The Legend of Broadside Barnaby
Old Thresher the card shark. Remember him? I bested his challenge more than a hundred times over and it were way past due for him to give up the location of Broadside Barnaby. He were the last name left. With him collected the Manifest would be complete, everyone accounted for in myth, and I could have my pa back. My family could have the eventual peace that I worked so hard to disrupt.
Being busy with the other names kept me from tracking Thresher down; there were always somebody more pressing. As luck would have it, I sat down to a card game, just for some relaxation after I chased a thief into a barrel of pickles to get back the pistol he stole, when I looked across the table and saw Thresher’s toothy grin.
“You finally found me,” he said, convinced I’d been searching every speck of sand in the deserts for him for years now.
“That’s right,” I said. Better to just let him have his moment.
“You stink. Like… pickles?”
“Why do you stink like pickles? You been aging in a barrel this whole time?”
“That don’t matter in the slightest. You’ve heard about what I’ve done.” He nodded and spat into a spittoon, the stuff splitting into three streams twixt his triangulated teeth. “I won our little game. Where is Broadside Barnaby?”
“What’s in it for me?” He fanned himself with his cards, letting everybody else see what he had. The man smelled a bigger pot. Maybe he figured the Laudgod rubbed his fingertips together and rained gold dust on me to finance my little adventures.
“Why should there be anything in it for you? Them were the terms of our game.”
“Our game expired. Everybody knows challenges like that aren’t good for more than a year. Expecting people to remember, to plan around those things all this time later… it’s faulty!”
“Your brain is faulty.” I pulled my gun on him, the one that smelled less like sourness.
“If you shoot me you’ll never find out where he is. I want… I want to know where all those legends in my head kept their treasure. They’re not around to spend it anymore, so somebody should right? Stockpiles of gold and silver… Oooohooohoo!”
I shot him in the shoulder. It’s funny how quickly he changed his tune. The words poured out of him faster than any of the blood from his superficial wound. Thresher and Broadside engaged in games of wit by correspondence, sometimes with months twixt their chess moves. In addition to the location the last letter came from, and a few personal secrets I didn’t even ask him about, there were some other things he spilled about Broadside. His pattern of activity were something peculiar. Apparently he described himself as a hunter, but nobody ever saw him with a pelt, raw meat, or a trophy head. He also carried a rifle loaded with buffalo bullets.
If you’re not familiar with that ammunition, here’s a lesson: they do more than hurt. Buffalo bullets got tiny little buffalo heads carved into their tips and they’re imbued with wards: buffalo magic. When one of them impacts it strikes as hard as a charging buffalo; it can turn a man’s ribcage into confetti in an instant.
Thresher couldn’t scare me off the trail with tales of his power, not with one name left. I left him there, bawling like a baby over his shirt and his shoulder. Would you believe that he were shocked I didn’t collect a drop of his crimson for the Manifest? He actually thought he were good enough to make the cut. No, he’ll just have to settle for being a regular lowlife with no infame at all.
The trail of postage took me a long way; luckily I had consistent transportation. Sagebrush had stuck with me since the horse dancing incident. I’m proud to call him my best friend. Three times already he’d proven fast enough to get away from my Hellmouth when it snuck up on us out in the mesas.
We moved through Orchard County (a county of lined trees that took up more space than countries used to), past the geyser Mr. Reliable, and into a lengthy stretch of buffalo country before we found another clue regarding Mr. Broadside.
Sagebrush and I strolled through a buffalo tribal village. It were peaceful and quiet, on account of it being recently abandoned in favor of a slightly greener pasture further West. Just as the nomads always did, they left behind their thatched roof dwellings and longhouses. It were simple enough for them to make more. Tribal men often use hides instead of thatching, but buffalo are vegetarians on account of most meat having a face a lot like theirs.
Ghostly blue, green, and pink things swam through the air twixt the buildings. They were the ghosts of fish: salmon denied their spawning, catfish with ethereal barbels, and poltergars. The buffalo loved to fish, but they don’t like to kill or eat them, so they only try to catch their spirits and bring them home to show off. A lot of them linger, turning their villages into open-air aquariations.
The last bread crumb we had told us Broadside liked to worship there. I don’t know buffalo worship from howling at the moon, but I had a rough idea what we were looking for. Menfolk use the Laudgod’s holy bible or hands clasped in prayer as their conduits to the divine, but the buffalo had different gods. We were looking for totems: wooden things with funny colorful faces. The ones I’d seen before, not meaning to insult the furry fellas you understand, had vague resemblances to devils. Some people said they were the same sort of magical thing. The more educated buffalo I’ve known have insisted the nature spirits they worship come from a very different place than the Laudgod. I believed them, but I did not understand. With the West’s growth attributable to the Laudgod how is there room for anything else?
