There I were, standing before the open mouth of the grand devil’s kingdom… one of its mouths anyway. A hot breath full of ashes descended on me. It were the first one I’d ever set my own eyes on and it weren’t what I expected. The mouth part of the name were supposed to be figurative. It were a disgusting word representing a gate so people would think even less of it than they already did. Except it weren’t so figurative.
It rose out of the cracked clay like the lower jaw of a giant man turned upside down. Its stone teeth were twice as crookedy as mine; one of them were solid gold. I could tell that even under the ash by the way it shined under a sun that hadn’t let a cloud near these parts since before the planting of the tree used to build my crib. Its heavy tongue were made of steaming ash mud and it undulated like a fat slug hanging off the edge of a table. It were panting red fire and shooting smoke out of something like nostrils where it connected to the ground. I took a step forward.
But let’s take a step back. There I were… but where are you? This isn’t like all the other legends you hear or stories you read. This one’s mine. I want it to live and breathe and cuss and laugh just like I do. It’s my big bouncing baby boy. It’s my crack-shot slingshot little girl. In order for my story to live it needs to have a sense of the people reading in. Both you and I need to be engaged with each other.
Given that we will undoubtedless be separated by a gulf in time and distance perhaps as wide as the West itself, some guesswork is required. Wherever you are you’re east of me so I’ll start with that. I don’t know too much about the far east of the West on account of my boots have never graced that part of the world. I’ve seen a few history books that say it all started in some place called the United States of a Mayorka. What a Mayorka is I have no idea; kind of sounds like the dumb cousin of okra or a newly discovered breed of sea cow. The books say people crossed a sea to get there and started moving West. Then they started getting the idea that West were the only way to go.
That were when the Laudgod revealed unto the people new to the West, through some new interpretations of his holy bible, that it were their manifest destiny to travel Westward infinitely. They obeyed. They thought they understood at least the vague shape and size of their world, that they would reach the other end of that landmass before two hands of generations passed, but that were before the Laudgod set eyes on the Western coast and found it to be a gross abomination. It were an end, and ends are for the grand devil. The Laudgod put all his eggs in the bottomless basket.
He made it so the land went on forever. To this day it grows out and out, West and Wester, but never Westest. The people tried to keep up, but they could not. That sort of colonizing and astretching can do peculiar things to folks. My great grandmammy, a woman who lived past her time thanks to a few dabblings in witchcraft and a stack of willow bark hotcakes every morning, told me that folks used to fight each other over the color of their skin. The natives hated the newcomers; the newcomers hated them and anybody who came after that. I think all the astretching, all the need to cooperate to keep a town or a caravan alive, wore them out. The whites can’t work up the energy to fight the blacks, and everybody else is twixt them two anyway.
They still have the energy to hate the buffalo. In the days before mine the buffalo were just like common cattle. Maybe they still are near that first coast. At some point in their travels they figured out most of the tricks of being civilized. They got up on two hooves and turned all that mooing into talk fancier than mine. They put on clothes. Kept the fur too though… explain that one to me.
They live in tribes most of the time, with gods of their own. If them totem pole faces are any indication them gods in question are ugly as sin. Maybe they’d pick up on the Laudgod if folks didn’t still treat them like animals most of the time. I try to be brotherly as best I can to them, and avoid the consumption of steak and bacon round them on account of them dining exclusively on greens.
Even further from that coast the cacti got a whiff of smartness to them. They don’t live in houses or anything or even speak, but I’ve seen them walking round. Some of them grow bumpy faces, but then they’re stuck with that one expression. Again I try to be brotherly, but a handshake with a porcupine plant can be a difficult proposition.
That’s the West that I lived in when all this happening were… occurring. This is the record of the eventful part of my life, after most of the happiness. I wanted to start this off proper but I’m realizing I forgot to even write my name down. The author of this completely factual record of actual honest-to-giddiness truthful history is none other than Lionel Worthett. If I’ve done everything right then you’ve never heard of me. There are plenty of fantasticalous titles I could’ve had if I gave into temptation, like the man who redeemed the color yellow or the divine signatory, but I resisted. I’m just Lionel Worthett.
Now you’re probably wondering how and why I were standing in front of a Hellmouth in the middle of a bone-dry desert and, of all things, taking steps towards the boiling drool-filled cavern. It takes a man not in his right mind to do a thing like that.
I’d actually left my right mind a long time before that; it were the culminating of a thousand burs across my life finally poking through my clothes. I won’t talk about that just yet as we aren’t sufficiently familiarated and as such won’t be sufficiently engaged. It should do to say that I were more miserable than a goat with half a stomach. The search for vivacity and fulfillment had become the search for fulfillment of my glass with the nearest alcohol.
One of my favorite places to drink were the lodge owned by my friend Pete. He don’t have a last name, that way he can blame anything he does on any of the other Petes that happen to be round. Pete’s a devil.
I should probably go over that too. Maybe your future is beautiful and all your devils have scurried back under the porch mat. Devils are supposed to live in Hell, but there are ways for them to sneak out. Hellmouths for one. They just have to wait for a cough and then they can get launched clear across the horizon and land straight in a cactus patch, which, by the way, I’m told is still much cozier than even the best beds in Hell.
Devils can be born as such or transformed from human souls that are no longer blessed by the Laudgod. Witchcraft, the kind that comes from the grand devil and not the buffalo kind, is the fastest way to get there. Devils come in four colored coats that signify the sin they’re guiltiest of. The bible says there are seven deadly sins, but I guess these four are the deadliest. A purple devil lives a life of lust. A green devil counts the treasures of their greed. An ashen devil sleeps in a den of sloth. Finally, a red devil burns with an endless wrath. They all come with a pair of pitchfork horns and an arrowhead tail.
