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Jonah Hex: Antebellum (A DCU One-Shot)

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posted by alias Gallisuchus on Monday 18th of October 2021 01:06:49 PM

The town’s name was Penance. A truly pitiful thing, strewn across the most desolate region of what would one day be called the Red Desert, in the land not yet the state of Wyoming. An unusual place. Unforgiving like you could not fathom, though tranquil, at times, to such a degree that even the most sorrowful being should forget all else that this country had endured. I know as much. It was explained to me, during my sojourn therein, that ownership of all twelve buildings had exchanged hands as many times as months had gone by since its completion. No one wanted it. Penance was no destination, merely a place to rest one’s head on the way to one. So, in truth, everyone was a stranger in Penance. The strangest of them, in this humble narrator’s opinion, was to arrive the final day of October, in the year of our Lord, 1871. He was astride a grey horse. He wore a grey coat—yes, that grey coat—over his shoulders in such a way, it seemed the weight of gold. His grey hat, as incriminating as the coat, did not hide his face as well as, I suspect, any soul would have preferred it to. Leaving his mare on the stoop without a rope to hold her, he wordlessly joined our congregation in Penance’s saloon. Before his boots passed the swinging doors, we each of us had seen only the beast on which our new companion rode. The second, that being a grey wolf, with a head as large as a cauldron, plodded along at the man’s spurs. It sank mildly to its belly at the threshold, still managing to give us all a good fright. Eli gripped my hand where it lay on the table. And yes, as this type of story goes, the drab outsider walked to the unoccupied bar, nary a glance at a single one of us to repay our gawking. Better that way, as I do believe a child or another woman would have fainted to be caught by his right eye, yellowed and lidless as it was. A gruesome window in the cheek of the same side displayed his teeth. His worn cuffs rested upon the counter, ever so lightly. Penance’s temporary bartender was no braver than any one of us, but he approached the patron anyway. The bartender extended an ordinary “friend” to the disfigured man, where the word may have easily been taken for a question rather than a greeting. The stranger’s response was no less ambiguous, as the slight tip of his hat looked to be indicative of the man’s goodwill, as much as it did his weariness. Whatever the case, I could sense the room had thankfully begun to breathe again. “I hope that you, sir, can sympathize- that is, understand our situation here, and that I can afford you only one drink,” our bartender decreed, in a tone delicate like cobwebs. “I’ll thank you kindly for water. Any that ain’t bein’ drunk.” The bartender was unsettled by this. “Pardon me for saying, but a man who found his way here with not but a horse and the… clothes on his back, might could do with something stronger.” “Water,” the man reassured him, “will be jist dandy.” He was given his request by a shaky hand not a minute later. Us gathered folks were back to finding it a genuine task to draw air. The man sipped from the glass with his neck crooked so that he did not lose any through his wound. It was then that he did at last acknowledge the rest of our being there. As I had worried, one of our women gasped and indeed fell on her husband’s shoulder when she met the horrible gaze. Our tormentor cleared his throat. “I was thinkin’ to myself, how nice it was to ride into a town without the starin’. I see now that was on account of all the prairie dogs hunkerin’ down in their hole.” The young cowboy, with which Eli and I had shared a stagecoach to this point, was none too pleased by the teasing. A guardian angel must have stayed his hand from reaching his gun, though the boiling emotions on his face were left unchecked. A number of our men had guns, but were not so keen nor impatient to employ them. The stranger troubled the bartender once more. “’TIS a might crowded in here, wouldn’t you reckon?” “Yes sir?” “Well now it ain’t picnic weather out, but I also ain’t seen so many bodies lookin’ to be under one roof, less’n there was a storm comin’, or festivities. Well… I behold a clear sky and long faces.” Another group’s coachman—an older but not yet frail man—spoke for us. “We’re ALL in here; every one of us, in Penance. Seven days here, it’s been, for my party.” “What keeps you, the lively atmosphere?” the stranger mocked, propping himself up with his elbows on the bar. “It’s like this,” the coachman informed gravely. “There is presence, a… manifestation, on the range that leads westward away from here, and it has allowed no man or woman safe passage.” “Them first words sound to me like fancy oratin’ for ‘ghost.’” The man’s insinuation elicited a harsh murmur that washed over our assemblage. It was not a thought that had escaped us, but the actual vocalization of such a notion was all the more taboo. Eli rose from his chair, still clutching my hand. “We are not simple, sir. These here folks know what they saw,” he berated the man, who just glared. I stood with Eli, now with both hands on his. He never did have tolerance for being made smaller. I would like to think I was good for him in that way, guiding him away from intemperate actions. I had lived with the denigration a greater deal of time than he, and despite it all, learned to keep living. “Three groups have made for the ridge,” the coachman continued. “My own, and the second, we lost one of our number each before we turned back. The last that tried… lost all except one.” He placed a hand on the