Near the bottom of the mountain eight Strangers stopped for a moment at the foot of the trail and listened to the screaming and the song that the boy howled from somewhere above them. Without a word, Rifle pulled away from the group and led his horse charging up the mountain. Leonard did not stop him. Fire saw Rifle charge ahead and he readied his reigns to go after him, but Leonard said no to Fire, and told him to let Rifle go.
“If Rifle wants to ride ahead, then let him ride,” Leonard said.
“But listen. The screaming and the song have now just stopped. There is nothing to follow. So where is Rifle going? Perhaps he will get lost,” Fire said.
“Rifle does not hear any song except for his own,” Justice said. “Did you not hear it? I heard it. All the way from camp. It was like a very soft whistling.”
“I heard the whistling,” Fire said, nodding, and staring up the trail. “I thought it was the sound of his breath between the blood in his mouth.”
“Yes,” Leonard said. “Then you heard it, too.”
The boy took his sister from the wagon and cleared a patch of ground near some tall trees. The branches were bare, except for a little snow, and they grappled angrily with the gray sky. The boy took the shovel that was strapped with rope to the side of the wagon and began to dig a grave. His hand was on fire, and the ground was freezing, so the grave was very shallow indeed. He wept as he dug and the handle of the shovel quickly became slick from the blood of his hand.
As he dug, the boy could not tell if he wept from the pain in his hand or from his sister, and then it really made no difference to him after a while.
Finally he buried his poor sister in the shallow grave near the bank of the cold river and covered her body with a little bit of dirt and dead leaves and some snow. Then he made a crude cross from some thick fallen branches, tying them together with fraying twine, and placed it at the head of the grave. Upon the cross he carved the word: Imagine.
Rifle knew where the boy was and he turned his horse in the boy’s direction, which was the direction of the cold river. He’d heard the gunshot and the bitter weeping. He could smell the blood from the boy’s hand. Rifle was like a dog. He could smell many things from far away. Leonard said he was born for this kind of thing. But lately Rifle started to notice that everything just smelled the same. Everything smelled like blood.
Blood. That’s all he seemed to be able to track these days. Maybe it had been that way all along.
Rifle knew that he was close. He put his head down and gripped the reigns hard and charged the cold river.
The boy unhitched the wagon from the horse, and the horse immediately seemed relieved. She snorted and pranced for a moment as he threw the saddle on her back and began to tie it down. Then he swung his leg and drew himself up into the saddle. He sat on his horse and remembered that this is what it felt like back in the woods near Richmond during the War of the States. It was cold. It was lonely. And his gun felt heavy in his belt. It was a sword. It was a shield. His gun was many things, and that’s why it felt so heavy.
He got the horse moving, but his bloody hand was flashing with pain and didn’t work right. The hand made no sense and the poor horse was lost. It had been a long time since he’d tried to ride a horse with a bloody hand. Not since he killed the blue soldier with the knife.
But this time it was not the soldier’s blood in his hand. It was his own, and the horse knew it. She could sense that there was no confidence in this hand. She dashed and charged this way and that, and the snow fell from the trees and down the boy’s collar, making things even more miserable. The boy tried to steady the horse, but each time he pulled he had to cry in pain. The pulling was weak and meaningless, and the crying from the pain made him afraid. The noise of his crying would most certainly find its way down the mountain, and all manner of bad things would come to him.
Then came the sound of the rider behind him. The horse the boy was on became agitated at the sound of the other horse. The boy grabbed the pistol from his belt with his good hand and held it close to his chest. This meant that only the bloody hand held the reigns.
Finally, he gnashed his teeth and grimaced and managed to pull with enough strength to get the horse to slow down. She did, and began to canter rhythmically along the banks of the cold river. The boy sighed, then breathed heavy. He knew that he could not outrun whoever was behind him. Not with a bloody hand and a directionless horse. He held his gun tight and tried not to be frightened. He pushed the gun closer to his chest, and hard. He felt the chamber press against his heart.
Slowly, grimacing in pain, the boy got down from his horse. He knelt down next to her on one knee, facing behind her, and stared into the trees from where the sound of the rider was coming. The noise of the man following him was very subtle now. Inconspicuous. There was no galloping, no crashing. Just the occasional sputtering from the horse and a rustle of branches and snow.
