Here are the table of contents for and first four chapters of RIDERS WHERE THERE ARE NO ROADS: AN EXCEEDINGLY WEIRD WESTERN NOVEL. The only manuscript I’ve found is in an old paperback (see a few posts back for details). The novel’s due out in Kindle and various other ebook formats and as a new paperback as soon as I can find the time to finish retyping it. The story prominently features at least two characters from my relatively popular story “The Cowboys of Cthulhu” – including at least one character who dies in that story…
What I’m finding particularly fascinating as I retype is that I remember practically nothing about this novel. I’m having a whale of a time reading the story seemingly for the first time as I type, even though I’m the cowhand what wrote this bucking bronco of a book!
Here’s your chance to join me in (re)discovering this book…
RIDERS WHERE THERE ARE
TABLE OF CONTENTS
1. Ghostriders in the Night
3. Into the Fog
4. Riding with Legends in a Stark Land
5. Palaver with a Strange Posse
6. Gunsmoke – The Immediate Afterlife of Dr. Darius Darke
7. Reunions and First Reconnoiters
8. A Knife in the Endless Night
9. The Legend of Rosalita Bandita
10. The Hellcat and the Human Beans
11. Clyde Dangles and Dies
12. Rosalita Remembers
13. Rosalita’s Last Robbery
14. Clyde’s Eyes
15. Bo Battles Barrow’s Bunch
16. The Golden Lasso
17. God’s Honest Truth
18. Wade and Rosalita
19. “To Arms!”
20. The Bloody Battle of the Barrowbull
21. Wade Rides the Dragon
24. Rosalita’s Last Ghost
25. The Desert
27. Meanwhile, Back at the Ranch…
28. The Cabin
29. The Foothills of Heaven
30. “Teach Me”
31. Shootout at The Foothills of Heaven
32. The Hills of Healing
RIDERS WHERE THERE ARE NO ROADS
An Exceedingly Weird Western
1. Ghostriders in the Night
The bones Wade had broken in the past ached as if it might rain; his joints filled with steel wool though the only clouds outside were swift cirrus, moonlight filling the house from the copious windows and skylights. The fleeting wisps of ether crossing the full silver orb up there in the sky cast scurrying shadows on his walls, as if he were staggering through a river, not the upstairs hallway outside his bedroom.
Three a.m. Wade had finally fumbled his pained limbs out of the jumbled disarray of his bedsheets and, clad only in his boxers, made his way through the huge house toward the stairs to the first floor, the air conditioning cool on his scarred skin, the slate tiles downright frigid on his bare feet.
The wall along the stairway was lined with his rodeo awards, photos and other detritus of his career, the rope of a golden lariat stretching the length of the wall near the ceiling, the whole of the display encircled – lassoed – in its giant loop.
He wanted to spit on the stairs, the wall, the lasso, everything it encompassed as he descended.
What good for a man to gain the world if he loses his own soul?
He snatched the golden lasso and yanked it hard away from the wall. The previously invisible staples popped out of the wallboard and clinked on the stone underneath. Wade kept pulling until the entire rope lay like a long, dead snake uncoiled on the stairs, coldly glittering, utterly absent of bite or venom.
He regetted the act almost as soon as it was done. Whether or not he was soul-dead these days, his life hadn’t been entirely wasted, had it? He’d becoe an entertainer as much as an athlete, a trick pony as much as a daredevil, but was that really such a bad thing?
Sighing, Wade tugged the golden rope and furled it into loop at the bottom of the stairs. He picked it up, hitching it around his arm and over a shoulder, carrying it with him into the kitchen, stepping on two staples and not caring – they stung briefly but didn’t pierce the thick hide of his callused feet. They were gone, brushed off with the next step he took.
Wade set the lariat down on the large central cooking block and opened the oversized fridge in the vast, yawning space of the kitchen. Cold air swirled out of it, making his skin crawl, his nutsack tighten – none of this an entirely unpleasant sensation – as he grabbed a Budweiser.
It wasn’t his habit to drink in the middle of the night – at least not since several years past – but then again it wasn’t his habit to have his wife walk out on him either.
Though it wasn’t exactly the first time she’d left him, usually he was the one doing the walking. When the going got tough, the tough got going on down the line to the next rodeo. That had been his motto for the first several decades of his adult life. There was always another stadium, another steer, another groupie on down that lonesome highway, preferably a few states away…
Wade twisted the cap off his longneck and took a swig as he looked out the window over the sink.
All the ligts were on in the little cabin down on the edge of his little man-made lake.
So Marc couldn’t sleep either.
Wade stared down across the two sloping acres of manicured lawn to the former guesthouse where his wayward son was now staying.
No, not “staying.” Hiding out was more like it.
“Be well,” Wade prayed, whispering into the dark. “Be safe. Be sober.”
