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Previously: Three Buffalo Bill's, heroes of the Wests, cross the borderlands with a prisoner of the formidable War Chiefs. After taunting Josh of Allentown over last winter's tragic battle in Arrow's Head Rock, the prisoner escapes.
10: Weak Six
Arrow's Head Rock
by Travis Carlson
It was high noon
...when a lone figure in a white hat rode into Chief Kingdom.
The canyon city. The red rock fortress.
The Arrow Head.
The pinto shined as wet as a river. He walked through the seafloor remains of a prehistoric water system. It was high noon in the ancient triangle courtyard.
Here, Josh stood out like a snowflake in a red rock cage. Without his hostage he was vulnerable to anything. Everything.
The Gunslinger’s only protection would be the storyline. The invisible ideas that surrounded him, the Bills Mafia, and the strength of the consequences. This was their first test.
Wichita locals recognized him and dropped their bundles. Shadows rushed inside their carved windows and through the catacomb halls to other dwellings. Whispers of warning screeched in tunnels and caves. Animals and children were ripped off the street like Josh were a rabid wolf, or a ghost, walking.
To them, maybe I am.
Stories did this.
The Kingdom had never been this afraid in their own home during their Golden Age. This glorious time that included multiple Super Collapses and all of the universe’s Dignity centered on them. Its opulence allowed the Wichita and Kaw to sculpt numerous towers into stunning, intricate temples.
Josh was miniature by comparison. But even the dwellings cut into the red cliffs on either side of Josh were small by comparison to the vanishing point everything led to, The Arrow’s Head.
Like a sphinx, the ancient War Chief statue radiated now, rebuilt since Josh and an incognito Utah Davis renovated it in battle last winter. It’s cheeks were re-made of Dignity-alloy blocks. Kintsugi on a colossal scale of red rock and gold.
Josh rode with no shadow through the center of the courtyard, slow. He lifted his arms out wide to disarm fears of a trick. His rifle was clearly tied into his bedroll behind him.
A woman with braces on her arms shook in fear. She had been too slow to cross the road when screams came ahead that the Josh of Allentown rode into Arrow Head Rock.
“I will not hurt you. Is Ma’Hawk still your most valued War Hawk?”
“Yeh, yay, trav’ler,” said the only remaining woman in the street to the only man, “Here, we call him: ‘Gunslinger.’”
And they say we are equals? Thought Josh.
“Very well,” he said, “Will you tell the Gunslinger that Josh of Allen—”
War cries echoed behind Josh and a galloping force echoed through the canyons. He encircled him, the War Hawk in full-dress. Josh didn’t turn his head to the posturing spirals. He feigned boredom and streaked some sweat off Ron’s Pinto.
But that didn’t stop Josh from noticing his enemy rode with tomahawk and his two loaded side-arms. His mohawk hair was cropped high to expose the two arrowhead brands on the flesh of his temples.
The Ma’Hawk reared in front of Josh of Allentown.
Josh summoned his pinto to rear.
What a sight for the colossus head to witness.
Two Nations of equal Dignity.
Two Armies of equal might.
“Hey-ey, Ma’Hawk of the War Chiefs.
...Óä’seshë’. I see you.”
The Ma’Hawk smiled, bending war paint. “You ‘a seen, Boy Maverick, by every eye of the Great Chief Kingdom!”
The corresponding eruption of noise clamored from the cliffs. He was goading.
The Ma’Hawk looked at him slyly, “So…a new horse? All of his teeth I hope.”
“Sajé:ök!” Josh yelled and circled the Ma’Hawk but spoke out to the cliffs. Some might hear him, “Our Nations have crushed the blood from our hearts as none other in the Narrows! We push our entire Age to the cliff of total war, mid-year! We are equal! Yet né:wa’, it is I who stand in your Arrow again! Unafraid! Ma’Hawk, let us engage in single combat as proxy for our Nations; to protect their blood and wager only our own!” Then Josh leaned in a bared his teeth - solid and white - like Filly’s, “and settle this.”
The Ma’Hawk kicked his horse and took a tight circuit or two around his brazen visitor. “But Boy, we are not equal! How can two engage in champion warfare when only one is champion?”