The man following the boy was trying to stay quiet now, to surprise the boy, and he was very good at it. This frightened the boy, because not many men were so skilled at following so quietly in the forest. Men with this kind of skill were usually skilled in other things, too, many of which could easily kill a man. Closer into his heart the boy pushed the chamber of the pistol. The boy’s horse stumbled for a moment as her foot slipped on the muddy bank and caught the edge of the cold river. There was a splash and a cry of pain from the boy as he grabbed the reigns and got her back on the bank.
Then the boy turned back to look at the forest. He saw nothing but trees and snow, but he knew the man following him was still in there, coming for him. He grit his teeth and went as silent as possible. He remembered the advice he had gotten from the older boys he rode with during the War. Keep your head low under your hat, they said. Do not exist where you are. Listen carefully to the land. The land will tell you the sounds you can make, and when you can make them, and make only those sounds and no other. They will not be human sounds, but only the sounds that are there when you are not. And pray that the blue soldiers only come when you are ready.
The boys used to make a game on some nights, riding to the edge of Richmond, to the trees. It was summer and it was hot, and the leaves of the trees glistened and were greasy in the moonlight. They were sweating from the heat and the war, just as the soldiers were sweating.
The boys would ride up to the trees and practice silence. They would skirmish with the blue soldiers with their silence. The silence was very different from the cracking of a musket, but both sides feared it as much, if not more.
The boy became very good at telling the sounds of nature made by nature, and the sounds of nature made by man. He could tell the sound of a man brushing up against a tree or a bush, or the crackle of a boot on a twig on the ground or a boot squishing in the mud. It was different than the sound a deer or bear or other animal made.
It had taken the boy a long time to become good at being silent and hearing the silence of the blue soldiers. It had taken a lot of practice. But in war, the boy had indeed practiced. He had practiced a lot of things. In war, you had no choice but to practice and to become good at things you otherwise would be a stranger to. And the boy could hear Rifle now, even though the Stranger approached him stealthily.
Rifle saw the boy in the clearing. He heard the voice of Leonard in his head, and it was saying the same words it always said. Then a little thing happened in Rifle’s mind that he was not expecting. Or maybe he was expecting it, and that is why he was so startled and terrified and intrigued. Along with the voice of Leonard, the voice of the woman he had seen back at the camp came to his mind.
Rifle pushed out the voice of Leonard and listened to the woman’s voice instead. He listened to her and thought about the things that the Strangers did to him back in the tent, things he could still feel and smell in his mouth, and decided that it was time for new things.
Rifle sat on his horse, but he was not moving anymore. He was only observing. Through the snowy slit in the trees he could see the boy kneeling. One of the boy’s hands was dangling lifelessly next to his side. It was dripping blood that was as red as a rose. For a moment, Rifle actually thought the boy was holding a rose. But then he saw it was blood. This made Rifle angry and he screamed inside himself and back at the voice of Leonard that was trying to work its way back into his mind and to strangle the voice of the woman. Then the two voices, that of Leonard and that of the woman, argued and snarled and fought like two dogs in his mind, and he held his head and cried very quietly for a moment. The soft whistling of his breath between the crusted blood in his mouth became faster and faster. Then he stopped crying because he heard the thunder of the other Strangers coming up the mountain trail behind him. His breath came hard and raspy as though a great tree were in his throat.
The sound of the other Strangers frightened Rifle greatly. But more than he feared the Strangers, he loved the woman. With one hand he held the reigns. With the other he held his gun high over his head. Then he charged.
Rifle never saw the boy’s other hand which held the gun. He had concentrated too much on the hand with all the blood, and by the time he actually saw the gun, it was pointed straight at him.
The boy was very quick to bring his gun upon the Stranger called Rifle. The boy noticed that the man coming for him did not look like a man from Dakota Inc.. In that instant, he could not tell exactly who or what the man looked like.
There was a flash of yellow fire from the boy’s gun, and it took Rifle by surprise. The bullet struck the Stranger’s face, which spun around as it was struck. Rifle’s own gun fell backwards out of his hand and tumbled down his back and bounced off his horse, then hit the ground. Rifle’s horse reared up. The boy’s horse heard the gun go off and she ran. She crashed through the trees and out of sight.
Things began to move very slowly for Rifle, and took a long time to happen. In his mind, he talked softly to himself to pass the time.
‘This bullet is the only thing I have ever touched,’ Rifle said in his mind. ‘I feel it on my skin. Warm, and then becoming cold again. Except, no, at one time there was something else I felt, too.’