Pete were red and wrathful, but not after you befriended him. Then he were loyal. It’s an interesting situation being a friend of his. It’s like being in the breezy eye of a fire whirl and watching everything but you get burned up. When Pete kicked a guy out of his place, and I mean literally kicked, it left the man with the seat of his pants ablaze.
Pete’s place were a gambling house with some rooms for rent above that. It were an establishment that primarily served devils and men like me who are well acquainted with both the smell of gun oil and of puddled blood allowed to dry straight into a dusty wood floor. I remember it had a dented bronze spittoon right by the door that stank to high Heaven; the devils are hot-blooded see, so when that vessel were full it steamed and bubbled like a pot of the worst soup known to man.
Hot pockets showed up everywhere in his place on a busy night, necessitating an abundance of seltzer bottles to put out any fires the devils’ comradery might precipitize. I were a crack shot with them myself thanks to my being a crack shot with everything from a skipping stone to a deck cannon. If there were so much as one whisker of smoke across the room I could fire a stream of seltzer in a beautiful arc, make a room-filling rainbow along the way, and extinguish the offending kindling. Most of the time it were a hat burning on a red devil’s head, but I also kept matches, cigars, and even one very spicy plate of green chili cornbread from destroying Pete’s.
That were one of the many habits that put him in a hospitable mood when he and I had a sit-down and I told him I were in powerful need of a place to stay. I couldn’t go home for reasons that will be explained further into this document. Now Pete being both a devil and a businessman, a combination that can’t tame the West but sure as Hell can chain it down, his charity came with a few caviars caveats. The only room he could afford to give me free of charge were the only room that weren’t up for purchase in the first place: his sister’s.
I don’t want to get into a discussion about the husbandry of imps and their cousins, so I’ll admit I don’t rightly know how devil siblings work. Maybe they were both ordinary folk who strayed or maybe they escaped Hell at the same time. I suppose it’s even possible they were nothing more than kindred spirits in a West dominated by the easily-burned skin of the Laudgod’s men and women. Pete said she were his sister and I took the creature at his word.
Respecting women is another talent of mine, but this girl knew every trick to get a man to drop his guard and, shortly after, about as long as it takes a lawyer to thread a lie through the eye of the truth, his belt buckle. Her name were Cassidy: round cheeks, mischief grin, fangs like a hunting dog, hair like a brand new mop, legs that could circle the sinking sun, and an extra-long tail she liked to incorporate into her vigorous expressions of physical love. She were light purple, like young lilacs, and if your peepers have been doing their job up until this point you already know what that means. It means that a man like me has a hard time resisting her, especially when she gets so close you can smell her and you recognize she has embraced her heritage and her vibrant skin so much that she actually wears a lilac perfume. She smells like flowers… so she can’t be evil. Few men have thought dumber things than the things I thought in her company.
The love of a good woman can pull a man out of the darkest ditches, but Cassidy were not a good woman. She were good in bed and she were good fun, but she were a housecat playing with a half-dead mouse. I probably needed someone to wipe my tears away with a silk handkerchief instead of licking them off my face, giggling, and daring me to get back under the blankets for another round.
You’re probably starting to ponder the extent of both my stupidity and Pete’s. Mine on account of the way a devil of lust sucks the vitality out of a man with every roll in the hay, and Pete’s on account of he knew I’d likely kill myself in his sister’s bed. I weren’t being foolish; I were being done. At that point I were hoping Cassidy’s draining kiss would kill me. There aren’t many good ways to go and if Cassidy did me in it would be thanks to the breathlessness of general fatigue. No bleeding, no coughing, no burning.
Pete were no fool neither; he were just being practical. He gave me an opportunity and a temptation, knowing full well that when I failed to resist he would have an excuse to kick me out. After about two weeks of me eating up his sister’s time, she were a valuable employee to Pete as well as family, Pete kicked her door open on a cool evening. The door weren’t even locked. All the hot moist air from our latest bout flowed out of the room, leaving me cold and clammy. I hopped to my feet and wrapped one of her fancy lacey blankets round my waist.
I know what kind of sight I were; Cassidy had drained me near to the bone. My eyes were dark and sunken, my cheeks hollow. Every rib were visible and my knees looked like door knobs. My heart, despite being startled in the midst of lovemaking, were fluttering weak and quiet like a mouse’s in a fever dream. Pete pointed one of his sharp nails at me.
“That’s it Worthett! You’re not worth it!” he said. He put on a good show of surprise even though he’d seen exactly what he wanted to see. I don’t blame him. It were a strong temptation but it were just that. If I were a man with more willpower I could’ve slept alongside Cassidy platonically and enjoyed Pete’s begrudging hospitality for years.
“Give me another shot,” I said stupidly, half the bedding still round my waist. I couldn’t think of anything else to say. In fact, my mouth said it for me. I don’t think I even wanted one.
“You’re out of here,” Pete insisted. “There’s plenty of fools down there willing to pay to bed my sister, despite what it does to them… only those offers start to dry up when she’s as porky as you’ve made her!” I took a good look at Cassidy. A woman’s size has never been a determining factor in my appreciation, so I hadn’t paid too much attention to the changes in her body that were quite the inverse of mine. I’d lost about a pig’s worth of weight and she’d gained it. Her stomach were soft and laid about with a will of its own. She’d shored up her chin with another one drained from me.
