Calan McCarthy is a writer of Irish descent who has written three novels, a short story and a collection of poems. His material spans multi genres – Westerns, Spy, Science Fiction and Gothic. His most recent publication Stalemate is a Cold War spy novel penned as John Isaac. His short story Capstone is an excerpt from his violent Western novel in progress.
THIS CHILD. Twelve years since his birth. Small boy of raven hair. Skinnier than a prairie muskrat. His spotless eyes observe the labour of his folk while they harrow down the scorched purlieu in the white heat of the dry noon sun but his father has been a minister. A dozen years. Preaching the good book before tenet stanched by doubt and bare conscience. He is Texas born. His wife half-breed. And while the black sky casts pinpoints of light the boy watches his mother suckle the infant by stentorian blue flame as wolves slank the ambit with unsilent howl. He watches his father enter a void of thought prohibited by living man as he draws circumspect on his clay pipe. On a certain day they are humbled by a weekly dose of wrathful tongue and the auguries of the reverend fall upon his listeners like a plague of hailstone and the boy shuts his ears watching the faces of the congregation gathered. He sees fear in their eyes. A fear he will later feel on their journey homeward. He sees a small girl perched on a makeshift hassock regarding him with her halcyon eye, her hair as gold as the dawn or a dying solstice sun. She smiles but he does not return it and her mother vents disapproval, moving her towards that dour voice of contention. The rain has been falling during the extent of the reverend’s sermon and the boy listens to the patter as it strikes the canvas tent and he likens the sound to that colony of ants he had watched on the prairie scuttling about the nest mindlessly.
The rain stops as has the homily and his father makes for the livery stable to untether the horse and flatbed wagon. He walks it to the rear of the tent and they ready themselves for the several mile journey ahead. The boy is cold and buries himself beneath the pallet in the wagon and falls asleep to the motion of the scantling shifting and fraying over the dark loam earth. They reach a small creek and the boy is woken by the sudden jolt of their standstill. He opens his eyes but does not move.
What is it you want? he hears his father say. His escopeta lies across his thigh and he indicates to the riders of their prising it. You can take this here rifle. Just don’t want no trouble now. They offer no reply and he is made uneasy by their presence and the cradled infant begins to cry as if summoned by some spectral prediction and the folk bid her hush while the ominous faction look on with their faces slathered with almagre and mounted on their horses like monoliths. A band of carrion birds drop weary black notes upon the motionless scene and a lizard scratches about on the parched dust, for there has been no rain there and the creek trickles effortlessly through rock and eelgrass but nothing is still said and at length a brave appears up on the ridge above them waiting as if there for the view.
The father attempts to whet their appetite with scant pickings of his wares and as he reaches for them into the wagon he pinions his son to stay put with his large firm hand. The goods are spread out on the ground before them and the Comanche survey the chattels with mute indifference. One of the four braves astraddle a white stallion points to the rifle and the man tenders it with both hands from bended knee hoping above all hope a neutral trade can be determined. This same brave perhaps the chief is clad in buffalo hide and a feathered headdress, his long-braided hair in a scalp lock with beaver fur and the sole tribesman of the four in such attire. As he dismounts his horse a hundred-head riders unite from the kerfs of the ridge overhead and like a herd of antelope they descend the talus slope and wheel round the creek to flank the wagon. The chief aforementioned walks towards the man takes the shotgun and surveys it turning it over in hand then pitches it to one of the tribe behind him while the infant continues to cry. Without warning he unsheathes a large blade proceeds forward and cuts the man’s throat ear to ear and the woman screams a terrifying shriek of fear yet still the boy does not move. The chief then places the blade to the dead man’s scalp and yanks it clean from his head with little labour and the bloody skull lies tonsured flooding the dust-slaked earth beneath him. His next move is a sudden one for he tears the infant from its mother, taking it by the throat and with all his strength of barehand scrags the child until entirely dead. The woman now desolate with grief climbs down from the wagon falling to her knees and gathers the remains of her crushed child from the fouled earth as the trammelled heat beats down on her and as she embraces it in sodden agony the natives look on insensate and unyielding.
The unseen boy has rank terror in his eyes and this fear he has never known weighs heavy on him as if gravity itself depresses his small thin frame. A red-tailed hawk soars overhead shedding uneven symbols above qualified prey then a drove of arrows release and they are each unerring in ambition. The first cleaves through the woman’s left eye, the rest a retardance through torso and limb delivering her to the blood blackened dust where the dead child lies. A pandemonium of ungodly syllables spew from the flanked Comanche as they circle the dead with speed raising clouds of victory dust to the firmament while the chief clutches the dead woman’s hair, winding it round his left arm then cleaves the scalp clean off. Another of the four untethers the horse from the wagon and ties it to the trailing reins of his horse before he hobbles the limbs of the dead folk and fastens them to the recruited horse, then a torrent of gunfire erupts and the hundred-head horses stampede the turf balefully and as they exit the territory they torch the pilfered wagon blind to the boy nested there. The flames surge quickly and the boy is squirrelled with fright. He feels the burning heat through the pallet swell as the terror takes root of his soul. Attempting to flee he makes for the opening of the wagon with the pallet trussed to his back and with the flames ablaze he at length jumps from the pyre unscathed and beaten.
