I wrote this in 2012. Anyone who had the misfortune of reading my Facebook status updates at the time knows I was in a bad place. I submitted it to Strange Horizons, where I’ve submitted all of my short stories. So far, they’ve rejected them all, and for good reason. I’ve read – I don’t remember where – that everyone has ten horrible short stories in them before they write a good one. Which is fine. I’ve written four, which means that, if this is true, I only need to write 6 more and I’ll finally write something worth reading. This means I only have six to go. So, here is a glimpse into the mind of a very angry, unemployed, 30 year old Craig. Hopeless in Chicago.
Murphy was trying very hard to avoid thinking of forbidden memories. Of the Thing He Must Not Remember. The thing so awful he couldn’t even call it by its true name. When he felt it try to sneak into thoughts during waking hours he shoved it aside without mercy. They hadn’t returned for some months, but now, as he stared at the changing world, he felt his grip loosen.
He saw a great swath of brittle, sunbaked prairie grass, trampled and brown, on and on until the horizon and black smoke beyond that. Nearer, along the ridgeline a mile west of town, backlit by the low sun: an exodus. A line of wagons and horses pulling carts piled high with chairs and chests of drawers and perched children with blank faces. Silhouettes in leaving that kept blending with the black plumes behind them appearing to Murphy as if turning to smoke and re-forming again.
He stood on the very edge of town, elbows atop a split-rail fence squinting into the low red sun illuminating the line of refugees. His face, detailed in harsh red light, betrayed no reaction as he spat onto the dry earth. Watching the sun sink fat and bloated behind the black, shifting pillars of smoke, Murphy thought of the last sand in an hourglass circling the neck.
Of time running out.
They’d been coming through for days. Lines of fifty or five, any number more than alone. Murphy watched them riding with heads hung, slouching, with no destination save the next hill, the other side of the next river. And west, always west. With them came fire. The Union garrisons at Little Rock and Fort Smith had been burned out. Stand Watie was moving along the Arkansas River with his fleet of leviathans laying pure hell down ahead of him.
The only news came from the civilians fleeing west, and was as much rumor as terrified exaggeration. One thing was certain. He was coming, and nothing could stop him. And Murphy, staring at the line of filthy, terrified refugees, stood between the man and his quarry.
That morning, the refugees carried news from Fort Gibson a few miles distant, of finding the gates wide open and uniforms left in piles around the grounds. They hadn’t bothered to burn the rifles and cannon. The only thing missing was a sign on the door that said take it.
“Empty, by Gawd. Empty. There was coffee in the pot on the fire, lord as my witness, and bedclothes in the yard,” an exhausted, hollow eyed man in his sixties told the commander town’s 50-strong cavalry troop. The captain considered the pipe he was holding, never making eye contact with the dusty-faced man in front of him. After some moments reflection he tapped the pipe empty on his boot heel. He turned smartly stomping toward the group of squat improvised buildings clamped to the earth outside town. It looked as if he were walking into the setting sun. Fifteen minutes later, the townsfolk that had not yet joined the westward exodus heard a great pounding of hooves and yelling, and the whole lot rode due north in at a gallop, two abreast in columns.
From the black line of wagons, a figure broke off and cut towards the town at a full clip. A man with a soot blackened face on a wild, exhausted horse. The pair wheeled short at the fence and a rider with a black kerchief yelled at Murphy. His clothes were of fine cut, not suited for work. A banker or a postmaster, maybe.
“How many left here?”
“How many left of what?”
The man dropped his kerchief and the dirt caked on his eyes made him look as if he wore a mask.
“White folk, damnit. How many left. We got room in the wagons. We’ll take your women and children. We got soldiers, 50 or 60.”
The horse looked nearly dead. Its coat was afroth with sweat and its tongue hung thick and foamy from its mouth. Its head hung low and defeated.
Murphy decided he did not like this man. “Your horse ain’t got much left, mister.”
The man sighed and adopted a look of worry. The furrowed brow. The stiff upper lip. He stroked the animal’s side. Such a sad thing. Look what they’ve made me give.
“We been riding constant for three days, now. Hoping to make it to the mountains. Maybe they can’t go that high. Colo-rado is where we’re headin’. Through the passes.”