Rifle slid down the side of his horse, face up to the sky. The gray covering of South Dakota peered down on him, but it did not really know him, and did not care.
‘I remember mother, who was like the woman. She would touch my face. Yes, I remember that. She would touch my face with her cold fingers and caress my face with fingers made cold by the wind of South Dakota through the holes in the house. The many holes. More holes than wall, it seemed, especially in the winter. The wind got through those holes easily, and through the broken window in the baby’s bedroom.’
The ground rose up to meet Rifle, and as his body fell on it the ground was as soft to him as a great pile of leaves. And indeed the ground was leaves, he perceived, and they exploded around him, going up in the air and then falling, fluttering upon him gently.
‘Hello, mother. Touch your precious boy again before I go dying. Remind me that it was not always only South Dakota that took care of me. That there was once a boy, and you touched his face with softness. And here I am, mother, with your cold fingers.’
And the woman that Rifle saw that day in the camp of the Strangers reminded him of mother. And then later there was something in the eye of Leonard, and Rifle saw it and Leonard knew he saw it. And that was the day Rifle was no more a Stranger. He lay that night on his bedroll and thought of his mother.
‘Touch me mother once again with your cold fingers, before you go and kiss the baby girl. And then, not long after, you and the baby were gone.’
‘Now I feel your cold fingers again on my cheek, with this bullet. And down my throat and behind my neck. This is what I want, and now I know why I rode so far ahead of Leonard to find this boy. I know why. Deep down, I know this is why. He seems like a very good boy to me.’
Then the last of the leaves fluttered upon Rifle, and the sky, the gray sky of South Dakota, went black before his eyes.
As Rifle’s body hit the ground his horse reared up with a great start and tore off into the woods, knocking the boy over as she went. The boy’s face pressed hard against the cold frozen leaves and the mud and the snow. The cold leaves felt like his own skin.
More horses, snorting and snarling like wolves, came closer and the boy could hear them. He looked over at the body of the stranger. His hat had rolled off of his head, over to one side, and the boy could see the scabby wound on his bald spot.
The boy was in pain and breathing hard. He stood on two uncooperative legs which shuddered. He still held his gun, and it dangled in his hand by his side. How many more strangers were coming, he thought. Did he have enough bullets?
The man on the ground did not look like Dakota Inc., the boy told himself again. There was nothing of their shiny veneer upon his face or body. Nothing of their beautiful and guilty wrapping. This man was a wretch. Hired, probably. The boy could tell. He looked like he had been tortured, and in his dead eyes was the look of the uncommitted.
Was he a partisan? Maybe. The boy knew partisans from the War of the States. Some of them were committed to the cause of whichever side they fought for, but most only dabbled. Fighting for profit or some other reason that had nothing to do with the War. For some purpose that usually extended no further than themselves.
The sound of the horses came louder and louder, resounding off the opposite bank of the cold river. For a moment the boy was confused as to where the sound was coming from. He held up his gun and whirled around aimlessly, looking for where they might come into view.
And then they did. Leonard and his Strangers arrived like a cold, sunny haze on the horizon. The boy blinked. They were a blur. He could not hold his gun up, he had no strength. The Strangers rushed around him and he felt the cold wind come in through the openings in his sleeves and around his collar and through the seams of his coat. He fell to the ground, dropping his gun and clutching his painful hand.
Leonard looked at the boy, then looked at Rifle. He got down from his horse. It was a smooth, fluid motion. More like a dancer than a rider. In an instant he was upon the boy. In one leap he was all the way from his horse to the boy. The boy tried to grab his gun from the ground with his good hand. He managed to bring it up, but then Leonard slapped it roughly away, breaking the boy’s wrist. The boy cried out, and the gun went skittering into the trees. Then Leonard slapped the boy’s face, which bloodied his nose and left a red hand mark which began to swell.
The boy moaned and fell on the ground next to Rifle. His face was burning. Both hands were burning. And the fire came up higher and higher, from his face to the top of his head. From his hands up to his heart until his whole body was in flames. He turned his head to the side, grimacing, and saw the moving waters of the cold river. He wanted them more than anything.
He groaned and felt the blood from his nose drip into his mouth and choke him. The mountain seemed to move and lurch under him. Even the once calm waters of the cold river seemed to be exploding in his ears now with their deafening howl. The gray covered face above him resembled the sky, and there was blackness around it as the boy’s eyes dimmed. He was delirious, and soon all he could see was the sky.
