Aphelion Issue 241, Volume 23
July 2019
 
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Forty Pieces of Lead

by Joel Doonan


Light from the near full moon cast my shadow over the straw dry grass and rough stones of the high plateau. Across the plain below, twinkling and shimmering in the still warm desert air I could see the lights of town, blue and aqua, green and lavender, and a few bright pink lights which sparkled like tiny stars at street corners and the entrances to alleyways.

Down in the city there was noise and commotion, music, excitement, and danger. The sounds and images lingered in my mind. But right here, right now, all is peaceful and quiet, a time to calm and clear my thoughts and sort out what was real and what was illusion.

I unbuckled my holster belt and let my shoulder pack, belt pack and bedroll drop to the grass, then examined the burns and ragged cuts to my side, arms and legs as best I could under moonlight. Finally unburdened, I felt free from the demons which had hunted me, demons of flesh and those also of dreams. With my bedroll opened across a flat area between stones, and with the yellow grass rising tall around me, I lay down and stared up at the starry calm. Tomorrow I would begin my return to the village, but right now I needed to blend with the stars, immerse in the quiet empty blackness. Soon I fell asleep with a loaded pistol in each hand and my head resting on a sack of gold.

####

"That girl could shoot watermelon seeds through the gap in her front teeth," the old man said, "but I liked her anyway. She wore green on Tuesdays, red on Spirit Days and blue on every other day except for Solstices. That's when she wore purple. Never wore black. Didn't believe in it. Not even when old Willie died. Her dad, not the Willie who ran the junk yard across town. I wouldn't piss on that feller's leg if his foot was on fire."

The old man stopped to spit. He set his work down on the oil stained work bench then gathered his long white hair back and tied it with a leather lace. His shop was always hot due to the nature of his craft, and even at this early hour it was becoming a hot day outside. We both had beads of sweat across our foreheads. He handed me a leather lace and I tied my own hair as he propped open the door with an old boot.

"Anyway," he continued, "they say that in Fancy Town you can get rich in a day, or get killed in a minute. Gotta watch your back. Good thing to be armed, but don't let them see you packing iron. Got laws against it. Let's see what we can find for you. Something you can keep hidden."

He bent down behind the counter and searched through his array of hand crafted arms and knives. I was impatient, anxious to be on my way. I had just come from the High Kiva where a meeting of Elders had dispatched me on a mission to find three brothers, missing for nearly a month.

We were a mixed tribe of Old Indian and Blond Indian. The Old Indians lived in these lands since the beginning, since the time when mountains rose from the oceans and the moon was born, but legends told that the Blond Ones came from an ancient nation far to the east. They came starving and diseased after the fall of their empire, during the season of Four Winds. They came skinny and dying and they were welcomed to join our tribe. They brought with them new skills which added to our own knowledge, the understanding of Ironworks and Lightning works. They brought the science of Lectrics which harnessed the lightning, and new skills in measurement and mathematics. We became far stronger, shared our knowledge with other villages and as tribes allied together, we eventually grew to become the great Seven Nations. My parents were mostly Old Indian, like Windfire, the elder iron smith standing across the counter.

He mumbled as he sorted. Metal clinked against metal and leather squeaked against plastic. "Aha. These are perfect!" He stood up, placed a soft piece of leather on the counter top then set out a finely polished pair of silver steel pistols. He took a polishing cloth from his back pocket and wiped off his oily dark finger prints.

"Six shots each. New lectric igniters never need replacing. Batteries in the handles charge themselves in sunlight. I spent five months working on these and I expect them back in perfect shape. For your mission you'll also need a pound of Bang Powder, and a pound of number forty-seven lead round shot."

He held a pistol up at arm's length with a rock steady hand and sighted down the barrel, across the street through the open door. In his younger days he was known as an unparalleled marksman.

"Knock a fly off an apple with these if your eyes are sharp. Never miss your mark." He set the pistol down and began sorting through a drawer. "And this is for emergencies." He laid a dual cavity number forty-seven ball mold on the counter beside the pistols. "In a pinch you can always make your own. Even recast your old shots if you can find them."

The pistols were a matched pair. Beautifully engraved with decorative scroll work and images of clouds and lightning, they sported barrels longer and slimmer than most. They took advantage of the stronger, light weight silver steel, and used the standard loading levers along the barrel's under side for seating shots. Pearl plastick grips adorned the handles, opalescent and reflecting many colors in the narrow beams of sunlight streaming in from gaps around his shop's windows.

