don’t they?  Right behind them,” she said.

            The first man struck mother hard on the cheek, and the blow felt like the butt of a gun, not a hand.

            “We will not muzzle the ox, woman.  But we could.  Do not speak to us as though we have no choices,” he said.

            “You need to stop speaking now, Rifle,” the second man said sternly.  “Let’s get the man and go.  Leonard is not patient these days.”

            The first man nodded. His gaze shifted to the hallway and the open bedroom door at the end of it.  Then, in unison, both men began to move down the hall. The first man stopped and turned back to mother.  He marveled that she was still conscious after the blow, though her mouth was bleeding and she was not clearheaded enough even to sob anymore.

            “Don’t worry, woman,” the man said.  “Leonard will soon forbid Dakota Inc.  It is possible that your son will be left alone.”

            The second man’s eyes widened in disbelief. “I will have to tell Leonard about this, Rifle,” he said.  “You have been,” he paused, trying to find the words. ”Irresponsible with Leonard’s voice,” he finished.

            The first man pointed to the room.  “Go get him,” he demanded.  “And let me speak for Leonard.”

            “I think you should speak less, or tell Leonard to come himself, next time.  You sound very much like Rifle to me,” the second man said, spitting on the ground and giving the first man a suspicious look.  Then he turned and went to the bedroom.

Lucy stood quickly and ran out of the house.  At this point the sun had set and darkness had fallen, and Lucy was quickly lost in it.  Even the sound of her footsteps seemed to vanish only seconds after she was through the front door.

            Darkness had come with them, Lucy thought as she plowed forward into the freezing cold night.  And the darkness was following closely behind, as a dog follows its master.  Except these men were not the masters.  Dakota Inc. was, and Dakota Inc. meant to be master over everyone and everything.

‘But is it really this way?’ she cried in her mind.  And if it was, did it have to be?  All her memories of Richmond were fond ones.  All of them, in spite of the War.  And by the same way she survived Richmond and the War knew that she could survive South Dakota, too.  More than that, it was her only choice, for it was the only way she knew how to survive.

            Lucy stopped abruptly and knelt over coughing and panting and shivering.  There was blood in her mouth and she could taste it.  She looked all around and saw nothing but the faceless black of the wilderness night.  There were no bright windows from the row houses or other buildings, or the fires of the burning street lamps.  Richmond was never this dark.  Even after the blue soldiers came, there were fires burning everywhere at night.  But in South Dakota there seemed no bright side at all for her imagination to seize.

She turned back and saw the faint glimmer of the fire through the front door of the ranch house.  Reluctantly and weakly, she made her way back to it.  When she got to the house she stopped and did not go inside, preferring to linger at the window, trying to stifle her coughing but at the same time knowing that it didn’t matter.  The men were not there for her.  And even if they were, they did not have to take her anywhere to have her.  It was the same with mother.

***

            The first man, Rifle, watched the second man (who was named Fire) pull the heavy man from the bed.  The heavy man gave them no resistance, but he did not willingly rise get to his feet.  He rolled from the bed and landed on the floor with a meaty thud, and there he lay like a corpse.  The man called Fire had to beat him a few times to get him to move on his own.  Finally the heavy man got to his knees, but after that he could rise no further. He just stared at the ground breathing heavily and said nothing.

 Then Rifle turned back and looked down the hallway at mother, who was on her knees and holding her face, dazed, and looking at the floor.  He tilted his head.  Slowly, he walked towards her.  He reached down and put a hand gently on her head.

            “I’m sorry, woman.  It…” he paused, looking uncomfortable.  “It’s not me, you understand.  The Strangers….”

            Suddenly, behind him, he heard running footsteps.  He turned just in time to see Fire rushing at him with his gun drawn.  Before Rifle had a chance to move, the butt of Fire’s gun came crashing upon his head with the force of a falling brick.

            Rifle’s hat came off his head and he collapsed to his knees next to mother.  She looked over at him and saw that he had a bald spot in the middle of his head, surrounded by long, stringy gray hair, thick and tangled as old twine in some places.  The bald spot was white as the moon.

            “Rifle, when you speak you will speak only one thing!” Fire said.

            Rifle groaned and nodded, and rubbed the top of his head.  The bald spot was starting to bleed and swell.

            “Y…yes.  I will speak only one thing,” he said.

            “Say the one thing!”

            “When do I get paid?” Rifle said.  It came out as a confused whimper.

            “And what is the answer?”

            Mother held her hands over her ears and then began to sob again, loudly.

            The man called Fire was obviously annoyed at this.  He put his gun directly over her head and fired.  It was loud and startled her, and she sobbed more quietly.

