Issue 24: "At War With The Devil, Part Two" Aug 14, 2012 13:41:37 GMT -5
Post by Admin on Aug 14, 2012 13:41:37 GMT -5
Weird Western Quarterly
Issue #24: “At War with the Devil, Part 2: Gathering the Troops”
Written by: Susan Hillwig
Cover by: Joe Jarin
Edited by: Mark Bowers
A chill autumn wind was blowing through the foothills near Mesa City, working its way through the chinks in the adobe house James Thunderborne had built. Every year, he cursed himself for the poor job he’d done on the place, and always vowed to start over from scratch now that he was sober all the time, as opposed to the drunken sot he’d been during its construction, but the project never manifested. Instead, he’d mix up a batch of mud and dry grass to spackle into the cracks, call it good, then devote his remaining energies towards what had become his passion, namely rediscovering the ways of his ancestors. There had been so much knowledge that he’d let fall by the wayside all these years, but luckily, the more he focused on a particular aspect of it, the more came back to him. He considered this a good sign and a blessing from He-No, who put his life back upon its proper path. As such, he often chanted a song of thanks to his ancestor before undertaking another step in his journey of rediscovery, which James was doing at that moment, gathering up tools and materials in order to repair the hogan he and his father had built many years before. Unlike his own dwelling, it was important for the hogan to be in the best shape possible when in use, and he did not want to insult the spirits any more than he already had by letting it become so dilapidated.
Stepping outside with a pack slung over his shoulder, James blinked at the brightness of the early-morning sun. When his vision cleared, he looked out past the foothills and at the plain that separated him from Mesa City, surprised to see two riders coming his way. He assumed they must be lost, since so few people came up into the foothills, and turned towards the path that would take him to the hogan, but as he did, the wind whipped up with such force that it literally stopped him in his tracks. He tried to push through it, but found he could not, and wondered if perhaps He-No was behind this. Looking up at the sky, he said in his native tongue, “Why will you not allow me to leave? Have I done something to displease you?” Then he thought of the riders he spotted in the distance. “They are not lost, are they?” he asked.
The wind died down to nothing. With a nod, James turned back to his dwelling, put his pack out of sight, then waited as the riders came up the hillside and into the yard. Once they were closer, James could see the two men were older than him, and both appeared to be of mixed blood, with one of them possessing fiery red hair that clashed somewhat with his traditional Blackfoot garb. His companion was the first to speak, looking down from his horse and asking in the common language of the plains, “Are you James Born of Thunder?”
“I am. May I ask who you are?”
“To some, I am known as Hawk, while others call me Tom Hawkins.” He nodded towards the redhead. “My friend answers to Firehair and nothing else.”
“I have heard stories of both of you,” James said, “and I believe we have a friend in common, though it has been some time since he last visited. Have you seen Windrunner lately?”
Hawk’s expression, which was rather warm up until that moment, seemed to darken at the words. “He is the reason we are here. May we come inside? The cold air makes my bones ache these days.”
“Of course.” James turned towards the house, intent on stoking the fire while the two men dismounted. As he set a pot of coffee to boil, they came inside, Hawk moving rather stiffly. James gestured towards the chair situated next to a sawbuck table, and Hawk sat down upon it with obvious relief. “You will have to forgive me, I get very few visitors,” James told them as he pushed some items off another chair in the corner, then brought it over to the table.
Hawk waved a hand. “Ain’t much of a social call, anyways,” he said, lapsing into English. He then glanced at Firehair, who was standing next to him, and said, “Please sit down. I’m just sore from all that riding.” His companion did as he asked, though Firehair pulled the chair over so that he was within arm’s-length of Hawk.
“You said you’re here because of Windrunner. Are you looking for him, or did he send you?” James asked.
James looked at Hawk with a puzzled expression. “What do you mean, ‘gone’?”
“He’s...he gave into his gift. There was a battle and...oh God....” His voice became hoarse, and his eyes dropped to the tabletop -- Firehair reached over and put a hand on his shoulder, trying to impart some measure of comfort. “I thought I was ready to talk about this,” Hawk said eventually, “but it feels like I’m ripping open a wound.”
James’s gaze went from Hawk to Firehair, but the other man offered nothing. “The spirits took him away, didn’t they?” James ventured. “I remember he told me once that he was afraid of it happening. He said they pulled at him sometimes.”
“It was more than that. So much more.” Hawk lifted his eyes, staring straight at James, and those eyes held such pain in them that James flinched at the sight of it. Then Hawk told him. About Wise Owl, and about Echo Valley, and about the horrors that spewed out of cracks in the earth six months before. When he’d finished, tears had begun to roll down Hawk’s face, and for the first time since he’d given up the bottle, James Thunderborne found himself desperately craving a drink. He rubbed his fingers across his lips, wishing the feeling would go away, but it just intensified as the images Hawk’s words conjured in his brain loomed larger and larger.
After a few minutes, James got the urge under control, and he asked Hawk, “You’re not just here to tell me about Windrunner’s...departure, are you?”
“No.” It was Firehair who answered, the first words he’d spoken since their arrival. “We have need of a shaman. You and Windrunner have a connection, one that may be of use to us.”
“What do you mean?”
Hawk swallowed hard, then said, “Chris...Windrunner...he got lost once before. My brother had a gift of his own, though, and was able to pull him back. But he’s dead now, so the job passes on to the next best candidate.” He pointed at James, saying, “Chris knew you, he trusted you, and you’ve got the ability to communicate with the spirit world, so you’re it.”
“I am not ready for this.” James said it aloud, but the words were directed more at himself than his guests. He paced the floor, muttering in his native tongue, “The incident with Black Spider was nearly the death of me. I was not ready for something of that caliber. And this? Entering He-No’s realm to retrieve someone he has taken into his embrace? I cannot...”
“And why not?” Hawk asked. “Windrunner told me of your family’s connection to the thunder spirit, how it’s literally in your blood. He also gave you all the credit for defeating Black Spider and saving that little town down there.”
“He exaggerated. I did my part, yes, but he was crucial to ending it. And there was this boy who...”