"Those pearl grips are more than just pretty," he added, "They're high capacity solar collectors. No other pistols quite like these, but there's a flaw in the design which you should take note of. Be very careful not to reverse the batteries. If you get one of them in the wrong way you can strike lightning between the barrels. Always keep the polarity the same. Started a fire one time by getting them wrong. Gave me quiet a jolt and 'bout burnt my shop down."

He lifted a fine set of leather work from an oak wall peg, belt and holsters custom fit to the pistols and set them on the counter. The finely tooled set included a generous belt pouch for powder, lube and shot. I held the pistols up and sighted down the barrels. I checked the action of each cylinder, trigger and loading lever, then strapped on the holster belt and seated the pistols. Not as bulky or heavy as those I was used to. I could easily move and run with these.

"I know you're off to find the three brothers, dispatched on official business, but if you can discover what happened to my lady friend I would sure appreciate it. She went by the name Green Sparrow. You can have these pistols to keep if you can bring her back. She tore a part of me away, long ago. It's a hole I never been able to mend. Let me tell you what happened."

He pulled up a work stool and sat, elbows on the counter. I accommodated myself as best I could on a windowsill and listened.

"We were young, two travelers taking the high mountain trail on our return from the northern village of Three Stones where her parents lived. We camped for the evening on the high escarpment above Fancy Town. When darkness approached, the lights of town began to shine and sparkle and she was so lured by the colors that she was determined to see the town for herself. I built a fire and fixed dinner while she took the trail down. Said she'd only be an hour or two. I waited all night but she never returned. The next morning I went looking, but the town was only a dusty ghost town. I searched all day but the place was deserted. No water, no food, nothing. Everyone must have packed up and left during the night and taken her with them."

"I'll ask around," I said. "Try to find out something."

"Fancy Town is a place for tourists and cowboys," he added. "Tourists are mostly harmless, but never trust a cowboy. Their sort is no good. Drunken thieves, the lot of them. Uncivilized. And get some practice with these pistols. They can save your life if you know how to use them, and if it comes down to shooting, always remember to save your last shot." He leaned across the counter and motioned me closer . He continued, soft and serious.

"There are stories about beings called Hollow Men who hide in the shadows of Fancy Town. They try to fill their emptiness by devouring souls. If they devour a soul they become real, but only for a day. Then they become hungry again. If your soul gets taken by a Hollow Man you become hollow as well. They can't be stopped. Best to run like a fox if you meet one."

I nodded, pretended a look of concern as he set powder and shot on the counter. I didn't actually believe the stories I had heard about Hollow Men. I packed the supplies between dried food and water in the already crowded pouches attached to my canvas bed pack.

I was eager to be on my way, trained as a Watcher, one who is dispatched to work alone and act as eyes and ears of the Seven Nations. It was my task to blend in, unseen, gather information and perform special duties. I gave a respectful nod, Windfire being a elder, and departed by foot toward the wild lands west of our village. My lectric time and navigation instrument brightened as I pulled it from a pocket to check the direction and distance coordinates for Fancy Town. The terrain ahead was new and unfamiliar but the finder's small screen indicated the routes of established trails and resources.

####

My first day passed without event, just the occasional glimpse of coyote or rabbit provided a break from the continuum of quick footsteps along a dusty trail. It was near sundown when I rested on the straw dry grass beneath a grey alder tree. It was time to practice with the pistols.

At a distance of thirty yards I set rows of fist-sized stones atop pink granite boulders. Pulling the loading lever slightly away from its lock position released the cylinder to rotate freely. With four units of bang powder, a smear of lube, and a round ball seated in each cylinder I was ready to fire. I gave the cylinder a spin and listened to the individual clicks of register positions before re-locking the loading lever.

The lectrics gave instant ignition with each trigger pull and the target stones exploded to sand with each flash of fire and smoke. The pistols proved so accurate and easy to aim that I continued practicing until more than half my reserves of shot were used. Then as evening gave way to night I camped under the alder tree. No fire to announce my presence through the night to others who might be in the area, only the quiet company of stars in an ink black sky, the soft chirp of crickets and the distant chorus of coyotes.