“Pete I can…”
“You can’t anything Lionel. There’s nothing left. If you’re going to die get out there in the West and die with dignity. Don’t let my last image of you be my sister, too fat to move thanks to you, kicking your bones out of bed to be swept up.” Cassidy just shrugged. If it weren’t me it would be another man, just one less willing to let her have it all. Fat or thin there were no filling her appetites.
He gave me a canteen on my way out. I sniffed at it: water. It weren’t clear whether a better or worse friend would’ve gotten whiskey. People round town, eager to get rid of my spooky image, told me to throw myself into a Hellmouth; one were even nice enough to tell me where one were. That’s where I went. That’s where I got this document that I’m writing on and you’re reading from.
I presented a somewhat different image to the creature that found me in front of that Hellmouth. I’d eaten little since leaving Pete’s, so I were still the image of death, but I were fully clothed. I had my guns, my dusty threadbare clothes, and my boots. My shirt were yellow; my favorite color. I know what you’re thinking. How can any self-respecting frontiersman run round wearing the color of cowardice? That color has a completely undeserved reputation.
My mother, my dear sweet mother who only used the switch when I truly deserved it, owned a dress shop that I worked in for the entirety of my adolescence. You might think the picture’s acoming together what with my favorite color being yellow and me working in a dress shop: I’m some kind of sissy. You’re wrong. I’d prove it to you with a steely glare and by shooting your hat off your head, but I can’t on account of being dead. I doubt you can even find my bones; bones don’t have ground to settle in here, but if you could the skeleton would be just as manly as any other.
There’s nothing wrong with a young man learning how to hem, dye, and stitch. When I were doing this, with yellow sheets of fabric, I saw the color’s potential. Yellow is the color of hope. It’s the color of a clear sun and an honest flower. It always signals that things are going to change, but it will eventually come back. The yellow always comes back.
Now that you know how to overlook the clothes on my back, you can focus proper on my description of the creature that met me at the Hellmouth, who stopped me from stepping inside. At first I thought it were a trick of the sun, but then I heard the rattle of the wagon wheels. What stopped alongside me were a wagon with odd construction, something twixt a writing desk and a bookshelf on wheels. The figure holding the reins of the two horses, one gray and one black, wore a cream-colored hood with silver trim over her head. The skin of her withered old hands were very dark. Most alarming were the pair of fleshless wings asticking out of her shoulders. Even though they were all bone they still twitched a bit like they were cold.
“Does the West not appeal to you?” she asked. Her voice were old and cracked, but cracked in such a way that it seemed natural, born with the cracks.
“I’m not good enough for the West,” I told her hood. She dropped the reins and revealed her face: one eye like blank paper and one like black leather. Beautiful teeth, not one missing. The old winged woman stepped down. I moved to help her to the ground but she waved me away and did it herself without as much as a groan. I looked at her wings again when they rattled. “Are you an angel?”
“I was. The sort with black feathers,” she admitted. She moved to the side of her wagon and waved me over. I followed.
“Black feathers? That means you delivered bad news to the faithful right? Omens of acoming disaster?”
“Or disasters they brought on themselves.”
“What happened to your wings?”
“You should ask my name first young man.”
“I’m sorry Miss, truly. What is your name?”
“I am Tahizote. As for my wings, I didn’t see the disaster I’d brought upon myself with my disobedience. I dared show sympathy to the men of the West. I consoled them when I was only supposed to herald. I even threw some bad news away. The Laudgod punished me by striking me with a smiting bolt. I fell out of the sky, all my feathers burned away.”
“Tahizote huh? So that’s what angel names sound like. I’m sorry about your wings. Do you still work for his holiness?” I coughed. My voice were a croak after so long out there drinking nothing but dust. Tahizote flicked her finger and just like that I felt like I’d drunk a pail of water. All of the timbre came back to me.
“I do. Nobody else would take me, these wings making me look like some kind of chimera of devilry and all. Now I handle some of his paperwork. I get holy books into the right hands.” She pushed the wooden shade on the side of the wagon up, revealing shelves full of loose papers and strange tomes.
“You got holy bibles in there?” I asked. I didn’t exactly want her to know I hadn’t touched one in years. I were about to throw myself into a Hellmouth after all and I’d certainly spent a fair amount of time playing with devils. And befriending devils. And kissing devils. And eating food prepared by devils. Maybe touching a bible would blister my palms.
“Everything in here is more important than some lousy bible,” she dismissed. I got the sense that she didn’t care too much for the works of her employer.
“What’s more important than the holy bible?”
“Only one of these documents is any concern of yours,” she said, reaching up and grabbing the white leather edges of something. It were stuck tight twixt two other books, and it squeaked when she finally dislodged it. A couple loose papers fell with it, but the second they touched the ground they vanished. That made me awful nervous about touching the document she polished with her sleeve and then held out to me. What if I touched it and disappeared as well? One thing I never learned were where disappeared things go. I reminded myself of my positioning, sometimes the resolve to end your life is difficult to maintain in the face of strange things that could be hope, and took the item from Tahizote’s hands.
The white leather cover, a shade I would call ‘ivory nothing had to die for’, were stamped with a large divine insignia full of olive twig-carrying doves. Knobs of gold and silver at the corners. There were words on the front, but they were in a tongue I couldn’t speak even if mine were knotted or forked. I tried to open it from the side only to find it were not a conventional book. It opened from the bottom, the leather folding back and revealing a sort of clipboard. The back were wood wrapped in more white leather and the shining ornate clip held a large stack of clean paper. I flipped through the pages; they were all blank except for the perfectly straight black lines top to bottom. Well that’s not quite truthful. The first few pages had something: a list of names. I know they were names on account of the lettering being Western this time.
“What is this?” I asked the fallen angel.
