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09: The War Path

What is Buffalo Bill’s Mafia? Glad you asked. It’s a weekly fan-fiction series that transforms real-life events important to Bills Fans everywhere into a fun, action-packed mythology story

- A legendary tale for a Legendary Team.


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Previously: Neighboring Steel Salesmen warn the Bill’s Mafia that their dominance in this Wild West World is being challenged by the cult-like War Chiefs of Arrow Head Rock. While the Gunslinger wants nothing more than to avenge his fallen horse Filly, killed by the chiefs - General Beane forbids premature war. Instead, Josh & two loyal companions pursue a mysterious Blacksmith from another era.




09: Weak Six

The War Path

by Travis Carlson







1


“Look to the West.”

Once, in the Near Ages, the Gunslinger heard the words and opened his eyes.

Brown eyes. Dilating in the dust. Squinting in the sun.

“What do you see?” Asked the voice.

Everything, thought Josh.



The emerald Niagara Mountains with white snow peaks. The fossilized rim trail of the Grand Gorge. The long shadows of the Letchworth Buttes. Twin crescent moons, like ivory ribs, floated toward the Erie Basin.

Utah Davis and Gardener Dawkins went back-and-forth pointing out each landmark to the figure they came upon in the stream. Josh didn’t talk or turn. He breathed in as deep as he could the warm-autumn smell.

Everything.

The Great Buffalo Nation.

The Bill’s trio may be two day’s ride from New Fort York and Allentown but they were still surrounded by spoils of a world rich with water and Dignity.

“Home,” said Josh, turning to face the figure again.

“Very well,” said this elder, “Home. Ya’r home. Ma’ home. Our home!” He was a bit of a mystery, back turned, working a fish trap in the stream. You hardly notice that though, instead all eyes were fixed on his red cap. A native glengarry of red velvet sewn with intricate beadwork that seemed to grow into floral patterns and a blue bison. Nature made into culture made into story.



Without turning this hat to the trio he asked, “Tell me, do ya’ see any ditches, Hayë:twas? Or a trench?”

“No, sir,” said Dawkins. The man wound a string on the trap.

“‘Ah, a wall perhaps? Tall and endless upon the plains, Hotgáëö’?”

Utah Davis looked out to see what he could mean.

Nothing but the staggering scale of nature. Perhaps no man made interference at all, “No wall that I can see.” Josh wondered how this Sachem knew to call them gardeners and spy-guards and…

“Ha’ya:s, how about a standing army with gunslinger knights on patrol?”

“No,” said Josh, no need to look.

The hunched elder stopped winding and slowly rose to stand straight in the stream. He moved up, leaves fell down. Water splashed and gurgled as high as his knees, but he didn’t budge.

Ideas.”

The distant recluse they had randomly come upon while watering the horses with his red cap turned.

Utah Davis caught his breath. Ideas, alright.

It was the legendary Sachem Reed of the Deer Clan.



A hero of the ancient Battle of Comme Back, turning-the-tide of bloodshed with three critical strikes embedded within enemy lines. He counted coup on more enemies in his offensive than all but one agent in the entire Near Ages. And, he gestured gracefully as he spoke.

“Our world is too mighty for walls. Our minds too expansive for patrol. You a’ task to defend a frontier, a People greater than the scale of force…Ideas are our defense.”

“Like, stories? Ideas of who we are?”

“Of what we’ll do?” Asked Dawkins and Davis.

“True stories fly as far as the wind and hold heavier than rock,” said Sachem Reed. “Hear me. A true story is the gravity of the mind. Nothing quiets an enemy more than the knowledge that a great power will overtake them, not even a battle in which they are being overtaken if they don’t hold that knowledge.” He pointed high up to the pines, “It is the idea that jumping from a redwood will break our skulls that keep us off more than the sharpness of her needles. In our free hearts, in our un-defendable Wests, the storyline, is the borderline.”

“Why do you grant us this wisdom, Sachem?” Asked Josh, the Ha’ya:s of Allentown. He knew orators of this caliber do not speak on accident, nor do they trap at midday when the fish are at their deepest. Josh already knew something wasn’t right. Sachem Reed had scouted them.

“When ya’ looked to the West, you could not see everything.”

In a sudden flash Reed cut the surface of the water. A samurai twist. Exploding water flecks still rose as his trap lifted. Four fish bounced inside.

“Another story moves.”




2


The red cap of Reed

...moved quickly through the forest. A brace of fish dripped steady behind. Josh thought he heard this chief whisper about something called, “The Book of Smitten,” but his suspicions blurred into distraction by Reed’s Deer Clan pace. Now they were the fish swimming a stream of wind in the forest.

Is there a heron trap over our surface?

A hunter who survived four Super Collapses?

It wasn’t suspicion, it was flat out fear flowering from roots of insecurity. Super Collapses!? He wasn’t even sure if he billieved in them yet, (despite Four-Zero’s testimony and whirlwind of occurrences that made it seem like anything could happen). Josh was just starting to grasp this season of seventeen Weaks that connected the Near Ages like bridges across worlds. It was only 5 weeks ago this Homesteader’s boy was introduced to the concept that bedtime stories like Machine Gun Kelly and the Hero Wars might be based in fact. Now he smashed through undergrowth to keep up with Kelly’s own super spy!

We’re not in Kansas anymore, Josh thought, as another bedtime story once quipped.



What a paradox - to be running full speed for all of one’s life toward one destination, a Super Collapse, that you can’t even discern as reality, religion or both.

He’d figure it out when he got there.

Him and, only, the entire population of Mafiafolk who wanted nothing more than to consecrate their home with a Super Collapse.

But not from the usual glands of greed, gloat and glamor.

Not this time, at least not most of it.

He just wanted good.

To be good, do good, feel good and make good, for goodness sake.

If one doesn’t hail from an ancient bloodline of collective insecurity it may be difficult to fathom just how much commitment one will wager for a shot at a baseline. Just a chance out of the bad, for good.

The Storytelling Stone has recorded it through time. That cruel, crooked and hard-luck worlds both bigger and smaller become sanctified over-and-over as acceptable members of the collective. And the Great Buffalo Nation Josh loved, was not, ever.

Josh watched Utah Davis jog the slope of the trail as he contemplated the steps the Nation had been noticed for.

For disasters, step.

For universe-critical assassinations, slip.

For record-setting droughts; trip, scrape and skid.

For bankrupting a generation, for generating blank options; for losing the four, the Hero Wars. And for now, even in his era of rebirth, 10 Mafiafolk, who did nothing but show and deserve love, fall victim to a coward’s attack.

Oblivion clutters the war chest. Headstones bow naked of medals.

Josh stared at his brother’s face, a reflection of them all.

Every realm faces struggle and obstacles and many garner motivation to fight, bite and smite them. But it is not everyone, not every nation, who look up to a parent for notice and to feel they are useless.

Some bloodlines pump a true story as far as their winds and as heavy as gravity.

A story of no illusions.

A story of bastards.

Josh, of the Homestead, lifted Davis by his armpits and tapped him forward again.

“Thanks Gunslinger, wasn’t sure what to do.”

It’s a story where the stakes are simply: to be recognized as normal. Where each character is born a hero who will sacrifice years in an instinctual drive to make good people proud of their home.

Ya’r homes. Our homes.

Ma’ Homes.

What did it mean? For a universe of infinite time and ages and stories to see their precious Buffalo the way they did? To matter?

“Everything.” Josh of Allentown said out loud.

The trotting Sachem with something to hide had been closer than anyone.

He would know the path.

Just try to keep up!




3


Utah Davis was back in first pursuit,

...on purpose, with a boyish glee. Josh, still distant, noticed but didn’t mention the care that this young spy took to walk in the exact footprints of the legend before him.

He imagined it meant a lot for Davis to be here with a rare Elder-Hero, without Diggs taking first-fiddle for once.

Dawkins whispered to Davis, “Where would you rather be, than right here, right now?”

The quartet hurtled fallen tree-trunks, forded a tributary and slid down a sandstone chute. They left a conifer forest onto an expansive prairie.

Josh was close enough to shout to their leader, “With all due billief, ha’nih, if the story you speak of is the War Chiefs beyond the borderlands, we know of them. I know of them already.