IT WAS DUSK and the heat had not abated. The residual smoke from the wreckage lay waste and everything once familiar to the boy had gone, abandoning him to the corrosive elements of the desert. He had been crying for hours and was crouched behind a shale ridge in the creek beset with hunger. There was a laggard wind with voices being carried from the south and from the sage scrub a spotted towhee flit to and fro its brood. The drunken voices drew nearer and the boy edged further into the bluff. One of the men dismounted his mule and staggered to the edge of the creek. He unholstered his gun and fired it aimlessly into the night air. Puta pistola, he said then reholstered the gun. He then pulled out his implement and started urinating in the creek.
Estupido culo, said the other man from his mule. Stop. No mear en el agua!
Callate Pendejo. It won’t kill nothin.
Why you gotta piss on everythin? Some stoopid hombre might take to drinkin it.
Y qué, so what. Their problem ah?
The two men laughed and the second man dismounted. He looked round the terrain and saw the blistered remains of the wagon some yards away then walked over to it to forage for chattels. The man standing in the creek was staring up at the crescent moon while the coral sun was setting behind the ridge then he seemed to lose balance and fell into the creek.
Mierda, he said laughing to himself. Hey Tavo! What you doin? Come dip your ass in the water. It’s freezing my cojones.
Tavo ignored him. This here wagon is no long been torched, he said.
Qué estas diciendo? I can’t hear you.
Campa! Get your skinny ass over here. There is wagon and no horse. Burnt to wattle. Qué demonios? You think it’s redskins?
If the horse is gone. That redskins amigo. Comanche socio. Then he spat.
The two men walked round the wagon and looked over the patches of ground where the scalping had taken place and the blood had darkened into a black mass, coagulating the desert floor. Demonios, said Campa. It look like two or three scalpings. Comanche loco ah?
Look like el cabron bushwhacked them sons of bitches.
Taken dead with em too. Any forage?
Nah, nothin. Just some tools de basura over there.
Some loose shale tumbled from over where the boy was standing and the Mexicans turned quickly to consult the movement. Tavo put his hand to his holstered pistol and edged towards the ridge slowly. Salga! he said. Where we can see you.
The boy pushed himself further into the gully but as Tavo drew nearer he came clear into view. Eh chico. What you do in there? Salga. Come out pequeño.
Qué es, Tavo? Then again in Spanish, is it merchandise?
Cristo, Campa! He might speak Español. Imbecil.
Removing his hand from his holster he slunk closer to the boy while attaining some lanyard from his back pocket. Campa flanked the boy from the rightward curve in the crag and the boy remained mute.
What happen here muchacho? The boy gave no answer. Was it injins? Tavo earned no claim further then he pointed to the bloody causatum fouling the dust over by the wreckage. This here yer folk ha? Es esta tu gente? They leave you alone, eh? Where is your casa? Your house? We take you there, si?
No trouble for us amigo, said Campa. We collect yer things and take you with us. Fort Union. Find you safe place.
You want come with us? Get your possibles. No stay here chico. Getting dark. Dangerous for hombrecito.
The boy looked downwards then up again at the two strangers as if to weigh his fate. Then gave a spry nod. Bueno, said Tavo. The two men were then deep in discourse contriving some wily filching for their trouble then with a sudden move he tied the lanyard round the boy’s wrists and hove him over to his mule, attaching the other end of the rope to the pummel of the saddle. You stuck with us now tonto.
Aprenderás chico. You will learn. Never trust no borracho Mexican el perro. If we no steal or cheat, we kill. So better watch your back hijo de puta.
The two strangers gave a baleful laugh then Campa picked up a stob of mesquite and harried it into the boy’s mouth. This shut you up till we reach your casa tonto. Ni una palabra. No speak, comprender? Muéstranos. Dónde está? Show the way mestizo. Move!
IT WAS DARK when they reached the jacal and the terrain was as deserted as the compound and it was strange for the boy to look upon his home that night, like visiting a dignitary’s grave or souls lost that were once familiar. They were benighted there.
The Mexicans halted their mounts and climbed down and tethered the trailing reins to the hitching rail. Tavo untethered the boy then they uncinched the saddles and carried them into the hut leaving the boy alone outside. At length the boy trailed behind them and stood doubtful on the wattled portico questioning the face of the impregnable darkness. The sky was cloud-sprent and the moonlight bled through with the odd burning star and the trees were silhouetted against the endless vault as the coyotes croaked from the desert floor, somewhere in an unnamed district. The boy entered the hut and looked over at the stove where he had stoked the fire that morning and he had come to feel the palpable truth he had fallen victim to parricide as he watched the Mexicans pilfer the place with divested deed. They foraged and befouled like a company of rancid vultures at their vittles leaving nothing untampered or undefiled and they would not profit from this shelter that night and the boy knew it as he set to gather his possibles. He rolled up a pallet with a blanketroll and packed some clothing. For his journey would be unknown to him or any man and it would reek of savage bloodoaths and hostilities of senseless war. He took a large rawhide pouch from the pantry and filled it with pinole then took a couple of canteens and sated them with fresh water. The Mexicans were seeing to their equipage while the boy untethered his father’s pony from the barn, and the food prepared by his mother that day had been swallowed or bagged for their progress. Seeing the Bowie knife in the stalls the boy stowed it under the fender of the saddle then walked the pony out where he would join partisan to lawless company, contesting the torching of the jacal which was once of his father’s labour.