“I do not care about some boy, only you. The longer we delay this, the harder it may be to rescue Chris. We’ve already lost six months between my recovery and us traveling here. Every day...every minute that passes is more time for him to slide out of our grasp. Please, Born of Thunder, we need your help. Windrunner needs your help.”
James started to rub his lips again, then caught himself and forced his hand back down to his side. “Tell me how your brother pulled him back the first time.”
* * * * * *
Snow was just beginning to fall when they reached Echo Valley. It frosted the ground, highlighting the scars Wise Owl’s attack inflicted upon it. Being in the valley made James feel ill, which he attributed to the dark magicks that had been used to destroy this place. It would be many years before the natural balance was set right again. “Where did you last see Windrunner?” he asked as they dismounted.
“Thisaway.” Hawk and James walked to the spot while Firehair started to set up camp -- with the smoke gone and the bodies cleared away, conditions within the valley were more tolerable than they’d been directly after the devastation. When James saw the shards of metal scattered about the charred patch of earth left by Chris’s passing, he asked what they were from. “Not sure,” Hawk replied. “My gut tells me it was something Wise Owl used on him. Some of the pieces have markings, but I can’t make ‘em out clearly, and trying to put whatever-it-was back together seemed a bad idea.”
James knelt down and held out a hand over one of the shards -- despite the snowy weather, the metal gave off an unnatural warmth. “It’s soaked in magic, that’s for sure. As for how dangerous it still is...” He warily lowered his hand until it brushed the metal, then closed his fingers around it. “Nothing. Whatever Wise Owl did to this, it’s particular to him.”
“Meaning what? Only he can use it?”
James nodded, moving the shard towards another one nearby and tapping them against each other. “I don’t think gathering up these pieces will do any harm. We should move them away from this spot before we perform our ritual, though, just to prevent any interference.”
“You picking up anything else from here? An echo of Chris, perhaps?”
“I’m sorry, no. If his spirit is lingering here in any way, I can’t feel it.”
Hawk sighed. “I’d been hoping that you would be able to reach him just by standing here. Guess I’m turning into a foolish old man.”
“Not just you,” James replied, “I was hoping for the same.”
Two days passed before James felt they’d prepared the site enough for the ritual. It was based upon one used for invoking spirits to aid in healing, and involved colored sand laid out on the ground in intricate patterns. Once the pattern was complete, the spirit would be drawn to it, and would remain within the pattern until the patient was healed or the pattern destroyed. In this case, the spirit and patient were one in the same, as Chris’s body would need to be restored before he could come back to the physical realm. James started laying out the pattern at dawn, and continued to work for hours, all the while offering up prayers to He-No so as to not offend him by piercing his realm. It was nearly sunset by the time the last grains of sand slipped from his fingers, and once they did, a change could be felt in the air, like a storm was coming. Hands turned to the sky, James said, “I call upon Christopher Maxwell, the Windrunner! A great evil still walks among us, and we need your strength, your power, to defeat it.”
A harsh wind swept through the valley, but that was all. “Hear me, Windrunner! Come back to us! Return to this plain in body and spirit!” James shouted, then he looked behind him at Hawk and Firehair, who stood nearby. “I can sense something, but it’s weak.”
Hawk eagerly stepped forward. “Chris! I know it’s hard, but you’ve got to fight your way out of that place! Concentrate on my voice, follow it back like you did with Small Eagle!” The wind continued to blow, encircling the three men, though it didn’t disturb the pattern of sand in the least. “Fight it, Chris! Remember your family, your friends! Remember who you are!”
The air before them crackled, then a blinding shaft of light appeared before them. It seemed to draw the wind directly into it, like water rushing into a crevice, and the force of it caused James and the others to be dragged towards it as well. Firehair pulled out a knife and stabbed it into the ground with one hand to act as an anchor, while the other hand held onto Hawk, who in turn took hold of James. “What the Hell’s going on?” Hawk yelled in the shaman’s ear. “Is that Chris?”
“I can’t tell!” James answered. “There’s so many minds here...I’m not sure if any of them are even human!” He squeezed his eyes shut to concentrate. “This realm is bigger than I imagined. It stretches through all places, all times...the past, the future...he could be anywhere!”
“And what happens to us if we get sucked into that? Will we get lost too?”
I will not permit it. The voice boomed in their heads, and the shaft of light was suddenly gone, though the wind remained, now pinning the men to the ground instead of lifting them up. He-No, the Thunderbird, towered above them, his fierce eyes gazing down upon the trio of mortals as his great black wings beat the air. You must learn to be cautious, Born of Thunder. Do not let your quest for power exceed your knowledge of how to use it.
“Forgive me, Many-Times-Great-Grandfather,” James said in his native tongue, “but please understand, this quest was not for my benefit. We wish to rescue the Windrunner from...”
The Windrunner does not need rescuing. He is in no danger. Lightning flashed in He-No’s eyes. Do you think me incapable of protecting those I share my power with?
James stammered, “N-no, not at all, but...”
“We need Windrunner here, with us,” Hawk interrupted. He was trying to stand, but the wind kept pushing him back to his knees. “You can see what Wise Owl did to my home, to my people. He carries within him a hatred of all races, and if left alone, he could bring harm to every living soul who walks the Earth. We wish to hunt down Wise Owl and stop him before he does so, and we know that, if Windrunner was amongst us again, he would wish the same.”
I grieve with you, Son of Tomahawk, and I understand your desire...but I cannot allow what you ask. The Windrunner’s path has taken him far from here, just as it was meant to. He will return one day, and one of you shall be here to greet him, but until then, you must do as your father did and band together strangers to fight your war.
Hawk was taken aback. “The Revolution affected everyone in the nation, while this battle is personal. I cannot ask people with no stake in this to put their lives on the line.”
Did you not say Wise Owl hates all races? Do you not fear that he will do to the Island of the Turtle what he has already done to your Valley of Echoes? To stop a being as powerful as he, you will need an army that can match his power.
“Which is why we need Windrunner!” Hawk exclaimed. He’d acted as negotiator before in many different situations, but this was the first time he’d ever negotiated with a god, and he wasn’t liking it one bit. “He has stopped Wise Owl before, and there is no one else like him!”
