(reading time: 1 hour, 2 minutes)
That were the story I told my pocket twister. It weren’t the most heartening, but I think confiding in him gave him some strength. He shook off most of that water and started looking more like his old self and less like a cloud constipated with rain.
Now you know whose soul I were collecting all them names for. I knew Pa weren’t at peace. He were still kept from Heaven and Hell in the ropes of Knot-eye, and the only way to get him back or get him to my mother were to obey the will of the Laudgod and eventually be rewarded. I had to be the man he told me to be, to conquer and dominate the West so thoroughly that nothing could stop me.
Sitting there, soaked to the bone in some wooden pocket deep under a river-sea’s edge, I realized I were close to unstoppable. After collecting so many legends it seemed likely I could even take on Knot-eye. Of course, Knot-eye were a ghost. His face could stay invisible forever if he ever happened to be scared of anything. None of that mattered; his name weren’t on the list. The Manifest of the West were for the living. Animals, devils, and ghosts did not qualify. The devils were allowed to sneak in and out on account of men needed temptations to resist, even if they couldn’t resist them. What purpose ghosts serve I don’t know. Personally I don’t think they deserve their own ethereal world that pokes in and out of ours like a needle, letting all the goodness leak out into an empty space. The will of the Laudgod. I weren’t there to make decisions.
I put little twister back in my pocket and pulled my aching body to its feet. That dam air bubble had a tunnel attached to it that I hoped would lead me into Dam Nation proper. I weren’t wrong. When that tunnel spat us out we were in the open, in the courtyard of some sort of wooden fort. Everything round us were soggy wood with the bark still attached; some of it even managed to grow leaves and look like bushes or trees. The sky were still overcast from the passing of the thunderbird, but it were gone. There were nothing to distract the townsfolk from the sight of a sopping wet Lionel Worthett strolling into town.
They looked at me with fear in their eyes. Women gasped. Children cried. Beavers dropped the twigs they carried and scurried for cover. In all the time I were an honest criminal I never got a reaction like that. Back when I were the bandit I got looks of revulsion more than fear. They weren’t scared of me now, just what I represented: the flaming sword of the Laudgod come to punish them who manage to overstep his bounds even in an endless West.
“I’m looking for-”
“We know who you’re looking for!” A man interrupted me. “We’re not giving her to you!” A part of me wished his defiance were mine. I missed the days of going up against long odds and acoming out of it astretched a little longer myself. Some of the others joined him in protest. They clumped up and tried to hide their faces behind each other just in case I decided to fire into the crowd to quiet them. I wouldn’t have done that, I swear. My guns would only get pulled if they attacked me, and even then I might let them get a few shots in before I resorted to it. I’d gotten so many black eyes at that point that the dark blush were becoming my natural color.
“I know who you’re after as well,” a woman’s voice shouted over all the others. They went quiet. I whirled round and looked up to see a figure stood on one of the fort’s walls, arms crossed on her chest. “You’ve found her.” There were no mistaking Nelly from Dam Nation; only she could look that comfortable in clothing made largely from sticks. The only parts of her not covered were her face and hands. She wore a stick hat with a wide brim going all the way round. The soles of her boots, which I could see as the tips of her feet hung off the edge, were lined with round river rocks the color of graveyard mist. There were neat streaks of the river-sea’s mineral-rich mud across her cheeks as war paint. One of her critter friends must have warned her I were on my way.
“I’ve got something for you to sign,” I tried to say as humbly as possible. I pulled out the Manifest rather than my guns. Believe it or not, one name in thirty signed themselves over without a fight. A couple were even happy to do it. They asked me what could be better than being a legend. I had no answer for them. Nelly were not one of them folks.
“What’s it going to take for you to put that book down and never pick it up again?” she asked from her perch. She brushed her long, black, wet hair away from her face so I could look into them piercing pupils of hers. She were nearing fifty but I’ll be damned if she weren’t intimidating and beautiful at the same time. “We’ve got gold aplenty. Any of my citizens would give themselves up as sacrifice to be your husband or wife if it meant protecting me. A homestead maybe? I can have the furry ones build you a mansion in a matter of days.”
“There’s no swaying me Miss.”
“I can get you dark amber syrup from the desert-eating tree.”
“I can get you bullets that crawl back into your guns after firing.”
“Them would only be helpful if I ever missed.”
“You’re going to do this then?”
“Fine. You’re dammed.” Nelly kicked a thick stick rising out of the wood to her side. It triggered a hidden mechanism under my feet, breaking the wood and dropping me twenty feet down into a dark chamber. The only cushion I had to land on were the Manifest. It weren’t particularly soft. I barely had time to look up; Nelly dropped through the hole screaming like a raven and wielding a stick big enough and thick enough to skewer me and roast me over a fire.
I blocked her first blow by holding out my elbows. The pain were immediate and excruciating; I’d never felt somebody that size hit so hard in my life. She had the strength of two buffalo who’d been stalemated in an arm wrastling match for a year. Twigs rained down on us from the edge of the hole as her citizens leaned over to take a look. Nelly pulled her stick back and spun it in a circle as she paced round me.
“If you’d just let me explain you might not be so hostile,” I said. She looked at me and told me exactly how much explaining she needed out of my mouth.
“In my nest, you rest upon the manifest of the best in the west, part of a blessed test at the behest of the divinest.”
“You guessed!” I spat back.
“I know all about the story you’re writing Lionel, and I’m not in it.” I pulled my pistols on her and fired a few shots. She spun that big old stick faster than a windmill in a hurricane and blocked all of them. She brought the end of it down like a hammer on another invisible switch disguised like every other piece of bark in Dam Nation. The wood I were on collapsed at an angle and rolled me to an even lower arena where I were forced to splash about in ankle-high water.
“I’m not the author!” I shouted, having lost her during the fall. With that brown cloak of hers she could’ve been anywhere. “You know who that is and you know if it’s not me it’ll be somebody else.”
“As if that’s an excuse!” She exploded up from under me and tripped me with her stick, but I landed on my feet this time. I put one hand on the hammer of my left pistol and fanned it while I pulled the trigger. The other gun, held at an angle, fired along with its sibling, creating a cone of fire that trapped her in the middle. I stopped when there were exactly one bullet left in each.
“Let me ask you something,” I said once I’d gotten her to stop jumping round. “You made me offers. Can I have the privilege of offering you something in exchange for your name?”
“You mean my life cowboy?”
“Yes Miss. Your life.”
“What could you possibly have to offer?”
“That depends on what you want.”
“There’s nothing I desire. I need to put you in the ground here and now because there’s something I need to do before I go anywhere, even into legend.”
“Tell me. I could do it for you. I’ve got the time. I once helped a man redirect a river to get his name on the list. It took me two years of back-breaking labor. I needed another for my back to heal.”
