Frank Menser and Nickolas Cook
1888 America: The Arizona Territories
Captain Jonathan Drake saw the lazy gray dust cloud building in the distance before he saw the Indian. Squinting against the harsh Arizona desert sun that glared off the seemingly endless hills and cacti, he could see only one lone man, stiffly riding upon one of the small, tough bred ponies that the Pima tribe preferred. He was aiming in their direction.
He wiped sweat away from his dark brown eyes and took a deep breath.
Might be a peaceful Indian; Pima weren’t known to have much bitterness with the white man out these parts. But his military honed survival instincts always kept him alert for trouble. How many more of them were there out there that he could not see? There might be a dozen braves surrounding them right now and he probably wouldn’t know the difference.
“You think he’s seen us, Captain?” asked young Tellers.
Drake gave his second in command a sidelong glance and the hint of a smile.
“Son, if he’s letting us see him, then you can bet your last bullet he’s scoped us out long before.”
“You make him sound like a demon, Drake,” interrupted a gruff, irritable voice from behind him and Tellers. He didn’t bother to turn around. Most times he couldn’t stand being eye to eye with the other man anyway. Right now, his eyes were better set on watching for signs of treachery that was sure to come from the redskins.
“Tell you this, Mr. Melton,” he replied in an even tone, “first time you ever have to fight some of these braves hand to hand, you surely will believe in demons. And they surely will send you straight to Hell.” Drake knew he spoke the truth; Tellers was too young and inexperienced to know of what he spoke, but the other two men of his posse Carson and Samuels had been with him long enough out in here that they knew his words for truth. They’d been with Drake on several railroad related scouting missions in the last six months in the Arizona territory; they knew what terrors this hellish landscape held for arrogant men. It was a wild, savage land, filled with poisonous creatures and blood thirsty Indian tribes that would as soon scalp a white man as spit on him.
His warning earned only a snort of disgust from the bulky sunburned banker, Melton. Drake didn’t much care for the arrogant amateur sportsman. So far, he’d been too quick to snap orders where he had no authority, and far too quick to shoot at anything that moved. It had taken only a few days of riding with him for Drake and his men to figure Melton for a bloodthirsty soul, who had no respect for life. In his own way, the big man was violent as the hate filled Indian braves that called this place home, who would mete out death by blade or bullet. But at least with the Indians they were doing it for something they believed in: protecting their lands from the ever encroaching white man and his divisive steel rails and the accompanying horrendous ‘iron horses’.
Drake had seen him shoot everything, from the scrawny desert rabbits to lone skulking coyotes. He didn’t do it for food. No, he just plain liked to kill. And Drake was pretty sure Melton would gladly draw down on man, if he thought he could justify it.
And, of course, if he thought he could make a game of it.
If there were hidden braves out there, he figured Melton would get his chance to test that shiny new repeating rifle he kept by his side day and night.
“Carson, we best find us some place to hold up if this is some kind of trick.”
“How many of them you figures out there, Cap’n?” Thin faced Tellers drew close to Drake. There was no mistaking the fear quaver in the younger man’s voice.
“Well, now, there really isn’t anyway of knowing that for sure,” he said. “But I don’t see any guns hanging off his shoulder or hip, son.” He tried to give the young man a confident smile. “We do have the better weapons, so we should be okay.” He turned back to watch the solitary man still heading their way, feeling that familiar itch in his hands and back of his neck that told him trouble was definitely coming.
Samuels stepped up next Tellers and gave his shoulder a friendly pat. “The Cap’n here has done some mighty big doings with the braves round this part. We gonna be fine. Hell, we probably won’t even need to fire a single shot. He have ‘em licked with words for you knows it.” He gave the other man a big grin, startling white against his shining sweaty black skin.
“You can’t talk to Indians,” snarled Melton. “You have to shoot first and ask questions later.”
Samuels hawked and spit at Melton’s feet, still holding his big grin. “Now how you know anything about these folks round here? This yo’ first time out’cheer, ain’t it?”