shoulder of the boy sat beside him: no more than fourteen years old, wheat-colored hair and, as I understood the world, faces only ever got to be so pale if they had been within an arm’s length of Death. “We’ve stopped everyone else who’s come along,” the coachman concluded. “It were me younger brother it took!” a middle-aged woman with red hair wailed, her husband and children huddled close. “My littlest one. My only girl,” a father whispered from the other end of the room. For the three days Eli and I had been here, he had confided in no one and no thing, save for his glass. “It had wings. Like a raven’s, but bigger. Didn’t it, boys?” said a rancher, who had ridden with the childless father. His partners concurred with somber mumbling. “It had lots of voices,” was what the Irish woman’s girl had to contribute, before being shushed. “The wind up and quits blowin’ when it’s near, that’s how you kin tell w-“ “You weren’t one of the ones what went there Zed, shut yer mouth!” “So,” the stranger finally cut in, having not let up for a moment with watching my Eli. “You ain’t been there for yourself.” “These people have no cause to lie,” Eli rationalized sternly. “No grounds to embellish such awful loss! Shame on you, insinuating they’re spreading falsehoods about the departed!” I could have struck him for his rashness, but against all expectations, the stranger did not appear to take offense. “Jist gittin’ the facts, son. I believe in ghosts myself. My issue was with givin’ it some highfalutin name that don’t do ‘em justice,” he clarified, prompting the coachman to furrow his brow and look down at his table. The man pushed off from the counter, glass in hand, of which he had drank very little. “I aim to see to my horse. Then I aim to be crossin’ that mountain pass by sundown. Anyone who rides with me will have my protection, I can guarantee.” Dead silence was the travelers’ answer to him. Without so much as a nod, he started for the door. It was I who let my voice be heard next. “We two,” I announced, Eli at my side. “We will join you.” “Don’t go with him!” With his outburst, the young cowboy Eli and I had kept company with immediately stole away the critical eyes (the stranger’s included) that had shifted to me when I spoke. “Don’t go with him,” the lad again advised. “I know him. I… I know you, mister. Now I was raised to let every man say his piece, but your word is not to be trusted.” When the stranger remained quiet, the cowboy yelled for all the town to hear. “If that there uniform didn’t already suade all you’uns, maybe knowin’ him by his name will! This man is Jonah Hex.” The title was of no significance to me, but a few of us (chiefly the men of Jonah Hex’s own age) looked, all at once, a sight more vengeful. I could tell then that Eli was making to move between me and the brewing contention, so I held him firmly in place. “I never socialized with you,” Hex calmly asserted to the incendiary. “I know you, even so. I heard you done plenty of killin’ for the rebels,” the cowboy accused. His thumb fidgeted at the hem of his coat. “You keep that hand off’n your belt, friend,” Hex warned. “I heard you defected, soon as you knew the rebels was losin’, just so you could do more killin’ for the other side.” “Y’don’t hear so good then. I ain’t stirrin’ up any hostilities, now or later.” The cowboy briefly regarded Eli and me out the corner of his eye. There was a fire within it. He returned his attention to Hex. “… You sometimes forget what color you’re wearin’, mister?” “No. I do not.” “Smug bastard,” the cowboy fumed. “Smug son of-“ The grey wolf was suddenly there in our midst, having been acutely aware of the mounting tension. It had clamped its fangs onto the young firebrand’s right wrist before the hand there attached could fully draw and aim its weapon. By some miracle, the pistol did not discharge in the process of clattering across the floorboards, at my shoes. Hex observed peaceably the great creature’s escorting of the cowboy in a complete circle with short, violent yanks. Every other person was still as a stone. When the cowboy attempted to box the wolf in the ear, it let go of the one arm in exchange for the left, and the lad took to hollering something terrible. “Hex!” was the only whole, intelligible word I could tell you was uttered. The grin Hex gave the cowboy was somehow more fiendish than the wolf’s own. “I can’t rightly guess what you’d appreciate me doin’.” “Call off the dog, for… GAH! In the name of God!” “Fool thing jist follows me around. I ain’t very well taught it to ‘drop’.” The cowboy’s whimpering had become difficult to stomach. “Then… then leave, please! Make it follow you!” Hex did not directly oblige. He ambled up to Eli and me, picking up the gun that had been cast aside. To say the least, it took me by surprise when the intimidating man, still facing us, holstered the weapon safely back into the boy’s belt. Hex growled (in a tribal language I did not know) what was presumably a command for the wolf. It’s eyes and jowls slackened, but it did not budge. Hex repeated the phrase more coarsely, and the beast unhooked itself from the cowboy’s poor arm right away, bounding back out the saloon, all aggression purged from its behavior. Hex then tendered what was barely discernible as an apology to the cowboy. “He weren’t so interested in listenin’. He don’t take to bein’ called ‘dog.’” The cowboy shook, in his ignominy, and in noting the wolf’s response. “Lyin’… you lyin’ snake-“ “Clean them bites. I ain’t had him looked at by one of them… veteran-Aryans, they call ‘em.” My laugh at Hex’s unknowing was rude, I knew, but it could not have been helped. He peered at me, and I composed myself; a gesture born of respect, mind you, not fear. I was certain of that then. I