“Hey you!” something called to us. We looked round. “Yes you! Come over here!” The totems found us. We followed the voice to a piece of lumber some ten feet high, carved into five different faces stacked on top of each other. Starting from the bottom: turtle, rabbit, boar, vulture, and eagle. The top two had wings asticking out, but honestly they looked more like ears to me. I didn’t say anything of course. “Tell us your greatest wish,” the vulture said, its beak moving open and shut as if truly alive.
“Your horse must have wishes too,” the rabbit added, biting his bottom lip with his buck teeth enthusically. “We can grant those.”
“Introductions you fools,” the turtle muttered. “I am Temtok: god of all mud, listener of all bubbles, and sage of the elderly.”
“I am Bren,” said the rabbit head, “courier of fast words and slippery promises, god of light footsteps and the sounds of grass.”
“I am Lamg…” the vulture started.
“It’s my turn!” the boar bellowed. “Cheating bird! My turn!” They all bickered for a moment until the bird stopped clicking his beak. “I am Pachuk: the pig with all the flesh! I am guard of all the best smells!”
“As I was saying, I am Lamgo: the death that circles the sky. If you are ill, tribute to me is what you should pay.”
“And I am Skyto,” declared the eagle, like he’d had to fight to get to the top of the totem pole. “The sky is my home, and everyone under it is my child.”
“Well that’s all quite fascinating,” I said slowly as they eyeballed me, “but I just had one question I wanted to ask you.”
“We don’t answer questions,” Pak Pachuk said, “only prayers. If you want an answer you must become a worshipper.” I can’t keep writing all these names from buffalo tongues, so I’ll just do it like a script for a play. That’ll be the simplest way of cataloguing all their jabber for you.
Rabbit: But you can only worship one of us!
Turtle: It should be me. I’m wiser than the rest. I have your answer.
Eagle: Ha! Maybe if his question is ‘where can I find the best pond scum?’ I see all of the West from up here! I am the one that should be worshipped.
Poor fella caught up in this (me): Do you want to hear the question first?
Poor fella: I need to know where I can find Broadside Barnaby.
Boar: That didn’t sound like much of a question. Either way I don’t know. What about you horse? I can help with your virility!
Rabbit: Don’t tell him you don’t know! He won’t worship if he thinks we’re dolts. I know where Broadside Barnaby is. Saw him just the other day. He looked well.
Turtle: Don’t try to claim Barnaby as your own. He came to see me; I was his god after all.
Eagle: Only until he looked up and found me! Barnaby is among mine.
Turtle: That’s not true… It’s not becoming of a god to fib.
Vulture: You all have rattling teeth for brains. Don’t you see who he is? He’s that Lionel. He’s already penned up by the Laudgod and he wants to take Barnaby from us.
Eagle: What!? Absolutely not. We won’t help you in the slightest! Flee before I peck your innards into outards!
Rabbit: I’ll tell you. No problem, just get on your knees and say my name.
Turtle: have you no dignity!
Poor fella: What has all you so starved for attention?
Boar: It figures you wouldn’t understand. The Laudgod has everything he needs. He hasn’t had to work for a worshipper since before Johnny Appleseed came through the original West with that stupid pot hat of his.
Poor fella: Now hold on one peach-peeling minute. Work for worship? What are you talking about?
Vulture: A god is nothing without his worshippers. They are the lifeblood. We all look like animals, and there are a thousand of us, so we have to fight for every scrap of reverence. The Laudgod with his man-face just smiles and sits in his throne of immortality.
Poor fella: Do you know where the Laudgod came from? Do you know what he is?
Eagle: Not a question for us.
Boar: We’re not saying anything bad about the Laudgod if that’s what you’re saying.
Turtle: How did you miss Barnaby?
Poor Fella: Who’re you talking to?
Turtle: Pachuk. How?
Boar: What do you mean lowly shelled thing?
Turtle: Only lowly because I’m holding you up… Bren saw Barnaby the other day. You haven’t moved in a hundred years so how did you miss him?
Boar: I can’t see in all directions! I must have been looking the other way. I should be higher up so I can properly see my creatures!
Vulture: Over my dead body are you getting any higher!
Eagle: There is only one height anyway.
Vulture: Oh! There it is! God of the pole himself squawking at us! You’d chop us all out and make us start new poles if it wouldn’t make you lower. You can’t fly! You’re not a real bird! If you’d drink real groundwater instead of nothing but rain you’d understand.
Poor Fella: Am I to understand that your order on this here pole is determined by the size of your posse?
Turtle: Worshippers are not a posse; they are a congregation.
Rabbit: Yes. The feather-brains are only up there because nobody comes around anymore. We haven’t had the chance to convince anybody to switch.