The wails of cattle and low rumble of hooves drifted through the air and around them as Murphy said nothing and watched the horse wither beneath its rider.
“What is this place?”
“Doesn’t look like much.”
Murphy returned his gaze to the rider. “Guess there’s not much reason to stick around then.”
“None at all, stranger. Now, how many white folk you got left? We figure on safety in numbers. We’ll take any that come.”
“Mighty neighborly of ya.”
“Damnit man, haven’t you heard? Stand Watie’s not two days from this very spot.”
Last I heard it was four.
The man nodded, turned to look at his train. “Maybe, but I don’t think the fires’ll hold ‘em back much. He’s got his own fleet. Richmond kept their promise. Those damn things hang there like the judgment of the Lord and everything they see turns to ash.”
Murphy said nothing, and stared at the smoke.
“You heard the Leviathans hit Washington? It’s gone. Burning.”
“By God, we were winning. We were winning and now Washington’s burning. How in the Devil…”
The man looked over. “You heard they’re scalpin’ every white they find, right? Those that don’t get incinerated first.”
“Yessir, I think the last group come through told me that very thing.”
The man threw up his hands. I just cannot believe what I’m hearing. “You seem awful calm about all this.”
“Guess I’m just a slow starter.”
“Well let me give you push, son. You got white women. You got white children. You jest tell me what you think he’s comin’ back here for.”
Murphy thought a moment, spat on the ground. “Not that I’m in the man’s confidence, but I reckon it’s because he lives here.”
The man leaned forward and became very serious. You listen to the truth, now.
“He’s coming for vengeance, son. You mark my damned words. Whites’ been pushing the Indian west since before you or I was born and now they got their very own brand spankin’ new country and you tell me they ain’t got catch up on their minds.”
“Like I said, mister. I ain’t exactly in their confidence.”
Murphy turned his back to the man and made for the wide, dusty thoroughfare that passed for main street and the large oak tree at the end of it. Town was 60 or 70 houses in the middle of an ocean of grassland. Squat wooden structures on both sides and knots of men in front under the awnings, crowded around newspapers telling of the celebrations in Richmond and Charleston. Of two new nations coming into being.
“Hey!” The man yelled, riding after him. He wheeled his horse around in
front of Murphy.
“Just why exactly you staying here, son? Fixin’ to work for the Indians?”
Murphy thought a moment. “No sir, just waiting until I find a place where you bastards aren’t.”
The man stiffened, as if in contemplation of violence. Murphy beheld him with the blank gaze. In the end, the man simply spat. “Dig your own grave, stranger,” he said through clenched teeth, and pounded away up the street, searching for little white girls to save. As Murphy watched him ride away the wind kicked up and the gigantic oak at the end of the street moved with patient immensity.
Murphy made for the Moses Saloon, on the other side of an empty lot filled with broken bottles and discarded bits of lumber. There, up some steps from the alley, the single thing in this town he gave a good goddamn about. Somewhere along the street, a window broke. They’re hitting the empty houses. As he walked to the steps he noticed the boardwalks were covered with abandoned possessions. Forced by necessity to reassess value and finding emotional attachment wanting in comparison to material need, they were leaving things strewn in the streets, the alleyways, the open doors. Precious things. He saw a Bible on the ground, the front cover open. Three generations of birth and death filled the blank first few pages in a looping scrawl. He’d seen such before.
He made for the steps around the side of the building and, ascending them, he could see down to a grassy area behind the saloon. A number of who he now recognized to be Cherokee had gathered around a fire. Some were dancing. Men, crouched low, taking small and deliberate steps, circling the fire. They held what looked to be clubs. The image returned to him – the single grain of sand circling the hourglass neck.
The room was dark and smelt of lamp oil and perfume. Katy lay on the bed, her legs spread, belly swollen and body all asweat, just as she had for the last 12 hours, since her water had broken and gone cascading down the flanks of her horse on their way to Tahlequah. This little knot of houses, they called it Tallasi – “old town.” It would have to do.
Her tiny brown body seemed dwarfed by the great belly that rested atop it.
