Angel in the Dust – Chapter 3

This is the third chapter of an ongoing serialized novel that is currently in progress. 

Chapter 3

A quarter hour later, with their thirst quenched and their canteens filled, they were back on the road, Liza sitting with her arms around Wayland’s chest. “I suppose you’ll be wanting that story now, won’t you?”

“You did give your word, after all. I fear that you would undermine the integrity of your brotherhood were you to lie to me, and that is a mighty heavy burden to lay on a poor memory-starved child out here in the wilds with no recollection of herself.”

“For an amnesiac, you have certainly not lost a single step in knowing how to twist a man’s words against him. But a promise is a promise, and since you have laid the integrity of the entire Brotherhood at my feet, I suppose I have to hold up my end of the bargain now.”

“Indeed you do,” she said, leaning forward and pressing her cheek to his back. Her face felt warm between his shoulder blades, moreso even that the sun beating down on his neck, but he didn’t mind. Something about her felt…comforting. Wayland gave his head a tiny shake, as if to gather his thoughts, then began to speak.

Graves and the Bandit Boy

His name was Graves. No first name, just…Brother Graves. I always teased him about that, once I got to where I could tease him. On account of he said his whole purpose was to preserve life and make it better, but his name was Graves. He didn’t find it funny, but I don’t think he minded much. He found me south of Wichita, in a little town called Arkansas City. I guess caught me would be a better way to tell it, since I was rifling through his saddlebags in the stable where him and Louise had bedded down.

Louise was his horse. She was Mazy’s dam. Graves and Louise were asleep in the stable, a big low building that used to be a firehouse in the time Before. At least I thought they were asleep, but not ten seconds after I reached into the first saddlebag, I heard the click of a revolver and felt a set of horse’s teeth clamp onto my behind. She didn’t bite me, not really. She just kinda latched on and let me know that if I tried anything else stupid, it was going to hurt. So I put my hands in the air and turned around. Standing there in the shadows, his featured masked from the moonlight but the gleam of his Colt shining clear.

“What are you doing, boy?” he asked. I didn’t have a good answer, so I just shrugged.

“You trying to steal my money, or my food?” I thought for a second about how best to answer that, because we were still in Kandaska, and it was perfectly alright to shoot a man for trying to steal from you, no matter what he was trying to take. Since I was just as likely to get perforated for one answer as the other, I decided to tell the truth.”

“I was looking for food, sir.”

“Why didn’t you just walk up while I was eating earlier and ask if I would share?”

“Like anybody’s going to just give me food. I ain’t stupid, and I ain’t looking to trade nothing I got for your dinner.”

“Don’t look to me like you’ve got…oh.” His eyes went a little wide, and he looked me up and down. “How old are you, son?”

“I reckon about eleven or twelve. Ain’t got nobody to tell me true, so I just kinda figured that up against other boys what got mamas to keep track of such things.”

“I’m guessing from your speech that you haven’t had much schooling? No apprenticeships? No training in anything?”

“I know how to do lots of stuff. I can ride, I can shoot, I can get in and out of just about anywhere without anybody hearing me. I’m light-fingered, and quick of foot, and the constable ain’t never laid hand on me. I ain’t bad with my blade, either.” To prove my point, I slipped the small hunting knife from under my shirt and twirled it around my fingers. I managed not to drop it, but Graves didn’t look nearly as impressed as I wanted him to.

“Well, you’re a regular Jesse James, aren’t you?”

“Who’s that?”

“He was an outlaw from Before. Hell, he’s been dead so long I reckon we could say he was from the time Long Ago.”

“Before? Before what?”

He holstered his gun with a sigh. I reckon he decided I was too ignorant to be dangerous. He was right, but I was too ignorant to see it. I saw the gun find leather, and I turned to bolt. I didn’t get far, especially since Louise still had a good grip on my hindquarters. She bit down, and I yelped, trying to reach around behind and swat at her. I took one swing with my blade, thinking to graze her nose and make her let go, but the tall man stepped up and slapped the knife out of my hand.

“Hey!” I yelped, turning to swing at him. He backhanded me across the jaw, and I dropped to one knee. I glared up at him, and he shook his head down at me.

“This is not how you want to do things, son.”

