Category Archives: The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

(CH. 6)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

Bullet Five

            As she walked naked along the dusty ground, mother wondered if this was what the men of the War felt when they charged.  Did they feel stripped and bare?  Did the guns and the bristling steel in their hands turn to air and feel like nothing?  Did they feel the rough of the ground on their feet as if they had no shoes?

            Mother had nothing with her.  Everything was back at the ranch house, inside the great trunks.  But what use was it to her anymore?  All of it had become South Dakota, so there was no need to take any of it.  There was nothing in the great trunks that she did not see in the land right before her eyes.  Even she herself was South Dakota.  And not only that, but she finally understood that all the things of Richmond, the great trunks, the War, none of it had ever even existed.  It was only ever South Dakota.  That made her sad.

            Then she saw the vision.  An image of bristling steel, and the wheels of cannon, and shouting men and the legs and heads of charging horses, and pounding,  pounding, pounding upon the ground.  And it was all tangled up in a great battle where there was no ground or sky, no up or down.  Just men and things swirling around, and sounds and shouting and screaming.  And the image pulled away from her eyes and it became a writhing ball of violence and noise, and it grew further and further away from her eyes, as though she were rising into space and the writhing ball was the earth in orbit around the sun.

            Then the image faded and all that was before her eyes was the silence and the mountain.  The mountain loomed like the back of a great whale rising out of the ocean.  Mother stopped.  There was no getting over it.  Not for her.  Not now.

            Above her there were clouds swirling gray and cold, dangling down to her in spires, but she could not feel them.  They moved over the mountain and hung there, and the dark mountain now looked like an open mouth on the horizon.  It was hard to see.  But then, everything had become hard to see.

            Something inside her longed for Richmond.  Richmond during the war, even.  She wouldn’t even mind seeing the blue general.  At least he had a face.  She saw it many times in the papers, as well as the pictures of his army.  Endless army. So endless they were that the pictures could never hold them all.  They spilled beyond the edges of the paper and she just knew that they went on forever and ever.

But at least there, in Richmond, she knew who was coming for her and why.  But this.  South Dakota.  All unfamiliar.  This place.  Her bootless husband.  Her children.  All strangers.  There was no army, no generals, no burning homes.  It was all just South Dakota.  And there was nothing more to say about it than that.  This made her sad, too.

            “I know the way you suffer, woman,” Leonard said.  His voice came from in front of her.  He had come out of her vision.  Out of the churning ball of violence and shouting he had stepped and had walked towards her.

            “How can you know?  You are unfamiliar to me.  I don’t think you know me,” she said.

            Mother shivered and closed her eyes briefly and wrapped her arms around her naked torso.  She felt a wave of unconsciousness rush over her.  She started to fall, then came to and caught herself.  She looked up at the stranger and examined him with her muddy eyes.

            “One eye only,” she said.  “Where is the rest of you?”

            “Off on the four winds, perhaps,” Leonard said.  “Where it needs to be, I suppose.”

Leonard got down off of his horse.

“I have no face,” he said with a sigh.  “I am blind and deaf in this body.  It is true.  Still, I understand how you suffer in those ways particular to a woman.  And you are a very poor woman indeed.”

Mother wrapped her arms tighter, looked around, and nodded.

“Is there any going back?” she asked.

“To Richmond?”

“Yes, to Richmond.”

Leonard shook his head.  “No.  The line of marching and drumming from Richmond does not turn back.  It either ends in South Dakota, or sometimes it goes on and on to the great ocean beyond us on the other side.  But not too often.  Mostly, it’s just this for everyone.  There may be visions, everyone has their own, but there is no real difference in the end.”

Mother looked sadly at the stranger.

“I am cold,” she said.

“Yes.  It is cold out here.”

“Will you build a fire for us?”

Leonard shook his head.  “You cannot stay here.  Your line is still moving, for a little longer still.  It will end soon.  Not here, but not far from here.”

“But I could warm myself for a while and then continue.”

“A lot of work for no real purpose,” Leonard replied.  “You can’t build a fire that reaches all the way to the ocean.  You might as well stay cold.”

Mother shivered.  Her eyes were red and they rolled back into her head for a moment.  She swallowed a dry swallow. She rubbed her arms slowly then began to step forward.

“I have further to go,” she said.

“Only a little, yes.”

Mother took a few steps forward, then fell to her knees.  Her shivering became uncontrollable and her red eyes began to burn as though they were filled with hot grease.  Her dark hair was like rope on her head and hung thickly down her neck in cords that were so heavy and taunt that not even the winds of South Dakota could move them.

She looked up.  Was that the stranger standing in front of her, or was that the mountain?  No, it was the stranger.  She was nowhere close to the mountain.  She looked up at his face.  A face, but no face.  She understood at that moment where the rest of it was, besides just the eye.  There were pieces of it everywhere, all the way from Richmond to here.  It was a face that had been smashed and scattered.  She sat on the ground and pulled her knees up to her chest.

“Please give me your coat for a covering, stranger.”

Leonard walked over to her.  She looked down at the ground.  She did not look him in the face because there was no point.  Might as well just look at the ground, she thought. She shivered again.

Leonard pulled a pipe out from somewhere inside his thick, gray coat.  It was already lit and smoking.  He knelt down beside her and held the pipe to her lips.  Lemon pulled the smoke in, then breathed it out again.  It came out of her mouth and nose and wrapped around her head like a sack.  The smoked burned her red eyes as the smoke of Richmond once did long ago.

“You don’t need my coat,” Leonard said.

“I am cold.”

“Yes.  It is cold out here.”

“Please give me your coat.”

With a smooth motion, Leonard’s fingers quickly wrapped around the pipe, and he put it back beneath his coat.  The pipe was still lit when he put it away, and still smoking. His eye looked up and around at the fading light of South Dakota’s evening sky.

‘My eye is very painful tonight’, he thought.  ‘Just like the woman’s eyes are painful.’

The eye always hurt to some extent, though it was a little worse at that moment.  It was split in two and bled constantly, so it made sense that there was always some kind of pain.  His vision was very poor in that eye, too, and he cursed this fact more than once during the course of a day.  All he could ever see were the shadows of this or that.  Shadows with a little color.  The details were not sharp at all.  Everything looked smooth to him, with soft edges, like the edges of a sandy shore.

No good eye, he thought.  I should put a hot knife to it and stop the bleeding.  I wish I did not need this eye.  But at least I see better than the woman.  And I see well enough to tell the Strangers where to go and what to do.  And they go there and they do it.  Soon I will not need this eye at all.  I will have other eyes that I can use.  Sharper eyes.  He paused in his mind.  He brought his fingers to his chin and hummed softly for a moment.  It was tuneless.  He did not think his new eyes would make much of a difference in the end.  They would only be less painful, he hoped.

Leonard said, “If I give you my coat then I will be as exposed as you.  And then all of South Dakota will see, and that would not be proper.  We all must stay proper, especially in South Dakota.  In the midst of everything that happens, we must stay proper.  Even if it is during a great war, and our homes are burning, and our family, and our slaves and wagons.”  He paused.  “No.  That will not do.”

Mother did not respond.  The sound of the stranger’s voice had become just as the wind against her ears.  Mother was done.  No more commanding or shouting. Rest, soldier, came the general’s voice to her ears.  Lay against the ground and close your eyes.

Mother’s body relaxed and slumped, then fell to the side.  Her face was in the dirt of South Dakota.  Some of it was in her mouth and teeth.

“I will sleep now.  I am tired,” she said to the dirt.  “I would have liked to have your coat, stranger, but I guess all the gentlemen are dead these days.

“Gentleman is a nice word,” Leonard said.  “But if there are any left, they are back east.  They are always so polite as to let others come to the West first.”

Leonard knelt down and rubbed his hand and upon her hair and down her neck gently.  Then he grabbed her thick hair and pulled back on it, but only hard enough to lift her head off of the ground a little.  He brought his bandana and bleeding eye to her ear.

“And truly you have arrived in the West, woman.  And now you are here, and you have no further to go.  But South Dakota will continue for you.  All the way to the ocean.  For you, as though you were not ever born.”

Mother nodded and smiled weakly.  “It is good what you say,” she said, her eyes closed.  “And so it must be.  How can one with such confidence be wrong?”

Mother’s body relaxed and settled.  Her smile faded, and her head felt a little heavier in Leonard’s hand.  He put her head down gently and stroked her hair one more time.  He felt the back of her neck, and it was very cold.  Colder than ever.  But there was no more shivering because it was the kind of cold that made no difference.

The Stranger stood and looked over the body of the woman.  The he knelt down again and began to take some dirt of South Dakota in his hands and to cover the woman with it, sprinkling her from head to toe.

“Here is my coat, woman, that you asked for.”

Then he mounted his horse and left the woman behind.  He moved very quickly, as fast as he could go.  Soon the feet of his horse were above the ground, and Leonard’s eye was closed and his hands were down by his sides and his head was forward on his chest and he was truly flying.

Leonard moved faster and faster, away from the woman. His Witch’s Spur pounded upon the side of the snorting horse, and he opened his one eye and there was a lot of blood.  He pulled two long-barreled pistols out from somewhere underneath his coat and began to fire them into the air as he flew, over and over again.  At that moment, all he wanted was to hear the guns and see the color of blood everywhere as it spilled from his eye to the bandanas, to the ground, to the sky.

He did not want to think of the Strangers.  Or the boy.  He wanted only to think of himself and all that he had done.  he did not even want to think of the woman.  The woman.  She was now removed from him.  Covered in a layer of South Dakota, just like she had always been.

 

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(CH. 5)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

Bullet Four

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.”

(CH. 4, PART 3)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

Near the bottom of the mountain the boy and Lucy stopped to rest and to eat some cornmeal.  Lucy could not keep any of it down.  She would just cough it up, and it would run down the blankets and make her filthy.  The boy covered her up tightly and put her in the back of the wagon.  Then he laid down next to her and they tried to sleep for a while.  But it was hard because of all the coughing.

            The boy worried.  He wished he could cough for her.  He laid close to her, trying to keep her warm, his chest pressed tightly against her back and his arms over her.  When she coughed her bones rattled, and the shuddering was so bad that the boy’s body moved, too.  Then she would breath and he could feel the deep, raspy vibrations as if they were coming from inside his own lungs.

            He closed his eyes and pretended that it was him who had the sickness, not Lucy.  It was easy to imagine because he was so close, he could feel everything from her in his own body.

             After a moment he leaned over and began to stroke her ash covered forehead with his bandaged hand.  He spit on it a little and some of the ash came off.  He thought about how they were out of food.  He’d only brought a little cornmeal.  Just whatever he could grab and put in his pockets on the way out the door.  They would need more food.

            He did have his gun, and he had remembered to bring extra bullets.  There were some in the room with the hole in it, in a drawer in a table near the bed, and he had taken them.

            If Lucy could survive the setting sun and the night, there was food in the mountain, and he would go and hunt it tomorrow.  Maybe there would be a rabbit, or something bigger.  Like a deer.  A deer that had become separated from the others.

But when morning came, the light of day began to make the boy nervous.  The slight bit of confidence he’d had about this day slowly vanished as the sun rose.  It was very cold.  The boy checked Lucy’s forehead and she shuddered and gasped and then went back to sleep.

            He wanted to make a fire, but the thought of even more light, even so much as a little burning candle, made the boy afraid.  A fire would make them warm, but it would also be a signal to those looking for them.  The smoke, the smell, the light.  It would lead Dakota Inc. straight to them.

No, the boy thought.  If they built a fire to get warm then they might as well just throw themselves on it.

            The boy decided that they needed to get up the mountain as fast as they could.  Maybe they could build a fire up there, high enough and covered enough so that no one would see.  Or even better, they might get up the mountain quickly, and there would be another road down the other side and they could just keep going.  Out of South Dakota and all the way to the ocean if they could.

The boy climbed out of the wagon and gave the horse a little water and fed her some gritty oats from a small pail that they kept in the back of the wagon.  He checked her foot to make sure it was okay from where she had stepped on the head of the man from Dakota Inc..  It was fine.  Nothing but a rock or a bump in the road to her.

            The boy heard men coming as he was climbing back into the wagon.  His heart stopped for a moment, and then it began to race.  He held his breath and turned to face the horizon, away from the mountain.  It was flat like the edge on an ax.  He couldn’t see anything.  But his ears were very good and as he listened closely he was sure he could hear them.  The voices of the men resonated off the rocks of the mountain and it made them sound as if they were all around.

Voices.  A leader.  Commands.  Then, just the feet of horses.  Many horses, and then, just one.  Pulling away.  Coming faster than the others.

            A moment later, just barely, the boy saw their heads on the horizon.  Blurry dots, going up and down in unison, parting the horizon like a mouth opening.  Eight of them coming.  One was out in front.

            The boy grabbed the reigns hastily and turned the horse towards the trail that led up the mountain.  It was bitter cold outside, and up the mountain, it was sure to be even colder.  But the boy did not notice how cold it was because he was too busy looking behind at the men coming after them.  Lucy did not notice either because she was in the back sleeping or unconscious, and not even the rocking of the wagon could wake her.

            The trail started up gently, but quickly became steeper and steeper.  It burrowed into thick trees and made the boy feel as though he were diving into a rabbit hole that went up instead of down.  A short while later, the road tapered and flattened and ran alongside a shallow river.  The road was smoother there, with the mud packed down and the rocks on the shore relatively flat.

            Lucy and the sparse supplies in the wagon made for a very light load, so the horse was able to move quickly.  The boy drove her with urgency, and she sensed it, and for the first time the boy noticed that she could move exceptionally quick for her age.

            The trail began to turn upward again as it wound throughout the mountain, and soon there was snow under their wheels.  The trees were not as thick there, the leaves having fallen from them, and the snow on the naked branches looked like sleeves.

The feet of the horses of the men behind him had finally faded away.  The mountain was quiet except for the sound of the wagon and the feet of the horse in the snow, and the occasional crack and swish of branches and leaves as the wagon brushed past them.  Snow shook free from the branches and fell upon Lucy in the back of the wagon.  Another blanket on top of the many she was under.  But she did not stir.