“Is it so?”

“Our Mafia is well-poised to intercept them if they take a single step onto our land.”

“I know your story.”

“Yes, they send taunts with neighbors who have no choice but to be fearful, but that is the closest they will get, Sir,” added Utah Davis. Dawkins checked the tattoo markings on his chest to confirm, “They’ve only crossed the border once in eight years.”

So that’s how he knows his dates so well, thought Josh.

“Even more then - this must be added to ya’ report.” Said Sachem Reed.

“What report is that?” Asked Josh.

“You just said it, you are an advance scout…to confront these rampant War Chiefs.”

“We are not. Unfortunately. But we will bring any message you wish to General Beane and McDermott.”

The Sachem stopped and spoke as Davis, Dawkins and Josh approached in the tall grass.

“The Smitten Chief Elder and his cult of war hawks are so brutal they live in exile under the head. Banished, all of ‘em, from peaceable tribes and religions. One does not let a lit fuse load it’s cannon. The militia openly challenges your power on these lands and ya’ walk West for another reason!? What could be more?”



“A blacksmith,” said Dawkins. “One whom you —”

“Of course I know The Blacksmith! The only one worth knowing, at least. What of he — …for you then?” The Sachem pointed to Josh, who answered.

“We are tracking a band of petty thieves who are likely trying to find him, maybe even harm him, for an upgraded gun. Something unmatched to rebuild the Stealer Gang.”

“Well it’s the right idea - never in the Near Ages lived a better gunsmith then ours - but it be the wrong time.”

“Well aware,” put in Dawkins quickly, “Our mission, now, is Westward to make for a way, back. In time.”

“Impossible.” The Sachem walked away and lowered his brow. “Keep up, I need ya’ to see something.”

They turned up a grassy knoll. A flock of wild chickens with meaty wings rousted.

Dawkins jogged up to his Elder. “Sir, I think I have a way.”

“No, the rivers of time do not flow backward - even if Weakenings allow ‘a to leap rivers. Or else I’d be in 1835 again, swimming in the levee.”

“What year did you last take up arms with The Blacksmith?”

“Ya’ are serious? You have an upstreaming current?”

“I might, if we can get to the Chief Kingdom without them noticing our - “

“No, no, quiet this!” The Sachem held up a hand, then distinctly tapped his brow.

“You are wise, I need your coun — ”

“ — Silence!” Barked Reed. “If you have an advantage it is yours! Don’t give it away to the winds.”

“We trust you,” said Utah Davis, and Josh looked to the Sachem’s reaction.

“You don’t know who is listening!” Was his response.

Josh hiked up to them, “We admire your vigilance, Elder. The War Chiefs are formidable. Yet they would never risk riding five-days into our Nation. Not with our Mafia so dominate.”

Sachem Reed slapped Josh, then held his mouth shut.

He leaned into his ear.

“Silence, Gunslinger.”

Then a smell hit Josh harder. As thick as vomit in the air.

A pair of filthy flies landed on his cheek.

And the sound of vultures.

The other’s already saw it from the knoll, stunned. They removed their hats as Josh crested the hill.



Crack!

He fired his rifle in the air to terrify the scavengers as soon as he saw it.

Crack!-snap-Crack!-snap-Crack!-snap-Crack!-snap-Crack!-snap-Crack!-snap-

The Sachem buried Josh’s hot rifle into the Earth!

“Enough!”

Six lifeless vultures dropped from the sky. They weren’t expecting a gunslinger’s red-rage.

“Ho’shis! Get right! Our brother ojíehdo:gë are not our enemy.”

“Get off me!” Josh snapped back.

What did I say to him!? Josh thought. I’ve lost it.

As other birds squawked away, the last one shot fell limp onto the flesh. She rolled off the furry corpse of a bison.

Mutilated.

There were three total, mangled in a horror which will not be described.

War Chiefs. Suddenly in the narrative.




4


Utah Davis sat,

...red in the face, looking away from the mounds. His tight jaw slackened when he realized the cloud of flies in front of him were anchored to another pile. These mothers had calves.

Josh’s brown eyes considered how confused the kids felt when their mothers didn’t move with the herd, why they didn’t wake up to nudges, until they succumbed without milk. Back-to-back-to-back.

Circling the Wagons, to the end.

Josh apologized to Sachem Reed, left his gun on the field and turned to punch at the Earth and his flashbacks of last winter.

Evil memories of Filly’s body boiled out of the Earth as he tried to pack them back into the nightmare. She wanted to run, and fetch apples and gallop through rain and live! She was young, loyal, and his eternal pet companion - and she was stuck in the soils of the Earth. Her orenda trapped in the Borderlands - or, if they had expanded - Chiefs Kingdom.

Josh heard a voice but couldn’t make it out.

Dawkins must have been speaking to the Sachem. Yes, he felt his friend on a knee beside him, holding his shoulder.

“What happened in Kansas?” Asked the Sachem.

“Don’t…”

Suddenly Josh was there again, in the black flurries, on his horse, her steaming skin soaked with sweat. His gun-barrel clicked in heat from the Impossible Shots. He could do them again. She could. Josh, the Josh of the present, moved his head around to look at the battle of last winter in his mind. Blackness, mud and fire. Smoke, dust. The red-rock colossus. The frantic shadows inside the head, an armory, investigating the detonated artillery shells from within.

The Chief with the mohawk. Josh’s mind looked at his own bloody fists. He opened one, he held it: The Deadman’s Coin.



:13

She didn’t deserve to die. She had done everything right, twice. She did things he’d never even trained her for! Josh thought. Perfect behavior deserves a reward, an apple, not, — Not! —

“I know,” said Dawkins, just like he had said that midnight, to a dying gunslinger, and wrapped him in a buffalo pelt not so dissimilar from the wasted hides beside them now.

Utah Davis looked back from the calves to the other three, in his own daze, as distant as Josh.

“Arrow Head Rock, what happened?” The Sachem asked, “I need to know.”

“I’m sorry…,” said Josh.

The men and corpses let time pass. Brown eyes dilated in the dust and squinted in the sun.

“…for everything.”

Everything.



“Some stories hold heavier than gravity, Ha’ya:s.” Sachem Reed held out the stock of Josh’s old rifle and lifted him to his feet with it. “The story I see now is that the War Chiefs are here. And they a’ our equal in every way.” The Sachem talked toward the buzzing flies and smell. “Each wasted carcass had a number carved in her hide - while she lived - to indicate two things: profane disrespect ta’ our Nation, and that the messenger was formidable. The Buffalo would have put up a fight. He was catching Coups.”

“The carvings, what numbers?” Asked Davis.

“Years.” Answered Dawkins, stepping next to the bodies with a bandana held to his face.

“1870. 1871. 1872.” Said Reed.

“The killer is marking battles.” Dawkins again.

“Losses.” Said Josh.



5


With sweat and reverence,

...the four retrieved the horses and buried the physical remains of their fallen brothers and sisters. They hauled the final rocks and shifted wild Banditflower to the cairn. Orange, purple, white and stone. After speaking to The Great Spirit they made their way from the rockpile onto the Sachem’s trail.

“Come, I have much to teach you”



6


“What is all this, ha’nih!?”

The Sachem shrugged as they rode in from the blue spruce & redwoods. “This is just ma’ homes.”

“That’s the understatement of the era,” said Utah.



Following the red cap and fish trap the horses walked a series of bridges, causeways and winding footpaths through a wonderland of geysers. Bursting rock vents, hot baths, smoking rainbow-puddles and popping fountains.

Reed tossed the Bill’s a handful of glass goggles for their visit.

“Just mind the wind, and weak mineral surfaces…and also, anything colorful…Or bubbling.”

Which was all of it.

Like ships surrounded by a pod of breaching whales three Victorian bathhouses seemed to float in the woods. Water-towers, water-wheels and complex water-works of oscillating gyros and drive-shafts connected cabins like an outdoor factory campus. Water burst from a chimney.

After letting the horses out to graze, including Ron’s Pinto, which Josh still borrowed, he caught up with Reed driving long skewers through the fish for roasting.

“What a sight.”

“Of course, yes,” Reed walked, stopped and waited for the grate in front of him to sneeze white water, then he continued, “but the real beauty of this place is tha’ sound. Or it will be.”