“That… is the Manifest of the West.”
“It’s empty. The West sure has more in it than these couple names.” I read through some of them.
Josephine, witch hunter
Chief Stone’s Throw
Furry Arms Daffenport
The man with too many guns
“The Laudgod has a job for you,” Tahizote said, “if you want it that is.”
“Why does the Laudgod need me for anything?” I asked, fairly so.
“He doesn’t need. He wants. He’d rather see some use out of you before you throw yourself to the devils. The West is becoming difficult to manage, given its size. The Laudgod is doing some contracting and he reckons you’d make an above average contractor.”
“The West is too big for another flood isn’t it?” I suggested. “All that water would just make another puddle out here. You could probably ford it with a paper boat and a pair of horny toads.”
“I’ve heard worse assessments of the situation,” Tahizote said, “but the problem isn’t all men this time. It’s just a handful. The few who have gotten too good at the West.”
“I’m sorry Miss; I don’t know what that means at all. Wouldn’t being skilled at all things Western be an admirable trait? I can think of a few young women back in my youth who would’ve been far more impressed with me if my charms were a little more Westerly.”
“There are three realms Lionel: the Heavens, the West, and Hell. Eventually everyone from the West is supposed to settle in the other two, at least for a while before they fashion some kind of escape. This is the will of the Laudgod. Only problem is that the size of the West means folks are having an easier time hiding from their fates. They have more time to master the land. Sometimes they get so good at it that almost nothing can kill them. They hop over plagues and push their way through blazing battlefield bullets like they’re a bunch of snowflakes.”
“I still don’t see the problem here.”
“Imagine the evil a person can do in the West with power like that.”
“Imagine the good.”
“Now imagine how many people, out of ten, are usually completely good in nature.”
“I take your point,” I were forced to admit. She went on.
“Even a small abuse of power like that makes mighty ripples in the West. These people think they’re their own gods.”
“Why don’t the Laudgod just strike them down with a smiting bolt the way he did… sorry.” I pulled my hat down and hid my eyes. Angel or no, that were rude. She didn’t seem to pay attention. Carrying all them books round must’ve made her too tired to care about anything at all.
“These powerful folks can even sidestep those. The Laudgod has decided to fight fire with fire. A man must defeat these men. After that, since their accrued Western mastery will be too heavy for a cloud to hold and too slippery for licks of flame to snag, they will be transformed.”
“Transformed into what? Like a witch’s trick or a buffalo’s ward? Don’t sound like a holy miracle to me.”
“Transformed into a legend.”
“The only thing that can contain them is the imagination of the men of the West, where they were forged. Their bodies will become dust and their souls will become stories, stories spread across the West like seed.”
“Would it be a sin for me to express skepticism at this juncture?” I asked. The Sunday preacher never said anything about a soul accidentally bumping into Heaven’s ceiling, falling back down, and landing in somebody’s ear as a legend. Tahizote pulled another book off the shelf, a red one, and turned to a specific page. I felt a little burning in my heart when she did.
“According to this it is a sin for you to doubt an angel,” she said before closing the page I’m pretty sure had my own name on it.
“How does this transformicating business take place?” I asked as I adjusted my shirt and a little bit of my skin underneath to get that burning to go away.
“If they sign their name in the Manifest of the West,” she tapped the paper in my hands, “they consign themselves to legend. The Manifest will also accept a mark unique to them in place of a signature. A pressed eyelash or a drop of blood.”
“And this works?”
“It’s already been tested. Pecos Bill.”
“Pecos Bill’s a tall tale. No man could do what he did. Riding the weather like that, bouncing above mountains on his horse’s back…”
“He is a myth. He was a man. The moment he was down for good was the moment you heard of him. Now he’s nothing but the rumor of his deeds. It’s the right kind of death for a man like that.”
“Slue-foot Sue. John Henry. Alfred Bulltop Stormalong. Johnny Appleseed.”
“Alfred Stormalong? The able-bodied giant sailor whose ship had a hinged mast to avoid scraping the moon? A ship so large the rest of the crew needed horses to traverse its deck? He were real?”
“He still is, but the ship only sails the water of imagination.”
“How do you propose folks strong as that will be convinced to sign their name?”
“That would be your job. If you can’t convince them the civilized way you can do it… the other way. As long as they sign.” I tried to hand the Manifest back to her, but she wouldn’t take it. She closed up her bookshelf and climbed back aboard. “The Laudgod thinks you can do it Lionel.”
“Even if I believed I could,” I started, “who’s saying I want to? I had plans.”
“An appointment with the grand devil is not a plan. That’s all-around failure.”
“If I were to take up this monumental task… what would be my reward?”
“The return of a soul: from its resting place and back to the West,” she said. I hugged the Manifest to my chest and stared at her. The sun were directly behind her head, but something about the whole situation let me look at her without pain. Even in her stricken state her invisible heavenly light were strengthier than the beating sun.
“You’re telling me I have the Laudgod’s word… If I get all these folks in the Manifest I get the soul of my choice. No strings attached?”
“Not only that. You’ll also be forgiven all your indiscretions from the age of twenty-seven to thirty-three,” she assured. I didn’t need to ask her why them specific ages were in the offer. Them were years I were actively known as the marionette bandit. I had quite the routine. I carried a puppet with me dressed just as I were that I’d use to put on little shows and draw people in. It weren’t until too late they realized the tiny gun in the marionette’s hand were no toy and with one pull on its rigging I could blast their knees out. They had no choice but to put their money in my hat. I ran that routine the whole time I were passing through Gray Sands. I bet you don’t feel so bad for me now; that Hellmouth is starting to look like the place I should be.
