Of Ashes and Dust and Such

Posted: July 12, 2013 in Free Stuff

This one’s for Tom, because he always liked cowboy stories

 Three Cowboys

Of Ashes and Dust and Such

I am not a judgemental man by nature, leaving such matters to Our Good Lord Saviour.  But I surely would never have found myself in this predicament had Mr. Zachariah Potts of Winnipeg not been such a vile and caustic little wretch. For but one night ago, at our previously peaceful campfire, Potts’ attempt to overcome any misperceptions others might have had about his significance in the world, prodded on by the Devil’s own whiskey, led to an impromptu demonstration of his mail-order pistol with which he then shot himself in the left foot. And in the ensuing panic he did gutshoot Dutch Phillip, thereby effectively reducing our working group from three to one in a matter of moments. The gunshot echoes through the valley sent the horses and several of our cattle askitter. And if all that wasn’t enough to draw attention from the Swampy Cree who lived in the surrounding hills, Potts’ moaning and squawking surely would have.

I thus had little choice but to calm him. And while it’s difficult to know the exact force with which to strike a man with a rock to imbue silence of a fleeting versus eternal nature, under the circumstances, I believe I did fairly well.

“He shot me,” Dutch Phillip gasped. “The damn fool shot me.”

“So I see,” I replied. I had new respect for Dutch Phillip’s stoic nature. Despite his far worse injuries, he made but a fraction of the noise Potts had. I applied makeshift bandages best I could, but they sopped up the poor fellow’s lifeblood in seconds. Out of charity, I lied to him about the mortality of his wound, yet from his pallor, the blood that trickled from his lips and the scarlet stain now blooming across his grey undershirt, I held little hope he would survive even for the night.

I am not a drinking man, as strong spirits aggravate my own. Still I took some whiskey and weighed my dwindled options. Being a man of fifty-one years, I’d seen my share of life. And I’d built my stake, not gambling or drinking it away like some tend to do. The wages from this ride were to provide but added insurance in the finding of a reasonable woman who might join me in settling some fertile field and fostering progeny. A simple but solid life’s vision. I could thus have easily abandoned everything and gone on my way. However, I am cursed with being a man of principle. I could not leave these men to die in the wilderness, nor could I abandon my employer’s property. Especially when said employer was my cousin Theodore, who possessed neither appreciation of the fickleness of the world nor a forgiving heart even for his own kin. No, such wilful neglect could only return to vex both soul and hide.

In the morning, after fretful sleep, I found Potts limping about, eyes askew. Dutch Phillip looked further diminished, offering me a skeletal grimace that turned my knees to water. What cattle that remained milled about, grazing listlessly. I could hardly be expected to move them to the stockyards of Three Hills on my own. No, I’d need to source assistance. However, when I explained my plan to Potts, he’d recovered enough sense to recognize his precarious position and began to whinge again.

“Curse you for being such a small and foolish man,” I snapped, a trifle harshly perhaps, but it settled him without resorting to my rock, which he eyed with newfound respect. “You’re to take care of Dutch Phillip, fetch him water and food as he needs it. I will return soon.” Potts gave a sullen nod and I set out on his old piebald horse, as my Mabel had bolted in the night. I hoped I might find her again, for I liked her and what’s more, she carried what few worldly goods I possessed within my saddlebags.

I headed southwest, a dangerous direction for a lonely white man, since Swampy Cree settlements were as plentiful in these hills as rocks in a river bed. I watched the sun crest the horizon, enjoying the threadbare warmth it provided, as nights in the foothills can be cold. After a few miles, my buttocks ached from the cheapness of Potts’ saddle. I could never understand why a man might skimp on such an important device as a saddle given the relative proportion of life spent upon it.

After an hour or so of riding I came upon a small camp, within which there were but three individuals. A woman poking a long stick in the embers of a fire, a thatch-haired boy squatting at her side, and a red-haired man asleep beneath a blue blanket. Not to mention a dun mare that closely resembled Mabel. I gladly climbed off Potts’ wretched saddle and walked towards them, hands to the sides to indicate I meant no harm. They appeared unconcerned by my sudden intrusion, which on reflection was odd but at the time simply gave me relief. The man appeared unwell, drawn and sickly, and the boy’s vacant eyes offered little hope for his usefulness, but the woman appeared sturdy enough, of native-blood, perhaps twenty years of age, not the frail, slatternly sort one sees wandering around Cousin Theodore’s ranch.