Poor Fella: It seems to me this system of yours favors whoever’s up there already. People look to the sky for the Laudgod, and if they see an eagle they’re likely to think about an eagle.
Boar: Finally someone with the acid to say it! It’s unfair! The whole thing is rotten.
Poor Fella: You’re getting a raw deal Mr. Turtle. Nobody’s ever going to see you way down there.
Turtle: Patience. Skyto’s stories are told most often, but no story can enrich all lives. Some will be left behind. Some will be ignored from his high perch and they will seek something more receptive. They will drop to their knees in true reverence and see me. The higher he goes, the greater the resentment of the minority until, all of a sudden, they feel as empowered by me as any other god. I will rise as I have before. The birds have not always been atop this pole. The cycle does not end.
Eagle: Quiet you. I’m never going back. My wings beat strong! The updraft of worship will never ground me.
Poor Fella: I could ground you.
Vulture: Are you proposing something Mr. Worthett?
Poor Fella: All this griping over the loudest prayers… I’m the one standing here presentedly. I’ll take an axe twixt the five of you and rearrange you. Whoever tells me where Barnaby is gets to go on top.
Eagle: You wouldn’t dare touch the divine Skyto!
Boar: Disrespectful! Disrespect!
Poor Fella: I haven’t exactly seen a display of power that could stop me.
Rabbit: He’s outside Ettygrain Mountain! A little gourd-harvesting town called Happy Rind. He said that was where he was headed.
Vulture: Traitor! No! Don’t! You can’t! I’ve barely had a chance!
Turtle: Calm yourself brothers. The time will come. We move like the seasons.
I did as I promised. They made an awful lot of noise while I were cutting them up, but I think it were just humiliation instead of pain. After all the squawks and grunts nothing but shame came out of them. The rabbit went on top and then Sagebrush and I took our leave. Them things they said about the Laudgod had me thinking a long way, but them thoughts are more relevant for the end of this here account. It’s getting harder and harder to bottle them up. How do people tell stories without blurting out the conclusions? Probably just not cut out for it.
We arrived in Happy Rind less than two days later, unceremonium. The air were peculiar to me; it smelled like gravestones with no bodies beneath them. Like leaves that had grown brown and orange in the first place. The people, even the children, looked old beyond their years. They sat on their porches ablowing on instruments made from twisted gourds, every last bit of music sounding like the night wind.
The edge of the West. I were nearing it. That had to be the reason for them strange sensations. All the buildings looked new and I recognized their crops as ones that don’t take long to grow. The totems said they’d been nearby for a hundred years, but I’ve heard things get swirly near the edge. Shifting sands could’ve moved them closer to it. What else would explain my, and Sagebrush who were feeling it even strengthier, feeling that this place were full of death that didn’t concern itself with life? The end of the world. Nothing else.
The people hadn’t heard tell of me, further proof of my proximity to the grandest cliff in existence. They hardly batted an eye when I asked where Broadside Barnaby were; they just pointed me to the outskirts of town, where the biggest building they had were. There were nothing round it but stripped yellow fields for more than a mile. No clouds overhead, as if they’d been harvested too.
It were a barn taller than most churches, its red paint stripped mostly away by jagged straw blown about in strong winds. Its main doors were smashed to pieces. There weren’t no living things round at all. Sagebrush huffed to express his concern, but I reminded him it were my duty to face death if death’s name were on the Manifest. I told him to stay out there and that I’d pierce the silence with a whistle if I were in dire need of his help.
Hay crunched under my feet as I walked inside. There were no wetness to it, no smell of dung. No animals were ever kept in that barn or fed that hay. It were almost like looking into a museum’s exhibit of a barn, and the people who ran the museum had never seen one. There were hay everywhere in giant disorganized piles. No bales. I looked up and saw pitchforks and scythes with their blades stuck in the ceiling, hanging down like sleeping bats. Thin rays of light came in through the cuts.
There were a little noise past some rusty harvesting blades so large I had no idea what could pull them. I snuck round and saw a figure standing on the only patch of dirt not covered in hay in the whole place. He were tall even by buffalo standards and as wide as his name implied. His horns were polished to shocking black points; most buffalo were peaceful enough to let them go dull or even blunt them on purpose. He wore a red vest and brown pants, undoubtedless custom-made. In his arms he hoisted a firearm big enough round to be classed as a cannon, the metal loop round its trigger big enough to accommodate his three blunt digits. His face were covered in bald scratchy scars. His breath came out in big clouds like the mist at the bottom of a thousand foot waterfall. Broadside Barnaby. He eyed the surrounding mounds of hay suspiciously, paying no attention to me.