            For some reason, the boy began to feel a little confident.  He felt that he had escaped the men.  He had killed one.  His gun felt long and sure in his belt.  He decided that soon it would be safe to stop and rest and make a fire.  Then he would go and take his long gun to find some food as Lucy and the horse rested.  He slowed the horse and wagon down so that they were no longer running.

            The boy was quiet and contemplative.  Lucy was quiet.  She no longer coughed or shuddered in the back of the wagon.  She was resting well and quietly, which was very good for her.  Everything seemed peaceful now.  Even the horse did not snort or breath too heavy.

The boy turned to look at Lucy and saw how quiet she was.  He tilted his head a little and watched and listened.  There was no sound or movement from her.  The blanket no longer seemed to rise or fall with the breath of her weak lungs.

She certainly was quiet, the boy thought.

            Then he realized that Lucy was gone, and she was as quiet as she had ever been or would ever be again.  Gone from Richmond.  Gone from South Dakota.

There was a white line of snow on her forehead that had melted and washed away the ash, but it had since refrozen.  Her eyes were now the color of the gray sky, and grainy, like sand.  They were open to the sky and they examined it with the deep, deep indifference the dead.

And all of a sudden, everything was new.  With her.  With the boy.  With South Dakota.  The boy could feel it, but he had not the imagination to describe it.  For he was a fool, and a dullard, with the imagination of a pure white beach.

The boy stopped the wagon by the river and cried bitterly as the snow fell.  He removed his hat and tossed it to the ground and ran his clawed fingers through his hair slowly and tightly.  Then he climbed into the back of the wagon and shouted over her body.  He didn’t know what else to do.

He remembered she wanted flowers, and wanted her corsage.  But he had no imagination, so he asked her what he should do.

‘Oh, Jason, my brother,’ she said.  ‘A dullard and a fool with an imagination like the flick of a dog’s ear. Don’t you remember how lovely the flowers are?  And I will have one when my soldier returns.  And he will give me the corsage and the ring, and I will make the sweet muffins, and he will have saved us from the blue soldiers, and there will be no blood on him.  If you can remember this, Jason, you can remember the flowers.  This is the way it shall be, if only we listen to father and go with him out West.’

“Yes, Lucy,” the boy said.  “Yes.  Should we continue to go West?  What do you see there?  What do you think father sees?”

‘See how lovely South Dakota is,’ Lucy continued, as if she did not hear him.  ‘See, my brother, all the pretty flowers!  And they have grown in the ground from Richmond to South Dakota, popping up as in a line.’

Then there was only the sound of the snow falling.  The boy shouted over her body some more, and then he began to sing a loud song, tangled in spit and tears.  He did not care who heard him.  And when the song was over, he wept over Lucy’s body bitterly until the sun was at its highest point in the sky and he could not continue any longer.

For some time after that he lay across her body in silence in the back of the wagon.  Trying hard to sink down into her, and into the earth, to disappear.  But the snow on his neck reminded him that he still lived, and that he needed to move on.

He pulled the blanket up over her face.  He wished he had not accidentally burned the colored quilt back at the ranch house.  It was beautiful, and he would have liked to bury her in it.  This blanket was only black and white, but it would have to do.

The boy let out a great scream into the air, and then removed his gun from his belt.  He placed the barrel of the gun against his bandaged hand and fired.  He screamed again in great pain as blood poured and splattered onto the black and white blanket, and turned the bandage on his hand red.

“Here are your flowers, Lucy,” he said through clenched teeth and tears.  Then he took his bleeding hand and patted red spots on the blanket.  All over it, from Lucy’s head to her feet.  He looked at his bleeding hand and said, “It is a corsage.”  Then he threw his gun to the ground outside the wagon and lay across his her body for a long time.

 

(CH. 4, PART 2)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

           The boy returned home at dawn the next morning.  The reluctant, uncertain sun slid left to right on the horizon very slowly. There were two suns in the boy’s blurry eyes, and they came together and separated over and over, until he blinked them back into one.

            He went inside and went over to Lucy and knelt down next to her.  She wasn’t moving and he could not hear breathing and for one startling moment he thought she was dead.  He knelt and checked her and realized that she was only sleeping.  Her breath was raspy, but not loud.  Weak and very shallow.  The boy stood and looked at her.  She was almost as thin as nothingness.  She should be dead, the boy thought.  The heart cannot pump blood through bones.

            “Did you get your hand fixed, boy?”

            The boy looked up, startled, at the sound of the satisfied voice.  The man mother had brought home the day before was there, at the edge of the hallway which led down to the bedroom.  The boy had not seen or heard the man when he walked in.  The man was very quiet.  All men like him were quiet men most of the time.

The man was rolling his white sleeves down and putting on his cuff links.  His black coat and black hat were on the chair near the window.

The boy was very surprised to see the man outside of the room.

They usually did not come outside of the room.  Except to leave.  And they never stopped to talk.  This man talked a lot for a man from Dakota Inc., the boy thought.  He was not as quiet as the others.  And it was strange to the boy.  All the talking.  He did not like all the talking that the man was doing.  The boy did not know how to respond to the man’s words; the words that fell dead on the floor at the boy’s feet before they even reached his ears.  The boy tried to find answers for the man’s dead words, but all he could think about was the gun that was tucked tightly in his belt.  He could feel the handle pressing into his stomach.

The man looked at the boy and smiled at him with something like acceptance.  Acceptance and fearlessness.  The boy felt like a melting candle.  The flame was there, and sinking down and down to the metal base. Why is the man talking, the boy thought.  They do not talk.  They only leave and come back again.

“Yes, my hand is clean.  There is no stinging,” the boy said.  Lucy did not stir.

“Where is the bullet?” the man said.

“I don’t know.  It went through my hand.  Maybe through the wall.”

“You don’t have it?” the man said.  “Oh, yes.  I remember now.  Yesterday.  Yesterday you told me it was not in your hand. We spoke briefly about the bullet.”

The boy stood.  “All bullets are brief,” he said.

The man nodded and looked down to adjust his cuff links. “Yes, they are impatient.  It is the afterwards that drags on and on.”  He sighed and put his hands down at his sides.

The boy tilted his head and looked strangely at the man.  “Is this why so many bullets are needed?”

“Needed?  No. It is why so many are possessed.  Men are fickle.  They do not know what they need.  The only solution is to have an abundance of everything, just in case.  Nothing lasts.  Everything is brief.  The first bullet could be the last bullet, but there’s no way to know.  So we have many.”

The man stopped and the content look on his face vanished.  For a very brief moment he looked at the boy and looked uneasy.

The boy nodded and turned his eyes away from the man.  He looked around the room.

“This bullet is outside my hand,” he said, pointing to his bandage.  “It is somewhere around.  If I find it I will let you know.”

“No. Do not tell me.  Do not look for it.  Wait.  Where is the bandage your mother said to bring home?”

“I left it with the doctor.  I remembered eventually, but it was too far to go back.”

The man nodded, and his uncomfortable look softened.

“So you left it in Shadow, and you ignored your mother?”

“I left it, and forgot what she said.”

The man nodded again.  He understood something of bloody bandages and leaving them behind and forgetting promises and the words of his mother, and his friends, and some other people he had known along the way.

“I must got to Shadow,” the man said. He walked over to the chair, his boots making a heavy, hollow sound on the wooden floor, and his spurs chiming like a triangle at dinner time.  He put on his coat and hat.  “You may stay and look for your bullet.  Whatever.  We will be back when your mother comes for us tonight.  You can do whatever you like.  Come into Shadow, and get some things if you like. You will not need any coins.  Dakota Inc. has plenty of them if you need them.  But soon you will see that coin or no coin, it will not make any difference.”

The boy said nothing.  He was appalled at all the talking.

“I will be outside in the wagon, smoking,” the man said as he stood at the open front door with his back to the boy.  “Your mother can come to take me back to town when she is ready.  I’m in no hurry.  I might take out my gun and shoot around to pass the time, so don’t worry if you hear it.”

The boy said nothing.  Worry.  No, he would not worry about all the shooting.  He could fall asleep to the sound of bullets.  But the talking.  This man talked too much, and the boy did not know where it came from.  He did not think the man did, either.

“Mother will be out,” the boy said.  “But she is tired and moves slow these days.  If you run out of bullets, maybe there will be another way to pass the time.”

The man gazed out at the South Dakota dawn. He grunted and nodded, then walked out.

The boy’s face went white and he stared without blinking for a long time.  He couldn’t move.  He was part of the floor of the drafty ranch house and stuck in South Dakota.  Then, he closed his eyes and remembered the blue soldier. He was sitting there on the log in the night, leaning on his musket with its barrel to the ground.  Comfortable, and watching the fires in the distance with weary eyes, and the boy came up behind him with the knife. It was all so quiet.  A quiet memory for both of them. For the boy, it stung his mind like lightning without the thunder.

The boy went to the window and watched the man from Dakota Inc. through the wavy glass.  The man pulled out his pistols and began firing them all around.  Into the air, into the ground, into nothing.  After a minute, the boy ran over to Lucy.  He shook her by her shoulder, which was as thin as the end of a broom handle.  He shook her roughly to wake her.  Perhaps too roughly for her health, but he was frantic.

“Lucy, wake up!”  he hissed, turning his head to the window where the shooting continued.  “We must leave. We must go now.  I don’t know where.  Maybe to the mountains.  Not back to Richmond because the only way back there is through town.”

He stood up and ran to the window.  The man was sitting on the wagon.  He was checking the bullets in his pistol, spinning the chamber deftly in his palm. The boy turned to Lucy.

“I will go and get mother.  We’ll leave now before more men from Dakota Inc. come.” He paused and his voice got quiet. He pressed his hand to the cold glass of the window.  “And they will come.  They will come by nightfall, if not sooner.  Several of them.”

He ran back to Lucy and knelt down beside her.

“We will go now, and leave the great trunks.  There is no time, and they are too heavy.”  He sighed and caressed his sister’s shoulder gently.  “It will be okay.  We don’t need them.  We’ll bring your quilt, and I can give you a coat.”

Lucy did not move.  Her head was buried under the colored quilt.  She opened her eyes, but she did not speak.  She looked out the little fuzzy holes in the quilt and saw that the front door of the ranch house was hanging open slightly.

She could see part of the wagon and she saw the man sitting on it.  He had two pistols in his hands and he was firing them across the plains of South Dakota.  Neither Lucy or the boy were startled by the shooting.  The boy continued to speak urgently to Lucy, and she continued to lay and stare out at the wagon and the man from Dakota Inc..  After a moment, she smiled.

A few minutes later the shooting ceased.  The man was out of bullets.  He put his pistols back in their holsters and pulled out a cigarette.

***

Mother would not leave the bed.  No matter what the boy said, she would not leave. Not for the boy, not for the man outside or for any other men from Dakota Inc..  Not for Lucy.  Not for Richmond.  Not for herself.

Mother was lying naked and still on the bed.  Her blood had become the temperature of the air in the room, and she could feel nothing. The boy averted his eyes and pulled the thin sheet over her.

“No, I will not leave with you, Jason.  They will have to come and take me away like they took father.  I will no longer go out to them.”

The boy pleaded with her, but she just shook her head.

“Cover my face with the sheet, Jason.  Everything is cold.”

But the boy did not.  He took her by the arm instead and began to gently pull her from the bed.

“No!” mother screamed, and jerked her arm back.  “Do not pull me!  No more of this, Jason!  Do you understand?  No more!”

The boy let go quickly and stepped back.

“Take Lucy and go far away,” mother said, her voice quiet again.  “Go cover yourself in the ocean if you must, but don’t go back to Richmond.  Don’t go back through the town.  Go the other way.”

The boy nodded sadly, but he did not bother speaking.  He took his hat from his head and put it to his chest and walked towards the bedroom door.

“Jason.”

The boy stopped.

“You cannot go back to Shadow ever again.  There is no good reason to go there.  There are other places, understand?” mother said.

“Yes, mother.”

“I know Dakota Inc. will try to give you a reason.  But the only reason they can give is themselves.  In Shadow there are no slaves to free.  There is no new country to build.”

“Yes, mother.”

Mother nodded and closed her eyes.  She turned her head towards the ceiling.

“No. No good reason at all.  In fact…” she paused and a little smile came to her face.  “All I have learned from this place, Jason, is that it is both the beginning and end of reason.  But who can live like that?”

She laughed a little.

The boy began to cry.

Mother did not seem to notice.  She continued speaking with her closed eyes to the ceiling.

“So go over the mountains.  But you cannot give that man the wagon and the horse. Oh yes, he will try to keep them.  He will try to take what he wants, but he must only take what you give him this time.”

Then she turned her head and opened her eyes, and her dark, red eyes were like bullets, and hot.  The boy’s tears began to dry as he looked back at them.

“And you can give him anything, Jason,” she hissed.  “Anything else you want.  Just not the wagon and the horse.  Do you understand?”

There was silence in the room for a few moments.  Not even the cold wind of South Dakota was blowing.

“Goodbye mother,” the boy said.  Then he left the room.

***

The boy walked past Lucy and the fire, and went to the open door of the ranch house. He stood at the doorway, off to the side, and watched the man some more.  The man was looking slightly impatient by this time.  He flicked his cigarette to the ground and pulled out a gold watch from behind his vest.  The man was in a hurry, the boy thought.  A hurry to get to Shadow, so that he could be in as equal a hurry to return to the ranch house.

The boy continued to watch him curiously.  After another moment, the man spat out a profanity and then threw his gold watch angrily to the ground.

Without turning to look at her, the boy told Lucy to keep her head under the quilt and to never mind what was about to happen outside.

“Pretend you are back in Richmond, Lucy,” he said.  “Or make believe it is the popping of the embers in the fire.”

Lucy whispered something back but the boy could not understand it.  And then there was something like small laughing and then only the sound of her breathing under the quilt.

The boy turned to look at her and he noticed that one of her bone-thin hands was sticking out from under the quilt.  He went to her and knelt down and took her hand.