You already have his successor, He-No replied, lifting his wings so that they blotted out the sky above. The rest is up to you. With that, he brought his wings down so fast that the sand painting beneath him blew directly at the three men. Blinded and choking, it took a moment for them to realize the Thunderbird was gone.
Firehair was the first to speak for a change. “Windrunner has no successors.”
“Yeah, I don’t get that one either,” Hawk muttered as he and the others climbed to their feet. “It’s not like he had an opportunity to pass on his powers like Ahwehota did with him.”
“Actually, he may have,” James said. The other men looked at him quizzically, and he continued, “That boy who gave us a hand during the Black Spider affair. When Windrunner saved his life...”
“Dear Lord.” Hawk ran a hand through his gray hair. “It hadn’t even occurred to me. Has he been exhibiting any of Chris’s powers?”
“Not that I’ve seen. In fact, I’m not entirely sure he remembers what happened.”
“Do you think you could make him remember? Maybe wake up whatever powers he may have gained?”
“Hawk, he’s only twelve years old! You can’t seriously be considering putting this boy up against Wise Owl!”
“Boys become men with time,” Firehair said, “and it will take time for us to gather others to our cause.” He looked at Hawk. “It will also take time to find Wise Owl.”
“You’re right. We have no clue where he is at the moment. Crazy bastard’s gone to ground.” Hawk sighed and said in a low voice, “Finding him was going to be Chris’s job.”
James added, “It may be best if we didn’t try to find him right now. He thinks you’re dead, Hawk, so we should let him continue to think that. It’ll put others in jeopardy, but if we don’t have the means to bring him down yet, then confronting him now won’t do any good.”
Hawk turned away from his friends, his gaze sweeping over the ruined land that was once green and fertile, and the stagnant pit that once held crystal-clear water. Without turning around, he said, “That’s the plan, then. Leave Wise Owl alone, while Firehair and I go about recruiting anyone with the power and guts to stand up to him. And you, James...” He turned now and looked directly at the shaman. “You’re gonna go back to Mesa City. Watch that boy as close as you can. Keep him safe. And above all else, find a way to draw him over to our side. Ain’t never easy to get a white man -- especially a religious one -- to think like an Indian, but you’re gonna have to do it.”
“What should I tell him about Wise Owl and Windrunner? Should I mention that he may be carrying the gift inside him?”
“I wouldn’t say a word about Wise Owl until you’re sure he can handle it. No need to scare the boy right off. As for Chris and his powers...we don’t know what the boy got from him. Could be everything, could be almost nothing. Use your discretion.”
James nodded. “I’ll do my best.”
* * * * * *
“Hey, gringo! You got a visitor!”
Jeff Graham shifted a bit on the floor, the motion causing the shackles around his wrists and ankles to clink. “Who is it? More Mexes comin’ tuh spit on me?”
“Why would we do that to you, gringo?” The guard grinned at him through the tiny window in the cell door. “No, this your uncle, come to visit before the hanging. Is funny, I see no Indio blood in you.”
“Whut’re you talkin’ about? I ain’t got no uncle.”
“I married his mother’s sister,” an unknown voice said. “Put her on the outs with the rest of the family, as you can imagine. Come on, Jeffery, can’t we forget about all that nonsense for a few minutes? I just want to talk.”
Graham stared at the door, trying to figure out what game his jailers were playing now. “Let him in,” he said finally, and sat up as best he could -- the shackles kept him chained to a ring bolted to the floor, so there was only so far he could move.
The cell door opened with a squeal, admitting a gray-haired Indian dressed in a dark suit, like he was a white man on his way to church. “May we have some privacy, please?” he asked the guard. “It ain’t like he’s going anywhere.”
The guard eyed him suspiciously, then shut the door and locked it. “I give five minutes, old man.”
After the guard’s footsteps faded into the distance, the newcomer knelt in front of Graham and whispered, “Okay, let’s cut to the chase: You want to get out of here?”
“If’n y’all are tryin’ tuh trick me into escapin’ so’s you can shoot me in the back, forget it. That kangaroo court I got bounced through was insultin’ enough.”
“You mean the Mexican legal system is as crooked as the Mississippi? Who would’ve thought?” The man propped a hand under his chin. “Son, I know what you did...but I also know the real reason why you did it, not the trumped-up charges they pinned on you.”
“Sure you do,” Graham said with a snort.
“They claim you killed the mayor’s wife, but what you really did was kill the Nagual that had been wearing her skin for the past month. If you hadn’t, the few cases of cholera that were already springing up around the village would have turned into a full-blown epidemic. Too bad the mayor doesn’t want to admit he was duped, or that some scruffy ex-Texas Ranger figured it out before he did.”
Graham stared at the man. “Who in blazes are you?”
“Tom Hawkins, but you can call me Hawk. Like you, I have a bit of experience with things beyond most people’s ken, but I’ve currently got a situation that requires your...shall we say...more aggressive techniques.”
“You need tuh kill something.” He sat up a little straighter. “Whut ya got?”
“It’s a someone who I fear may have become a something: A power-hungry Indian shaman who’s already slaughtered close to four hundred people. I’ve talked to a lot of mystics over the last few years, but nearly all of them are either too scared to confront him or too occupied with keeping their own people safe from other parties. There is a war on, you know.”
“Thet’s still goin’ on? News travels slow in these parts. Which side is ahead?”
“North, I think. I’ve only been keeping half an eye on it myself. So, you want to give me a hand with my crazy-shaman problem, or should I just let them hang you?”
Graham scratched his stubbly beard. “Reckon gettin’ out sounds good. You got a plan on how tuh do it?”
Hawk pulled out a pocket watch and glanced at it, saying, “We should be able to go pretty soon. In the meantime...” He reached into another pocket for some lock-picking tools. “Ain’t gonna get too far with this jewelry on.”
By the time Hawk had popped off Graham’s shackles, an explosion could be heard somewhere not far from the cell, followed by shouting and running feet. Not long after, the door opened, revealing not the guard but a red-haired Indian toting a pistol. “You ready?” he asked.