“Is that what all the hardware is for?” Davis asked, gently moving a wheel of delicate hammers which tapped into chimes.

ding…bo…ding

“Serenity.”



The grate below his feet erupted into a geyser taller than the trees!

DINGBODINGBODINGBODINGBODINGBO! - went the chimes.

Davies somersaulted through the air and splashed in a stack of tide-pool baths.

Booooooooong.

Water displaced from his and down the steps of other green pools.

Baaah. Bumm. Bumm. Baaah. Bummmmm. Bum.

“Mag-nificent,” grinned Dawkins.

“These are all teases really,” Sachem Reed said as he dragged the skewers of fish through a yellow slop of foam and kept walking and talking, “an occasional whistle here, a random drum hit there.”

Wheeeup! Boom.

He slid the other side of the fish in a glittering red crystal. “But they are all just accents, warm-ups.”

Huuuuueeemmmmmmuuuuhhh… A large vent of glowing steam inflated a canvas sac into a balloon. It pressurized a pump and gauge before descending into blankets again.

“…these are but the painted stripes, sitting on the actual tiger: Fandemonium Geyser!” Sachem Reed dipped the fish in a disgusting pool of boiling paint - which hardened before it could drip off. “Don’t worry, this is just to protect the flesh from the pulverizing temperatures.”

Reed moved their dinner toward an obese mound of orange minerals - as if stone had been made from bubbles - and he climbed the footwells carved spiraling to the top. “Ha’ya:s, trip that cover yonder.”

Josh did so with a thud of bark blocking steam.



Reed re-tightened his goggles and tucked inside a thick bronze booth near this miniature volcano hole. He pulled a chain to divert a cool stream over his shield. Only four tiny fish - coated in toxic mineral crusts - poked out from the blast zone.

Josh looked at the plugged steam he capped, squirting water.

The trio felt the earth rumble.

They stepped back and stopped breathing.

“And!” Shouted a voice behind them. Dawkins screamed like a prairie dog. In the bushes a tube carried the sachem’s voice from his underwater heat-shield to the outside tourists like playground pipe. “When Fandemonium Geyser blows again…this land is rigged-up like a God-sized player-piano. A player-orchestra! (If I do-say-so-myself). Now, mind the smell.”

The mini volcano exploded its boiling chemistry in a massive, two-second cannon.

BOUH!



Poison rained in a mid-air waterfall.

Remaining on the skewers were four crackling, plump, seasoned and skinned fillets on a tail.

“Alright!” Cheered Reed throwing open the shield-door, “Now that’s the proper way to squish fish!”

The three young Bill’s mouths slacked.

He served them on tin plates next to a glowing steam-vent. “A lot of chefs in Allentown will cut corners on the toxins, fearing their stoves won’t eviscerate the poison. You’re too young to remember the Love Canal Saloon,” Reed ranted, “I get it, they’re busy, and it’s a wing-town, but out here when the Dignity is this rich, there’s nothing better than squish made right.” He tossed a cinnamon stick and two apples into the sculpture-shaped thermal-vent emerging from the table to ‘spice the air’ and encouraged the men to let their feet soak in the hot spring beneath the chairs.

“Hail Mary! This is delicious!”

“The best dodgasted fish I’ve ever eaten, bro!”

“Stupid question, this ain’t dolphin, right?”



“No, no, our dolphin sisters a’ mammals,” explained Reed, “We just interchange them in the Nation because in my era, at Miami Municipal, if all their fin’s was sick or floatin’ they’d just throw in a sturgeon or giant sunfish and kept all the labels the same. Too high on their horse to care, I reckon.”

“Or too high on Dignity,” grumbled Utah.

“Or Dignity,” agreed Reed, “They had plenty to go around then.”

“Well, they have dolphins now,” said Josh, “Calves. They can still see their mothers free in the river below their cage. We tried to…”

Outrun time,” said Dawkins.

“Sometimes it goes that way,” said the Sachem, cutting into another mouth-watering bite. “You can’t control time, just what you’re going do inside it. I’ve spent over an era, two-really, readying this geyser for the greatest show on Earth - I mean, a seismic event far beyond our understanding. It burst in 1838, 1000 feet in the sky! Fountains lasted at various heights for 5 years before the Great Drought. Now, here’s the kicker. Fandemonium may erupt again tonight, higher than ever before! - or - it may be dormant forever and all of these instruments and buildings were just hopeful hobby for an old hö:gweh.”

“Yeah, but how disappointing it would be if…well.”

“If I drop dead before blastoff? No. You see, Utah, the key is not to make your goal, the goal - but to make your goal, the process which leads to the goal. Both the winners and losers of every battle in the Wests had the same goal, but we must find our measure of achievement in the process.” The Sachem’s eyes glowed blue and red from the thermals, he was far away, “And believe me, I know a thing or four about coming close.”

“You mean, The Hero Wars?” Asked Josh, tentatively.

“Of course, the Post-Weaks, the Battle of Comme Back one of them. The powers of the Super Collapse in you. We changed history, but not Dignity. Enough willpower to lift a geyser, enough sweat, tears and blood to carve a canyon. We became a mythology! But that wasn’t enough.”

A rumble shook the wide plains.

Deep.

The Nation remembered.




7


“How do you do it?”

Josh looked the Sachem straight in the eye, even as the pines vibrated.

The Sachem gestured his hands from his eyes to his chest, “I am no God, he:awak. It is ya’ gardener who thinks he can ask the river of time to flow uphill.”

“Not exactly.”

“No,” Josh said, “Not how do you win you a battle that was lost, literally, how do we create the Post-Weaks? Is it a physical place? Is it a supernatural relic like the child-song goes?”

“Uh? You are serious?” The Sachem searched his eyes and the others for a hidden joke. Their innocence humbled him. “But you’ve been — did you not know? Do you not know what happened in Kansas?”

Brown eyes, dilating and squinting expressed everything. Josh’s brow furrowed to block out any distractions as his eyes were as absorbent as peat moss.

“Of course,” whispered the elder. “Dignity is everywhere. Our ancestors called it ‘The Song’ because it is invisible, intangible, yet can it can amplify any known element. Sophon chips, drugs, fuel, water…Dignity is the universal alloy of the universe. It exists in a constant state of gradual contraction and instantaneous expansion. Like magnetic amoebas two-becomes-four-becomes-sixteen; dense becomes more-dense become super-dense and explosion! A constant cycle. This is how the ancients came to measure the period of a year. Everything still sound familiar?”

“Yeah, but it’s good to hear again,” Davis chimed in.

“You tell it better,” noted Dawkins.



“Nya:wëh. During a Weakening Season, mid-cycle, Dignity has contracted enough from microscopic bonds to a critical mass.” The Sachem cleared the thermal bowl and snapped two fish spines as sharp as a knife. A hollow knife. Here he created two expanding bubbles, “Imagine invisible Dignity bubbles generating a gravity of their own on two sides of different ages that we, otherwise, can’t access - because,” Reed looked at Dawkins, “We can’t control time.” The bubbles kept growing in the dish until they touched, sharing a wall, still growing, “The Dignity pulls at the other until…approximately every seven days…”

pap!

The two bubbles became one.

“A Weak. A Weakening occurs in time. This is where we get our word for week.”

“No way.”

“Ë:h. Inside this temporary bubble, humans, have a chance to guide the natural spill of Dignity.”

“Like steal it,” said Josh.

“Yes, we tend to steal or defend it. Humans. These bridges are random, hard to predict from year-to-year, but medicine men do find patterns, and they are widely reported when possible. We may battle a horde of Vikings or trade with Steel-men when given a chance for Dignity, but the bridges themselves are beyond our sight. That is, until the Post-Weaks.”

“Yes.”

“Ë:h.” The Sachem dipped his last bite of fish in au jou sauce and the salt dish to cap his meal. He spoke with his fork, “Do any of you know the first recorded occurrence of a Post-Weak?”

Josh looked to Dawkins who looked to Davis. Meanwhile, Sachem Reed put on a leather glove and moved the brass valves under the thermal bowl on the table. It seemed a lot of pipes and hoses led here.

“Mmmmm. A tale for another day, I think.”