He glanced at the beer in his hand. All of Marc’s struggles, and here Wade was, the boy’s father, drinking.
Fuck it, it was just a beer.
Had beer been Marc’s only problem, Wade would have thrown a kegger for his thirty-two-year-old boy and all his so-called friends just to celebrate. He himself, Wade, had beat the drug demon long ago and never drank more than three brewskis at a time these days.
Thus, he took a good, long swig, forcing himself to enjoy the surprisingly bitter taste. Perhaps the beer had been skunked somewhere on the way to his fridge…
This was when the first flash occurred.
Wade’s eyes had, in fact, been closed as he tried to make himself relish the taste of the cold brew sudsing down his throat, but he felt the flash in his mind as much as he saw it. It was a searing red that lashed the back of his eyes and the center of his brain. There and gone in a single instant.
It was nonetheless devastating, for Wade surely knew what it meant.
He sputtered beer, staggered, nearly dropping the brown bottle.
Marc had found the badge.
That blasted, half-forgotten, not-real thing.
In the past three decades, Wade had convinced himself it had all been a dream, a drug-induced fantasy.
The whole business with the badge, with Sargent and Ol’ Red, it had all been just too damned … well, to use the phrase of the times in which it’d happed, too damned far out, man to be real.
Sargent had been real.
Scary and too beautiful.
Too real. Unacceptably real.
So why didn’t this feel the same? Why did this feel anything but beautiful?
And why was he suddenly so terrified for Marc?
And where in the bloody hell had Marc found that blasted badge in the first place?
Wade had seen the flash in his brain, not with his eyes, and his inner eye somehow told him the flash had its epicenter down near the cabin.
Now, his eyes growing wide, Wade saw wave after wave of fog undulating forth from the cabin, as if the little single-story structure, already so eerie in the brilliant moonlight, were a fog machine cranking out dry ice mist on a movie set.
Within the fog, if is eyes didn’t deceive him, galloped the shadowy shapes of horses – ghost horses, horses made of the fog itself.
And ghostly riders.
Perhaps a half-dozen of them, surging across the surface of the lake now, galloping away from the cabin.
The switch solid earth to water did not seemto affect their stride at all. Unless his eyes deceived him, the ghost horses were coursing across the water.
The men – for they certainly were men, cowboys, tall ones, surreally thin – laughed now, harshly, the horrible sound of their wicked mirth carried Wade on a wind which suddenly arose from nowhere, penetrating the walls of his house, chilling the grey matter of his brain.
With a fluid motion that merely mortal men were not capable of, they became fog, lost all solidity, flowed into the mist which continued to roil over the lake as it began to dissipate.
Then came the sound of Marc’s screams, echoing across the night.
There was pain in those screams. Pain and the sheer, uncomprehending terror of those fighting for their very sanity against a vision so awesome, so awful, that comprehension, much less defense, was all but impossible.
These were followed by another set of screams, much closer, filling Wade’s ears, drowning Marc out.
As the mostly full Budweiser bottle fell and shattered on the floor, scattering shards of brown glass that most certainly would penetrate even Wade’s callused feet, Wade realized that these screams were his own.
Even as he reached for the Sig Sauer he kept hidden behind the cereal boxes in the kitchen cabinet over the stove, Wade, screaming even louder now, realized dimly he was acting on autopilot, that same fearsome, inchoate, loathesome pilot who had instigated so many backstage brawls and barroom beat-downs.
When Wade came back to himself, he was halfway down the slope to te cabin, hollering Marc’s name, Sig in one hand and, oddly enough, the golden lasso in the other.
Fog filled the land.
He was still wearing nothing but his boxers. The normally arid night was humid, the fog dewy on his skin.
Wade half-slid, half ran down the hill, the grass slick beneath his feet.
“They’re already gone.”
A voice, unfamiliar and thoroughly unexpected, directly behind him.
Wade turned, gun raised, his sock and fright bare upon his face.
“You’re too late, mister. But you’re welcome to join our posse if you’ve got the cajones.”
Horses and riders stood in moonlit silhouette on the ridge of the slope behind him. Six of them. Cowboys – big hats, long slickers, riding tall in their saddles.
“Whoever might have been in that cabin, their fate is now in Barrow’s hands.” Another voice, this one more cultured. “You shan’t find anything down there except perhaps the initial bloodbath. Barrow’s initiatory welcome to whomever he’s stolen now.”
“It’s an abbatoir,” said a third man whose eyes were hidden beneath the low, wide brim of his hat. “Barrow’s latest victim is a young man. He was in front of the cabin when Barrowgot him, standing by a … horse that’s somehow not a horse.”
“He don’t know what’s going on, poor cabron.” A woman’s voice. Thick Mexican accent. Then, louder, directed toward him: “Listen, hon’. There ain’t much time. You got to trust us. We the good guys. You put that gun down, hokay?”