“I must go out for a moment, Lucy,” he said.  “I am the smiling soldier that you dream of.  And I must go outside for a moment, but I will return soon.  And after I return all will be well.  All the fighting will have stopped, and my uniform will be clean, okay?”

There was a small laugh from under the quilt.

“And then we will leave this place.  I will be you soldier and I will come and ask for your hand in marriage and we will leave.  We will…we will go away to our honeymoon.  Yes, our honeymoon, Lucy.  Where everything will be quiet and sweet, like the smell of your fresh muffins.  And mother will stay here, of course, because she cannot come on our honeymoon with us.  Do you understand?”

There was another laugh. Then Lucy’s hand slipped back under the quilt.  The boy stood and pulled the pistol from his belt.  There was a little stinging under the bandage in his hand from where the gun was pressing on it, but mostly it felt okay.  He turned and went to the door of the ranch house, but this time he didn’t stop at the doorway.  He walked determinedly out into the fresh South Dakota morning, directly towards the man from Dakota Inc., who was still sitting in the wagon.  As he walked the boy stretched out his hand and pointed his pistol at the man, and held it very steady at the man’s heart.  He continued walking until he was right next to the wagon and pointing the gun up at the man.

The gun was high.  It led the boy as if it were his own head.  His body simply followed it around and did what it was directed.  There was no face.  Just a gun.  A floating, faceless gun.

The gun was very steady.  The boy learned that much from the War of the States.  The boy once heard one of the older boys say that if you raised your hand and your gun was not steady, then you should simply turn the gun around and shoot yourself so that you could at least be sure of hitting something.  Better that than make a waste of it.  The boy had no intention of making a waste of it now.

The man turned to the boy.  He quickly went for the guns in his holster, but then he remembered he was out of bullets.  So he did not bother taking hold of the guns.  He just held his hands over his holsters.  His eyes looked lost for a moment, and they wandered around frantically along the ground and then out to the horizon as if the man was looking for something but not finding it.

“You must leave right now and you must leave on foot,” the boy said.  “Mother says you cannot have the wagon.”

The man could not see the boy’s face too well from behind the gun so it was hard to read his eyes.  This was too bad, he thought.  Hard to know for sure when you can’t see the eyes.  But he thought he knew the boy pretty well from their earlier conversations.  He was not yet convinced he needed to be too worried.

“Your mother will take me into Shadow.  Then I will leave,” the man said.

“She is not going to Shadow.”

The man thought about this.  After a minute, he nodded.

“I see,” he said.  “I see that you have found your bullet after all.  Truly, you must be a rare kind of fool.”

“I’ve heard it before.”

“You have no idea what you’re doing.  Shooting a man.  You think that’s all?  Then you get to keep your wagon and a couple of women, and I am dead right here in your front yard?  Then that’s the end of it?  You could have stayed in the east, for that kind of foolish thinking.  You outsiders are all the same.  You never understand what it means to fit in.”

The boy was taken aback by this a little, and the gun wavered.  Then the boy closed his eyes and shook his head.  The gun steadied.

“I know what I’m doing,” he said, and opened his eyes.

“Boy, you would not be here if you knew what you were doing.”

The man sighed and sat up straight and looked around.

“No one would be here,” he muttered.  And then, “Richmond,” he scoffed and threw his cigarette to the ground.

The boy shook his head.  He turned a little to look at the ranch house, then quickly turned back to the man.  “I am sure there are a lot of words for you, but I don’t have time.  I’ve got…I’ve got questions.  But there is just no time for you, man.  Just leave.  Leave, and leave the wagon.”

“Your mother told you to shoot me, did she?” the man said.  “Is that it?  Son, your mother is a stranger.  A stranger’s words don’t mean anything.”

“But the wagon means everything,” the boy said.

“A stranger’s words and a stranger’s face,” the man continued.

“I don’t care.”

“You don’t care?” the man asked.

“No.”

“Well, what do you care about, then?”

“My wagon.”

The boy’s pistol went off five times.  The man fell backwards with a burst of escaping breath that sounded like all of Lucy’s breaths put together from the day she first got the sickness.

The tired horse that was hitched to the wagon suddenly came alive.  Her eyes went wide and her head reeled up and she pranced nervously for a minute.  It was the sound of the bullets, which cracked upon the South Dakota air like a hammer on a railroad spike.

The man slumped forward, his white shirt beneath his black coat soaked with blood.  His body then fell forward and landed on the horse’s back, which startled the poor animal even more.  She jumped and shook and the man’s body slid off of her and landed with a thud on the ground.

There was blood on the wagon and on the poor, tired horse, but the man was gone.  There was no one to force the boy, or his mother, or the horse, to go back to Shadow.

The boy looked down at the dead man and was relieved.  South Dakota was rid of him, and the boy was thankful.  Ten thousand blue soldiers had burned Richmond to the ground and none of them had the feel of an enemy like this man.  The boy’s heart raced with fright, then slowed in relief, then raced in fright again.  He put his gun in his belt and took a few steps back.

A moment later he realized his bandaged hand was throbbing.  Then he remembered Lucy.  He must take his sister and the bloody wagon and go.  There was no time to clean the wagon.  No time to clean the horse.

He turned and ran back to the house.  He got to the doorway and stopped.  He thought he saw something.  He went to the window, then let out a frightened cry.  There was a face in the window, with an open, moaning mouth, and it startled him.  But then he realized that it was just his face.  The glass in the window was wavy, and the reflection was strange.  The boy calmed himself and closed his mouth and looked at the window.  Just his reflection.  But when he closed his mouth, the mouth of the reflection seemed to stay open.  Open and gaping and gray like the sky.

The boy remembered his sister again and ran back inside the ranch house.  She was still under the colored quilt, and staring out the door.  She was still smiling a little, and her blinking and breathing told the boy that she was alive.  The boy ran to the bedroom to speak with mother one more time, but she was gone.  She had left the bed, and the boy did not see her anywhere.

There was no time.

He ran back to Lucy and knelt down and pulled her gently but quickly from under the quilt.  She was not asleep, but she also wasn’t quite awake. Embers popped from the fire and landed in her hair and even some on her face, but she didn’t notice.  The boy brushed them furiously from her hair, and they smeared black on her forehead.  And he remembered his sister’s imagination and how mother always said it was like lightning.  But now it was only smeared embers on her head, and this made the boy angry.

He smashed his fists in the fire and this sent even more burning embers over his sister, onto her hair and face and quilt.  The boy screamed in fright and frantically brushed them from her, but the quilt was burning.  He flung it off of her and stomped on it until the flames were out.

He looked around for something to cover her with, now that the quilt was finished.  There was nothing in the room.  An empty tin cup.  The broom.  An open door.  The dying fire.  He ran to the back bedroom and pulled the blanket from the bed off of the floor where mother had put it.  He ran to the window of the bedroom quickly and peered out.  There was the mountain in the distance.  A clump of trees.  Gray sky.  Mother was nowhere.

He went to the room with the hole and took a pillow, moist with the morning dew, and also the blanket off the bed.  In the corner of the room was a coat stand and he grabbed one of his old, gray woolen coats off of it. Then he went back to Lucy and lifted her up gently.  She was shivering and coughing at this point, and her thin white nightgown was wet with a cold sweat so that it stuck to her skin like a paste.  The boy put the wool coat on her and also one of the blankets.

The boy noticed with fear that Lucy seemed to weigh no more than the gun in his holster. And she seemed every bit thin enough to fit into the holster as well.  Light and thin enough to carry on his hip.  What had become of her?  Her full lips were now like the flap of an envelope over her teeth.  Her teeth were stained red with the blood of her coughing.  Her hair was thin and sticky and stringy, and it was plastered in formless, unsolvable tangles against her pale neck and forehead.  She coughed and shivered.  Then she smiled, and she said “Yes, yes, why thank you, sir,” over and over again.

The boy carried sister to the front door.  In the corner of the room in the shadows he saw a corner of one of the great trunks.  But there was no time.  None.  No time to go pick through it to find anything useful.  Too heavy for him to drag to the wagon.  He left it where it was, untouched.

He took his sister and the pillow and extra blanket to the wagon.  He put his sister on the bench where he could drive the wagon and she could lean on him.  The other things he put in the back.  There was a sharpness on the breeze.  Winter was blowing down the mountain.  But they were going up, the boy thought…up the mountain to meet whatever they would meet there, winter or otherwise.  There was nowhere else to go.  It was the only place around that looked any different to him.  Everything else was the same.  Except for Shadow, which was a grave.

A blast of wind came upon them as the boy climbed in the wagon next to his sister.  The razor sharp cold cut at the threads of his coat and he shivered.  The horse lowered her head and shuddered and waited for her directions.

“Good girl, good girl,” the boy said quietly.

He turned to his sister.

“Lucy,” he said.  “What should we name her?  We have never given her a name.”

Lucy smiled and shook her head.

“I’ve no idea,” she whispered.

The boy turned away from his sister and stared straight ahead.  It was a long way.  He lowered his head and put up his collar.

“Good girl, good girl,” he said, then pulled on the reigns and they started.

The boy ignored the road that led toward Shadow and took the wagon around the house, out the back.  The horse still had the streak of the man’s blood across her back.  But it was browning now.  Drying quickly, and growing lighter and lighter in color, like the color of the South Dakota dirt, with each passing moment.

The man from Dakota Inc. still lay on the ground.  And face down with eyes open he examined, with the deep, deep interest of the dead, the ground beneath him.  When the horse started moving, one of her hooves struck the man from Dakota Inc.’s head, and pushed it down, crushed, into the dirt.  The boy just shook his head and held onto his sister.  No wonder the horse did not have a name, he thought.  She couldn’t tell a dead man from the road in South Dakota.  What do you call a horse like that?

Soon they were moving quickly away from the ranch house, bumping and lurching along, toward the mountain.  The boy hoped to reach it soon.  Perhaps they would stay there for a while in a shelter that he would build.  Maybe they could even stay there forever if they needed to.  Maybe no one would bother looking for them there.  Maybe no one ever went to the mountain.  Maybe it was just something South Dakota looked at to pass the time.  Or perhaps he and Lucy would see what was on the other side and keep going.

Lucy drifted in and out of consciousness and lucidity as they went.  She opened and closed her eyes slowly, like a drunk man on the verge of sleep.  At one point she looked down at his hand with the bandage as it held the reigns.

“You have come for me, but where is your flower?  The red flower in your hand is gone.  Am I too late?” she said.

“No, Lucy.  We have just left.  We have a ways to go still.”

“Oh.  Good,” she said with a sigh, her unfocused eyes closing again.  “Then it is you, my soldier.  And we are leaving Richmond, then.  And the war is over and we are off to be married, and I will bake you muffins and they will be sweet.  But then where is the flower you brought for me?  I could have sworn I had seen it.”

The boy felt very sad.  He tried hard not to cry.

“Lucy, you are not too late.  We are still in Richmond, and are not quite away yet.  And the war is not over.  So there is plenty of time to bring you more flowers.  As many as you want.”

Lucy sighed and smiled.

“Then I am not too late,” she said.  “Thank you Jason.  The soldiers are still to come in their very clean uniforms.  And when I awake I will be married, and I will cook for my soldier and he will bring me flowers.”

“Yes.”

“I love you, Jason.”

“I love you, too.”

More flowers, the boy thought.  Flowers everywhere.  In the hands and on the ground and in the eyes and on the wagon and everywhere.

(CH. 4, PART 1)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

Bullet Three

Mother sat on the edge of the bed in the main bedroom of the ranch house and looked over the pages of the play that father had been writing.  It wasn’t the one that he intended to write, the one about his coming to South Dakota.  That one he never got to.  He was taken away by Dakota Inc. before he had a chance to start it.  The one that mother was looking at was one that he had written during the War.  He had written it to keep his mind on the things of Richmond, and to take it off of the killing that was going on north and south of the great city, in fields and over hills which, at the time, were far enough away to not be real, but close enough not to be a just dream.

Mother remembered how he used to sit in his chair near the window and sip his warm water, the half-finished pages of his play turning uselessly in his hand, his face turned to the window.  He would just stare for hours at the street beyond the glass where all the people walking—people he knew even from his youth—turned to strangers before his eyes.  He looked so sad, mother thought, as tears formed in her eyes.  How do you get over sadness like that?  Do you move to South Dakota?  Does that help?

Perhaps, she thought.

Perhaps it is the only way, in the end.

She looked down at the foot of the bed.  There were father’s boots, still neatly placed together.  Empty.

She turned again to the pages in her hand.  The last few were blank.  There was no ending to the play.  There was no ending because there was simply no ending.  The War  took care of that. The new play was to have started in South Dakota, but South Dakota was endless as well, mother thought.  Endless, all the way even to the ocean.  For it is all South Dakota, she thought, and then you fall into the water and are buried, and so even the oceans might as well be South Dakota.  Yes, there was truly no end in sight.

Without an ending, all of the pages might as well have been blank.  They might as well not have been written at all.  Mother remembered the pages of the newspapers, and the pages from the books that blew down the streets when the blue soldiers came, popping with sparks and ash, burning all of their pages blank.  She took father’s play and went over to the fireplace where Lucy was resting beneath the colored quilt and threw it in.

Then she went to the chair near the window and stared out at the plains beyond.  Lucy began to cough and shudder, but mother just stared and stared.  Soon, her eyes became blank.

Father was gone, and Jason could no longer work.  Dakota Inc. had forbidden it, and so he no longer went to the casino to work for Van Carlo. He spent his time hanging out near the ranch house, usually out back, brushing their one horse that pulled their small wagon, and speaking to her in quiet, gentle tones.

Mother was afraid that soon they would also come for Jason.  The boy was still strong, and useful, and if there was any chance of them getting paid, it would be through him.  And so the boy would be worth quite a lot to Dakota Inc.

‘Yes,’ she thought, ‘surely they will come for the boy soon.’

They would come with their remorseless faces and all their guns, and there would be bullets, bullets, everywhere.  Bullets in the bread and bullets in the soup and in the feed for the horse and bullets everywhere that would go down the throat the hard way.  So the best thing for the boy would be to stay out of sight; to never go out, and never, ever go into Shadow, and hope that enough time might pass that Dakota Inc. would forget about him.