“Of course.” Hawk grinned as he pulled Graham to his feet. “Come along now, Jeffery.” Smoke was filling the hallway, obscuring their exit out the back of the jailhouse -- three horses were waiting for them, and the men virtually jumped onto the saddles and rode off. “Jeff Graham, meet Firehair, my long-suffering companion,” Hawk said as they galloped away.
“Delighted.” Graham glanced behind them. “You got any other friends hiding out along this here road, ‘cause we’ve got a posse on us already.”
“Nope, but we do have an escape route waiting for us over thataway.” Hawk pulled his horse ahead and led them to a stand of trees, where he dismounted. “Come on, girl, time’s a-wastin’,” he muttered, looking at his watch again.
“Whut are you two doin’? They’ll be here any minute!” Graham hissed as Firehair dismounted as well. He then grabbed Graham by the back of his trousers and yanked him off his horse. “Damn crazy Injuns! I knew this was a set-up!”
“Have a little faith, son.” Just then, a point of light began to appear in the air a few feet away. It quickly expanded into an oval nearly as tall as a man, then the center of it seemed to dissolve until a slim Negro woman wearing a mustard-colored head scarf could be seen within it. “You’re pushing the timetable a bit there, missy,” Hawk said.
“Don’t blame me, you’re the one who didn’t want to leave the portal open,” the woman answered, then stepped aside to let Hawk step through. “Should I expand this for the horses?”
“No time.” Hawk gestured for the other two men to come forward, though Graham hesitated. “Come on, all the stuff you’ve seen, and this bothers you?”
“I’d just like tuh know whut’s on the other side, is all.” A shove from Firehair got him moving towards the portal, and when he got within arm’s-reach, Hawk grabbed him and hauled him through before he could change his mind. Firehair jumped in after him, then all three men moved clear so the woman could close up the portal -- just before it disappeared, Graham could hear men yelling in Spanish. Once it was gone, he looked around at where they’d ended up: a vast valley covered in sickly yellow grass, with a log cabin situated nearby. “So, whereabouts is this place? Feels a mite cool fer Mexico.”
“Montana Territory,” Hawk said with a grin. “Thanks to Conjura here, we can travel hundreds of miles quick as a wink. One of the few things in our favor at the moment.” He clapped Graham on the back and began to steer him towards the cabin. “Let’s get you cleaned up and some food in your belly. Then we can get down to business.”
* * * * * *
Graham had to admit, this was quite a problem Hawk and his cohorts had to deal with. They’d laid out a brief history of Echo Valley and Wise Owl for him, along with a list of Wise Owl’s crimes up to this point and what powers he’d displayed. It was the latter that caused Graham the most concern. “You’re sure this fella cain’t be killed?” he asked.
“Not by any means used so far ,” Hawk replied. “Last year, some members of the Bison cult managed to ambush him. They literally chopped his body to bits, then burned what was left. According to the one member that survived, Wise Owl walked outta the damn bonfire intact.” For emphasis, he rapped his knuckles on the rough-hewn wooden table the group was sitting around. “I think you can see now why we’ve had a hard time recruiting help.”
Graham glanced over at Conjura. “Frankly, I’m surprised you agreed tuh all this. From whut I’ve heard of your reputation, you ain’t the confrontational type.”
“I’m not,” she said, “but I do agree that Wise Owl can’t be allowed to roam free. I’ve been working on ways to neutralize his powers, but I haven’t been successful yet.”
“How in blazes do you test something like thet? Walk up to him, toss some hoodoo his way, then jump through one of your portals if’n it don’t work?”
“We’ve got a sample of his magic,” Hawk said, to which Graham responded with a doubtful look. “No, really, come see.” He got up from the table, walked over to a old trunk sitting in the corner, and unlocked it. Contained within were numerous iron shards of varying sizes, along with a few bones and teeth from what Graham presumed were animals, though he couldn’t identify what ones. “Everything in here has traces of Wise Owl’s magic embedded in it. Most of it he left behind after his attack on Echo Valley, but some we acquired over the past three years as we’ve tracked him from afar.” He saw Graham’s look go from doubtful to worried, and Hawk said, “Trust me, the stuff’s dormant. Conjura and Thunderborne can sense its magical signature, but unless Wise Owl’s around, the stuff’s as harmless as mother’s milk.”
“Thunderborne’s the one you’ve got watching thet boy, right?”
“Yep. You’ll meet him sometime later.”
Warily, Graham leaned over the trunk. He could feel an odd warmth radiating from within, but that was all. Unlike the others Hawk had recruited, Jeff Graham had no innate magical abilities: he was a mere mortal man who’d encountered a supernatural horror, and consequently decided such things were more of a threat than the murderers and thieves the Texas Rangers usually hunted down. He memorized no spells nor possessed any powers, he merely used the weapons provided to him by those who truly knew how to manipulate the same forces he fought against. In his arsenal were a myriad of medicine pouches and specialized amulets, plus his Walker Colts had been blessed by nearly every holy man he’d ever come across. Sadly, all of that had been left behind in that Mexican jailhouse, and the chances of getting any of it back were slim. Graham would have to rebuild his arsenal, though perhaps the time had finally come for him to be more hands-on in its design. Looking over at Conjura, he asked, “I know you ain’t got no truck with killin’, but would you object tuh bein’ indirectly responsible fer a death?”
Cocking an eyebrow, Conjura replied, “What are you asking of me, Mr. Graham?”
“I need help with an idea.” He reached into the trunk and pulled out one of the iron shards. “Reckon we might be able tuh put some of Wise Owl’s leavings tuh good use.”
* * * * * *
The screams roused Henri and Anna immediately. Without a moment’s hesitation, they jumped out of bed and raced down the hall to their adopted daughter’s room. “Kajumba!” Henri shouted as the flung the door wide. “What’s going on? Are you all right?”
“The pain,” the young woman sobbed. “He’s in so much pain...they both are.” Sweat beaded upon her dark skin, glistening where it touched the golden whorls that marked her as a powerful wielder of magic. “Why would that monster do such a thing?”