“Complete forgiveness is rarer than you think,” Tahizote said. “If he gave it out like salt there’d be no opportunities for regret or shame.”
“I’m liable to get dead on the first name,” I said. I’ve been a lot of things, even a lot of skilled things, but this sounded like lunacy. A crack shot don’t stand much chance against the bigger men of the West. Some of them are so great they’re fifty feet tall. Some of them have glowers so strong it feels like a bullet twixt the eyes. I looked at the list again and saw the name Shorty Fuse. Maybe I could handle someone named Shorty, but with my luck I’d show up and find out it were one of them ironic names and he’d be built like a jagged mountain of steel.
“If you get dead you’ll get a little credit for your attempt at the gates. I’ll take the Manifest back and try somebody else.”
“You’re not exactly filling me with confidence.”
“Confidence isn’t what I’m required to pour. Ask yourself this Mr. Worthett: what have you got to lose?” She had me by the toes there.
“Fine. I’ll look into some of these names and maybe have a friendly conversation or two. Which one should I start with?”
“The first one.”
“Can I at least ride with you to somewhere that… has buildings?” Tahizote nodded. She pulled the reins and turned the wagon round. “Hold on a second.” The ride were all I were getting. I had no job, no money, and no inheritance that shined; the only inheritance I had were on my hips. If I were going to be traveling all over the West I would be needing funds. The Laudgod don’t seem to be the type to pay in coins, paper, or nuggets. Blessings and miracles are fine, but try handing a stack of them to the banker. I looked back at the Hellmouth and scratched at my stubbled chin. There were an opportunity here to finance at least a few name-collecting ventures, and it were stuck deep in the gums of that infernal passage.
There were worse ways to test my skills for the acoming hardship than getting at that gold chomper. Even with my brain baking I came up with a plan swiftly. I reached into my pocket and dug out my truest friend in this West. He’s small enough to fit in my palm; in truth I don’t know if I should call him a he or a she on account of him being made of nothing but air. I’m just not equipped with a word for that. Never bothered to name him neither, on account of my fear that one day he would just blow away or get so weak I couldn’t make him out anymore.
I found the little guy in Gavinville, hiding out twixt two bed sheets hung to dry. A tornado had come through the main street of that town not a full day prior, so I think he were spawned from it like a tadpole. He were making the laundry of the woman I were staying with flap about like it were possessed and she sent me out in nothing but my underwear to investigate, told me I could have my clothes back once I secured the safety of hers.
After vigorous shaking, the little guy fell out, looking just as he did in my hand at the devil’s door: a faceless little cone of dirty air who just spins, spins, spins, warms my dusty heart, and spins. I’d heard tell that Pecos Bill had lassoed and tamed a cyclone. At the time I thought that were just a legend… it is now… but… This is confusing. Forget what I just wrote. I can’t change it out here. I thought that I could make use of such a critter. I were never very good with dogs or cats thanks to all that slippery responsibility, but a pocket twister didn’t need to be fed and could be kept just about anywhere.
It took a while to train him, but by the time Tahizote were waiting on me to make my move, he were as loyal and obedient as one of my own internal organs. I whispered my orders to him and he sucked them into his little rotationing body. Then I released him to the wind. To play my part I had to get as close as possible. The whistling might not have been necessary, especially given Tahizote’s bewildered look at my tactics, but it weren’t easy to assess the intelligence of a giant mouth jutting out of the ground upside down. Maybe there were a big old brain right under my feet. There were no harm in acting like I weren’t planning an impromptu dental operation.
Its breath were nearily intolerable. My boots stepped in the slimy mud created by its dripping hot saliva. Next, my hand moved to my holster, and it would hover there until my pocket twister succeeded. His orders were to reform at the back of the wretched thing’s throat and tickle it enough to make it sneeze or cough. That would be the perfect moment to strike. There were the gamble that it might vomit forth a stream of lava that could split my flesh from my bones in a horrific display of nature’s fury, but you can only exercise so much control over these things.
Allow me to tell you about my guns, on account of when we get into the name-hunting proper I may not have a calm moment in the narrative to do it. They stay busy in this here story account. They weren’t exactly given to me by my pa; they were built from his favorite gun: his trusty rifle. I’ve never had the patience for rabbit shooters like that so after he passed I took the rifle to a specialist. He split the gun in two and made me two special pistols that look like the littler cousins of the original weapon. They even bark like rifles too. As an extra sentimental touch I took the spurs from my pa’s boots and had them attached to the bottom of the grip. Nothing reminds me of him like a good jab in the side.
After a minute of patient tolerance of the devil’s breath, my twister finally acted. I felt the wind change as the Hellmouth sucked in air. The hammers on my guns clicked back. The mouth made a yawning sound; I guessed it were a sneeze acoming. The thing opened so wide that the ground round it cracked some more. Its flaming uvula wiggled in the back of its throat and scattered the shadows.
I pulled both my guns and fired. Now I don’t know magic from luck, but there’s a little something special about them guns. They fire each other up. When one goes off the other pulls its hammer back on its own. They play off each other on account of them being siblings. I can fire twelve times as fast as I can pull the triggers. Each bullet hit its mark, the ashy gum just above the gold tooth. When it were sufficiently loosened I jumped up and wrapped myself round it.
It shifted, but didn’t come loose right away. It took the full force of the sneeze to accomplish that. When it happened it burned my eyebrows off and sent me flying away, but I did not let go of that giant tooth. The both of us crashed on top of Tahizote’s reading wagon; I tumbled a few times and fell, landing upside down next to the angel herself. She whipped the reins and sent the horses arunning. The Hellmouth roared behind us. I don’t know what the big deal were; I didn’t steal its tongue or nothing. Before I even righted myself I saw my twister fly back into my pocket.