thought Eli too, in that instance, had begun to reevaluate just who this man was. “You say you two are goin’ over that ridge with me…” It was the faintest I had heard him speak. His question—the one yet unsaid—hung in the air as plainly as if he had finished; the question of why I, of all the people in Penance, was accepting of his offer. I replied with no insincerity. “I should not be glad to see you go alone.” I must have confused him immensely. He did not call me a fool, nor feel the need to remind Eli of his woman’s rightful place. It was but the most minute bow I earned, as the bartender had received earlier. Just then the posse of ranchers was collecting their belongings and heading out to their coach. The one who had previously chipped in now addressed Hex. “We’ll be going too. We won’t be having that thing take any more of us,” he affirmed. A stout yet meek-looking man seated by a window got up, hat in hand. “They sent word from Oregon that my mother is ill. I… I can’t wait here, not another day.” The pale boy that had been orphaned not a week prior ran to where Hex was standing, abandoning the elderly coachman that had taken the child under his wing. The driver pleaded for him, to no avail. “I won’t stay!” the boy shouted defiantly. “My father was Brom Cavender, and he was not a coward or a nobody! I am Hadley Cavender, and neither shall I be a coward or a nobody!” The coachman’s defeat was in his eyes when he, next, reasoned with Hex. “He came back from the mountain by himself. All covered in blood he was. The boy has no more family he knows of, anywhere, and you see, I… have a duty to stay with the family I set out with. … See to it that Hadley settles in a decent town, where he will be cared for.” “That I will,” was Hex’s pledge. All appeared to be resolved with the details of our venture, and so Eli and I were prepared to make our way to our coach, with or without our cowboy associate who now carried a considerable grudge. Jonah Hex impeded us, however, with a gently raised glove and an astonishingly penitent expression. “Seems as though I won’t be a’tall lonesome. Aught to set yourselves down here, see if some soldiers don’t pass through and hep you better’n I can.” “No,” Eli cleared up with haste. “We’ll go, if it’s all the same to you.” “Well then,” Hex muttered quite vacuously, apparently unaccustomed to denial delivered in such a non-confrontational manner. Likewise, contrasting his bullying of the cowboy, he sounded apologetic, properly so; on what basis, I could only speculate. I did not think the courtesy towards me necessary. A sporting lady (perhaps the only one living and working in Penance at the time) emerged from the back of the room, draped herself about a post supporting the ceiling and sang after Hex, who was no nearer to exiting, past all the delays. “There’s no sense in rushin’ off just yet,” she beamed. “Why not leave in the morning?” “Can’t, missy. I already have a lady to attend,” Hex dismissed, waving his water beyond the saloon’s entrance, suggesting he had some intention to quench his horse straight from the glass itself. “I wouldn’t be unfaithful. She’s a woman I know I can lean on. ‘sides that, she has a finer rump than you.” As I said, he was undoubtedly the strangest stranger that ever there was. *** True to our words, those of us claiming the audacity to weather whatever devilry had beset the westward hills did just that. We withdrew from Penance as the sky grew tired and Mr. Hex grew more surly, suffering the impediments of some of us reviewing our luggage twice, or bidding the town a farewell lengthier than a blink. Twenty minutes on, from the start of our excursion, left Penance nothing but a candlelight in the sea of sand and grass at our backs. The ridge there that our sights were set on taunted us for every step our horses took. I conjured, that night, the irrational belief that the ever-growing mountain was, in no uncertain terms, eager to blot out what precious sunlight we had remaining; it is a conviction I hold to this day, for no scripture or trust in a Savior has since quelled the concern in me that the earth, on that particular evening, in that particular place, was itself evil. We had, as our convoy, fewer than a dozen ranchers; some, atop their own steeds, and others at the reins of the three stagecoaches. Eli and I rode in a fourth. Our young cowboy had elected to stay behind, with his pride so bruised, even when Eli had promised to him that there would be no incentive to answer to Mr. Hex, in any capacity, for the journey’s duration. Thusly, the lead rancher (whose named we learned was Amos) was our new courier. Same as the two other couples on this trip, Eli and I were instructed not to leave our compartment for any occasion, as we were perceived to be most ill-equipped for the dangers the hardened riders knew to be lying ahead. I alone knew Eli owned a firearm, and could cleanly hit his mark from a respectable distance. Hadley, the boy, shared our cab. He did not fill the air with endearing contemplations that I might have assumed all children his age had in abundance. Neither did he show overt grief, in returning to the site of his family’s tragic and senseless murder. Instead he was intensely fixated on Hex’s revolvers, swinging at the veteran’s hips as his horse kept pace with us. Hex caught wind of the goggling shortly thereafter, and cast a scowl at the boy. “My father could shoot,” was Hadley’s defense. “Hell of a lot of men could. That’s why so damn many of ‘em ain’t around to shoot,” Hex droned, unimpressed. By this time, the mere hours in which I had had dealings with Jonah Hex told me there was no requisite of inuring myself to him. Elsewhere, the entirety of my life, there had been in effect an ordinance for me to