“Come here, Kajumba,” Anna said, sitting upon the bed and holding out her arms, which the young woman gratefully fell into. They knew she preferred to go by Conjura now, but to Anna and her husband, she would always be known by the African name bestowed upon her by her birth mother. It was the only connection the young woman had left with the slave family that chose to send her all the way to Canada for her safety, and her adopted parents -- having been born of slaves themselves -- did not wish for her to lose it. As Anna gently rocked Conjura in her arms, she asked, “Do you know if the vision you had is something that will be, or something that has passed?”
“It’s happening now, right now. It’s still happening. The monster is binding them together...their bodies, their souls. The minds are still separate, but I don’t know how long that will last.” Conjura pushed away from Anna, then swung her legs over the side of the bed. “I need to go tell them. If Wise Owl makes any more creatures such as this...”
Henri stood in front of her. “Wise Owl? That madman lurking in the west? I thought you said you were done helping them fight him?”
“I only meant that I am no longer helping them fashion the weapon. Mr. Graham freed me from that obligation not long after we finished the blueprints for it. I’ve still been acting as both transport and seer for them...and what I saw tonight changes everything.” She reached out and took hold of Henri’s hands. “Please, Father, I know you and Mother are frightened for me every time I leave the safety of this house, but you knew when you took me in that I was meant for great things, to help people. What I’m doing with Hawk and his companions could help save so many lives. You never questioned my work with the Underground Railroad, so why do you keep questioning this?”
“Because before, you were only facing mortal men with guns,” Henri replied, “not the Devil incarnate.”
“If my vision tonight was true, then the Devil may have sired offspring,” Conjura said.
* * * * * *
It was a rather rude awakening for the boys in Echo Valley. Conjura had arrived a few hours before dawn and, over steaming cups of coffee, told them of the vision that had visited her in the night. Once she was done, Graham groaned, “Christ, now we’ve got two hellions to kill.”
“Let’s not start planning on that just yet,” Hawk said. “Sounds like this fella’s an innocent party.” He glanced at Conjura. “Leastways, you make this fella sound innocent.”
“I somehow doubt he volunteered for this: his soul was ripped open and another grafted upon it, causing both excruciating pain. The result is...I don’t know what.” She shook her head. “I’m not even sure what the...the other half of the poor man is. It has a mind, a consciousness, but I don’t think that, if it stood upon the Earth in its true form, that it would have a body, at least not one we could conceive of. It does in the realm it comes from, but...”
“Just say ‘Hell’ already. Quit dancin’ ‘round the word,” Graham snapped. “It’s a demon from Hell, an’ Wise Owl stuffed it inside some jasper probably just tuh see if’n he could.”
“Graham, shut up and drink your coffee.” Hawk drummed his fingers on the tabletop, mulling over this new information. “He’s been in that town for almost a year, acting all innocent, and then out of the blue he up and...and mutilates this Lane fella. Why?”
“Preparation,” Firehair offered. “We know from our own experiences that some spells take time to execute. Wise Owl may have spent the past year preparing Lane for this, most likely without his knowledge.”
“I’d believe that. Okay, that’s good news for us: if this whatever-it-is can’t be done quickly, then he can’t build an army of these things overnight. Speaking of which...” Hawk looked over at Graham and asked, “How’s the gun coming along?”
“Just about got the molds finished, but the metal’s still giving me trouble. Enchanted iron and pure silver don’t mix well.”
“Keep at it. In the meantime, we need to keep closer tabs on our quarry. Conjura, you said you knew a couple of fellas who might throw in with us? ‘Cause now might be the time to start bringing in more people.”
Conjura nodded. “They will join us. I knew that when I first met them, though I was not yet aware of the battle we would be fighting together. The elder one will be a little harder to sway, however.”
“I’ve got every confidence in you, missy,” Hawk replied.
* * * * * *
A plump harvest moon hung over the open plain, shedding light by which Nighthawk could examine the bizarre tracks burned into the ground. He’d come out here to investigate the murder of a local cowboy, supposedly at the hands of a creature known as El Diablo. For the past three years, all sorts of disasters had been blamed on this mystery figure, from droughts to earthquakes to strange deaths like this one which, Nighthawk had to admit, was a doozy. In his civilian guise of Hannibal Hawkes, traveling fix-it man, he’d witnessed the other cowboys bringing what was left of their friend into town and straight to the sheriff’s office. They wanted to form a posse to hunt down El Diablo, but the lawman talked them down and reminded them of what happened to the last party to actively seek out the creature -- Hannibal was surprised to see these trail-hardened cowpokes lose their nerve so quickly, and he knew that he had to get to the bottom of this. After a few innocent-sounding inquiries, he waited until dark, then changed into what he’d come to think of his “other face” and headed north to where the body had been found. Now it was a matter of following the tracks back to where they’d come from.
Climbing into the saddle, Nighthawk steered his horse to the northwest, keeping his eyes peeled for the fiery mount that El Diablo was said to ride (and presumably the source of the scorched hoofprints laid out before him). Nothing seemed amiss, save that this section of California desert was rather barren of life: no other animal tracks were visible, nor could he hear the stirrings of any nocturnal creatures. Even the wind appeared to have abandoned this place. An hour into his trek, Nighthawk saw the outlying buildings of Puerta Del Sol, a town that figured prominently in the rumors he’d heard concerning El Diablo. Many said this was where he was first spotted, and that his worst crimes had been centered here -- few residents remained for El Diablo to haunt, so now the creature was spreading outward in search of fresh souls. Nighthawk was still some distance away from the town, and he paused while he debated whether to ride straight in or bypass it in order not to lose the trail. It was then that he caught a glimpse of a spark out of the corner of his eye. By the time he turned towards it, the spark had flared to life, revealing a masked man dressed in red and black riding straight at him, his horse setting the ground on fire with every strike of its hooves. He’s been trailin’ me, Nighthawk thought. The sonovabitch doused his fire ‘til he was right on top of me!