“No, no - who was it?” Asked Utah.

Reed gave him a wink.

“Right here. It’s painted in the Gá:šöje:ta’ Oya:de’.”

“Sea Scorpion Cavern?” Dawkins translated.



“Ë:h. Our ancestors were the first humans to venture into a Post-Weak of the universe. The Buffalo and Ra-Cha-Cha tribes met, before we were one Nation, and made it a Thanksgiving.”

“Like, the Thanksgiving? Our Thanksgiving!?”

“Ë:h, Gunslinger, still celebrated in the Near Ages to this day. Though, since prehistoric times, the Post-Weaks occur, now, later.” The Sachem stirred the steaming bowl which seemed to thicken into slush. He was freezing it. “Dignity consolidates greatly over the 17 Weaks, its heat removed from atmospheres and the ice of winter descends. Most Dignity is seeded into tangible elements by this point which can be easily quantified. The bubbling cosmos can be forecast by The Raja’s Law of Dignity: The realm with the lowest Dignity seeds collides into the realm with the most Dignity seeds.”

“Why is this?” Asked Josh.

“By winter Dignity is over half it’s final size, but held in less than half of the realms. It seeks the path of least resistance to combine.” The Sachem added air to the bowl but instead of thin bubbles fluffy snowballs inflated this time. He made one as large as his fist and the other the size of his thumb, sharing a wall. “Hardened realms with considerable spoils and proven skill from the season in an instant share an open battlefield. More like a fortified castle of Dignity facing a rebel siege.”

Reed used his gloves to combine the snowballs with a clump.

“Dignity doesn’t care which humans, strong or weak, take it - as long as it consolidates its density.”

He scooped out another handful of equal snow, “And consolidates.” -clump.

Many-became-eight, “And consolidates.” -clump.

Snowballs doubled, “And consolidates.” -clump.

Four-became-two, “And consolidates.” -clump.

“Until all of the Dignity in the universe, across any Age, is terrifically super-dense in only two realms. They buzz with saturated energy - a full-block of Allentown was built in each buzzing week, animals flocked, landmarks cracked from the plates of the Earth. All Dignity is one fragile veil away from it’s paramount consolidation — time breaks: collision — and in only three-hours, Dignity flows through every cell, fusing into colors and powers beyond billief! Two-halves of everything in the cosmos collapse around you into a spectacular new star at the center of the universe.”

Geysers popped like champaign around them. So many instruments all knowing their cue.

“A super collapse?”

“The super collapse,” said Reed, “Living mythology - tighter and tighter - until: Singularity.”

BANG!



“…It explodes again into unknown infinity.”

The big bang, this time, was a mother-load geyser that shook the earth.

“Is this Fandemonium!?” Asked Davis.

“Right here? Right now?” Asked Sachem Reed, “No, no this is just a good story.”

“And that’s it.” said Josh, the edge of his seat, but still a student.

“It? …Gunslinger, that is everything!”

The Sachem looked to the West.



8


The Sachem of the Deer Clan

...discarded the sharp fish bones.

“Two of those carvings, in the buffalo carcasses, they were markers of Post-Weaks.”

“Yeah.” Said Josh. He watched the sharp bones disintegrate in the thermal cavity. “The loses. I didn’t know what to call it. The shock-feeling of absence after, unlike a normal misadventure; the way the Earth feels especially hard after jumping on a taught canvas for hours, for a season.”

“Call it a Dignity abundance vanishing from every cell of every organism in the realm at once. To boost another: Wichita,” explained Reed. “The cosmos discarding you as irrelevant.”

“Man!” Dawkins let out a curse. It hurt them all. Instead of a moment of infinite focus, you vanish into irrelevance and watch, “An enemy - who had already felt the glory - parade away down the War Path.”

“Twice,” said Josh.

“This cycle, the War Chiefs of the West are your equals in every way.”

“As they were last year, last winter.” Josh, again. “Dead equal.”

“And yet they marched on.”

“Equal plus a Deadman’s flip,” said Dawkins, putting the guard in Gardener.

“Meet them, Bill’s of the Great Buffalo Nation. Confront their story or watch the borderlands erode up to your door.”

“We can’t,” Utah Davis put in.

“Ya’ must! Hear me, they match you in repute, and ability, now Dignity. The fault line exceeds expansion and they don’t make films to tell their story.”

The Sachem threw the teeth of the bison mothers on the table. They bounced like dice.

“My ha’nih. Elder,” continued Utah, “We know of their restlessness, and these nips at our edges, but the Generals desire restraint - fearing total war.”

Josh watched the cracked teeth bounce and spin.

Heads or Tails?

“It is too early in our growing season to risk losing the pepper-crops, tablewood and Kim-weck-wheat. To say nothing of our stores of Dignity!” Supported Dawkins.

Call it.

“Ya’ must go.”

“We can’t start a war.”

Call it!

“What if it isn’t a war?” All the heads turned to the Gunslinger. He lifted his focus from the dental dice. “Not an invasion, we go alone. It’s our path anyway to lay low and smuggle into a Weakening that isn’t our own. I say, we still keep Dawkins’s plan - but instead of hiding for a week in our greatest enemy’s caves - we step openly into the heart of the Arrow Head. We demand the war games stop because we set the terms of dominion.”

“We do? The three of us against their entire military arsenal?” Asked Dawkins.

“No,” Josh still sat, “Only me.”

Dawkins tossed his hat, “This is getting worse.”

“You know they have exiles from every Age & fighting-tactic.” Added Davis.

“Only me; and The Ma’Hawk. A duel for everything.”



9


“Ho’ni:gön,” said Reed, genius,

...“A proxy battle to both protect and resolve everything.”

“No, Sir, respectfully, it’s not. You don’t know the — ” Dawkins’s chair flew to the ground.

“No, I do not. What happened in Kansas?”

“Nothing.” Said Josh.

“Nothing!?” Dawkins shouted.

“Nothing. I lost.” Josh, head down, picked at the grooves in the stone table.

“When was this Gunslinger?” Asked Davis.

“There’s nothing to say, except I lost. I lost a coin flip. I let that matter.”

“You lost Filly!”

“Sure, Dawkins, I lost her too.” Groove in the table.

“What happened?” Asked Reed.

“When though?” Asked Davis.

“A rematch.”

Dawkins smashed the table an inch from Josh’s finger. Stone ledges collapsed. Gravel splintered. This was no mere Mafiafolk.

Josh looked at him.

“I love you Josh. As much as you loved your horse. I saved you. And it’s my job - my only job in my life to guard you.” He had tears in his eyes. “I would give anything. Any hill, any battle, any kill; I would give my last finger to you. You don’t need to protect us.”

Josh saw him. Brown eyes, crying. “I know, brother, I love you too.”

Dawkins shook his head to scold, “Don’t be stupid enough to tie your life, and Filly’s, to the fate of our entire realm. Or the War Hawk’s.”



Josh lost a tear himself, “Don’t you see, Dawkins? They are already tied.”

“No.”

“Where our realm goes, I go. We’ve been riding toward this duel since the coin fell. Filly has become an unbillievable band of brothers, but our battle for the Wests never ended.”

“You knew?” Asked Dawkins.

“Knew what?” Asked Davis.

“I knew. Always. And I think, so does he. I tried to come alone.”

Dawkins stepped aside. It had been him that hatched the journey West - a stealth mission to jump a Weak that they had no business riding - more dangerous, but all the more edgy that it was by way of Kansas.

“Alone, eh?” Asked Davis, “Is that how it was before? Last winter?”

“Something like that.”

“See, I been to Kansas too. The Wichita keep good records. Good secrets. What makes you think they will let their greatest threat, the Gunslinger of their greatest rival, ride into their armory, alone?”

“They will have no choice,” said Josh of Allentown.

“Why?”

“Because we will have their prisoner.”

Sachem Reed’s head shot up to Josh’s eyes. Dawkins turned fast to read the body language in both of them.



“Prisoner?”

“Will you tell them, Chief?” Asked Josh.

Sachem Reed took a deep breath and folded his hands. A smile came to his wry face.

He started to laugh.

“Very good Ha’ya:s. A sharp-shooter. This has been quite a dinner. But I want to hear it from you.”