“I suppose there’s no harm in telling you,” Nelly said. She lowered her stick, but backed out of reach and never took her eyes from my guns. The beavers watched too, a thousand of them from every wooden shelf in that wet pit, their little eyes shining like stars through a smoky sky. I were stepping in bones; I think it were the beavers’ burial ground. I didn’t mean no disrespect; it were Nelly who dropped me there in the first place. “I can’t leave my nation to fend for itself, not until its greatest threat is handled.”
“What threat would that be?”
“I’ve sworn a bloody oath to destroy Jessie’s bearavan,” she said.
“What had you swear an oath?”
“Jessie, that witch, burned the first nation I tried to build. She killed hundreds. She once told me she’d come back when she felt like it and destroy Dam Nation. Until I defend it from her, I won’t acquiesce to the likes of you and I don’t care how many gods have their hands on your shoulder or their fingers swirling around in your soul.”
“It’s just me in here,” I said calmly, but in truth I didn’t know if she were right or wrong. What I did know were that the fight were over. I put my guns away.
“What’re you doing?” she asked me.
“You’re going to sign your name over Nelly, on account of Jessie and her bearavan can’t do anything to Dam Nation.”
“How do you know that?”
“On account of Jessie’s bearavan is in the Manifest of the West.”
The Tangent of Jessie’s Bearavan
My search started with an unusual question: where do you stop when your bears need fed? The answer were Marshall Lee Vawn’s exotic feed wholesaler. It were a strange place in a northern part of the West, on account of the cold helping to preserve a lot of the food. It were snowing lightly the day I showed up there. Marshall Lee Vawn were an old friend of mine (back when his title of Marshall were legitimate he arrested me and I talked my way out of it). He wrapped me in a big hug and insisted he give me a personal tour of his business.
The feed lot were full of piles of things that might’ve been very strange to people who had seen less of the West. They probably couldn’t identify the pile of blue chili peppers the size of two haystacks as the parasite plants from the endless maize field. Or the mountain of red seeds as the product of the flame pumpkin. When I saw the mound of dried salmon I knew I were in the right place.
Marshall took me indoors. There were a noisy crowd filling up the place. While he sold his feed in bulk, lots of his customers only had two or four animals to feed, so they came in person and drew their critters right up to a trough that spanned the length of the building. One of the former Marshall’s only rules were that the animal had to be tame enough or smart enough to not leave no waste on his floor.
He knew why I were there, so I excused myself now that the tour were over and started slowly walking behind the trough, examining everything that were feeding. I had my hat pulled down over my eyes so none of the owners could see them. Every animal you could ever conceive of riding were there, with the exception of the most normal ones: moose, dairy cows, alligators, giant roadrunners, and even the ones I were looking for.
I stopped in front of part of the trough that were filled with a mix of salmon, nuts, and fresh pulped berries. Six bears had their greedy snouts buried in it, occasionally roaring at each other when they tried to nose in on a spot that weren’t theirs. Two of them were white snow bears, two were fat grizzlies, and the last two were skinnier blacks. That were the exact make-up of bears I’d heard about when asking round about Jessie. She were a criminal unlike the sort I used to be. Where I simply took money, Jessie took that and all the hope she could carry. She destroyed homes and farms for fun, sometimes even entire towns if anybody insulted her bears. A couple stories suggested she had been raised by one, which would make a lovely little detail in her eventual legend.
My hat tilted up ever so slightly so I could take in the details behind the bouncing bottoms of the feasting bears. They were all harnessed up to an armored wagon with spikes on its spokes. There were no other animals backed up behind her, on account of nobody dared get that close. She had a whole lane to herself, something I reckon almost never happened at Lee Vawn’s. The varmint herself were seated atop the wagon, legs crossed over one another, red hair blazing just like her shirt, and a thistle hanging out of her mouth the way a normal cowpoke sucks on hay. I shudder to imagine what kind of things a woman who sucks on thistles eats on a regular basis… probably things that would make even her bears gag. I cleared my throat.
“What do you want stranger?” Jessie asked bitingly. I think if she weren’t surrounded by animals that might panic at the sound of the shot she might’ve just pulled her gun on me and given me one to the heart to shut me up.
“You don’t know me?”
“People’s faces all look the same to me. You’re one of the ones that’s not so ugly; that’s all I know.” She took a better look at me. “That and you’re wearing yellow… so there must be something wrong with your brain.”
“Some would say I’ve changed these colors.” Call me an egotist, but she were the first one in a while brazen enough to insult my clothes.
“What you mean? They used to be white but you got scared and pissed yourself yellow?” She snorted at her own joke, a snort that turned into a laugh near powerful enough to roll her off the side of her wagon.
“My name is Lionel Worthett.” She stopped laughing. Her bears stopped eating. All six of them looked at me, the berry pulp in their snout fur suddenly looking a lot like fresh blood. Their big paws started backing up slowly, pushing the wagon away from the trough. Jessie stood up and spat out her thistle. I hopped down over the trough and walked forward slowly, letting her talk while her bears did the prudent thing and backed her out of the building. That were the point we started drawing significant attention. I didn’t hear the smacking of lips anymore. Most of the animals were so quiet I didn’t even hear them aruminating.
“You’ve got no business with me,” she insisted.
“Your name is in this here document.” I pulled my shirt to the side a bit and flashed the Manifest.
“Then the Laudgod has erred. I’m too big to fit in that wee book.”
“You don’t look so big to me. What are you? 166 pounds?” Our slow walk had us out the door now. They pulled the gates closed behind us. Now it were just the two of us, the bears, the snow too afraid to fall on her shoulders, and the piles of dried food growing whiter by the minute.
“That wasn’t what I meant! The West is mine more than it’s his. Everything I’ve done can’t fit in anything he’s made. That’s why this West is busting at the seams, overflowing with stories of Jessie and her mighty bears!”
“If you’re so sure, just sign your name. If you’re right, nothing will occur and I’ll let you go on your way.”
“You don’t let me do anything! I let you! Get him!” She stomped once on the wagon, sending the bears into a frenzy. They bounded forward. Jessie probably had a little experience horse dancing, or bear dancing maybe, on account of the jostling didn’t knock her onto her bottom; she just continued standing at the front like a ship’s figurehead and pulled out a shotgun.
I would’ve taken cover, if there were any cover to take. As it stood I had but one option: shoot her shots out of the air. Now a shotgun like hers is loaded with tiny pellets, so I had to be careful to not waste no rounds on ones that were going to spread away from me. I pulled my guns in time to hear her fire. Six pellets headed for my neck and chest. You might not believe I could fire fast enough to take them all out, and you’d be mostly wrong. One hit me in the shoulder and stained me red, but there were bigger toothier things to worry about.