I don’t sneak up behind folks, even when they’re on the Manifest. If I’ve heard they’ve been good to the people of the West I always give them a chance to surrender themselves. That said, Barnaby did not seem receptive. I circled round in front of his moist black nose, but he looked through me at the hay. His finger didn’t leave the trigger on his gun. Remember he loaded it with buffalo bullets, so if he caught me by surprise I’d be dead before I were blasted through the wall.
“You must be Broadside Barnaby,” I stated.
“Yes,” he answered simply. He stalked off to the side and dipped his gun barrel into the hay. He swirled it round slowly like he were drawing something in sand.
“My name is Lionel Worthett.”
“I know.” By his accent he used to speak one of them tribal languages. There are about a thousand of them, and I’m too much of a dummy to distinguish perfectly, but I’d place him somewhere round the Redwood Sea.
“I have something here. It has your name on it.” I pulled out the Manifest and held it up for him to see. It felt heavier now that it were nearily full.
“I have one too,” he said. The buffalo kept one hand on his gun but reached behind his back with the other and pulled out a leather-covered clipboard the same exact size as the Manifest. I couldn’t believe my eyes. They weren’t identical in appearance, but they obviously were in source. His had a dark cover with lighter animal silhouettes arunning in a big circle: cougars, roadrunners, horses, elk, moose, bears, wolves, hogs… just about everything in the West. Predatory teeth were lodged in each of its leather corners.
“What… what is that?” I asked.
“No sir. I’m holding the Manifest of the West,” I insisted. I felt a bit like a child waving an empty arm round and declaring his imaginous shield were immune to his rival’s imaginous bullets.
“Yes you are. This,” he wiggled the tome, “is the Manifest of the Wild.”
“What exactly is that if you don’t mind me asking?” I lowered my Manifest. “One errand boy to another.”
“I am hunting the most legendary creatures: the man-eaters, the giants, the abominations of nature. I do this, and turn them to legend, to keep these monsters from growing too strong. I do this for the Laudgod.”
“I met some totems the other day that insisted you worshipped them.”
“I worship nobody,” the buffalo said. “I have an arrangement with the Laudgod.” I didn’t say anything else on that subject, on account of I knew the position he were in. I weren’t exactly a churchy-Charlie neither.
“So while I’ve been arunning round getting the people you’ve been getting the animals?” It made sense. There were plenty of stories of dangerous critters out in the West. A river that moved like a snake. Whales and dolphins that swam in oil. Gristle the upright bear. Ol’ Canoetipper the alligator. After I timbered Paul Bunyan I just left his big blue ox where it were, munching on the treetops. Barnaby probably came along after and took care of it. If he were telling the truth he’d have a story for every critter I thought were myth. “Claude the unboilable?”
“Giant blue lobster,” Barnaby said with a nod. He tapped a scar on his nose. “Pinched me right here. He was thrown into a hundred different pots of scalding water a hundred different times. The cooking never took.”
“The Duke of slobber?”
“Dog as high at the shoulder as saloon doors. Enough drool to fill a water tower in three minutes flat. He were surprisingly friendly.” Barnaby tucked his Manifest back into his pants and stalked further into the hay. He were ankle deep in it now and suddenly I were afraid to follow him. Think about it. The man were hunting the most dangerous animals to ever live, he had his gun at the ready, and he were mighty focused. There were something in that barn with us. I drew my guns.
“You after something friend?” I asked.
“Yes. Only one more beast on the list after this. Maybe.”
“What’s that ‘maybe’ mean?”
“The last thing listed is the wolf of the western fog. The name is crossed out though and I’ve never heard tell of it. You?”
“No sir,” I answered. There were no names crossed out in mine. Something about it gave me gooseflesh.
“Now that I’ve seen you, I assume you’re here to collect me,” Barnaby grumbled. “Should’ve seen this coming. I don’t like to leave things unfinished. How about you help me collect this critter and then we’ll have a proper fight regarding whether or not I live in that book of yours?”
“I am amenable,” I said. “What are we wrangling?” Just as I finished the question something swept in from behind. Somehow it pulled the straw out from under our feet and knocked us both to the floor. The hay swelled like something were going to bust out of it… but it just kept swelling after that. Bigger and bigger it went until it were higher than two stacked buffalo. The straw in the front sort of ripped and sort of split, forming a giant hole not unlike the Hellmouth I encountered.
Then it roared and blew the hat off my head. What does a pile of straw roaring sound like? Like lightning cracking a dry stump. Like trees dying from drought screaming their agony through their roots and into the dirt. Like a substratum of pain that exists underneath all the smartness. If you tapped that substratum it would be like your dentist hitting the nerves under your teeth and all your other thoughts would burn up in an instant. It weren’t exactly a melody to picnic to.
“The hungry haystack,” Barnaby said, naming it. He hoisted his gun and pulled the trigger, ablowing the side of it up and creating a downpour of dust and fibers. It collapsed back into the ground, but the straw were still moving about. I fired a couple rounds off at it to no effect. “Don’t waste your bullets,” the buffalo warned. “Nothing seems to kill it.”
