This one is for all my readers — old and new — who seem willing to follow me down any weird trail I decide to take. Thanks for sharing the ride. God only knows where we’ll go next!
And, as always, for Sara Jo.
Thanks so much to Jeff Mariotte for asking me to ride with him through the Deadlands. Thanks to my agents, Harvey Klinger and Sara Crowe, and to the good folks at Tor Books.
Thanks to the Deadlands roughriders: Shane Hensley, Matt Cutter, and the crew at Pinnacle Entertainment; C. Edward Sellner, Charlie Hall, and the Visionary Comics posse; Tom Doherty, Greg Cox, Stacy Hill, Diana Pho, Patty Garcia, and all the roustabouts at Tor.
To fear death, gentlemen, is no other than to think oneself wise when one is not, to think one knows what one does not know. No one knows whether death may not be the greatest of all blessings for a man, yet men fear it as if they knew that it is the greatest of evils.— SOCRATES
Grey Torrance sat on his horse in the dark shade of a tower of rock and watched a posse try their damndest to kill a Sioux.
They were going about it with a will, Grey had to give them that. Clearly they’d given it some thought. Put some effort into. Making a job of it.
He seemed to have the same work ethic when it came to not being killed. Riding hard until they shot his little pinto out from under him. Then climbing onto the big piles of rocks left over from when sheets of ice covered this whole land. The Sioux kept deviling the riders, cutting through narrow clefts in the rock, picking his way up trails a goat wouldn’t risk. Tumbling rocks down on his pursuers. Even set a small brush fire. The man was using all the tricks.
Grey thought it was highly entertaining.
Kind of a shame the Sioux had no chance at all.
Not with six mounted men. Not out here where he could stall but he couldn’t really escape.
Still, it was fun to watch.
Grey took a piece of jerky from his pocket, bit some off, and chewed slowly, letting the salt coax spit from his dry mouth. He wasn’t entirely sure the jerky was beef, but as he’d taken it from a dead man’s saddle it wasn’t something he could verify. It kept him alive, though. That and a handful of beans and a water skin he’d filled from a dreary little stream.
Alive, and until now, unhappy.
This lifted the day from nothing to something.
One man on foot trying to escape six on horseback in a country that was made for dying. The hills were a broken tumble of tan rocks that looked like they’d been dumped here at the end of the sixth day of creation. When God was just too damn tired to build anything else, so he tossed it all across Nevada and said to hell with it.
Maybe he thought the Devil would want it.
No one else much did.
Hateful, ugly place where the scorpion was king and water was worth more than gold or ghost rock.
It wasn’t a place for the living.
It was a desert.
A dead land.
He chewed and watched as the Sioux raced for the shelter of a massive tumble of rocks and started to climb. Some of the rocks stood straight up like the arms of buried giants. Some lay flat and stacked. Three of these formed a kind of rough terrace, with two smaller platforms and a big one up top. Be hard as hell to make it up that top shelf, but as Grey watched the Sioux seemed to be trying just that. The Sioux raced across the lowest table, leaped up and out, and caught a twisted root of a Joshua tree. The root was as withered as the tree, which leaned drunkenly over the edge of a higher shelf. Grey narrowed his eyes, trying to understand the point of the Sioux taking that risk. Even if he got to the next shelf, the posse could simply fall back and wait. There was nowhere else to go. That second shelf stood alone, like a tiny mesa, offering no shelter or…
The Sioux snaked out his hands and caught the vine. Clutched it firm, then immediately began to climb. He was clearly making for the dense shadows under that bigger top shelf and Grey wondered why the six pursuers didn’t just shoot him down. At that range they could shoot to wound and have a good chance of getting it done.
But they didn’t seem to want to kill or injure the Sioux. They wanted him alive.
Now… why was that?
As the fugitive climbed up the vine toward the lip of the higher shelf, Grey found himself chewing on the question as much as on the jerky.
Why would six white men go to such lengths to capture an Indian unharmed?
That was damn odd, even for a part of the country that was odder than most. If it was one man Grey could put it down to heatstroke or some personal grudge. But this was six men. Well-armed, and from their bulging saddlebags, well-provisioned.
And wasn’t that damned interesting?
Grey reached down and stroked the long neck of his horse. His newly acquired horse. The animal’s coat was the same shade of dusty blue as the hair of Grey’s grade-school teacher back home in Philadelphia, so he’d named the mare Mrs. Pickles. Picky for short. Nice horse.