Drake barely held his own against a smile at the way Melton’s face suddenly fell. Melton glanced at Drake. “Maybe you best teach your nigger some manners, Captain Drake. Or else I might be forced to do so.”
Drake felt Samuels rising violence; He took a small step between the two men. “First off, Mr. Melton, we do not refer to our colored soldiers with that nasty, derogatory term. Private Samuels is part of this man’s army and he will be given the same respect you give to any of the other soldiers. I hope I make myself clear.”
Melton’s eyes shrunk into small, ugly spots in his sun reddened face. He opened his mouth to protest, but Drake cut him off with an angry swipe of his hand. “It is not open for debate, sir.” Looming closer to the larger man, he could feel the other man’s rage like the sun’s heat wafting from him in waves. It did not concern him overly much. “Secondly, sir, we do not shoot first and ask questions later. We have a relationship with these indigenous people that must be maintained, as strongly as possible. That is if you and your investors intend to use their land as thoroughfare for your railroad.”
Melton began to protest again, but Drake thumped one finger into Melton’s broad chest as he spoke. “And that, Melton, is not open for debate either. You will not fire unless fired upon, or by direct orders from me, or someone whom I assign as carrier of said direct orders.” Then Drake turned his back on Melton, ignoring his sputtering rage and hate filled eyes. “And if you find you cannot follow my command while on the trail with us, you will be relieved of your nasty little toys, sir.”
He heard grating teeth and the sound of stomping feet marching away.
After a moment, Samuels shook his head and chuckled. “Cap’n, I do believe that man would gladly shoot you deader than a ki-yote, if you’s to give him half a chance.”
Tellers’ boyish face had gone pale during the barely suppressed confrontation. “Maybe we best take his guns now,” he suggested. “Samuels is right, sir. He had murder in his eyes when he left just now.”
Drake turned his eyes to the dust cloud and the lone Indian. “Normally, I’d agree…at least until he calmed down. But there’s no telling whether we’ll need every handy gun we can get in a bit, son.” He attempted another confident smile for the nervous young man. “Don’t you worry, Private Tellers. I’ve dealt with men like Melton before. He’ll most likely chew on his anger for a bit and calm down.”
“And if he don’t?” asked Tellers.
Drake shrugged, shaking his head at the notion. He made his way towards Carson, his best tracker and scout.
It was Samuels who answered Tellers. “If that rattlesnake cuss draws down on the Cap’n, then he’s bound to get hisself kilt. There ain’t a quicker gun I ever seen in my life than Cap’n Johnny Drake.”
The Pima kept coming, and after a few more minutes of anxiety, Drake finally decided they’d done all they could in the way of defensive measures, and that the only true option was to go out and meet the man. If there were hidden warriors to do them harm, they sure could have done so by now, and he wasn’t too confident they stood much chance against a good sized raiding party. But men met their destiny bravely and honorably. He would go talk with the Indian, find out what he was doing out here all alone.
“Carson,” he signaled for his second, “you keep Tellers here with you. Me and Samuels are going ride out there and see what he wants.” Samuels spoke better Pima than he did, so he’d need him for the palaver. And he could be pretty handy in a fight as well.
Drawing his pistol, Drake checked the load, almost without thought, knew how many bullets were in the chambers, knew how many he had on him. It was all second nature for a man who had made his living with a gun for many years now. He slipped the warm iron back into the worn, darkly oiled holster and leaned closer to Carson. “And you keep your eye on that snake.” He motioned to Melton, who stood off by himself, still stroking his long rifle with a hopeful gleam in his narrow slit eyes. Drake didn’t trust him not to take a potshot at the Pima while he and Samuels were trying to make palaver. If he did, there’d be no talk from that point on; just bleeding and dying.
“I’ll watch him like a hawk, Captain.” Carson reassured him with a wry grin. “I might even find me a reason to collect his guns, if he gives me any lip.”