“Van Carlo,” Leonard said.
The boy’s eyes rolled into the back of his head.
“Van Carlo,” the boy managed to spurt out. “Yes. Van Carlo.”
When he heard this, it was difficult for Leonard to contain his rage. All the other Strangers gathered around the boy in an uneven circle. Some sat. Some stood. Some even laid on the ground. When the boy moaned, some of them moaned, too. The boy move moved and twisted uncomfortably. And every time he moved, some of the Strangers moved and swayed.
Leonard screamed at the boy to do something, but the boy did not answer. Once again, Leonard was upon him and he dragged the boy to his knees. There was blood all over the boy, but it was not enough for Leonard. Leonard always saw blood, thanks to his bleeding eye, so he never even noticed it upon others. And anyway, it was easy to make a man bleed; harder to get him to answer.
Leonard screamed at the boy and commanded him to do something nonsensical. He told him to put his hands over his ears. He told him to sit back and tap the top of his boot with his bleeding hand, then to tap it with the broken hand to see if there was a difference. He told him to sing a lullaby to the dead body of Rifle. Then Leonard said that he himself would sing a lullaby, and the boy would sing along, over and over, until he had memorized it.
But the boy could do nothing because of the pain. He was not listening, and again his eyes rolled back until they were all white. Just a blank face, as dead and silent as the features of a smooth desert landscape. Leonard picked up the boy’s dirty gray hat and put it roughly on the boy’s head, pulling it down tightly over his eyes. He screamed something unintelligible at the boy, but there was no response.
Nothing was getting through. The boy felt like a baby in a womb, where there was warm blood all around and a rush of pain and water, and there was a mother screaming.
Leonard picked the boy up with both hands by the collar of his coat and shook him violently. Then he threw him to the ground and kicked him hard in the side with the spur on the right heel of his boot, which was larger than the one on his left. This spur Leonard called the Witch’s Spur. It was large and sharp and the edges were curled slightly. The stabbing sent another shock of pain to the boy’s mind and there it flashed behind his eyelids like lightning.
Then Leonard stood up over the boy. The boy was unconscious now, and still. Leonard breathed in and out slowly. He tried to straighten his bandanas, which had shifted slightly, and he tried to smooth them. As he did this his hand caught his eye and some of the blood smeared on it, for the eye was bleeding heavily now, and it began to settle and dry where the bandanas caved inward around his mouth area, forming a large uneven blood splatter there.
Leonard wiped the blood roughly away from his eye as best he could, but the eye did not stop bleeding. He cursed through the blood splatter stain and wished that the eye had never been slashed. He sometimes wished he had just walked away from that man and had not fought him. The eye could be so much trouble sometimes, and he regretted it.
He looked around. He hated the mountain. He never understood it. Why did they always run here? They thought they were running away from South Dakota up there, getting above its ground. But they were liars. South Dakota was all around. If you started walking, inevitably you would go downhill, and eventually you would end up back on the ground of South Dakota. So they were liars. Stupid liars.
And then Leonard looked around. The horse. Where was Rifle’s horse? He screamed and cursed again. Rifle would have remembered the horse. Rifle used to be the voice of Leonard. But now only the small voice of Fire came to him sometimes out of the group of remaining Strangers, and Fire was nowhere near as good a boy as Rifle. Thankfully there was the boy from Van Carlo. Van Carlo used to be the voice, even before Rifle was the voice. Van Carlo was a very good boy and a very good voice, until he turned to gambling. Hopefully this new boy of Van Carlo’s would be just as good.
And how would Leonard convince this boy? By answering him always, when he finally awoke. No matter what the boy said, or who he was talking to, even if he was speaking only to himself, Leonard would always have an answer. Always something to say. The boy would never be alone with his words.
Leonard shouted at the Strangers. He commanded them to lay on the ground next to the boy to keep him warm. He told them to push themselves against him, all around, so that all he felt was their coats, and until he could not tell the Stranger’s coat from his own skin in South Dakota.
“If he awakes,” Leonard said to Fire. “Hold a gun against his head. Keep it there and don’t move it. Then talk to him. But not about the gun. Talk to him about anything else, but not the gun. Talk to him until he forgets it is even there.”
Fire shook his head. “I don’t think he will be in the mood for talking,” he said.
