High Moon

Issue #32

I led my horse into Haxan and found Piebald squatting in the black shade of the livery stable. He had constructed a tiny corral out of deadwood and imprisoned a horned toad.

“Hello, Marshall,” he said. “Find the man you were after?” He watched the horned toad, sun-brown arms crossed over his knees.

“My horse picked up a stone bruise. I lost him at the Mexican border.”

Bull Hod was the man in question. He had shot a girl in the Sassy Sage when she wouldn’t go upstairs. When a cowboy tried to knock him down Hod pulled a Bowie knife and gutted him. As he backed out of the saloon a bartender went for the shotgun slung under the bar and Hod shot him in the eye. Then he gut-shot a dealer hiding under a faro table just because he was that kind of mean.

“That’s a shame, Marshall. Four days’ ride wasted. Maybe next time you’ll kill him.” The horned toad tried to climb out of its prison. Piebald pushed him down with a dirty forefinger.

“I was trying to catch him, son, not kill him.”

“My daddy says you kill men like a farmer kills hogs.”

“Look after my horse, Piebald. And tell Mr. Wallet to feed him extra grain. He’s been rode hard.”

Piebald scrambled to his feet and knocked dust off his patched jeans. “Don’t you worry, Marshall. I’ll take good care of him.” He took the reins and led my blue roan into the stable.

I hefted my Sharps rifle and turned for my office. I was halfway when I came back to kick down the horned toad’s prison. It scampered under a prickly pear, black eyes gleaming.

You kill men like a farmer kills hogs.

I decided not to go to the office after all. I was tired. I strode for the Haxan Hotel, stomping gypsum sand off my boots before I stepped inside the cool dark.

A gaunt man lounged in one of the horsehair chairs, a boot propped on one knee. He was chewing licorice. He had black hair combed with bear grease and a sweaty blue bandanna knotted around his neck. He was spinning the razor-sharp rowel of his spur when he saw me.

“You the U.S. Marshall here?” His teeth were black from the licorice.

“That’s right. John T. Marwood.”

He rose to his feet. He was my height but narrower in the chest and his forearms were matted with hair. He shoved a brown hand at me. “Danny Moth, trail boss for the Circle T. I’ve got a herd five miles south of here. Six thousand head. We were driving them to Sante Fe when the water ran short.”

“If you want to sell your herd we’ve got several cattle agents in town.”

“No, it ain’t that. It’s...well, I’m embarrassed to say, but I’m lost.” He smiled. He needed a bath and a shave but he had an honest smile.

“As lost as a man can be.”

“How do you mean, Mr. Moth?”

“I’ve made this drive from El Paso to Santa Fe every spring for the past six years. This is the first time I’ve run into a town called Haxan.”

“The West is growing fast.”

“Not that fast. And there’s something else, Marshall. We drove our herd for three days over country I’ve never seen before. I didn’t think we were going to make it before my scout found a shallow creek south of here.”

“That would be Gila Creek.”

“Lucky we found that water or I would have lost everything.” Moth watched me with mud-brown eyes. “Marshall, what county is this?”

“Sangre.”

“Blood County, eh?” He rubbed the back of his neck, caked with dried sweat and hard miles of trail dust. He shook his head, perplexed. “Marshall, I can’t figure it. How is it this town and this county doesn’t exist on any map I’ve ever seen?”

Some of us move through time and dust. There are others who walk against the flow. When we meet there’s a violence that must be faced and overcome.

Haxan was such a meeting place.

This world, everything around you and everything you can’t see, is like a vast sea. And within this sea of blood and dust, in places that might never be or can’t become until something is set right, there are people destined to travel forever.

People like me.

We’re taken from places we call home and sent into this stormy sea to calm the waters. It’s an eternal war. It never ends because the storm itself, the unending conflict, makes the world you know a reality. Along with all the other worlds that might be waiting to be born, or were born but died like a guttering candle in the eternal night.

Once in a while, someone slips between the hills and hollows and stumbles where they don’t belong. I think Danny Moth was one of those strange men, in this strangest of lands.

“You believe that, Marshall?”

