M. Chris Benner
Copyright 2012 Matthew Christopher Benner
to Luanne Smith,
for daring me to write this
1. The Darkness Sky
2. Battle of Warminster
3. The Catlight Infinite
4. Property of J. Harker
5. An Army for the End of the World
6. How to Destroy Angels
THE DARKNESS SKY
Coulson and his friend Nashua sat in side-by-side wood chairs, Nashua with the rifle and Coulson drinking heartily from a long, unmarked glass jug. The glass had been blown by an acquaintance named Emerson, who lived in the city and worked for the mill. The jug had been passed to Coulson in exchange for deer meat a couple years back. He had kept it and, when he distilled enough drab, he'd fill up the jars and save just enough for his long, brown, unmarked jug; filling it past the top so he could lick the outer edge of the rim and feel the sting of alcohol on the sensitive tissue between his lip and tongue.
Nashua caressed a cavalry rifle resting across his lap. The gun had been handed down to him by his father when he passed on the year before. His father hadn't said much about the rifle but Nashua knew it meant something to him, as his father wasn't a man of words but idiosyncratic actions - and his father polished that rifle every night. He didn't even polish his Colt that often, and his father always had that Colt loaded up against his hip.
Coulson passed the bottle to Nashua, who took a large sip, keeping the tips of his left-hand fingers on the wood butt of the rifle as if it would disappear if he let go. The drab was beginning to dwindle, as were the two men. It was early afternoon and the men had consumed a jar full before their "hunt" had even begun. So far, they had seen neither hide nor hare.
They slouched in their wood chairs, shifting occasionally.
A cough to clear a throat.
A noise in the distance brought their attention together. There was a rustle against the ground atop the white leaves and brush fallen from the hawthorn trees. The forest had a far sight visibility as the trees were long and thin, stretched up and only a bit outward with white blossoms. The pat-pat sound was approaching their spot but they still couldn't make out the source.
Something bluish in the...
Nashua raised his rifle to eye level and waited.
"It's a woman," Coulson said in disbelief.
It was, in fact, a woman, and she was approaching.
There were many details the men could have noticed first, including her thin, curvy body or the dirt-strewn hair (straw-like and corn-colored) poking out from beneath the cusp of a gray woolen cap. As she moved closer, the threads of her blonde hair soaked-in and reflected the brief, scattered rays of sunlight that filtered through the trees. Her blue and white plaid, button-up fit tight against her chest. The top buttons were undone and there was a dirt-smeared white shirt underneath. Her sweat-covered bust was visible through a tear down the neckline. The men noticed none of this and instead stared gawking at her face. The woman had a bandana tied around her head and it covered the lower half of her face in a tan cloth with bright, hand-drawn red lips across the area atop her actual mouth, as if the cloth were substituting for the bottom half of her face. She had an air of menace - narrowed, tired eyes, downturned head - and the bandana tied across her face gave the initial impression of a bank robber, but she was ultimately seen as nonthreatening and it was solely due to the quaint, warm smile on the crudely painted lips (if you looked close you would see that the chin line had also been shadowed, the neck defined, and even the tan of the bandana matched her skin tone). The expression on the cloth was gentle and good natured, almost comical.
The woman's pace was steady towards the two drunken, seated men.
The men talked about her as if she weren't within earshot, even after she arrived.
"What'n you think a woman's doing back there?" Coulson asked Nashua.
"No bother with that, what's she got 'round her face? She done looks like half a cartoon," Nashua answered Coulson.
The woman loudly groaned at the two men. She was standing over them.
"Well you look like an idiot," she snapped, half-heartedly. Her exhaustion was audible.
Nashua looked over at Coulson with half-open, slovenly eyes before nodding in agreement that Coulson did, in fact, look like an idiot.
Coulson took an extra sip of drab, unfettered.
Nashua continued to stroke the butt of his gun.
She let out an exasperated sigh.
"Where's the nearest saloon? Where's that shit-hole..." Henri Ville's dour voice was low through the bandana mask. She paused trying to remember the name of a dank, pitiless pub in the center of the nearby town. She had been there a few times before, always in search of the same thing.
Neither man responded.
Coulson's eyes migrated south to Henri's tight blue jeans. He'd never seen such a thing. It fit and accentuated the curvature of her hips and legs - but just as he began to admire the craftsmanship, a red/black smudge caught him. It looked like half a dirty, bloody handprint, one that had clawed at her backside from the ground.
Nashua had his eyes on her two leather belts, each lined with crisp, sparkly bullets. On her left hip was a .38 Smith & Wesson - this caught his attention more than the Colt on her right hip (one similar to his father's, except hers had a one-piece leather grip): That particular model .38 Smith & Wesson was used by the Sheriffs in the town over, called Saintstown. Nashua knew this because he had been booted from the saloon during a particularly rapacious speech about how he had been cheated and robbed while playing poker (though he had sat out most of the hands that night) and two of the deputies escorted him from the town. As the two men walked behind and Nashua stumbled along in front, Nashua became pleasant once more, asking questions about the location of the store in which they bought their .38s, the ammo they used, and so on. The two men could barely understand the drunken, front-wards spoken words, and answered only, "Sheriff says we're to use these S&W and these are all he ever stocks up. Says they shoot straight."