They mounted and rode on and the boy looked back and watched the flames scale and roar and the black smoke tower overhead as if it were being sucked into oblivion through some occult agency, and it was there the boy lost all innocence like a skinshedding serpent, casting childhood and name into the angry fire. Their progress was slow and a grey fox had been following them the past mile or so weaving in and out of their trail with no prospect and Campa took his pistol and shot inanely at the ground near the animal which became some base amusement till it scampered off into the dark. By and by they reached the foothills of the Sangre de Cristo where an army of bristlecone stood giant and sentry hissing in the vast unknown and a nighthawk gave a nasal peent from a remote perch. There a gang of elk harboured further still among all manner of creatures and they made camp and sat wordless by the fire which had been the first show of silence since starting off.
The Mexicans glared anodyne into the fire chewing on some cribbed cured meat while the boy watched whittling on a random stob, then Tavo asked the boy of his name to which he rendered no answer and since that had so far been his enterprise they determined mute would become his name. Mudo. As the night wore on the two contested themselves on mescal which inebriated them tellingly and Campa made product of stories heard of the Comanche tribe to unsettle the boy in his orphaned state and he began by feasting on the demise of the boy’s folk and of their final resting place which he said would come after a fashion. He remonstrated a bloody battle among Osage and Comanche which reduced both sides of their men slain and the few fallen into the hands of the Osage suffered sacrilege by Comanche law. They secured the heads of some by hewing or clove the scalps of others, casting the corpses to the haggard carnivores. In turn, he said the Comanche brought the bodies of the dead Osage to camp then clove them before broiling and boiling then eating them. Some roasted a foot or hand like it were some regale and as he spoke this truth the boy’s eyes widened and the Mexicans laughed malefically then added his folk had most likely met the same end.
The boy did not sleep that night nor many a night after and a myriad of thoughts haunted him as he lay in nag while his eyes catalogued the white stars colossal in their scads and the mules snuffed, the men snored and a solitary wolf strained its cry as if to echo the boy’s reasoning. A long night was spent in wait and come daybreak the boy had led his pony down to a firth for a sup before the Mexicans would rise and when he had returned to the camp he found Campa standing over Tavo with his pistol cocked and the barrel plumb centre of Tavo’s forehead.
Get up puta or I drill a hole in your head. He chuckled.
Valgame dios! You crazy ass son of a bitch. Get your jodido pistol outta my face! Then with ferment he toed him in the rear with his boot. Campa continued laughing and dragged himself laggardly over to a sumac where he proceeded to urinate before dropping his trousers and crouching in the bigelow. Tavo hauled himself up and extinguished the last of the embers by urinating on them then turned to Campa and spat.
Make sure you no wipe that guano in your face el cabron. You go blind amigo.
The fools laughed and the boy looked on berating them mutely while eating the last of the flapjack. They decamped and rode on and their jornadas was silent and solitary save the odd blue grouse or ptarmigan and they ascended the heavily forested slopes of pinyon, aspen and limber pine in the pregnant heat of the day. The timberline stretched for miles up into the Pecos and stood as still as a regiment steeled for battle and a dull tread of hooves echoed through the talus slopes and cliff rocks where neither animus nor device of man had yet polluted. They halted for water in a stream and the boy used a narrow spray to joust cutthroat trout for the first meal of day while the Mexicans roweled him on and the mules stood kneedeep in water while they ate the boy’s catch in the shade. By and by they trailed northeasterly and reached the Saddle peak which towered over the Pecos Baldy lake where a herd of bighorn sheep grazed in a meadow and the boy scanned across the endless peaks and broad mesa tops in hallowed awe.
It was late afternoon before they gained the deep and narrow canyons where they took the winding switchbacks leading down to the desert floor and they anguished the white heat in lassitude as a sequence of kek notes fell from a passing Northern Harrier with its wingspread full and motile. They came upon several wickiups beside a freshwater lake, some with brushwood intact others carbonised to its truss and they saw smouldering poles of tepees and rangy carcasses of horses and burros laying foul in their arterial blood. Death was regnant in this landscape with the Choctaw hacked and mutilated with their scalps clove tonsured to the bone and the company stood side by side confounded, looking upon the bloody entrails strewn across the silent purlieu. The Mexicans dismounted pistol in hand and advanced the wickiups for forage and the boy stalled in his saddle with tears issuing his inviolate eyes and in this purgatorial decay he saw portents there in what would fast become his future odyssey.