‘But I can still work,’ mother thought.  There was a room in the ranch house with a hole in the ceiling where the boy never slept anymore. The boy only slept outside, on his back each night, his hands behind his head and staring up at the moon; and Lucy stayed under the colored quilt and could not move anymore because of the coughing which clung to her like a thin, damp nightgown.

Mother remembered a watch she had in a drawer in the bedroom.  It was broken and no longer told time, but it was made of gold and still worth something.  She stood up from the window and went to get the watch.  She’d use the watch to buy something so that she could work in the only way a woman like her could in Shadow.  The fair-skinned women in town said that the smoke made it easier, but the smoke cost money, and that was the reason she needed the watch.

Whiskey was available, too, and easier to get, and she wondered for a brief moment if she should try whiskey instead of the smoke.  But the problem was that she never really had a taste for whiskey.  Well, she actually did a little, before the war.  But during the war, they would give it to the soldiers when they had been shot through the arm or leg, just before they began to saw at the torn and ragged limbs, so now whiskey tasted like amputation to mother. No, she couldn’t even bring herself to smell whiskey anymore, let alone drink any, so it would have to be the smoke for her.

The fair skinned women told mother that the smoke would go into her mind and make her think about some strange things, but she doubted that they could be any stranger than the thoughts that were already in there.  She would join the fair skinned women in their work, otherwise mother knew there would be no surviving South Dakota, especially its winter.  And even with the work, it would be hard season for them to bear.

Mother went into town to see the fair-skinned women, and bought some smoke with her gold watch.  Then, each evening, just after the sun began to set, she left her children at home and climbed into the wagon with its one tired horse and rode to Shadow.  In the wagon on the way to town, mother would use the smoke, and then go and find a man to pleasure.  It didn’t matter who the man was as long as he was with Dakota Inc. Dakota Inc. organized the fair-skinned women, and Dakota Inc. men were the only men the women took into their rooms and their wagons and their tents.

So, for a few long and painful weeks–hazy, and void of form or reason–mother did this, but at the end of it there was still no money for the family to live on.  Because of her husband’s debt, Dakota Inc. took a percentage of what mother earned.  It was a very large percentage; practically all of it.  What was left over went for the smoke, and mother found herself beginning to use it more and more, until the boy noticed that the smell of it became like the smell of mother herself.  It was all around her, and announced her presence before she was even seen.  It came before her like an emissary, and it followed after her like the long train of a filthy wedding dress.

Every morning mother would sleep in late.  The boy would bring her some hot water and some bread for breakfast, but she would never take it.  It would sit on the bedside table as mother just lay there. Eventually, the man in the bed with her—there was always a man—would nod and smile at the boy and then reach over and take the bread and eat it himself.

“Much obliged,” he’d say.

They were different men from Dakota Inc. most of the time.  Mother did not really have any regulars, and though the boy knew that the men were always different, to him they all looked the same.  The same man, just dozens of them, all with different names.

After bringing bread and water to mother, the boy would bring some to Lucy, who was always laying by the fire under the colored quilt.  But she would never eat, either.

“Give it to the birds, Jason,” she’d say.

            “What birds, Lucy?”  It’s winter now, and I haven’t seen many.”

            “Ah,” Lucy said softly, her eyes closed, as they were most of the time.  “So they have not followed us from Richmond.  I see…they have kept going to the ocean, while we stopped here.”

            The boy told her that he didn’t understand.  Then Lucy told him it was angels; that she meant the angels.  Then she smiled and said that she was sleeping a lot these days and to never mind her.

            “It seems that I am the fool now, Jason,” she said, smiling. “Not you so much.”

***

            The next day the boy went to bring the bread and hot water to mother, but she was not in her room, and neither was the man from Dakota Inc.  He walked out of the bedroom and laid the bread and water near Lucy’s head, near the fire.

            “Lucy, I can’t find mother.  She’s not here, and the bed is made.  I don’t think she ever returned from last night,” he said.

            His sister responded, but he couldn’t tell what she said.  She was speaking in whispers a lot these days because her throat hurt from coughing so much, and she was so tired.  Also, her breathing was very raspy, like waves upon rocks.

            There was a small cup of water with a little sugar in it next to her head that the boy brought to her each night to soothe her cough.  The boy looked into the cup and noticed that the water was gone, but there was a small amount of blood at the bottom of the cup instead.

            His sister barely made a wrinkle underneath the colored quilt.  She was so thin; thinner than a ghost.  Maybe she was already a ghost, the boy thought.  She was the transparent pale of a ghost, and she certainly spoke like he imagined a ghost would speak.

            From the fire place some embers popped out and landed on the quilt.  They were not dangerous.  Just cold embers, and they quickly extinguished upon the thick quilt covering Lucy. One of them landed on a strand of Lucy’s hair, and it began to burn along it slowly until the boy reached down and squeezed it out with his fingers.

            He picked Lucy up and moved her back a little from the fire. She turned her head up to him slowly, but did not open her eyes.

            “Do not move me, brother,” she said in a whisper.  “I like the flickering light of the fire in front of my closed eyes.  It makes me think of Richmond during the war, and the popping of embers reminds me of the sounds of the muskets in the distance.  I remember when I would stand at the window with closed eyes, for I could not bear to look at all the burning.  And I thought that if I closed my eyes, I could see something beautiful instead.”

            The boy started to say something, but stopped.  He sighed sadly and moved her back nearer the fire.  Then he sat down next to her, and stroked her hair gently.

            “Lucy, I’m worried.  I am worried about mother.”

            After a long pause, Lucy responded.

            “I am in the kitchen with the muffins, Jason.  Mother is here.  The muffins have red frosting, and they are glorious. All the soldiers have returned and are smiling, and even their horses are smiling.”

            The boy looked confused.

            “Lucy, the kitchen is empty” he said.  “There is only a little bread and water next to you here.  There are no soldiers.  There haven’t been any soldiers for a long time. Except…” he paused.  “From what I hear, the blue soldiers are coming closer this way in South Dakota.  I do not want them here, to be honest.  But they will be here soon enough anyway, and it will be like Richmond again, and you won’t need the fire before your closed eyes to imagine it.”

            After a moment, the boy said, “Wherever we go, it seems the guns always follow,” He sighed again.

“We need to get out of here, Lucy.  Perhaps West, to the mountains.  I don’t know.  But mother has not returned from last night.  I hope she comes soon.”

            “No, Jason,” Lucy said.  “The soldiers have come home, for they came in the night, one by one.  All are tall and grand, and their uniforms are as clean as the day they marched from Richmond.  There is no speck of blood on them, and the only red is the frosting of the muffins, which mother has baked.”

            At that moment, the boy became angry.  His sister’s imagination had become greater since her voice became weaker.  She was spending too much time in front of the fire, just as she spent too much time in front of the window during the War of the States. He was angry at her and angry at himself for being such a fool.  He could not understand his sister, or her imagination, and he hated himself for it.

            He stood up in a flash and ran to the chair near the window.  There was a holster with a long barreled pistol hanging from it.  The pistol was from the blue soldier that he’d killed with his knife during the war.  He grabbed the gun with its six-chambered heart and turned it on his sister.  Perhaps this would open her eyes.  Perhaps this would turn her away from the flashing before her eyes, he thought.

            “Open your eyes, Lucy!” he screamed.  “And help look for mother!”  Then he raised the barrel up so that it pointed just above Lucy’s head and fired it into the wall. Each time he fired, he punctuated it with these words:

            “There is a soldier!  There is Richmond!  There is a soldier!”  And he fired until the gun was empty.

            “There is a soldier!  There is mother!  There is father!  And the muffins are hard and will smash your teeth to pieces when you eat them!  Now where is mother?!  She has not returned from last night!”

            Lucy shrieked in fright and covered her head with the quilt. Her body shook with violent tremors, and the quilt writhed over her as though wild horses were trampling upon it.

            “No, Jason!” she screamed.  “I have not seen her because my eyes are not open!  Ask the man! Ask father!  There is always a man in the house, and he must still be here!  There is always a man in the house!” And she sobbed heavily and continued to shake uncontrollably.

            The boy threw the smoking gun to the floor roughly.

            “No!” he said, grabbing Lucy. “The men mother brings are not father!  And this is not Richmond!  But I can make it feel like Richmond, by heavens, if you do not open your eyes!”  He wheeled and picked up the gun.  Then he pressed the warm barrel against Lucy’s forehead where it left a circular mark.  “Do you feel this?  This is the clean soldier!  This is mother and father!  Now help me!”

            Lucy put her hands over her ears and shook her head wildly.  And with all the strength she had left, she replied as plainly as she could.

            “I don’t know, Jason!” she cried.  “She is off with a stranger!  How can I know her place when all the men are strangers?!”

            The boy let go of her, and she collapsed, sobbing, to the floor, her limbs tangled awkwardly around and through the colored quilt.

            “She is gone, Jason.  Just gone.  She is not herself, and the man is a stranger and no one, and so we must make them something…something we can recognize. And it is up to us to do this because father is no longer here to help us.  And so I don’t care what you think or what you say, Jason!  I will see the very clean soldiers, and I will see the muffins and they will be sweet, because what else can they be?  What else?  There is nothing else!

            The boy recoiled at his sister’s harsh reply.  He sat back, almost as if pushed, onto the hard, wooden floor of the ranch house.  The heavy gun in his hand made a dull thud as it plopped to the floor, his limp hand still holding the grip.

            “And you, Jason, are a hypocrite,” his sister continued, her voice muffled as she buried her sunken face deep into the colored quilt.  “You…with a mind like a mirror pointed to the gray skies of South Dakota.  A knife?  You used a knife, and you think that makes you better than that blue soldier you killed.  And now you have his gun and you point it at your sister. You would just as well have left him alive and not taken it.”

            After that she said nothing, and neither did the boy.  There was no sound in the house except for the wind blowing through the holes in the wall, and the sound of his sister’s breathing, which was now like shallow creek water over very small stones.

            After a minute had passed, Lucy spoke again. “Jason?  Jason?” Her voice was a whisper.

            “I’m here, Lucy.”  And when the words came out, the boy was surprised to hear that his own voice sounded almost as weak as hers did.  He felt numb all over.

            “I forgive you, brother.  You are just an empty sack.  Just a fool, and a dullard, with an imagination like a crack in the desert.  But I will fill you, Jason.  With pure, white flower of high quality, and I will make the muffins, and they will be sweet, with red frosting.  And I also notice the flower you bring to me.  The gun, let’s say, is the green stem and the bullet hole through your hand is a red flower, a corsage, and you have come as a soldier for his bride.”

            The boy looked down at his hand and that was when the pain started. It was agonizing, like a storm in his hand, with piercing lightning.  If he was numb before, he wasn’t now, and he began to cry.

            He leaned into Lucy, and cried with many kinds of pain into the quilt.  Then he stood and ran to the kitchen and tore hastily a piece of kitchen cloth as a makeshift bandage.  Shuddering in pain and fright, he ran from the house, the pistol in his good hand and the storm and the blood in the other.

            He ran a few paces from the door, then stopped.  He looked out across the empty, quiet landscape and realized that he had nowhere to go.  Even in such great pain, there was no one who would take him.  He turned back to the ranch house and saw the new holes he’d created with his gun.  Then he gnashed his teeth in pain, and tore from the house in a sprint.  He needed to find a some place for his hand.  He needed to find mother, also.

            He got to the end of the road, then stopped and knelt over.  He was breathing hard, and the air that came out of him was as cold as the air that went in.  It was frigid in South Dakota, and the wind was moving.  There was no smell or sound upon it.  The cold wind carried everything away in the winter, like a silent train heading for the coast.

            Then there came a sound, and the boy looked up to see his mother coming in the wagon. There was a man with her that the boy did not recognize.  The boy stood as mother approached at a slow pace.  She stopped the wagon next to him and the boy looked at her but he didn’t know what to say or how to look or what to do.  He put the pistol in his trousers and clutched his hand and breathed hard. Then he looked at the man and hated him.

            The man looked straight ahead at the house for a long moment, and there was satisfaction in his eyes, as if he’d already gotten what he came for somehow.  Then he turned toward the boy and smiled.

            “Did you shoot yourself in the hand, boy?” he asked.

            The boy hated him. He wore a black suit with a white shirt.  Dakota Inc. kind.

            “I did, and it is very painful.”

            “It happens,” the man said.  Then he pulled a coin from his pocket and threw it to the boy.  The boy instinctively reached out with both hands and caught it, and there was a searing pain as the coin touched the wound.

            “It is a good day for me,” the man said.  “I knew this woman had a son your age that was working for Van Carlo.  I’d heard about this son, how he killed a blue soldier in Richmond.  We all thought there was a very good chance that one of us would see a bullet eventually.”

            The man smiled again and shook his head and chuckled.

            “Well, I’ve sure seen the bullet.  It’s right there in your hand.  So we’ll just head up to the house and do what we came to do, eh?”

            “The bullet is not in my hand,” the boy said.  “It went through it.”

            “Then it is lost.  And that’s just as good, I suppose.”

            The boy did not reply.  He looked with uncertainty and disappointment at the hole in his hand. The pain had subsided by this point. The hand had mostly gone numb.

            “Yep, it is a good day for me,” the man chuckled. “A boy who shoots his own hand will have trouble finding the bullet, I think.  If I were a gambling man, I’d say it’s not in him to find it.”

            “You are not a gambler,” the boy said.  “I’ve never seen you in the casino.  You are from Dakota Inc..”

            “I am from Dakota Inc..  We are all from Dakota Inc..”

            “But there was one man who did not have a black suit.  He came first, just a few weeks before you.”

            The man nodded.  “That was Jimmy.  I knew him.  He is dead now because he was not supposed to come.  He broke the rules.  So, you see, we are all from Dakota Inc., or we are not at all, understand?”

            “What rules?”

            “The new rules. Your mother is very comely, so it was important that we make new rules. We make them every day, it seems.”

            The man sighed and looked anticipatory and bored at the same time.