Dawn was a time for exercises and meditation. A time to greet the new sun and join minds with the great spirit, the source of life and intuition, to gather personal resources for the task ahead.

An ancient hunting trail led toward the western highlands. The sunbleached and weathered skulls of bison intermittently marked the path, nearly buried to obscure them from all but the most observant. With a careful position of horns they indicated each change in direction, and carved markings atop the skull indicated the location of water and other resources, an art still taught by elders.

It was late afternoon on the tenth day when I stood for the first time on the rocky plateau east of Fancy Town. Standing in the straw yellow grass I surveyed the plain. To my surprise there wasn't much to see, only a loose collection of abandoned buildings with rusty tin roofs, sand drifts in the streets and windblown brush. Pronghorns grazed peacefully to the north and all seemed still and quiet, just the weathered remains of a long abandoned community.

I noticed a group of cowhands in the distance to the west making camp beside a dry wash. My time piece included a lens port for expanded viewing and it felt prudent to investigate them in more detail.

With a closer look I could see that the cowboys had no livestock to tend, just five horses tethered to the branches of a desert ash. Oddly, beside the horses sat an old two-wheeled petrol bike, uncommon in these modern times due to the rarity of fuel.

The town below was so desolate that I thought perhaps I had been dispatched in vain. Perhaps my direction finder was off in calibration and had led me to the wrong location. Regardless, weary from travel I chose to sort the situation out the following morning and began to gather sticks of creosote brush for a small fire. But then as evening progressed and long, dark, purplish shadows from the mountains obscured the town's dusty streets, lights began to appear, dimly at first, just bright enough to notice several people emerge from the old buildings. I didn't light the fire, instead lay low and watched closely.

Evening yielded to night and entire buildings appeared to rise from the shadows. A sudden wind blew the streets clean of dust and dry weeds. More and more lights began to appear, glowing signs and streetlights, and at the center of town a great fountain began to send an alluring spray high into the dry air. Faint murmurs of distant music echoed up the canyon. The town had come to life.

I rolled my holster belt and pistols tightly inside the bedroll, secured it to my back and prepared to continue my mission.

A narrow, meandering path wound its way down the steep hillside, a path made by pronghorns and foxes, and under the yellow glow from a rising moon I descended toward the lights and sounds of Fancy Town.

At the very edge of the community, the dry sand and sagebrush abruptly gave way to a brick paved avenue. Ahead were tourist shops and curio shacks, and places for entertainment and gambling. Most every shop was neon gaudy, and advertisements for female escorts, male escorts, and all manner of provocative indulgences plastered the light poles and entrances to alleyways.

Tourists ambled in and out of clothing shops and exotic smoke kiosks, awed by the lavish decor as they decided where best to lose their money. There was the sound of banjos and lectric guitars straying from the open doors of dance clubs, and the music of trombone and keyboards from others. The avenue became increasingly crowded as I progressed toward the heart of town, and soon there were horse traders and cattle buyers bargaining in the streets, jugglers panhandling and dusty cowboys searching for a quick thrill. The antique petrol bike which I had seen earlier chugged slowly past, piloted by a fat cowboy and leaving a wake of smoke. Heads turned as it passed, a rare novelty, and several onlookers followed. Without warning, a silent, three wheeled lectric cart bearing badged lawmen whizzed quickly past from behind. A second cart barely missed the fellow ahead of me and I chose to move to the edge of the street.

There were five main corridors leading into town like the spokes of a great wheel. All led toward the great central fountain, with colored geysers of alluring water spreading a cool mist in the night air. I slowly progressed in the fountain's direction, passing shirt shops and curio stands, food booths and pleasure clubs, pausing at the entrance of each, listening, watching, letting my practiced sense of intuition act as a guide. I paused at the entrance to a noisy gambling club. Something about this place felt different. Something felt right.

Above a short flight of broad stone steps flashed a lavish sign, "Cowboy Palace," "Fun and Fortune." A pair of blue and red neon boots graced the right side, appearing to kick the air as they flashed alternately between sets of images. A loose stack of yellow neon coins glowed on the left which rocked and tumbled in eye catching motion. There was a smaller sign beneath the main one, a hand painted recent addition, "Cowboys Only! Absolutely No Injuns!"