The bears were on me, so I dropped backward and grabbed some of the straps keeping them bound to the wagon. Stuck underneath them they couldn’t get a good angle for a nibble. I pulled their straps as hard as I could to the left, forcing all six of them to veer to the side. She swore at the bears, calling them blasted idiots, as the wagon rode straight into a mound of top turnips. (They’re called that on account of the way they, if you do it just right, spin on their tips for hours.) A few of them rolled away and got going across the ground.
Lost in a swirl of big bodies slamming into each other, I swam through them root vegetables until I found fresh air. The pile were shaking and shifting as the bears tried to do the same. A black bear head and a snow bear popped up first, tangled in their reins. They tried to swim towards me, but they just made the tangling worse. One of them were pulled back in by the struggling of another, and that happened three or four times until Jessie’s head came up instead of a bear’s.
She locked eyes with me and readied another shot, but it weren’t from her gun. I heard her preparing a big old glob of spit for my face. It fired out of her with near the same speed as her pellets but, as I had already demonstrated, I were faster on the draw. I lifted the Manifest out of the pile of vegetables and flipped it open. Her spit, thick with bits of thistle, landed across the page. I’m not sure how, but it turns out spit is unique to each man and woman, same as blood or finger swirls. The stain on the page confined itself to the shape of a signature.
Jessie screamed, the sound getting pulled along with the rest of her onto the page. When she were gone the turnips settled to fill the void she’d left behind. Once she were firmly in legend, her bears seemed very confused as to what they were doing there. I helped untangle them. Animals can remember you, but they got no sense of mythology, so there were nothing for them to remember. Each of them went their separate ways, like they’d never known each other or shared a trough. Nobody would miss Jessie, but seeing them split up like that were sad in its own way.
I thought the next time I saw a spider that knew how to sew, I’d ask it and its friends to keep an eye out for them bears and maybe make them something warm, should they ever need it.
“So you see Nelly, there isn’t anything Dam Nation needs protecting from. Don’t worry. Your people won’t forget you. I’ve seen this a few times. In fact, they’ll only forget the bad things.” She looked at me, sort of defeated. Defeated might not be the best word. Resigned might be more fitting. If I could take out Jessie, then there were no question at all that I would eventually get her. She could go with dignity, or she could go spitting and screaming.
“I want them to see me go,” she said. I were happy to oblige her. She reached down and helped me out of that stick-filled mire and together we climbed back up to the wooden streets of Dam Nation. A crowd gathered round. She told them she were going, but she would still be with them in every stick of that place. As long as man and beaver had an accord on the edge of that river-sea, Nelly’s work lived on.
She took up a pencil from a little girl who offered one. It still had bark on it, along with a few tiny gnaw marks. I silently opened the Manifest to the next empty line. Nelly leaned forward and scratched her name onto the paper. Never had I heard such a loud scratch of a pencil; it were like an entire tree being dragged across the face of a mountain. With a hundred people round it were the only sound.
Nelly were not evil; the Laudgod rewarded her for that by giving her a more elegant sendoff. Instead of having her body turned to vapor and sucked down into her signature, she started to grow. She grew up more than ten feet high and struck a victorious pose with one hand on her hip. The wooden pencil became a thick walking stick, the kind which were her weapon of choice. She smiled under that stick hat of hers and the smile froze into stone along with the rest of her. A pedestal grew out of the wood underneath her, complete with a plaque of gold. It read: Nelly, the spirit of this Dam Nation.
Everyone round instantly forgot she were real, but not that she were important. They dropped to their knees round the statue out of reverence. They whispered prayers and wishes to her. If I had to pick a way to go, transformicating into a statue commemorating myself seemed pleasant enough. It’s probably second only to going in sleep with a loving woman by your side.
I were a stranger to them once again, so I were allowed to quietly take my leave. A polite young beaver escorted me out. The good ones were harder.
The Legend of Anna-Lucia the Twirling Rider
This story starts with capturing a man named Bulleted Lidst, but he were such a pain in my hide that I’m not interested in giving him a full underlined title. I’m not even going to bother setting the stage for him; he’s just going to be the stage setting for Anna-Lucia and my good friend Sagebrush.
Granted Lidst didn’t have the easiest life, but that’s no excuse for turning into one of the deadliest killers the West ever saw. His bullets struck so hard that your corpse could land in Hell much deader than it were supposed to be. What filled him with so much hate? My guess is it were the three bullets permanently embedded in his chest. He used to be in a gang with three others, but they double-crossed him one day for his share of a recent robbery, and each of them took equal responsibility for it by planting one bullet in him.
What they weren’t counting on were his survival. Lidst’s spite were mighty powerful and it nourished him better than all the blood he lost anyway. When he came to he didn’t even bother seeking medical attention; he went straight to a tattooer and had the names of each of his cohorts inked into his skin, right next to their bullet point hole, creating his first list of victims. After he’d crossed them off he moved on to anybody that would hire him. Eventually his services became so exorbitantly expensive that he went in search of the richest lands in the known West: the Rolling Lands.
That were where I found him. The Rolling Lands are full of riches, but not easily tapped on account of them resources have a will of their own and often ball up and roll to try and get away from you. Or crush you. Think of them like tumblewheats, only a lot bigger and heavier. The Rolling Lands have a hundred valuable things that can crush you, from boulders full of diamonds to lodestones rich with silver. I chased Lidst into a field of permanently rolling rocks, and a few other things, on the fifth day of our fire exchange. Neither of us had landed a shot yet, but the sun were high and I were getting fed up with the chase. I were more than ready to get him on my list and move on.
Going into the rollers were suicide; at least that were what I’d hoped when I had him cornered on a ledge above the colliding boulders. We were both weary from the fight, our skin glistening with sweat as the sun beat down on us. He were wearing a silky blue shirt made of fabric so fine I wondered if Sara’s spiders sewed for him too. It were open down the middle and I could see the names listed down his chest. I wondered if I’d be hunting them if Lidst hadn’t already handled them.
“Give it up,” I told him, trying not to let the exhaustion show; resisting the urge to have my pocket twister blow cool air in my face were even harder than fighting.
“Are you really willing to risk your life for the Laudgod’s list? There are better ones out there,” he said.
“I need this one.”
“Let’s see how much.” Lidst stepped backwards off the ledge and landed on a sandstone boulder about five times his size. It had places to be, so it started rolling away from me. It became apparent the man had led me there on purpose, on account of him looking very experienced back-stepping and keeping his balance atop it. I remembered my horse dancing as best I could and followed him, ahopping on the nearest boulder myself. The problem were that the boulders never traveled in the same direction like fish; they moved like marbles in a shaking sieve.