Her black hair, long and damp with sweat, clung to the sides of her face. Her eyes were closed and her breath was light. A short, fat woman lay snoozing in a wingback beside the bed.
The plump woman jerked awake and looked up at Murphy.
“There is no change, Mr. Murphy. The baby does not want to come.”
Instead of replying, Murphy struck a match and lit a lamp on the table by the door. Dancing yellow light bounced about the furniture and blackness pooled under. He walked over and squatted by Katy’s side. When she did not stir at the whisper of her name he occupied himself with pushing strands of hair away from her face.
“How much longer?”
The woman was on her feet now, at the end of the bed.
“We will have to cut it out soon.”
He looked up her now, her long white braids yellow in the dancing
lamplight. “Miss Sissy…” he started.
“My family name is Anderson.”
“Miss Anderson, do you know how to do that? Cut out a baby?”
“No. There is a doctor who does, but he is a drunk.”
“Yes, he’s a white man.”
“Why are you taking her to Tahlequah?” the woman asked.
Murphy said nothing. He did not say that he loved the girl, that he had fantasies of opening a smiths there, of raising a family and never again returning to the old fields in Missouri. He did not describe the alien and uninvited feelings of tenderness and vulnerability that had overcome him when he first saw this young girl in the company of men who were not her relation, far to the west in Arapaho territory. Or that, having taken her for himself, they found themselves alone together, without any ties, and Tahlequah seemed a big enough place to disappear into.
“I got a business partner, there,” he said.
The woman let his lie hang in the air for a full minute.
“Go back downstairs, Mr. Murphy. If I have to send for the doctor I will let you know.”
The front window was broken out. Most of the men inside were Indians, he noticed, as was the bartender. The air was heavy with smoke and chatter, the odor of bodies and whiskey. He motioned for the bartender, who poured him two fingers of whiskey. The man wore a sheriff’s star on his shirt, though Murphy would have bet his last dollar the man wasn’t sheriff when he’d pulled into town the previous day.
“Where’s the other bartender?”
“Gone. The owner too. Took off with his family last night. Left everything. It’s under new management now.” He grinned a perfect smile.
“Got a paper?” Murphy asked. The bartender nodded and pulled a newspaper from under the head of a man sleeping on the bar and passed it to Murphy.
“Have you seen one?” The bartender asked.
“No, just what I’ve seen in Harper’s.”
“They say they are the size of mountains, and they spit fire, and burn everything they wish. And Watie is burning a bath through Oklahoma with them, and no one can stop him.”
“So why are you still here?” Murphy asked.
Another perfect smile. “I’m Indian. I’ll be fine.” He lowered his head, regarded Murphy with a furrowed brow. “You might wanna think about taking off, though.”
“Yeah, people keep telling me that.”
His smile dropped. “You should listen to them. You know what happened at Wagoner.”
He did. He’d seen it, less than a month after arriving in Oklahoma.
“They weren’t even soldiers,” The bartender said. “Haycutters. They had no guns.”
Murphy recalled the field of black, bloated bodies putrefying in the late summer sun, their shape so familiar to him that he’d simply ridden right on through the perverse monument without so much as a stop and look-see. He realized now he had not bothered to read a newspaper since that day. There was nothing going on he wished to read about but he had nothing else to do, so he perused the headlines of a week-old Cherokee Advocate. The broadside was a map of history being writ in ash.
OUR TIME AT LAST. General Watie returns with army to assume role of
Principal Chief. Ross establishes Government in Exile.
LEVIATHANS BREAK WASHINGTON DEFENCES. President Lincoln vows to continue fight. U.S. Government moved to New York.
ARMY OF POTOMAC BESEIGED. Remnants of Grant’s army surrounded in city of Baltimore; Lee delivers ultimatum.
Someone ran up to the bar and grabbed a bottle and threw a handful of coins on the bar. There was singing and urgent conversation. Again, Murphy was seized with the same sense of the world changing, of something monumental manifesting itself with a strange vibration that travelled through the floorboards from the earth and into his boots and body. He did not have the language to describe it.
Then, unbidden, a memory. The Thing He Must Not Remember. He shoved it away.