“Very well,” began Josh, circling.

Dawkins moved a hand to his holster. Utah Davis looked to his hunting rifle leaning on a thermal sculpture ten steps away. Sachem Reed didn’t move.

“Three buffalo were slaughtered to send us a message, but we’ve met the Chiefs four times. If a Kansas Skinner does anything, it ain’t quittin’ early. Unless he be caught. And if I’m to billieve the ledgers under your bust in Town Hall, one of the greatest spies to ever live in the Near Ages wouldn’t be hunting for fish if said Skinner ain’t been caught.”

Sachem Reed shot a hand to his hip!

Not a gun - a lever!

Dawkins drew in time - but flew sideways from a Shotgun Geyser.

Davis dove for his rifle!

Josh was knocked to a knee.

Only wind blew past Reed’s squinting, smiling face.

He put up his legendary hands. Then pointed them toward the canvas that the geyser had dropped.

There, before the Bills, stood a fourth Buffalo. One who had survived. And she now casually shook her mane and nuzzled her nose back into a hay pile.

But that was nothing.

Far more arresting was the nearly-bare body tied onto her back.

Like a sunbather-made hostage the man lay on his back in an ‘X’ shape with wrists tied to the Buffalo’s front hooves and ankles attached to her hind hooves.

A brand of an arrowhead marked his chest.

“Meet the Stranger” said the Sachem.



10


Josh sprung for the throat

....of the gagged mountain man.

Davis caught him first.

“That’s Trav’ler K.C.!” shouted Josh.

“You know him!?” Asked Davis in the struggle.

“It was his gun!” Josh fought back. He broke away for the prisoner.

Dawkins took out some emotion to slam Josh into a brittle mineral railing.

“Dawkins — it was his gun that —”

Dawkins let out the rest of the rage, “And we need him alive! At the Arrow’s Head to be a valuable hostage!” He took a breath, cooling, “If our plan has any chance.”

“What happened in Kansas?” Asked Sachem Reed, horrified.

Josh stated at the arrowhead brand.

I’m already there.

Seeing the face. The laughing face.

I’m already there.

Seeing the head. The Arrow’s Head.



11


What happened in Kansas —

— was suddenly all around him.

Expansive and gargantuan. Night and winter. Arrow Head Rock.

Best described as a sunken plateau this ancient lakebed had three walls to shape the arrow. Their red rock cliffs were carved with innumerable windows, caves and dwellings forming a type of central, flat courtyard in the middle. This triangle terminated in the stunning, omnipresent Arrow’s Head. A colossal chief sphinx carved from the ancient red rock. It was a fortress of mountains as towers, cliffs as homes, and rock arches as bridges - all sunken in the earth.



Josh’s knees buckled hard into the dusty-frost.

A bit lower, more sunken.

More blood.

He’d been shot three times, arrows, deep inside his darkest hour.

Josh was the Boy Maverick of last winter, sinking into flashback.

He bled. In a distorted daze. He saw the 13 icons of death. 13 steps. Below him. He was. The chopping rock! The sacrificial stone. He blinked. Countless trespassers have decapitated here. He looked left and right. All stone. All rubble. All battlefield. Where were the war chiefs? Where was Filly?



No where to be seen.

Small, on foot, arrows in his back and leg. His soiled garments were once the color of a surrender flag. Now his skin was, and the cotton red.

The gunslinger was a lone snowflake dropped into a lake of blood.

All that was left, was to melt.

To help him with that - distortions of distorted men peeked from the defenses this Boy Maverick had been annihilating for hours. Before the arrows. From his own guerrilla batteries he’d fire a shot, cripple a bunker, and ride Filly fast through heavy fire to another hide-out. Behind him, his last known location would be pulverized into gravel - shot-for-shot. He’d strike a blow, they’d tidy up. When they were on target at least. Well, it was one advantage to risk a final adventure in your greatest enemy’s capital - even Bunker’s errant bullets count as hits.

One disadvantage: losing your horse, getting shot, running out of ammunition and collapsing in the center of firing squad. The distorted men were cautious at first, he saw monsters emerge from all cultures. A native gave commands to an immigrant. A former slave-master asked for confirmation of position from a half-breed. Buffalo soldiers tossed arrows to a banshee.

Each of them leaders of other worlds, banished for radical aggression and saved, together, by the chief of chiefs. An exile himself, they say. What must a wandering pariah think when they look thirsty over a fabled cliff edge to see an ancient city, remade and so easily fortified. To be unchained and handed a master-weapon?

Perhaps how they felt now, closing in on a sacrifice stone worth a lion-share of Dignity the Boy Maverick wasn’t even actively aware of. What is to be expected from a snowflake?

Blood drained out of his back and vision.

All that was left, was to melt.



“He’s got one round left!” Cried the genius himself: Chief Elder Reid. Josh blinked a good dozen flicks at the massive rough-rider man. His face and mustache were as ruddy as his uniform. Royal calvary regalia of the brightest red with gold buttons. An imposing figure.

“We zijn elf,” said a bear-sized Chief in Dutch - Trav’ler K.C. - in the flesh (and clothes).

“One round?” Josh had said from cracked lips. The best shot in the wests. One for the half-breed War Hawk? One for the Chief Elder who controls them all? One for the Dutchman pulling an ax from the hands of the executioner.



From his belly he pointed the varmint rifle at whoever was closest - getting them to flinch or dive back. It bought time, but not medicine. It bought control, but not water, or an exit, or another conversation with his mother. Chiefs behind him sprinted forward as soon as his back turned. He got hit again. Arrowhead punching in. Eyes seared fire. Breath gasped dust. Red dust. This was it.

One last shot. For everything.

A glare blinded his eyes.

Brown eyes. Dilating.

The Boy Maverick threw up his gun barrel, tucked in the scope, silently declared a miracle.

I thought they got you, Traitor!? Like they did me.

Not yet! The silver mirror flickered for the third time that night from the eye of the giant sphinx! The ancients knew it, the war chiefs knew it, and now, so did the Boy Maverick and some Stranger - the Arrow’s Head was the most fortified zone of the cliffs. The catacombs inside it became the most impenetrable armory and vault in the Near Ages.



Unless some renegade guard or rebel-leader or friendly ghost or anthropomorphic animal on the inside planted 7-pound shells into load-bearing walls and flashed a tip to an invading force.

I bet they tried to get you, Traitor! Like they did me. He was delusional. But it was fun to imagine this rebel-gruad-ghost-animal on a desperate adventure of cloaks and daggers him- or her-self.

All that was left was to shoot, “You son-of-a-chief!”

Josh coughed a breath as hostiles in red rags charged at him from every side - his rifle was aimless. Arrows in his back shaking, the fourth down in his leg and 13 steps of death he couldn’t run.

Snap.

The last remaining bullet to his name. Four years fused into a final shot.

Crack!

Trust…

-Chink.

the…

Buuuuuuh…Kruuuuh-CRACKKKK!

…Mysterious traitor inside the enemy skull!

The cheek of the Arrow Head exploded into an Arrow Cave! An 8-pound artillery shell had been primed! Primed and volly-shot from the very scab of death.



Chiefs dove for cover. Chiefs ran for their crumbling vault as a Dignity tower leaned and it’s front wall caved in.

“Kill everyone up there!” Josh heard the Chief Elder command.

“Our own guardsmen, Chief Elder!?”

All of them! This is the third attack inside our own flippin’ armory!”

And who ran out of the dust?

A sumo wrestler made out of chicken wings.

No, Josh had lost a lot of blood.

What it was, was a massive half-harnessed stage coach on fire - caught in the collapse no doubt - no driver. But one of the conscripted horses at the head was the happiest face he ever saw.

Filly!

“You’re alive! Oh my God! This is perfect!”



She might have screamed the same if she were anthropomorphic. Instead she just broke free from her damaged doubletree harness and galloped away from the doomed team toward him.

White hooves thundered past.

The Boy Maverick grabbed her dragging rein-line and found himself replacing both the stage coach, wheels and brake with his stomach - and a head-full of pain.

But last chances aren’t always known for their patience.

Arm-over-arm he climbed up the galloping reigns, arrows protruding, mind screaming.

Josh heaved himself up her harness at nearly full-speed.