“Morning,” I said, doffing my hat in a display of gentility. This engendered a most unexpected response – the red-haired man awoke with a start, reached for his gun, making me scramble in alarm. He then gasped as though he’d been struck, clutched his ears and collapsed. I approached with caution, prodding him with the toe of my boot, but the man was clearly dead. The woman and boy took little notice of their companion’s sudden passing. In fact, they gave little notice of anything at all, including myself. Apparently they’d already grown used to my presence.

I made my request to the woman, who wordlessly acquiesced and stood to accompany me, as did the boy. I would have buried the red-haired man but my concern for the continued survival of the living pushed me on. Instead I covered his face with his blanket, somewhat reluctantly, as it was of finer quality than my own. Then I offered what few appropriate words I’d gathered over the years, of ashes and dust and such, that the red-haired man’s eternal soul might be taken by The Lord, then left his mortal remains to the vultures and coyotes.

The woman and boy took the piebald horse whilst I rode Mabel. And though the woman’s rocklike silence was a trifle irksome, hardly tempered by the boy’s discordant hum like that of smoke-drunk wasps, in the scheme of things the journey was peaceable.

By mid-day we’d reached our camp, or what remained of it. The cattle were gone, all but one who grazed in the distance. The fire had expired, as had Dutch Phillip, judging by his rigid position, much as I’d left him that morning. It was a sorry sight, for I’d liked him well enough. The woman scraped at what food remained in bottom of the blackened cooking pot, while the boy poked an inquiring finger into Dutch Phillip’s lifeless eyes, stopping only when I rebuked him.

I laid the man out upon the ground best I could, as his body was now curled and stiff as a strip of salt beef. In addition, he had one firm hand cupped atop his privates in a manner that seemed unbefitting to this solemn and final occasion. There was little I could do about that, though. So I simply piled some rocks upon him, including the blood-stained one with which I had dealt with Potts the night before. I then said that bit about the ashes and such, which through the sheer nature of repetition sounded regrettably routine, and wished Dutch Phillip well on his next journey. Hopefully in the company of Our Good Lord and Saviour, whom from all accounts would be a pleasant enough fellow to ride through eternity with. Providing he didn’t talk too much. I could never abide such folks.

I heard a human whimper, which I tracked to a pile of rags near a cave. It was Potts, and he was even more sorrowful looking than before. He explained that Dutch Phillip had passed shortly after I’d departed and while Potts had mourned his passing with what remained of the whiskey, a pair of bandits had come upon him, stealing the cattle and our supplies. When Potts objected, they provided him with a bullet in his shoulder to match the one in his foot.

Anyway, Potts was glad for my return, now that I’d be able to take him on to Three Hills to seek medical attention. He was still asking for that when the woman, boy and I got back on our horses and departed. Potts’ pleas sounded more desperate as the distance between us grew. I felt some guilt, I admit, for I’m a man of principle, and there’d been enough death in one day for my liking already. But it is a cold and thankless world and surely I could not be expected to save a man whom The Lord Himself had so little interest in succouring.

Once again I’d reached a fork in the road. I could have simply have departed on my own, as I now had little use for the woman and none for the boy. Yet it aggravated me to have my cattle stolen and my former associates treated with such contempt. I had a vague notion to avenge the matter. Principles are not always rational and square. I explained my general intentions to the woman, and she followed on Dutch Phillip’s horse, silent as a thought. She appeared to possess little direction in life, simply tagged onto whoever was near, as leaves might trail a wayward wind.

Though a half century of peering into the far horizon had weakened my eyes, the woman showed a particular talent for tracking. By evening we crested a rocky butte and spotted a camp beneath us, complete with what was left of my herd. I was both pleased and uncertain, for I had always been a man of the moment more than of grandiose vision. I thought we might be best to settle in for the night and regain our strength. We lit no fire and ate a supper of dried horse-meat and pemmican. The boy ate a great deal for such a small, unhelpful creature. I told them both to sleep, which they did, then laid my blanket roll upon the ground and pondered on the two of them. I was curious as to their provenance and the nature of their relationship with the red-haired man. In time, sleep overtook me as well.

I awoke to the pleasant sensation of warmth and human proximity, something I’d not felt in many months. I opened my eyes and saw the woman had laid right next to me, her broad hips pressed against mine in a familiar, yearning manner. She then unbuckled my belt. While she was not what I would call an attractive woman, nor the sort I typically am drawn to, I was not about to debate the matter. After a minute or two of such interaction, she made a sudden gasping sound. The boy sat upright and stared at us in surprise. His surprise turned to fear. Then to rage.   