An old smelly drunk stood swaying at the bottom step and watched as I read the sign. He pointed up, his torn, sweat stained shirt hanging loose and open. "Cowboys only," he stammered. "A place to shake off dust and lose your money. Maybe get lucky with a gal. Your sort not welcome in there. They don't want no trouble with Seven Nations. You know, for corruptin' their youth and such." He turned and staggered away, continuing to mumble, "Don't need no Seven Nations comin' round here and tellin' us to straighten up." He ambled toward a curio shop with a side door advertising liquor and smoke sales.

To the right of the steps just beyond the light which spilled from the club entrance, a pair of fine boots and the sparkle of silver spurs caught my attention. I glanced around, and when unseen by others slipped into the shadows to investigate. The boots were attached to an unconscious cowboy. I dragged him around to the side of the establishment deeper into the darkness, then borrowed his boots and hat. The boots sported engraved silver spurs and leather tooling in the image of coiled rattle snakes. The hat was a fine piece of felt and leather work, graced with a distinctive band of silver medallions. Both were a near perfect fit but there was something inside the left boot as I pulled it on. I turned it over and dumped out a handful of gold and silver coins.

With my hair tucked inside my shirt and the coins in my pocket, I flipped up the back collar and pulled the brim of the hat low. The silver spurs jangled and rattled with each rising step and I entered the broad open entrance of the Cowboy Palace.

"Back for more?" scoffed the doorman, a heavy, bald man seated on a stool, with tattoos of demons on the back of his head and neck. "Thought that last round did you in. Tougher than I thought." I remained silent, kept the brim of the hat low, nodded briefly and walked past.

Noisy, crowded and dark. Took a few moments for my eyes to adjust. Neon strung high around the walls and interior columns gave a purplish glow to the entire establishment with its many round and rectangular gaming tables. Patrons crowded around each, some seated, some standing. Card games. Dice games. Arm wrestling. A bar for drinking which stretched the length of one wall. Between gaming tables, life sized illusions of near nude lady dancers moved alluringly inside floor to ceiling columns of blue light to the loud rhythm of Cowboy Rock. Neon blue, pink and green brew signs glared from the walls and the air was thick and heavy with the smoke of dream weed.

"First drink's free," said a waitress in passing, "Blue Lightning on the house."

Her hair was waist length, pure white, and she handed me a slim glass vial from her tray. Even with a scar on her left cheek and a crooked nose, in her skintight lizard pants and nearly unsnapped cowgirl shirt she was alluring in a dangerous way.

I held the glass up close to a neon tube as she departed on her rounds and the fluid inside reacted to the ultraviolet, bubbled and fluoresced bright blue. A rousing cheer suddenly rose from a gaming table nearby and needing to appear as a normal patron, I drank it down before moving to investigate. It tasted like bright citrus, like sparks and fire, like the color blue. I had no other words to describe it. My scalp tingled.

"Place your bets on the glowing circles," said the game master. "Blue brings five to one, green brings fifteen to one, and orange is the famous forty-to-one—for those who are brave enough to make a fortune! Only here at the Cowboy Palace! Copper for copper, silver for silver, gold for gold. We match the metal of your money, you take your chances!"

I had coins in my pockets from the cowboy's boots and I pulled out a silver one to lay on the table, but before I could place the bet a passing waitress snatched it from my hand and replaced it with another vial of blue lightning. I pulled a second coin from my pocket, one of pure gold, and I held onto it tightly. I was feeling confident and placed a bet on an orange, forty-to-one circle as other patrons placed bets of their own. The game master made a quick visual study of all the gamblers around the table before starting the round. "All bets are in! Now we begin!" he shouted.

With the push of a button the glowing circles of lights began to shift around in a random fashion. Faster and faster the dots of colors whirled and swayed. Made one dizzy to watch. My head was feeling light as I downed the second vial of blue lightning. Others crowded in to watch the spinning lights as the thumping pace of music seemed to speed up.

The motion of colors suddenly stopped. "We have winners!" he shouted. Onlookers crowded close to see. My single gold coin was quickly snatched from the table. "Forty pieces of gold for this Cowboy!" he held a pouch of coins high and turned slowly around for all to see. With exaggerated ceremony he handed it over. Stunned at my unexpected fortune, I gladly took it. "If this cowboy can win, anyone can win!" he boomed, pointing into the crowd. "It's a lucky night for everyone!"