“We’re good-we’re good-we’re good! Yah! Let’s go, girl!”

Filly found another speed, racing under the dark cliffs, for their only way out. The canyon gate. It was a narrow ancient river gorge that snaked off a corner of Arrowhead Lake, opposite the sharp point. With the advantage and their lives - there was no place like home!

The Final Shot was over.

“Let’s go! Close it out!”

Filly whinnied in her thunderous sprint. Even within this flashback, Josh could remember himself, the Boy Maverick recalling the same rhythm and speed once before. The gallop through the downpour at the end of the Great Drought. When a cursed history turned upside down.

And now he had become that hero.

All dream, no nightmare.

Breeehhh!


Until she tripped.

It was so sudden.

5 feet, 3 inches, in case you are wondering, the distance between heaven to hell.

Josh smashed into it and rolled. Arrows snapped.

“Ahhh!”

It was half-as-bad as Filly. Like a stunt horse she screamed and pulverized the red rock.

Her harness sparked in the dark.

They hadn’t ridden a minute before the bolas of Traveler K.C. had wrapped two of her hooves.

Immobile, reeling, he could only listen as the thunder of another rider - hot on their trail shook the red rock, the blood.



The War Chief in the Cheetah headdress - Aztec elite - raced through on the fastest thoroughbred he’d ever seen. If he had but one bullet left…but the Final Shot was over.

If Boom Boom, or J.B.L. Poyer, Esquire had been there…

If Mister Hyde had been there, healthy and in his prime…

Could they have prevented this?

Josh doubted it. The fastest racer in the Near Ages.

And he was still a week ahead of his first dazed meeting with the so-called Buffalo Bill’s of the Wild West.

Cheetah closed the gate. It’s 33 chains locked the Boy Maverick and his 29 best ideas in the canyon citadel with no weapon.

The entire population of the Kingdom screamed from their dwellings in the walls. They wanted blood. They wanted their knights to march again into a Super Collapse, where Mafiafolk could only dream. The boy didn’t know anything about the cosmos or the Book of Smitten or Weakenings at the time. Just that he had no ammunition left and was in the beating heart of hostile territory. He couldn’t hear himself think.

All that was left, was to melt.




12


Josh woke up.

Before dawn, the men readied the horses.

Josh simply stared at Trav’ler K.C.

And stared.

The nightmare was still alive, in front of him, captured - and he had to keep him alive as a bargaining chip. Their only immunity through the Chief Kingdom.



Passing K.C. Utah gave the Buffalo a good scratch behind the horn. She nodded. Davis had just tied her to Ron’s Pinto, which Josh continued to ride. He didn’t touch the war chief’s restraints but asked:

“Is he okay up there?”

“Should be. Only thing is if the Buffalo decides to roll-over. That would crush him,” answered Reed, holding a morning brew of Joe (and bubbling thermal rocks).

“And he don’t speak?”

“Not Haudenosaunee or English at least. He dressed as a Dutch Trapper, to hide the brand.”

Davis and Dawkins looked sideways at the arrowhead blister on his chest. Their own gunslinger had his mark of XVII to remember the drought years.

“Dutch, eh? What have you been feeding him?”Asked Davis.

“Fish scales and dung,” said the Sachem.

Brutal. But so was slaughtering buffalo into waste.

The men took a heavy gulp.

“I’m just kidding. Carrots. Nothin’ but carrots.”

Moments later the first sun beams lit the steam and thermals through the pines. The men twist their horses.

“Dawkins, hear me,” said the Sachem, distinctly touching his brow, “1849.”

Sachem Reed, Chief of the Deer clan, covered his heart, “Dë:di’ Bills.”




13


Three Buffalo Bill’s and a Bill’s buffalo

...followed their shadows West. The morning sun warmed every back, unless your back was tied to a bison, in which case, the sun warmed your throat, thighs and gut.

The first day was hot, marked by random interrogations of K.C. His stoic silence didn’t impress them much and the trio were shouting trail songs before passing Seneca’s Tower. The lonely sandstone monolith had blushed into a more rust-color it seemed; we’ll have to tell the guys back home.

Traveler K.C. did get scratched up a bit in a loganberry thicket - what is to be done? - so barflies practically blanketed his skin until a thunderstorm rolled through.



At sunset the crew watched a full herd of zubaz graze and lope through the meadows as camp was made. You know a group is ‘of’ the land when their tipi builds with the same blue, red and white stripes as the herd they graze with.

By midday next, they entered the Grand Gorge, descending through layers of Buffalo Nation history, all recorded in the fossil-cliffs. In the lowest, prehistoric levels they took a lunch of jerky, wild loganberries from yesterday and carrots. The campfire that night lit up the roaring, emerald ‘Himalaya Waves.’ Dawkins cast some shadow puppets onto the Pan-American rock layer and danced them around to his own music.



“You billieve the stories? That the Ma’Hawk can ride side-slung at full gallop and shoot a man down?” Asked Utah Davis to Josh.

“I seen it.”

“Last Winter?”

“…but that don’t mean I want to talk about it.”

Utah tapped Josh’s chin-up, encouraging his friend.

“Maybe this skinner will chirp for a treat.” Davis grabbed the last of his trout and took the gag off Trav’ler K.C.’s lips. Josh turned away - he’d rather watch shadows dance. This one looked like a dog, puppy-even, floppy ears and all. The pup whipped it’s head around and stopped dancing when Utah Davis spoke Dutch.

Hongerige Oorlogsleider?”

Josh saw Trav’ler K.C.’s eyes widen.

Verrader?” said the prisoner.

It went back-and-forth some until Davis reported back, letting K.C. eat some fish scraps off the bone.

“Me’ ma was a surveyor. Worked the Holland Land Company, claims she laid the plans for New Amsterdam, but I don’t know.”

“Why you sit on this particular talent?” Asked Dawkins, leaning some weight on his companion.

“See if he talked in his sleep. Just you, unfortunately.”

Dawkins and Josh requested various questions to Utah for their half-naked prisoner, tied next to, rather than spread eagle on, the buffalo.

“He said it again, it’s all he’s saying: afgelopen winter spreekt.”

“I hear it.”

“Last winter tells it?” Utah guessed. “Or: last winter speaks.”

Every question went this way, with K.C.’s cavity-black smile widening each time.

“Has Ma’Hawk made duels before?” “What’s with you?” “What’s inside of the Arrow’s Head?” “Will the Chiefs honor an warrior treaty?”

Winter Spreekt? Winter Spreekt. Winter Spreekt!”



K.C. laughed!

Josh kicked a skull-sized rock into the waves.

“Ask him whatever you like. Last winter is over. Water over the falls.” The worst rapids in any river tore past Josh’s shadow flickering from their campfire. One can only imagine what he saw. Shadow Puppets.

“I ain’t talkin’ about what happened.”

When things settled, Utah began to whistle an old folk song from home. It was both haunting and bouncy. A dutch-folk song?

Trav’ler K.C. bobbed his head and soon mumbled broken words to the tune. Davis urgently asked for paper.

“What is all this?” Asked Gardener Dawkins, pulling out a leather-bound parchment.

“It’s a lullaby - but - I never knew their were verses!” Davis snatched the journal and scribbled franticly.

Shadow Puppets of the mind; puppies, bison, children and men danced on the rocks around them. An unreal village of silly silhouettes.



“…Ik zing een waargebeurd verhaal,

over deze Man en zijn God.


Ghosts of the song, fossils of storytelling, flickered into the narrative.


Wie groeide een gouden schild,

van dit Land en zijn Graszode…”


A shadow puppet explorer trotted the imaginary hills around them and knocked his head into a cliff, falling on his rump like the cartoon he was. The cliff shadows each bounced a boulder onto his top hat until all that was left of the ledge was a shapely shield.

Dawkins wiped his eyes from the make-believe shadows to Davis and K.C.



“It’s the story of Elder Reid! Not our Sachem Elder Reed, but their Chief Elder Reid, the exiled Marshall of the Smittens,” explained Davis. “It came from here, right here, actually, in the Buffalo Nation.”

“Who did? Their leader was Mafia?” Asked Dawkins.

“No, bigger: the entire Smitten Faith.”