hold my tongue. “You need not be crass with him.” Upon reproving Hex’s methods, the most unreservedly gratifying thing occurred: A man, older and more seasoned than I, listened to my words. That Southern cavalryman, with his burns and cuts, looking as mean as a cornered bear, simply surveyed for several moments the last sliver of sun which shone over the crags and drifts of our mountainous obstruction. He had an air of rumination about him, and took a long breath before responding. “The way I seen it, boys grow up to die young, if’n y’don’t teach ‘em how things are.” Eli tugged at my sleeve discreetly, wanting no trouble to arise. “There is a time for compassion, also, Mr. Hex. When a boy could benefit from a little understanding, rather than further indelicacy. Both are rudimentary to a child’s upbringing,” I declared. Hadley and Eli were silent. Hex wrung the leather reins in his hands and squinted (more than he did by nature), but eventually relaxed in his saddle; a concession of having been bested. “You speak real finely, miss.” “And you do not, sir.” Mr. Hex let out an amused grunt. “What do I call you other’n ‘miss’ then?” he inquired, misconstruing my objections to his conduct. I smiled. “‘Euryale’ is my name.” Hex tried unsuccessfully to interpret the pronunciation. “… ‘My eye’s a’ what, now?” “‘Eu-rya-le’,” Eli annunciated, fondly. “It means she will ‘roam far.’” “Strange,” decided Hex, hardly the one to comment on such things. I expounded. “Its origins lie in a very old story; a Greek narrative, that my father came across, and passed on to me.” “And your father, he could read,” Hex inferred. He said it cautiously, not disbelieving-like. “My father was smarter than most cared to notice. Yes, he did read. Texts and poems, journals… anything that he knew the master of our plantation would not recognize as being misplaced, in the time we required to finish them.” Eli seized my hand again, when realizing the memories had upset me. I found inside myself the will to disclose, “He only took the stories for my siblings and me. We begged for them, not knowing what he risked.” “Your master let you keep that name?” Hadley redirected, skeptical. He was so very young, and I could not be cross with him. “The plantation’s owner and his family had their own name for me, but it was not mine. … Would you like to hear the story that my name comes from?” Hadley seemed invested. “Euryale was not the hero of the tale, nor the focus, for that matter. Her sister, Medusa, was wronged by a being she could never hope to have authority over. The story says that he was a deity, but he was wicked, instead of benevolent like our God. For the infraction she did not commit, Medusa was blamed by others of the false idol’s kind. A sorceress among them cursed Medusa to be a loathsome monster, never to have another commiserate her; to but look at her face, then, would turn one to stone.” There, I paused, to enjoy Hadley’s rapture, Eli’s warmth… Hex, even, leaned suspiciously on his mount, intrigued. His wolf, trotting dutifully near his stirrup for the past hour, stared at him with its giant orange eyes. And while it was a simple animal, Hex became ill at ease, conscious of himself, and he sneered at the creature. “As fate would have it, Medusa would find consolation in her sisters: Stheno and Euryale. Though they were gifted with remarkable longevity, and though they were free of the guilt that the corrupt rulers had ascribed to Medusa, the sisters chose to stand with her, and bear the same undue punishment. … And so, you see, there is dignity to be found in those demonized by history. I cherish my name, for this reason.” Hadley frowned at the conclusion. “But… no one saved them? What did the monsters look like?” “You’ve neglected what younger ears gather from stories,” Eli chaffed quietly. “Boys’ ears, perhaps,” I retorted, turning my nose up at him. It had all been in good humor. Eli smirked and apprised Hadley. “Listen here then, Hadley. These sisters grew tusks, like those elephants you may’ve seen at the circus have. And their hair, it was replaced by snakes, bigger than rattlers…” I adored Eli so, for his gift of preoccupying small ones; Hadley was soon lost in his regaling of heroes and quests from across oceans, and I, paying no mind to the menace of hills before us, discovered there was solace to be had. I composed a silent prayer for those safeguarding our expedition, as well as those of us being transported with bated breath and far less steely resolve. Jonah Hex watched me do so. He had adopted a curiously approving countenance. “It’s a fittin’ name… miss.” *** Palpable, suffocating darkness was now the usher of our caravan. No more was Penance a beacon to us. With our riders’ torches revealing the primitive trail only a yard or so around us, and the discontinuity of stars alone defining land from sky, it was hard to guess the span of wilderness that we had yet to brave, if we were to reach the ridge’s summit. Our climb was steady. Hadley had fallen asleep between Eli and me, exhausted by stories and the monotonous trek. Some ranchers endeavored to establish if we had already passed the rise on which they had, a week ago, faced their malicious spirit; the fretting and deliberating proved to excite the husband and wife riding in the coach behind us, and it necessitated a scolding from Amos for them all to keep their heads. He then called to us from his perch in the driver’s box; he did so in a gravelly timbre, so as to not again ignite any alarm. “We’re twenty minutes from the peak, y’hear? … You both seem sensible, so I should tell you, this is about where my company saw… it, when first we rode. But, you rest easy now; we heard weird things then, long before it finally took the Rainer girl. This time, I haven’t seen OR heard anything.” “Neither’ve I,” came Hex’s drawl, his mare’s gait matching Amos’ position. “But it don’t make me ‘rest easy.’ There ain’t no critters anywhere in these hills, ‘part from us.” Amos tossed the reins and jutted his chin out at the animals there harnessed. “Horses look at peace. No better judges of surroundings than them, I’ve learned.” “I think,” Eli proposed, “… we would feel it also, if something unholy walked this region, this day. Our souls, not our worldly perceptions, would warn us.” I drew Eli’s eyes to mine. “You say you do NOT feel anything now? Then I envy you, and pray my own intuitions are misguided.” Eli pondered this. I hugged Hadley’s bobbing head to my dress’ collar. “… I pray there are better lives waiting for us all, past this mountain.” “What got you both hightailin’ west, trouble? You findin’ one of your families?” Hex pressed. “We heard tell of the river,” Eli shared. “A grand one, just over this range. You’re right, sir; we are seeking Euryale’s family. They may be there.” “They surely may be,” mused Hex. “Railroad made it to that town some years back, can’t recall how many. Good a place as any to settle, when you’re fixin’ to git hitched-“ “Mr. Hex!” Eli and I drowned him out in unison; we were boisterous enough to rouse poor Hadley. Hex’s forthright ways could fluster most anyone, and I do not mind saying that I, who welcomed his candor in many aspects, was no exception. Unsure of who else had been attentive to Hex’s maundering, namely Amos, Eli readied to mend the conversation. “… You know same as all of us, Mr. Hex, a boy and a girl like us wouldn’t… even if there weren’t laws, it would not be correct for-“ “Why in tarnation not? What laws?!” Hex’s puzzlement was earnest. I grabbed the coach’s door and pulled my head outside. “Mr. Hex, PLEASE. This is not to be discussed at these volumes.” This conciliated Hex, though he was still none the wiser to the realities that Eli and I withstood regularly. “I’d like it not to be left open-ended; Euryale and myself wouldn’t dream of carrying out an ambition so… outlandish,” Eli fibbed. It was intended to appease Amos, should he have been attuned to the subject. The rancher’s acknowledgement drifted in our cab’s window with plumes of dust being kicked up by the horses. “Needn’t be afraid of what I think. I’m a simple farmhand, born and raised. Never had big ideas, like them congressmen, ‘bout what men can and can’t do.” Amos freed a hand from his steering and patted our roof comfortingly. “I’ll keep your secret. But tell me, son.. you really couldn’t find a filly more like you?” Our driver cackled at his own joke, unaware Eli felt equally insulted as I. “I shouldn’t need find a woman more like me,” Eli maintained, reaching over Hadley and brushing a lock of hair from my temple. “I’d just a’soon find the one I love.” Hadley wrinkled his nose, swiftly coaxing us away from our seriousness. Hex bent in alongside the coach, grimly preparing his next words. “You don’t have kin in Green River, then.” “She has no kin to speak of, now,” Eli confessed. “Mine… I disowned. Being that they couldn’t see the war was over. Or that a war was had at all.” As Eli had come to my aid many a time when I evoked my past, so did I come to his. I knew he must have been remembering his brother, when his blood ran cold in my grip on his arm. He swallowed, then faced Hex, who waited patiently. “Euryale and I, we crossed paths a year after the fighting. And maybe it won’t be in Green River, but we’re going to make a home for ourselves, in one town or the next,” Eli vowed with determination. “See that you don’t run outta country,” Hex bade us heavily. “HOLD! WHOA, WHOA!” At the foremost rider’s cry, our progress was halted. Hex jolted out of his repose, startling me with just how quickly the enmity and dogged constitution could return to him. From my seat, I saw our scout wrestling with his horse, which stamped nervously to and fro, bellowing, and frothing through its halter bit. The man swung her about, and jerked towards two other ranchers. Their rallying devolved into frenzied hisses and jeers, keeping us others in suspense. “What is it?” Amos barked. “Euryale?” Hadley stammered my name, pawing at my arm. “I won’t tell anyone you want to marry Eli.” “Thank you Hadley, that is kind,” I validated, hoping he would be heartened. He jumped from our seat and joined Eli by the right-side door. They craned their necks to deduce the hinderance ahead. Amos’ already fragile tact was waning. “Well?! What’d he see?” “He says, ‘a man!’” one rifleman reported. Hex’s wolf sniffed the night breeze; docile, though alert. Its owner noticed I had become chilled, and, remiss in his deed, Hex began to offer me his coat. I eyed the article, unable to gracefully put into words his oversight. My speechlessness led Hex to comprehending just as well. He donned the coat, frustrated. “I weren’t thinkin’.” “No, please,” I interrupted, “ … I cannot accept the thought of wearing those colors, but know that I do not think of you, and their connotations, as inseparable.” Hex emoted not at all. “You do not… represent that side of history,” I rephrased. Amos continuously interrogated his fellow ranchers; the account, growing no more coherent. “You say the man didn’t walk, now how is it that he’s in a different place than where you spotted him?” “It… DIDn’t walk, it moved without walkin’, I try to tell yeh!” I looked at Hex ardently. “You do not wear them because you are proud; you wear them because you are not.” … “I think it is a merciless thing, what retribution you have placed upon yourself.” “Do you now?” “Do you not imagine your judgement should be left to more righteous hands?” I implored further. “No ma’am.” “Why is that?” “God weren’t there… that