We sat in a quiet corner of the Quarter Moon, a cold pitcher of beer between us. I’m not saying Moth believed everything I told him. I’m not sure I did, sometimes.

“I remember living a lot of places. If what I remember is real or shadow I can’t say. They’re mostly fragments. But I hold the memories. The memories are real.”

Moth sipped his beer. “Seems a man would know the life he lived, one way or the other.”

“Maybe that’s the only way he can live. His mind shapes the past into half-remembered shadows because otherwise the weight of eternity would crush him.” I spread my hands apart. “I don’t claim to understand it all. I just know it’s there.”

Moth watched me with his flat brown eyes. “The people of Haxan know you think this way?”

“Those few I trust. My deputy, and an Indian maiden whose life I saved once or twice. Most people wouldn’t care because it’s not something they want to think about.”

“Why are you telling me this, Marshall?”

I found myself thinking about that horned toad and how his eyes gleamed when he was set free.

“You’re not here by accident, Mr. Moth.” This made him start. “Given who I am and what I believe... you wouldn’t be in Haxan otherwise.”

“You make it sound like a prison.”

“Haxan is a lot of things we can’t understand.”

“You sound pretty certain of that.”

“As certain as you are lost.”

He drained his beer and wiped his mouth with the back of his hand. “My first inclination in a prison is to break out. But if you say I’m here for a reason then maybe I need to find out why. You ever fought in a war, Marshall?”

I had been in a lot of wars. “Sure.”

“I was at Chickamauga. My point being, a man sees a lot of curious things he can’t explain. I’ve seen my share and it sounds like you have, too. World being what it is, all big and open like, it’s a wonder a man doesn’t see more he can’t explain in one lifetime.”

“You might be right.”

Moth lighted a long cigar wrapped with green leaf. “I have an eye for men who can ride the river. I’ll make a deal with you. Give me the name of a good cattle agent. If he offers a fair price I’ll sell my herd. My riders won’t mind. These last three days shook their nerve and they’ll like as not spend their wages in Haxan as Sante Fe.”

“Haxan girls are pretty.”

Moth laughed. “If you say so.” He flicked ash away. “I don’t have any use for women since my wife died. When you’ve loved a woman like I loved Charity, well, the others pale in comparison.”

“I think I understand.” I couldn’t imagine my life without Magra Snowberry. She was why I came to Haxan in the first place.

“I’ll hang around after I pay off the men. You intrigue me, Marshall. I like talking philosophy with intelligent people. Don’t get much chance of it on the trail.”

He leaned forward, the cigar dangling between his long fingers. “And maybe we can figure out how I came to be lost in Haxan. And why it was you who found me.”

Moth paid off his men and became a permanent resident of Haxan. The following day we rode around the countryside hunting quail and jackrabbits. Magra said she would broil the seasoned meat with husks of corn over mesquite coals and we could eat out under the stars.

We were cutting through foothills when a mountain lion scrabbled across bare rock and leapt in front of us. I pulled my Colt Dragoon and put a round through its tawny body. It fell between our horses. Danny slipped off his saddle and stood over its body. He was breathing hard when he looked up at me.

“I never saw anything like that,” he said. “You’re one-third human and two-thirds gun hawk.” He watched me close. “You’re a hard killer, John.”

I didn’t say anything. It didn’t sound like a compliment the way he said it: one-third human. I had been trying to protect him. Why didn’t he see that?

He kicked the big cat over. “Her teats are swollen. Her cubs will die now that she’s dead.”

“Those claws and teeth will bring a good price in Albuquerque if you polish them,” I said.

“Why would I want that?”

He climbed into his saddle and shook the reins out. I felt I had been judged. It made an emptiness in my chest. The same emptiness when Bull Hod had slipped across the border beyond my reach.

As we were riding back Danny muttered to himself, “That cat wasn’t attacking us. She was startled because we came downwind on her.”

I looked at my right hand. “It just happened.”

“That would bother me, John. But you seem easy with it.”

