TITLE: There Was a Crooked Man
CHALLENGE: November '02
UNIVERSE: characters from A Night in the Lonesome October by Roger Zelazny bring their universe into The Magnificent Seven Old West universe
MAJOR CHARACTERS: Snuff, Jack; all seven guys appear, Ezra & Chris a bit moreso.
RATING: PG, for a wee bit o' violence
A NOTE ABOUT THE
VIOLENCE: minor violence occurs, in
the form of nastiness interrupted and skirmishes of the tussle variety; in
addition an off screen death (not one of the Seven) occurs. Per Zelazny’s novel, the conflict is
somewhat occult in nature. Just in case
this might bother someone.
ARCHIVE: Not quite yet, please.
SPOILERS: Slight for ANitLO. Set before Serpents, but events in
the episode are only alluded to.
NOTES: In this story, the Magnificent Seven are themselves; as are Snuff & Jack. The twain meet. More author’s notes/credits at the end.
“I am a watchdog. My name is Snuff.” – A Night in the Lonesome October, R. Zelazny
I sat outside the hotel, on the plank walkway, and sneezed. I didn’t like this American desert. There was too much dust. A dog’s nose is very adaptable, but I was used to wetter climates – England, to which we were returning after an extended journey to the Orient, and then South America, was home for Jack and I, and I suppose I’m spoiled by its good, smelly dampness. We’d been in the southwestern USA for a couple of weeks, and I still wasn’t used to it. I felt nearly blind, here in all this hot dryness and dust.
We could have stayed on the train and made faster progress on our way to the eastern coast, where we would take a steamship back home, but Jack thought it was time to call out the One Who Followed. He had picked us up somewhere in the Amazon and paced us, leaving corpses marked with very specific wounds in every town we stopped. It was clear that the One Who Followed was under the same curse as Jack, though where Jack had retained an element of control over his, the wanton killing done by the other signified that he did not.
We had no idea why the other followed us, but it was time to force him – her? it? – to a confrontation. A map; a few items picked up on a nighttime forage through the city of San Francisco; and a new moon. It didn’t take long to pinpoint this town. It was too small and too insignificant to show on the original map, but its name had formed itself, beside a big red X, on the parchment in the candlelight.
It made sense. Four Corners was a town near the juncture of four state lines - a crossroads town, the perfect place for a mystical showdown. Now here we were. Here we would get some answers.
After Jack arranged for a room at the Ritz Hotel, we looked around. The One Who Followed wouldn’t be here yet; he was, after all, one who followed. But the more we knew about the place before the follower arrived, the better off we’d be.
As we crossed the street and mounted the boardwalk, I was reminded that the desert did not totally lack smells. The heat caused people to sweat profusely. In fact, around people I was enveloped in a wonderful cloud of body odor, horse odor, and dirt odor. I could feel my nose twitch appreciatively.
We skirted a well-dressed man coming out of a pub, smelling not overwhelmingly of sweat, but of soap and mild cologne. He stood out in the small town crowd for this, though not as much as the plump man who trailed him out, and who strangely smelled of almost nothing at all. The latter was congratulating the well-dressed man on a game well played.
“You played well yourself, sir,” drawled the well dressed man graciously, though a touch annoyedly.
“Ah, but your cards were eminently lucky. I cannot argue with the cards….”
At the next building, Jack stopped. “Wait here, Snuff. This place may have some things we’ll need.” He stood before a hardware store, but I saw that his eye had caught a sign two doors down, reading “Undertaker.”
I panted in a moronically doggy fashion, both to let Jack know I knew what he wanted and to cool off a bit. As he ducked into the hardware store, I trotted down and sat myself outside of the undertaker’s, where I pretended to watch the townspeople pass.
“Hey, puppy,” a bright voice came from my left; a shadow fell over me and a hand appeared in front of my nose. I sniffed it obligingly. This earned a tousle of my head fur. The things I put up with.
The young, black-haired man crouched down beside me, scratching my ears and babbling at me. I hated to admit that the vigorous scratching felt good. Sometimes I’m more doggish than I prefer to be. A swish and a vague stench told me that the door to the undertaker’s had swung open. The dog-loving man stood and greeted the undertaker; I didn’t pay any attention to their conversation, because I had the information I needed.