Again he looked out of the window to the line of wagons and horses on the horizon. In the year since he’d run away from camp in the middle of the night he’d become used to the restlessness of a deserter’s life. Time spent among rough men in camps thrown together along remote stretches of riverside, in deep woods and caves. In Indian Territory he’d found freedom from the demands of distant and powerful men that he don a uniform and devote his life to austerity and deprivation, to extended bouts of extreme boredom punctuated by a day of horror and blood. It was Stone’s River that did it. Three days of grinding hell in the middle of winter. Out of 75,000 men, Yankee and Confederate, that took the field, 25,000 were killed or wounded. He’d stood the dark woods that night overlooking the battlefield and listening to thousands of screaming voices, begging for water, for help, calling for their wives.
The madness of war was only apparent to him at that moment, and he resolved to leave them all to their doom. It seemed such a monumental decision at the time.
Now, holding a damp and filthy newspaper, he realized that the world had not missed him one bit. That these great and memorable shifts had occurred just the same, and he felt less guilty about his desertion. The doom he saw so clearly in the woods and hills of Tennessee had indeed seemed at hand. Until a month ago when Union pickets watching the trenches at Petersburg saw, in the white light of another cold dawn, the great bloated shapes of the Leviathans come slowly into view, throwing great arcs of death down onto the ground. No one knew how the Confederacy had built them. Some said they were a gift from the English. Not that it really mattered, he reflected.
He drained his drink and then another and read the rest of the paper. An extended editorial talked of the long dark night of the Indian people, and the bright dawn of independence. How self-rule meant no more dispossession, no more lies and broken treaties. It spoke glowingly of the paradise that would be Indian self-rule and called
for all the five tribes to join together. Outside he could hear the soft, rhythmic singing of Cherokee men singing on the dancers. For the first time in a year he felt something pull at him from the east. Then, in the dirty mirror behind the bar, he beheld himself for what seemed the first time in months. He seemed much older than he remembered, and his face was hidden behind a great growth of dirty brown beard that extended down his kneck. Replacing the paper, he took the time to swipe a 5 dollar gold piece from the counter before excusing himself.
Murphy walked outside now, and next door the man on the dying horse was in front of Cyrus Hall’s Dry Goods, talking to a roundish man whom he assumed was the titular Mr. Hall. The man’s wife, tall and expressionless, sat birdlike at the reins of a wagon piled high with boxes of dry goods. In the dusklight he could make out some words. Bitters. Flour. Dried Beans. They did not appear to have saved any room for clothes or family heirlooms, just these wooden crates of things to sell. The youngest boy, blond and tiny, sat in his mother’s lap and shivered as he watched the little brown children run wild and free through the streets. As if feeling Murphy’s gaze, he boy turned and fixed a pair of white-blue eyes on the man. Forbidden memories tried to surface. He shoved them down again.
The man on the dying horse was motioning in the direction of the now setting sun, giving orders or directions of some sort. He kicked his mare fiercely and the beast managed a sickly canter out of town, with the Halls following. To Murphy’s left, the firelight of the stomp dance. Around him, that same sense of immanence, of grand events that moved with inexorable force, shattering and destroying the small and fragile things that did not move with them.
Some indeterminate number of drinks later, when the patrons were just walking about the bar taking pulls off of random bottles and setting them down again, Murphy picked his way through the bodies on the floor and ascended again to the landing outside Katy’s room. A bonfire had been constructed in the vacant lot and it illuminated the last few wagons loading up and leaving town. Tiny figures of panic in dancing orange light. He made to open the door, thought better of it, then curled up and went to sleep on the hard, rough wood.
That night he dreamed of walking through town with rivers for streets. He’d seen a city like that in stereoscope once, and thought it damned strange of people to build in such a place. And he thought looked of the dust that covered everything and got in his mouth and eyes and whiskey and he thought it a very good idea at that. In his dream, too, he’d
seen glowing light appear behind him and dance on the river streets and turned around to watch the sunrise from the porch of his cabin.
No, not a sunrise. A forest fire.
Something shook him awake. He was still drunk and his mouth was completely devoid of spit. The hangover was waiting patiently for the whiskey to wear off so he could begin his penance. His stomach already turned at the thought.