day.” I was to unearth no more of Hex’s background, for at that moment, an unannounced, malign rush of dread overcame us all. It was not at all comparable to wind, no; the air was venomous. I saw that the sensation was not all my own when Eli took on a pallor so chalky that it could have been distinguished with or without the assistance of a lamp. From behind and beyond our cab, disturbed yelps from men and women alike rang out. Hex’s horse reared, and his wolf skulked at the coach’s wheel, no longer the formidable predator we beheld in Penance. A shot punctuated the tumult, and then more followed. I hauled Hadley to the floor instinctively. “In the brush! Kill it!” “Where?!” “Hold your fire!” “It’s circlin’ behind us!” Eli had not drawn his gun. “Mr. Hex! Can you see it?” I lay prone. Shielding Hadley’s face, I tipped the nearest door slightly ajar. Hex had momentarily restrained his frantic mare by grasping her bridle itself and running a hand down her cheek. Had he been a second faster, he may have evaded another horse—this one, having succeeded in throwing its rider—which bucked madly and collided with the pair. Hex’s leg was pinned by the beasts’ flanks, while the bronco viciously bit his mare’s shoulder. She shrieked in an appallingly human way, and all three thrashed on the ground. The righthand window of our coach was splintered by an unseen force. Eli thrust Hadley and I out of the transport as we were showered in debris. Impacting the cool dirt blurred my vision, but, for the rest of my days I shall remember, with absolute lucidity, the sight of our horses engulfed in a fire that burst forth from below their hooves, and the coach upending; hurled, like a toy. Amos was propelled along with it. Hadley was not in my arms. I crawled through the billowing haze, and spied Hex wrenching his heel from the saddle cinch as his mare righted herself, and galloped away, utterly crazed. She corrected her flight too late, tumbling over a fatally-steep slope. There was distant whinnying, and then nothing at all. The abstruse battle had dissolved. I now ask of all those immersed in this tale to grant their credence generously. For the gossiping and prating surrounding this mountain range, and that which had circulated Penance, was far from unfounded. It was our luckless host’s lot to encounter, on that thirty-first day of October, the horror that Hadley, Amos and the other men had once survived, and all that remains to be read, here, is a documentation of stark savagery, and of woe. Over the crest of the ridge stood what one might have mistook for a man. I should say, moreover, one might have mistook it for standing. It in fact was not. It was faintly silhouetted against the inky sky, but my eyes were acclimated well enough to the environment by that time that I may now soundly state that a body, brittle and decaying, hung there by a noose lashed around its throat. Light zephyrs traversing the hills made the cadaver oscillate, and the toes of its boots traced the sand lazily. Its twisting rope stretched on and on into the cavernous black above, as though it were puppeteered by some cruel divinity. Eli, Hex and all the rest were forgotten for an instant. I could not move of my own volition. The aura of our enemy was crushing, relentless, nearly insurmountable. In our company was some unearthly thing not accounted for by the confines of sanity, and only by the grace of God was I able to bring myself to renounce the consuming void. Our coach, and one other, were irreparable, scorched masses, scattered like seeds. A third, I saw speeding down the mountain, with those left behind given up for dead. The fourth was overturned, and I recognized, scrambling out of it, the man who sought to reach Oregon. He sobbed and held a palm out at the phantom; it had neared, without my realizing it. Tears streamed from underneath the stout man’s spectacles. “Please Ma… I’m coming home now. I know I was away, but I-I… there was the war. We stopped the rebs. I’m coming home now. You can’t go. You ain’t s-seen the medal your son got yet.” Like a diseased marionette, the apparition dangled a shadowed arm out to the man at its feet. The son, and former soldier, was reduced to a tortured child before my eyes. His audible anguish stabbed at the still of the night. “Back, devil!” Recovered from his ridicule, and with bandaged forearms, it was our young cowboy: racing up the path on horseback, taking aim at the foul wraith. Two bullets were fired; one buried itself in the soil, while the other punched neatly through the desired target’s lapel. It absorbed the projectile like the lifeless husk it was. The cowboy was forty yards off and closing in, lining up his third shot. A gleam was visible in his eyes, even from this distance. “Fire and brimstone unto you, you-“ Flame from the nearby wreckage swelled, licking the cowboy’s face; it had done so with undeniably hostile intent directing it, shifting not as a natural blaze should. The lad writhed and slipped off his mount, brutally coming to rest in a shallow ditch. I screamed for Mr. Hex. He had been dragged so carelessly by his mare that he was recuperating with great toil. He coughed, and laboriously rolled onto his stomach. I knew there would be no time for Hex to intervene. The cowboy pointed his gun, using his one intact arm, and he drew a bead on his foe, using his one unimpaired eye. The hanged thing performed a stiff, swiping motion, and the nails, harnesses and varied metal objects littering the ground rose as one, contorting and melting into one another to form a long, pitted stave. It leveled with the cowboy’s skull. He cocked his pistol’s hammer. The spear darted at its victim, but I watched as Hex’s wolf, battered and singed, leapt into view and foiled the