Τρίτη, 31 Ιανουαρίου 2012

Stone Cold Countenance, Part 1

“His face was like chiseled granite,” the old woman said to the man from the Government. He took down what she said on his notepad, a weathered, dog-eared thing.

“He wore a thrifty duster coat and wide-rimed hat. Dust all over him. His eyes were pitch black. Looked like beads. You never could tell which way he was looking.” 

The man from the Government kept taking notes. He opened his mouth, to ask the old woman about something, but the old man cut in.

 “He was armed. He had revolvers, pitch black and smooth. He never pulled them out, but I saw them. When the Rift wind blew and spread his duster coat. He wore them on his belt.”

“And those hands o’ his, they were big. Fingers all rough, like tree bark. They had all kinds of scars, all over. He’d hurt them and let ’em scab then hurt them again.” The old lady went on.

 “And they were strong. I shook his hand and he squeezed it till it got numb. Bet he didn’t even use half his strength. Strong hands. Face like that, you wouldn’t tell he’d know how to use ‘em.” 
Grumbled the old man.

The man from the Government cocked his eyebrow, looking at the old man. He asked them both if they spoke with that man, if they knew where he came from.

“He came from the Rift. The sheriff’s son saw ‘im, walking through the sandstorm, with his horse right behind ‘im. Poor child was terrified.” the old woman explained
.

The Government man explained that this was impossible. Noone could survive a trek through the Rift. And for horses, those had been extinct for a long time now.

“We thought the same, but he had one anyways! Covered in dust, with mean, mean eyes, just like his! Whole town gathered round to see them! Someone tried to pet it and the horse almost bit his hand. Mean old thing, that horse.” 

“It was all black, without a saddle. Didn’t let no one get near it, just the man from the Rift. I tried to feed it some oats. Stared at me like I were some horse thief the whole time, didn’t even touch the food.”

The man from the Government sighed. The old couple was giving him their own, incredible side of the story, which was useless to him. He needed facts, but they were the only people in the whole damn town that had deigned to talk to him. Had they spoken with the man, he asked. Did they know why he was there?

“Never spoke to him, no. He never spoke to nobody. Only spoke to the sheriff, who took him to the mayor. But the mayor’s maid, she told me she heard the man talk. He knew the language. He had a hoarse, hard voice. Sounded like a millstone grinding out words, she said.” The old woman shivered at the thought.

“She told me he said to the mayor that he knew ‘bout the Thing that lived round these parts. Said he’d kill it, for a price.”

The man from the Government’s pen stopped scrawling on the notepad for a moment. The Thing? What Thing?

“The Devil-spawned Thing that lived in the old silver mine! It’d go out hunting, kill anyone crossing the roads! No caravan’d come near us, no one dared come out, because of it!” shouted the old man in frustration.

There was no official report from your town sheriff about the Thing, replied the man from the Government. 

“The Sheriff weren’t no fool, he didn’t wanna die. The Thing ate the last Sheriff, when he was still a deputy. Said it took the form of his late wife and when he couldn’t find the guts to pull the trigger-“
Crack! The old man clapped his hands, like wolf’s jaws
,
ripping into flesh. His face drained of color at the thought. After a long pause, he said:

If he’d asked for help from you, you wouldn’t have bothered without ‘sufficient evidence’. But to get that, he’d have to go find it. And he didn’t want to die too.” 

“He wouldn’t ‘ave come out of them mines alive, if he tried to get them evidence. The Thing would find him and eat him, too.” Mumbled the old woman. 

The man from the Government looked at the couple, puzzled. Their statement seemed truthful and Anomalies (or Things, as they called them) weren’t an unusual sight in areas so close to the Rift. Yet he’d never heard of an Anomaly with that kind of ability. He asked them: How did the man know that the Thing was there in the first place? 

“I don’t know,” said the old woman. “I didn’t hear no thing. But the blacksmith’s wife, she done spoke to the mayor’s maid. She heard him say he’d been after it a long time. That he’d killed a pack of those Things, when he was in the Rift. That this one was the last of its kind and that he had to kill it, or it’d make more like it, even if it was the last one left.”

“We’d thought he was trying to pull our leg and fill our heads with scary stories, if he were anybody else. But we believed him, when he said it.” 