“Well then how are we supposed to get it into your Manifest?” I shout-whispered. Barnaby reached back and ripped two pages out of his divine duty. He crumpled them into little balls and tossed one to me.
“You have to get it to eat a page,” he explained.
“Really? That sounds a Hell of a lot harder than mine!”
“Figures. People always give the buffalo the muddy job.”
The hay rose again, this time behind me. I whirled round and saw its maw split. There were nasty, rusty, brown stains on the straw at the back of its throat. Dried blood. The blighted bewitched thatching might’ve been a man-eater. Something metal poked through the back of its mouth. Out shot a pitchfork, connected to make a wicked stinger. Or maybe it were more of a tongue. Either way it stuck in the ground at my feet, taking a bit of leather from my shoe.
I channeled my inner rope walker and scaled that pitchfork foot over foot. Halfway up to its gullet I tossed the paper ball inside. The beast pulled its tongue back and spit the ball back at me. Its body curled toward me like a wave ready to crash. Barnaby’s fury shot out of his nostrils as jets of steam as he lowered his head and barreled into the side of the haystack horns first. Problem were, he just came right out the other side like it were a cloud. He couldn’t stop it from collapsing onto me.
I crossed my arms in front of my face, but it did no good. Engulfed in its straw body, all I could do were squirm. Somebody’s skull drifted by, but that were all I saw before the hay started jabbing at my eyes and I had to squeeze them shut. Scratches ate up my shins, arms, and neck. Death by a thousand cuts were its digestion.
My hands grasped at straws. There had to be something in there that I could use to my advantage. The pitchfork. If I could find that maybe I could dig my way out. The haystack rolled me low and rubbed my face across the ground, getting dirt in my nose. I blew it out and got some fresh resolve. Being inside it had to be an advantage. I didn’t have hay fever; it had Lionel fever! I tried to swim towards its center to find the fork.
It seemed like minutes went by with no luck. It felt like I had no skin left, like the barn dirt were entering my bloodstreams. I shot out my hand one more time and closed the fingers together. Nothing. That were what I thought at first, but then I realized something. There were something in my hand. Something so small its coolness escaped my addled brain. It couldn’t be.
All of a sudden a furry hand with three fingers wrapped round my shoulder and wrenched me free of the hungry haystack. Barnaby extricated me so forcefulsome that I were tossed to the back of the barn and into some of the inanimated hay. I opened my palm. There it were. A needle, its little eye staring back.
The haystack quivered and groaned. Its mouth sealed up and it started shaking itself to pieces, like a dog drying off. Only there weren’t no dog underneath. The pile became nothing but loose straw shaking and popping across the ground. There were no face to express it, but the vibrations it were creating in the tips of my toes felt happy. They felt relaxed. Barnaby immersed his hand holding the crumpled page into the hay. It stayed there for a moment, and then all the hay went immaterial and sucked itself into the page. The barn were left nearily empty.
The buffalo unfolded the paper and flattened it with his knuckles against the wall. Then he placed it back in his Manifest. I pulled myself to my feet and held the needle twixt two fingers and up to the light.
“A needle in a haystack,” Barnaby said with a small exasperated grunt.
“Like the thorn in the lion’s paw,” I said. “I think this is why it were so ornery.” Barnaby leaned up against the wall. The barrel of his gun tapped against the dirt floor. The excitement were quickly rushing out of the room. He wanted to do the fighting now. I were hardly in any condition after being battered by the monstrous mulch, but I can’t blame him for wanting to take advantage. In a fight with another legend-maker I wouldn’t pass it up neither.
“I won’t be making it easy,” Barnaby said.
“I know. You wouldn’t be a legend if you did.” Silence. Hairy fingers rapped the stock of his gun. His nails were big enough that I could see the cracks in them, fissures forced open by the strain of firing a buffalo bullet.
“Well…” Barnaby raised the gun in the blink of a hummingbird’s eye. It bucked in his arms. I dove to the side as the bullet blasted a hole in the wall of the barn big enough to get a wagon through. Daylight poured in, along with a little help. Sagebrush galloped through the hole all rip and snort. He charged Barnaby in my defense. The buffalo’s gun could only hold two of those mighty bullets at a time, so instead of reloading he tossed it to the ground and prepared to take Sagebrush’s charge head on.
With one heave he lifted my horse off the ground by the belly and tossed him aside. I drew my guns and fired. Barnaby, probably being smarter than old Lionel, knew the Manifest trick. His were just as invulnerable to harm as mine and he used it as a shield. Sagebrush were up again and attacking from a new angle. Barnaby took one hand from his Manifest and forced the horse onto his back legs. All the kicking were too far from his head to dole out any damage, but he did knock the Manifest out of the buffalo’s hand. It landed in the dirt.