            “S…soon,” said Rifle, still dazed.  “Soon.  There is nothing that is not soon.  And the payment will be worth the work, according to Leonard.  That is the answer.”

            Fire stood up straight and put his gun away somewhere inside his long, gray coat.  He nodded. “Good.  Now get up, Rifle.  Let’s get the man and go.”

            Rifle nodded and put his hat gently back on his head.  Standing, he followed Fire reluctantly to the bedroom.  There were shuffling sounds, and soon they emerged, carrying father.  And though father was not dead, he hung limp just like a dead man would hang, with stunned and pointless eyes, between the two strangers.

            “Please do not take my husband,” mother whispered as the two men walked past her, with father, and out the door.  But they did not hear her.

            As soon as the men left, Lucy ran inside the house and clung to mother and they cried out in front of the dying fire together.  The men rode and rode into the night, barely thinking about the ride.  These days, they never thought about the trails that they knew so well.  The moon fell upon the wide plains before them and made them and the land around them as pale as the moon itself, so that South Dakota resembled the moon.

            When mother and Lucy stopped crying the house was utterly silent.  The sound of the horses riding into the South Dakota eternity had long since passed away.  Everything was quiet, exactly like it had been for weeks before the two strangers ever came to them.

***

 

            It was a wide open space, with just a few trees around.  The sky was a bright, yet dismal gray, as were the flat, seamless clouds which covered it.  The light in the sky was strange.  It was both natural and unnatural at the same time.

It was morning of the next day, and the Stranger called Rifle sat by the campfire.  The collar of his long gray coat was up around his ears and his hat was pulled low.  He wasn’t eating, even though it was breakfast time in the camp.  He and Fire had had a long ride last night, and he knew he should be hungry.  But he did not feel like eating.  He did not feel well at all.  The ride had been a cold one, he thought, and the top of his head throbbed from where Fire hit him with the butt of the pistol.  Rightly hit him, Rifle thought to himself.  He deserved to be hit.  He’d been hit before, but why did it hurt so much this time, he wondered.  Why so much more than usual?  And with the swelling, he felt like his head was two sizes too big for his hat.

So he didn’t eat.  He just poked disinterestedly at the campfire with a stick.

Rifle glanced up and looked at his bleak canvas tent that was set up near the fire.  The tent was empty last night because he and Fire were in the saddle.  The front of the tent was open, and the heavy canvas flaps were waving and making thick popping noises as the wind blew them around.  Inside the tent was a bedroll that was still tied, and a small pillow was tucked inside it.  It had provided no cushion last night, for he did not lay on it.

Rifle could see the edge of the bedroll near the opening of the tent, and he realized that he was tired.  He thought he would very much like to go inside the tent and unravel that bedroll.  But it wasn’t time for that now.  Even though the ride was long, and they rode all night, it was now daylight and Leonard said there were things to do.

There were always things to do.  Things like the thing he and Fire did last night. Those things were tiring, though, Rifle thought, and he wished he could sleep a little.

Rifle turned his head and saw Fire near a tree a few yards away, speaking with Leonard, who was the leader of the Strangers Gang.

The other Strangers were sitting around the campfire, but unlike Rifle, they were all eating.  They were the tools of Leonard, and, like Rifle and Fire, had been given new names.  They were given these names so that they knew exactly how to answer Leonard and just what to do when they were called.  The names of the other Strangers were:  Blanket, Hammer, Wagon, Rope, and Fence. And though they resembled men, Leonard did not consider his Strangers human.

Including Rifle and Fire, there were seven Strangers.  Eight, if you counted Leonard, but none in the gang ever did.  Leonard wasn’t a Stranger like they were Strangers.  Not really.  Leonard didn’t seem to be anything real or familiar.  He only had the outline of a human being, which was barely a resemblance.  He was more of an experience than he was a man.  He would sometimes say he was the mask of South Dakota.  A human-like image that represented all of the things the Strangers did in South Dakota.  But that was as close to being a man as he would admit.

Rifle had been doing the things the Strangers did for many years now.  He knew well of them, and they were like the things that he and Fire did last night to the man and his wife and sick daughter out near Shadow.  They were usually dreadful things.

Yes, Rifle thought, Leonard was a sort of semblance of human form, like a mask, but nothing more.  And the other Strangers weren’t much closer, all of them having forgotten the names they were born with.

 Except for his left eye, Leonard kept his head and face covered completely with several dirty gray bandannas.  There were always gloves on his hands so you could not see his fingers and a gray hat always on his head.  His long, gray coat always covered him from his neck to the soles of his boots.  There were no holes in the coat.  Any holes were quickly patched, and there were many patches, but no holes.