“Hear me! Thusly we each lost one battle of five! We equal the Ages in Dignity hauls. Our last meeting was cut by the coin of the Deadman. Our —” Josh spoke it loud so none could question his arguments. Least of which, the Officiant Priest who emerged from the Court Tower. A Smitten faith leader who could preside over a champion duel neutrally and represent the Near Frontier Lands.
“Equal say you…yet as I look to the eyes of my vault,” The Ma’Hawk did this with shoulders, head and tomahawk pointing for all to see, “It is my counter-spy Ju’Ju who recovers seven-score from your Secret Agent!” Gardener Dawkins was led out, bound, by an exiled stealer-converted-chief with 9 coups on his helmet.
Just like we planned.
Though, Josh did have to bite his tongue when he noticed his oversized best friend had squeezed into an undersized red uniform and split every seam. Then the helmet with the obnoxious red ostrich feather broke his resolve. Just the way Dawkins ‘inadvertently’ tickled Ju’Ju’s face with it as he looked left-and-right-and-left-and… Josh straightened up.
“Caught him snooping around the brisket,” reported Ju’Ju, angry, “Alias: ‘Snowman,’ Sir.”
“Snowman, shnowman!” Shouted Josh, “The brisket!? I hope you are super sorry.”
Dawkins kicked at the ground and tore more fabric, “You already shnow.”
The Ma’Hawk smiled. He enjoyed seeing their plan foiled but, even more so, to watch an enemy grovel.
“With this stunt, War Chiefs have the farmers edged by four,” Said Ju’Ju.
Meanwhile, a flash of light glared in Josh’s eyes.
It came from the eyes of the Arrow Head. The impenetrable vault-armory.
“I was hoping you’d say that.”
Josh flipped up his rifle in a flash of his own and fired an extraordinary volley-shot into the eye of Arrow Head Rock a half-mile away.
A cannon-blast of red dust and gold Dignity-bricks exploded out of the ‘impenetrable’ vault where a real agent, not a shnowman decoy, had infiltrated in the distractions.
Just like old times, thought Josh.
The Ma’Hawk covered reflexively but started barking orders before the debris rained down from the sky. His War Chiefs and Chief Elder Reid began to emerge in windows and behind fortifications with guns, arrows and cannons fused.
“Dignity was down by four, then we steal seven right in front of you, so to be equal equal…”
Josh leaned over and picked up a bundle of 3 Dignity-bricks, a bit bruised. He tossed it to The Ma’Hawk.
“How’s this for equal?”
The Ma’Hawk rode off to his half-day barracks, screaming:
“Water your filly! We duel!”
Utah Davis spied from the trapdoor
...as the first War Chief guard investigated the explosion he set up inside the Arrow’s Head.
“Stront! Ik ben dood! Net als afgelopen winter!” The Dutch guard whispered to himself.
He was about the right size.
“Stil schat,” Davis knocked him out.
Moments later Utah placed the last of the guard’s uniform, his red cap, on his own noggin’ and walked quickly.
Over the railings he saw the grand pageantry of the duel. Josh shot flying targets from horseback as the racing Ma’Hawk did the same. Hang with him Gunslinger.
Suddenly, a pair of reinforcements in the same red uniforms as Davis, now, jogged around the catacomb, “Report, guardsman!”
Davis kept walking, lowered his cap, and said, “Niets te zien.”
“Bah! I c’ain’t speak in’ Hollander!”
“Which! Way!?” They asked slow and loud.
Davis offered all the details, he was a member of the Chief Guard now: “Wenken, Blunken en Nod op een avond zeilde weg in een schoen. Zeilde op een river van mistig licht in een zee van dauw…”
They pushed past him flustered. “Ga Bill’s,” Davis added.
He twisted forward fast - but then he stopped dead in his tracks. Dood in his tracks.
He’d bounced into the plump belly of a calvary jacket with five stars on it. And a dominating red mustache above.
“Chief Elder Reid,” he said.
The war-hardened general of generals had an entire militia around him - most in the red knight helmets Davis had stolen last winter. There was no going around. But Davis felt weak for another reason.
Speak quickly. Chief Elder must have heard some of the last exchange. Davis felt terribly exposed with his face visible in this uniform.
“The spy’s own bomb knocked him out cold,” said Davis in Dutch.