            “Take the coin,” he said.  “Go to town and see the doctor.  Tell him you are from me.  He’ll know better than to think you are lying.”

            Mother said, “When the doctor fixes your hand, bring back the bandage.  Do not leave it there.”

            “Who is this man, mother?” he said.

             Mother did not respond.  She just stared straight ahead at the ranch house and started the wagon moving slowly again.  After the horse, the tired horse, who moved with her head lower than her tail, had gone a few paces, mother turned back to the boy.

            “Do not speak to me again, Jason,” she said.

            “Trust me, boy,” said the smiling man from Dakota Inc.. “And go and fix your hand.”

            So the boy went to Shadow.  None of the men from Dakota Inc. bothered him as he walked down the street because of the coin in his hand.  He found the doctor and gave him the coin, and the doctor fixed his hand.  He worked without many words.  He just muttered softly under his breath and said “There, there, lad” in an Irish accent a few of times. “There, there, lad.”

            After his hand was fixed and had a new bandage he went back to the ranch house, but he left the old bandage at the doctor’s.  When he finally remembered that mother had told him not to leave it, he had gone too far and it was too late to turn back to get it.  Surely the doctor had disposed of the bandage by now, the boy thought.  Then he marveled at what a fool he was, and at how quickly he could forget mother’s words.

            The boy arrived home a few hours later and stood at the door of the ranch house.  But he did not go in.  He heard Lucy coughing weakly, and there was the now-familiar smell from inside.  The boy could smell it from under the door, and from around the top and through the weak spots in the wood of the door. Rotten. Meaty. Organic, but somehow unnatural. He turned away from the door and felt the odorless wind of South Dakota across his face.  The wind took everything away.  Everything.  The cold numbed his face to where he could not feel it and it to where seemed as flat and featureless as the very land around him.  He could not bring himself to go back inside the house.

            He went back to Shadow and wandered the streets.  No one from Dakota Inc. bothered him because they saw that, even though he no longer had the coin, he did have a new bandage on his hand.

(CH. 3, PART 2)-The Boy Stranger: A free allegorical novel

The Strangers gang rode out from camp, making their way slowly towards Shadow.  There they would stay for a while, just on the outskirts near the great rocks, then they would head for the mountain.

The hat Rifle wore was still acting like a bandage for his bruised and bloodied head, thanks to the pistol whip from Fire.  But his mouth hurt too, and unfortunately there was no bandage for his mouth.  Not even any bandanas like Leonard had to cover up the pain.  The only thing on his face was the large fish hook that bound his lips together.  But the fish hook was getting harder and harder to see as the blood began to build up and cake around it.

Behind his fastened lips was half a tongue.  The other half was back at camp, lying in the dirt near the opening of his tent which was still flapping.  The other Strangers had taken their tents with them, but not Rifle.  He left it, set up and empty.

 With half a tongue and lips bound together with a hook it was hard for Rifle to speak, or to cry, or even to breath.  So he said nothing.  He kept his eyes forward…so far forward that they seemed to drift far out in front of his head, just above the nose of his horse.  He looked this way and that, and thought about the fact that he would track this boy down, just as he had promised Leonard.  He would track him all the way to the top of the mountain if he had to.

The Strangers rode on and on in silence until the morning turned to dusk.  They were just silhouettes against the horizon.  The coat of Leonard, who was the last in the line of Strangers, billowed forward with the South Dakota prairie wind and threw an abnormally long and inconsistent shadow across his gang.

Rifle noticed that it was getting on nighttime, and once again he thought about resting in his tent on his bedroll.  He was tired, and could not help but to think of dreaming.

He thought about the fact that he had been dreaming more and more about the strange woman.  Not the woman from the Ranch house—not the wife of the fat man.  No, the woman he saw the other day.  He wondered what she was like, for he did not get to talk to her.  He wondered if her fingers were cold just like his own mother’s fingers were always cold because of the wind that came through the thin walls of their home in South Dakota, a long time ago.

But on that day, Leonard also knew that Rifle had seen the woman.  He told Rifle to forget the woman, she was helpless.  But Rifle could not forget her because she reminded him of his mother.  And that night he laid on his bedroll in his tent and he dreamed of his mother.  The next day he got up early and went out and looked around the camp and tried to find the woman again.  But she was gone, Leonard said.  Leonard was up early too, and had sent the woman away.

Rifle was very sad, and was angry with Leonard for sending the woman away, and not telling him and not letting him speak with her.  When Rifle saw the woman, things made sense to him.  Even Leonard and the Strangers and everything they did made some sense to him.  But this…this sending the woman away, it made no sense at all, and Rifle was very disappointed and angry.

It was that morning, after he had told Rifle that he sent the woman away, when Leonard told him that he and Fire would ride to the ranch house and collect the man called Holland for Dakota Inc.  Rifle was not looking forward to the ride because he would have a lot of time to be tempted to think about the woman he saw in camp.

He was tempted and gave into it.

The day went by and he rode on and on with Fire toward the Ranch house.  He realized that the strange woman was gone for good, and he found himself greatly missing her, and his own mother.

And now, as the Strangers gang rode to Shadow, and after they would go to the mountain, Rifle was missing his mother some more, and remembering how cold her fingers were when he was a little boy.  Cold from the cold wind of South Dakota.

All of the Strangers looked the same.  All of the Strangers wore ironic deputy badges on their vests, which were covered in dirt and dust and tarnish.  The people who had seen the Strangers gang and their badges did not know what the badges meant. Most of the Strangers were ex-lawmen, so that might have explained it.  But then Rifle knew that one had been a Confederate soldier at the very beginning of the War and another a bounty hunter from Mexico, and Leonard’s history was an utter mystery to both Stranger and man, so who knew what the badges meant, really?  Probably nothing.  And knowing Leonard, that was the whole idea.

The Strangers all wore pale gray hats and identical long gray coats that were only ever taken off when they were bathing, which was usually in a cold river, or a stream, or under the rain.  The Strangers did not like to be indoors, and they never went inside except for a short time, and never for the night.  South Dakota was where they belonged, Leonard told them.  And outside was South Dakota.  There was too much individuality inside.  People kept all the things they brought with them inside, he’d say.  But when they came out into the frigid western wind, they were all the same, and they knew where they really were.

So their coats were their covering, Leonard told them.  Gray, as the sky of South Dakota was gray.  When it rained, or snowed, the coats got wet, and stayed wet as long as the sky was wet.  When the coats dried, the sky was dry.  Their long gray coats moved as the sky of South Dakota moved.  When seen from a distance, the Strangers blended in neatly with the sky and the ground of South Dakota, having something of both of these things in the way they dressed and moved.  They were not invisible, of course.  The Strangers could be seen, if you looked carefully.  But they looked like ghosts in rags when compared to other riders on the plains.

Their horses were as sullen and quiet as the Strangers were, and pale, every one of them.  Spiritless animals, they were.  They could move quickly, but never seemed to hurry.  When they ran, their hooves moved lightly across the dirt, and did not make much noise or kick up much dust.  They were vapid when moving at any significant speed, formless pale blurs beneath the Strangers.  Just fog.

The infrequent descriptions of the Strangers gang in the papers or telegrams always seemed more suited to geography or weather than to men.  This was a good thing for the Strangers.  It kept potential pursuers—outlaws, the army, federal marshals or other lawmen—chasing rocks and clouds half the time instead of the gang.

Leonard led the Strangers with his one good eye, an eye that bled a little constantly from the hairline cut that ran from the bottom right corner to the upper left.  It was a cut that never healed.  Were it not for the blood, one could not see this cut unless they were very close to it, and the only man that had ever gotten that close to Leonard’s eye was the man who slashed it.

            Rifle looked up and saw the mountain in the distance.  To the right, about two miles from where the Strangers were, was the town of Shadow.  About three miles to the north was the ranch house where they had taken the fat man, Holland.  To the left of the Strangers, about a hundred yards away, were the large rocks.  Leonard told the Strangers to halt.  He told them to set up camp and to prepare dinner.  Rifle wasn’t hungry of course, but he was tired and ready to sleep and ready to dream about the woman.

            Leonard told them they would stay there for a little while.  Then they would move towards the mountain, and Van Carlo’s good boy.

            This journey, Rifle knew, all started with the meeting with Dakota Inc., several months ago.  That had been the first time the Strangers were at the large rocks outside of Shadow, because Leonard had learned that the outlaw Company was hiring gangs to work for them.

Leonard greatly hated outlaws.  Many times he would take their money, then trick them and kill them.  He used them as tools, but they were not his tools like the Strangers were his tools.  He hated them. They were simply fuel to be burned up as the Strangers moved around South Dakota.

The thing Leonard was most interested in was finding Van Carlo.  The Strangers would go from town to town, working occasionally with outlaw groups to make some money, tricking them, killing them, and looking for Van Carlo.  Leonard had sent Rifle and Fire to Shadow for a time, to negotiate a little deal with Dakota Inc., and to look around the town.

Dakota Inc. found Leonard in the way that it was whispered to them by a Stranger.  The Stranger was Fire, and he spent some time in Shadow milling around, very easily blending in and looking like someone people knew, and like someone who had lived there for years.  Fire was very good at this sort of thing.

He heard that Dakota Inc. was in need of gangs for hire, and he was the one who suggested Leonard and his Strangers gang.  Dakota Inc. felt that they knew this gang, and somehow had gotten it into their minds that they had heard some good things about them.  The Strangers worked clean, like the wind, and never left a trail.

But hired guns were a risky business, and Dakota Inc. understood this.  They were an expensive commodity that had no real loyalty.  Not even to money, and that was the problem. Hired guns could kill anyone they chose, regardless of the money.  And sometimes they did.  And if they were good, then they worked clean, and got away with it.  But Dakota Inc. also knew that hired guns were tools that, like any dangerous tool, had to be used every so often, whether you wanted to or not.  A saw might fall and cut your hand, but you still pulled it out of the shed when you needed it.

Fire told Dakota Inc. to send a man with a yellow mustache and yellow hair to a certain place outside of Shadow near some rocks.  When the man arrived, he was to waive a white handkerchief around his head.  Then the man was to remove his hat and put a black hood over his face with two holes cut out for the eyes.  Then he would put his hat back on, over the hood.

After this, three Strangers would approach him, and the man with the yellow mustache was to draw his gun and point it at the Strangers.  Then he would lead the Strangers at gunpoint to Shadow and to the place where they would meet with Dakota Inc.  The man with the yellow mustache was not to speak at all during the ride to Shadow or during the meeting, and was not to remove his hood until Leonard and his Strangers had left his sight.

***

“Why use the Strangers?” Leonard said. “We know you.  You’ve shot men in the streets of Shadow before, for everyone to see.”

Rocky Mote, the head of Dakota Inc. smiled and lit a cigar. He’d gotten over his initial shock of seeing the man, Leonard.  If he was a man, that is, Rocky thought.  There was something unnerving about the Stranger, and he found it difficult to be completely at ease around him.  He was there, standing in the middle of the relatively barren Dakota Inc. office, but there was an emptiness about him…a literal emptiness.  As if you could walk through him if you wanted to.  But not in a ghostly way.  It was not like he was some sort of apparition.  It was like he wasn’t there at all. Like you were talking to the wall, or to the air, and the wall and the air were talking back.  Rocky found himself dying to look behind the gray coat of the Stranger.  He honestly did not know what he’d find.  He half expected nothing at all.

“True,” Rocky said.  “And also true is that you know us.  This is the very reason why we hire men like you now.  The marshals and the Pinkertons have been sniffing closer lately.  So it appears that you aren’t the only ones who know us. Even the army is never far away these days.”

Leonard nodded sympathetically.

“Eastern hypocrites,” Rocky continued, “grumbling about cleaning up the west.  They send the Indians into dry gulches with nothing but diseased infected blankets.  Yankee factories with facades like shouting skulls grind their lifeless workers into meat cakes.  And yet they come out here to clean us up?  Six hundred thousand dead from the War heaped up with legs and arms twisted like circus freaks, and they’ve come to teach us ethics?”

Leonard nodded again. He approached the desk where Rocky was sitting and grunted.  On the desk was a ledger, with rows and columns of numbers and dollar signs scratched all up and down it.

“Eastern morality is simply the turning of pages,” Leonard said, leafing through the pages of the ledger, “one after the other, on and on.”  He kept turning pages until he found a blank one, then he stopped and put his finger in the middle of it. “It’s just business.  Same as everything.  Everything but the Strangers.”

Rocky reached up and snapped the ledger closed.  Leonard deftly and smoothly removed his hand before the book could catch his fingers.

With a growl, Rocky quickly put the ledger in one of the desk’s drawers.

“We do not want any connection to Holland Credence.  None at all,” he said, giving Leonard a stern look. Then he sighed and leaned back in his chair.  He looked slightly despondent. “The days of the men behind these desks going out and shooting a man dead in the streets are over.  Now, we stay behind the desks as much as we can.  It’s better for business.”

The Dakota Inc. boss lifted his left leg onto the knee of his right and removed his boot.  Grimacing, he rubbed his foot gingerly.  His feet always hurt these days.  He wore nice boots, but they were too tight.  But he liked it that way.  It reminded him of the dangers of being too comfortable.

“Your feet hurt,” Leonard noted.

“Yes.  I should put something else on, but these boots were expensive.”

“But you’d be more comfortable in something else,” Leonard said.

Rocky looked angry.  “I will decide my own comfort.  No one does it for me in South Dakota.”

Leonard’s eye began to bleed a little heavier; the bandannas went in and out of his mouth a little quicker.

“I see you prefer sitting to standing because standing makes your feet hurt,” Leonard said.  “It would seem that the ground of South Dakota has much to say about your comfort, Mr. Mote, originally of Oklahoma.”

Rocky looked at the Stranger with the one eye, and decided that he did not like him one bit.

“What are we talking about here?” he said, not hiding his annoyance. “Boots?  Posture preferences of an old man?  This reminds me of the days of fighting the Mexicans. I understood just enough of their babble for it to be maddening.  So let’s cut it.  I’m paying you, remember.  I was told by one of your Strangers to not ask you questions and to let you do what you do.  I expect the same from you, bandit.”