I didn’t know how to explain it’s always that way with me. Instinct. Danny wasn’t above killing; we were hunting together after all. But he hadn’t liked the ease with which I’d done this. After seeing his reaction, I wasn’t sure I did, either.

We never mentioned the mountain lion again that day, but it was always in our past, roaring.

That evening, we sat talking and eating as the desert night shook itself loose and slipped down from the San Andreas mountains. Magra boiled black coffee while we washed our faces with water fetched from the well.

With the sun spinning red gold on the flanks of the mountains, Danny looked around, a cup of coffee steaming in his fist, and said, “This is beautiful country. And that’s a beautiful girl.”

Magra smiled. “Thank you,” she said in her broken English. She went about her chores, sneaking pleased glances my way. She was glad I had made a new friend, had found someone else I could trust.

The next morning I saw Danny talking to Magra after breakfast, their bodies silhouetted strong against the red horizon, voices carrying like cottonwood seeds on the dry air. Several times their hands touched. That afternoon I rode in from town after business and found them sitting together in comfortable silence.

Magra knew me well. She saw I was troubled. When we were alone inside the half-finished cabin she said, “He’s lonely. His heart is hurt deep. I get the feeling he’s looking for someone he lost.”

“His wife died recently.”

She shook her head. “He’s not interested in me. This is someone he loved more. From a long time ago, I think.” She was putting tin plates and cups away in her new cupboard. “He told me about the big cat you killed.”

I thought if I moved I would snap like dry straw. “He did?”

She held one of the plates, her head bent. . “It bothers him. It bothers me, too.”

“I didn’t kill that mountain lion on purpose. I can’t believe he mentioned it.”

She put the plate away, wiped her hands on her apron and turned. “John, instead of being angry maybe you should be grateful for people who care about you.”

I walked out of the half-finished cabin. Danny was sitting against the fence, whittling. I sat down beside him and cleaned my gun. There was a discarded plank with the word DUNKIE carved into lying it at his feet. I picked it up.

“What’s this?”

He laughed sheepishly. “It’s a mystery I’m trying to puzzle out. Got stuck in my head the day I rode into Haxan. Maybe someday I’ll get it figured.”

“Can I have it?” Magra asked, coming forward. “I would like to have its magic hanging above the door.”

“You don’t know what it means,” I said.

Her dark eyes sparkled. “Ai, I think maybe I do.” She knelt beside me and ran her fingertips over the wood. “It’s a hidden word for friend. If you look close enough, John, you can see it.”

But as it turned out I didn’t have the time. A horse and rider topped the rise. It was my deputy, Jake Strop, on a dun mare. He wouldn’t be coming unless it was bad news.

This was Haxan. The center of blood and dust. Peace never lasted there.

“They killed him sure, Mr. Marwood,” Jake said. “Shot him in the back from that alley yonder.”

“Hold that lantern closer, Jake,” I said. It was two in the morning and we were standing over a dead man. “You recognize this cowboy, Danny?”

“Boy” was right. He wasn’t more than fifteen.

Danny shook his head. “He’s not one of my men.”

“Well, lots of drifters come through Haxan. Some of them never leave. What else do you know about this business, Jake?”

“I was in the office when I heard the shot. I ran out but it was dark and I couldn’t see anything. I checked the saloons and they were all quiet except Mr. Wicker, at the Quarter Moon—he said a cowboy won a little money at faro.”

“How much money?”

“Thirty dollars. The cowboy bought drinks for the house and left with ten dollars remaining.”

“Anybody leave with him?”

“Not that Mr. Wicker remembers.”

“What happened then?”

“I was headed to the office when I saw what looked like a bundle of clothes lying in this alley. I lighted a match so I could see his face. He looked like the man Mr. Wicker described: young with blonde hair and a wispy moustache. I didn’t touch anything and I rode out to get you.”

“You did right. Let’s look in that other alley across the way.” We walked across Front Street, Jake leading the way between the thick adobe walls. “Hold that lantern steady, Jake. See? Boot prints. Someone bushwhacked that boy, all right. Probably heard he won money and thought to take it from him.”

“Who would shoot a boy for ten dollars?” Danny asked.