Rifle looked at the other Strangers around the fire.  He thought to himself that it was good he was not hungry because breakfast time was almost over, and he would not have enough time to eat now anyway.  The Strangers finished up their breakfast and then all there was left to do was to urinate on the fire.  One of them stood up to do just that, and the others filed away to get things ready for the day.  None of them spoke.  They were not permitted to speak, except to ask only one question, and they were also allowed to answer their own question.  That question was: When do I get paid?  And the answer was always the same.  The answer was:  Soon, and the payment will be worth the work.

If there was a second person in charge of the Stranger’s gang, it was Rifle, and then came Fire.  Of the Strangers, only Rifle and Fire, whom Leonard referred to as his other voices, were allowed to speak and think beyond that one question and one answer.  South Dakota was a large place, and Leonard needed extra voices sometimes, and Rifle and Fire were them.  But Rifle and Fire had to keep their words and thoughts within boundaries, which was why Rifle was hit in the head last night.  He had strayed beyond the boundary.

At that moment, near the campfire, Rifle felt uncomfortable because he knew that the one eye of Leonard was on him.  The one eye he kept uncovered for seeing; the eye that was always bleeding, just a little.  Rifle pulled his collar up a little higher and his hat a little lower.  He was very tired.  The man named Holland was fat and heavy and dead weight on the horse last night, and Rifle was exhausted. For a man who had nothing, Holland Credence was very heavy.

Near the tree, Fire was telling Leonard about the things Rifle said last night to the woman, as well as something else.  He told Leonard that the boy, Jason, was still alive, and that it was true that this boy had been speaking and working with Van Carlo, the gambler, and the gambler liked the boy very much.

Leonard nodded when he heard this news.  All along he had thought that this was true.  When he went and spoke with Dakota Inc., and when they told him that they wanted the man named Holland as payment for the debt, he was suspicious that Van Carlo was in town and that he had a new telegraph; a telegraph from the East, not from South Dakota, and a telegraph that Van Carlo very much trusted.  He was the son of the man, Holland.  This boy had seen the War in Richmond, and it was rumored that he’d even killed one of the blue soldiers.

It was the whole story, Fire told Leonard.  There was nothing more Dakota Inc. knew.  Leonard nodded again.  He always told his Strangers to make sure they got the whole story when dealing with men like Dakota Inc.  Make them tell you everything, he said.

Leonard and Fire walked over to Rifle, and the other Strangers gathered around and stood behind them.  Leonard’s bleeding eye, all that could be seen from beneath his bandannas and his hat, began to bleed a little more as he approached.  This happened sometimes, especially when it came to times of punishment.

Punishment.  What Leonard liked to call “things”.  He never called punishment by name.  It was just things.  But Rifle knew what the things were.

Inside his head, Rifle heard Leonard’s voice.  It told him that he was indeed a good boy.  He was strong and useful.  The voice praised Rifle’s ability to ride the horse well, and his skills at tracking and shooting. Yes, you are a very good boy, Rifle, the voice said.  But there are things needed to make you better.

Rifle stood up and faced Leonard.  He looked uncertain.  Nervous.  He didn’t bother to hide it.

“When do I get paid,” Rifle said, his voice trembling.

“Oh, hopeful Rifle.  No more speaking.  And no more answers except for the things,” Leonard said.

Rifle looked at the ground and nodded.

Leonard reached out and caressed Rifle’s cheek with his thickly-gloved hand, then placed his hand on Rifle’s shoulder.  “If you want to be human in South Dakota, dear Rifle, then let’s talk about it.  You can be human, you know.  There is no law in South Dakota or in the Stranger’s gang against it.  But what we need here is perspective.”

He put his hand under Rifle’s chin and raised the chin so that their eyes met.

“Think of your life as a rod. At one end there is your birth.  Then, there is some blood.  Then your death at the other end,” Leonard said.  “So, Rifle, what am I to you then?”

“You are South Dakota,” Rifle said, closing his eyes.

“I am the rod, Rifle,” Leonard said.  “Everything is on it.  Your birth, death, all the blood, the man named Holland, the tents and the trains. Without me…” he brought his fingers together then pulled them apart, spreading them. “…poof, no more trains.  No more South Dakota.  No more you.”

“Yes, Leonard.”

“You see?”

“Yes, of course, Leonard.”

Leonard nodded.  “Good,” he said.  Then he gestured for all the Strangers to sit around the campfire that was now only smoke, because it had been urinated on.

“Let’s talk about this boy of Van Carlo’s,” he said.

Leonard and Fire spoke for a while, and the others, including Rifle, only listened.  They agreed that the boy was necessary, and that he was a very, very good boy.  If Van Carlo liked him so much, there must be something too him.

“And what about Dakota Inc.,” Fire said.  “They will want the boy, too, eventually.”