In order to pursue I were forced to jump from rolling rock to rolling rock, a feat made more difficult by Lidst taking shots at me with his repeater. If he tripped and got himself crushed my problem would only be temporarily solved. A man strong as that would undoubtedless fight his way out of Hell and terrorize the West again. There were a couple who took that route, failing to realize that I could sample the blood from their body for the Manifest and catch their souls before they even made it to the head devil’s groveling rug. Recovering a sample from twixt the rocks wouldn’t be easy though; it might’ve cost me years of waiting.
He weren’t too keen on spending any time in Hell, so the chase were on. Across the valley we hopped and ran, with no flat ground for purchase. Aside from a few spires of rock, it were nothing but the rolling things as far as the eye could see. There were one rolling thing however that stuck out like the sorest of thumbs. Its colors were lush green and young yellow. Its edges had soft curved leaves all round. It were about twice the size of a house and at its center were a shimmering ball of crystal clear water.
I’d heard tell of such a thing. Some said it were a bit of land pinched off the West as it expanded, something that knew it were supposed to keep moving. My money’s on it being a simple aberration of nature like a two-headed calf or a three-eyed duck. Brought down to a reasonable size you would call it a tumbleweed, but certainly a special one. Lidst saw its leafy glory as cover for his escape, so he made his way toward it. As we drew closer it became obvious it were inhabited, with dozens of small varmints and birds crawling round on its surface and under its branches. Fish could be seen in the jewel of water at its core. It were a perfect little habitat that sustained itself: the oasis tumbleweed.
Lidst leapt from the last rock and took up big handfuls of it. He rolled up to the top. I couldn’t see that high without getting on so I had You see where this is going. I were on it quickly. It didn’t slow down on account of us. With it being so soft I didn’t want to risk trying to walk across the top, so I had to find another way. It were half-hollowed in the middle, sort of like a wheel if the water were the center, so I put my back against the inside of the plant and waited for any clue as to his location. The spinning made me awful dizzy, but it were fast enough that I could go upside down without falling. I remember thinking that must’ve been what life were like for my twister: spinning without end.
All of a sudden I spotted Lidst rolling on the opposite side. I think he were too dizzy to move himself at that point. The spinning force made it mighty hard to lift one of my guns, but I managed it. I pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. That were new. I opened it up and saw all my bullets were gone; I had just reloaded and there were no way they spun out of there.
A chipmunk crawled down my pants into the fibers of the oasis weed. It stuck its little head in my direction, showing off its full cheeks. Its mouth opened a little and I saw a brassy shine. My bullets. Lead-cheeked little rascal. It must’ve thought they were nuts of gold or some such dumb animal idea. If I’ve learned anything about this here West it’s this: for every spider that’ll spin you a hat there’s a chipmunk that’ll steal your bullets.
Lidst were bound to regain his composure and put a repeater round twixt my eyes any moment, so I had to act. I put my legs under me and dove straight through the spherical pond twixt us. The water stung like ice and instantly pulled all the grime off of me. A fish tail slapped me on the nose, but that were not enough to deter my trajectory. I pierced the other side and landed right on top of Lidst, ripping open the Manifest and pushing it towards his face; I were hoping to get a little of his spittle on the page.
He put his hands up to block the book, but it did him no good on account of the gunpowder on his fingertips. A trip through the floating pond behind us would’ve taken care of that for him, but maybe he were averse to awashing. The powder left a smudged print on the page, one it gladly accepted as a signature. Lidst lost his material and got sucked into his name.
Before going through the center of the weed I thought getting out of the Rolling Lands were going to be a monumental task in its own right, but not after. You see I spotted something in all that wetness: a portal. The fish had to be acoming from somewhere right? Anywhere that could sustain them were more hospitable than the land of bumping boulders.
You know, now that I ‘ve thought on it, maybe the oasis tumbleweed were a bit of the growing West pinched off. That might explain the portal: a connection to its point of origin. Honestly I didn’t ask for any explanation at the time; the West is full of holes and any that aren’t full of venomous stings or Hellfire are good ones. It seems a lot like my two guns, forever bound in a way that distance can’t cleave. You could fire one of them at the top of Mount Fullbore and the other one would pull its hammer at the bottom of Lake Nobottom.
The portal were as wet and cold as the rest of the water. I thought it would spin me even faster than the rolling of the weed, but instead everything were still. It felt like I were in the cold part of the sky where snowflakes are sculpted. There were something sun-like in the distance, so I swam for it. Before I got there I broke the surface of a calm sea and found sand under my boots. I tasted salt, so there were none of this confusing river or sea business. This were a sea.
Wherever it were, I’d never been there before. It declared itself strange right away on account of there were a building on the beach, built as if the sand underneath it were a perfectly fine bedrock that would never shift. It were a train station. Where does a train from a beach go? If you guessed inland you’re dead wrong. It’s alright; I would’ve guessed the same.
It were as busy as a normal station, with folks waiting round on benches and checking their pocket watches. A quick glance at one of them showed not the time, but the tides. That were my first good clue. I dragged my sopping self along, asking people where the lines went, but they must’ve thought me a vagrant as none would answer. Wherever in the West this were, my stories hadn’t yet reached. One woman even held her nose at the sight of me even though I’d just been thoroughly cleaned by a magic portal. I were probably cleaner than her! You can’t tell people that of course; it’s a quick way to get thrown in with the loonies and the head-buriers.
Since they wouldn’t help I went to the ticket counter. It were unattended, so I planted my elbows on it and waited. I rang the little bell, but it weren’t working. At this point all the dogged tiredness built up by fighting Lidst hit me and I nearily fell over; the ticket counter were the only thing to catch me. Just when I were looking drunk as a skunk, the clerk appearified in front of me.
“Where are you headed?” he asked in a voice that said he’d rather marry a dead crawfish than work there.
“I don’t know,” I said honestly. “Where do these trains go?”
“Only one train,” he said. “It’s going across the water. The station’s closing down after that. Permanently.” I didn’t want to sound stupider than I looked, so I didn’t ask how a train were supposed to cross an ocean.
“If there’s only one train, how come you asked me where I were headed?”
“It’s just what I’m supposed to say.” There were a clopping sound; the man looked at the window next to mine and his expression went rancid. “You’re still here,” he said to the other customer. “I told you I’m not selling you a ticket. Get going. Shoo.” I looked over. He were a horse: a scrawny gray-blue horse with sad eyes like squishy plums, no mane, and no tail. He whinnied in frustration and stamped his hoof again.
“Why can’t this fella have a ticket?” I asked.
“His hooves will ruin the train’s floor,” the clerk insisted. “Whose paycheck do you think that’ll come out of?” I looked at the horse again. He looked at the end of his reins, no chomp left in his bit if you know what I mean. His flank had three or four brands on it, all overlapping each other. Only the crueler places in the West brand horses. Them are the kinds of places where the sun always burns red and women always die in childbirth.