Jake made a sound of disgust. “In Haxan? Name your man. Something wrong, Mr. Marwood?”

“This drift sand blown against the boardwalk. You can see the boot prints, plain as leather. Spanish heels with a crucifix carved into them. Only one man wears boots like that, Jake.”

“My stars, you’re right.” Jake’s face was yellow sick in the lamplight. “Bull Hod is back in town.”

“Who is Bull Hod?” Danny asked.

“A gunman. Shot and killed a federal paymaster in Wichita before he came here and started causing trouble. Last I heard his bounty was up to five thousand.”

“I’ll get our horses,” Jake said.

“No, you stay here. There’s a trail herd coming in tomorrow. We can’t leave Haxan without a lawman.”

“Mr. Marwood, you can’t go after Bull Hod alone. Not again. That man’s more monster than person.”

“Got no choice, Jake. Law says I have to bring him in.”

“I’ll ride with you, John,” Danny said.

I couldn’t understand why he offered his services so quickly. He obviously thought I was a little loose with my gun. But maybe he figured he had a better chance to figure out why he was lost in Haxan if he stuck close to me. “I can’t ask you to do that, Danny. This man is dangerous. He’s my business.”

“Maybe so. But I’m a good shot and we’ve hunted together before. You might need a gun to cover your back.”

“All right, it’s your funeral. Jake, you see this boy gets buried proper. Come on, Danny. We’ll put a few miles under our saddles before daybreak.”

“You know where this Bull Hod is headed?”

“There’s a line shack southwest of town on the edge of a cedar forest. He used it as a hideout last time. I expect he’s headed that way again. Hod is dangerous, but he’s not long on imagination. That’s why I’ll catch him this time, no problem.”

DUKEIN.

KINDUE.

We rode until mid-morning and made a cold camp to rest the horses. Danny sat across from me scratching letters in the desert floor with a stick.

“How much farther, John?”

“We’ll reach the line shack around sundown. We’ll take Hod after he goes to sleep.”

“Sounds simple enough.” ENDUKI.

“Only if the weather holds out.”

“Yeah.” He tapped his stick on the hard ground. “I don’t like the look of those clouds building in the west.”

I had been watching them, too. “There’s an arroyo we’ve got to cross to reach the line shack. If the rain hits we might not be able to ford.”

“You want to leave now?”

“We can walk the horses. Maybe beat that coming rain.”

Danny scratched the words out in the dirt and tossed his stick away. “All right, let’s give it a try.”

The bottom fell out an hour later. We donned our slickers but they did little to keep us dry. The lashing rain swept off the flanks of the mountains and scoured the land. We reached the arroyo. It was full of gushing water that tore at the crumbling banks and the roots of trees with unrelenting force.

“You still want cross that?” Danny shouted above the weather.

“No. We’ll never make it.” Through an occasional break in the sheets of rain I glimpsed a dark mass ahead: the cedar forest. “We’ll have to ride around. Lose a lot of time.”

“Better than drowning.”

I couldn’t argue with that. We led our horses north over broken country, stumbling and leaning into the gray rain that whipped at us. The horses kept trying to tail off into the wind. It finally got so bad we couldn’t lead them anymore and had to stop. When night fell it was too dark cross open country. We hobbled the horses and sheltered in the lee of a fallen hackberry tree.

“John.”

“Yeah.”

“Do you remember the last time we hunted in the rain?”

“When was that?” I pulled my hat down to shield my face.

“Nothing. I thought I remembered different.” He paused. “What will happen when you catch this Bull Hod?”

“Law says bring him in for trial.”

“You hold with that?”

A stream of water ran from the peak of my hat and splashed between my knees. “This is Haxan, Danny.”

“You sure that’s not an excuse?”

“How do you mean?”

“I’m remembering that mountain cat.”

“You can’t leave it alone, can you, Danny?”

“No, John, I can’t. But you can, and that’s worrisome. Maybe you’re a better man than you think, but you’re not looking deep enough to see it.”

“That why you volunteered to ride flank?”

“Yes. I wanted to make sure this hunt went okay for you.”