I trotted back to the hardware store, in time to find Jack exiting. He couldn’t see my good cheer; after all, nobody can tell when a dog smiles. I’d tell him later. He’d be glad to know we could find a fresh, unburied corpse if we needed one.
I was out again that night before midnight, so I had yet to be able to tell Jack about the corpse. But he’d told me something interesting. Not only had we chosen a crossroads town, we’d chosen a crossroads town protected by a band of seven men. This was good news for us, presuming the One Who Followed was an agent of evil. But numerology, like most mystical arts, is a funny thing. Seven aids functions of good; but it’s next-door neighbor, six, aids functions of evil.
Dogs aren’t intuitive in the way that cats are, but I have my moments. This news unsettled me.
I prowled all evening, not really knowing what I was looking for, but keeping eyes, ears & nose alert anyhow. I tracked down most of the seven protectors – the young man who had petted me at the undertaker’s was one; as were a man dressed all in black, and man whose sartorial tastes ran to animal skins; a man who wore the scents of at least four different women on his clothes, and a man who lived in the town’s only church.
Midnight came, which I discovered by startling a drunkard who tripped over me. I told him to watch where he was going, and he understood me. I think he might have tossed his liquor bottle into the street and stumbled off muttering about temperance, but I’m not sure – I was racing back to the hotel to give Jack the news about the corpse and to fill him in on my bad feeling.
He was glad to hear about the corpse, and seconded the bad feeling. He was edgy; he had his knife out, the curse-knife inscribed with runes. He asked me if I had any ideas. I said I wanted to get back out and keep looking around. He nodded. I went.
There was no sound in the night except for the softly sighing wind, the occasional creak of a loose shutter, and the pat-pat of my paws on the hard-packed earth. The town was mostly dark, with a few small fires burning along the street, and a light in one of the saloons (what pubs are called here) across the street. It seemed closed for the night – full doors in place of the swinging half-doors, no one coming or going. Most likely the owner was cleaning up. I padded past almost without a thought.
I’m not sure why I stopped. The alleyway between the saloon and the hardware store didn’t really appear abnormal. At this time of night it would logically be dark, which it was.
I sniffed. No scents out of the ordinary. I took a few steps closer. And I saw what I was looking for.
The darkness of the alley seemed to have eaten part of the boardwalk. Instead of a nice, round halo of light thrown out of the saloon window, the halo was lopped off on the alley side along with a good several centimeters of walkway, as if the darkness had stretched out of it’s alley home and claimed dominion over the property of the light.
I forgot to bark. I just dove in. The darkness was like a wall in the same way that a raging storm is like a wall. I pushed against it, feeling it buffet me back every time I lifted a paw to walk. If I had been human, I would have felt an overwhelming fear, a near-paralyzing desire to get away from the unknown inside that blackness. It might have chased me away even though I knew that the darkness was no more than a spell-spun blanket thrown over a scene – probably an event – that someone wanted concealed from any potential passersby.
I gritted my teeth and bore forward; my eyes were closed against the spectral wind, my ears flapping against my head and my fur yanked and whipped mercilessly. One step…two steps…three…four…
With blackness all around, hiding the entrances to and the walls around the alley, I seemed to be nowhere. In the middle of nowhere was a circle of small candles. In the middle of the circle was a ritual death in progress.
A man was stretched out on the ground. At his head crouched a blank-faced, emaciated man who reeked of death and who held the sacrifice’s arms pinned to the ground over his head. I recognized the third man, who sat on the sacrifice’s legs; he was the one I’d seen earlier that day, who had smelled like nothing. He held a knife over his head, and in the rune-etched blade shone the light of a thousand captured stars.
As I stood, shaken by the effort it took to breach the darkness, the knife flashed down; I heard a gasp of pain and a rending of cloth. Up again the knife, and now the scentless man began to mutter words. I recognized the language. It was a dead language, except to the few who remained to use it. I’d only ever heard Jack speak it.
The knife twitched downward. I began barking like a maniac and pelted forward. The One Who Followed (for that was no doubt who he was) halted his knife in mid-plunge and turned toward me in surprise. I was on him before he could lash out. I got a mouthful of fleshy knife-arm and held on.
The zombie loosed his hold on the sacrifice’s arms and moved to help his master. I saw a movement out of the corner of my eye, heard a click, then flash of light exploded with a bang.