Picky blew softly and shook her head. But she, too, was watching the drama below. She seemed every bit as curious as Grey was.
“So,” Grey murmured, “what do you think?”
Picky lifted her head as if listening.
“We could turn northwest and leave these fellows to their own adventures.”
Picky made no move.
“Or we could be busybodies and go interfere where we ain’t wanted.”
The horse blew again and stamped the rock with a hoof. She did it so hard it kicked up a spark.
“That’s what I thought you’d say.”
Grey thumbed the restraining thong off the end of his pistol and loosened the Winchester in its scabbard. He absently touched the knives in boot-top and belt. Then, as he did a thousand times a day he turned and looked over his shoulder.
There was nothing there.
Behind him was more of the blasted and blighted Nevada wasteland. The road he’d come was a random zigzag through different states, different nations, different climates.
He knew, with all his intellect and experience, that no one was following him. He was good at leaving no trail to follow. So, he knew that there was no one back there. No one hunting him, as the posse down there was hunting the Sioux.
He knew that.
Just as he knew that he was wrong.
No man followed him, that was certain. No posse, no hunting party, no Agents or Rangers.
What was back there, riding his back trail somewhere in the dust and distance was not a man. Or even a group of men.
No, you couldn’t call them “men.”
They’d been men once upon a time, though. They’d been men before they died.
Before he killed them.
The ghosts of his crimes were relentless.
Grey took a breath and forced himself to turn and study the landscape before him, not the wreckage behind.
He swallowed the last bit of jerky, took a long drink, nodded to himself, and then kicked Picky lightly in the sides.
“Come on, girl,” he said, “let’s go see if we can’t get into trouble.”
Which is what they did.
By the time Grey reached the floor of the broad valley the Sioux was scaling the wall that led to the topmost shelf. He had a fair piece of work ahead of him and Grey didn’t envy the task.
Below, the posse had all dismounted. The men tied their horses to a stunted juniper and left the smallest man among them to guard the mounts. The others spread out to look for a way up. Two of them circled around out of sight while the remaining three set to climbing. As Picky drew closer, Grey could see that they weren’t going about it the right way.
One fellow was trying to climb one-handed while holding his rifle in the other, and he was making a piss-poor job of it. Another was trying to muscle his way up, showing off by chinning himself on edges of rock and making big leaps. It was impressive for a few seconds, but under this sun and wearing jeans, a heavy canvas coat, boots, and a gunbelt, the fellow was wearing himself out. By the time he reached the second of the two highest shelves he was moving at a breathless crawl.
The other two were not climbers at all, but at least they went about it with caution.
While all this was happening the Sioux seemed to be either unconcerned with their approach, or he was looking for something. Or, Grey thought, maybe the man was plain loco.
The Sioux dropped to all fours and began spitting on the ground. Grey could see him suck in his cheeks and hock spit over and over again. Once the Indian took a wrinkled water skin from his belt and upended it, squeezing out the last drops. Instead of swallowing them, he bent forward and let the water dribble from between clenched teeth.
“Yup,” said Grey quietly, “that boy there’s lost it.”
Then something flashed up on the hill.
Bright and sudden and very strange.
As the Sioux spat once more there was a burst of intense blue light beneath him. For just a split second it was like the man knelt over a skylight to a room lit with blue fire. It erased all shadows and was so bright Grey threw a hand up to shield his eyes.
But when he peered between his fingers the light was gone.
From the sides of the hills he could hear the pursuing men cry out. First in fear and then in anger.
“What in the hell was that?” Grey asked the empty air.
Picky nickered uneasily and Grey patted her neck, but he was frowning. What had the Indian done to cause that flash?
He waited to see if there was another flash.
However the memory of that one moment of azure light lingered. It burned in his eyes as if he’d stared too long at the sun, and only slowly, slowly faded.
Whatever it was, there was nothing natural about it, he was certain of that.
And there was nothing out here in the desert that could easily explain it. Not amid a pile of ancient rocks dropped by a glacier before the red man even hunted these hills. There wasn’t even any water to reflect sunlight, not that water on brown rock under a yellow sun would flash with a blue as bright as cornflowers.