“This is quite a horse,” he said. “Does he belong in my Manifest? Have you been hiding him from me?” Barnaby roared that last part and picked up Sagebrush a second time. A second time he were thrown into the dirt. Without his shield I thought I had a good shot, so I fired twice more. This time he blocked them with his horns. Perfectly. He had better aim with his block of a head than I would with a squirrel rifle.
I shot at something I couldn’t miss: the shovels and picks and scythes stuck up in the rafters. The bullets knocked a bunch of them loose, and they fell like daggers toward the buffalo. He dodged them too. He probably got all the experience he needed avoiding falling stalactites while he were hunting giant train-whistle bats or some other such nonsense. Before I knew it he were on me, turning a twist into a charge and putting me up against the wall. His horns were under my arms and my feet were kicking helplessly. He smashed his hands against mine, forcing me to drop my six-shooters.
Sagebrush whistled. He can whistle by the way. He does it better than most. Plays a mean harmonica too but that’s beside the point. We turned our heads to look at him. He stood as proudly as he could, one hoof planted on the corner of Barnaby’s Manifest. Then he made a sort of coughing sound and produced a wet lump from the back of his mouth. I already knew what it were. Sagebrush had helped me capture plenty of legends, so I’d be a fool not to include him in the planning or arm him with my most powerful weapons.
That lump were a rolled up page of my Manifest that he always kept tucked beside one of his gums. His saliva couldn’t do nothing to hurt it, so it were the perfect cavity to use. The wet lump of paper took a ride on a string of his drool and landed on Barnaby’s bestiary. I didn’t see what he were getting at until I somehow slipped out of the buffalo’s horns and landed in the dirt.
Barnaby took a step back and looked at his hands. The light from the top of the barn were striking right through them. He took another step back, but his hoof did not leave a print. He snorted knowingly, and no more steam came out of him. I stood.
“I always heard I had to sign my name,” Barnaby said.
“Or leave your mark,” I clarified, pushing round the lump in my throat. “Blood or tears. Your Manifest back there… it’s your life’s work. It is your blood, sweat, and tears. It is your mark. It’s sufficient to count you among the legends.” I picked up his gun and tossed it to him. He caught it in one hand, the last thing he would ever get to feel solidly.
He were going slowly, perhaps on account of the tenuous justification for the making of his mark, so he had time to try something desperate. He reached into his pocket, a pocket with contents I could now see as its substance got thinner and thinner, and pulled out one of his buffalo bullets. He loaded it up, put the gun in his mouth, and pulled the trigger. Nothing happened. He were hoping death could save him from legend, from infamy and inspiration, but nothing could.
He snorted again, in that knowing way that soon all would know, and walked toward his Manifest. I could see Sagebrush through him.
“You know what’s coming,” he said, not even looking over his shoulder at me. Then he were gone. Just like that. We were done. Every last name. Let me tell you something: the pen were growing heavy.
The Account of Lionel Worthett
Now we carried two Manifests. It were clear both were meant to go to the same place… like their authors. We did not return to Happy Rind to bask in praise for ridding them of the hungry haystack. By rights them were Barnaby’s pats on the back.
There were a moment where I examined some of the other critters named in his Manifest:
Shake the lasso snake
First Mate Blubba
King of the saltlick
The great Gaspy
The one that got away
Mercury the mule
I knew each to be more than formidable, on account of all their legends were in the back of my mind. I thought I’d first heard tell of First Mate Blubba, the walrus sailor, round a seaside campfire when I were nine, but that were just another trick of the Laudgod.
We moved further out from civilization. Things had definitely shifted since my last survey. The mountain I’d seen in the distance were gone. I’d never known the West to be so fidgety. The yellow field of snapped stalks gave way to grass and then to cracked ground the color of a dinner plate after a helping of dust storm stuffing. We burned under a cloudless sky.
There were thinking had to be done before we got so far into that desert that Sagebrush wouldn’t be able to get out without dying of thirst. It were thinking I should’ve done a long time ago. I sort of did. Back then, when the Manifest were new and empty, I thought this: if I’m good enough to catch legends, don’t that make me one too?
Shouldn’t have pushed that thought to the back of my head the way I did; I were just too excitable over freeing my pa. I kept seeing him kiss my mother’s forehead. In that vision I knew I were good enough to be with them on account of my life had a real good purpose. It had to be righteous on account of it came from the Laudgod.
If I’d followed the thinking the way I should’ve I would’ve come to certain conclusions a lot sooner. It took them fool totems for my brain to accidentally piece it together when I weren’t looking. Why were it that the Laudgod put that angel feather in the gears of my clock? Why did he want someone to snatch them legends like frogs at the edge of a pond? Simple: that pond they were about to leap into, incidentally or not, were a new deep level of power.