Wade waited a few beats, sure of nothing but the weight of the gun and the protection it offered. Then he gave himself over and lowered the Sig. If anything, he was outnumbered. He looked over his shoulder at the cabin. Down there, through the restless, settling fog, he could see the rear cabin door swinging gently in the night’s slight breeze. It made a lonely creaking sound in the sudden silence.
“Where’s my boy?” he asked. “And who’s Barrow? That’s not who’s after him. Terry Getts, the drug dealer, he’s the one after Marc.”
“I’m sorry, but there’s no time to explain,” the cultured voice said. “Join us if you will, stay if you must.” The man gave a wave of his hand and the horses started down the slope, the riders spurring them on and quickly coursing past Wade, kicking up huge divots out of the lawn.
Wade was too awestruck, too worried about Marc to concern himself with the damage being done to his manicured grass. From the glimpses Wade caught, it felt like he was suddenly back on the rodeo circuit. Each of the riders was dressed in full classic Western regalia, right down to the chaps and neckerchiefs.
“Better move it, hon’! Come with, you want to see your boy again!” the woman called as she passed. “No time!”
His bones aching anew and protesting all the way, Wade, mostly naked and not daring to think (and was there glass stuck to in the thick pads of his feet?), ran after the horses through the misty, dread-soaked dark, the Sig now a pitiful, meaningless stone in his hand.
Then something happened which made both his heart and his stride stop cold.
One of the cowboys – the tall, thin drink of water whose eyes had been hidden – turned to look back at him over his shoulder. The man lifted the brim of his hat and, though it was just a brief glance, two seconds at the most, Wade could have sworn that under the brim the man’s eyes glowed a piercing red, like coals sparking the flames of hell.
The thing with the badge had happened in the days long before the George Strait song “Amarillo by Morning,” eons before Garth Brooks summed up the whole sport and lifestyle in a song, but Amarillo had indeed been Wade’s destination, and the rodeo had indeed been his one true love – more so than any woman could ever be – and Wade had indeed owned little but what was on his back. There had been fewer scars back then, no steel wool in his joints, and he and’t broken anything too badly yet – plus there were no lost knuckles from too many steer roping gone bad. Though he saw himself as experienced, he’d really just started and was something of a golden boy. A real up-and-comer. The right people were starting to take notice, more than just the dime-a-dozen floozies who rode the cowpokes who rode the circuit. And certain influential people – people like Big Red Keil, guys who might take you in, support and promote you – would be in Amarillo.
He was headed out from a rinky-dink show on a farm in Dirt Hat, just on the Tejas side of the New Mexico border. A lot of barren land to cross. Wade had two-hundred bucks – his most recent winnings combined with his life’s savings – in a roll in the front pocket of his faded Wranglers. His Colorado driver’s license was in the glove compartment – he couldn’t afford the luxury of a wallet, his last one having been stolen from a locker by one of the 253 citizens of Imnaha, Oregon, a few shows back.
His pick-up, Ol’ Red, a battered Harvester he’d won in a card game, was held together mostly by chickenwire, Bondo and prayer, but the radio worked and Merle Haggard or Patsy Cline or that in-yer-face new outlaw cat Waylon Jennings usually got him where he was going. In the summer desert like this, if Wade pushed Ol’ Red fast enough with both windows down, he could convince himself the resultant air turbulence – which drowned out the radio at higher speeds – was cooling the sweat constantly dripping from his hair into his eyes.
Johnny Cash was rapping out a laundry list of all the places he had been, man, when Wade heard a single loud crack and saw steam suddenly billowing out from under Ol’ Red’s hood. Condensation immediately started forming on the outside of the windshield. The engine started revving and whining in pitches and fits that had nothing to do with his foot on the accelerator.
This wasn’t just a leak. Not just a hose or gasket. Wade kept a gallon of water in the bed of the truck, along with oil and other emergency supplies, but he understood immediately they weren’t going to cut it.
Ol’ Red had just given up the ghost.
He pulled over and got out of the truck.
Ol’ Red steamed and hissed as if pissed at him.
Wade took off his ten-gallon hat – well, okay, cowboy hat, but not a true ten-galloner – spat on the ground and … watched.
It was too damned hot to even get near that engine for the moment.
The clear blue sky with its blazing sun was a bakery oven and he was a donut – a great big zero – sitting out here, his thumb up his ass, in The Great Wide Empty.
Ahead of him: empty road to the horizon, shimmering in the hazy heat.
Behind him: same damned thing.
Directly in front of him: a steaming hulk of now nearly worthless metal, still holding his few possessions.
Wade plopped his duffel bag down on the berm and sat on it. Nothing in the scenery had changed, except now the plume of Ol’ Red’s steam – the equivalent of a vehicular death rattle – was little more than a mirage on the horizon behind him. Not even a buzzard had blessed the sky, much less a cloud. The angry white vaporous stream from the engine looked like it was finally starting to thin a bit, but who could tell at this distance? The highway, a tacky tar ribbon beneath his scuffed cowboy boots, still stretched out seemingly beyond the borders of the earth both behind and in front of him.