Spreading a little joy were bound to restore some of my own energy, so I whistled. A bunch of spiders crawled out from every little spot in the place. I asked them to kindly provide some assistance. They crawled down the horse’s legs and knitted him four simple socks before returning to their cracks and webs.
“There, now there’s no reason he can’t come,” I said. The clerk mumbled something about fleas in the seat cushions, but one stern look put him off that. The horse handed over his money and the man gave him a ticket. I bought one as well; I had to leave that beach at some point. At that time almost everybody moved out of the building and onto the platform to wait. The engine were already there, but there were no tracks in neither direction. Remember that I’d tumbled out of a magic pond in a giant rolling tumbleweed not ten minutes prior, so I were fine to wait and see.
I shuffled up next to that horse while we were waiting and initiated some of that small talk. I’d been on the lookout for a good horse for a while. Most of them turned me down on account of the Hellmouth that were still afollowing me. Any time it attacked my campsite it had ample opportunity to swallow up the horse on account of them being slow to their feet.
“Rough times partner?” He blew hot air out his nose in response. “Tell me about it. Listen… You got something waiting for you on the other side of this here moisture?” His ears dropped. “You got a name?” He told me it were Sagebrush, not with words of course. That would be the greatest absurdism of all. It were the look in his eye that told me. It were a look of loss that told the story of a nation of horses, corralled and broken until they were only good for pulling turnip carts. His eyes told me his mother were so starved she could only make enough milk to keep him alive, and not enough to help him grow a mane and tail. She died shortly after that.
“I’m in need of a horse…” I said, but he walked away as soon as I said it, to the other end of the platform. I asked too soon; I’ve always been overly forward with horses. That’s why my horse dancing instructor always told me I were one left foot and one left hoof.
With my hopes of saddling up dashed, I turned my attention to the engine. Its construction were like something out of a fancy kitchen with its square funnel in front of the smoker and this big thing on top of it that resembled a potato peeler. The whole thing were aimed straight towards the lapping waves, with no land visible on the other side. A red glow fired up. Something rose out of the funnel like a fiddlehead. It flattened out and went through the peeler, which kept it straight. It curled down in front of the engine and cooled on the wet sand. It kept unfurling, a big curve in front of the locomotive, until it were putting down twin lines of metal across the top of the shallows. The train were producing and laying its own track, not twenty feet in front of its wheels.
“All aboard! Let the sinners stay!” the conductor shouted. People started piling in. I found his pronouncement mighty confusing, on account of all of us being sinners in the Laudgod’s eyes. If the sinners had to stay I certainly weren’t allowed on. In the end I reasoned that if the Laudgod didn’t want me on that train he’d strike me down, so I hopped on, the last one aboard. The train pulled out of the station and out into the water, laying track as it went. I expected the cars to rattle, but all were calm. That ocean were weaker than the metal. It were a very weak ocean, almost like it were dead.
As the last one aboard I had to move along each row looking for an empty seat. There were no room next to the man with the twenty gallon hat. No room next to the lady with her twin little girls who were fighting over a stuffed thorny angel. No room next to Sagebrush, unless I wanted my toes crushed by annoyed hooves the entire time. No room next to the little man in orange. I stopped in the aisle, about to look at his face a second time when I heard an explosion.
Everyone turned their heads to see the station we’d just left raining round the beach. Somebody blew it up! The explosives were fierce, with red fire some thirty feet high and a blast that made the front door a round hole in the wall. The fire died down shockingly swift, almost instantly. Everyone aboard cheered and clapped, though their energy were lacking. Their hands sounded more like dead fish smacking together than earnest applause.
“Back to his eyeballs,” the little man in orange said. Someone clapped him on the shoulder, commending him for a job well done. He stroked his black stubble with stubby fingers. I saw blasting powder under his nails.
“What do you mean by that?” I asked him. He looked up at me like I had no business ever opening my mouth. He had mean little bulging eyes.
“The other side,” he said, pointing a finger the size of a grasshopper toward the engine. “We’ll be back under the Laudgod’s eyeballs.”
“You mean to say… the Laudgod couldn’t see that shore?”
“Where’d you come from that you don’t know that?”
“I fell off an applecart and hit my head,” I lied. “Don’t recall too much.”
“The Laudgod couldn’t see anything back there. Fool made the West too big; he can’t keep eyes on all of it. When his eyes aren’t there, things don’t go right: crops stop growing, wombs stop producing, rain stops falling, even the fire dies in a flash. This train’s taking us back to his golden eyebeams. Now go sit down before anything else falls out of your head.” He tapped the double-barreled gun at his side; it were nearily as stubby as him. I picked up my feet and kept looking for a seat, but my mind were hard at work on something else.
The little man in orange were familiar, thus necessitating that second look at his face. I didn’t know him from experience, just description. There’s a part of the West where crime were so bad that there weren’t no room left for wanted posters. The people who lived there took to memorizing faces down to the last detail. One of them told me about the mean-eyed little face on that train. His name were Shorty Fuse, and he needed to go in the Manifest.
A demolitioner by trade, Shorty were the West’s dynamite expert; he practically ate the stuff for breakfast. Judging from the things said to him in that train car, he were hired to blow up the station once everybody were on their way out. What would be the point to such an act if no one would ever build there again? Closure were my guess. People like to think that once they leave a place it don’t exist anymore. Things are simpler that way. It lets you leave the trapper’s woods without thinking about all them little beavers and muskies with snapped necks.
I were thinking about the best way to collect his name when my nose smashed into the glass of the last car. There were an empty seat to my left, so I took it. That were probably the worst place in all the West to run into Shorty. He were armed, aboard a train full of innocent people, out over an ocean with no route of escape. One hole in the bottom, which could be caused by, say, a stick of expertly tossed or placed dynamite, could send them all to a much worse bottom.
The Tangent of Shor
Actually, the attempt to capture Shorty is a slithery story that goes right into Anna-Lucia, so I shouldn’t bother wasting lines on framing. All of these elements fit neatly together, as if they were legends before I even got there.
The answer to my conundrum came later than I’d like to admit. The train had been achugging strong for nearily three hours; there were no land in sight in any direction. There were an albatross flying by, but none of the birds with tinier wings that indicated closer nests. The waves were pathetic, even smaller than they were on the shore. The sun’s light looked fine at first glance, but then you saw its reflection in the ocean. The light were so weak the second time round it were barely visible on the water.