“Is that true or are you the traitor!?” Demanded Ju’Ju - still one of the best in the business.
There was a pregnant pause where Davis could find no words, just looked into the eyes of Chief Elder Reid - so large - standing so close to him after so much recon and study…
“After months of campaigning
...for a Kruistocht, a Crusade,” Davis heard himself saying only yesterday. They had been eating a cold dinner before splitting up for today’s plan.
“A Holy War?” Josh had asked yesterday.
“Yes, Raja God-Tells warned him the radicalization and war-mongering had to stop. Chief Elder Reid, once his bodyguard, now his Marshall, was found days later equipping insurgents. He was too dangerous. The Raja assigned Reid on a Mission to the farthest Age from Utah as possible, back East, to the Academy.”
“Philadelphia,” Dawkins had said in this memory.
Davis had continued, “It’s said he preached the whole way and everyone aboard his cabin believed they were either Smitten or one of his long-lost children by the time they got off.”
“Oh, the Smitten Cabin,” said Dawkins, “Harbaugh, Bowles, Pederson, our own Frazier. There are more generals too, I never knew it was true.”
“That’s where Tomlin said McDermott served under him, at the Academy,” said Josh.
“At first, his grandiose plans and discipline were rewarded with promotions, all the way up to Secretary Eagle. But even the Academy had its limits of ambition. Rules and laws that the books say he outgrew. West. The Smitten wandered the prairies and deserts as an outcast, building a manifesto in the wilderness, again. He may have walked these very trails. Until, one day, he fell down the winding, narrow gorge where the old gate was. He was the first man to walk the snake canyon for eras - the first modern man to see it open into the ancient courtyard and cliff carvings. I imagine him standing like a lone pebble under the massive, overgrown Arrow’s Head. What a place to rebuild a kingdom, from the bones of a dominating civilization. The stories traveled out like Smitten Missionaries - though, forget the ties, these were fighters with the brand. The announced in every Age that a haven was forming for other warlords outcast for being too radical for their own homes. He didn’t want soldiers, he wanted Chiefs. When they stood before him, his message was clear,”
“You are here for a purpose.” Chief Elder Ried said in both the flashback the present.
It was Davis of the present who head it. The spy, in chief uniform, suddenly understood the power of purpose, the power the outcasts felt.
More shots fired from the champion duel below. Right, that was happening concurrently. Davis’s mind was still in the flashback, still in disguise.
“We got a K.O. body here in mafia rags,” yelled back the pair of vault guards that had passed him, not speaking any dutch. That’s right.
“Anyone can change their clothes, it’s the oldest trick in the book!” leaned in Ju’Ju, “You wreak of bison.”
Davis felt his breath leave him. Was their actually a spy book?
“My kinderen, what is your purpose?” Asked the Chief Elder.
“Yes,” agreed Davis, realizing his hand held a knife inside his pocket. Arm’s-length.
“What is it?”
The knife? Thought Davis, How does he know?
Two shots came from outside…And Davis was all back.
“To inspect the archive room, Chief Elder” said Davis, in English.
“The library?” Asked Ju’Ju.
“Yes, all attention is paid to the Dignity Vault and Armory, but on a frontier with no walls or trenches it is our information, our stories, our secrets that protect us. If I were a spy, that’s the first place I would target and it’s our least defended.”
“Go!” Commanded Chief Elder Reid, “Get to the Archives, son!”
Utah slipped past the general, larger-than-life, and through the corridor to the stairs. The last thing he heard the general say was, “Bring me the traitor!”
Davis slammed the door shut in the Archives.
“Two Bullseyes!” Yelled the distant Smitten Officiant.
The first constellation blinked
...above the canyon rim catching the last heat of the sun. The sky above melted purple as night descended.
The Ma’Hawk threw off his blindfold and Josh untied his.
“Seven straight sets…shot-for-shot equals,” remarked the Smitten Priest who reviewed his notes. “Night draws. It is unsafe to continue.”
“No, we shoot on,” said The Ma’Hawk.
“Great,” said Josh of Allentown.
“Very well, then we skip to the worst of it. I will set the rules, but your lives are in your own hands.” The priest pulled open his black and white robes and dropped eight bullets onto the bedrock. They bounced like dice. “By the Book of Smitten, I declare that midday begot this single combat and, thusly, midnight shall terminate it. Be living, be dead or drawn equal.”