Mr. Murphy. An ancient voice, muffled through the drunk.
“Hnn?” He groaned.
“Mr. Murphy.” Again, more insistent. Then, “Wake up you damn fool.”
The cloud of alcohol cleared and he was aware of the world again. An ancient, cragged face stared at him in the firelight.
“Who are you?”
“Dr. Zeddidiah McDonough, at your service. And I need your help.”
“Katy…” He said.
The old man preceded Murphy into the room. He was stooped, gnarled. Katy lay in the same position as before.
“Wake up, child,” The old man said. His voice was light and cracked and seemed to dance about the syllables. He spoke with the slurred enunciation of a toothless mouth. “Your fella is here.” He made the motions of checking, feeling her forehead and chest. “You’re doin’ just fine, child. Not much longer, now.”
He turned to the wash basin beside the bed and threw some water on his face. “I’ll leave you two alone, though I’d like to speak with you outside in a moment, if you don’t mind.” The man left and Murphy stood still, in the silent, stinking air. Katy was sleeping, it seemed, until she opened her eyes and jerked her head toward him.
“Murphy…” she said.
He crossed the distance to the bed and knelt. Her face and hair were slick with sweat in the saturated yellow light.
“My baby,” she whispered, and touched her swollen belly.
“Doc says you’re doing fine.” He smiled and brushed slick, heavy black hair from her forehead.
“It is too long. He must take it out.”
She mumbled some words in Cherokee he did not understand. She was silent a moment, then turned to him suddenly.
“They say he’s two days out still. I don’t think we’re going anywhere before he rolls in.”
She nodded, closed her eyes again and sighed heavily. When he was sure she was sleeping, Murphy joined the doctor on the landing. The old man leaned on the railing, smoking a cheroot, watching the stomp dance in the firelight of splintered lumber railroad ties.
“That girl’s going to die unless you get me some supplies,” he said.
Murphy was taken aback. “But…you said she…”
“I was not about to tell the girl that.” He pulled a whiskey bottle from his pocket and finished it. “I’m gonna need to cut that baby out.”
“You drink much during surgery?” Murphy said.
The old man snorted. “You’re one to talk. Now listen to me. Whether you do this is up to you, but it’s her only chance to make it through the next day. This town’s been cleaned out. Every last white soul but you and me left while you were sleeping off your drunk. Including my apprentice.”
“And you need him.”
“I don’t need him. I need my medical bag. The little shit made off with it, and all the money in my office, and all my whiskey, while I was tending the girl and you were drunk on the floor.”
Murphy looked to the east. Fires glowed on the horizon. “He’s gone to Colorado?”
“Wherever the last group was heading, sure. West, anyway.”
“How long what?”
“When’d he leave?”
“Five, six hours, must’ve.”
“I’ll need a horse.”
“Ain’t got one. But you’re right.”
They said nothing a moment.
“You best get gone, no matter how you do it, Mr. Murphy. Sooner than later I’m cutting that baby out. She’ll have a hell of a lot better chance if you get me that bag.”
“How will I know him?”
“His name is Jacob Murlman. He’s got a red goatee. Wears a black tophat. He took my wagon. Look for a wagon. “
“I’ll be back by midmorning.”
“See you do. I’d rather not be here when the Leviathans start raining fire and brimstone on this place.”
Murphy had stolen a horse, once. As the wounded of Stone’s River were being carted and carried to and fro and the shattered army lay limp and exhausted in the hills of Tennessee, Murphy quietly grabbed his rucksack and made for the woods. In there, in the dark and shadow and blue moonlight, he saw black figures skittering through the underbrush. Sprinting and ducking and hiding behind felled logs. Fellow deserters heading home or to some place where men did didn’t do these sorts of things to each other, at least not on such a grand scale. He made due west, hoping to travel the better than 200 miles to Arkansas by night. On his third night of travelling, exhausted and on the verge of nervous breakdown, he stole a horse from a shed behind a small farmhouse and rode it near to death, not stopping until dawn. He was terrified, then, seeking only escape and self-preservation. As he pounded away from the farm at a full gallop, the familiar pop of pistol fire receded behind him, and he heard the sharp whizz of the balls zip by.