Leonard sighed, then lifted his head and hands and shouted into the air. “Oh, Rifle! Where is my good boy? You have left me only Fire. And he doesn’t even understand that the groans and mumbling of the wounded are the most important words of all. Oh, Rifle! What made you think that the woman was anything? Even in plain view, what did she matter?” The Leonard sobbed in his hands. Fire said nothing, but, still watching Leonard, pulled out his gun and placed it against the boy’s head. Then Leonard stopped sobbing and sighed. There were no tears. Only blood from his eye. He was as hard and cold as he had ever been.
Leonard looked at the Stranger called Blanket and commanded him to go find the boy’s horse and to bring it back to camp. Then he turned back to Fire.
“Fire, talk to him,” he said. “You know what to say, even if the boy is not in the mood for talking. Since when does it matter how the other is responding or what language they are using? Words. Groans. Guns. Money. Eyes. Don’t be a fool, Fire, and don’t hurt me any worse than I have already been hurt today.”
Then, as a rushing wind, a blur, a bird, a swaying branch, Leonard was swooped up on his great horse and he rode fast. Very fast through the trees. The snow crashed from the trees, exploding, and the whiteness blinded both the horse and the rider. Leonard cursed the white blindness. Some of it got on his bandana and froze into chunks of ice there, pulling it down, and he cursed it and smashed at his face with a fist. Then the sharp pine needles from the evergreens stabbed him, and some even stabbed into his one good eye and the pain was searing hot. Then branches slashed at him like sabers from cavalry riders and he screamed at them. He hated the mountain.
He decided that he must get above the ground and the trees there. High on a mountain and yet still choked by the ground, and what a dreadful place, he thought. So Leonard leapt from his saddle and grabbed a high branch. And then, running, climbing, flying, he went higher and higher to the top of the trees. Above all the blinding whiteness of the falling and exploding snow, until he could go no higher. There, running across the very tops of the trees he looked around and could see all of South Dakota. Every town and barren place, and everything in between and under and above. Then, down the mountain, on the other side of the cold river he saw Rifle’s horse. Down she ran, out of the trees and into the plains.
The mountain began to slope down and Leonard ran even faster, chasing and gaining on the horse as she rocketed out onto the clear, a trail of dust streaking and widening behind her. Leonard’s coat flew out behind him and spread across the sky like the swirling clouds. From somewhere underneath his coat he drew a long-barreled rifle.
Leonard always had rifles and pistols and plenty of bullets. He never had to look for them, never to ask to borrow them. He had so many bullets that sometimes they rained down upon the ground from underneath his coat when he walked. But he never bothered to pick them up. They were endless.
Still running, Leonard brought the rifle to his cheek and let the barrel follow the running horse for a while as she ran. Then he fired and the horse tumbled and tumbled, a tangle of dust and head and tail and legs, but none of it making sense anymore. Then finally she came to a rest, and the dust slowly caught up to her crumpled dead body and settled gently upon her.
Leonard stopped running and stood on a high tree branch and stared at the dead horse. He put the rifle back inside his coat somewhere. Then he looked around, from one end of the sky to the other. He could not see the oceans at all, but he could see all of South Dakota. And he nodded, satisfied that it was enough for most men.
He sank below the trees. Finding his horse, he rode slowly back to the boy and his Strangers. He was in no hurry now. Everything that was coming from now on would take some time.
Leonard arrived back where the boy and the Strangers were, near the cold river. He looked at the body of Rifle, and was sad that soon Rifle, and his voice along with him, would be in the ground. Not that he would be buried. There was no burial for the Stranger. South Dakota would take him down soon enough. Even if it took a lifetime, the ground would get him quite naturally on its own.
Leonard commanded the Stranger called Rope to wake the boy up. Rope took a tin can of something heavy and disturbing and waved it close under the boy’s nose, sticking his nose right in it. The boy woke with a violent shake and his eyes opened and darted around like a madman.
Leonard grabbed him by the cheeks and brought him to his knees and knelt down beside him and squeezed his cheeks hard until they bled and until the boy was still.
“Calm down,” Leonard said. “Your hands are fine. Bandaged as before. Bleeding a little, but good enough. I need you to get on your horse. It has been found and brought to you. We need to go to Shadow. I know that there are men there that have done this to you. Not this. Not just this. But all of this. They are Dakota Inc., and I hate them with a hatred as deep as a well that has no bottom. I hate them as much as you do.”