Drake nodded. “Just be careful. He’s under our jurisdiction out here…mostly. But back in the city…well, he could make our lives somewhat interesting, if you get my drift.”
Samuels had sidled up next to them, checking his own repeating rifle with a deft eye, his practiced fingers gliding along its length. “He gots to make it back to the city first, cap’n.”
“Belay that talk, soldier,” Drake snapped. “He’s our charge and we will keep him alive.” But he gave his friend a smirk to offset his tone. “Even if it makes him madder than a sore footed colt doing it.”
Samuels chuckled and shook his head, squinting one eye to look down the clean, oiled barrel of his religiously maintained weapon. “You is the boss, cap’n, but somethin’ tell me that old boy is gonna find someways to make us real sorry we don’t leave him out here with no water or bullets.”
“He’s probably right,” Carson agreed.
“That don’t change our duty and you both know it.” Drake pulled his sweat stained hat down over his forehead. “Samuels? You ready?”
“Yes, sir. You lead, I follow, cap’n.”
Drake began the trek across the half mile of bone dry sand that separated them from the Indian, not taking his eye off the terrain to either side of them. If the Pima had any sneakiness planned this would be the time for the trap to be sprung, while two of their number were separated from the main party. But despite his nerves, as far as his trained senses could detect there was no one or nothing else to worry about.
The closer they got, Drake could see now that the lone rider was an old man, as ancient as the sun darkened and seamed rocky terrain around them.
“Makin’ me nervous, cap’n,” Samuels muttered from his left side. The muscled black face was tense with anxiety; his tight voice had lost its usual bantering edge. “Not like the Pima to let an old man wander off by hisself like this here. Somethin’ ain’t right.”
Drake didn’t reply. There was no need. Samuels was right. Indian society was built on the foundation of reverence for their elders. They would never have sent such an old man out into the desert alone. And he didn’t look sick or disabled, so if he was healthy, there would have been no reason for his lone ride into the harsh landscape.
The old man had stopped now. He sat upon his horse, straight and sober faced, watching the two of them approach. Drake figured him for at least seventy or more years of age. As they drew closer, he felt the elder’s dark eyes staring at him from that implacable visage like hard flint. He had no weapons on his person as far as Drake could see. The horse was slightly lathered, so it was obvious he’d been ridden for sometime now without rest.
When they were within a few yards, Drake and Samuels stopped. A small dust cloud settled at their feet. The sun, high overhead, blazed dispassionately, searing the ground and flesh alike. A drop of salty sweat dripped down Drake’s cheek. His tongue felt like dead leaves in his mouth. He wanted a swig of water badly, but it wouldn’t do to show any sign of discomfort before the old man. Old or not, he had been a warrior once, and he was sure the Pima still held the same respect for physical and mental strength as did all Indians. He could only allow himself water if the old one drank first or offered water.
Samuels made the requisite greeting words in the Pima tongue, a polyglot of smooth R sounds and clipped syllables, stuttering and guttural utterances, that made almost no sense to most white men. But Drake had been in the desert for too many years not to have picked up a word or two here and there of most of the indigenous tribes in this region, although he was nowhere near as adept at the language as Samuels.
When his friend had finished, the old Indian spoke for a few moments and then waited for his words to be translated. “He wants to know if you are the one called Thunder Killer.”
Drake held the smirk from his face with an effort. Amazing how one little innocent act of kindness could turn into something like being known as Thunder Killer. Drake nodded to the old man, which apparently pleased him, because he managed a small smile. The old man spoke again and then waited once more for Samuels to translate for Thunder Killer.
“He says that their gods sent him a dream, something he must show you.”
Drake wished for water and kept his eye on the elder. “Ask him if he could just tell us what it is his gods want. Tell him it’s too damned hot to go trekking all over the desert.”
Samuels did so, but the old one shook his head emphatically and pointed off to the South. Drake was surprised to see dark clouds seemed to be gathering miles and miles away from the burning sun above. The old man spoke once more.
“He say that where the thunder lives. He say that where he must bring you.”