Even Josh looked up from his dark waves and back to the present tense. To the shadows and song.

“The whole religion started in the Wests of the old Fort York. Ski Tribe Country.” It animated behind Davis as he continued to translate, “So a failed entrepreneur called James Towne found a shield buried in the big hills - right behind his house actually. It had stars and symbols and stripes. Towne determined only his wife, a Mafiafolk, like him, could read it.”

“What!?” Dawkins complained, “That coincidence? Only this brother’s own wife can read a new God-language on tablets found in his own backyard? I don’t think you’re that good at Dutch, brother.”

“They call it the Boek van Smeden. The Book of Smitten. Blacksmiths.”

“Wait, the Smitten!? I have heard of that. That’s the — ”

“The Lawmakers of the Near Ages.” Said Josh, walking over.



The shadow puppets transformed from eccentric Mafiafolk into a chorus of robed priest shadows - as tall as the cliffs.

“The writers of the Untouchable Laws that oversee Dignity.” Remarked Josh.

“Yeah, the Salt Sea Council. What do they have to do with here?” Dawkins asked again, smitten himself.

“Shh, shh,” said Davis.

“…Nu vertelt God het aan Raja,

en hij zwaait met zijn hand


The council puppets shrank into James Towne’s head again and he bounced around the hills flailing his arms to shadow children, then shadow crowds, then behind a shadow pulpit - and the shadows bow.


Zo kennen we allemaal,

het Nieuwe Grensland…”


“James Towne spreads the word of this religion to the Fort, but proclaiming changes about the entire Near Frontier Lands with God-given authority, new laws. Some changes were accepted as good, others…unaccepted.”

Dawkins gave Davis a furrowed brow, “Like what?”

“Like a ‘Mannelijk’ can have multiple ‘Dames,’ but not the other way around.

“Oh, brother! I know a few Clan Mothers - including my own - who would drive that brother out for shade like that. Pun-intended shadow puppets.”

The shadow puppets, like the narrative, did just that.



De Wildernis! De Wildernis!


“James Towne, his wife, his new cutthroat bodyguard, and the entire Movement was cast out of the Niagara Frontier. In the wilderness, Mrs. Towne declared her husband God’s messenger, a Prophet, and changed his name to God-Tells. Raja God-Tells. They settled briefly among many societies of the Wests; Boneyard Lake, the Wichita, Wrigley Forest, the Skol - banished from all but leaving influence. Lastly, of course, they came upon: —”

De Zoutzee van Utah.”



“The Salt Sea of Utah.”

Dawkins said it. K.C. stopped, holding up his fish spine, picked clean.

Josh tossed K.C. the rest of his fourth and last trout to keep the chief talking. It was behind him, but he got it in the end between tied wrists. Fish didn’t change the fact he was tethered to a bison’s horns.


Waar Smiths het schild beschermen.



Shadow puppets divided the Raja into dozens of child missionaries. They sprung into portals.

“Before the end of the era, missionaries, then churches, then priests had Untouchable control in all of the known realms. Refugees no more, but puppet-masters. It is said, Raja God-Tells was contented, but his bodyguard-turned-Marshall understood greater potential. With a word they could have an army, and with a year they could harness a super collapse, with Untouchable Laws & Unstoppable Might they could grow the word by: —”


Kruistocht!”


Crusade.



Shadow filled the canyon. Puppets eclipsed the moons.

“How does it end?” Asked Josh, to Davis.

Het eindigde Afgelopen Winter!” K.C. laughed, polishing off the second fish spine.

It ended Last Winter.




14

Shadow puppets dropped down from the night.

They strung up Josh’s likeness by the four arrow nubs suddenly broken in his back and leg. He was a puppet.

Black eyes dilated.

Brown dilations mirrored.

He woke inside the Afgelopen Winter, winter last.

It Spreekt.

The Gunslinger was Boy Maverick, feeling the arrowheads still in his body despite the arrows snapping off. He felt the Arrow Head’s seal in the canyon gate, its narrows shutting off.

He felt the sorrow, dread, fill in his guts.

He didn’t have a way to escape, ammunition to fight, or time to die.



The first War Chief slid round the corner of the canyon. A knight. More would come. Filly remained down to kick at tied hooves.

“-Circle -the…”

This lord in red sprinted fast down the riverbed.

Josh crawled across it slow.

The knight drew his long sword.

Josh paddled his rifle, this rock the river, his body the canoe.

“Ahhh!”

Both points, fast and slow, red and blood-red, converged at Filly.

Another Last Stand, this one from a bent knee.

“-wagons.”

The sword swooped down!

The rifle parried up.

Ching!



They fought over her kicking body.

Ching! - whih - whauh - Ckack!

Josh freed his right fist to slug the mask in the nose. The helmet dented and Josh saw close up the white-brand of the arrowheads on both temples. This one had 13 marks. A Chief who counted 13 coups.

13 was beginning to haunt him.

But the knight pulled a punch.

“Listen, no time!” It said.

Josh punched his neck.

“Friend! Time — ”

The sword suddenly - Ckack!

“Give me time!”

Bullets burst into Josh’s eyes, not from a gun, from this medieval red armor.

What!?

“I’m not a Chief!” Yelled the red helmet. More bullets flew from his sash, and a silver mirror. “I’m not one of Reid’s.”

“Traitor!?” Josh shouted in joy, “It’s the Traitor!”

Josh moved in to hug him and got punched in the jaw.

“Sorry, but keep fighting - lookouts are everywhere.”

Josh hit him in the chest. “Thank you! You saved my life!”

“Not yet.” Choke-hold. “We need a way out!”

Josh flipped the knight over his back. “We need a way in! The gate counter-weight is back inside the Arrow Head. Or what’s left of it.”

“I did just leave it. Stranger, everyone there is dead or dying!” Said the spy.

“Got it! Great idea!” Josh kicked him off, flailing away.

“What idea!?”

“I shoot you.”

“No!”

Bang!




15


Moments later the Boy Maverick,

...or what was left of him, had Filly’s legs cut free and she bucked off the bolas in a circle. Maverick held fast and raised his hat - an image that defined him - the first look Brigadier General McDermott had of him. They’d come a long way in the Fore-Years.

“Destroy him!” Cried Chief Elder Reid to his legion of zoom. His mustache blew as riders and runners flew past, followed by arrows.

The frontline closed in and the Red Knight’s body dragged back from the mouth of the snaking canyon and on toward the triage station. Every eye in Chiefs Kingdom saw the motionless knight. On the frontier, anywhere in the Near Ages, a special rage is reserved for an enemy who shoots to kill, rather than disarm an opponent. The Boy Maverick deserved everything he got.

And they wanted to give it.

The first macuahuitl club swung in and the next three. Obsidian blades lethal.

Filly reared to interfere with their hits and they caught her shoulder instead.

She seemed to roar at the circling appaloosas and thoroughbreds and jumped over a horse and through it’s chief to push forward. Filly broke the frontline!

It’s structure collapsed as she cantered forward with driving hooves.

She cleared the winding canyon corner and the Boy Maverick once again saw the colossal Arrow Head at the end of the courtyard. The point. Only a minute prior the duo evacuated on this very path and now somehow returned with full force again. The bloody hoof-prints on the rock hadn’t even cooled.

Trav’ler K.C. twisted his head in awe as the snowflake - not his chiefs - rode past his position.

Filly doubled her canter into a gallop.



Sweat and blood beat from her heart.

The Boy Maverick watched the smoking eyes of the Arrow’s Head.

Filly’s mane whipped behind bent ears.

The scope raised over his XVII tattoo.

17 Years could become :17 Seconds.

He just needed a traitor, a spy, a friendly ghost on the inside.

He needed that red knight’s body, with a bullet hole in his chestplate, to have spun off the hospital cot inside of the Head. To have survived the bullet Josh deflected off the wall at such an angle as to reduce it’s speed before it impacted the iron he had evaluated with a punch to the chest. To have overcome whatever complex drama of strength and wit and deception was required to maneuver the vaulted catacombs yet again. To have done everything perfect and to offer him a tar —

a flash of light!



A spy inside! In the end, at the end!

Josh fired a bullet.

Crack!

It flew —

ping.