"Ma'am, you got some blood on your britches there?" Coulson said while, at the same time, Nashua spoke, "Where'd you get that revolver, ma'am?"
The men had not answered her question so thoroughly that she momentarily questioned whether they heard her at all, so she repeated it, followed by, "I'm lookin' for a man named Anson Sharpe-"
At that, both men lit up.
"Anson, yeah, he's a character," Coulson recollected fondly.
"Yeah, yer a safe bet to find'im in Coopers," Nashua nodded.
"Prolly getting' drunk."
"Yeah," scoffed Nashua, "he's always gettin' drunk."
Coulson and Nashua laughed.
Nashua sipped off the bottle and passed it.
The cloth blew out over her mouth as she spoke.
"Coopers," Henri exhaled. It had been nagging on her, the name of that shadowy bar Anson always ran to. As she went to move on, there was a hesitation, and she found herself saying something so familiar that the words were automatic:
"If I were you two, I'd leave this area."
The men craned their necks and stared at her.
They were silent.
"Didn't think so," Henri mumbled, heading in the direction of town.
No one ever listened.
The short stretch of town was empty.
The boardwalk led down either side of the only road in
, dead-ending in a cul-de-sac like an open-ended rectangle. The dirt was a thin brown powder and she could see that it had been kicked up recently, as if a large group of men on horseback had only just let out. The road was one lane wide, more narrow than most, and the wood creaked as she walked on, the boards weak in the center and upward bent on the outer edges. The wind in the air was dry and still, kindred to the vacant town. The saloon was at the end, in the far right corner. Stores lined either side, none any more necessary than the next. (And if those men that let out on horseback returned soon, all of the stores would probably end up decimated anyway.)
Henri pushed in past the wooden slats of the saloon doorway at a quarter past noon and found Anson Sharpe's hang-dog face looming over an empty mug. There wasn't nobody else in there but him and a barmaid in the back, cleaning broken glass on the floor.
Henri could hear his faint muttering.
"And then we?what do we-what day is it?"
His voice was low like his face. His skin was a slight shade darker than average, as Anson's mother had been a Hindu from India; lucky for him, his father had been American, giving his features an average appearance and his skin an odd shade of brown, one like sun-bleached leather. He appeared American and could blend easy even though he had been raised in a palace in the Kingdom of Saudi Arabia. His voice was casual and without accent, if a bit nerdy and high-pitched.
Henri crossed and was behind him well before he heard the doorway slats swooshing shut. When he turned to look, the lower half of his face cowering behind his shoulder, his eyes lit up and glared.
"Heard you was a town over?" he grumbled into the rumpled, stained pit of his tee-shirt.
"Get up. We need to go."
The harsh pitch caught Anson in a startling static jolt. Henri's voice was stern and had grown less feminine since their abandonment in the west. Her eyes had a glaze to them that they didn't use to, one that made them simultaneously passionless and intense.
His full face emerged and Anson's lips moved as if about to say something.
There was a pause.
A look crossed his face, something like grief.
"Take off that stupid bandana," he said.
There was a moment's pause before she did as he asked.
Beneath the bandana colored to mimic a beautiful, smiling mouth, Henri's real mouth was rougher, unsmiling, her frowning lips a subtle rouge.
"How much time?" asked Anson, the hint of emergency in his voice.
"Fifteen minutes. Maybe back sooner."
"Back door?" he asked, hopeful.
"Got a horse back there?" Henri asked, also hopeful.
They both knew the disappointing answers.
"Plus," Henri nodded her head toward the barmaid cleaning in back, the one bent and scrubbing the same piece of floor pretending not to listen.
Anson's wobbly head shook a moment.
Henri leaned in with an acute stare into Anson's eyes. He stared back, inquisitively. Her right hand, which had been lifeless at her side, suddenly lifted up and out, crossing the front of Anson's face in a hard smack. He recovered quickly and she continued her edged stare into his eyes, slapping him right-ways again for good measure. He recovered the second time. She studied him as one might poor handwriting on a note.
"Sober?" inquired Henri.
"Yer eyes are'a beautiful blue," answered Anson and, while his lips moved, his left eye half-shut in a drunken salute. Then his eyes were open.
She'd have to settle for him in this condition.
There was a ruckus outside the saloon, the sound of thud-thud-thud as horse feet trampled the narrow passage into town, maybe a dozen horses in all.
Henri's single word caused a terror in Anson.
"Get your-" she started but Anson was already standing.
"I got it up in my room," he acknowledged, sadly.
"Center to left," she reminded him as he stumbled on the first stair on his way up to the second floor rooms that lined the upstairs front wall. "And don't hit me," she called as he disappeared.
The barmaid had stood with the sound of approaching horses. Her eyes found Henri directly for the first time since she entered. The barmaid had known of her presence and heard her speaking, but had been uneasy and nervous to meet Henri's gaze. There was a moment where their eyes met. Henri's narrowed in displeasure before nodding in the direction that the barmaid should run, which was out the back door. The barmaid gently tossed onto a nearby table the towel she had been using to clean, then passed Henri on her way out the front door. There was ire in her glare.