“Funny, since I don’t seem to do many things right in your eyes to begin with.” The rain whipped sideways into my face. “Magra says you’re looking for someone.”

“I’m starting to remember why I’m here.”

That big cat was roaring again. “I saw you holding hands with her.”

“Don’t be ignorant, John. I didn’t become lost for her.”

“Who then?”

Danny laughed softly. “Dunkie, I guess.” He bundled up, and I couldn’t think of anything else to say either.

It was a long, miserable night.

When morning dawned the eastern sky was yellow and pink. The empty desert looked clean and bright and painted anew.

After a quick breakfast of hardtack and rainwater we kicked north and circled the arroyo. We came across a switchback for an abandoned silver mine and followed it into the sunlit day. Before long we were riding through the cedar forest. Shafts of sunlight pierced the gloom.

I pulled my Colt Dragoon. “There’s the clearing up ahead,” I warned Danny. “The line shack is built into the side of the mountain. We’ll have to approach from the front.”

He pulled his Remington repeater from its boot and cocked the lever. “I’m ready.”

We rode apart so Hod wouldn’t catch us both with the spread from a scattergun. The shutters of the line shack were closed tight. No smoke rose from the stone chimney. We got off our horses and approached. I kicked the door in and went through fast while Danny covered me from behind.

The shack was empty. Nothing but sugar sacks, a rough-hewn cedar table with crude benches, and a half-rotten rope bed. The iron stove was stone cold and the grate burned out because someone had used buffalo chips for fire instead of wood.

We walked around the outside of the shack and found Hod’s trail. Danny squatted and picked at the freshly impacted horse tracks with a fingernail. “Looks like he rode out early this morning. Three, maybe four hours before sunrise, by my reckoning.”

“He headed down the mountain as we were coming up.”

Danny pulled at his bottom lip. “You figure we passed him in the dark?”

I nodded. “A man like Hod knows when he’s being hunted. He’ll rely on those instincts to keep him alive.”

Danny frowned. “In other words he’s trying to ambush us.”

“That’s how I figure it, too.”

We mounted our horses and chased the trail. When we reached open country we rode hard, trying to close the distance.

We were rounding the draw of a slot canyon when the first shot cut my horse’s withers. He reared up and I went down hard, skinning my hands and face on rock. I rolled and pulled my gun. “He’s behind that wood pile!” I cried. Hod fired his rifle a second time and caught Danny below his collarbone. He spun off his saddle and fell to the desert floor while his horse bolted.

Danny was alive, but he was hurt bad. I was moving for position when a third shot kicked sand inches from Danny’s head.

“Put your gun down, Marshall, and kick it away.” I could hear the distinct click as Hod cocked his rifle. “He ain’t nothing to me.”

I set my Colt down and pushed it away with my foot.

“The derringer and your knife, too. I know you’re loaded down with iron.”

I tossed them aside.

Bull Hod rose from a jumble of shattered stumps and mesquite bushes at the far end of the draw. He had a broad face, with eyes like polished amber pushed deep in brown dough, and a ragged knife-slash for a mouth. He held his rifle on me.

“Missed you in the dark. So I arranged this little welcoming party.” His lips writhed in a smile. “You and me, we’ve got business to settle, Marshall. I can’t have you chasing me all over the territory.”

“You shot that boy, Hod. You knew I would come after you again.”

“Easiest way to get you on my trail. And I’ve got the gun.”

He talked too much. I turned my back on him and went to see about Danny. He was sitting up, a bloody hand clasped to his collarbone. “Went right through.” His face and lips were pale. “We walked into it, didn’t we? Like the lion.”

The wound was clean but he would need proper attention. I stanched the flow of blood with his undershirt and tied cordage around his chest to hold the makeshift bandage in place. “It’s my fault, Danny. I didn’t think Hod was anything more than an animal, even when it came to planning a deadfall. I won’t underestimate him again.”

“Stop jawing,” Hod demanded, “and catch up those horses.”

“What do you have in mind?”

He emerged from behind the stumps and brush. His body was thick and hard with short, sturdy legs that hammered the ground when he walked. He was the kind of man who always punched at the world. “I’m riding back to Haxan with you and your friend in tow.”