That spot, right there, were even less in the Laudgod’s line of sight than the shore. Just like Shorty were saying, all the energies were diminished. That meant, at least I hoped it meant, that any explosives he carried would be nearily useless, like the popping of soap bubbles. Of course that also meant my bullets would hit with all the power of dandelion fluff in the breeze. This did not present as a problem, on account of Shorty were a diminutive sort and I could hold my own against a buffalo in fisticuffs/hooficuffs.
The albatross weren’t getting no younger, so I stood up and walked my way back to Shorty’s car, which coincidentally were the car of Sagebrush. It seemed I were in luck; the train’s staff had passed out a bit of a meal for the travelers. Shorty were licking a rock salt candy, the fiend had skipped right to dessert, while everybody else had bread and cheese. Sagebrush had himself a stick of celery nearily as long as Shorty were tall.
The luck came in the form of a used napkin sitting by Shorty’s elbow. It were crumpled and stained, leading me to assume he had wiped his mouth on it. All I had to do were walk by, snag the napkin, and rub it on a page of the Manifest. If even the tiniest bit of his spit were in it, he would be gone.
I grabbed it from under his nose and dramatically smashed it onto the Manifest, making a sound loud enough to draw the attention of the whole car. He looked at me, his rock salt candy dropping into his lap and a rope of brown drool afollowing it. Nothing happened. I flipped the napkin onto the other side and tried again. Still nothing.
“What in the name of the sappy serpent are you doing?” Shorty asked me, one hand round his gun. Sagebrush stopped crunching his celery. Even the horse’s eyes were on my foolishness.
“You… you didn’t wipe your mouth on this here napkin did you?”
“No I did not. I used it to wipe the grease off my boot.”
“You wouldn’t mind signing this here document for me would you friend?”
“Well I’m a big fan of your bombastic disruption of the solidness of large objects. I’d like an autograph.” Realization dawned on the man’s face. My stories hadn’t reached that shore, but they’d reached him.
“Lionel Worthett!” he shrieked and pulled his gun before I could go for mine. I looked straight down the barrels and saw a bit of reddish-brown and a fuse. His gun were loaded with sticks of dynamite.
“There’s no need for all that,” I reasoned. “The Laudgod’s not looking. Them two little sticks in there won’t even make enough smoke to get a cough out of me.”
“That would be true, if I weren’t smart enough to make a few extra-concentrated sticks for the occasions when I visit such an accursed place.” He took aim. I had not considered that possibility. I ran. Shorty gave chase; I heard his silly little footsteps behind me.
Eventually I ran out of train and found myself backed up against the mechanism producing our tracks. It were steaming and puffing, that big curl of metal unfurling above me the whole time. I tried to reason with the man; I told him he couldn’t shoot me so close to the engine or he would strand us all out there. He said he didn’t care, that he could swim the whole way if he had to. I had no idea if he were lying.
He were about to shoot when we heard the strange sound of socked hooves across a train floor. Shorty whirled round to see Sagebrush charging toward him. He ducked and covered his head, but the horse leapt right over him and to my side. He had something in his mouth, a scrap of paper with a little squiggly writing on it.
“Hey!” Shorty cried. “I gave you that autograph horse! You can’t go giving it to anybody else! Especially not that yellow devil!” Sagebrush nudged me with his nose. I popped open the Manifest, snagged the scrap, dropped it twixt two pages, and slammed it shut. It weren’t on the Manifest, just in it, but apparently that were good enough. Shorty’s legs were taken out from under him by the magic and he were dragged toward me.
Not one to leave without causing a little trouble, he fired off both sticks of dynamite just before his gun became imaginous vapor. Both of them dropped into the track mechanism, where we could not reach. I yelled for Sagebrush to take cover. I squeezed myself under a seat while he ran back the way he came. It blew. Fire and metal were utterly mixed up, burning and cutting in equal measure. I shielded my face with the Manifest’s invulnerable cover. The destruction died down quickly, but the mechanism were ruined.
In no time at all I were surrounded by the conductor and everybody else aboard the train. They blamed me and I couldn’t blame them. A woman with a face redder than a tomato and arms that could crush a tortoise shell asked me how I planned on getting them the rest of the way. Her husband drew a pistol. A couple more guns and a coal shovel showed up. Now in a fight with the entire train I would put my odds at fifty of them per-cents, but Sagebrush saved me from having to fulfill that calculation.
He ambled through everybody, parting them like wheat. Something about his haggard face, drooping neck, and muffled hoofsteps made everybody respect his presence. He inspected the track-making mechanism; there were nothing left but a shrapnel blossom with a center of molten metal. However it worked, it managed to make tracks out of that liquid steel. Sagebrush whipped himself up a plan.
The horse lifted one foot and dipped the tip of it into the mix. He were one tough checkernut about it; it didn’t seem to burn him at all. His socks were gone in an instant, but I think the spiders would’ve understood. He repeated the process with all four of his feet, everyone transfixed by the brilliant beleaguered stallion. It weren’t obvious at first, but then he moved to the side of the car that had been blown up when the dynamite went.
Sagebrush dropped one foot out onto the ocean’s surface and it stuck. Of course. If that metal could make tracks that could hold up a whole train, then four new horse shoes should have no problem holding up Sagebrush. He trotted round on the wimpy waves, showing everybody how safe it were.
Unfortunately, in that time the metal cooled and became solid. With the engine destroyed we had not the heat in anything round to melt it again. Perhaps with time we could’ve chiseled the block of it out of the train and used it as a raft, but we would’ve starved to death by then. It were up to Sagebrush to finish everyone’s journey. Obviously it were women and children first. He took the weight of two women, one of them beefier than a buffalo at a barbecue, and three children like it were nothing. Like the weight of knowing what he knew and seeing what he’d seen were a hundred times greater.
He galloped away on the water and the rest of us waited. Eight hours it took him to return. The people had been dropped off and he’d come back with several sacks of food tied to his back. They were to be our rations until he’d finished carrying everybody. While he took the next group, I ate an apple. The next, a pear. The next, some salt pork. The next, a wedge of cheese. The next, back to the apples.
Don’t think me a glutton just stuffing his face. I were biding my time. I were overly forward with Sagebrush back at the station and it weren’t until he crossed a sea that I realized how much I needed him. Here were a horse with no equivalent. If the Manifest of the West were for animals, his name would be on it. I needed to convince him I were the type with patience, the type who would show him proper respect.
When he took the last four men there were no room for me. I waved them away. Alone aboard the stranded train, unable to drift on account of the tracks and the weak current, I had to think about my predicament. I don’t like thinking about it. When I have to stop crossing the West, in search of my names, my spit, and my blood, my mind goes back to the thoughts that put me in front of that Hellmouth. I think about my pa and where he’s trapped. I think about my mother, alone in Heaven and doomed to stay that way on account of the love of her life is trapped and her son is in Hell. I did some crying while there were salty water round to catch and hide it.