The zombie twitched and another flash-bang made him twitch again. Bullets don’t stop zombies, though, and he merely lifted a skinny leg and brought his foot crashing down onto the sacrifice’s head. The sacrifice stopped moving.
I felt the zombie grasp the scruff of my neck. I tried to hang on, but he ripped me free and flung me to the ground. I landed hard, a hind leg twisting awkwardly beneath me, my head thumping soundly on the earth. I scattered candles as I slid across the ground, and with a flicker of anti-light, the concealing darkness vanished. The sacrifice was groaning and groping beneath his jacket for something. The One Who Followed cursed (the non-magical sort) and snapped at the zombie to go. I heard their footsteps fade away, and then I faded away, too.
In and out of consciousness I rode. I blinked, and my world pitched nauseatingly as a voice murmured assurances through gritted teeth.
“…friend, you’ll be just fine.” The voice was soothing, the words lilting, long-voweled, lyrical. I knew the voice to belong to the well-dressed, clean-smelling man, and I realized hazily that he must have been the intended sacrifice. “Rest easy, there you are, you’ll be fine, surely Mr. Jackson can mend canine bones as well as human….”
Mend bones? The implication therein explained the excruciating pain in my hind leg.
-- and I could smell his blood. This concerned me for a moment, but I remembered the others the One Who Followed had killed, and felt confident that this time the ritual hadn’t reached the critical stage. If the One Who Followed had managed to extract any of this man’s organs, I doubted he’d be in any shape to carry me up a flight of stairs, as he was doing now. Clumsily, I might add. He lurched suddenly sideways, and a grunt of pain escaped him as he banged us both into the stair railing. Ouch --
-- a dark-skinned man laid me on a table.
“- an awful lot of blood, for ‘nothin’,’ Ezra,” he was saying, not looking at me. “You musta got hit pretty hard.”
“At least twice.” The well-dressed man, Ezra, stood off to the side, holding a wadded-up rag against the side of his face. Blood colored his collar and the tattered shreds of his shirt front. He waved a hand impatiently, swaying a bit where he stood. “But I’m standin’, I’m coherent, I’m perfectly fine. Just tend to the dog, Nathan.”
“All right, all right, ya damned stubborn –“ Nathan, muttered. He turned to me and touched my hurting leg.
People talk freely around dogs. They figure we don’t understand. I learned a few things in the morning.
Ezra was still there; after tending to me, Nathan had been a while stitching up the deep gash across Ezra’s stomach and patching the nasty abrasions on his face. He had been able to nearly dodge the zombie’s stomp, or else his skull would have been crushed in. By the time Nathan finished, Ezra was tired and sweaty, and had readily agreed to stay put until morning.
A few of the seven protectors (of which, I discovered, Ezra & Nathan were two) stopped in at some point once the sun rose. JD, the youngest, brought me something called ‘jerky,’ which was too salty but pretty good. Josiah, the church man, asked Ezra a lot of questions about the attack, but Ezra didn’t remember much except for a couple of blows to the head, a big knife, and the fact that he’d played cards with his attacker yesterday. And my heroic rescue, of course.
The man in black and the animal skin coat man came later, as Ezra was insisting to Nathan he was fine to leave.
Apparently, majority opinion was that Ezra had incurred the attack by winning too much money from the One Who Followed in a card game. Ezra pointed out that he hadn’t won much at all from that particular fellow, and in fact his attacker had only played a couple of hands, preferring to simply watch the game. No one paid much attention to him. He shook his head impatiently, procured his coat, ignored various of Nathan’s post-surgical prescriptions for limited activity, and left. To his credit, he managed to stand nearly straight as he did so.
Through their conversation, the animal-skin coat man, called Vin, had watched me watching them. When they began to discuss my condition, he continued to watch me in a peculiar way. When Nathan stepped out onto his sunshiny balcony, Vin said,
“What do you think, Chris?”
The man in black looked at me intently, but was thinking of something else. “Think we better keep an eye on Ezra. Fella could try to finish what he started.”
Vin was silent for a moment. We were having a stare-down. I was determined not to break eye contact first, but it was really starting to get unnerving. This guy could give a cat a run for its money in the unwavering, penetrating gaze department.