A fourth shell of the night detonated inside the Arrow Head vault.

Kruuuuh-CRACKKKK!

The remaining side of the sphinx-head blew open with a concussion.

The Impossible Shots.



To shoot a spy in the chest hard enough to puncture iron but soft enough he can live, to shoot a twinkling glimmer of hope from across the courtyard and destroy the mirror attached to the shell attached to an impenetrable vault from a galloping horse. Again. Again, again, again.

The Gunslinger had fired them perfectly. The ghost made it possible.

Four critical strikes embedded within enemy lines. Never before had it happened in all the Near Ages; not by Sachem Reed, not by Flash 80 - only a masked stranger with 13 coups.

Chief Elder Reid looked on in red horror. Trav’ler K.C. fell to his knees. The Cheetah shielded his face from debris.

“Yahhhhoooooo!” Screamed the Boy Maverick galloping around on Filly through the dust. She leapt between strides and whinnied. Without her, nothing moved.

Josh spotted the red knight with 13 coups riding out from the smoke on a mount of his own. Filly galloped astride as they reached for the other to celebrate - grabbed forearms strong and praised the heavens! Two Strangers who did it - who broke down The Kingdom!

“You hit it! You hit it!” The masked man cried.

“Yippie-kai-yay!” Shouted the Boy Maverick pounding his armored back. The horses jumped in stride and brayed to a safe walk. “Seriously.” Josh sobered and gripped the back collar of the man’s stolen armor and put his head against his helmet. “We don’t know one-‘nother, Stranger, but you just made a Nation of forgotten people billieve that their lives matter. I am in your debt.”

“No, the debt is mine. It is me who got to feel that. A shot in the heart!”

“Join me! In the Buffalo — ”

BLAAAAAAMMM———blaaaaaammm———(blaaaaaammm) ———(aamm)

A cannon fired and echoed in the canyon.

A call to the War Path.

All eyes of the kingdom, and a red knight’s turned to the dusty rubble beneath the Arrow Head.

And brown eyes, dilated, in that dust.

A silhouette of lean muscle, tomahawk and a Wichita mohawk loaded a six-shooter.

The half-Academy, half-War Chief skill-shooter loaded a second revolver with a twist.

He leapt to his horse’s bare back from behind.

He slid from one-side to the other, warming up. Each time he hooked a heel in her spine, held her mane with a fist of pistol and aimed the second below her neck.

chk-chk.

He walked her out of the defiled ruins of his ancestors, Montana, Lenny the Cool.

He was The Ma’Hawk.

He had two loaded-six shooters left and the bullet around his neck.

:13.




16

Josh woke up with a gasp.

“Gunslinger!”

The shadow puppets hid in the dark corners. Dawkins was left, like he was last winter, shaking him awake. “What happened?”

“You just passed out, brother. Bam. You and then Utah, then I ran back over here and you are already awake. Couldn’t ‘a been more than :45 seconds.”

“Utah?” Josh asked, looking up and seeing him slumped. “It’s Utah.”

The gunslinger ran over, not even glancing at Trav’ler K.C. tied nearby.

“Making you pass out? What’s Utah?” Asked Dawkins.

“Remember him rip the knife from Wallace and the deterrence bomb last week?” Josh started to rip the collar of Davis’s vest, “He has to be — ”

His chest bore a scar - the size of the bullet - as deep as the bone.

“The ghost.”

“Shot?”

“The Red Knight with 13 Coups.”

Utah Davis woke up with a gasp.

He snatched Josh’s forearm and the brothers watched each other closely as they began to praise the heavens in a secret handshake of recognition. Left arms up and playful prayers to the gods, maybe the Untouchable Smitten God even.

Dawkins stared flat. “What in this holy world?”

Breeeeeat! Screeched the buffalo.



Grrraaa’uht! She jerked away from the pain on her hind legs. Her gut bled - with a fish spine as sharp as a knife pointing out. Trav’ler K.C. was small below her weilding another from tied wrists.

Dawkins lunged at their prisoner, K.C. evaded, but got snapped by the tether to her horns as she jerked.

K.C. jumped and plunged the second fish spine into her side. Neither could kill her, but it was enough to lose purchase on the river ledge and her hind feet splashed into a wave. Any other river, she steps out, gores the threat, and the trio negotiate in Chief’s Kingdom. But this was the Niagara.

The equivalent of 350,000 horses ripped her away.

K.C. gave a crooked smile, flexed his wrists and biceps into a brace for the instant after when the leather strap ripped him into the Niagara River.

Gone.




17


“No!” Cursed Dawkins.

They all did. Red in the face, as hot as the campfire.

“I gave away our advantage!” Said Josh.

“If he survives maybe.”

“He will survive. Longmiles ahead of us with a message to kill. We must assume that,” said Josh. “It will be in the flesh that Trav’ler K.C. comes back to haunt us.”

Darkness surrounded him. The white noise of white water drowned all other sounds.

“We better get going,” said Dawkins.




18

In the time it takes three cowboys to saddle their horses,

...a drowning bison was a day’s ride downstream.

The next morning a young man and his dog snowshoed the glacier of the Emerald Mountains. The chilly vista behind them was the prettiest the wilderness had to offer. So it was here that the trapper had buried his brother. A fresh banditflower was placed next to the one from yesterday; and the 59 days prior.

“Miss ya, Kid.”

The dog lay down.

At the fourth trap the mountain man with the raxskin cap shot at breakfast but missed. He wasn’t that hungry anyway. His dog moaned in annoyance.

“Huh.”

At the thirteenth trap he’d caught a crow.

At the seventeenth he caught a 1,200 pound buffalo by the leather strap attached to her horns.

Upon closer inspection, they were sawed-off handcuffs.

With footprints.



19


The three Bill’s trotted the war path in silence.

They had a rugged fugitive to race 98 longmiles to Arrow Head Rock.

The winner got to ambush their sworn enemy.

It was near midday before they stopped and the first man spoke.

“Raiders. A week old,” commented Dawkins as the buzzards scattered. “Last Weak’s attack.”

A small band of remains lay in the sun of the Borderlands. The abandoned horses mouths were open and uncanny. Based on the gear and Four-Zero-style robotics they were from the radiation deadzone of Vegas: 2049.

They didn’t make it out.

“This used to be our territory.” Said Dawkins.

“Keep moving,” said Josh and trotted into the enemies storyline.




20


Some two miles ahead

...Josh turned Ron’s Pinto all the way around.

“Hey-ey, Gunslinger,” said Davis, “What’s got you?”

“Don’t wait for me.”

“Josh.” Said Dawkins. “Josh!” He shouted.

Their Gunslinger cantered away into their own dust.

He splashed back through the brook, up the valley slope, along the blood-specked trail and toward the tornado of scavengers.

Josh deadlifted a raider vehicle and coughed out the smell of maggots.

He looked at the horses.

He looked at Filly.

No, she’s gone. Filly’s gone.

He looked at the raider’s stolen horses with their mouths open and uncanny.

All of them.




21


“Full Speed!”

Cried Josh when he was in earshot of his companions up the trail. “Full! Speed!”

“Full speed he’s saying?”

“Let’s go, run. Yah!”

“Yah!”

Josh and Ron’s Pinto flew past the pair who were twisting and kicking their horses up to a gallop.

Their thunder began to shake and finally roll. Davis closed the gap on his faster steed.

“What! — Is it!?”

Dawkins could hear too as he rode into the sound waves at full-tilt.

“Gunslinger!?”

Josh looked back. His hair and clothing whipped. “Her teeth! Tomlin, of the Stealers gave us the Chief’s taunt! ‘What the pigs scat!’” Shouted Josh. “McDermott said they were dice, Beane said they were bones.”

Josh remembered the way Sachem Reed bounced the buffalo teeth they buried like so many dice. He remembered the dice in the Town Hall.

“Don’t you get it!? The chiefs dug up Filly’s body and sent me her teeth!”

Full Speed!” Yelled Gardener Dawkins from the rear.

Davis had the best vision of the three and pointed ahead. “I can make out the red spire of Arrow Head!”

Josh took his rifle off his shoulder.

Brown eyes dilated.





-




Tune in Next Week for a thrilling New Chapter of Buffalo Bill’s Mafia!




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