lethal blow, which glanced off the canine’s haunch. A howl died in the animal’s lungs, and it crashed to the earth at the cowboy’s side. The cowboy’s chest heaved, then the beast’s. They were alive. Our attacker made no effort to try again. It lingered in subdued obstinacy; swaying, and crackling with rot all the while. The ashes and planks of our coach buckled, and Eli appeared beneath them, partially pulling himself loose. Relief flooded my soul. He choked my name, but neither he nor I dared to run to the other to embrace; the ghost had glided, on its macabre leash, squarely between us. It then spun in my direction. “No! Euryale!” Eli rummaged for his weapon, but his hip and holster were still trapped under much of the coach’s remnants. I waved him off, recalling the cowboy. “Don’t shoot at it!” I was prepared to die, but not ready to. The dark shape was two body’s lengths away, obscuring Eli. I kept my head high; were this the Devil, it would be in his nature to savor one’s groveling, and I would permit him no such satisfaction. By now, I was hearing its “breathing,” were that the unbroken, low whistle issuing from behind its drooping brim. This was when Hadley stepped out of the clouds of smoke corralling the scene of our impasse. The boy was, with hands atremble, wielding one of Hex’s revolvers, which had been mislaid during the horses’ skirmish. “Don’t, Hadley! Get away from it!” Eli exhorted. I tried to be resilient, for Hadley; he was disconcerted enough as he was. “Go to Eli!” Hex was on one knee, rasping, clenching his ribs like they might fall away without his care. His eyes widened, once seeing Hadley and his objective, and the man opened his mouth to prevent the impending threat; a deep, thick red spilled out instead. Three of Hadley’s fingers encircled the trigger. “I can kill it…” the boy grimaced. “Hadley, stop!” The ghost’s knotted neck rotated to where the child had boldly planted himself. Hadley seized up, and all the world hesitated with him. The flames may have frozen, too; I could not be sure. Quaking, Hadley slowly repositioned his shot. The barrel was trained on me. Hex staggered upright. Eli panicked. “EURYALE!” “What’re you doin’, son…” said Hex, hauntingly. Hadley’s lip quivered. “It’s them.” “Speak up,” Hex told him sharply. “My father w-wasn’t a liar.” “… We ain’t of any such opinion-” “It’s them,” Hadley seethed, in a voice that both was and was not his own. His hold on his weapon tightened. “They betrayed us, our good work and our food. They left with the Yankees. And the land came to death. They ruined us.” “You’re not shootin’ my gun. You hearin’ me?” “DAMN THIS-“ Eli failed again to lever the boards from his back. “EURYALE!” “Let Hadley go,” I demanded of the suspended body. It creaked and danced, in an abrupt gale that ate through to my core. The thing tricked no one, playing dead. Hadley straightened with a shudder. “They have no right. No rights.” “NO!” Eli roared. Hex had been thirty paces from Hadley, but had crept up to twenty. The man’s eyes narrowed. “Ain’t none of us have a right to be here. We jist are.” “My father didn’t lie to me.” “SHOOT IT, HEX!” “I forgive him, Lord,” I whispered. “It is not his doing.” Something akin to words seeped out of the ghost: “indulge me… indulge in me” This was heeded not by Hex. “Put my gun down.” “They’re not human.” “You’re not shootin’ anybody.” “My father doesn’t have a coward for a son.” The muzzle of Hadley’s gun twitched. Its mechanism ticked. There was a pop. Hex had drawn. Hadley was sprawled in the dirt. I forgot any need to be wary in the presence of the hanging reaper; caring little if I were snatched up by its malevolent thrall, I threw myself to Hadley. I desperately checked his heartbeat. My despair was like no other I have harbored in my lifetime; a maroon badge pooled on his breast. Hex dropped his revolver. Eli was unresponsive, gazing at our dismal spectacle. I cradled Hadley, staining my clothes. “What have you done, Jonah Hex?” “Hey you,” the gunslinger rumbled. I was shaken to see him studying me, and my mournful burden. Hate was etched into him, every inch. I understood, though, that it was not a hatred for us; perhaps, not even for the entity taunting Hex from over his shoulder. Not all of it, anyhow. Hex turned to the dormant oblivion. His bearing was soft; pacifying, even. It made his acid tone considerably more disquieting. “I’m supposin’, if I were to shoot you, you wouldn’t be so accommodatin’ as to die.” The morbid pendulum rocked a stride closer. “’t’sa shame. That arrangement sounds mighty agreeable to me.” Amos stumbled forward, dazed, and coated in soot. One proper look at our spectral nemesis coerced the rancher into groping for his gun, but I, supporting Hadley, mouthed “no” and shook my head vehemently. Amos reluctantly eased, gave a melancholic glance to the body I carried, and then proceeded to Eli to release him from his prison; beyond their chore, they were transfixed, as I was, by Hex advancing on the anomalous evil. “See, you jist killed my horse, and you made me shoot a boy who weren’t responsible for hisself. And I’m findin’ no excuses whatsoever not to take you by that big fuckin’ necktie of yours and haul your chickenshit hide back to hell. Not-a-one.” A dull groan escaped his opponent. “Real ornery feller. But you’re a small feller also, ain’t you?” The ghost’s rope strained, deafeningly so. I gathered Hex had infuriated whatever sinister will manipulated it. The space between the two of them wavered, rippling like a pond. The effect swept over Hex, but no unfavorable consequences came of this; he continued his serene walk. “Filth,” Hex spat. “What you think you can show me I don’t already see every day?” The air stirred a second time. “Jeb don’t blame me for Fort