“Are you simple, Hod? It’s forty miles to Haxan.”

“Then I’ll drag you. Come on, I plan on making Haxan by sundown.” His thick lips skinned back from his teeth. “Then I’ll execute you in the plaza in front of the townsfolk, and that’ll be the end of one more U.S. Marshall.”

Bull Hod took our boots and threw them away. He bound our hands tight and tied them to lines trailing from the saddle horns of our horses.

By midday Danny was in a very bad way. His head swung back and forth like a sick cat’s and scarlet froth dripped from his mouth as he stumbled to keep up.

“Try to hold on, Danny,” I said. I was parched. My lips were cracked and my tongue swollen like a rattler’s tail in my mouth.

His breath bubbled in this throat. “I’m hurt for fair, John. Blood... blood in my chest.”

“Hod.” I yanked on the lead rope to get his attention, causing the horses he was leading to shy. “Hod!”

He twisted in his saddle. “What do you want?”

“This man needs water.”

Bull Hod tipped his hat to keep the sun off his face. “We don’t stop.” He kicked his horse and we started off again.

“Try to hang on, Danny.” My feet were cut and bruised. I could feel the skin flay with each step. Only my hate, and my concern for Danny, kept me going. “Keep fighting, Danny. Every time you take a step you show Hod for the coward he is. Listen to my voice. Don’t drift away.”

His arms and legs moved in a series of ill-timed jerks. “Head’s all swimmy, John.” He collapsed to his knees and I used all my strength to haul him to his feet before I, too, was pulled down and dragged across the desert floor.

We staggered on, Danny’s outstretched arms lapped over mine for support. After another hour the clotted blood around his mouth was crusted black. “Sun. Sky. Time. No time for us. Once there was, long ago. We hunted together, remember? Now all those memories are breaking like clouds across my eyes. Letting me see farther than ever before.”

“Shut him up.” Hod shook himself like a wet dog that had crawled from a sewer sump. “That spook talk is giving me the crawlies.”

“Hod, we have to stop or he’ll die.”

Hod’s laughter was like the rasp of iron on wood. “Killing don’t mean nothing to me, lawman. Same as you, from what I gather.” His lizard eyes went narrow. “Now, quiet him down or I’ll do it with a bullet.”

“Danny, you have to keep awake.”

“My, she was pretty that morning.” His legs were giving out. I did what I could to support him and urge him on, but my hands were tied too and there wasn’t much I could do. “I’m remembering how I came to be lost. Why I wanted to find you across all these years.”

“Danny, concentrate on my voice.”

“When you reach that far from the past you tend to forget things in the here and now. After she died I was all alone, John. I had to find you again.”

His head leaned heavy against my shoulder. What remained of his mind kept his legs moving, one foot dragging in front of the other. “You remember that monster we hunted in the cedar woods? I loved her, Gil. But she left and then you were there. You found me, your old partner. After all these years I reached out and Haxan pulled me in. Through the grace of all the gods, we were allowed to hunt together one last time. But I won’t get to help you find what you lost—which is why I came in the first place. I was afraid for you.”

Hod said, “Make him stop that crazy talk.”

“Enkidu! Enkidu!” It was a high-pitched scream that pierced the desert air. The sense of loss it conveyed made me jump.

“Danny, wake up. You have to wake up!”

His head rolled off my shoulder. “I can’t, Gil. Sometimes, the monster has to win.”

He fell. I tried to pull him up but Hod whipped the horses and I was jerked forward. I called for Hod to stop, but he wouldn’t listen. I tried to haul Danny to his feet. I couldn’t revive him. I couldn’t get him up.

After a while, I didn’t have the strength to try.

Hod rode until sundown. He made it a point to pick the roughest terrain we could cross. He reined in the horses and got down, stretching his thick arms and cracking the heavy bones in his shoulders. He came toward me and prodded Danny with the toe of his boot.

“Not much left, is there.” It was his way of making small talk.

My head throbbed and my tongue was swollen from thirst. I had to croak each word out separately: “Let me bury him.”