Drake heaved a sigh. The Pima put a lot of stock in their gods and visions. It wasn’t likely the old man would take no for an answer; Drake knew he was constrained by his beliefs to do as his gods commanded. It was obvious to drake that somehow the old man had known where he was and had come to find him in all the sprawling miles of sand and hills. He sure wouldn’t have made the trek through this godforsaken hell for anything less than a command from the gods.
A part of him wanted to agree to his demand to follow, but Drake was on a mission, on orders from his superiors. A soldier didn’t—couldn’t—just take off on some fool errand while under orders. The whole army would fall apart, if everyone acted in such an undisciplined manner. But how could he make these men understand his situation?
Then again, his larger orders were to keep relations with the tribes peaceful to help smooth the way for the railroads. Perhaps he could…
“He says The Blood Tear calls to all of us”
Drake frowned not at his interpreter, but at the old Pima man. The elder’s mouth curved down to match his own. “What the hell is a Blood Tear?”
“Don’t know, cap’n,” Samuels said. “Ain’t never heard of no such thing myself.”
The captain looked towards the distant swirling clouds, dark and foreboding, and seeming to grow larger by the minute. “How far away you figure, Samuels?”
“Prob’ly five miles or so.”
Drake nodded absently. “That’s about what I figure, too.” He rubbed his bristling chin and smiled at the Pima elder. “Tell him we can spare him six hours.” Samuels relayed the message. The old man grinned, showing the four good teeth left in his mouth and nodded. Drake returned the smile and nodded with the old man. “Ask him his name.”
“He say Kokoho. That mean—”
But Drake cut him off. “I know. Burrowing Owl. I know a little of the Pima language.”
Samuels gave him a toothy grin. “Yep, that true. Why you think they call him that?”
“Well, out here in the desert, it might mean a couple of different things. The owl is a dangerous predator. Death from above, you know. Or could mean he’s like the tribal shaman or something.”
“Or we might not have any idea,” Samuels said with a chuckle. “We intruders, Cap’n. We don’t know nothin’ they don’t want us to.”
Drake agreed and began to walk away, but then he paused and turned back to the old man, Kokoho. “What does he call the place we’re going, this place of thunder?”
Samuels waited for the old man to respond, but when he answered, his smile had withered. “He say it be called The Well of Souls.”
In the distance, the rumble of thunder echoed across the landscape. Its origin: the bank of roiling black clouds.
Samuels gulped audibly; his eyes went wide as saucers. Drake felt sweat rolling down his forehead, but he ignored it, continued to force a grin for the now happy elderly Pima. He could show no discomfort and no fear before such a hardened desert man. He didn’t even seem to sweat in this hellish heat. “Well, I reckon it’ll be nice and cool under those clouds, now won’t it?”
They followed Kokoho on their horses, giving him a good fifty yards lead. That was mostly so Drake could confront Melton without the old man hearing the argument.
“Captain Drake! You were hired by my company to scout this area. Not to follow this savage on some insane quest.”
“Correction, Mr. Melton,” Drake replied, “I was ordered by my superior officer to scout this area. I work for the Army and, by extension, the American people. Not your railroad’s board of directors, sir.”
Samuels and Tellers hung back, allowing the Captain to handle the disgruntled banker and his sneering complaints. He’d sent Carson to the head of their party to keep an eye on the Indian, and so he could memorize landmarks for future use. If the quiet tracker could hear the grumbling argument between the two men, he gave no indication. His attention remained focused on the heat waves ahead. Carson was a tracker and scout who collected geographical locations like some men collected tools. Such landmarks were, in fact, his tools. Drake was confident the younger man could easily lead them straight out of Hell if called upon to do so. There was no terrain which he could not find his way through and keep himself and others alive, to boot.
Melton tried a few more times to make his feelings known on the subject, but Drake finally stopped their horses and gave the fat banker a hard stare. “Look, if you want to go back to the railroad office, don’t let me or my men slow you down, sir. But as for us, we are going to see this mission through to the end. Now I suggest that if you want the pleasure of our company, and the protection of our guns, Mr. Melton, you’ll kindly shut your mouth and do as I say.”