I worked my way from the table holding tight to my winnings as another eager cowboy slipped into my "lucky" place. From behind I heard a fist full of coins hit the floor and amidst shouting, a struggle broke out as many hands reached for the loot. I paid no mind, continued toward the rear of the establishment toward a doorway with a glowing sign which read "Shootin' Range!"

The drinks seemed to go right through me and needing to relieve my waters, I stepped into the shortest of three lines. Before long I realized that this particular line ended at a wash sink. No one was washing hands there tonight though, and with a little tact it worked just as well.

To the left of the restroom, a set of double swinging doors opened into a smoky kitchen. I had not eaten since mid afternoon and I paused at the entrance, taking in the heavy pungency of grilled meats and peppered sausages. A slim waitress caught my eye, her long dark hair held back with a pair of fine, Indian-Silver hair clasps. Her warm complexion hinted at a tribal affiliation and then I noticed, just barely visible under her left shirt sleeve, the mark given to the watchers of the Seven Nations. I carried the same mark on my own arm, the symbol of the hawk within a circle of seven stars.

I lifted the brim of my hat and caught her eye. I pointed to the mark on her arm and then tapped my own arm. She nodded just slightly.

She held a steaming tray of peppered sausages and as she walked through the swinging doors she whispered, "Go outside at two hours past midnight. Wait by the back stairs."

I snatched two sausages from her tray. She turned and gave a playful scowl before disappearing into the noise, smoke and the mayhem of gamers.

There were bowls of salty crackers placed along the bar and I helped myself. Between the peppered sausage and the crackers, I soon needed something to drink and motioned to the tender. "Glass of water!"

He set down a half eaten bacon sandwich and stepped toward me. "We got Blue Water, Fire Water, Green Lightning Water and Extra Dry Water. We also got Rattle Snake Water,

Tail of the Lizard Water and even plain ol' water."

"Plain ol' water," if you don't mind.

"We charge extra for that," he replied flatly. He picked up his sandwich.

I opened my leather pouch of winnings and proudly smacked a gold coin down on the bar. Unimpressed, he slid it into a tray behind the counter and replaced it with an old pickle jar with the Best O' West Red-Hot Dills label partially stripped off. The water tasted odd, a bit like plastic resin, but I drank it down just the same.

I checked my timepiece, held it low as the green glow of numerals indicated that it was approaching midnight. By now the smells and smoke of the place had lost its novelty and I rose, blended in with a departing group and slipped unnoticed past the doorman. There was time to investigate a little more of the town before meeting up with the waitress.

Farther down the avenue sat a kiosk which sold post cards, West Land slogan tee shirts such as "Keep Fightin' till the Powder-N-Whiskey's Gone", and large polymer insects with green and orange glowing eyes. The fat shopkeeper was snoring, sitting atop a stool in front of a lectric fan. I walked slowly around the outside, examining the point where the shop met the pavement as two tourists quietly helped themselves to merchandise. "How can these places simply rise out of shadows," I wondered. "Are they underground by day?" A deputy sheriff strolled slowly past and the tourists nervously returned shirts to their proper place on the rack. The shopkeeper suddenly passed gas and briefly opened one eye. I pulled the brim of my hat low and continued down the avenue. Some mysteries would just have to wait.

At the hour of two past midnight the kitchen's rear service door burst open, banged against trash cans and from a billowing cloud of grill smoke she emerged like an apparition, or an angel, holding her breath while she fanned the air. She coughed, motioned for me to follow her up the stairway. I stayed close. Her long dark hair had just a hint of auburn color, and she smelled like desert roses and fresh pine, like spring irises, and a bit like grilled sausage. Midway up she carefully avoided a loose, broken plank and I followed her lead up the creaking stairway to her second story apartment.

"I've been dispatched from the village of Valley Falls," I said as she opened the door. She turned, placed two fingers to my lips and shook her head as we entered, then closed and latched the door behind. "They are always listening," she whispered.

The one room apartment had a single bed, a tiny kitchen and a cramped restroom with a broken door hanging by a single hinge. A change of clothes hung on a curtain rod above an open window and a single work of art adorned the walls, its center contents covered by a stained pillow case. On one side of the covering I could see the image of a lady's face, and on the other, bare legs.

"I've been directed to locate three brothers," I continued softly, "believed to be killed or held captive here in Fancy Town."

She nodded. "My name is Ianna, and you?"

"You can call me Three Feathers".

"An old-style name. Haven't heard one of that sort in a long while."