The depression in the bandanna that was Leonard’s mouth changed into the shape of a smile.  The eye bled even heavier.

“Bandit?  I’m the masked bandit?  Oh yes, now I understand,” he nodded, “but you.  You’ve been killing with your face uncovered and your head bald for years, and have never seen the gallows.” He pointed a finger at Rocky.  “Not because you could not be connected, but because you had power around here.  If you cannot do it yourself now, then what power do you have left?  What authority?  The President can come to South Dakota and kill the Indians in the broad daylight.  But what can you do?”

Rocky snickered.  “Money is power.  Murder is not.  Murder is something that money allows you to do.  It’s just another expensive commodity that most cannot afford.  Who cares how it’s done?  Who cares who the tool is?”  Rocky stood, and pointed a finger back at Leonard.  “But you need to understand something, Stranger.  The President is like you.  You’re a pauper, just like he is.”

“And we will take your money,” Leonard said, dropping his hand and stepping back.  “But this deal marks the end of your organization.  Hiring out this sort of thing is a gamble of long odds.  Just ask Van Carlo.”

At the mention of the gambler’s name, Rocky’s head snapped up.  He stared at leader of the Strangers with a clenched jaw.  Then he relaxed, and breathed out slowly.

“You never mind, him,” he said.  He lifted a satchel of money and dropped it on the desk with a leathery thud.  “Just do it.” Then he tipped his hat tersely, and walked quickly out of the room.

Leonard tipped his own hat and nodded at the man’s back.

“Now there is a man whose own mother would no longer recognize,” he said a few moments later.  “She would say, ‘What has happened to my darling boy from Oklahoma?  He seems so different.’”

The man with the yellow mustache was still in the office, wearing the black hood.  He stood near a window, uncertain as to what to do.

“Take off your hood,” Leonard said to him.

“But I was told…”

“How dare you,” Leonard said angrily.  “Show your face.” He pulled a long rifle from somewhere behind his coat and, with one arm only, aimed it at the man’s chest.

There was fear in the eyes inside the holes.  When the man removed the hood, the fear was still there.

“Where are you from?” Leonard asked.

“New York,” the man replied, trying to hide the fear in his voice.

Leonard lowered his rifle. “Don’t ever cover your face again.  You are no longer Leonard.  Now, it’s just me again.”

Then, all three Strangers left with the money.

(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.

(CH. 2, PART 3)-The Boy Stranger: A Free Novel

          “You’re not a very good gambler, Jason.” Van Carlo said.  It was early in the morning.  “I don’t think you’d ever make it on this side of the table.  Your family is starving, and you still don’t take any more from me than you did when you first started.”

            “I’m sorry,” the boy said, staring out the window of the casino.

            “And I’m angry about it.  Which is strange, I know.  I should be happy to have such a fool for a telegraph.  Maybe I’m the fool.”

Van Carlo turned away from the boy and looked at his chips.  He was on a break between games, and the other gamblers had stepped away from the table.

            “I don’t think you are a fool, Van Carlo” the boy said.  “You’re the only one who can look out this window and see things as they really are in South Dakota.”

            Van Carlo turned to look at the boy again.

“Boy, you are hard to read.  I look at your face, and all I see is nothing.  Maybe you would make a good gambler after all,” He paused for a moment.  The he said, “There is only one more thing you need.”

The boy looked out the window again, burying his head behind the velvet curtain. “What is that?”

            “To take more money. Until then, you are no gambler.  I don’t know what you are.”

“Mm,” the boy said. He was barely paying attention to Van Carlo’s words.

            Van Carlo shook his head.  “Dead.  Your family.  That’s what they are. At least they can claim it.  But you, I have no idea.  You come to work, but you don’t make any money.  You have a face fit for anything, but you do nothing with it.  Truly, you are a strange boy.”

            “Mm,” the boy said again.

            The boy turned to the side and the lethargic light from the window struck his face, making half of it gray and overcast.

‘He looks like a man today,’ Van Carlo thought.

The boy sighed and turned completely away from the window.  The velvet curtain fell across the panes and the streets of South Dakota were blacked out and only the dim of the casino remained.

“What’s going to happen to my family, Van Carlo?”

Van Carlo sighed.  “They are just a number in a book in some Company office in Shadow, Jason,” he said.  “That’s Dakota Inc.  You warned your father about them?”

“Yes.”

“Stuck in the drawer, he is,” Van Carlo said.  “I’m sorry.”

The boy nodded.  Then he didn’t say anything for a long time.

“What’s wrong?” Van Carlo said.

“I don’t want to say, Van Carlo.  You will think I am a fool.”

“I already think that,” he said.  “All boys are fools whose fathers are fools.”

“Then you know what’s happened to my father.”

“Yes. They have come and taken him away.  Now only your mother is left.  She has to be both your mother and your father now.”  He took a chip and spun it.  “It is a hard place to be in, especially in South Dakota.”

“Taken him away?” the boy asked.  “That’s not what I meant.  He is in bed, and he never leaves.”

Van Carlo looked very sad.  “No. They’ve taken him, and he is dead today.  So what I’m saying is…” he stood up and put his hand on the boy’s shoulder. “…to take more money.  It doesn’t matter anyway.  I don’t go anywhere to spend it.”

The boy turned away.  “I don’t believe you,” he said.

Van Carlo sat down and picked up his cards.  “You don’t have to believe me.  Pretty soon it will be time for you to get out of here, and then you’ll go home and see.  When the daylight has broken and the gray clouds are bright enough for you to see the road, you’ll see.  Just as sure as you saw the blue general that they said would never come.  Dakota Inc. does not hide such things.  They make them plain for all of us to see.”

“Then I prefer to wait until then,” the boy replied.

“Suit yourself.”

The boy looked at the empty seats across the table.  The other gamblers were still taking a break.

“I wish I could read faces so well…like you Van Carlo,” the boy said.

Van Carlo shrugged. “Don’t do this to yourself.  This was your father’s doing.  None of this is your fault.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

(CH. 2, PART 2)-The Boy Stranger: A free novel

The boy arrived home early the next morning, just as the sun was rising.  Van Carlo had sent him on several long errands after their conversation the night before, and he was tired.

He didn’t skim for himself any of the money Van Carlo sent with him to buy things.  He still didn’t feel entirely comfortable with taking money from the gambler. He didn’t fully understand Van Carlo and it didn’t seem right to take money until he really knew who he was taking it from.  For the time being, he was content to listen to Van Carlo and to take the little money he gave him outright at the end of the night.

When the boy arrived back at the ranch house, he was eager to talk to someone about all of the things Van Carlo had told him. But he did not want to talk with father just yet.  He preferred mother, or even better, Lucy.  He wanted to see what Lucy thought, but he could not find her.  He could not find mother, either.  A note on the stove told him that they had left early that morning for Shadow and would not be back until later in the afternoon.

There was a smoldering fire in the fireplace in the living room, and the boy put a tin cup of water on some of the burning coals.  It was just a small, useless fire, not dangerous. It was barely hot enough to heat his water.

He put a little tea in the water after a while and sat in a chair near the window and began to drink it in unhurried sips.  He heard a shuffling in the bedroom and what sounded like the whisper of two men talking to each other. One of the voices sounded like father’s.  Then, after a moment, he realized the other voice was father’s, too.  Father was talking to himself in whispers.

The boy went to the back of the ranch house to his parents’ bedroom.  He found father standing with his ear against one of the thin walls.  There were cracks in the wall, especially around the windows, and the boy could feel a little of the cold wind of South Dakota on his cheeks as he entered the room.

“What are you doing, father?” the boy asked.

“Oh.  Jason.  You’re back from work.”  His father turned to him.  “How’s work going?”

“Fine.”  The boy sat down on the bed.  “Are you okay?”

Father smiled.  “Oh, yes.  I’m just listening to the wind.  South Dakota is really screaming out there today.”

The boy nodded.  “Yes, it is.  It screams down from the mountain.  I hear it on my way into Shadow, screaming in my ears.  It’s like that a lot around here.”

Father sat on the bed next to him.  “Yes, well.  We’ll get used to it.”

“We got used to the muskets.”

Father nodded.  “And the soldiers out in our streets, playing like children away from their parents.”

“Which ones?”

Father shrugged.  “Ah.  Who can remember anymore?  Blue ones, gray ones; I don’t know.  I think it was the blue ones.”

“You think so?”

“I remember thinking they looked fat in their uniforms,” father said. “Or maybe that was just my own refection in the window.”  He smiled thinly.

The boy smiled thinly, too.  Then he got up and went to the window and looked at the mountain in the distance.  He sipped his tea, but it was already cold, so he put it down on the window sill and left it alone.

“Maybe you should be listening to South Dakota through the walls of your shop, father.  Instead of the bedroom,” the boy said meekly.

Father’s smile faded quickly.

“I don’t like the shop, Jason.  It’s more comfortable here.”  He looked up.  “Though, it seems like this ceiling gets an inch or two lower every time I lie down on the bed and stare up at it.”

The boy looked up.  “It looks all right to me.”

“Yes, well…it isn’t.  And the ceiling in the shop is even lower.”  He shook his head.  “I have to duck to walk in there.  And I can’t hear the wind through the walls there; too many hats lining them.  It looks the same as the shop in Richmond.  I like it better here in the bedroom.”

“I don’t understand.  What’s wrong, father?”

Father shook his head.  “I just think that people are comfortable in their own hats.  They only see a stranger in a new one, when they look at themselves in my mirrors.”

The boy pressed his ear to the wall next to the window.

“Is South Dakota speaking to you?” father asked.

The boy listened for a moment longer.  “No,” he finally said.  “I just hear the wind, and feel it, too.”

Father nodded.  “Sometimes it speaks to me.”

“What does it say?”

“I’m not sure yet.”

The boy pressed his ear again.  There was only wind.  But there was a lot of it.

“Are you sure you are hearing the wind, father?  Or is it something else.”

“No, it’s the wind speaking.  And I’m listening closely.  I’ve got some thinking to do, it seems.”  He tapped his temple and winked.

“The wind told you that?”

“South Dakota told me that.”

The boy removed his ear from the wall. “I thought you said the wind spoke to you.”

Father shrugged.  “Same thing.”

There was a long pause between them.

“I think you should go to the shop today, father,” the boy said, finally.

Father stood up and went back to the wall, and pressed his ear against it.

“Not now, Jason,” he said.  Father listened to the wind for a very long time, and whispered to himself.

Jason watched him for a few minutes, then left.  But every so often he would go back to the bedroom and check on him.  One time as he stood in the doorway watching father, the wind blew so hard it rattled the window.  The boy felt the draft on his cheek from across the room.  Father seemed to enjoy the feel of the wind in the room.  He stood there caressing the glass of the window and smiling a smile that reminded the boy of his dead aunt in her coffin.

The boy started to say something about the cold, but then he didn’t.  It didn’t matter.  He turned to go, but then father spoke to him, and he stopped.

“I think I’m going to sell the shop, Jason,” he said, still caressing the window, his ear still against the wall.

The boy nodded, but his eyes were wary.

“To whom?”

“They call themselves Dakota Inc.  They have their business in Shadow.”

“What kind of business?”

Father turned away from the wall and looked at the boy.

“The helping kind.”

“Who do they help, father?”

“People.  People like us.”

“You mean people from the East.  People from Richmond, not their own kind,” the boy said with suspicion.

“People from away, yes, Jason.”  Father went to sit on the bed with his back to the boy.

“They are, um…sympathetic to our situation.”

The boy walked over and stood in front of father. His boots made a hard, cold sound on the floor, and for the first time that morning the boy realized that except for the wind, he had noticed no other sounds in the house.

“Sympathetic?”

“That’s right.”

“About our situation?”

“Yes.”

“When did you talk about our situation with these men?”

Father shrugged. “I didn’t.  They knew much about us, though.  Our names, how much I had spent on the business, how much stock I had invested, our lack of savings, where we lived, how in debt we are…all down to the number.”

The boy did not speak for a moment.  He turned and looked out the window, then back to father.

“Do you want me to make you some coffee?” the boy asked.

“No.  I’m not thirsty.”

“Are you cold.”
“No.”

“I will go have some coffee, if that’s okay.”

“Fine,” Father said.  “I’m going to lie down for a while.”

            The boy went to make some coffee in the dying fire in the fireplace.  When he returned to the bedroom, he found father under the covers and rolled to one side.  His unpolished boots were on the floor pushed neatly together at the end of the bed.

            “I have heard of these men, Dakota Inc.,” the boy said, sitting in a chair in the corner of the room. “I have heard about them.  I have seen them, too.  They are always out, whether it’s early in the morning or late at night, or if it’s clear or raining.  They are always on the streets. They have eyes like fish that never blink.  They always carry a lot of guns.  Three apiece, I think.  Seems a strange way to run a business, being out in the street all the time.  More like the soldiers in Richmond than businessmen.”

            Father sat up in bed and rubbed his face.  Then he looked at Jason.

            “We put our guns away in Richmond because our cause was lost.  Maybe theirs isn’t.  I don’t know.  But I do know that I have made up my mind.”

            “Father, I don’t think they understand Richmond, or us.  I’m not even sure they understand South Dakota.  Maybe we should talk to someone who does.”

            “Like who?”

            “Like Van…” he stopped, remembering Van Carlo’s admonition to not tell his father he had said anything about Dakota Inc.  But it was too late.  His father knew.

            “Van Carlo.  The gambler?”  Father did not look pleased.

            “Why not?  He’s lived here for many years.  He knows this place, and he knows Dakota Inc.  He says to stay away from them.”

            “He knows how to take a fool’s money, is all,” Father said.  “And maybe I am a fool.  But I’d rather give my shop to Dakota Inc.”

            “But Van Carlo says…”

            “Your friend Van Carlo speaks a lot of words for a gambler,” Father said, waggling a finger angrily at the boy. “Stray words cost a gambler money, I know that much.  And either he doesn’t know this and is a fool or he does and is an imbecile.”