Whirling his own horse around to face the enemy proper, Nighthawk drew his revolver and took aim, but didn’t shoot. “Stand down, El Diablo...if that’s what you really are!” he shouted. “I’m not the sort to shoot first without givin’ the other man a chance to explain himself, so you’d best start before I decide you ain’t worthy of that chance!”
El Diablo reached beneath his cloak and pulled out a whip, which made the air crackle every time he snapped it. Nighthawk took that action to be a threat and, after retraining his sights upon it, shot directly at the whip’s handle. A trio of bullets tore through the air, yet none of them seemed to hit their target, and El Diablo was closing in fast. Nighthawk quickly emptied his cylinder at the man himself, but that didn’t faze El Diablo either. Just like the rumors say: Bullets can’t touch him, Nighthawk realized, then dug his spurs into his horse and yanked on the reins, forcing it eastward. Another rumor said that El Diablo never came out during the day, and though it was hours before dawn, he hoped that he could outride it long enough for the sun to come up and, presumably, drive it off.
It didn’t take long for Nighthawk to realize his idea wasn’t going to work. El Diablo’s mount closed the gap between them, and the whip appeared to grow longer each time it struck out, always missing him by inches no matter how much he veered his own horse away. Then the whip finally reached its target, wrapping around Nighthawk’s arm like a flaming snake. El Diablo tried to pull him out of his saddle, but Nighthawk had a firm grip on the reins with his free hand, thereby giving him some leverage -- the horse bucked and screamed from this tug-of-war, but didn’t fall over. All this jerking about did have one consequence, however, and Nighthawk howled in pain as his felt his arm dislocate from his shoulder, not to mention the burns forming on his skin as the whip’s flames ate through his shirtsleeve. The pain grew to the point where his grip gave out, and soon he was flying off the saddle and landing on the ground beside El Diablo’s horse, which then took off at breakneck speed, dragging Nighthawk behind it. He’d seen men dragged to death before, and knew that, if he couldn’t get free of this blasted whip, there was a good chance he wouldn’t live to see the sunrise, so he tried to pry himself loose with his free hand. The whip had a mind of its own, however, and impossible as it seemed, soon entangled both arms. Hannibal Hawkes, you done bit off more’n you can chew, he thought, bouncing along the California hardpan on his stomach. Looks like your career as a masked vigilante is gonna be a mite shorter than you planned.
Just then, he heard something swish through the air, and the whip severed -- Nighthawk still skidded forward a few more feet, but at least he was now free. He got up as quickly as he could and saw two riders bearing down on himself and El Diablo, who had turned his horse to face the newcomers. One of them, dressed in Indian garb, let out a war cry as he threw a knife at El Diablo, and Nighthawk was glad to see the weapon bury itself in the creature’s chest. The other rider came straight at Nighthawk and held out a hand, saying, “Best come along with us, stranger, less’n you want to go another round with ol’ ugly there.”
“I’d rather not.” Nighthawk climbed up behind the rider, clinging to the man’s duster with his good hand as they rode off at a gallop. “What about your friend?”
“Brian don’t ever listen to me,” the rider said, “but he’ll be along soon as we’re clear.”
Sure enough, the Indian threw one more knife before cutting off his attack and following. When he caught up to them, the Indian said, “I thought we were the only ones brave enough to track the demon to his lair.”
“Brave? I thought we were plumb stupid!” his companion replied. “I’m just glad those weapons Graham cooked up for us work.”
“They only slowed him down, they can’t kill him. That’s what the gun is for.” The Indian looked over his shoulder. “And I believe we might be using it tonight.”
Nighthawk looked behind as well to see El Diablo riding after them, the whip magically whole again and snapping in the air. “Sorry to tell you this, but guns don’t work on that thing.”
“You ain’t seen this gun,” the man in the duster said with a grin, then spurred the horse towards a rise in the landscape and yelled, “Put on the pot, Graham, company’s coming!”
A third man popped up from behind the rise, a long bundle in his hand. After he got a look behind the riders, he yelled back, “You stupid Yankee, this was just a scoutin’ mission!”
“Blame the man in black holding onto my backside!” The horses galloped up the rise and past Graham, who was unwrapping the bundle to reveal a rather odd-looking rifle. “You’ve been itching to see if that thing works anyhow,” the man in the duster told Graham, “so now’s your chance. Let him have it!”
“Gladly.” Graham brought the rifle to his shoulder and took aim at El Diablo. The creature had no fear of guns, and so didn’t hesitate at the sight of this one, which Graham was counting on. He took a deep breath, let it out slow, then pulled the trigger.
None of them expected the explosion that followed. The rifle burst apart in a ball of blue flame, shrapnel flying everywhere -- Graham died instantly as part of the firing mechanism pierced his brain. Nighthawk and the two riders had come to a stop a good twenty feet away, which spared them from the brunt of the blast, but they still had to duck as shards of metal flew their way. As for El Diablo, he’d gotten close enough for the blast to engulf him too, and while Nighthawk was still trying to figure out what just happened, he and the others heard an unholy screech fill the night air. Despite the shock and fear all three of them were feeling, they approached the rise to see an incomprehensible form writhing on the desert floor. Parts of it looked human, while others just appeared to a jumble of blackened flesh and fangs and claws. Meanwhile, the horse El Diablo had been riding appeared to be melting into a puddle of tarry goo. “Is that...” Nighthawk began to say, then shook his head. “What is that?”
“I think we’re seeing the demon’s true form beneath the man,” the Indian replied.
“God, I hope that thing’s dying,” the man in the duster said.
“And if it’s not?” Nighthawk asked, but the other two men didn’t respond. The creature tried to rise up, then slumped back to the ground, then tried again -- it was a pathetic sight, watching it struggle -- before finally letting out a howl that echoed across the landscape. When it did so, flames began to swirl up around its misshapen form, engulfing it until all that was left of the creature was a few stray embers floating in the air. Sighing with relief, Nighthawk said, “Well, I guess that answers our question.”
“It’s not dead, it just retreated.” The Indian bent over Graham’s body, shaking his head at the waste of life. “I’m sure it’ll be some time before it rides again, and I hope we’ll have a more reliable weapon to face it with when it does.” Looking up at the man in the duster, he said, “We’d best collect up all the fragments we can, Matt. Don’t leave anything behind.”