"My parents were traditional," I said. "The name stuck. Some just call me TF."

"The brothers were transporting ceremonial gold from Three Stones Village," she continued, "But the gold never arrived at its destination. That's why I was dispatched. I found the brothers here in Fancy Town.

"They were traveling the high trail, heading southeast. They noticed the lights of town as they made camp one night and figured it wouldn't hurt to be tourists for the evening. After a few drinks they thought they could use the gold in a wager and increase their wealth. Everyone was winning. It seemed a sure thing."

"It somehow worked for me," I said, opening my pouch of gold. She reached inside the leather pouch, took out a single gleaming gold coin and held it up. "Watch this."

She crouched down and began rubbing the edge of the coin vigorously on the weathered pine floor. Soon, dark streaks marked the wood surface. She stood up and held the edge of the coin toward me. The thin film of gold had been easily worn away to reveal a dull gray material. I took the coin and pressed my thumbnail into it. "Lead! They took my gold and gave me forty pieces of lead!"

"The brothers lost the gold," she said. "They tried every honorable way to win it back. Eventually they discovered the club's safe room and over the course of two weeks managed to retrieve every piece. They sensed that they were being watched, and I offered to hide the gold for them as they prepared to leave. They vanished on that same night."

She stepped to one side of the room and began counting floorboards. "Eleven, twelve, thirteen." She pressed a blue stone on her silver wrist band and a small steel blade swung out. She worked the blade between the tight fitting boards then pried one up. She reached into the cavity beneath, pulled out a canvas belt pack and laid it on the floor. I crouched low as she opened it. Bright gold coins, real gold, one ounce each, stamped with the symbol of the Seven Nations. "It's yours now," she said, "I'm tired of guarding it. The brothers knew that someone would be sent to find them. That's why I've waited here, past the point when my better senses told me to leave."

"It will be delivered, every single coin," I assured, fastening the canvas bag as she replaced the floorboard.

I told her the story of Windfire, the iron smith, and the lady Green Sparrow. Asked if she had any knowledge of the lady's fate from so long ago. Ianna thought for a moment.

"The lady in the light. Yes! She was a dancer here. They fooled her, trapped her in the blue light. Made her dance as they recorded her. They still use the images, but she has been long devoured by this place.

"Almost nothing in Fancy Town is real," she added as I opened the cabinet doors beneath the kitchen sink. "But what is real, can kill you. You must learn to know the difference."

I found a small sauce pan and placed it on the stove. "What are you doing?" she asked, looking over my shoulder as I emptied my winnings into the pan.

"Might just need to shoot this lead back at them," I returned quietly, turning up the heat.

Ianna stepped back. She watched me for a moment then instantly spun around with a leg extended up and out, caught me off guard and tapped her foot firmly on my shoulder. "You must stay alert around here," she cautioned as she straightened up. "Trust no one. Know when it is time to leave. Follow your intuition. Even now, my own senses whisper that they are on to me."

"They?" I asked.

"Fancy Town is a very queer place. There must be powerful demons at work here creating the illusions. They have eyes and ears everywhere. If you spend the night here, you never see the day.

You can only enter at night. You must also leave at night."

I raised my eyebrows and wondered if she had been around the smoke of dream weed for too long. I began casting the lead shot as she laid down to sleep, fully dressed, and I turned off the lights except for a small lamp over the kitchen counter. I worked quietly, continued casting until I had made forty perfect rounds, shiny shot with tiny flecks of gold in each. "Nice balls," I thought, leaving the remaining lead in the pot to cool.

Taking no chances I tightened the straps of my gear, loaded my pistols, filled my water bottle from the kitchen sink and kept the gold firmly secured to my waist. I lay down next to her, falling asleep with the rattlesnake boots by my side and the fine new hat over my eyes.

I awoke with a start. Sat quickly up. It was dark and Ianna was gone. "Where is the morning?" I wondered, "Is it still night?" The bed was unwrinkled where Ianna had been laying, in fact all traces of her seemed to have vanished from the room and for a moment I thought perhaps she had been a dream. Then I heard quiet footsteps creaking up the outside stairs. There was a sudden crunch followed by muffled profanity as a foot slipped through the broken plank, then a moment of silence before the steps continued. I slipped silently off the bed and grabbed the boots, quietly tip toed across the room to the open window and slipped out onto the rusty corrugated tin of the lower story. I was directly above the kitchen and the clinking of dishes, small talk of the wait staff and smoke from the grill emanated up through nail holes and cracks in the sheet metal beneath my socked feet. Suddenly the door of the apartment burst open and lights were switched on. I raised just high enough for a quick peek.