That he lived in the Rift? That he killed a pack of those Things and that someway, somehow, he found the last one? How can they even be sure he killed it?

“He killed it ‘cause it’s dead. The Sheriff followed him and saw the whole thing. Told us what happened. His eyes had gone white and he’d soiled himself, but he swore, on his own life. That man killed the Thing.” said the old man.

Is there any evidence of it being dead? A body, a piece of chitin, some residue that it might have left behind after its death, at the very least?

“No,” the old man replied. “When it died, it melted into soiled water. I smelled it myself, when I went there to see. Left no trace behind, but that grimy water and a smell like a mouthful of pennies.”

The man from the Government took down their report. He thanked them and left, without even touching the glass of water and the pickled rat that the couple had offered him. He placed his notebook in his jacket pocket and headed for the Sheriff’s office. He’d had just about enough of the secrecy and the tall tales of the townsfolk. He had to speak with an eyewitness.

“My daddy ain’t well. Don’t wanna see nobody.” said the boy that sat at the front porch, wearing the Sheriff’s hat. The thing was way too big for his head, almost drooping down his eyes. 

The man from the Gorvenment asked the boy to call out his mother. He needed to speak with her.

“Momma’s taking care of my daddy. Said I sit outside, don’t let no one in, ‘cause daddy ain’t well and he don’t want no one see him like this. I’m not s’pposed to say that, but I know you Gov’ment people can smell lies.” 

The man from the Government smiled, despite himself. He reassured the boy that he couldn’t smell lies.

 “All the other Expungers can, Dead Eye said so in his books! They can taste fear too. Dead Eye did cross the Salted Desert with just a flask full of the sweat of a terrified inmate and a whiff of his bounty’s terror!” 

The man from the Government told the boy he was no Expunger, just a census man. The boy seemed disappointed, but still went ahead and called for his mother. The woman that answered his call looked more like a grandmother to him. Her face was like a dried fig.

 “What is this all about? I’ve a sick husband in there and he needs constant care.”

The man from the Government explained that he didn’t mean to pry. He just needed a moment of her time. Asked her if she knew what happened in the mines that got her husband sick. The woman’s face went pale, her lips turned into a thin, pink line.

“That’s my husband’s own business, if you don’t mind. Now, please…” she tried to close the door in his face, but he stopped her halfway. He told her that yes, he did mind. That he didn’t have any more time to waste on tall tales and that her husband was obligated, by law, to give him any information he might possess. After storming inside the office, he went through the door that led to the small house behind it. On a bed he saw a pale, shriveled bundle with wrinkled clothes on its body. It wore the Sheriff’s badge. 

“You’re…you’re Government. I can tell by that badge of yours, when you started waving it around, the minute you came into town. If you hadn’t shown off that much at first, people wouldn’t have minded answering your damn questions.” wheezed the bundle. The mere act of talking seemed to take too much out of him in his current state.

The man from the Government nodded. Found that he couldn’t stop staring at the bundle that lay there, wheezing. From the corner of his eye, he caught a glance at the picture on the drawer next to the small bed. The Sheriff was there, a 30-year old man with a perfect smile and a mane of blond hair. The bundle’s voice was the one he thought the man in the picture might have, but it looked nothing like him.

“You wanna know about the man from the Rift. He’s a tough son of a bitch and he killed the Thing all by himself. I didn’t do anything. I just looked at it and then it killed me.”

But he’s alive, exclaimed the man from the Government. Beaten, weathered, but alive.

“I’m dead inside. The Thing in the mines poisoned my soul and now I’ve died in every way that matters. Just clutching at strings here. Matter of time before my body follows suit.”

What did he see there? In the mines?

“My late sister. She’d wandered off in the Rift, when she was just a little kid. Got lost. Saw her as a woman, like she would have been, if she hadn’t been lost. Had the voice I thought she’d have. Thought I was gonna save her from that man, because I thought she was my sister for real, so I fell right into her trap. Took me off with her and when she thought she’d gotten away, she sank her teeth into me.”

What about the man? The stranger from the Rift, how did he manage to kill her?