I felt a sudden pain in my head. Not the sort that might follow a night of whiskey, no, this was a clap of thunder that cut my vision in twelve. I heard a sullen moan I recognized as my own. The pain was such I imagined death might be near, yet it stopped as suddenly as it had begun. The woman held the boy, admonishing him silently. His anger vanished like a passing storm, replaced by his familiar vacant smile. I touched my skull to ensure it remained intact and was surprised to find it so.

I was about to question my companions as to what had transpired when I heard the sound of drunken shouts approaching. A moment later the bandits stumbled into our camp, guns drawn. Our intended element of surprise was gone. Indeed, I was unable to offer little defense with my gun hanging several feet away.

“Gentlemen…” I began. The man closest to me, a balding, brutish sort, proved himself ungentlemanly and kicked me in the chest, then in the cheekbone. My ensuing pain was worsened by their apparent hilarity at our situation. I was not optimistic as to this might lead. My assailant pointed his gun at my head while his partner, a skinny, acne-scarred young deviant, grabbed the silent woman and tried to plant a kiss upon her. She screamed, which amused the man further. For a moment at least, until he emitted a bestial squeal and his prominent ears spouted blood. He then collapsed, frothing pink foam at the mouth.

My assailant panicked, shouting “Hey, hey, hey, hey” like some eccentric bird. 

“Get the hell outta here,” I said, but rather than taking my sage advice he cocked his gun, which was still directed at my head. I was loathe to depart this world so quickly and ignominiously, with my pants still unbuckled and such. Still, I prayed the Lord might forgive my various transgressions and permit my entry to His Eternal Kingdom all the same.

Suddenly, the man’s bald head appeared to glow in a kind of flickering halo, his eyes blazing like embers, and his gun fired. The bullet missed me by inches, deafening me, and he immolated like a tin of kerosene on a bonfire.

My consternation as to the true nature of my companions was not assuaged by their relative lack of wonder at the bandits’ abrupt and startling demise. The woman searched the pockets of the one, while the boy poked at the still smoldering remains of the other with vague curiosity. The smell, reminiscent of fine roast pork, was unsettling. Thus I dragged their mortal remains about a hundred feet into the brush and covered them with dirt, lest coyotes be drawn too near our camp. And while I would have liked another chance to say my ashes speech once more, and get it right this time, I left it unsaid. A third time in one day felt overdone, and the Lord surely had no use for two such obvious miscreants as these.

As I made my way back through the darkness towards our camp, I was stricken with an idea. An idea of extraordinarily prophetic dimensions. I realized that the chances of successfully transporting my herd on to Three Hills were scant at best. But the vast and lethal powers that had been revealed by my otherwise innocent companions had an intrinsic value that, if effectively harnessed, might prove far more lucrative than the simple sale of livestock. What if the cattle were set free, while we three carried on to Three Hills? And from there, to the wider world itself to accrue whatever fortunes we might achieve? Even Cousin Theodore would not complain too bitterly, provided he got his share. And if he did object, well I would deal with him too. The Good Lord had delivered this peculiar woman and boy into my hands for a reason, had he not? Surely it would be a sign of great disrespect not to appreciate this bounty, and make full use of it. Impious, even. Still, though I had all but convinced myself to proceed, I admit a part of me was surprised at the immense, untethered nature of my plan. And its darkness.

When I explained my startling vision to the woman, she appeared unintrigued. The boy, who sat in the dirt at her feet, said nothing at all. I decided to ponder the matter as I slept. Which was largely untroubled, save for a rather fine dream of a yoked ox ploughing a vast and fruitful field.

I awoke at dawn, chilled and achy but still in full possession of my unusually soaring ambitions. I was about to rise and begin my grandiose journey but found myself unable to even lift my brimming head. My limbs felt heavy and numb, as though disembodied. The boy sat watching me, that vacuous smile still planted upon his soot-smudged face. I called out to the woman to apprise her of my ills but she ignored me, sitting well away, eyeing the sunrise.

I thought I saw a figure approach, a man atop a horse, raising his hat in a gesture of greeting. I felt such foreboding. It occurred to me I might be dying, that I had sealed my fate with the nails of false pride, that I should warn the newcomer to flee. But the boy held a finger to his silent lips.

And as my skull began to painfully unhinge and I felt my essence ebb into the dirt, I prayed my Sweet Lord and Forgiving Saviour might overlook my more recent lapses and offer me final salvation once and for all. Otherwise, may he too curse Zachariah Potts for being such a vile and caustic little wretch.

The End

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