The heavyset door man and a skinny, barefoot redhaired cowboy were accompanied by a rough looking Deputy Marshall. They sorted quickly through the room. The mattress was flipped on the floor and the contents of drawers dumped out. The kitchen cabinets and bathroom were next.

"Time for me to leave," I thought, gingerly scooting down the corroded roof then dropping into the shadows behind the kitchen. I slipped on the boots and swiftly departed into the darkness, preferring the shadows of alleyways to the broad, bright avenues.

A foggy mist had settled over town and softened its formerly gaudy ambiance. The neon glow of signs and streetlights seemed imbued with a dreamlike quality and I felt as though not fully awake, while remembering what Ianna had told me about never seeing the day. I snugged the hat low but something inside caught my hair and I took it off. Fastened inside was one of Ianna's silver hair clasps, and secured to it, a small hand written note.

"Leave now before this place devours you," it read, "Leave with all haste and let no thing or no one lure you to pause. Best of luck till we meet again, Ianna."

I drank from my water bottle, tried to shake off the mental fog but the water only made me dizzy. Her note and hair clasp went into my pocket and I set my mind on a speedy departure. Then my gaze fell upon the great fountain. It's alluring spray seemed to call me. It was not that far away and suddenly all I wanted was to splash my face and wake up from the feeling of being trapped in a dream.

The plaza around the fountain was dimly lit by the radiance from illuminated jets of water. Red, green, blue and orange light undulated hypnotically about the stone paving and the glitter of innumerable coins shimmered in the colored light under the rippled water at the fountain's base.

A broad ring of masonry encircled the fountain, perfect for seating as it captured the spray from the hundred-foot high jets of water. A few others were seated about the fountain as I approached, but strangely, they all seemed frozen, motionless. Determined to splash my face and arms and be on my way, I paid them little attention.

I tossed my hat to the pavement and set my knees on the stone ledge, cupped my hands and vigorously splashed my face. I wiped off with my sleeves, my hair wringing wet, stood back up and inadvertently elbowed a man seated close by.

The man fell over onto the pavement. He was not real, only a hollow plastick shell lying on its side like a display prop from a shop window. I could see the inside through openings in the bottoms of his feet and the palms of his hands. "Something to lure tourists to the fountain," I thought.

The plastic man wore a queer smile, a creepy smile, but I paid him no mind, bent back down to splash my face again. But then a motion caught my eye and I stood back up, cleared my eyes. The plastic man's head slowly turned to face me and his arm began to extend up to the ledge. I backed away. The figure started to pull itself up, laboring to stand. "Hollow man!", I thought, my heart pounding. Now other figures who had been seated about the fountain began to rise as well. It was definitely time for me to leave town.

A crowd of tourists stood before the wide open doors of a curio shop, amazed by a gleaming assortment of animated neon cactus placed about the pavement, swaying to calypso rhythms to attract business. I merged into this crowd, kept an eye behind as the animated plastic figures continued to move my way. I slipped beyond the crowd and hid in a dark alley between shops. I opened my bedroll, brought out my pistols and buckled them on. I secured the leg thongs the keep the holsters tight should I need to run. With my bedroll tight and strapped to my back and the pouch of Seven Nation's gold secured to my holster belt, I snugged my hat and emerged from the shadows. Tourists noticed the gleam of my silver pistols and parted, giving me an unobstructed path. A shop owner picked up a lectric phone to make a call and I set my mind on a steady pace out of town.

I continued without intervention, toward the end of the avenue where the street lighting dimmed and the pavement sunk beneath the sand and sage of the prairie. But not far ahead, several figures moved from the darkness on either side of the avenue to block my path. They formed a line across the pavement and more figures arrived to form a second line behind them, all wearing the same queer smile. Some began to open their mouths and hungry hissing sounds resonated out from within their hollowness.

Without hesitation and with a pistol in each hand I took aim at the chest of the center figure and fired two shots. With a blaze of fire and smoke I blasted a pair of fist sized holes completely though the hollow shell. The shots knocked it back a step, but it straightened up and continued toward me with the others.