Just looked at her, pointed his gun and pulled the trigger. He had a pair of black revolvers. She spoke to him before he pulled a trigger, couldn’t make it out. He just said no and then killed her, just like that. In his eyes, it could have been his wife, his brother, anyone. But to me, she was my sister. Saw her die again, just then. Right before my eyes
.

Did he know what the man did afterward? Did he ask for payment? Did he, at least, know his name.
“Never bothered introducing himself.” the bundle said, panting on his bed, so much more shriveled than before, tears in its eyes. “Just upped and killed my sister. I saw her die. Again
.
Saw her body run like water as he walked away. Then he carried me back home and left.”

The bundle started crying then, its body wracked by huge sobs.

“He killed her right in front of me and I couldn’t even save her! Oh dear God, I lost her again!”

The man from the Government took out his notepad and opened it to a certain page. In an act of desperation, he thought about showing the Sherriff a design that he had drawn on one of the older pages, before he came to the town. His eyes darted back to the woman. Her eyes were radiating malice, boring holes in the back of his head. In the few moments he had before the wife would throw him out, he showed him the picture. Asked him if he’d seen that design on him.

“On the inside of his duster. And on his belt buckle.”

The Sherriff’s wife grabbed him by the collar and dragged him out the room. He let her throw him out, all the way to the door and shove him outside. The door slammed behind him. 

He knew exactly where the man from the Rift had come from. Suddenly, this tall tale made perfect sense. And he knew exactly where the man would be headed. He gathered his belongings from the room he leased and left the town running. He left the road and crossed the dried up stream.

He might have a horse, but there’s no way he could be that far ahead. The man from the Government knew that his quarry would rest for a while, so that he could regain his strength, after his fight with the Thing. Even if he just shrugged off something that killed a young man with one glance, then the man from the Rift must have expended every ounce of his own strength, so that he could kill it.

He found his camp in a small opening at the foot of a hill
,
the very next night. He hadn’t rested in the meantime, only stopped for a while for a drink and a bite. This was going to be his only chance and he needed to make the most of it. He saw the horse by the campfire and the man, wrapped under a frayed blanket.

The man from the Government took out his revolver, made sure it was loaded and cocked it as quietly as he could. Crouching, he approached slowly, not making a sound. The air was still.

The horse saw him when he was just a few steps away. No matter, he thought. It’s just an animal, couldn’t possibly stop him. Carefully taking aim, he was about to pull the trigger, but the horse rushed him then, its teeth grabbing hold of his sleeve. He shot it once and got it in the neck. The blood gushed out, but the animal fell down and pinned him under its own weight, nevertheless.

Struggling to free himself, he noticed that the horse’s blood smelled strange. It was a strong, intoxicating scent that made him sick to his stomach. It was then that he looked for his quarry and saw the barrel of his gun looking back at him, square in the eye.

The man from the Government felt a chill going up and down his spine and stood perfectly still
,
then. He looked at the revolver. It was a perfect black, like the night that surrounded them. His hands were rough and looked strong, as they held the gun with ease. His face was rough, hard, like chiseled granite. His eyes were pitch black beads.

“You’re a Government man.”

Yes.
 
“And you know who I am.”

He explained that he knew what he is. Same went for his horse.

“You don’t know my name, then. Bet you know about the Rift and the Thing I killed back there in the mines, right?”

Right.

“So you thought you could kill me and take the bounty that’s set on my kind. Maybe take the horse too. That wouldn’t have worked though. It wouldn’t put up with you.”

It wouldn’t have worked, of course. This isn’t a horse. Horses have gone extinct. This is just a replica. An automaton.

“And you damaged it. You’ll make me go off-schedule for a few days.” He cocked his gun. “I’ll let you live if you give me any notes you got from the town.”

The man from the Government gave him the notebook then. The man from the Rift tossed it into the campfire without even giving it a second glance, then shot him in the eye. The gun’s loud bang echoed in the stillness of the night. He took off the man’s clothes and fed them to the fire. He broke his teeth off with the butt of his guns and then scattered them around in a wide circle. Lastly, he dragged the body away and left it to be eaten by vultures. 

When his hunter was dead and gone, he kneeled by his horse and petted it behind the ears. Its legs twitched, which meant that none of the central servos had been damaged. But the leaking fluid meant that the hydraulics had been damaged. He got to work with a sigh of exasperation.

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