Henri shook her head.
Once the woman was on the other side of the front doorway, her call could be heard:
"She's in the saloon! Buck-Buck, she's in the saloon!"
Horses cried out as their riders pulled hard and dismounted.
Henri took an extra moment to sit alone at the bar, peaceful. It was quiet. No hassle, not just yet. So she sat on, taking the final swallow from Anson's mug. It was warm and so awful that she couldn't be sure if it was beer or whiskey, but it didn't matter and she winced nonetheless. One more second in the silence was all that she wanted?then she wrapped the bandana back around her face, arranging the luscious smile over her own rigid frown.
And then Henri walked out the front door.
There were a dozen men dismounting, some reaching under their saddle bags for their rifles; all of them had a six-gun strapped to their sides. They had been hurrying until, as a group, they heard the call and saw Henri exit through the front of the saloon. The men's movements became more labored and cautious as she walked off the boardwalk and into the center of the inlet, facing the men. The men had their guns and were forming a line in two rows, more gunslingers than there was room to stand side-by-side in the single lane of the inlet.
"Ma'am, could you remove the bandana?" the man at the head asked.
Henri had returned the bandana to the front of her face.
"You don't want me to do that," she answered.
"Ma'am, I will shoot you where you stand if you do not remove it," he called back.
She let a moment pass.
Against her better judgment, Henri Ville removed the bandana from around her face entirely - her beautiful features were clear to the air. It felt good as she so seldom showed her full face to the light of day, allowing the dry air to graze her cheeks and feel the warmth of the sun on her skin.
"Missus, you come from Saintstown?" the leader asked, calling from a distance of 10 meters. They had been tying the horses to posts at the sheriff's but only some had finished, leaving a few horses to mull around. The man who spoke, in dark pants and a dark vest with a fine Italian shirt beneath, was not the sheriff. The sheriff stood some ways out to the side, a rifle clutched to his chest and the barrel pointed up into the sky. The man speaking had a darkness to him. The skin of his face was mostly hidden by black stubble and longer, straight black greasy hair. He had a rotund belly protruding from under the vest and shirt at the nexus of his bellybutton with enough skin visible to see that it, too, was coated in dark hair. The clothes had obviously been purchased when the man was skinnier.
"Yes," Henri called back. Her eyes weren't only searching the men but the sky beyond the town. It was an open day, one inconspicuous cloud in an otherwise clear blue sky.
The men had yet to point their guns at her but, with this news, they held their rifles a bit tighter, steadied their hands a bit nearer their holstered weapons?
"There's a massacre back there, ma'am."
"What'n you know about it?" he called back, his voice severe, his words like chucked rocks.
"I know that them men should've listened to me. Now, we don't have to do this?" And at that, the dark-haired man lifted his hand and positioned it over his firearm. Henri did the same, her right hand over the .38 Smith and Wesson while her left hand hung over the Colt. "?but you need to hear me when I say?" her voice was mea
sured, "?that this town is going to be destroyed. If y'all got young'uns, better head off and keep 'em outta town and safe. Anyone still here in the next few minutes is gonna-"
The dark-haired man drew at what he thought was the beginning of a threat and not a warning. The resulting firefight was short. Some of the men tried to run. There was a hail of fire from above, along with Henri's own torrent of blaze. She hit the dark-haired man first, with the .38; drew on him as quick as he drew on her but for a heartless quarter-second faster. His shot fired wildly as he fell back into the rain of lead erupting from out the second floor window of the saloon. Staccato clacks were echoing from inside the room, exactly fifty tiny pings as empty shell casings flicked off everything from the window frame to the floor. Henri's remaining shots, from both guns now raised and pointed to the group, joined the onslaught, and their destinations were lost amid the chaos, aimed center-to-right. An eruption of dust, mingling and swirling in its' wickshire dance above the men now fallen and nothing else moved. Most of the men fell in place while a few nearly made it to cover but they too, ended up limp on the ground. Two of the mulling horses had been wounded. One half-laid on its front knees. The other ran off with a wound in its side and his full gallop played on for an extra moment in the silence after the gunfire, a short farewell as it disappeared into the distance. Next came the sound of empty shells hitting the dirt and pieces of metal bouncing off one another as Henri reloaded. From the saloon's second story window came a heavy, mechanical click noise, another similar sound, and then the unmistakable unlock-and-lock of a slide bolt pulling back on a very thick-sounding rifle.
Henri finished stuffing the empty chambers of her revolver with fresh bullets while she spoke, her voice, eyes, and chin pointing toward the faces in the surrounding windows, many of them now widows and father-less children.
"You all need to VACATE this town?" she yelled out, emphasizing the one word, "?or my friends and I are gonna come into every STORE and BEDROOM and we're going to SHOOT every one of YOU. Out of town, you have FIVE MINUTES."
She hated plan two, the one where she had to scare everyone out of the town. It only worked half the time anyway and even then the stubborn ones stayed and fought, most people didn't listen, no matter the tactic. Hers was Cassandra's burden, the inability for anyone to take her "predictions" seriously (even when they were posed as threats).