The words had the intended effect, as the large red faced man kept his mutterings to himself. But it was obvious from the still furrowed brow and down turned mouth that Melton was not at all happy with his untenable position. He was in some ways hostage to Drake and his outfit, whether he liked it or not. He wasn’t so stupid or arrogant to think he could make it alone in this inhospitable environment for long. It wasn’t the place for soft men like him to try their imaginary meddle. The desert would eat him alive, one limb at a time, if he was so foolhardy as to strike out on his own.
But even as he thought how harsh and unforgiving the bright desert sun was on such a day as this in the middle of July, Drake suddenly felt an odd coolness to the air that was completely out of character for the landscape he’d come to fear and respect in equal measure. A slight chill breeze seemed to be coming from the direction of the angry collection of dark clouds growing ever closer as they rode behind the old Pima man.
“You feel that, Captain Drake,” called Carson over his shoulder. “Something strange going on here.”
Drake silently concurred. Strange, indeed. He’d witnessed some strange events in the desert, weather that seemed as close to Biblical destruction as could be on earth: snow storms in the middle of boiling summer days that lasted a few moments; hail stones the size of small burrs that suddenly fell from a clear blue sky; sand devils that whipped through the dunes and hills like a demonic force from Hell and then just as suddenly dissipated as if in a violent dream; miles wide giant sandstorms that rolled over the mountains and flat stretches of land, so massive as to seem almost mythical in proportion. But there was something about this sudden and unexpected chill wind that made his skin crawl. It was…was…what? Unnatural?
That was about the only word he could think to describe it.
Thunder rumbled ever louder, as they approached the anomalous roiling storm clouds, and the chill wind grew stronger with every passing moment. A sense of unseen electrical potentiality pervaded the air, verily crackled all around them. The horses began to get nervous, shying at the sounds and feelings of the storm.
But Drake didn’t think what was rising above them in such gigantic godlike proportions could be simply classified as a storm. For one thing, it wasn’t moving anywhere. Despite the ever increasing strength of the winds that whipped around them, the clouds kept in a fairly tight circular pattern above a collection of hills which sat beneath them. Drake had never seen anything like it.
It was obvious Kokoho intended to lead them straight into the stormy clouds, into the tall, steep hills.
Suddenly Melton was beside him again. His usual arrogant bluster had been replaced by a quiet fear of the thing above them. “Surely, captain, you do not intend to ride into that thing.”
Drake motioned towards the old Indian. “We’re going where he leads.”
“This is preposterous!” Melton’s horse gave an anxious buck under him at the sudden violence of his voice. For a few moments, it took all his strength and focus to quiet her again. Drake took the opportunity to ride ahead to Carson. “Have you ever seen this place before?”
Carson’s eyes swept the now shadowed landscape. “No, sir, captain. And I’ll tell you this…there ain’t a living thing here. I can’t find so much as a grasshopper, sir. And I’ve been looking mighty hard.”
Drake fell back and signaled for Samuels to follow him. Then he took off at a gallop to catch up with the old man who was riding a good forty yards ahead of them by now. As they got nearer, Drake could plainly see the old man was having the same troubles with his horse. The stout little pony was whining and fighting his guidance closer to the hills. He told Samuels to translate: “What is this place?”
The Pima elder replied, his face sober and fearful now, and Samuels relayed: “This is where the thunder lives, he say.”
“I’m not liking this,” Drake said. “Ask him how much further.”
Samuels soon gave the old man’s answer, although it was easy enough to understand as the man pointed at the shadowy rocks before them: “He say in them hills ahead.”
Drake’s horse was startled by a sudden clap of thunder and he had a hard time keeping his seat. The horse was scared. They all were.
“Can we walk from here? These horses won’t stand for much more of this. Someone is liable to get hurt.”