“You ever seen a dog like this?” he said finally.
Chris focused on me, briefly curious. He shrugged. “Seen plenty of mutts, if that’s what you mean.”
“S’pose. But – you take a look at his eyes? I dunno. Something...just ain’t right about ‘em.”
Uh oh. I broke eye contact. Blinked vaguely a couple times. Lolled my tongue. Wagged my tail a bit. Tried to look like a normal dog that wouldn’t think of staring down a nice human.
Chris looked at me again, but he’d gone back to mulling something else. “Funny. I was thinking the same thing about the guy he belongs to.”
The man in black took me back to Jack. He carried me very gently, despite his gruff manner.
Jack was startled to find me conveyed to him a bandaged invalid. He took me into his own arms and settled me on the bed.
“How did this happen?”
“Two strangers attacked one of my men last night. Your dog chased them off. Got hurt in the process.”
Jack scratched gently under my chin. “Indeed,” he murmured. “Good dog, Snuff. Good dog.”
I certainly was a good dog. I’d kept lucky seven from becoming unlucky six. Score one for dog’s intuition.
The peacekeeper glanced around the room. Everything appeared normal, of course. All occult items under wraps. Or probably under the bed, in Jack’s satchel. He turned his attention back to Jack.
“Name’s Chris Larabee. Me and a few others look out for this town.”
“Ah, a pleasure.” Jack offered his hand, Larabee declined. “Jack Smith. And Snuff.”
Larabee said “Smith.” Smirked.
From a pocket in his long overcoat he pulled two small, yellow-brown candles. The wax had a greasy shine to it, and they had melted sloppily. The One Who Followed had used them last night.
“Ever seen candles like these, Smith?”
Jack took one. Of course he had. “No.” He handed the candle back, and said “They’re quite ugly, and rather smelly.”
“According to one of my men, they’re made from animal fat.”
Jack tried to act as if this was news to him.
“My man also says the scene of the attack looked like it could have been some sort of ritual.”
“Fascinating. Is there a reason you’re discussing this with me?”
The unspoken dialogue intrigued. Larabee distrusted Jack, and seemed to know Jack had secrets. Larabee contained an undercurrent of deadliness that he purposefully let show: if Jack had anything to do with the attack on his man, Jack would pay. Preferably with his life.
I suspected that in other circumstances, Jack and this Larabee would have gotten on really well. It was a shame; for their sort, sympathetic allies are hard to come by.
Larabee pocketed the candles and, with a last visual sweep of the room, turned to go. “Nice room. Planning on staying in it long?”
Jack smiled. “Only another day, until the next stage arrives.”
“Well, enjoy your stay,” he said. I’ll be watching you, he meant. “If your dog has any problems, ask the hotel clerk for Nathan Jackson. He’s the one that patched him up.”
“Somehow,” Jack said, after the man in black left, “I don’t think our killer will make an attempt on that one. Although, I rather wish he would.”
I nodded. You had to respect a man like Larabee, who could carry that much darkness around without even being cursed.
I slept on and off most of the day. My head ached, and my leg throbbed.
During one wakeful period, when Jack was out, sharp pains pulsed from my leg and I contemplated chewing it off. But a thought that had been pricking at me suddenly clarified and distracted me.
According to talk amongst the peacekeepers during my stay in the healer’s room, the One Who Followed had arrived a couple of days ago. Before Jack and I. Somehow, the One Who Followed had managed to be the One Who Preceded. This worried me. Being pursued is problematic enough; being anticipated is much, much worse.
We had counted on surprising him by deviating from our pattern; instead of moving away from him, we would seek him out and attack.
Had he somehow anticipated this deviation? Why else would he have divined our destination and timed his arrival before ours? He’d already made one move to affect the balance of power. The corpse at the undertaker’s would no longer be at Jack’s disposal, should he need some body parts; it had been pressed into service as the Other’s right-hand man.
I shifted, and growled as a pain screamed through my leg; the silent room was unimpressed.
Late afternoon. I felt better.
Jack had returned and was making preparations in the event that the seven at the crossroads became six, thus tilting the cosmic odds out of our favor. He expected another attack tonight, and probably not on Ezra. Jack, at least, would be smart enough not to strike at the same person twice; it was a safe guess his doppelganger would figure the same way.