“Hawk’s not gonna be happy about this,” Matt said.
Nighthawk raised an eyebrow, thinking for a moment that Matt was referring to him, then he was hit by a wave of dizziness, and an image formed in his head of a young man with dark hair highlighted by a blond streak. “Hawk...Tom Hawkins?” he asked, his voice sounding to his ears like it was a million miles away. “Is that who you’re talking about?”
“Yeah. You know him?”
“I’m...not sure. I feel like...maybe...I don’t know.” Nighthawk rubbed his fingers against his temple. “Are you going to meet up with him? I’d like to join you for the trip.”
In lieu of an answer, the two men turned away from him. “Is it just me, little brother, or does our new friend here seem a bit peculiar?” Matt whispered.
“That he does,” Brian replied, “but considering what he’s just been through, it might merely be shock. I suppose we should bring him along for his own safety, at least.”
“Okay...but keep your pistol handy. I’ve had my fill of crazy masked men tonight.”
* * * * * *
Sun’ll be up soon, Hawk thought as he sat on a stump outside the abandoned barn they used as a reconnaissance point. The boys should be back by then, I’d hope. Normally, Hawk didn’t set foot in California, for fear that Wise Owl might sense him, but when Conjura had been whipping up the portal to send Graham and the others on their way, he got a gut feeling that he should come along this time. Though Small Eagle had been the one with the touch, Hawk sometimes experienced a faint glimmer or two of his own, and he’d figured this might be one of them. So he elected to wait at the barn instead of in Echo Valley, and had bided his time by whittling. A goodly pile of wood shavings now lay at his feet, and still the boys hadn’t returned. He briefly considered heading out to see if he could meet them halfway, then decided that was even riskier than him being within fifty miles of Wise Owl’s hidey-hole. Instead, for the umpteenth time, he cast his eyes in the direction the boys had rode off in, and this time, he saw what he’d been searching for: a trio of riders heading his way. “Thank you, Lord,” he said, but when he stood up, he noticed a fourth horse tethered behind one of them, with what looked like a body tossed over the saddle.
Swearing under his breath, Hawk ran towards the riders -- they were still too far away for him to discern if these were the boys or not, but the feeling in his gut was overriding common sense at the moment. When he got closer, he saw Matt Savage in the lead, his brother Brian (who preferred to be called Scalphunter) right behind, and Graham’s horse following him -- it didn’t take the touch to figure that Graham was the body laid over it. The fourth rider was too far behind for him to get a good look. “What happened?” Hawk called out. “Was it El Diablo?”
“In a way,” Matt answered. “We’d managed to stay out of sight as always, but then this fella behind us ran afoul of our whip-wielding buddy and we swept in for a rescue.” Matt brought his mount to a halt in front of Hawk. “Graham brought out the gun to save all our hides, but something went awry...whole thing blew up in his hands.”
Scalphunter added with a note of sadness, “I’m afraid all our nighttime scouting trips have been a waste. Both the weapon and its inventor are lost to us.”
“No.” That was all Hawk could manage to say. He walked over to Graham’s horse and laid a hand on the body, paying no mind to the blood soaking through the blanket it was wrapped in. Jeff Graham could be difficult at times, but he’d been devoted to the mission Hawk had drafted him for. And what did the man get for his trouble? A pointless death in the middle of the desert. This was why Hawk had been so reluctant to bring in outsiders: he couldn’t bear the thought of these people becoming casualties under his watch. The fact that it appeared the Savage boys had picked up another one for their cause did nothing to lighten his mood. Hawk turned towards the approaching rider, ready to tell him to hightail it away from here for his own safety, then stopped when he got a good look at the man.
It was his father, hale and hearty and sitting tall in the saddle. The coonskin cap he always wore was cocked back on his head, and his buckskin jacket -- the same jacket Hawk himself was wearing at the moment -- covered his lean frame. Hawk knew what he saw was impossible, but that didn’t prevent his jaw from dropping open in shock. Dad, you’re alive! he wanted to shout, but the words wouldn’t come out of his mouth, he could only stand there mute as his father pulled his mount up short in front of him...and then it was as if a fog drifted between them, and the image of the elder Tom Hawkins was replaced by a young man with a silhouette of a hawk stitched onto the front of his shirt, which looked like it was coated in an inch of trail dust. Makeshift bandages were wrapped around both forearms, one of which was supported by a sling. Behind the mask the young man wore, Hawk could see a pair of piercing blue eyes, the same color as his father’s. Those eyes were intensely fixed upon Hawk even as he dismounted. Off to the side, Matt and Brian watched the two men, and in a whisper, Matt said to his brother, “Now they’re both acting peculiar.”
After a long silence, the young man asked, “Are you Tom Hawkins?”
“Most folks call me Hawk. My father...he answered to that name more often.” Swallowing hard, he said, “You ever hear of him? Of Tomahawk?”
“I think so...long time ago.” Those blue eyes drifted away momentarily. “I think I may have met him, but I can’t...”
“I think maybe you did too, in a roundabout way. What’s your name, son?”
“It’s Ni-...Hannibal. My name’s Hannibal.” His hands were trembling as he reached up to pull off his mask -- since he’d taken up the identity of Nighthawk, he hadn’t let anyone in on his double life, but something about this old man standing before him made him want to tell.
“You believe in fate, Hannibal? That sometimes we’re kinda pushed in one direction or another for a greater purpose? ‘Cause I got a feeling that fate might’ve just given you a big push in our direction.”
Hannibal was nodding slowly. “Yeah...yeah, I think it did.” He then looked over at Graham’s body and said, “I’m not sure if that push was worth someone’s life, though.”
“We’ll just have to do our best to make it worth that life,” Hawk replied.
* * * * * *
If there was one thing Hannibal hated most about the shed, it was the ventilation. When Graham put that building together to house his little project, the man hadn’t thought much about how to get fresh air into the place. But since it didn’t make sense to tear it all down and start over just to provide some comfort, Hannibal simply acquired the habit of stepping outside every few hours in order to get some relief. If today’s test went as planned, though, it’d be worth it: after numerous redesigns and modifications, the new rifle was ready.