“I’m not about to put a shovel in your hands. You dig where you stand.” He cut the rope loose from the saddle horn but kept my hands lashed.

Exhausted, I sank to my knees and scraped at the sand and loose rock. Hod removed the saddles from the horses and made a fire. I got Danny buried and covered the shallow grave with flat stones and juniper branches.

It was long into night by the time I finished.

I staggered toward the firelight. The sky was deep purple. The late moon, rising in the east, flooded the desert with cold, unforgiving light.

“Give me water,” I told Hod.

“You get nothing from me, lawman.”

“Don’t be stupid, Hod.” My throat felt like fire. “You want to execute me in Haxan, then you’d better give me water.”

He watched me with those polished yellow eyes before tossing a canteen at me.

“Don’t drink too much,” he warned, “or you’ll founder. We barely got water for the horses.” He looked around. “This is bad country we’re in. But men like you and me, it’s the kind of land that makes us feel most alive.”

I spun the cap on the canteen and tossed it back. “I’m not like you, Hod.”

“That ain’t the way I hear things.” He made a motion. “Have a seat. Gonna be a long night.”

“I’m going to kill you, Hod, but I’m not like you.” I collapsed on the opposite side of the fire with less grace than I wanted.

“Sure.” He watched the fire, occasionally breaking off a piece of pemmican with his strong teeth and chewing thoughtfully. “You hungry?”

I hung my head and shook it back and forth. I was too weary to eat.

The firelight highlighted Hod’s wild eyebrows and the round, grizzled curves of his face. “Inky-doo. What’s that mean?”

“From a long time ago. You wouldn’t understand.”

I’m not sure I did. Even I couldn’t remember everything from my past. It was like trying to make out shapes dancing behind heavy muslin. But after Haxan had pulled him in Danny had gleaned a truth from both our pasts that only he understood.

Maybe I did, too, after a fashion.

“Sounded important to him.”

“It was a secret word. It means friend.”

Maybe that’s why he was able to reach through all these years and find me. Some words have that much power.

Hod leaned on one elbow and crossed his legs. I could see the crucifixes carved in his boot heels. “Never can tell how a man will face death.” He tore another piece of pemmican and chewed. “I once gunned down a station master in Hays City while he was having his morning shave. He dropped to his knees and started laughing. Man with a bullet in his brain, and he dies laughing. Explain that.”

“I’m going to kill you, Hod.”

He hunched forward, his heavy body highlighted by the firelight. “Get this straight, Marshall. I don’t hide behind a tin badge pretending to be something I’m not.”

Yes, maybe I was remembering more than ever before. Maybe that’s why Danny came to be lost in my world. But it was he who had found me, and not the other way around.

Friends do that. Call one another through the mist. Reach past the muslin curtain. Teach.

“I’m not hiding anything, Hod. I’m going to show you who and what I am before the sun rises.”

“You talk like we’ve met before.” The big man shrugged. He swallowed the wad of dried meat and sipped water from the canteen.

The smoke from the fire curled like an Arabian ladder into the night sky. When he spoke again his words were slow and measured, as if they, and in some sense he, were waking from a coiled, wintry sleep.

Like me.

“People wouldn’t say killing was evil if they believed heaven was better. I know you want to revenge your friend, Marshall. I don’t blame you.” He kicked a stone into the fire. “To fear death you first have to be afraid of life. I think that’s why the station master laughed after I shot him. He didn’t care about dying any more than he cared about living. He was my brother in a way.” Hod lifted his yellow eyes. “Same as you.”

A knot in one of the piñon logs popped. Yellow sparks whirled skyward. The scarred face of the moon covered the entire night sky, crowding out the stars.

“I’m not like you Hod, and I’ll never end up like you. I’ve killed men, yes. And I will again. But I’m nothing like you.”

I now understood Danny’s unease over my killing that lioness. But it had taken his death to make me look deep enough to see it.

With a price that steep I had to face the truth about what I never wanted to become. But knowing the line was there meant it was now my choice when to cross it.