We shared the same bad feeling. I got lucky last night, but I was out of commission and Larabee would certainly misinterpret any nightly wandering by Jack.
If I were a betting dog, I’d have placed all I had on probability that one of the peacekeepers would die tonight.
After dinner, Jack decided to take a chance on Larabee’s ire. We had come to this crossroads town in order to confront the Other, and sitting in a hotel room all night wouldn’t do anything to accomplish that.
Before he could leave, someone knocked on our door. It was Ezra. He carried a covered plate from which arose scents that inspired instant messy drooling. With his bruised and abraded face, he looked a mess, and he hunched forward a bit. But he still smelled immensely clean.
“I apologise for intruding upon your evening,” he said, “But I haven’t had a chance to properly thank your dog for saving my life. Would, perhaps, a nice cut of veal, rare, be acceptable?”
Jack invited him in. A large napkin, also supplied by Ezra, was laid before me, and topped by the plate.
While I ate, Jack and Ezra struck up a conversation. It began with a polite inquiry into our origins, inspired, of course, by Jack’s accent. They discussed travel; Ezra had seen quite a bit of his own country, plus a little of Canada and a little of Mexico. He was particularly fond of a place called Louisiana and of New York City. He filled us in on the best hotels, restaurants and gambling establishments in New York City.
We discovered Ezra was a gambler by trade; Jack has, naturally, a great enthusiasm for games of chance, and so a game was arranged. They commissioned the room’s small bedside table and dressing table chair; Jack sat on the bed. No stakes.
“Contrary to popular belief,” Ezra grinned, “I do enjoy the game simply for the pleasure of it. ” He had a gold tooth. I liked it. I wondered how I’d look with a gold canine.
“Sometimes it’s rather nice, to not have to worry about losing it all,” Jack agreed. Of course, he was thinking of a different sort of Game, but the sentiment was honest.
They played five card stud. Ezra dealt. I didn’t pay much attention. I have no hands with which to play cards, so watching and learning is moot. Instead, I made sure I would return the restaurant their plate absolutely spotless.
After a bit, I began to wonder why Jack, at least, was allowing the play to continue. They went through several hands, each of them winning a fairly equal number of times. They talked a bit as they played, this time about San Francisco and Chinatown. Jack even opened a bottle of plum wine he’d acquired in Japan.
But Jack had places to be, cursed murderers to confront. It seemed to me that even the pleasure of playing poker against someone who could offer a real challenge shouldn’t have distracted him so thoroughly.
Plus, I was bored.
Then, between games, Ezra shuffled the cards and set the deck in the middle of the small table. “Would you mind dealing a few hands, Mr. Smith?”
“Not at all.” Something in Jack’s tone of voice. I raised my head. I watched him deal, and I watched the game through.
I also watched the next hand, and the hand after that, and the hand after that. And knew why Jack played so long.
Considering that the Other had watched Ezra play cards, it was clear that Ezra couldn’t have been more marked for death if someone had written “Kill me” on a bit of paper and pinned it to his back. Every hand Ezra got was either fours and sevens; or four tens and a seven; or some other combination of cards that indicated or added up to the number 47. There aren’t that many possible combinations, so it was fairly noticeable. Ezra seemed annoyed by it, possibly a bit unsettled. I was ready to howl at the moon.
Mystically speaking, the number 47 indicates a state of cosmic restlessness, the coming of a change that will affect not only the agent of that change, but people and events on a larger scale. For some reason, according to the cards, Ezra was a man at a crossroads. At some point in the near future, he would have to make a decision that would affect the lives and possibly deaths of those in his sphere. He might, for example, make a decision that would unbalance the status and strength of the seven peacekeepers as a whole. This made him the seven’s weakest link -- and by killing him, the Other would take charge of that decision, double the impact of that unbalancing.
To make a long story short (too late), we had bait.
By the time the wine and his injuries caught up with him and Ezra rose to take his leave, it was very late. Turned out Ezra lived at the hotel down the street (“Not as nice as this one, but without certain...negative associations.” Whatever that meant). Jack expressed interest in a drink at the saloon, and insisted on walking with Ezra.
Mustering great effort, I jumped three-legged off the bed. I don’t think I staggered, but things were a bit fuzzy the first moment after landing, so.