“I ain’t your son,” I snarled, and sprang at him. At least, in the movie in my head I sprang at him. In the real world, I stood up and found his foot in my chest. Then I fell right back down onto my butt in the straw.

“Calm down, boy. Nobody’s going to hurt you, but I might put you to work if you’re willing to earn your food instead of stealing it.”

“I don’t do that,” I said. I was young, but I’d already long been exposed to men who have ways for young boys to earn things from them.

“I don’t either,” the man said, then crouched down in front of me. “Look at yourself, boy. Then look at me. Do you think for a second that you could stop me from doing anything I want to you? I’m bigger, faster, and I’m the one with the gun. You’re a scrawny little alley rat who learned just enough to stay alive in Arkansas City, but not forever. You keep on this path and you’ll be dead before you see sixteen. You’ll either starve, get shot in the back running away from some heist, or some girl’s daddy will string you up for defiling his daughter, no matter how willing she is to succumb to your charms.”

“You ain’t gonna get me killed?” I asked. “And you don’t want a piece of my ass?”

“I have absolutely no interest in your ass, but I can’t promise that riding with me will lead to a long life. I am Brother Graves, a Brother of the Gun. We do not often live to see old age, but we try to do some good before we leave this world.”

“That ain’t a real appealing offer, Brother Graveyard,” I said. “I think I’d about rather get shot here where I know everybody than ride around with some troublemaker Brother and get shot in some strange place.”

“I will feed you. I have biscuits and fatback left over from my supper that you are welcome to. You will not eat like a king, but you will not go hungry riding by my side. Who knows, maybe you’ll take an interest and strap on a Colt of your own some day.”

“Don’t hold your breath for that, Brother Corpse. But if you’ll give me a couple square meals a day, I reckon I’ll ride with you until I get a better offer.” I said it with all the worldliness a preteen could muster, which is to say not very much. I had no idea how the world worked, but I thought I understood everything. The next few years would prove very enlightening.

We chased the sunrise out of Arkansas City the next morning with me riding pillion on Louise, much as you did on Mazy today. Brother Graves was good to his word; I never went hungry the time I rode with him, and I never lacked for at least the same meager shelter he lived under. We rode together for a many years, long after he got tired of me crowding him in the saddle and got me a scrawny little horse to care for. Then along came Mazy, and I raised her from a foal into the cantankerous old lady who sits under us now.

I thought I knew how to shoot, but Graves taught me what it meant to hold a gun, to carry death on my hip. A rifle can be used for hunting, for protection from wild animals, yes, even to kill a man. But it has other uses. A Colt…well, a Colt was made for one purpose, and one purpose only. A Colt is a gun meant to kill men, and that oughta be a burden that weighs on a man like a heavy mantle. Graves taught me how to shoot, but he also taught me how not to shoot, and that’s more important a lot of days. I carried his shotgun for years before I strapped on a Colt. I kept an eye out for rattlers, for poison lizards, coyotes, even Wolves. Two barrels full of silver shot might not kill a Wolf, but it’ll hurt it bad enough it leaves you alone until the moon ain’t full no more.

After carrying his scattergun for a year or two, he bought me a Winchester. A fine gun, and I still keep it slung beside my saddle to this day. A rifle is the working man’s gun – it can take down a deer, even a bison if you can find a scope with the glass still in it that doesn’t cost you an organ. A rifle can kill predators before they get close enough to kill you, and it’s a lot more accurate in a fight than a Colt. But it’s slow, and it’s hard to turn with, and there’s no surprise when you put a rifle on a man – he knows where that conversation is going, sure enough.

I reckon I rode with Graves for ten years before he gave me my first Colt. We were in Phoenix, at the Brotherhood enclave there, and there was a whole ceremony. I took a test, to show I could handle a shotgun, then a rifle, then a pistol. I shot clay disks out of the air, and straw men, and glass bottles that a Younger Brother tossed up in the air end-over-end. I drew on Graves, and the Younger Brother, and several full Brothers – unloaded draws just to test for speed. After a full day of shooting, the Eldest Brother of the enclave came out with a battered old Colt laying on a black velvet pillow and held it out to me.