Josh of Allentown and The Ma’Hawk looked to the Smitten for the foreboding words.
“The Mule Kick.”
Both gunslingers were startled and weren’t afraid to show it. The priest simply pushed them together, back-to-back. “I want this to end. Last winter will not happen again at my post. Bring out their Seconds!”
Ju’Ju tied a knot as tight as he could into Josh’s collarbone.
Gardener Dawkins knotted the other end of the ropes to The Ma’Hawk’s painted chest.
The thick cables connected both men into a solid, single mass above their pecs and below their armpits. Fused torsos.
The Mule Kick.
“Kirikirʔi:s tac,” said Ju’Ju with nervous tension in the Wichita language that made this fortress a city, “Say it.”
But the Ma’Hawk himself couldn’t speak.
“You good brother?” Dawkins asked Josh tapping his neck at the arteries.
Josh nodded his head without speaking like a bull rider tied in.
Because he was. They both were.
Only the bull they were tied to, in this case, was the other gunslinger.
“Ready…” said the Smitten.
Davis, from the record archive, looked away.
Chief Elder Reid, from the vault below, barked instructions that boomed.
In an instant of silence both Gunslingers dropped to the ground at the starting pistol.
They clamored for bullets, clawing, dropping; their bodies flipped!
To wrestle a man tied to your back.
Josh kicked at Ma’Hawks legs, elbows drove into his ribs. Knees and foreheads scraped on rock. This was just to get the ammo and hold their rifles.
Both managed exactly four bullets and - for an instant in the heat - switched from fighting wolves to teammates. They kicked their heels out in a triangle and pushed their backs together to stand up.
The Gunslingers threw bullets in their rifles, feeling the tug and push of the other warrior’s shoulders. Josh leaned forward and tried to shake him, but The Ma’Hawk held fast and kicked a heel into the back of Josh’s knee - dropping the chief back to his feet.
Both barrels rose toward opposite targets - opposite cliffs - but at the same instant.
Brown eyes - two faces - dilated.
Both rifles exploded. Both right shoulders recoiled.
Both gun barrels knocked right.
The kicks on their backs were as hard as a mule.
“Miss, still tied!” Cried the priest with a telescope.
The Gunslingers thrashed their shoulders, both in pain, scraping rope into soft flesh. They cocked their third shots, raced to aim —
— the mule kicked them both wide right.
Josh snapped his final bullet, Just like last winter. He took hot aim -
His head bounced forward from a fused spine. A mohawk skull of hair had head-butted him.
“Miss! Josh of Allentown.”
Before Josh could throw his own skull back to return the favor…
“Hit! War Chief Ma’Hawk. Three-score mark. Advantage grace Winner!”
“Wait, what!?” Asked Josh as the rope was cut. “Winner of the tournament!?”
“What!?” Shouted Dawkins, storming in.
“Yes. Over. Advantage hath been displayed,” said the Smitten Priest. “It is nearly midnight.”
“No!” Dawkins demanded to know the time. “Call another match. You will give us full time.”
Utah Davis glanced
...from the aisles of historic records out a deep window-carving. A make-shift chariot was set up for Josh. So that would end it?
“Ga’séhdiyano:we’,” he whispered in Haudenousaunee.
Fast Wagon, an imported skill from the Near Ancient Age with few realms left - and far fewer living on this frontier that would have any experience in a war chariot.
But that’s the point.
To force off-balance competitions to prevent the ‘Afgelopen Winter.’
Utah Davis looked up, because those very words, ‘Last Winter,’ and the minutes of that battle were memorialized in the history above. Some stories deserved to be carved in stone, not parchment. The Chiefs even chose to fill in the carvings with gold. To them it was a miracle story more than a gravestone.
It began as we already remember, two Gunslingers, one with an army of Chiefs, another with a serendipitous spy who found himself in the right place, right here, right now.
Utah Davis skipped past the known hieroglyphs to:
The etched-gold ceiling animated the history as clearly as any shadow puppet or nightmare. The history of the fourth and final last stand.
Josh and the spy of last winter had just collapsed the Arrow Head with a fourth critical strike and full advantage again. The Ma’Hawk rose from the rubble.