Wade sighed and turned his back to Ol’ Red once more, thankful for the brim of his hat as the boiling sun beat down. His feet already hurt. There’d be blisters before too long. He wished for a bottle, a joint, even some speed, a cup of strong coffee, anything to to make the morass of sweat and monotonous landscape the slightest bit more interesting. A hit of acid would have been heaven.
As if in answer, the relentlessly glaring sun caught something far up ahead. Whatever it was, it flashed briefly, sparking silver where the sky met the land, where the road met infinite possibility.
Infinite possibility? Why had he thought that?
Wade stopped, took off his hat and wiped his sopping brow with his shirtsleeve, watching the speck slowly grow.
It was a motorcycle.
Before too long he could hear it too. A purring engine, alive and at peace, but filled with potential power, like a sleek, sinewy lion, surveying its territory and … pleased with itself.
An engine in fine tune was, of course, always music to Wade’s ears, but, even at a distance, this particular machine seemed to emanate vibrations which soothed him, which made him breathe easier, the pain in his feet forgotten. Wade would have sworn, standing there in the unforgiving sun, that the rumble and hum of that hog sent a wave of cooling relief through his muscles, lowering the temperature of his grateful skin.
As the biker cruised closer, Wade saw the rider was a big guy – big belly, big beard, big Jerry Garcia hair, big silver shades obscuring his eyes. Guy wore a dark blue denim vest with nothing underneath but his hairy, bearlike chest. No helmet. His flared, bellbottomed Levi’s looked almost new. Dude work cowboy boots of some sort of hide Wade didn’t recognize – too iridescent to be snakeskin, yet there definitely appeared to be scales.
Wade made a fist, stuck his thumb in the air, and leveled his hand out over the road, the traditional hitchhiker pose. He suddenly found he was chuckling despite himself.
Of course the guy would stop.
Was there any question?
But it also seemed somehow important that he do this right, in the traditional way, that he honor the biker and his ride, pay them due homage with The Ritual of the Thumb.
Hell, the sun must have gotten to his brain more than he’d thought…
But Wade nonetheless kept thumb over asphalt, watching the rider approach.
The biker slowed to a stop directly in front of Wade. He was grinning. His machine was exquisite, all smoothe curving contours and gleaming, black polished chrome. Definitely a Harley Davidson – though, oddly, Wade couldn’t place the model.
“Need a ride?”
Wade nodded, unable to hide his awe.
Wade shrugged. “Amarillo. But it doesn’t look like you’re headed that way.”
The biker seemed to consider this. “There’s more than one road to Amarillo. I’ll get you there.”
“Shit, no. Don’t change where you’re headed just for me,” Wade said. “Look, just get me back down the road to the next town, I’ll hitch on from there.”
The biker furrowed his brow. “And abandon your steed?”
Wade looked back at Ol’ Red. “I’d come back for her someday. If I make Amarillo, do what I’ve gotta do there, I just might make the money to fix ‘er up!”
“That’s what I wanted to hear!” the biker said.
“But for now, you get me on down the road a little ways, I’ll hitch on from there.”
The biker laughed. “Fuck that!” He tapped a button pinned to his denim vest. Printed in psychedelic paisley-like letters over a swirl of rainbow colors, it said:
For the slightest instant the button shimmered in the sun and Wade thought it was a badge, in the shape of a star, the sort a U.S. Marshal or Sheriff might wear. But then it was just a swirly-colored button again, the kind you could have someone print up for you for a dime.
“It’s all about the road, not the route,” the biker said.
“I can dig it,” Wade responded. At that point in his life, Wade wasn’t much for philosophical insights. As Abbie Hoffman was saying in those days, there were a lot of realities floating around, man. If you wanted to avoid in-depth discussions regarding the bullshit wisdom du jour, you simply smiled, nodded, muttered, “Groovy” in all the right places and passed the doobage.
“Hop on. I’ve got some twine. You can tie down your bag there.” The biker nodded to the hind-quarters of his ride. “Name’s Sargent.”
He held out a large, meaty hand.
Wade shook, gave his own name.
The big man reached into his vest – apparently there was an inside pocket – and pulled out a small leather pouch, closed with a drawstring.
“This here’s my medicine bag, Wade,” Sargent said. That grin, wide as the sky above. “What’s inside might make the trip a little easier for you.”
Wade returned the grin and reached inside.
Wade was a child of the sixties, and there was no small amount of partying on the rodeo circuit. Whiskey might have been the cowboy way a hundred years before, but had the cowboys of the Old West ridden in Wade’s circles, Jesse James would have been strung out on smack, and Billy the Kid would surely have been a cokehead. As for Butch and Sundance, they might have run hemp north from Peru or given up the whole shootin’ match and retired early to Amsterdam.