“Snuff,” Jack said. I glared. “You can come,” he said.
“Loyal dog,” Ezra observed.
Jack had to carry me down the stairs. The two men acted as if it were nothing unusual; I appreciated that.
It was a dark and stormy night. Typical.
To the west, perfect blackness spasmed with occasional lightning. An insistent wind harried mournful thunder before it. Chilly dampness settled over the town, and every horse dropping, trash heap, and bit of rotting wood came alive and filled the air with stink.
Muted noise and light trickled out of the saloons. The other buildings were mostly dark, the street empty. We went slowly; whether Jack and I kept to Ezra’s pace, or they kept to mine, I couldn’t say.
As we passed the Clarion News, I smelled a man, and a shadow stepped off the boardwalk to our right. Ezra cocked and aimed a revolver. I hadn’t seen him draw.
“Hey, Ezra,” the shadow said, strolling with forced casualness toward us. “Where you been? Everyone’s been lookin’ for you.”
“Buck.” Relief from Ezra. He holstered his weapon. “I’ve been having a drink in Mr. Smith’s room.”
“Mr. Smith? Sounds nice.” Buck fell in step with us. He smelled not as strongly of women tonight. Mostly he smelled of worry assuaged. He must have talked with Larabee earlier, for his body hummed with suspicion directed at Jack.
The night stank. I only repeat that fact in an effort to explain why I didn’t notice the stench of walking death beforehand. The night stank, and so did the zombie – perfect camouflage.
Buck went down with a grunt. Again, the revolver appeared in Ezra’s hand; but at a tiny snap from our left, he collapsed to the ground like a marionette with strings cut. A few thuds later the zombie stood up; Buck did not.
Several feet away, beside a crackling street fire, stood the Other. In his hand was a long twig crossed near its top with a shorter twig. Around it was wrapped a bit of white fabric, stained brown with dried blood. A primitive man-doll. The longer twig was snapped in half. The Other held the pieces over the fire.
“Well-met,” he said to Jack, with a mad light in his eyes.
“We’ll see,” said Jack. “Do I finally find out why you’ve been following me all this time?”
“You know,” said the Other. “You are you, and I am I, and we are almost alike. Almost.
“But not enough.”
A silence grew from the pause.
“And?” Jack finally said, impatiently. He’s not fond of dramatic pauses.
The Other sighed, said, “You’ve been in the Game a long time, Jack. The curse you carry should have determined your allegiance, and yet you consistently choose the wrong side. This is because you are imperfect. Not whole.”
“Not wholly evil, you mean?”
“Yes. It has been decided that you must be whole, or you must be dead.” He didn’t smile; at least he eschewed that theatrical cliché. “I was sent to see to it. For a while I was sure I’d have to kill you. But,” he gestured to the rudimentary voodoo doll in his hand, and to the town in general, “The way things have arranged themselves, I think I’ll have your soul tonight instead.”
It was too far for me to jump, even with four good legs. Jack had his knife out, but he couldn’t close the distance in time, either. The Other would drop the doll into the fire, and Ezra would go up in flames. Nefarious six would ascend.
“Shit,” I said in Dog.
Then a great, towering form loomed out of the darkness behind the Other. A wide hand clamped onto the Other’s forearm and strong fingers enveloped outstretched hand and voodoo doll.
“I’ll take that,” said the church man, extracting the bits of twig and cloth. I had half a mind to praise the Lord, but I didn’t think He’d take me altogether seriously.
“Drop ‘em.” Larabee. Both Jack and the Other had their knives out. Larabee had his six-shooter trained on, surprisingly, the Other, but his words were for both of them. “Drop the knives. Now.”
Nathan, JD, and Vin, with Larabee, book ended the tableau. All had pistols drawn, with the exception of Vin who carried a shortened rifle. Josiah was on his knees scratching something in the dirt. Quickly he placed the remains of the voodoo doll in the center of the design, poured a small pile of dust from a drawstring pouch onto his palm, blew the dust over design and doll.
I turned to Ezra. His eyes flicked open. With a sharp intake of breath, he rolled onto his hands and knees. One hand jerked to rub the small of his back, his eyes full of shock and fear. But he was alive, and able to stand.
And Buck, cussing, was struggling to his feet, too.