Being a legend hunter isn’t as fulfilling as you might think. Sure I’m reining in the greatest powers in the West, getting them under control and preventing them from arunning wild, but is that good? I’m not so sure. What is there to legend? Infamy. That’s all. No passion in the direction of valor or malice. People only care about words. Who has the biggest words? Whose words are SO DANG BIG that they can’t be ignored? I preferred the Sagebrush way: strong silence.
He came back for me. He came all the way back for just me. I didn’t thank the Laudgod; I thanked that tireless horse. There are people who would rebut me for such an action; they would say that it were the Laudgod that knitted that horse together in his mother’s womb. That I would have to disagree with. The Laudgod may have made the body, but Sagebrush made himself. His suffering, his understanding, his heart bigger than mine in both the literal and poetical sense, nobody else can claim ownership.
At my most notorious before the Manifest, when I were still carrying that puppet round and robbing people blind, I could’ve used some of his understanding. Silent strength would have been better than my flashy tricks. I were all reputation, all flapping wooden lips. Wanted posters made me happy on account of I saw I were having an impact. Nobody needs them big words.
I stepped out to thank Sagebrush for acoming back for me, but forgot about the ocean. I dropped right into it and scrambled to pull my sopping self back up onto the train. When he came up next to me he did me the courtesy of not making fun. I climbed onto his back. He groaned, as if I were heavier than anyone else he’d taken. Maybe it were the Manifest; it did have a ton of people inside it. Again, that’s just being poetical though. I think. We had about four hours to shore by my reckoning, so I filled the space with jabbering.
“It’s real big of you acoming back for me, especially after I mucked everything up.” He didn’t answer. “I know I were overly forward with you back at the station.” No answer. “I meant what I said though. I’m in dire need of a good horse. What I mean to say is, that is, you’re not a good horse. Well… well of course you are! Ehehehe.” I were awful embarrassed. Overly forward and now tripping over my own tongue. Sometimes I think I should just cut the dang thing out. Who needs to talk when you can organize your thoughts in a nice account like this anyway?
“What I mean to say,” I went on, “is that you’re a better-than-good horse. You’re the best horse I’ve ever seen and I’ve seen a lot. One time, I saw a horse ride another horse into town, but neither of them have a thing over you.” Horsely stoicism. “It’s not just for personal gain. I have a purpose.” I tapped the Manifest. His ears perked up the minutest of all amounts. “The Laudgod has tasked me with taking all them too strong for the endless West and turning them into legends. Immortalizing them so they can’t get no more powerful. Is that something you would be interested in?”
Sagebrush didn’t answer right away. There were something about my proposal that appealed to him. Maybe he were tired of having his life controlled by the West and wanted to reverse that. He wanted to be the one grabbing the world by its hair until there were no hair left. That’s a might bit cruel as far as ways-to-put-it go, but a might bit cruel is something you could put on my headstone.
Now he didn’t outright agree to anything, that weren’t the kind of horse he were, but fate made my argument for me. We found something when we reached shore. The beach were much nicer, much livelier, than the last one. The sand bubbled everywhere on account of the tiny crabs under it. Red seaweed awashed up in long floppy strands. Gulls squawked overhead. A radiant woman, sat upon a radiant horse, stood under the sun as it began to set behind her.
Sagebrush took his first steps into the sand, sinking into it more than he ever did the water. We approached them. I recognized her. Should I start another paragraph for her? She deserves that respect don’t she?
Her name were Anna-Lucia. She were known more commonly as Anna-Lucia the Twirling Rider. Her shirt were green and her pants red. Her hat’s wide brim were patterned with both. She looked like what do you call them? A poinsetty. You know, one of them flowers from down south. Her skin were like a smoky honeycomb, all glow but no brightness. If that don’t make sense it’s on account of words can’t describe the way that woman looks. There are some details you can at least try to imagine: her full lips and the elegant curve of her dark eyebrows.
I imagine Sagebrush would have similar things to say about her horse: a gorgeous female creature black as her own pupil. We stopped in front of them. She dismounted the same time I did and we wound up with our faces an inch from each other.
“Hello Lionel,” she said. That’s right. I’d had intimate experience with this woman. Possibly the most intimate I’ve ever been. She made me forget I existed for a while, which, as you can imagine, were a very dangerous thing for me in particular.
“Anna! What are you doing here! You shouldn’t show yourself to me!” I whined. Under any other circumstances I would’ve been overjoyed to see her, but not now. You see her name is in the Manifest. She were supposed to be collected. My hope were that I would never get to her. There were still quite a few left. One of them were bound to kill me before I got to her. Then it would’ve been somebody else’s job to defeat her.
“We both knew this was coming,” she said with her exotic purring accent, making little fireworks go off twixt my ears.
“I were going to slow it,” I insisted. “As long as I could. I would’ve walked towards you with the speed of molasses uphill. You would only grow more distant after each time I spotted you.”
“If that is the case, you will never get what you want.”
“You know about-”
“Yes I do, darling.” She wrapped her hands round my waist and my knees turned to jellyfish. She kissed me until she knew I wouldn’t complain anymore. “I have brought myself to you. To challenge you. To make it easier for you.”
“I don’t want to fight. I don’t ever want to fight you Anna-Lucia.”
“We will not fight darling. We will dance. You and I will compete in horse dancing. If I win, you will renounce this task and give me the Manifest. If you win, I will sign my name. What do you say? Do you remember your lessons?”
“If I win… you’ll be gone.”
“If you best me in horse dancing then I have done all I needed to do. If I am not the best horse dancer in the West there is no reason for me to go on. Better to be a legend that inspires the dancers of the future than just a pile of bones in a cold coffin. That is what my parents did, you know; they were buried together in an embrace. I do not think it kept them warm.”
“I don’t have a horse…” Sagebrush nudged my arm. One look and I saw that I did in fact have a horse. While Anna-Lucia and I were catching up, so were Sagebrush and her horse Night Blossom. As the West would have it, them two animals had a history strangely similar to mine and Anna’s. They used to be lovers until the cruel realities tore them apart and flung them in different directions with different riders. He had it easy though. If we won he would get to feel nothing but pride; Night Blossom wouldn’t be going anywhere.
“Your friend looks ready,” Anna said. “Are you?” I told her no. I needed a night of real rest to recover from the draining shore before the train. It were the truth, but I would’ve said that even if it weren’t. She would’ve known if I were lying on account of her ability to see straight through me. Round her I feel like nothing but a weak bit of fog and only her arms can hold my substance together.
She were kind enough to grant my request. We spent the night right there on the beach with nothing but the stars over us. We made love in the sand, somehow rolling more than a mile down the beach from where we landed. The trail we left behind reminded me of the sidewinders in the less wet parts of the West. Afterwards we rolled to the edge of the tide’s reach and slept a while, that way we could hear the ocean’s whispers right in our ears before it retreated. Our sandy clothing were our only blankets.