            The boy stood up.  “That’s not true, father!  Van Carlo…”

            “You are a dullard, boy, with an imagination like a jar of grease.  You believe in the perspective of a man who has been sitting in one place so long that he can’t tell his body from his own chair?”

            “He’s not like that, father,” the boy said.  He sat back in the chair and hung his head.

            “How dare he judge men in the saddle when all he does is sit around all day.  Tell me, Jason, does Van Carlo’s chair take feed?  Is it in need of a grooming now and then, or a soft stable and a fresh drink of water?” He lay back down in the bed.  “Van Carlo is a fool and his employer is sloth.”

            The boy shook his head.  “Van Carlo’s job is to read faces.  And he knows the faces of Dakota Inc., and you should have nothing to do with them.”

            Father sighed, and the boy could see the condensation from his breath rise from his mouth and then quickly dissipate into the draft in the room.

            “If you weren’t practically a grown man, I’d strike your bottom, boy, like I used to,” he said. “But you are a man. Though no less a dullard, that is obvious.”

            “I’m sorry, father.  I didn’t mean to make you angry.”  The boy pulled his hat low over his eyes.

            “You used to be such quiet boy, but South Dakota has given you a big mouth.  Go spend some time against the wall over there, and leave me alone.”

            “Yes, father.”

            There was quiet between them for a long time.  Father’s breathing became regular and the boy realized he was asleep.  The boy put his empty tin cup of coffee on the floor and stood.  He put his ear to the wall and his hand on the window and listened to the wind outside, and felt the cold wind on his cheek, and his fingers became numb against the window.

After a moment, he heard the thrumming of horses in the distance.  Father sat up in bed slowly and slung his legs over the side.  He rubbed his face and looked at the boy.

            “They are here,” he said.  “Hand me my boots.”

            The boy’s face went white and he pulled his ear quickly from the wall and took his hand off the window as though the window had been a hot stove.  He looked at father for a moment, then went over and picked up his father’s boots and handed them to him.

            “Who’s here?” the boy asked.

            “Dakota Inc.”

            Father stood up and brushed his wispy gray hair back.  He bent over and pulled his boots on, and then he pulled up his suspenders over his shoulders with his thumbs.

            “What do you want me to do?” the boy asked.

            “You might as well come to the door with me,” father said.  “They know you are here.”

            Jason followed father out of the bedroom.

“Just make sure you stand behind me,” father said, opening the front door.  The men were approaching, just three black dots beyond the fence in the distance, getting larger.

They came up the road, which blended in so well with the rough and patchy land around it that you could hardly tell there was a road there at all. Or maybe all of it was a road, and there was no land.

They looked like very hard men, the boy thought to himself, when the men finally arrived at the ranch house.  No sense of humor to them.  No smiles.  Lots of teeth, yes; but no smiles.  They looked like black statues on their horses, and they stayed on their horses the entire time. The boy and father stood in the doorway, the men and their horses stood in front of them.

            Father spoke and the boy stood behind him in the doorway and said nothing.  He just stood there and kept his face very still, just like he did when he was working for Van Carlo at the casino.

            The icy sun was behind the men from Dakota Inc. and their shadows fell forward.  One of the men moved his head and the shadow of his very wide hat fell upon the boy’s hand in the doorway.  The boy pulled it away quickly, instinctively, as if pulling it away from a flame.  He drew back a little into the house.

            The men stood in a line, their horses only inches apart from each other.  They were wearing black suits of fine cloth, which had many extra shining things hanging from them.  They all had guns, three apiece.  Two pistols which they wore high at their sides in shoulder holsters, almost heart-level, and a rifle, which was in a long, leather holster and stuck out of the back of their saddles, making the horses look like they had a horn coming out of their backs.

            Both the men and the horses seemed unhurried and calm to an unnatural degree. They looked like men who had utterly no concerns.  Other people had problems, but not these men.  Their problems had become other people’s problems a long time ago.  They were men who were able to look out at a crazy world and realize that none of the craziness had anything to do with them.  They were not even themselves.  Everything about them, from their shoes, to their faces, to the guns at their waists, all belonged to other men. They could never be wrong. They could never be right.  They could never be anything that wasn’t passed off to the world with a shrug.

            When the three men spoke, they spoke together, so that the words came out in one heavy, layered voice.  Their words were not meant to be disputed.  They asked for no advice.  They invited no questions.

            It was very simple, the men said.  They would loan father a certain amount of money to keep the shop going.  In return, he would pay them a monthly amount and interest, as well as a percentage of the profits.  Payment had to be made at the end of every month, except for the first month, which the men said he did not have to pay.  It was a grace period.  After that, under no circumstances could the payment be deferred.

            There was no better deal to be found anywhere east of Richmond, the men told father.  If father didn’t believe them, they invited him to go to Shadow and ask around.  He would see that many other proprietors had made the same deal with Dakota Inc., and they were all doing quite well.

            “Will you send people to come buy my hats,” father asked.

            “We will try to send them,” one of the men said. “But this is not Richmond, and it is certainly not Richmond before the war, as you were accustomed to it.  We, unlike your old country, cannot force men to do things they do not wish to do.”

            “Well, I hope they come then,” father said with a sigh.

            “You do indeed hope, and you will have plenty of that in time, slave owner,” one of the men said.  “You refugees from the east are rich in hope.  But money works better in South Dakota.”

            “I did not own slaves,” father said.

            “No?  Sold them, perhaps?” the man in the middle said, tightening the black gloves on his fingers by pulling at them at his wrists and looking disinterested.

            “So, do we have an agreement, Mr. Credence?” another man asked.

            Father nodded.  He reached out his hand, but the men from Dakota Inc. did not return the gesture.

            “That will do,” one of the men said, turning to the boy hiding in the doorway.  “Don’t you think so, boy?”

            The boy was looking at the ground, and pulling slowly back into the house like turtle into its shell.  At the mention of his name, he looked up, and then nodded slowly.

            “Obliged,” the men said, tipping their hats.  Then they turned and rode off.

            “What do you think it would be like to fight them, father?” the boy asked, watching the men ride past the fence.

            His father sighed and turned to go back into the house.

            “Like they said, this is not Richmond.  But if that’s what you want, then you do it.”

Father disappeared into the dimness of the house, but the boy kept on staring out the front door until the men from Dakota Inc. disappeared beneath the horizon.

Father went to lie down in his bed.  Two days later, he still hadn’t gotten out of bed, and the boy and Lucy and mother realized he never would.

***

The weeks went by and the cold of December became even colder in January.  Christmas was a ghost, and noiselessly slipped by.

During the winter, Lucy developed a cough.  There was no money to pay for her to go see the doctor in town, and the doctor wouldn’t have seen her anyway because father was late on his payments to Dakota Inc.  The doctor did not see patients who were late on their payments to the Company.

No longer just a clearing of her throat several times a day, the cough soon became something of an inseparable part of Lucy’s personality; like a second language to her.  It frightened the family, especially mother, who knew the sound of that particular cough.  She had heard it from some of the gray soldiers during the winters in Richmond, before the blue general put an end to the war once and for all.  It was a cough that went beyond life and body.

***

One night, the boy was in his drafty bedroom, lying on his bed.  He stared up at the gray moon through the hole in the ceiling.  The moon looked ill.  Sick moon, he thought.  Sick like Lucy.  The wispy clouds galloped around it like ghoulish horses on a haunted merry-go-round.

The boy found himself missing Richmond.  He turned and looked at the candle on the table next to his bed and he remembered something Lucy said.  She said that Richmond, when looked at from South Dakota, or from any great distance during the war must have flickered gently and gracefully like the flame of a candle.  It was pretty, even endearing somehow from that distance.  But up close it was a nightmare:  cannon balls falling on houses; houses falling on houses; horses with shiny, bristling soldiers trampling houses.  But still, they boy missed it.

Father’s shop in Shadow was now gone, taken by the Company men who called themselves Dakota Inc., and father, for all practical purposes was gone, too.  He just stayed in his bed all day, not eating, and taking only a little water.  Mumbling something about a play he was hoping to write.  Richmond, he’d say.  He’d only ever wanted to write about Richmond.  And one day while sitting by his father’s side, the boy shoved a pencil and paper under his father’s nose as the old man lay covered in the bed.  “Write!” the boy screamed.  “If you want to write something of Richmond, write it then,” he screamed.

But father refused.  “Richmond doesn’t sell anymore,” he said, and rolled over.

As the boy lay on his bed staring at the moon through the hole in the ceiling, the clouds drifted away from it, the ghoulish horses galloping off in single file.  And then there was only the moon.

If this moon, this South Dakota moon could talk, what would it say to him, the boy wondered.  And would he be able to understand it?  After all, he was just a dullard, with an imagination like a musket spiked into the ground.

(CH. 2, PART 1)-The Boy Stranger: A free novel (can you spot the allegory…er, metaphor…er, both?)

Bullet One

As the Credence family began their new life in South Dakota, the boy tried hard to believe everything his family told him.  He believed Lucy’s flashing answers.  He believed mother’s somber mutterings.

He believed father when he told the boy that they had been in South Dakota for two months and he had not sold one hat.

Of all the things he heard and believed, he liked Lucy’s words the best.  The answers to his questions were always less bright and less hopeful coming from father or mother than from Lucy.

            It was mid-December now, and the boy began to notice that the fires mother built to keep the house warm were becoming smaller and more infrequent.  She would stoke the coals more often and try to keep them burning longer.  There weren’t many trees around the ranch house, and they had to buy most of their firewood in town, which was not cheap.

            Each day father would go out to his shop in Shadow and put more hats in the window, rotating styles and sizes often.  But no one came.  So he put more and more items in the window, along with the hats: gloves, scarves, time-pieces, anything he could think of to order from back east to sell in South Dakota.  The shop and the window became fuller with more and more things that father put out to try and catch the eye of South Dakota.  The shop grew fuller with products to sell, and the ranch house grew emptier of things on which to live.

            The boy was forced to find a job in town to help with the money.  In Shadow he acquired a position known as a “telegraph” because it was the only job he could manage to find.  He couldn’t work at father’s shop because he simply wasn’t any good at selling, and father did not want him around, anyway.  This did not bother the boy.  He tried working at father’s shop once in Richmond, but after that, father never ask him to work at the shop again, and the boy never offered.  It was understood that he would have no part in the business.

            So, at his mother and father’s behest, he decided to look for some work.  He wandered into Shadow and walked around to a few places of business.  The proprietors just looked at him and shook their heads.  They saw what he looked like:  poor, with an honest face.  This was a good face to have for most any kind of job, and they knew this.  But they had no jobs to offer him.  Shadow wasn’t a poor town, and it was not particularly depressed, but it was hard for a young new face to find a job.  The boy did not understand why because the reason was hard to see, and mostly came out at night, or in was disguise.

The reason:  An organization known as Dakota Inc.

The shop owners in town were forbidden from doing anything that they did not first discuss with Dakota Inc., and most of the time it just wasn’t worth the trouble.  For the trouble was always huge and expensive, and occasionally, life threatening.

            The boy met another boy in town named Timothy, who was a year or two his younger. He had wild red hair and the smile of a mad man, which was the kind of smile that never went away, no matter what.

            Timothy told Jason to go see Van Carlo.  He said to find the small casino, the only casino in town, and look near the corner in the dark room.  The gambler, Van Carlo, would be the one sitting closest to the curtains.  He explained that Van Carlo needed a new telegraph, and the boy did not know what this meant, but he thanked Timothy anyway and went to find the gambler.  Work was work, he decided.  He’d figure out the vocabulary later.

When Van Carlo first saw him, he liked the boy instantly and hired him on the spot.

            “Telegraph” was a name that gamblers in Shadow gave to the boys who ran errands for them, and did chores so the gamblers could play cards uninterrupted. The gamblers in the casino were known as the “tappers”, and Van Carlo was the most successful of all of them. He gambled continuously, all day and all night.

            The casino was a dim place, with heavy, velvet red curtains which smelled of tobacco and whiskey and completely covered the windows.  Also inside were dark, thick cherry wood chairs and tables.  Van Carlo had many telegraphs working for him, but after a few weeks decided that the boy from Richmond was his favorite.  The boy worked hard and stayed late; all night, sometimes.  And he could always be counted on to fill in for the other telegraphs if necessary.  Van Carlo grew to trust the boy so much that he even allowed him to go and stand in for him as a proxy during some of his most important personal meetings and appointments.

            The telegraphs made their wages by skimming from the money their tappers gave them for shopping and other errands, or by skimming a portion of the commodities they bought for the tappers. Skimming was well known to the tappers who employed telegraphs, and was an accepted practice, almost like tipping, except it was the sole way the telegraphs were paid.  The trick was for the telegraph to know just how much he was allowed by his tapper to skim.  Each tapper was different, and each had a limit to what he allowed his telegraphs to take.  And sometimes certain telegraphs employed by a tapper were allowed by that same tapper to take more than another telegraph who worked for him.  But if a telegraph was wrong and took too much, he could be fired, or worse. Some had been brutally beaten.  More than one had even disappeared completely.  But Jason Credence, the boy from Richmond, was not greedy at all, and Van Carlo never had any trouble with him taking too much.

When the boy first took the job as a telegraph at the casino, he worked for several gamblers, not only Van Carlo.  But this soon changed when Van Carlo made it known that the boy was his favorite.  The other gamblers fired him, and he went to work for Van Carlo exclusively.  There was something about him that Van Carlo liked very much.  The old gambler could tell that the boy was a fool and a dullard, but this didn’t annoy him nearly as much as it did with the other fools he had met in his day.  Van Carlo wasn’t sure why.  Perhaps it was because, though the boy was a fool, he was a quiet fool.  He never talked much, and Van Carlo felt that though the boy was a fool, his ability to keep silent at all the right times seemed to show that he was at least not a complete fool.

Van Carlo noticed that the boy’s face was very smooth, like the plains of South Dakota, and the outlines of his eyes and mouth were very fine.  In the dim of the casino when the boy sometimes put his lips together and close his eyes, his face would almost blend perfectly into the background.  This made the boy pleasantly unobtrusive, and Van Carlo allowed him to stand right behind him, near the curtains by the table, when he wasn’t having the boy run errands.