Now, descending the steps to the front of the saloon, he found he didn’t care as much. There wasn’t any law around, anyway.
Three or four horses were tied up at the hitching post in front of the saloon, which glowed bright in the early morning darkness. Somehow, it seemed, the party was still going. He simply approached the horse nearest him, a brown and white sorrel and cut the leather tie and mounted the beast in one motion. No one even noticed.
He was out of the town in minutes, cantering through cold moonlight. The refugees’ trail was easy enough to follow. Discarded property lined the trail; undergarments and dresses glowed white. The alcohol was wearing off now, the hangover kicking in. Murphy felt sick to his stomach and his head hurt but he pushed these feelings aside and gave the sorrel a little kick. To the north he saw more fire. The same dull, red glow he’d seen to the east. The prairie fires spreading and wandering about with the wind. It was not long, maybe a few miles, before he began to pass people walking the trail that the wagons and horses had carved into the grasslands. Some were alone, some were with children, some were children alone. He pulled out his pistol and rested it atop his lap.
The first one tried to take his horse not 10 minutes later. A lone man ran out from behind a broken down wagon and tried to reach for Murphy’s leg. He fell with a ball to the chest before he’d taken three steps, and Murphy urged the horse on a little faster. The next seemed to be a larger group. There were children among them, and they scattered to a man as Murphy fired a single shot into the air. As he rode away, muffled curses blended with the rhythmic thud of the sorrel’s hoofbeats.
The girl. She had become a totem to him. Her very life was as a chant, a prayer for forgiveness, for his sins and his murders. Her sweat, on his skin, was holy water and her breath on his neck the Holy Spirit. His own seed a savior delivered into a world tearing itself apart. The child would banish the Thing He Must Not Remember. He would kill any that stood in their path, and had done so several times. He rode on without fear, without looking back. The sky turned grey behind him and then pink. The sorrel was lathery with sweat and close to giving out, but that was no matter. He’d simply take another horse once he’d found his mark.
A few hours after sunup the horse gave out. She stopped, coat a-lather, tongue hanging out, and simply refused to move. He dismounted and considered the beast a moment, then set off at a jog, still west. The dry grass crunched beneath his boots and he could smell smoke. The wind was blowing west, too, moving the fires near him. His muscles burned and his mouth was as dust. He vomited and did not even slow down to do so. After half an hour, wild eyed and covered in his own sick, he saw a wagon pulling three horses come into view.
He recognized the tall slim figure of Mrs. Hall perched atop the contents of her husband’s store. And yes, when he overtook them, he stole one of the horses. And when Mr. Hall objected he beat him over the head with his pistol and the man slumped limp to the ground and his son screamed and cried. It did not matter, he decided. The child. He would take it into the north, somewhere along the Canadian River. There he would build a cabin, and teach the child to be good and love beautiful things. And some day the child, grown to manhood, would travel into the world and save it.
He would be close now, and indeed over the next ridge, not a mile distant, the main body of refugees and soldiers came into view. Murphy grinned and kicked the horse viciously, urging her into a full gallop. They were plainly visible now. They turned at the sound of his approach and turned again to flee. His lips pulled away from his teeth, stretching into a grimace. They would not escape him. Even the blue figures of Union troops now turned and fled from his wrath, he saw. All would flee before him. He could not be stopped. So close now. He sped down the line of wagons and horses, seeing in front of him people turn, point east, and begin running. And there, amid the figures fleeing, a black stove pipe hat atop a wagon. The thief Murlman. Murphy grinned ferociously and leveled the pistol at the hat, and fired.
The wagon exploded. There was a great flash of white heat and a bloom of black soil and the wagon was gone. He was not on the ground, he noticed. Motes of dirt fell about him and he looked at the hole in the ground where the wagon had been. He still held his pistol, and looked at it in wonder. What power did he now possess? Something started running into his eyes, and when he pressed his hand to his head it came away wet and slick with blood. Bodies of soldiers and civillians lay scattered about, and he was aware of a strange buffeting in his head, as if it were breathing. A deep thrumming penetrated his skull and made it hard to see. Murphy tried to right himself, and found that his right leg wouldn’t cooperate. Then he noticed he was laying on it, and saw bone protruding from his thigh through shredded, wet pantswool.