He pulled Picky up short on the far side of a jutting shoulder of sandstone and slid quietly out of the saddle. The small man guarding the horses was on the other side and he was masking all sound by yelling encouragement up to his companions. He had a truly poisonous mouth and cursed his companions, called them goat molesters and worse. Damned them to hell and wished seven kinds of torment on them.
Grey was bored by the patter, so he screwed the barrel of his pistol into the man’s right ear and said, “Hush now.”
The man hushed.
The man froze solid.
Grey took a fistful of the back of the little man’s collar to keep him from rabbiting. The man held his arms out to his side.
“Good,” said Grey amiably. “Take your pistol out like it’s red hot. Yup, just two fingers. Nice, that’s the way to do it. Put it on the ground. No, no, don’t be moving quicker than common sense tells you to. Good, good. Now back up and let’s go have a quiet chat, shall we?”
With the gun in place, Grey used his hold on the collar to walk the man backward around the shoulder of rock. Then he pushed him toward the wall.
“Hands on the wall, feet wide. Yeah, like you’re trying to hold it up.”
Grey patted him down, removed a small two shot over-and-under derringer and a skinning knife and tossed them into a tangle of cactus paddles. Then he spun the man and thrust him hard against the hot stone.
His prisoner was nearly a foot shorter than Grey’s six-two and easily sixty or seventy pounds lighter. A skinny man with a bad sunburn and worse breath. He had rough, big-knuckled hands, though, which spoke of years of hard labor. A farmer or a miner. Nothing else would do it. His face was young but his eyes were old and they didn’t seem to want to meet Grey’s.
Grey stood very close, the gun barrel an inch from the man’s tobacco-stained teeth. The fellow went crossed-eyed trying to look at it.
“Now,” said Grey, smiling an affable smile, “let’s start with your name.”
The man hesitated for a beat, then said, “Riley.”
“That is my first name.”
“Give me the whole thing, then.”
“Uh huh. And, do you want to tell me who you are and what’s going on here, Mr. Riley Jones?”
Riley turned his head and snarled. “We’re sheriff’s deputies and you’re interfering with a criminal apprehension.”
“You saying you’re a deputy?”
“Yes I am.”
“Where’s your badge? I must have missed it, or’d you forget to bring it along?”
Riley licked his lips. “We were deputized by the sheriff. This here’s an official posse.”
He pronounced it “O-ficial.”
“Deputized? Ain’t that interesting as all hell. Remind me now… which sheriff’s department has jurisdiction way the hell out here?”
“Maybe you need to buy a map, son, but you’re a long damn way from Reno.”
Riley Jones licked his lips again. “We… I mean…”
“Take your time,” suggested Grey. “Think up a good answer. Let’s see how much we both like what you have to say.”
On the other side of the rock and above them on the shelf Grey could hear the grunts and curses of the other pursuers. They were discovering that the route taken by the Sioux was considerably tougher than it looked, and it had looked plenty tough to Grey. He would not have tried it without rope and some time to plan.
“Who are you, mister?” demanded the prisoner.
“I’m the ghost of George Washington, father of our country come to reunite these dis — United States,” said Grey. He tapped the edge of the barrel against the man’s upper lip. “I believe it’s your patriotic duty to tell the whole unexpurgated truth.”
“I ain’t lying,” insisted Riley. “The sheriff’s got special powers from the territorial governor himself.”
“Special powers?” Grey smiled. “Bullshit.”
“Hand to God. Like I said, we’re out here on official business.”
Grey kept his smile in place but he began to wonder if he’d made a mistake. The moral high ground felt a little shaky beneath his feet.
“You want to tell me what that bright blue flash was?”
Riley’s eyes shifted away immediately. “I didn’t see no light.”
“Sure you did. Everyone for twenty miles must have seen it. Bright as can be, right on top of that rock. Right under that Sioux you men have been chasing. How could you not see it?”
Riley squared his shoulders. Very carefully. “What’s your interest, mister?”
“In the blue light? Common curiosity.”
“No. Why’d you step into something ain’t your business?”
“I saw six men chasing one. Didn’t look fair.”
“You saw six white men chasing a red injun.”
“I don’t care if he’s bright purple. Six to one?”
“You always bring more men than you need to for a posse. That’s how it’s done.”
“Posses usually have someone in charge,” said Grey. “Someone with a badge, and so far I’m not seeing one. What I am seeing is a bunch of damn fools trying to kill themselves while pretending to catch an unarmed Sioux.”