Charlotte. He’s wrong not to, but he don’t blame me.” A third time, the villain unleashed its witchcraft, whose impurity found its way to me as it did Hex. Flashes of my family invaded my mind. They never experienced a life outside of the plantation. I fled without them. left them to die… No. I did. I did not. “White Fawn done what she done. I couldn’ta stopped her. She were too free a spirit,” snarled Hex. “You’re nothin’. You have nothin’. I know what you really are.” Eli was at last freed, and he hastened to me, aware of my disorientation. I saw truth and decency again when he enfolded me. We held Hadley, together. Jonah Hex was a single step from it, now. Another jet of fire, wreathing with sentience, erupted from the earth and almost slashed through his torso, but it fell short. Hex deliberately plunged his arm into it, as a demonstration of contempt. He sustained sparse injuries, for the flame recoiled at his touch. “It’s not a war when it’s one side that’s fightin’.” The corpse’s dried bones clacked beneath its garb, and it crooned to Hex in a horrid, pealing chant, not unlike it was spoken from inside a hollowed-out tree: “it comes ever naturally to your ilk… your trivial desires… your infantile bickering, clawing… you and all my cousins’ bastard creations, affronts… you will always be so good at it… for me” Its withered fingers extended, but Hex nabbed the wrists, forcing them apart. I could swear to you now, even by the paltry light of Amos’ lantern and what little help the moon was providing through the canopy of fog, that the figure wore the Union Army’s blue on one sleeve, and grey on the other, like Hex himself bore. The cavalryman pulled the hanging atrocity toe-to-toe with himself. “Best be gittin’, now. It’s the dead stayin’ dead, what scares me.” Thunderous percussions—similar to those of drums, and not of a storm—sounded over the land. The sky bowed and fluctuated about the astral tether belonging to Hex’s captive, and, as equivocally as it had surfaced, the blight then receded into thin air. The man who had vanquished it was left there: fists empty, panting, with twice as many lesions and contusions as he had before sunset. I wish I could tell you there was an ambiance of resolution to accompany the victory, but this was not so. Embers, and the fetor of burnt horses’ flesh, stung our senses. The night was dense. A downcast Amos relieved me of Hadley, after trying and failing to express his condolences. I initially resisted surrendering my charge, until Eli persuaded me to with a shivering hand cupped on mine. The stout man had collected himself, and gotten our cowboy to his unsteady feet; over and over (but expecting no reply), they both questioned in manic tones what we had all witnessed still living, lurking, feeding, here in the vast frontier of America. Jonah Hex trod to the cliff where his mare had met her end; on his way, he stooped but once to retrieve the weapon he had used that evening. Eli and I trailed him. “Mr. Hex…” Eli disturbed his grieving. “We’d like you to know… we know what you done for us, and I thank-“ Hex’s revolver snapped to Eli’s brow. We were in shock; immobilized, and struck dumb by the act. “You ever ended a life, son?” Eli was unflinching. “No sir, I haven’t.” Hex moved close to Eli’s face. Marring the man’s features, in addition to those terrible abrasions, was the same outrage he had fostered before. His triumph over the demon had not soothed his conscience in the least. “Don’t you thank me for what I done. Don’t you ever thank a man for killin’ for you. You can’t know what they gave up.” He was broken, a thousand times over. I was sorry for him, truly; therefore I was taken aback by my own immodesty, which ensued once Hex lowered his gun. My memory of this night is vague only here, and though I know I am accountable, I wish it were true that I was scarcely in control of the regrettable words that passed my lips. “I would not thank you,” I swore fiercely. “Not in all the years I have left will I thank you, for choosing my life over another. He was a boy, Jonah Hex!” I refused Eli’s arm shepherding me away, pushing it aside. “My life was payed for by the blood of One other… and you have made it so my life has been payed for by the blood of two. I would have died in Hadley’s stead, but you are selfish, and arrogant and you dispense death on a whim. No, you will not have my gratitude or forgiveness.” I fear I must have hit him, or chastised him with more profane language than I can admit to using, myself. Hex justified himself in no way, standing as a statue would. Amos had rounded up a spooked horse and mounted, with Hadley enclosed securely in front of him. “I’ll ride back to Penance, and tell everyone… tell everyone the way is clear.” “And we’ll stay here. If that monster shows itself again, we know how to fight it,” the stout man ensured. The young cowboy nodded. Hex’s wolf limped to him. He stroked its ear, then worked up the nerve to look at Eli and me. “I’ll be takin’ you to Green River,” he croaked. And so he did. *** We did not speak to our scarred stranger for all the remainder of the journey. He led our horses to town. Without us asking, he gruffly convinced the local hostelry to provide Eli and me with rooms. Then he rode west; a wolf in tow, and a heavy coat on his back. Eli and I would find lasting sanctuary in a mission, in the heart of Arizona territory. It was 1882 by then. Our son Hadley would come to us in the summertime of 1883. I pray as I have prayed in these many years since, that Mr. Jonah Hex did cease to be that man all in grey, that never did let another tend to his wounds.

Woman In The Window Review Guardian,
The Woman In The Window Book Review Guardian,

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