Now they raised weapons of their own, pistols powered by lectrics which fired short bursts of pulsed light. While I understood the science behind light-pulse weapons, I had never seen or used one, and while their aim was less than perfect there were a great many who returned fire. The short bursts of hot light burned holes through my clothes, penetrating my skin, painful but not incapacitating. "They need me alive," I thought, "There may be many of them, but their weapons are no match for a well aimed piece of high speed lead." I took aim at the neck of another figure and blasted its head completely off. That figure stopped in its tracks. It crouched low and began to feel about the pavement for its missing part.

I fired more well-aimed shots. Blasted the arms off four of them and the heads off two more, but they continued toward me hissing like snakes with wide open mouths. The smoke from my pistols briefly obscured me and I was down to my last shot with no time to reload. I took advantage of the smoke, ran to one side of the avenue and came up against a chain-link fence crowned with barbed wire. I worked my way up and over the top, tearing my clothes and gouging skin on my arms and legs. I dropped to the other side and continued away from town as the hollow men crowded up against the chain-link and continued to fire. A sudden clear flash of intuition flooded my thoughts. I carefully held one pistol by its plastick pearl handle and removed the battery to reverse its polarity. No sooner had I snapped the battery back in place when a hollow man emerged from the shadows directly before me. He had found his head but had put it on backwards, a curious sight as he faced me. I pointed both pistols as if to fire, careful to hold them by the pearl handles as his arms bent awkwardly back to grab them.

Blue white lightning flashed from barrels to hands setting the hollow shell man on fire. He fell to the ground, no longer animated as flames and smoke expanded across the figure. He began to melt. I carefully re-holstered my pistols and set a fast pace toward the highlands as a lectric cart bearing the town marshal and three deputies squealed to a halt at the end of the avenue. "Don't come back, Injun!" yelled the marshal as I slipped farther away. Then I heard the old petrol bike approaching at full throttle. It rocketed off the end of the avenue into the sand and sage piloted by the fat cowboy. The skinny redhead cowhand sat right behind him on the seat, a single action '72 P model in his outstretched right hand. "GIMME MY DANG HAT!" he shouted.

I owned a pair of P models myself but seldom used them, the brass was so hard to find. He fired several wild shots, kicked up sand to my left and blasted branches out of a creosote bush just ahead. The bike was bobbing up and over the prairie clump grass and his shooting arm was wildly unstable.

I turned and paused, waited till they came to the edge of a dry wash, took aim and with my last shot relieved the front tire of its pneumatics. With a torrent of dust and profanity the bike took a tumble through cactus and thorn scrub. I took the hat and sent it spinning, sailing off into the wash toward them. I yanked off one boot and then the other and threw them into the wash as well. With a dull thud at least one of them met their target. "OWWW! WATCH THE SPURS!!"

I put on my own footwear, soft leather, and made my way up the steep trail. Moonlight beamed down. My thoughts began to calm and clear. I labored up to the high overlook. Somehow I understood that the Hollow Men could not be animated outside the magic of Fancy Town and that the cowboys would pursue me no farther, but I put the pistol batteries in proper polarity and reloaded them just the same.

I found a large flat rock and sat under the light of the moon and stars and for a while just let my thoughts settle. It would take time to sort out my experiences, time to determine what was real and what was an illusion.

The Seven Nations Gold was real. I had it with me. The burns and gouges on my arms and legs were definitely real. Ianna, the other watcher was real, I think. I had one of her hair clasps. She would want it back and soon I would need to return it. But for everything else, the neon, the tourists, the fountain and the Hollow Men, as far as what was real and what was an illusion, perhaps I would never know for sure.

THE END


© 2007 Joel Doonan

Bio: Joel Doonan grew up in the rain forest of eastern Peru, where he had many unusual experiences, both dangerous and wonderful. Somewhere between the heat, the bugs, the rain, the natives and traveling adventurers, he developed, at an early age, an avid interest in writing. Now Mr. Doonan operates a small business in central Texas and lives on 22 acres of untamed rural land; and somewhere between the heat, the grasshoppers, the hail storms and the natives, he still finds time to write. Some of Mr. Doonan's stories have been published by Wild Child Publishing; three of his stories have appeared in Aphelion, the most recent being Talking to Stones (August 2007).

E-mail: Joel Doonan

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