“Now you’re filling me with confidence,” Tahizote said as them eight hooves carried us away into a new sideless corner of the West.
The Legend of Broadsi Licorishka
Tahizote weren’t a generous soul; she did only what she promised and dropped me off at the nearest settlement. Then she went on her way. I don’t know where, but certainly not back to Heaven. My first stop were the mineral exchange so I could replace the weighty gold tooth with legal tender. You should’ve seen the look on the man’s face when he dropped it on the scale and counted out the tickets for me. This town were more of a town twixt towns, so their currency were train tickets. That were fine by me on account of them being easy to carry and easy to exchange at most stations round the West.
Tahizote told me to go after the first name, and that’s what I did. At the top of the manifest were Broadside Barnaby. It were about then that I realized another disadvantage of tracking down these names. Nobody’d heard of them yet! They weren’t legends no more than I were a saltwater trout. A reputation the size of a regular man’s is pretty difficult to locate in a West this gargantuan. Having nothing to go on forced the plan a step back. Instead of asking about men who had tamed the West, I asked about men who knew about men who had tamed the West. The nice thing about gossips is they’re not hard to find on account of them always hanging on the grape vine like tiny opossums.
Speaking of which, I were directed to a woman who just happened to be called grapevine Maude. That old bat told me about a bigger opossum on a bigger vine went by the name Thresher the card shark. If half of what she said were true, it were awful strange Thresher weren’t listed on the Manifest himself. She said he’d won a new set of teeth from a great West shark in a game of cards. You might think sharks can’t hold cards or place wagers, but I’ve seen stranger things. I’d know the man by his smile, full of jagged glistening fish teeth. Maude insisted he knew every soul too leathery for a bullet to pass through. With a little luck he knew where Broadside Barnaby were.
Finding him weren’t exactly a game of horseshoes neither, on account of his home being on a traveling city. I’ve been aboard a few of the train cities that ride the rails back and forth twixt early West and the valley of walking cactus, but Thresher lived on Gallaposa: a caravan city. It’s got a couple hundred canvas-covered buildings on wheels pulled by thousa I should wait until we get there to tell you about it. Galloposa rode the bottom edge of the West, the side that grows the slowest and always ends in ocean, never turning round and only ‘making port’ so to speak when they needed to restock on things they couldn’t gather or grow on the move.
I raced to a train and started making my way towards the city’s last known route. I had plenty of tickets, but when I could I hopped twixt engines without paying since time at the station were time wasted. With a few worlds worth of West to search, I wondered if Tahizote or the Laudgod had placed the base of an angel feather twixt the cogs of my clock, stopping my aging so I’d have the time to do the work before I were too gray and bent to lift a gun past my waist. There’d been whisperings of things like that happening when you were on a divine mission.
Did the Laudgod expect me to follow a righteous code while in his employ? If I didn’t would the base of that feather crack and snap? I didn’t have the answers; Tahizote wouldn’t allow me a single peek at any of her books. I decided it were best to commit to a politer more upstanding Lionel, at least to start…
Trains, trains, trains. Every hitch in the tracks while I slept started to feel like a beautiful iron woman caressing my cheek. I rode every kind of train under the sun and then some: trains constantly plowing through feet of snow, trains carrying exotic zoo animals, trains that could rise up and strike at you like a rattler, and even a tiny iron horse with room for only me on its saddle. Eventually I caught up with Galloposa during one of the few times it were stopped. It were an incredible sight to behold.
Fields of horses with barely any room twixt them… kicking up dust and snorting, barely able to keep from taking off again and chasing the horizon. These were the sort of animals that snatched grass off the ground at full speed and drank the rain as it fell. About one in every hundred looked bred for big men and stood fifteen feet high at the shoulder. All the reins came together at the back of the herd into a dense black tangle of fibers connected to the sturdiest wagon-buildings.
Only a few of the structures were more than a floor or two tall. They all had canvas supported by wood beams instead of proper walls, but that didn’t stop them from mimicking every vital structure of the West’s great cities. As I rested against a post, off to the side of the city, and caught my breath I examined its highest points: a bell tower, some kind of capitol building with a pleated canvas dome, and pile of silvery coal big enough to be called a mountain. They probably used it in their stoves and things.
A normal way in would’ve been splendid, but it didn’t work out that way. When I tried to board a fella with a rifle practically stuck it up my nose and told me that without proof of Galloposa citizenship or marriage there weren’t a chance in Hell I would be in city limits when the horses started athundering again. I threw my hands up and said I didn’t want no trouble. An opportunity didn’t present until two miles down the line.
Some cacti cactuses cactus? cactus were loading crates of coal onto the city via a set of lowered wooden steps. Nobody were supervising. The cactus are strange fellas, but you can usually get a sense of their capabilities by simple observation. These ones weren’t wearing clothes. They were probably on the real simple side, just excitable enough to want to help. If the good people of Galloposa were paying them at all it were probably with small toys or hats. More likely: somebody had shown one of them how to carry a box and the rest of the patch just copied.
I inserted myself into the proceedings and grabbed a box. You can’t tell if a cactus is eyeing you on account of them having no eyes, but when the top of their stems trunks turn in your direction you do get the sense you’re being watched. One of the green varmints came up and inspected me. Most of them were mimicking men well with two arms and two legs, but this sorry fella had one leg too many and couldn’t figure out what to do with it. In the short scuttle over to me it ended up scraping off a bunch of its own needles. I think that were why it were so ornery and took exception to me robbing them of such fun labor.