In other words, whatever this shit Sargent had given him was, it was in a class of its own, man.
For here they were, in a desert full of flowers, as far as the eye could see. Pastels of every shape and color, the air filled with fragrance, the pollen almost visible in the close, cloying air. Wade had heard of deserts bursting into bloom after a sudden rain, but his skin was dry as he and Sargent laughed through the heady landscape, the biker telling raucous jokes which Wade quickly forgot, but consisting of words which seemed to spin in his mind…
And here they were, cruising through a mountain pass that looked suspiciously like Colorado, the Rockies, for sure. But the pines were literally mile-high and the branches looked more like downy feathers. And there were patches of snow that threw brilliant arrays of endless crystalline rainbow refractions as that ever-soothing engine purred past. Somewhere amongst the grey crags, within these lofty purple peaks, somewhere beyond the motorcycle’s hum, water trickled and tinkled. It sounded like the most delicate of wind chimes, and Wade was sure he could make out a definite tune, one he imagined he would recall only in deep pleasant dreams after having made love to an exquisite lady, said lady in his far, far future…
For here they were, the motorcycle now a horse beneath them! Galloping, galloping! Across a rolling prairie they coursed, flowing along a barely discernible pat worn in the endless green, the pulsing rhythm of the hoof beats as soothing as the strong, black steed’s fluttering mane. And wasn’t there, behind them, the sound of a second horse, following at speed? Wade looked over his shoulder. A mare, its coat worn thin, its mane tattered and limp. It was huffing, working hard to keep up. But even as Wade watched, the mare’s auburn mane seemed to grow more full, more lustrous. Stronger by the second, the other horse suddenly thundered past them in an exuberant burst of sheer strength and speed! Wade laughed into the sea of aquamarine sky above as together the steeds crested a lush, verdant hill in their final moments in that land…
For here they were, the engine idling underneath them at a stoplight in a city of awesome glass skyscrapers, the likes of which Wade had never seen. Cars of familiar makes but muted, metallic colors honked around them in rush-hour traffic. They had slowed for blue neon instead of yellow light and were waiting a brilliant, dazzlingly gold signal. The light flicked to silver and they were off, surging forward through the not roaring but oddly insectilely buzzing cars…
And here they were, cruising along a seemingly endless curve on a stretch of highway hugging the contours of a large seaside bay. The water was so blue it was almost green. Easily visible from the bike were huge schools of miniscule fish, swarming with sprays of tropical colors, seeming with each darting instant to paint new surrealistic images which made stark sense to the subconscious…
And, at long last, here they were, having a beer in a bar in downtown Amarillo, the place filled with an easy mix of bikers and cowboy folk, necks as rough and red as you please, Wade suddenly realizing he and Sargent were in mid-conversation and that he himself, Wade, was the one currently speaking. He had the feeling they’d been sitting here, talking, for quite some time.
“So what you’re saying,” Wade concluded, “is that it’s all us. Heavens and hells. Inner and outer. It’s all one landscape.” Christ, was this really him, speaking all this hippy claptrap? “If it can be imagined, it’s real, somewhere, at some level.”
Sargent seemed to think whatever Wade was saying was uproariously funny. “You got it!” he bellowed. The big, hairy biker was spewing laughter and beer-spittle, drawing uneasy looks even from a few hardened Harley types. Frothy suds were thick in his beard and all around his roaring mouth.
“Bullshit!” Wade cried, and started laughing as heartily as Sargent.
“Dig it, man! Dig it!” Sargent replied, and laughed even harder, red-faced now and wiping streaming tears from his eyes, as if he’djust heard the best dirty joke of his life. He slammed his thick glass mug down on the bar and, as he recovered from his hysterical mirth, ordered the barkeep over for a refill.
Sargent was down to mere chuckles by the time the bartender delivered. He wiped a final merry tear from his cheek, took a sip and met Wade’s gaze, his tone suddenly serious.
Just as suddenly, Wade found his own pallid reflection in Sargent’s immense sunglasses unnerving.
“Listen,” Sargent was saying. “Any time you want, you can do this. You can travel this way. That badge in your pocket is not only a reminder – it’s your destiny. The medicine I gave you, that was a reminder. It can be tough, remembering. Not really, when you’re used to it – but most of us ain’t used to it. Takes a special breed to get used to it. Hell, even me, my Mustang out there is my helper, my reminder. I think I could go without it, but I’m so attached to it, been riding her for so long, I wouldn’t know for sure anymore.”
“A Mustang’s a type of car,” Wade said. “Been around a few years now. Detroit steel. Not Harley Davidson.”
Sargent’s smile was thin. He lifted his sunglasses – the only time Wade ever saw his brown-as-syrup eyes – and winked, mischievous.