The totems, the nature spirits, are no threat to the Laudgod on account of their constant bickering with each other. They’ve gone and locked themselves into a power struggle like the seasons. The people and the animals themselves on the other calloused hand… The totems said they grew in power with worship, but I think they meant attention. The Laudgod with all the prayers he garners must work the same way. He goes ahead and gives the occasional child the voice of an angel, or makes healing light come out of some old person’s hands, and he gets all the attention he needs.
My theory is that the Laudgod himself is a legend, and the top of the pile to boot. There were one common element to my battles with the best of the West: none of them seemed finished. Sure, a couple found interesting ways to give in and made peace with my approach, but they all seemed to have bigger things on their mind. Bigger plans. Bigger acts of kindness and cruelty. If the Laudgod were legend, it might seem unwise to invite all them folks to supper the way he had me doing, but think about it a little deeper and a little darker. By making them legends now, by fossilizating their stories as is, they can’t get no better. Whatever form is supplied by legend, it is enhanced by the details of your glory. I stopped them all before they could get too big and puffy, before they could roar like a cougar and declare themselves king of the whole dang mountain.
Barnaby and I were his enforcers, enforced to take them on and defeat them before they were so great that people would think about them before the Laudgod. We succeeded.
I thought I felt a shadow pass overhead. When I looked up there were nothing there. There were no sense in dawdling, so I slid off Sagebrush’s side and looked him in the eye. He didn’t understand what I were doing.
“It’s time old friend,” I said as I brushed his neck with my hand. His eyes asked me what I were saying. “It’s time to go our separate ways. I’m sorry to ask this of you… but I need you to go east. There isn’t much West left and what inches are left are for me to walk alone.” He stamped his hoof in defiance. “Don’t be like that friend. The next horse I see is the pale one; its bones pointier than its ears. We’ve had good times. That’s all anybody can ever have. I’ve one more favor to ask you.”
I dug round in my pocket. He didn’t want to go neither so he were being sneaky. Eventually I caught the tail end of him by the hole in my pocket and pulled him out into the open air. My loyal pocket twister. Through thick and thin we’d been. Through gale and breeze. Through sawdust and dough. Through venom and honey. He were the most favorable winds a man could know. I put him in Sagebrush’s saddlebag after whispering a warm goodbye into his little twirling form. Hopefully he can keep it warm for all time.
“I need you to take care of that little fella for me,” I told my horse. He put his forehead up against mine. We both fought back tears, the brutal sun helping us out by drying our eyes as soon as they were open. Time were short. I wanted to get to the edge before the distant rumble in the ground forced me there. I wanted to get there at my own pace.
From out of the other bag I pulled the two Manifests. I also pulled a pen and some ink and hid that away in my pockets. Sagebrush turned. We slowly walked away from each other. I were first to check over my shoulder; he took the chance to rear up, kick the sky, and neigh in my name. Then he ran for less crazy land. His fate beyond that is beyond me. It’s beyond this account, on account of the last dot in this account is the last anything I’ll ever have.
I walked further into the desert, weighed down only by the books. I kept hoping to find one of Sara’s spiders tucked away in one of my seams, but I didn’t feel anything crawling on me. There were no other living things to watch me go… to remember me by eyes on flesh rather than eyes on paper.
Eventually there were more than sun on the horizon. I can’t describe it on account of it’s of a version of the world where words can’t exist. Words are for the West and what I saw… well it weren’t the West. It weren’t the north, south, or east for that matter. I’ll do my best. Hopefully this account’s sharpened my linguisticisms enough to give you the shadow of an image. A photograph of a photograph of a reflection in an eye.
It were a wall of curling dust. The curl were all its own, not like wind, water, hair, smiles, or frowns. Atop it were purple and rose darkness, below it nothing at all that can be ascribed a color. At least I knew its truth; it were the very edge of the West. The very last dirt of it. The last place to spit. Past that thing I called a wall were an unmade wall, the infinite the Laudgod used to make more West. Eventually he would fill it up. After that weather would come, followed by plants, then animals, and then the people. They’d bring with them their imaginations and all the legends stuck there.
I stood there for a long time, looking into it. It pulled on my sanity and, strangely, my heartstrings. There were something Westerly about it even if it weren’t the West. That pull scares me deeper than anything. When I started writing this I were afraid it would take the ink off the page sooner than I could set it down. So engrossed I were that I didn’t hear her come up behind me at first. I only realized the sounds of her wagon and her footsteps as a memory. She waited silently for me to get a whiff.
“Your Manifests are full,” I said without turning round. Why would I turn round? The wall-thing were more powerful than her, even without a mind of its own.