Hod rubbed his hands on his jeans. “Well, I guess there’s no talking to you. Let’s just call it time. Ain’t no way you’re going to make it to Haxan and I can’t watch you all night long.”

When he stood fine dust sifted from his clothes. He was a tall, primeval figure with the light of the moon whorling around him like cold flame.

He stepped around the campfire and cut my hands free with a skinning knife. He sheathed the knife and tossed a gun in my lap. It was my Colt Dragoon, loaded.

“I guess in a way we are brothers,” he explained. “I don’t remember my real kin. If I had any, you’d be it. Seems fitting, anyway.”

He backed off, standing on the far side of the fire. I struggled to my feet. My hands were numb and my legs barely supported me. I couldn’t feel the gun butt and trigger guard.

“I’d much rather kill my own than a stranger. It’s your play, Marshall.”

“I thought we were going to Haxan.” I was trying to buy time as the blood rushed into my hands with the stabbing agony of hatpins.

“We only go as far as we need in this life.” His face closed down. “And you’ve come a far piece already.”

One of the logs in the fire spat pine resin with a hiss.

Hod went for his gun. I kicked a flaming brand from the fire with my bare foot. As he twisted to avoid getting burned I fired twice. The second shot hit him in the breastbone and he went down.

I walked up on him, breathing hard.

He clutched his gun over his hot wound. His blood pumped black in the firelight.

“I’m hit bad,” he gasped, “but it’s not a killing wound.”

“I know.” I took a deep breath and raised my gun.

His amber eyes reflected the ashen light of the high moon. “Tell me true, lawman. What kind of man are you?”

“I’m not.”

He grinned through his agony. “Then you are like me. My brother.”

“Not even close, Hod.”

I shot him in the mouth.

I rode back to Haxan the following day. Piebald was sitting under the shade, whittling a chunk of cedar. “Hello, Marshall. Get that gunman you were after?”

“This time.”

Piebald cocked his head to one side and continued to whittle. “Killed him, I reckon.”

“I didn’t have any choice.”

“You sound sorry. Where’s Mr. Moth?”

“He went home.”

“You’ve got his horse.”

“He took a different path.”

“Too bad.” Piebald flung the wood shavings down and lurched to his feet. “I liked him. He bought me a piece of licorice the day he rode into town.”

“How’s that?”

“Said he was looking for an old friend. The two of them got separated long ago and he wasn’t sure his friend would remember.”

“Why didn’t you tell me this before?”

“Slipped my mind, somehow.”

Piebald took the reins and started to lead the horses into the stable. He stopped and turned around. A wan smile played across his freckled face.

“Marshall, you reckon that nice Mr. Moth found what he was after?”

Enkidu. And shapes behind muslin. And maybe, just maybe, a bit of humanity—and the past—I had always considered lost.

“Piebald, I think we both did.”


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Kenneth Mark Hoover has sold over sixty short stories and articles. His fiction has appeared in various print and online magazines such as Ellery Queen's Mystery Magazine, Fantastic Stories, Strange Horizons, multiple times in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, and many others. His interviews with notable science fiction and fantasy writers can be found at Strange Horizons and his new novel Haxan, set in the same worlds as his stories in Beneath Ceaseless Skies, was published by CZP/HarperCollins in 2014, and the next Haxan novel, Quaternity, was published in 2015. Mr. Hoover currently lives in Dallas, TX but you can reach him, and read more about Haxan and the characters who live there, at kennethmarkhoover.com.

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3 Comments on “High Moon”

3 Responses to “High Moon”

  1. mbrennan says:

    12-23-2009, 03:42 PM
    mbrennan

    Hee! I like fantasy Westerns, but I really don’t expect Gilgamesh to appear in them. That’s an unexpected delight, and I’m now very curious to see where that’s going to go in other Haxan stories.

  2. Kenneth Mark Hoover says:

    12-24-2009, 01:48 PM
    Kenneth Mark Hoover

    Thank you, I’m glad you liked it! :)

  3. DFowler says:

    12-30-2009, 12:15 PM
    DFowler

    It was great to return to Haxan again.Keep them coming Mr.Hoover.

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