Wade turned from Sargent and stared into his beer. He expected Sargent to do the same, but Sargent seemed intent on keeping those mirrored sunglasses locked on Wade.
Wade was forced to look at himself. Finally, Wade said, “I’m not sure I want to go back.”
He tried to keep his eyes on his draft, but the pull of Sargent’s gaze, mirrored or not, was an irresistible force.
“That badge allows you safe passage between all the worlds,” Sargent said. “And yes, it’s hard to fathom. But it’s your destiny – it’s everyone’s in fact. Eventually. It’s the rightest thing in all the world, that badge, your birthright – everyone’s birthright – if you ride where there are roads. If you don’t, though, you’re right, things might go hard for you.”
“What are you talking about, this badge, my rights, my destiny? What is this nonsense?”
But those were the last words Wade would remember hearing from Sargent for more than three decades.
For there Wade was, behind the wheel, in the driver’s seat of Ol’ Red, pulling into a spot in the dusty rodeo parking lot in Amarillo, just in time to register.
He leaned out the open driver’s side window and puked up what had apparently been a burger and fries and a copious amount of good, strong beer, the kind he’d been drinking with Sargent.
Recovering, Wade flet in his pocket for his money. It was still there.
But so was something else. A badge. A star, like a U.S. Marshal or Sheriff might wear. The circle inscribed around the center of the star read: “I RIDE WHEREVER THERE ARE ROADS”.
Terrified, Wade hurled the thing out the window, into the parking lot.
Then he hurriedly clambered out of Ol’ Red and dug for it in the dirt.
He found an empty, crumpled and unsealed envelope in the glove compartment – a prize money check had come in it several rodeos ago – and he sealed the badge in it.
And there it had stayed for more than thirty years, until, one day, his son, Marc – who wouldn’t even be born for another two years – apparently found it.
3. Into the Fog
Three of the strange cowboys had dismounted by the time Wade got to the cabin. One of them, dressed impeccably beneath his duster, ran to intercept him. This was a black-haired man with a neat goatee, his hair slicked back beneath what appeared to be a short top hat. He seemed eerily familiar to Wade, but Wade couldn’t place him.
“You don’t want to go in there,” the man said. “There’s nothing in there you want to see. But you do need to come with us.” He pointed at Ol’ Red, which was parked outside the cabin. “You need to get in….“ He hesitated, furrowed his brow, briefly confused, then plowed on – “I think you need to get on that horse and ride with us.”
Wade’s only response was to call Marc’s name again and barrel forward into the guy, trying to break past him. The man, surprisingly strong for such a seeming gentleman, caught him by an arm. Wade pulled free and ran for the cabin door. He saw that Ol’ Red’s passenger side door sat wide open, a spray of paperwork, napkins and maps, obviously the former contents of the glove compartment, lay on the ground.
There was another cowboy blocking the doorway, and this one Wade did recognize. Except there was o way this was real. Wade was either dreaming or mistaken. He raised the Sig into the man’s face.
“Get out of the way. I need to see what happened to my boy.”
“You think I’m scared of a gun in my face? There are things ordinary men don’t need to see. Your son’s still alive despite what it looks like in there. We’ll explain everything to you, but we need to go. Now. You need to do like Darius said and get in … I mean on your horse.
“I’m helping my son! And I’m just a crazy enough son of a bitch to shoot you in order to do it!”
The man considered a moment, looking past the barrel of the Sig into Wade’s eyes. “Okay,” he finally said, scowling but stepping out of the way. “Go in. Maybe you do need to see it. But it’s not what it seems.”
Inside, the walls were covered with sprays of blood, clots of gore – so much of it the place smelled coppery.
And in the center of the small central room stood the cowboy with the glowing red eyes. He was six-foot-six if he was an inch and cadaverously thin. His hat looked too large for his head. His hair hung to his shoulders in matted patches of black. He looked at Wade, and Wade briefly wondered if there wasn’t a sadness in those demon eyes.
Wade pointed his gun at the apparition. “You did this?”
The demon cowboy shook its head, the cast of his face oddly sympathetic. “No. This is Barrow’s work. Barrow is not of this earth. Your son did something to call him here. If you want your son back, we have to leave now. The fog will be gone soon.”
Wade didn’t lower the weapon. “First tell me what you are. What all this is.”
The demon cowboy sighed. “I’m Clyde. I’m lucky to be here, in this state, and you’re lucky to have me. I’m just the first stage of what your son will become if we don’t move now. And I’m the only one here who can track Barrow.”
The famous Old West cowboy who had been blocking the door said, “ Get in – Jesus Christ! I mean get on your horse now, mister. I’ll ride with you. Clyde, you take Wings when we go.”
“Sure thing, Jim,” Clyde said, and made for the doorway, striding past Wade and his still-raised Sig with barely a glance of his red-ember eyes.