In the morning I awoke to find Anna-Lucia standing with her toes buried in the sand. She were dressed once more, with her pant legs tied at the top of her ankles to keep them dry. She were immaculately clean. No specks of sand in her hair. How she did it I have no idea. Perhaps her womanly power to always be so spectacularly attractivacious were part of the reason she were in the Manifest. Me? I were covered in sand and just had to live with the layer under my clothes when I buttoned them back on.
At first we couldn’t find our horses, but they returned over one of the distant dunes before the sun were at its highest point. They had gone in search of an empty building for their own rendezvous. Both Anna-Lucia and I were embarrassed that our horses were more civilized than we were. While we made love like a couple of beached floppy flounders they had nestled in some hay away from prying eyes.
“It is time,” Anna-Lucia said after giving me a final kiss. Final kiss. I don’t even like writing it; it’s a terrible phrase. If anything lives forever it should be them, not angels and not legends. She got on Night blossom’s back using nothing but her mane, on account of trying to horse dance with a saddle and some reins under you is bound to get your feet tangled. She rose from her sitting position and stood on the horse’s back. Then she whipped out the only belongings she’d brought with her to what might’ve been her final performance: Her castanets and her jingle stick.
It’s not called a jingle stick. That’s just what I call it on account of I can’t remember the word in her family’s language. Can’t even remember what her family’s language is called. Spanny or Spanniara or something like that. Whatever its name is, it’s a wooden handle lined with small round copper bells. You can’t horse dance properly without a little music.
The competition couldn’t start until I matched her. Sagebrush came up to me. He were a smaller horse than Night Blossom, but he didn’t have a mane for me to grab. He dropped to one knee so I could climb aboard. Given how tired he acted on the waves the sun prior, I thought he’d be quivery, but his back were as solid as a mattress stuffed with armadillo hides. I stood on him sideways, facing Anna-Lucia.
She tapped the jingle stick against her hips. I swear there were more music acoming from that magical portion of her body than the instrument. She clicked the castanets. The tune were spicy and harsh, like a woman bursting into a saloon of drunks and challenging them to sober up and become a husband good enough for her. The subtext were not lost on the dense chunk of wood that is my brain, but I shrugged it off. She leaned to the side like a reed heavy with rain and tapped Night Blossom’s ear. The horse took off inland.
Sagebrush followed. My stance faltered only for a moment. I hadn’t horse danced in ages, but I couldn’t forget even if I lost my legs. The key to keeping your balance is not treating the horse’s neck, shoulders, and back like regular ground. Pretend it’s the ground at the growing edge of the West: unstable, expanding, and trying to get out from under you. The sand quickly turned into long yellowing grass, but it didn’t muffle the percussion of Night Blossom’s hooves; they were just another instrument in Anna’s mighty song of strength and grace.
She’d only improved since our last encounter. Her body rose up on the tips of her toes and spun round a dozen times. When she stopped her eyes didn’t even sway slightly with dizziness. She slid down Night Blossom’s neck and stopped right behind her tail. Her legs kicked out one after the other and she bent her back until balance seemed impossible, but she made the dance so. She tossed the jingle stick in the air. While it spun a dozen times she did the same and she caught it on the way back down. All the way along her steps Night Blossom ran, covering enough ground to fill ten thousand graves.
She finished by throwing the jingle stick in my direction, which I barely managed to catch. The castanets I missed completely, but Sagebrush were on top of things. He caught them in his mouth and bucked his head to toss them back to me. If I had dropped either instrument and significantly ruined the music, the dance would’ve been over. I would’ve lost. I would’ve been free to drown my sorrows in Anna-Lucia’s secret-recipe cider in the days before our wedding.
The thing that would hurt her the most would be throwing the dance. If I didn’t try my absolute hardest she would’ve seen right through me and maybe even killed me for it. It’s best to be authentic with that woman. Any woman for that matter. They’ve got snoots like bloodhounds.
I shook the jingle stick and clicked the castanets. The grassy field turned into a rolling flowery meadow with tiny soft spots of pink and blue. I did what I could to make the dance match the surroundings, another part of the technique. I danced the way a flower does as it blooms slow in the sun. Most men would think elegance a mistake in a dance. Not manly enough. They’re wrong. Nothing impresses a woman like sincere sensuality as strong as hers.
At that point we were evenly matched and both arunning low on breath. Her chest shined with the sweat of exertion, while my face went red. She always could make it look better. Anna-Lucia danced along with the music I made, trying to prove she didn’t need to rest twixt turns. It were a big risk to let her do that if I couldn’t match it. Something needed to change; I needed to take the lead.
A sweep of my right foot over Sagebrush’s matching ear convinced him to move closer to Night Blossom. I worked a few more sweeps in naturally in the hopes she wouldn’t realize what were going on. Sagebrush got us real close. That were when I attempted a maneuver I’d never done when under the tutelage of Anna-Lucia: I leapt.
Leaping up and down on your horse in a horse dance is nothing special, but leaping onto your rival’s horse is. I took one step off the top of Sagebrush’s head and flipped through the air. I did my best to calculate where Night Blossom would pull her head, on account of that horse not wanting to help me defeat her partner.
I landed successful twixt Night Blossom’s eyes and jumped to her shoulders before she could shake me off. Anna-Lucia were stunned, but she recovered quickly and tried to knock me on my bottom with a sweeping leg. I leapt over it, enhancing my dance moves all the more. Back and forth we danced on her bucking horse, passing the instruments twixt each other frequently. Even with everything at stake we were having the time of our lives.
My energy couldn’t match hers, so it had to be over sooner rather than later. I grabbed her by the waist, spun her round so fast that she dropped the jingle stick into the flowers, and bent her over the side of Night Blossom without dropping her. I kicked out one leg to keep us both in position. She smiled at me, disarming me so completely that she could’ve knocked me off. But she didn’t. The sly woman, she just reached behind my back and pulled the Manifest out from my belt. My arms were too busy holding her; there were no free hand to stop her.
“Very good darling,” she purred. “There is nothing better than daring new steps.” This is the truest part of my entire completely true account: I could not stop her. “Now you are the best horse dancer in the West, and I am the legend that inspired you.” She opened the Manifest and kissed the page.
“I’ll never forget you,” I said through my tears.
“Neither will the world,” she said with a smile. She put a hand on my face, but it were only solid enough to feel like the wingbeats of a dragonfly. The flowers of the meadow were visible behind her eyes. Night Blossom stopped and bucked me to the ground. I were alone in the beautiful colors. Alone with a book.
Continued in the Finale