He took a swing at me; I dropped the box. Coal scattered everywhere and drew the attention of its friends. About that time I remembered a moment from my youth, at the age of eleven if memory serves, where I fell into a patch of cactus. I felt like you could peek in one of the holes they put in me and see clear through to the other side, and they weren’t even the kind that moved round and took offense.
I avoided another punch and resisted pulling one of my guns. It were just a dumb plant; it didn’t know no better. I circled round it with my own fists raised. It grew some more needles out of its rounded arm-ends and swung again. Maybe it did know better. One of its hooks skewered my hat and pulled it right off my head. Then it had the gall to put it on its own head stump. The other plants rattled their needles in approval. When I fell in that cactus patch back then, I pulled myself out with no help at all. I took a shot of my own; it landed smack where its cheek should’ve been. All them needles went quiet.
Punchy, that’s what I named it in the heat of the moment, charged me. I sidestepped and punched its back three times. Then I grabbed its extra leg and swung it round a few times. I tossed its spiny behind right into the dirt. All the plants got real close. I shuffled over to Punchy, doing my best impression of a less-threatening fella, and offered it a hand. It held out my hat so I could take it back. I took it, but instead of asserting my dominancy I put it back on its head. Even with no face I knew how it felt; it didn’t need to hug me the way it did and put three holes in my side. They can be prickly, but once you’re part of their patch they never forget it.
They picked up all the coal I dropped, put it back in the box, and handed it back to me. Then I got in line with them and helped march the fuel up them stairs and into Galloposa. Nobody paid me much mind. I followed the green fellas deep into the city. The mothers and fathers that live there must keep a very sharp eye on their babies when they’re first starting to walk, on account of some of the worrisome gaps twixt all the wagons that make up the city. Lots of them were plenty big enough to swallow me up.
Galloposa’s true self didn’t show until after we’d dumped the coal on the pile. The cactus left the way they came while I took a seat on a bench to clear the sweat from my brow. There were a loud rumbling sound like someone closing curtains made of wood; I reckon it were all them sets of loading stairs round the city’s edge being folded back up. Then came the crack of a thousand whips, possibly automated. The horses started up. The city moved, slow as a spur snail at first. My behind started bouncing on the bench, something more painful than it sounds on account of the general boniness I’d maintained since my evenings with Pete’s sister.
How the citizens could stand the constant shaking were a mystery. The teeth rattled in my head and my eyes rolled round in their sockets. The thunderstorm of hoof beats across miles of packed West dirt were never ending endless. I looked round and saw folks going about their daily business unperturbed. These tiny Westquakes were just the life in Galloposa. I made a vow, an unshakeable vow as appropriateness would have it, to finish my business there as soon as possible. When I’d adjusted to the shaking and rattling enough to stop seeing double, I saw that one of the cactus hadn’t left; it were busy asticking its head into somebody’s washbasin. I tapped it on the shoulder.
“Say friend, have you stayed in the city before?” It nodded. “You wouldn’t happen to know a man called Thresher? Thresher the card shark?” It nodded again. Maybe it didn’t understand and just liked all the happy smiles the nodding produced. “Good friends are you?” I expected a nod, but this time it shook its head. “Do you know where I could find him?” A nod. We were in business.
It led me to a place not too different from Pete’s. Lots of places like that, with the gambling and all, don’t let cactus in since they never have no money, but this one got in just fine. It even waved to the man posted out front. All them bodies inside canvas walls had a unique odor, like pork slow-cooked inside a hollow loaf of stale bread. The walls didn’t do much to quiet the athundering of the horses, and the clattering of betting chips and the clinking of glass bottles only added to it.
While we squeezed through all the smoking, drinking, laughing bodies, the cactus leaving a trail of needled victims, the special trait of Galloposa gambling became obvious. The whole damn city shook so much that dice rolled themselves! They had to be held down to get a definite number!
It had seemed curious that the plant knew a man like Thresher, but it turned out to be coincidence. The plant were really friends with a pair of cactus dice. The sharp, square, little plants weren’t uncommon in gambling thanks to the added stakes of a sharp poke. It stopped by the table where they were being used and, I’m guessing, asked them where Thresher were in their language of nudging and needle rattling.
We were directed to a card table where we both took a seat. Our lack of hats betrayed our inexperience; every other man and woman round had a hat pulled down over their eyes so they couldn’t give anything away. They all hid their teeth too, behind stoic lips. The cactus helped me out one last time by growing some needles on the side of his face that pointed to one man in particular. He wore blue. The wide brim of his hat were serrated and edged in white stitches, like angry ocean waves gnawing at the shore, or like the pearly whites of a very particular fish.
“You Thresher?” I asked, straightforward-like.
“Win a hand, get an answer,” he growled. Never could stand men like that. You know the type; they think they’re bargaining devils that can trade sins for souls for succotash. Arguing would likely get me tossed out on my behind, so I took the cards I were dealt. The game were Stampeding Suits: kids’ stuff. Thresher and I wound up with equal hands and split the pot.
“Some people call me that,” he said.
“Would you be so kind as to tell me where I can find a man named Broadside Barnaby?”
“Win another hand and find out.”
“Don’t try to confuse me,” I warned. Everyone at the table looked my way, but not so much as to reveal their eyes from under their hats. “If I win this hand will you be telling me where Barnaby is… or will you be telling me whether or not you can tell me where he is?”
“He’s not a man,” Thresher said. “He’s a buffalo.”
“That does not sway me from my request.”