Wade finally lowered his weapon. “This is insane,” he said to the man at the doorway to the cabin. “I’m dreaming. You’re Gentleman Jim Brodie, the outlaw turned sheriff. From the real cowboy days. And that other guy out there who tried to stop me is Doctor Darius Darke, the Old West carnival guy. You two were heroes to me when I was a kid. But you’re both dead a hundred years or more.”
“Yup,” Brodie said. “Except Darius was a lot more than a carnie and this here ain’t no dream. And you’re likely to see a darn good sight of my outlaw side right quick if you don’t get your ass movin’!”
“You guys keep saying I should get in or on my horse. You mean Ol’ Red, my pickup?”
“I mean the horse waiting out front of this cabin, whatever its name, whatever you call a mount in these parts. If you want to save your son, if you want to come with us, we got to saddle up. Look” – he gestured at the dark outside the cabin – “the fog’s fading. When it’s gone, us good guys will likely become ghosts for real and you’ll lose your only chance. There’s a higher purpose to all this, and Darius and I believe you’ll play a part. Now move!”
Wade, his brain pushing approximately fifteen-dozen questions aside, went out and got in the driver’s side of Ol’ Red. The key was in the ignition.
He saw that Brodie had stopped and picked up the scattered papers and was now staring at the passenger side.
“This isn’t a horse,” Brodie said. It looked to Wade like Brodie was trying to stare through the swirling fog at something he couldn’t comprehend. “What manner of beast is it?”
“A pick-up,” Wade said. “But she’s meant as much to me as any animal over the years.”
Brodie got in. “You can explain on the other side,” he said. “We’ll make palaver at some point. For now, we ride.”
“Where?” Wade asked.
“Follow them.” Brodie was pointing at the five other cowboys, who were already riding away, headed for the lake, Clyde bringing up the rear, one hand guiding his own steed, another on the bridle of a riderless Appaloosa.
“There’s no road there.”
“Since when has a horse needed a road? Ride!”
Remembering Sargent’s parting words, Wade nonetheless put Ol’ Red in gear and took off across the lawn. Despite the endless strangeness of the night and his son’s bloody disappearance, he had a moment to cringe at the damage he was surely doing to the grass as the tires of the now-classic vehicle dug in. He saw shadows of sod being kicked up in the rearview.
“Is whatever the hell we’re looking for here on the shore of the lake?”
“What lake?” Brodie was looking at him with an eyebrow raised, as if Wade had gone insane.
Then Wade’s mouth fell open and stayed there as he saw the six horses in front of them fail to hesitate at the shore, riding out over the water. Their hooves caused the water to ripple the reflected moonlight slightly, but it was nothing more than a breeze might do.
He spent a second too long being stunned and now there was no time to hit the brakes. Instead, Wade decided to give himself over as much as possible to the insanity. He was dreaming, after all. Wade closed his eyes and put the pedal to the metal.
Ol’ Red roared forward.
“Yeeha!” Brodie whooped. “That’s more like it, son!”
Wade felt the tires kick through thick sand. Then Ol’ Red was riding on a surface smoother than any macadam. Wade opened his eyes and saw he was coursing past the other riders, who had parted for him, several of them openly gawking, staring at him, wide-eyed, amazed at his speed.
Ahead, in the middle of the lake which Wade suddenly realized he was actually driving on, the fog got thicker. As fast as Ol’ Red was going, waves and tendrils of mist were rushing past them, as if they were being sucked out of existence or into some other world.
Had there been similar banks of fog on his ride with Sargent all those years ago? Wade thought perhaps it was so.
Beside him, the legendary Gentleman Jim Dunsworth Brodie, known in the days of his misspent youth more than a century ago as The Demon Duelist, clenched his teeth, staring determinedly into the fog ahead, saying, “You just watch your ass, Barrow. This is the last time you fuck with a mortal. I got a feeling about this one. This one’s our lucky number, just you wait and see!”
Wade’s memory flashed on all the sprays of blood – his son’s blood – on the walls of the cabin. He felt Ol’ Red kick into a higher gear. It felt like the engine hummed more somoothly, more evenly, than she had in all the time he’d owned the vehicle. Like Brodie, Wade gritted his teeth and sowar an oath to get his son back.
Then he, Brodie, Ol’ Red and the riders behind them were fully enveloped by the cloud of pure white.
4. Riding with Legends in a Stark Land
Somewhere in the fog, Wade felt the pumping of Ol’ Red’s pistons become the pounding of hooves, the vaguely humming driver’s seat becoming the rhythmic lunging of a horse beneath him. Wade was suddenly in a saddle, reign looped in his hands instead of the steering wheel. Brodie had his arm around Wade’s middle. The thunder of the other six horses reverberated in Wade’s ears.