The gun itself didn’t look like much. It wasn’t all that clean, it didn’t have fancy pearl handles, and if there had ever been any kind of pretty scrollwork engraved into the cylinder or barrel, that was long gone. This was not a gun made to impress gunslingers and trick shooters. This was not a gun that made a saloon girl sit up and take notice of the handsome stranger that just walked through the doors. No, this was a gun meant to kill men, and I could almost feel the chill of death run up my arm as I picked it up.

Graves stepped up behind me and reached around my middle, fastening the gunbelt on me. I held the Colt in my right hand as the Eldest Brother handed me six bullets, one at a time.

The first one he dipped in a basin of water, then handed it to me. “This bullet is tipped with Holy Water, and it is the shield of God, protecting those who need your aid.” I flicked the cylinder open with a snap of my wrist and put the bullet in the gun.

He handed me another bullet, this one painted red around the cartridge. “This bullet has been passed through Fire, and it is the flame of a vengeful God, meting out justice and striking down those who would hurt the innocent.” He passed me the bullet, which looked just like the first one, and I put it into the chamber.

The next bullet was tipped with what looked like gold, but I knew it wouldn’t be. Gold was much too soft to use in a bullet. “This bullet is cast from the golden treasures of the Brotherhood, and it is the bulwark against those who would steal from the smaller and weaker.” I slid it into the chamber.

The fourth bullet had a cross cut into the tip. “This bullet is God’s mercy, and it is the sword of peace that you may someday grant to another.” My fingers trembled a little as I took it. I wasn’t afraid to grant peace to somebody who came back Wrong, but the thought of killing somebody before they Returned wasn’t pretty. The bullet clicked against the side of the cylinder as I slid it home.

The fifth bullet had a reddish glow about the tip, and I knew it for what it was immediately. Vanadium. The most precious element in the world, and the whole reason the world was the way it was. The thing that brought the Voltarr here more than a century ago. “This bullet is of the Earth. It is for the Earth, which you are pledged to defend from those who would harm her, be they native or alien.” I had always heard rumors that the Brotherhood hated the Voltarr, but everybody hated the Voltarr, so that came as no surprise. What did surprise me a little was the Eldest pretty much coming right out and saying “shoot the damn Blue-Eyes.” He held my gaze for a long time before he gave me that bullet. I slammed it home without even looking down. He nodded, and picked up the last round.

This final bullet was painted jet black, and I could see some tiny writing on it, but I couldn’t make it out until he handed it to me. “This bullet is the one we all know is out there. This is the bullet with your name on it. Some day, Brother Wayland, you will fall. You will fall with your gun in your hand, and with a bullet in your body. You will likely fall in defense of another, and hopefully you will fall with honor. But nonetheless, you will fall. This bullet represents the one that will kill you.”

I took it, and my fingers trembled as I did. It was cold, and felt strange to the touch. I held my death in my hand, and stared at it. I slid it into the last open spot in my Colt, and snapped the cylinder closed. I nodded at the Eldest, and he nodded back at me, casting an appraising eye over me under his bushy white eyebrows. “Brother Wayland, you are now a Brother of the Gun. Protect the weak, defend the innocent, avenge the wronged. This is your charge.”

“Protect, defend, avenge,” I repeated. I holstered my Colt, and it hung heavy on my right hip. The words the Brother spoke over every bullet echoed around in my head, and gave a new weight to the iron on my belt.

“Now, you are welcome as a Brother,” The Eldest clasped my hand, then pulled me into a rough hug. It had been a long time since I’d been hugged by anybody, and the warmth of that kind man’s arms around me put a crack in something deep inside me, like a dam starting to succumb to the force behind it.

“Now, we drink,” Graves said behind me, clapping his hand on my shoulder. And drink we did, until the sun crawled over the horizon and send us scurrying to our beds.

We rode along good for several years after that. Two full Brothers, riding together, looking after those weaker than ourselves and holding the world to a higher standard of justice than the Sheriffs could or would provide. We helped farmers hunt down Wolfpacks, helped towns defend against roving hordes of the Wrong, destroyed the occasional nest of Nightwalkers, and put the fear of the Gun and God into more than one small-town bullyboy who thought to set himself up a little fiefdom.

Then we rode into Carson City on the wrong day, and everything went to shit.

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