The first thing Hawk did after Hannibal threw in with this ragtag group was tell him the full story behind El Diablo and Wise Owl, along with the significance of the strange rifle that had accidentally led to Jeff Graham’s demise. Simply put, it was a demon-killer, designed from the ground up by Graham with input from Conjura and James Thunderborne. Sadly, Graham was neither an inventor nor a blacksmith, and once Hannibal got a look at the blueprints and the remains of the gun, he could see the flaws right away. Going by the damage it did to El Diablo, the magic portion of the weapon appeared to work just fine, but the mechanical aspects of it, not to mention its very structure, were the reason why it exploded upon its very first use (Hannibal held his tongue when he found out that Graham had never even test-fired the rifle). Due to his background as a fix-it man, plus his own innate cleverness when it came to puzzling out problems, Hannibal volunteered to work on a new version of the rifle, weeding out the errors that had been made the first time. Though the others in the group seemed hesitant to trust a stranger with such an important piece of their arsenal, Hawk readily agreed to the idea.
The biggest error that needed correcting was the mixing of silver with the iron: while it may have helped bolster whatever magicks they infused into it, too much silver tended to make iron brittle, which was not a quality you wanted a firearm to have. Hannibal worked for nearly a year to get the mixture just right so that the alloy would be able to withstand the explosive force unleashed when the bullet flew out of the barrel. After that came the design of the weapon itself: Graham had tried to meld together elements from various guns, but Hannibal felt that it would be better to stick with a single gun and modify that as needed. Being familiar with Winchester’s Model 1866, he chose that as a starting-point, then he and the group’s magic wielders sat down to discuss what changes were necessary. Hannibal soon learned that spell-casting could be a delicate affair, and any alteration to the gun’s makeup -- such as the new alloy -- required adjustments across the board. Now he understood why it took so many years for Graham to complete the first model.
Not every moment had been devoted to crafting weapons. There had been times when he’d donned his Nighthawk gear once again and gone on scouting missions, either alone or with Scalphunter and Matt Savage (while devoted to the cause, the brothers had lives of their own, and were not always available). He also spent hours exploring Echo Valley with Hawk, who was eager to tell Hannibal the history of the place. The old man’s presence made him feel relaxed in a way he hadn’t experienced in years, so much so that he found himself opening up about his checkered past, and after a while, he began to cultivate some measure of peace within his soul. In a way, he looked upon it as compensation for his work on the weapon.
And now the time had come to deliver the finished product. He picked the rifle up from the workbench and went outside, taking in a deep breath of fresh mountain air as he did so. On an open stretch of land not far away, he saw the others waiting: Hawk, Firehair, Conjura, Scalphunter, and Thunderborne. As Hannibal approached, he asked Scalphunter, “Your brother couldn’t make it?”
“Matt’s in the middle of a cattle drive right now. He’ll be able to join us in a few weeks.”
“Well, hopefully you’ll have something good to tell him then.” Hannibal went over to a tripod set up nearby and attached the rifle to it, then looped a string around the trigger -- they were taking no chances with the first test-firing. He cocked the rifle, sighting down the barrel to take aim at the targets they’d previously set up: leftover fragments of enchanted iron they’d flattened out and attached to short poles. If the bullets could penetrate them, then the magic power they carried with them should be strong enough to inflict damage on both El Diablo and Wise Owl. He then walked towards the group standing about thirty feet from the tripod, letting the string trail out behind him. “Okay, here we go. In three...two...one!”
Hannibal jerked on the string, pulling the trigger. As with the first rifle, the discharge was a bright blue, but the metal held together this time, launching the bullet straight and true at its chosen target, which exploded like a china plate upon impact. There was absolute silence from the observers at first, then Hawk let out a whoop that echoed for miles. The others soon joined in, laughing and cheering at the sight of their success. “I knew you could do it! I knew it!” Hawk said as he tossed his arm around Hannibal’s shoulders. “This is why you came back!”
Hannibal got an odd feeling from Hawk’s choice of words -- sometimes the old man talked as if there was a second conversation taking place that Hannibal couldn’t hear -- but it was quickly dispelled by his own excitement. “I don’t know about you guys, but I want to see if we can do it again,” he said with a grin. Everyone agreed, so Hannibal cocked the rifle again and, in a show of confidence, removed it from the tripod to fire it by hand. He found that the rifle had a kick like a mule, but the results were the same as before: blue flame and shattered target. “Everything still looks good,” he said afterward, turning the rifle over in his hands. “We shouldn’t have anything to worry about once we go into battle with this.”
That last sentence took some of the joy out of the air, for that’s what their success today was really about: another step towards their confrontation with Wise Owl. And now that the gun was ready, there was only one final step to be taken. Turning to Thunderborne, Hawk said, “Reckon it’s time for us to have a sit-down with the boy.”
“Reckon it is.” James shook his head. “Been putting this off for too long.”
“Would’ve done it sooner if’n it hadn’t been for the setback with the gun.” Hawk took the rifle from Hannibal, looking it over himself. “What’s this about?” he asked, pointing to something carved onto the rifle’s stock.
Hannibal glanced over, then said, “Oh, that. Graham wrote ‘Our Ace in the Hole’ on one of the blueprints, so I suggested we put something similar on the gun to honor his memory.”
Hawk smirked as he ran his fingers over the words: ACE OF WINCHESTERS. “I like it.”
“How long before we descend upon Puerta Del Sol?” Scalphunter asked.
“We’ll say the end of next month,” Hawk replied. “That’ll give us time to round up extra supplies and such, plus your brother will be free by then.”
Scalphunter nodded, then said, “If you don’t mind, I can think of one more person we can add to our army. He’s a bounty hunter by trade, though, and might expect some compensation.”
“Yeah, I think you’ve mentioned him before. Didn’t you say he retired?”
“He did...but from what I’ve heard, that retirement was somewhat short-lived.”