Then he heard it, a terrifying scream of metal behind him. With great difficulty, he turned himself onto his back, and saw, for the first time, The Leviathans. They hung silent in the sky, great bloated things, like an unusually fat cigar. Great latticeworks of iron and roping hung from their bellies, and Murphy could see tiny figures scaling steps and ladders, to and fro, like ticks on a great beast. There were a dozen of them, travelling like a V of geese, just as he’d seen in the illustration in Harper’s Weekly. The weight of the mechanisms contained in their bellies caused them to sag in the middle, giving them a pregnant look. To the rear, he saw the great propellers that shoved them through the air. They left behind them great trails of black smoke and steam. Here it was: Stand Watie’s Leviathan fleet, a day earlier than promised, chasing down and destroying whatever remnants of the occupying army it could find. As unstoppable as the tides.
Suddenly, one of them threw down a great white arc of light. It appeared all at once, like lightning, and the earth below billowed into the air along with a few bodies. A second later a terrible crack and a wave of heat hit him. They were killing anything. And they were coming toward him.
It was no matter. He flipped over again and starting to crawl toward the hole where the wagon was, digging his elbows into the soil. Past bodies and body parts, bits of splintered wood. It was no matter. They could not stop him. He would find another horse, return to town, save the girl. The bag lay a few feet in front of the crater. A large, black leather satchel with the letters “Z.E.M.” embossed in gold. Various shiny surgical implements lay scattered around it. Saws and scalpels and piers. A couple of brown bottles of indeterminate liquid. He grabbed them all and shoved them inside, then pitched himself over the lip of the crater.
He lay at the bottom, panting, bloody, clutching his bag as if it were the child he meant for it to help bring into the world. His savior who would forgive his sins. And as he thought of forgiveness he thought also what must be forgiven. The old memories chose this moment of weakness to assail him. The Thing He Must Not Remember approached his mind. Go on, then. Let it come. It did not matter.
And just like that, he was there again. He saw the pale blue eyes of the three boys and their father, on their knees in front of a burning house. He was aware of the dark, grim countenances of Bushwhackers around him. And he saw himself raise a pistol…
Murphy did not even notice the great, black shape appear over the crater, so large that it blocked out the entire sky. He did not notice the steadily quickening thrum that filled the air and vibrated the earth from his shoulders, did not see ball of white light appear in the middle of the iron eye staring down at him, or the smoke that rolled from his body an instant before everything went white and clean.
Dr. McDonough sat back, exhausted, and pulled his bottle of whiskey from the coat that hung on the chair behind him. He took a goodly pull and watched Miss Sissy swaddle a healthy, baby boy. He stood, and walked to the window, from where he could see the grey columns of Stand Watie’s army march through the town, in pursuit of the fleeing. He turned to the Indian surgeon who stood in the corner, washing his implements in a basin of pink water.
“Much obliged to you, Mr. Bradford.”
The surgeon nodded to a collection of bottles beside the basin.
“Keep those. All I can spare, I’m afraid.”
After the surgeon showed himself out Miss Sissy came over with the baby. Zedidiah took the infant in his arms.
“Healthy. Half breed, sure, but healthy. That’s something.” His pince nez reflected bright orange in the light of the oil lamp.
“And you,” he said, turning his attention to the girl in the bed, “are one tough little lady.” He laughed. “Never made a sound. I’m damned impressed.”
“She is sleeping, Doctor,” Sissy said.
Some hours later Katal’sta woke and asked for water, then for Murphy. Sissy Anderson told her that neither her husband nor his horse was anywhere to be found.
“It does not matter. I can find another to take me to Tahlequah.”
Katal’sta managed the strength to walk to the window to watch the flames on the horizon. On the outskirts of town, a Leviathan was anchored to the ground, ready to defend its new nation. Her son lay small and quiet in a bundle of blankets by the stove. She named him John, after his father, and as he was growing up she would always tell him that he was born when the world was on fire.