The boy’s face blended into the background so well that it was very hard to read, which meant that Van Carlo never had to worry about him giving anything away by any kind of facial expression, or any kind of look or flash of the eyes.  This wasn’t true for all the telegraphs.  Most of the time the gamblers had their telegraphs wait outside, even during the extreme frigid cold of winter, out of the fear that their faces would give something away. Van Carlo sent his other boys outside, but Jason he kept behind him near the curtains.

Van Carlo enjoyed having a telegraph that could keep him company.  The poker table was usually a very lonely place, and Van Carlo found the boy’s presence soothing.  He enjoyed the gentle sound of the small movements the boy would occasionally make with his hands and arms, and his soft, clear breathing.  It was a welcome change from the raspy breathing of the other gamblers, and the ghostly, howling South Dakota wind outside.

Van Carlo also liked that the boy wasn’t from South Dakota.  He had such a refreshingly different aura.  Many of the other boys were nice enough, but they were from South Dakota.  They always had something of the cold and wild about them, even when they were just standing around.  There was always something mercilessly expectant about them; something noisy and intrusive about their simply waiting around.  It was not this way with the new boy from Richmond.

***

One of the first things the boy noticed about Van Carlo was that there was no emotion in the gambler’s face; only a few deep lines and creases that didn’t spell out much of anything in particular.  But the boy sensed that the gambler liked him because he nodded at him a few times when he first explained the job to him, and used his name a lot.

Van Carlo asked the boy if Timothy sent him.  The boy said he did.  Van Carlo then explained that Timothy did not smile all the time; Timothy was just born with upturned lips and very amber eyes that reflected a lot of light.  Timothy was a happy, pleasant boy, but Van Carlo warned the boy not to assume that Timothy was happy all the time just because his lips were upturned.  Timothy was from South Dakota.  Faces meant nothing in this place, Van Carlo said.

“Was your mother or your father ever a gambler?” Van Carlo asked.

The boy said no, he did not think so.  Then Van Carlo shook his head and told the boy that it was a shame that he didn’t even understand his own family.  Then he told him to stand behind him and to watch the table.  He told the boy to look at the cards.  Not at him, and not at the other men.

***

One evening the boy was walking into town to the casino. He was thankful the wind wasn’t blowing too hard.  On many days, it swept down from the mountains in a rush, but today it was in no hurry. Still, it was cold outside, and the air smelled like frozen metal.  It was painful on the boy’s naked hands, and it reminded him of the snapping fish with the dead eyes he used to pull out of the ponds outside of Richmond in the winter.

The boy had been working for the old gambler for several weeks now. He was very thankful for the job, and thankful to have learned so much from watching the poker tables.  He told himself that if the work ran out, he could always gamble.  He hoped it did not come to that, of course.  He hoped he never had to gamble for a living.  He liked Van Carlo, but he did not envy him.  The boy vowed to always find work before he’d gamble.

Surely there would always be something.  He thought about the boys back in Richmond, who made money on the streets of the city by giving directions to the wandering blue soldiers.  Some considered these boys traitors, but they were just trying to avoid having to live outside on the same streets where they worked.  The boy would do that, he told himself.  He had no love for the blue soldiers, of course, but once they were there they were there, and he didn’t see the sense in harboring any bitterness over it.   He’d rather work than gamble, and if that meant working with the blue soldiers, then that’s what it meant.

As the boy turned onto the street where the casino was located, he saw the brilliance of the dusky sky.  There were flat clouds over Shadow that ended towards the West in a very straight line on the horizon.  The edge of the clouds was lit up in yellow and in pink by the sun, and the scene reminded him of a sheet of paper that was burning at one end.  The boy hoped the sun would eventually burn the clouds up all the way so that Shadow could see the sky again.  It had been a long time, and a long winter, with a lot more winter to go.  But the sky in the distance was beautiful to the boy, very beautiful.  And though he may not have understood fancy, like he did not understand his father’s fancy hats, he understood beauty.

Van Carlo was sitting at the table in his usual spot.  He did not look at the boy as he approached.  He did not look up from the cards, but the boy knew that he never did this; he never looked up.  He never was distracted from the game. He could not afford to.  He could not afford to change his face for even a moment.  He would tell the boy that when the face changed, that’s when the money went.  So the gambler’s face was still and somber.  It might as well have been made of wood.  His body might as well have been a tree.  Swing from it, or fall out of it, or be hung from a noose on it.  Van Carlo would not have noticed.

The boy took his place behind Van Carlo near the heavy velvet curtain over the amber window.  The curtain was pulled slightly open.  The boy was a dark silhouette against the rectangle of gray light that tumbled into the casino.  It made the boy impossible to see; just a black outline against the window.

The game was soon over, and the other men went to find their telegraphs or to relieve themselves, or to smoke or drink.  Van Carlo stayed at the table, which was his custom.  He rarely left the table.  That was why he hired a telegraph, he said.  So he didn’t have to move.  No, he’d say with a little smile, he was glued in place.  Best to stay put, otherwise he might drag the whole casino around South Dakota with him, wherever he went.

The boy noticed that for a man who stayed in one place all the time, Van Carlo knew a lot of things, especially about South Dakota. Van Carlo did not mind discussing the things he knew with the boy.  He liked that the boy was not anxious to run off and do this or that when he was not needed.  Though, the gambler did admit to himself that there were times when he felt the boy needed to get out more.   He would sometimes make up an errand just to get the boy to go out.

“Van Carlo,” the boy said.

“What?”

“I was thinking about war.”

“Of course you were,” Van Carlo said, nodding and looking down at his chips and sorting them.  “You are from Richmond.”

“And what about South Dakota?” the boy asked.

“What about it?  We are the West.”

“Have you ever seen a war?”

“Jason,” Van Carlo said.  “The West is a war itself.  It must be. It’s where the present crashes upon the past like waves on rocks.  It cannot be any other way on the frontier.  It is not like your war back in Richmond, though.”

“What’s it like, then?”

“Well, it’s not like your war, that’s for sure.  The roofs aren’t torn off houses and the walls aren’t smashed through or anything.”

The boy looked confused.

“It’s just different,” Van Carlo said.  “I guess I would say that we are men at war trying to pretend that we are not.  Hoping we are not, but knowing we are.”

The boy nodded.  “Yes, I can see that you all carry guns here.  Even you, Van Carlo, at the table, but you never really move.  All you do is play cards, and yet there it is, your gun clearly showing in your holster.”

“So what is strange about that, besides all of it?” Van Carlo said with a little grin.

“I guess that the men look so peaceful, all of them with their guns.  There were a lot of guns in Richmond, but that city was shaking with soldiers and horses.  Here, you’re just playing cards. And even Timothy carries a gun, and he’s simply running out to get powders and candy for Mr. Fields.”

“That’s just how it is here, Jason,” Van Carlo said.  “It’s a war, all of it.  Guns are just part of the outfit.  Just like a cufflink, or one of those hats your father sells.”

The boy nodded and then looked thoughtful for a moment.

“But as far as playing cards goes,” Van Carlo said. “Having a gun on your side makes it harder to read your face, if you can believe that.”

The boy shrugged. “I guess I can.”

“You can?”

The boy shrugged.

Van Carlo shook his head.  “The gun,” he said, “belies a man’s true intent.”  He tapped the butt of the gun in his holster. “What’s it there for?” He tapped his forehead. “What’s he thinking?  Why does a man who is selling me groceries carry a gun?  What’s a man haying my field got a pistol for?”

“So it’s a way to hide yourself?”

Van Carlo nodded.  “Best mask ever invented; great for a gambler. I’ll never take my gun off.  Never.  It’s more useful to me here at this table then it ever would be fighting your blue soldiers.”  He snorted.  “Or your gray ones, or the Indians, or the Mexicans for that matter.”

“The women don’t wear guns,” the boy said.  “At least none that I can see; and I’m glad.  I don’t want a gun to hide their faces.  I like their faces.  Pretty.” He smiled at Van Carlo and blushed. “Prettier than ours, that’s for sure.”

Van Carlo scoffed. “They don’t need guns to hide their faces.  They’re women.  We can’t read them.  And you, you’re just eighteen.  For you to describe the face of a woman is like describing a dark cabin from a hundred yards away in the middle of the night.  You couldn’t read the face of your own mother. I’m starting to think you’ve never truly seen a woman’s face.  If you had, you’d realize what a fool you sound like.”

Van Carlo then suddenly laughed and smacked the table with the palm of his hand, scattering his chips.  “Boy, I think you must have stayed too long at the breast!” he howled.

“Van Carlo,” the boy said when the gambler was finished laughing.  “Do you suppose the women don’t carry guns because they have their men with them most of the time.”

“What, you mean like for protection?  You mean they don’t need their own guns because they have men to protect them?”

“Yes…maybe,” the boy said.

“No,” Van Carlo said shaking his head. “That’s not the reason.  South Dakota has enough trouble.  That’s the reason.  And like I said their faces are hard enough to read without guns, anyway.”

The boy waited for a minute and thought about this.

“So, would you play poker with a woman?” the boy asked.

Van Carlo turned in his chair and leaned in towards the boy.

“I have a lot of respect for women,” he said.  “And don’t ever say that I don’t, because I do.  But I wouldn’t gamble with a woman in South Dakota even if my choices were that or settle with the house for two pennies on my eyelids and a box to lie down in.”

The boy smiled for a moment.  Then his smile faded and he looked down at his hands.

“Van Carlo?”

“Yes?”

“Do you know anything about fancy hats?”

Van Carlo’s face became serious.

“Do you test me, boy?” he said.

The boy said, “No, Van Carlo, of course not.  I mean only to ask because I don’t know myself.”

“Then let me ask you first,” Van Carlo said.  “Can you read my face?”

“No, Van Carlo.”

“No, you can’t.  You can’t understand much of anything around here.  Not the women, not the guns, not the hats your father sells, not a fancy hat or any other hat.  That’s just the way it is in South Dakota. But that’s no excuse for not skimming the proper amount from the money I give you, like the other telegraphs do, and like you should.”

Van Carlo shook his head and turned back to the table and started stacking his chips and shuffling his cards. “Don’t ever ask me to pass judgment on your father or his business again,” he said.

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

“Maybe someday someone will tell you about those fancy hats.  You think we don’t understand hats like that in South Dakota?  We understand.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

“And those hats don’t match these guns, and that’s the problem.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

“And they didn’t match all those guns in Richmond, either.  And that was the problem there, too, wasn’t it?”

“Yes, Van Carlo.”

Van Carlo turned to the boy again.  He looked up at him.  The sun had set, and he could see the boy’s smooth, sad face in the dim of the casino’s candlelight.

“It isn’t really that you don’t get those hats, is it?” Van Carlo said.

The boy stammered.

“It’s your father you don’t get.”

The boy looked at his hands again.  His face looked very uncomfortable.

Van Carlo sighed and turned back to the table. This boy was truly a dullard, and a fool, with an imagination like the underside of a boot.

“Go buy your father a gun,” he said.  “It’ll make more sense when he puts it on.”

“But you said that a gun…” he stopped.  He didn’t want to say anything else.  He felt like he didn’t want to talk about it anymore.

“Your father’s a stranger, son, is what I’m saying,” Van Carlo said, shaking his head.  “He doesn’t get those hats any more than you do.”

There was an awkward silence between them.  The other gamblers started to shuffle back through the casino towards the table.  It was almost time to play again.

“Boy?” Van Carlo said.

“Yes?”

“Your father is on the hard floor, isn’t he?”

“Yes,” the boy replied.  “Hard.  And dirty, he says.”

Van Carlo nodded.  “He’s on the hard floor.  And he’s hoping to find a coin that he might have dropped.”

The boy looked out the window.  “Yes,” he said, after a moment.

Van Carlo nodded again.  “Look, I have to be honest.  I don’t think your father’s shop has a chance here.  He’ll need to find something different, like you did.”

The boy looked very sad.  “Yes, Van Carlo,” he said.

“And there’s something else you need to understand.  There are a lot of things down on that hard floor.  There’s no coin, but there are men in this town who will tell him that they can help him.  But you must tell him not to believe them.  You think I hide my face behind my gun?  These men have long since forgotten that there’s any difference.  You must tell your father to stay away from them.  And you must tell him that you did not hear this from me.”

“Yes, Van Carlo.  I believe you.  I think you must be very wise.  You’re the only one around here who tells me the way things really are.”

“No,” Van Carlo said.  “I am a fool.” He lowered his hat over his eyes and sunk down a little in his chair.  The other gamblers were sitting down at the table.

“I think my family is doomed,” the boy said quietly.  “My father will not like your idea of finding something else to do after all his trouble. He won’t think it’s a good idea.”

“Maybe,” Van Carlo said.

“What can my father do?” the boy asked.

Van Carlo shook his head.  “Your father is like a horse with no rider and no wagon, running in circles.  You’ve seen them sometimes, on the plains here in South Dakota.  Like them, it is only a matter of time before someone puts a saddle on his back.”

Van Carlo began to shuffle his cards.  “He needs to do something.  I don’t know.  Anything. Tell him to try harder to sell his hats.  Maybe that will work, but I doubt it.  Tell him to drink.  Even that would be better.  It may be too late to go back to Richmond, but if it isn’t, then go.”

The boy said, “What men will come to him, Van Carlo?”

“The men you first saw when your train pulled in.  You know who I mean.”

The boy nodded.  “Yes, they looked like trains, puffing on great cigars in their dark suits, and the women gliding behind them.”

“Yes.  Dakota Inc.  That’s who they are.  You saw them, but I promise you, they saw you first.”

The boy nodded.  He certainly remembered the men.  They looked strong and ambitious.  “I will tell father tonight.”

“Good. Now, I can’t say anything more about it.  Words are currency in South Dakota, and I need everything I’ve got right now.”

The boy nodded again.  After a moment, he looked out the window. “Look, Van Carlo.  The moon is out tonight.  All the clouds must be gone.”

“I hate the moon.  Close the curtains,” Van Carlo said.  Then his face turned to wood again and the game began.