The old man agreed and soon they had secured the horses. Drake assigned Tellers and Melton to stay behind to keep watch over the animals. He signaled for Kokoho to lead him, Samuels and Carson the rest of the way into the hills on foot. It came as no surprise that Melton didn’t argue to accompany them.
The icy air grew more so as they climbed the steep hill behind the barely gasping Pima Indian. His stride was strong and sure, as his wrinkled, but powerful, legs pulled his wiry frame up and up. Behind him, even Carson, who was usually the most agile among their number, was winded by the seemingly interminable climb.
Samuels hauled himself hand over hand to get closer to Drake. “Cap’n, you think it can be much further?”
Drake only shook his head, unwilling to waste his hard fought cold breaths on answering a question which he could not.
The hills were dark grey in color, made up of what looked to be ground down granite and pumice. The footing was mostly stable, but for the occasional loosely packed area, which the old man seemed to instinctively know to avoid. It was the rare vegetation that could call this place home. Wiry weeds and dead grass lodged here and there, but it was mostly empty ground. And as Carson had claimed earlier, there didn’t seem to be any living thing around. Not even a lizard. For some reason that gave Drake a chill he couldn’t easily explain. Perhaps because he knew the desert was a constantly thriving miniature world of life and death. Plant and animal life alike were in a forever war for food and territory. But this place…well, it just felt dead somehow, as barren as a grave.
It took the better part of half an hour to reach the top of the hill where the seemingly tireless Kokoho awaited them emotionlessly.
“We gonna rest here?” Samuels was kneeling over, face dripping with sweat despite the chilly atmosphere. The air felt even more charged this high up. They could see the valley spread out below them like a dustbin, lifeless and empty. A small area of activity denoted where Tellers, Melton and the horses were waiting for their return. For a moment, Drake the overpowering urge to order them to return to the bottom of the hill, to give up whatever strange mission this old man had dragged them upon. But when he turned to say as much to Kokoho, he had already started on his way once more, following some unseen path onward.
“Best catch up with him, if we don’t want to get left behind,” Carson muttered. The three men shifted their weapons and supplies, and with a weary glance between them, they followed.
Kokoho’s path twisted around the high rock walls that surrounded them even this high up. A harsh almost freezing wind kept sweeping through the narrow causeway, pushing and tugging at them alternately, as if some unseen hand meant to guide them faster and faster to their unknown destination. Above, the dark stormy clouds felt even more oppressive now. This close to their swirling chaos, their strange and unearthly power felt like another entity, a living thing, perhaps a symbiotic helpmate to the bullying winds.
Soon, Kokoho stopped at a narrow black hole that led straight into the earth. It was obvious even without Samuels to translate that he expected them to go down into the hole. He murmured something at Drake and waited for Samuels to make the words into English, “He say that—” he pointed at the narrow hole in the ground “—is The Well of Souls. He say that where you find what he need to show you, cap’n.”
Drake felt his skin crawl at the idea of trying to make his way into such a small entrance. “Well, we’ve come this far, I suppose.” He looked at Carson and Samuels. Both men didn’t look any happier at the prospect.
Kokoho spoke again, obviously reiterating his request to enter.
Thunder boomed above, shaking the earth under their feet with its deep voice of doom. Another freezing wind snapped through their ranks, sending a collective chill through them.
Drake licked his lips, took one last look at the old man, and knelt down to shimmy his way inside the earthen mouth full of unfathomable darkness. The walls squeezed against his shoulders with an unforgiving, ancient strength. Dust fell at his feet. The blackness before him seemed to shift and swirl, but he put it off as an illusion created by his anxiety and the shadows behind him. A stench of oiled metal and dry dust permeated the inside of the too-tight opening.
He was turning to ask for something with which to make a torch when the world fell out from beneath him and he was suddenly hurtling blindly through the icy black. His surprised scream echoed out behind him as he fell head over heels.
* * * * *
(Join us next month for the next exciting chapter of THE EYE OF TIME, an original web serial novel by Frank Menser and Nickolas Cook)