the long walk to church

MIKKI HELMER

It was a cowboy sky edged with the brown malcontent of an entire people upset with it all that summoned her. It was the scent of smoke, earth, and eagle feathers already on the wind that called her specifically. But it was the choral hum and beating of a skin drum that made her go.

          She wanted to sigh.

          "It's a strange story." The law man still wore eyes pried open by whatever he'd seen out there. "You probably don't believe me do you, son?"

          And under that lonesome sky was a dust cloud, billowing upward in a brown mushroom of problems.

          "Son?"

          "I heard you."

          His eyes strained open further. "They didn't say you was a—"

          She tugged the sun-bleached red and black handkerchief further up her nose and managed to look down at him from atop the scrawny nag someone had the compassion to call a horse. Its legs gangled all the way up to its stick of a neck, and that limp mane looked and rustled like long dead grass.

          "They didn't say you were anything either." She glared at him from under the flat straw hat. "What did you see?"

          The problem with all these western settlers, pushing for the coast and the land offered between the Mississippi and the Gold Rush, was all the things that were here first. That little budding town out there, just big enough to have some kind of law that wasn't enforced with a pitchfork, had disturbed something that needed to be sent back to bed.

          "I-it was big."

          "Big?"

          He nodded. Sweat had beaded, dried, and turned the edges of his eyebrows white with a crust of salt. Red dust had settled into the lines of his sun-weathered face making this twenty-something appear forty-something or older.

          "And the eyes. I'll never forget them eyes. Wiley. There's no hiding from it."

          "Any details? Colors? Shape? It could be a helpful to know a little more in the way of specifics."

          The law man shuffled his boots in the creek bed, the sand still damp from last week's rain fall.

          "It's just—you know."

          She did know, but she wanted to make him squirm with the answer anyway. He'd done the waking, or was part of it anyway. It was written all over him.

          "Well, I guess I'll have to go see for myself." By the look of whatever kicked up that storm on the horizon, it'd be a long walk.

          The law man grabbed her hand. The nag's legs stiffened, the bristled hairs all over its rump stuck straight up in a way that didn't seem unnatural. Its head still remained lowered, as though disinterested. "You can't go out there. It will––you won't survive. Not you. Not on that . . . horse."

          The nag snorted, hanging its head lower. For a moment, it had two heads. In a desert threatening hellish times, it seemed normal, the two horse heads almost touching the earth.

          The mushroom cloud seemed to be growing.

          "You should have shown them respect," she said. "But should have's never fixed anything. We'll need to give him a replacement, someone to atone for what's been done."

          He crossed himself.

          The nag shivered. The girl in the saddle twitched. Under that paisley, spotted handkerchief, the law man suspected she lifted a lip like a dog on the cusp of a vicious snarl. He felt that this had a great deal to do with him, and the responsibility was a powerful weight he wasn't ready to carry. She knew, and let it settle on him slow, like a pig set to roast.

          "The proper respect?"

          "Yes," she said. "Happens everywhere, every time people decide to move in without asking. Doesn't matter if its a tree, a cave, a river, or a field. No one likes to be barged in on."

          He shifted his stance, planted hands on hips, and twitched his clean shaven upper lip.

          This girl seemed a few months south of being a woman.

          "How are you going to take care of it?"

          She eyed him from under that flat straw hat. Her eyes seemed split down the pupils into two separate ones, making four staring at him from over the edge of that handkerchief.

          "The usual way, by leaving something of equal value for a little while. Not an age, mind you, but a little while. Just a little while." Her voice trailed off and it seemed that time passed. Then she turned that gaze back on him and he stiffened, that weight settling fully on his back. "You want to come with?"

          Something in her calm, unhurried tone urged him to agree to it. She sat back in the saddle and clicked her mouth parts as though to giddy him up.

          He started forward.

          "Save your energy," she warned. "We've got a ways to go."

          "But the town isn't more than forty minutes—"

          She looked at him with those eight eyes and he quieted and fell into step with her horse, leaving his own far behind. 

          Away they went.

          They kept going. The girl handed a bladder of water to him, and he gulped it down, realizing only later, with the sour taste of his own vomit in his mouth, that it hadn't been water but some kind of cactus juice.

          "Come on," she urged. "We've a little while left to go." And this time when he looked at her, she wasn't a girl and that wasn't a horse.

          The law man didn't remember the trek being more than an hour, but at some point they stopped and somehow, without getting off her horse, and using more legs than she originally had, the girl made them both a meal. She never did take the handkerchief off her face, but he saw her lips moving behind it. He gathered she must have very large lips indeed to make such hefty clicking sounds when she ate.

          "You said it was a church?" the girl asked.

          He nodded. "A church."

          "And whose idea was it to build right there on that spot? Right there on top of all those other graves?"

          They walked a long time. He looked at her, and the horse was gone now. She scuttled beside him on eight legs. His heart pounded. He was a mouse before the scorpion. He never should have come here.

READ THE REST IN PECULIAR VOLUME THREE, ISSUE ONE

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