Josh galloped Filly toward the one and only escape they had deserved and earned. Again.
The gate blocking their canyon exit was still locked by Cheetah’s heroics - but even a locked gate is only as strong as the frame surrounding it - which, is exactly what Josh and the Spy had compromised. The Head Rock explosion and collapse cracked granite bones inside the cliffs and the puny gate hinges didn’t stand a chance - if the canyon even held.
As the skeleton of bedrock and mountain-muscle shifted like a sleeping giant trying to fall back asleep it was only a matter of seconds before the man-made bolts split, anchors popped and hinges tore.
The Chief’s only chance to stop the Boy Maverick’s path to glorious freedom was not unheard of if the gate was still held by it’s 120 anchors - but with only 13 bolts holding all of the weight - it would collapse any second - impossible.
The Boy Maverick of last winter galloped with everything Filly had left in her from the ruins and smoke of Arrow Head courtyard and took the hard left turn into the snaking canyon. He was out of sight from any bullet or artillery shell. A thought screamed in his head that he may have toppled the fortress of Chief’s Kingdom…
But he didn’t cheer or laugh or kick his heels up or shout.
He just rode.
Thirteen bolts became twelve. Twelve to eleven.
Chief Elder Reid gave the Ma’Hawk one choice, the only choice: “Get me artillery to the Arrow Base!”
“Go on 80 set up!” Cried the Ma’Hawk.
The Cheetah Warrior galloped out on-command to give the target. The Ma’Hawk jumped his horse into the gun crew cavity, scattering them. The horse-team harnessed to the cannon, required to pull the heavy piece into position, bucked and reared. He’d scared them. The Ma’Hawk chopped his tomahawk down to cut them free.
He’d scared them on purpose so they’d bolt away.
Crazy! Now he was stuck with one horse and a heavy cannon facing the armory wall.
He lit the fuse anyway.
BANG! — Bang! — bang. — (ng)
Before the echoes had even stopped the cannon exploded like a missile-on-wheels - propelling itself with a burst of it’s own gunpowder - half-the-distance of the courtyard.
It skidded to a smoking stop, hinges sagging, two wheel-struts cracked. It would never roll again.
“We have a chance!” Chief Elder Reid exclaimed, then barked, “Bunker! — Don’t stop until you reach base! 3 pounds only!”
“Affirmative!” A blaring 1917 Indian motorcycle burst from a hanger and cut it’s rear tire though the snowy mud. On it, Bunker, WWI Chief of the Piece. Every gun-crew had its commander who watches a shell and orders precise adjustments, but only two other crews in history had one this skilled. Bunker vibrated up the gears and tightened his red doughboy helmet. He was from the Age of Artillery. The Near Age of the Great Trench War.
Exiled Chiefs of every Age, here you have purpose.
Only steps behind the motorcycle’s exhaust, Trav’ler K.C. galloped his appaloosa through a crunching puddle. Gaining.
“K.C.! Bring a charge!” Screamed the Ma’Hawk at the top of his lungs, charging forward himself.
“Ik Ben!” Returned the Dutch Chief.
Nine bolts became eight for Josh and Filly’s freedom!
At the crippled gun, K.C. loaded it himself and Bunker rode past loudly. Everything was loud and silent in waves. “Geladen!” K.C. threw his weight into the broken gun-wheel as his horse pulled the rope. “Wield bitten vast!”
Wheels are stuck!
“No time for wheels!”
Seven chains became six.
The Ma’Hawk kicked the gun nose into the bedrock and lit the fuse before diving away with K.C.
Six chains became five.
- - BANG! — Bang! — bang. — (ng)
The cannon itself exploded out of it’s wheelbase as it’s own projectile. A primitive rocket. Wild, wingless, but fast. It did all it had to do - flipping end-over-end the length of the courtyard crashing anywhere into the distant cliff like a pipe thrown at a backstop. It crushed Bunker’s motorcycle into ten-thousand scraps.
Josh heard this specific collision over his shoulder as Filly slalomed the canyon toward the gate.
Four chains became three.
Bunker loaded a small, three pound shell into the mangled cannon.
“Ready!” Bunker yelled out of habit; now a one-man last stand.