At the crossroads, Seven stood in a perfect circle, whole. Balance wobbled, tilted, tumbled. Locked. Fear rolled off the Other in delicious waves.
Dzzp! No human could hear the sound, but I could. It whispered, a declining octave hurtling from out of nowhere toward us. Starlight flashed in the runes on Jack’s knife.
“Mr. Larabee,” Jack said calmly, “Would you believe me if I told you that things beyond your understanding are in progress right now? And that it is immensely important for myself and this man to play our game through to its end?”
A whisper from the peanut gallery as Buck took a good look at the zombie standing uncertainly within the circle of conflict. “Shit – Nathan, ain’t that Joe Grissom?”
JD: “Can’t be. He died day before yester…day….”
Dzzp! A wind blew past and a dust devil whirled darkly around Jack’s feet. The wind went, but the dust devil didn’t. It rose around Jack; it wanted in.
I searched the shadowed faces around us, hoping for some support. All looked relatively lost, except for Josiah, who looked expectant, and Ezra, who looked like he’d about had it with the weirdness.
Larabee assessed: The zombie – Josiah’s pentagram and the voodoo doll – the Other – Jack. Then he glanced at Vin, an unspoken question. Vin’s eyes shifted to me, so Larabee’s did, too. I gazed steadily back.
“Yeah.” Larabee lowered his pistol. “I’d believe it.”
Dzzp! The whirlwind was into Jack. His eyes danced with a strange light, and the blade of his knife twitched just so: snick snick, it promised. Jack advanced toward the Other. “Well-met, indeed,” he said, through the teeth of his grin....
People have a way of rationalizing things. I suppose it aids sanity.
When the Other died, Joe Grissom returned to the undertaker from whence he came, as is the way of zombies who lose their masters. Seeing Joe lying innocently immobile on the undertaker’s table, in the dewy, glittery light of a sunny morning – it was hard for so utterly pragmatic a bunch as the Seven to really believe the corpse had been walking the night before. Honestly. It must have been a trick of the dark.
Jack’s dispatch of the Other was deemed justified. The Other had attacked one of the peacekeepers’ own, and was obviously determined to kill Jack. Justifiable…albeit thinly. Better than thinking on it all too deeply, at least.
I’ve never seen anyone so glad to see us leave a place than those men were, as we rode out on the stage. And that is saying something.
As the stage made it’s way down the street to the edge of town, I saw Ezra at a table outside the saloon. He had a new deck of cards; he’d grown suspicious of his old deck. The new deck wouldn’t actually make a difference, as cosmic convergences tended not to manifest physically for extended periods anyway. No more 47’s for Ezra. Just Fate lurking in the wings.
Larabee watched the stage from the steps of the church, no doubt making sure it left and that we were on it. His flat-brimmed black hat shaded his face, and tightly harnessed demons pranced about in the shadows in his eyes.
I shifted on Jack’s lap, my chin on the open window edge, the breeze whipping the rain-fresh scent away from my nose before I could appreciate it. The stage rattled and bounced and jostled my broken leg and slowly left Four Corners behind. It could have been interesting to stay in that dusty little Western town and watch the story of those seven men develop. But Jack and I needed to get back to London and get settled. We had work to do -- strategies to plan, Things to imprison, and the world to save.
I sighed, because as much as I hated to admit it, I was a little sad to go. ack chuckled. Over the rumbling of the stage he said, “They have enough trouble without us around, Snuff.”
FURTHER NOTES/SOURCE CREDITS:
47’s ‘cosmic restlessness’ came from a numerology web page - http://www.rwgrayprojects.com/synergetics/s12/p3830.html
I took a great deal from Zelazny’s A Night in the Lonesome October-- characters, characterization, and props, obviously; but also pieces of lines, of catchphrases. If you read the book, you’ll notice them. After all, it is Zelazny’s universe, and certain aspects must simply be.
The title comes from a Mother Goose rhyme. Zelazny used bits of Mother Goose rhymes in his book; I wasn’t clever enough to weave any into this story, but the first line of this particular poem seemed apropos to the story:
There was a crooked man, and
he went a crooked mile,
And found a crooked sixpence against a crooked stile,
He bought a crooked cat, which caught a crooked mouse,
And they all lived together in a little crooked house.