“Eventually,” Leonard scoffed. “They are imbeciles.  They would have asked us to take the boy in the first place, instead of the fat man, if they were not.  And they should have paid us more and we should have gone and left the fat man and taken the boy.  The boy, who used to be from Richmond but is now from Van Carlo; and those are the worst kinds of boys in South Dakota.”

“Rifle and I spent some time in Shadow, in secret,” Fire said.  “We heard some things about Van Carlo’s telegraph…Jason is his name.  He fought the blue soldiers during the War, even though he was only very young, just a boy.  He can ride and shoot well, and he can track.  He will go to the mountain if we give him time.  He will take the high ground, and it will be difficult to bring him down.”

Leonard’s eye began to bleed a little more.  It was a steady trickle now.

“There is no higher ground than my head in South Dakota,” he said.

There was a long pause at the campfire.  They all poked at the wet fire pit with sticks, except for Leonard and Rifle, who simply stared straight ahead.

“I will lead us to the mountain,” Rifle said, finally breaking the silence.

Leonard turned to look at Rifle, and Rifle thought he saw just a hint of uncertainty in the bleeding eye.  And suspicion.  The trickle of blood from the eye formed a little pool just underneath the eye, and this pool began to soak into the bandannas. Then Leonard blinked the eye over and over until it was all red.  This was a way that Leonard would scream sometimes.

Rifle stood.  “I am ready for the things,” he said, looking first at Fire, then at Leonard. “Then we can go and find this boy.  Even if he is on the top of the mountain, we’ll get him.”

“He won’t be like the fat man, Rifle,” Fire said, while Leonard looked on in interest.  “He can shoot, so it was said in Shadow, and he can track very…”

“He won’t be the one tracking,” Rifle interrupted, giving Fire a stern look.  “And so what if he can shoot?  We can all shoot.  It’s who shoots first that matters.”

“He will be able to see quite far up there,” Fire said, shaking his head.  “And you had trouble with the woman, Rifle.  What will happen at the top of the mountain where there are no walls and he can see all the way to the ocean?”

Leonard stood up and turned to face both men.  From somewhere underneath his long gray coat he pulled two rifles out and put one under the chin of each of the two men.  The rifles were like appendages to him, and the barrels were as cold as icicles.

“That’s enough,” he said.  “This boy, this new telegraph of Van Carlo’s is the worst kind of boy in South Dakota.  He’ll see nothing up there but South Dakota, and it will be as faceless as the walls and ceiling of his bedroom.”

He took the rifle from underneath Fire’s chin and placed it next to the one under Rifle’s chin.

“And you, Rifle,” he said.  “Your tongue is a wild horse. Fire is right. You had trouble controlling it for the woman.  What will you do when you face a boy who actually knows what he’s doing with a gun and a horse?  They say this boy has killed a blue soldier, even before he finished school.  You’ve never even killed a soldier, Rifle.”

Rifle did not reply.  He turned to look at his bedroll inside the tent, with the flap of tent still moving in and out like a tongue on the wind.  It was time for the things, and he wished he had something to dream about.  And then he remembered that he did.

“But we can help you, Rifle,” Leonard said.  “And I will let you track down this boy, even on the mountain, because I can help you.  But we cannot leave until after.”

“After, then,” Rifle said.

Then the rest of the Strangers came at him slowly with the sharp half of a broken horseshoe.  It was time for the things.  Two of the Strangers, Blanket and Fence, took him by his arms and led him to the tent.  Then they opened his bedroll, laid him down on it and began.  Rifle closed his eyes and started to dream about new things.

Leonard stared at the tent and saw Rifle’s boots sticking out of it.  He heard the men doing the things to Rifle.  He looked at Rifle’s boots, not with love, but something like it.  It was kind of like yearning….a yearning because Rifle was a very good boy, and could shoot and track very, very well, better than them all.

But then, Leonard thought about Van Carlo’s new telegraph.  What would happen if they found him on the mountain?  Perhaps he would prove to be a very good boy, too, if Van Carlo hadn’t brainwashed him fully.  And if he was a very good boy, then there might not be any more need of Rifle, and then Leonard could stop yearning.  He hated to yearn, anyway, but sometimes it couldn’t be helped.  And he hated that, too.

Deep down, Leonard hoped everything they said about this boy was true.  He hated Van Carlo, but he understood that the gambler had something of wisdom, and if Van Carlo liked the boy, then there was something to him.

This boy…what other rumors had he and Rifle heard about him?  Fire told him.  He could ride a horse well, with sharp movements, and up the sides of trees.

“Just like you, Leonard,” Fire said.  “I even heard that he killed that blue soldier with only a knife, while the soldier had a Spencer.”

He sounded like a good boy to Leonard.  As good as Van Carlo, even.

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