The canyon did wind in the old river bed, but never so severe that one couldn’t thread a straight arrow down its center to the fortress gate. A cannonball? It would have to be perfect. Ten-thousands of years of wind erosion gave it a chance, but thirty-thousand would have made the shot more realistic. The thing was, Bunker had only three seconds.
Filly’s breath foamed like snowflakes.
All that was left, was to —
“Fire!” Cried Bunker, jerking the chord.
One bolt became none —
— as the ball struck the keystone of the open gate.
Josh could see both freedom and a rockslide at the same time. But the rockslide was closer - as Josh pulled Filly’s reins. She jerked her bridal forward, their reins out of Josh’s hands. Pure will, unstopping. She smashed into these crumbling debris with her head and shoulder as if to break right through.
If only real-life were like the dime-novels. Always a happy ending.
Josh had no choice but to flip over her head.
His back, filled with obsidian arrowheads, stopped by solid rock.
His brown eyes dimmed in the dust.
Two unequaled Nations, with nothing left, dead equal.
Back in the present,
...in the same courtyard that cannon of last winter had hopped through like a frog, Josh of Allentown rode a borrowed war chariot around a triangular track. Josh of the now looked up from the chariot at the pillars in the center of the track. Clay targets stood atop. His wooden wheels skidded in the bend, the floorboard leapt over every stone and pot-hole with no give.
Surrounding the track, along the edges of the triangle, hundreds of merchants, athletes, and war chiefs screamed insults - ten-times that number yelled from the cliff side balconies. The loudest battlefield in all the Near Ages.
“Last lap, last shot!” Called the officiating Smitten Priest. Josh, already losing before this final event, had fired two of his three rounds into the night sky instead of the clay jars.
Josh would not let this be last winter. His brown eyes dilated onto the terrain, anticipating the pits and pots. He would jump to disconnect from the speeding floorboard. Josh sighted the jar, waited for the perfect —
Josh’s right wheel seized for half-a-rotation, a quarter-of-a-second, and disintegrated into sawdust.
The Gunslinger was thrown sideways into the ground. He rolled and thrashed on bloody rocks into the priest himself. He leapt up immediately, “A lance! You saw it! They threw a lance into the wheel!”
“Out-of-Chariot. Disqualified!” Announced the priest.
The Wichita locals screamed in joy. Deafening.
But louder were the War Chiefs on the edge of the track with painted red lances.
Josh scooped up red splinters from the wheel-shards. “My wheel was unpainted. It’s a lance!”
Dawkins rushed out, yelling from the opposite side, “Count them High Priest! The Chief with 95-Coups is without his lance!”
Josh looked, it was true - the giant danced the biggest.
“95-Coups, that’s one to be careful of,” was all the priest said.
“What!?” Asked Josh.
“What kind of religion is this!?” Demanded Dawkins.
“Untouchable.” Said the Priest trying to brush flecks of Josh’s blood from his white robe.
Josh wiped the length of his bleeding arm onto the Smitten Elder.
“This is yours then.”
Blood soiled the white stripes, yes, but also dislodged the Priest’s face-covering.
“You,” whispered Josh.
Josh’s mind flew back into the Afgelopen Winter.
Josh was Boy Maverick of Last Winter.
In the memory, the same Smitten Priest put a hand on Josh’s bloody shoulder as he and Filly dug at the collapsed gate. Josh turned.
He was like an angel.
His robes were exceedingly white with three black stoles.
He was clean.
The Boy Maverick hadn’t seen someone so clean in months of the Fore-Years, which had all culminated here, at the end in the end.
“The Chiefs fly a white flag. A truce has been called.”
“What does that mean?”
“Neither side has able defenses. Yet there is no escape. By the governance of the Untouchable Laws and the Prophet Raja God Tells, a proxy warrior for either side engages in a shootout.”
“A shootout? I’m the only warrior of my side, so it would be me. What is it?”
“Very well. This is a Coin of Equal Sides, forged by the Council of Smiths in accordance with the Book of Smitten.”
“…the Deadman’s Coin.” Josh mumbled. He’d heard of it but never… “What do I do in a shoot—”
“Wait, first, what do I do in a shootout. Is it like a cowboy duel? Champion Warfare?
“Hey, man, wait - I’m all alone here.”
“Call it!” The Deadman Coin spun in the air.