“I know,” Tahizote the dead-winged angel said. “You did well.”
“Did I do good?”
“I don’t deal in good.”
“You just deal in his papers and affairs? Is that it?”
“I wonder. What time do you think I have? And what choices?”
“Your choices are before you,” she said. “He won’t let you go on in the West with strength like that. You can sign your name and join the other legends. Or… or you can go in there.” She meant the wall-thing.
“What’ll happen to me in there?”
“Nothing. Things only happen in the West.”
“I think I see something in there,” I said. The shape had occurred to me earlier, but only now did it have something close to solidity. Past the dust of the wall-thing a dark shape stood atop a non-structure. Its shadowy form had four legs, a long snout, and eyes of clear light so powerful they were like holes poked in reality. It stared at me. Even with an angel wreathed in wing bones right nearby, it looked at me. “What is that?”
“That is the wolf of the Western fog,” Tahizote said. “The one that was crossed off the Manifest.”
“How did he get himself out there?”
“That dog had in itch to move. He moved as far as he could and then… over the edge.”
“Is he alive?”
“He moves, but does not howl. He stares, but does not impact. He is the wolf of the Western fog and nothing else. He has no like. Unless you want to be his like.”
“Is the Laudgod watching?” I asked. This were the most important question of all. There were no defiance could be done directly under his eyes.
“No,” she said plainly. “As you have seen, he cannot watch all the West at once. The more he makes, the less he can control. The more he needs to bring in agents of his desires.”
“Like us,” she confirmed. I got the feeling Tahizote’s situation weren’t too different from mine or Barnaby’s. The Laudgod had something of hers. The Laudgod had chains. She were going to do her job in the strictest sense, and nothing more. I had time.
I sat down by a boulder and tore my eyes from the Western fog. I opened the Manifest and filled my pen with ink. There were only one way to know the truth of all this, and it were my account. There were only one way the account could survive. It had to be written on the Manifest. He won’t touch it if it might accidentally free the prisoners I helped create.
The pages were full, but the backs of them pages were empty. I know this is likely sitting on a heavenly shelf somewhere where no mortal eyes can get to it, but things change. If people can claw their way out of Hell a book can fall from Heaven.
You have read my record: the best I could write of it. There were so much more to tell, so many more legends to explain, but my space and time were short. I just don’t have the land left to tell you about the hangin’ fraud, Cuttermask, Lay-Down Armando, Waysaway Barber, Sheriff Bearp, Captain Peakwidow, Old Man Stormzacomin, Itchy Triffinger, Maypolio, Silver-shot Mott, the Barter twins, the Death Wish Posse, the two lone riders, or any of the others that deserve it.
Why am I writing this account? I have invaluable information when it comes to the nature of legends that needs to spread round the West like fertilizer. The legends are where all the attention goes on account of it’s where the lights are. They’re big, inspirational, terrifying, and hopeful. Only that isn’t what truth is. Truth is small and quiet. Truth is the grit in the bottom of your shoe. True is the woman or man who cares for you so much that they can’t even put hate in their eye when they’re cross with you.
The truest people never get told about, like my pa, who wouldn’t be freed after all thanks to the Laudgod’s treachery. They do their work and they take their silence. It’s probably mighty conceited of me to think I can go out the way they do, but I’ve an opportunity like no other. I’m taking that final step into the fog. I’m taking it on account of it means I won’t be legend. What folks know of me will fade. The only people a hundred years from now who know my name will be the people who read this true, accurate, honest, veritable account.
Of all the things I’ve been, good and bad, I’ve been true as well. Here we are now. The last lines. I’m off the paper and onto the leather. Even if I wanted to put it off I couldn’t. That Hellmouth is here. It followed me all the way here and it’s waiting just behind me, dripping hot rock drool. It’s too scared to approach the fog any more than this. Not me. Not Lionel Worthett.
I’m going to stand and hand these Manifests over to Tahizote. She’ll put them in her wagon with the other books I can’t understand and then I don’t know what will happen. I’ll never know again. I’ll never know my mother, my pa, or dear Anna-Lucia again. Sagebrush is a riderless horse.
The wolf is looking to me. He’s howling at a nothing sky and making no sound so loudly that it’s ripping me up inside. I’ll vanish and leave behind nothing but footprints of body and mind. I’ll become a shadow in the dust that’s always looking. No matter how much that dust swirls my eyes will still be detectable. Already the wind is whipping up. The wolf is daring me. That majestic beast is urging me. He’s telling me if I let fear stop me I’m good for nothing.
I’ll do this for the truth, for them I have wronged, and for the good of the West. I’ll cross myself out. Don’t remember the legends. Don’t believe the exaggerations. Believe the hard work. Believe the little nagging details. Here I go… and here I were.
AND THAT’S THE TRUTH