At first it felt almost as if the horse were flying, running on the soft cushion of the mist itself. Then the sensation suddenly changed, and Wade was sure it was solid rock under the horse, the solidity of the hoof-falls broken by the occasional scrape and scatter of loose gravel. A somewhat sulfurous smell crept into the air. As the fog thinned, Wade saw they appeared to be rushing through a dark canyon.
High above the canyon, in the narrow strip of visible sky, cirrus clouds whipped by at an impossible speed. And that wasn’t moonlight up there was it? There was indeed something of a wind down here between the rocks, but nothing like what was going on up in the heavens. It made no sense.
“Pull up next to Wings,” Brodie said, apparently ignoring the illogic of the clouds.
Wade spurred his horse alongside the Appaloosa, and something strange about Brodie’s statement struck him – specifically, the name Brodie had used to refer to his legendary horse. Wade had first read Brodie’s biography as a kid, for an elementary school book report, and he had reread it and other accounts of Brodie’s life several times, even as an adult. During the rogue days of his youth, Brodie had stolen the infamous animal from an Indian chief. The Indians had called the horse “A Fury of Wings.” During his salooning, bandit gunslinger days, in the period during which he was known as The Demon Duelist, Brodie had shortened the Appaloosa’s name to simply “Fury.” Later in his life, however, after becoming sheriff of Grizzley Gulch in Oregon, in his “Gentleman” Jim days, Brodie had changed the horse’s name to “Wings.”
It struck Wade that the Brodie over his shoulder looked like the lean, leathery, shaggy-haired young pistolero in the rare earlier photographs – in the copious photos from his later life, Brodie’s put on a good deal of weight, grown a then-fashionable walrus moustache and cut his hair.
Yes, in this dream, Wade was definitely riding with the young Brodie, but the young Brodie called his horse by the more mature Brodie’s name for the animal.
Wade’s train of thought was broken when Brodie with minimal preparatory maneuvering of his legs, effortlessly, acrobatically swung himself off Ol’ Red’s back onto Wing’s.
Yes, Wade realized. This wasn’t just some nameless nag he was spurring forward. He was riding Ol’ Red. Ol’ Red – previously a pick-up, which he may or may not have once upon a time abandoned as a broken, empty heap in the desert – was now a horse, racing to beat a sulfurous wind.
And now he realized something else – the horse that had run with him and Sargent in the land of green hills. It had been Ol’ Red! Those lush, verdant hills – about a million miles different from the stark, ugly landscape around them now, had somehow healed Ol’ Red!
Before he had time to contemplate this, Wade realized yet another thing: he was no longer clad only in his skivvies. He was in full cowboy regalia, like all the others here, complete with overcoat, chaps and a ten-gallon hat. His Sig was sheathed in a holster at his belt. His golden lariat, the one he’d pulled from the wall by the stairs, was looped at his side. His formerly bare feet were comfortable in a well-worn pair of boots he’d never seen before.
Wade gave himself over to the dreamlike moment. He had no clear idea what was going on or where his son was, but in this dream he was riding with at least two legends of the Old West, possibly more, and a demon. Plus he was astride a rippling-muscled steed every bit as much a part of him and his history as Wings was a part of Brodie.
Dusters billowing out behind them, the party of seven galloped on into the dark.
By the time Darius Darke, riding point, called for a halt, Wade had seen enough of the three members of the posse he didn’t know to be sure he didn’t recognize them.
One of the two other cowboys was a black man. All that Wade could pick up from him was an air of quiet confidence. He seemed to ride easiest in the saddle of the entire bunch.
The remaining man seemed utterly unremarkable, an extra in any John Ford Western. He consistently rode just a stride behind Clyde, as if he were some sort of subservient to the demon-man with the glowing red eyes.
As for the female, Wade had ridden alongside her briefly, trying to take in a surreptitious glance. She was sleek and dark of brow, definitely of Mexican descent. Intensity seemed to radiate out from her in waves, part of the fabric of her. It seemed she had a lithe body but a rough bearing. Wade found himself suddenly shuddering in the wake of her driven, dusky beauty, the light of the fell strangelights above catching lustrously in her raven hair, her knife-glint eyes catching a liver of the strangelights in pupils the color of night. Wade lost himself staring, but she shot him a look that quickly dispelled his rapture. Wade swallowed hard, rode on. In that single glance he’d had the feeling of being in the presence of a being which was intensely female – not the soft, pliant, needy femininity of the rodeo whores he was used to, not even the low, smoldering sensuousness his wife Meg was capable of. No, this was a completely wild sort of femininity, untamed, smothering in the way a fire smothers, feral, dangerous, not exactly sane. It was a femininity which could take you in, yes, but it would also bite, in the manner a black widow bit her mate. It was a femininity from which a male, if he rushed in headlong, could consider himself lucky to escape alive.
5. Palaver with a Strange Posse
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