“If you can beat me in Aunty Up I’ll tell you where Barnaby is,” he challenged. I accepted. All the cards went back to the dealer. Aunty Up is a lot more complicated than Stampeding Suits; a cactus with two holes drilled in his head can win Suits. Aunty Up is a game for the kind of man who don’t mind paying his dues in fingers or earlobes. I heard tell once of a mayor who bet his entire town on a hand of Aunty Up. Everybody wound up getting run out of town when he lost so the winner could give the place to his hunting dog so it had a place to sleep.
We started to play. I held my own, but Thresher bore down hard. Even after I caught him using my cactus friend’s tell… The dumb plant never noticed it involuntarily grew quills on its left elbow equal to the value of the cards in its hand. Much as I hated to do it, I had to focus my efforts on getting it out first. After that I steadied a little more. We knocked out the man in green and the woman in purple. Then the man in hazel gave up. Just to be safe we even got the dealer disqualified. It came down to me and Thresher.
I had to bet my entire stockpile of train tickets. Thank the stars it were worth more than he had on him. That meant he had to resort to one of the more arcane rules of Aunty Up in order to match my bid. The old way the game is played, old enough to hate the new way but not so old that it lacks teeth, allows a player to surpass the idea of cards altogether and issue direct physical challenges. The sharky fella put his cards face down on the table.
“I bet you can’t steal these cards from me,” he wagered. I’d silently been preparing for inevitabilities like this, so I snapped my fingers. My pocket twister hopped out from twixt the man’s legs and blew the cards into the air. I snatched his hand. I’d already grown half a smile when I looked across the table and saw Thresher holding my cards. If he can pull off the wagers as well, he can make as many as he wants until one of us don’t measure up.
The next wager were spitting in a bewitched spittoon that wandered round on its own. My salivary aim were flawless ten times, as were his. When we were fresh out of spit we moved on. He took me outside. Finally he flashed them teeth of his, every bit as disturbing as I had anticipated. It might not be possible for a man to get truly accustomed to teeth like that, especially since I saw all the little red cuts on and round his lips. It were no wonder he preferred to gamble and speak so little; talking tore up his face.
His next challenge were a foot race from one end of Galloposa to the other. It were an excellent opportunity to see the sights of the caravan city. I only missed a few things here and there in the moments where my legs plunged twixt the wagons and nearily snapped like toothpicks. The race took us all the way from the smelly tail wagons where they shoveled the waste into the dust cloud they left behind, through the covered mushroom gardens, over the barrel-shaped fishing holes on wheels, under the chapels… during services no less, and even out on the backs of the horses pulling the city.
We ran out of city. Thresher were lying flat on his stomach on a regular-sized horse at the front of the herd. I were three horses east and one horse south. I might have mentioned that I know a little horse dancing, so I forgive you if you pictured me in a more dignified position than my foe. Here’s a professional bit of advice: horse dancing requires a willing horse of similar skill, same as any partner in regular old dancing. That I did not have. I were stuck rumbling back and forth on my stomach just as much as Thresher, both of us building up lovely seasick colors in our cheeks. He looked round, scrambling to find something else he could challenge me too. He spotted the Manifest asticking out of my pack.
“What’s that?” he asked. He tried to point and nearily tumbled off the unsaddled horse.
“It’s none of your dang business!” I shouted over the athundering hooves.
“The game is still on!” he yelled. A bump in the road made him cut his tongue on his own teeth; he spat blood my way. No matter where you’re from I reckon that reeks of disrespectizing. “I can challenge you over anything I wish! What is it?” he spat through his blood-fleckled teeth. He were sharp in one way and not so sharp in the weighty way, but he were correct. I pulled the volume out and held it up in the air.
“This is the Manifest of the West. It catches the greatest folks and holds them twixt the pages until they’re pressed flat as memories.” I don’t know if he heard all that over the din, my ears sure as Hell were pounding at that point, but there were an ember in his eye.
“What exactly do you do with a thing like that?”
“I do what it’s for, you teet-bashed no mustn’t use that language blasted imbecile! I catch the best! Or I will anyway… soon as you tell me where to find Barnaby!” The ember flared up. I got a bad feeling in my bubbling gut, even through the jostling of half the horses in the West.
“I challenge you to that! Capturing one of the best in the West!” He sneered. The horse he were on bucked him off. He managed to catch the back of another, but lost three of his sharp little teeth in the process.
“You first!” I shouted, but it did no good. He made the challenge, so I had to do it first. Then he would have to prove he could do it or give in to my demands. That meant I had to give up on Barnaby, pick another name out of the old girl, track them down and wrastle a signature out of them, come back and prove it to Thresher… just to get on Barnaby the buffalo’s scent.
Any way I played it Thresher would have plenty of time to escape. A quick glance alerted me to the presence of some very determined lawmen of Galloposa who were slowly crawling their way across the horse’s backs to get to us. Seems our race were a little too rowdy for the good people of the city. “You’ll be held to your words,” I promised Thresher. I meant it, but for now I had to escape Galloposa on account of not being able to wrastle anybody through sets of iron bars.
The front horse I climbed onto seemed nice enough. She let me detach her from the city’s ropes without a fight. The law men were so shaken they couldn’t fire a decent shot at us as we split from the path of the others and made our way for the nearest mountain. It looked like wilderness, but I saw smoke trails. I still had a hard time believing my backward glances… a whole city pulled across the frontier by nothing but determination and the sinew of a few fine beasts. I would’ve liked to visit under more hospitable circumstances. I had to admit I never would’ve seen such a sight if I’d taken them last few steps into the gaping maw of the grand devil’s lawn.
If I couldn’t get to Broadside Barnaby, who could I get to?
Continued in Part Two