Side Trail Story
Where or When
James Buttinger


Side Trail Story

Slade felt the gunshot thud into the left flank of his dun colored mare. She took the hit in full stride, kept her pace and weaved her way down the alkaline of the arroyo into the twilight haze of a dead moon night. A fusillade of haphazard carbine rounds from the Federales in pursuit sent up shattered rock around her hooves. Slade figured they meant to bring his mare down so they could take him alive and back to Monterosa to hang him in the public square. He kept low, arms around her neck, head buried in her mane. His sweat mingled with the sweet flecks of foam flying from her dun colored sheen. The gulley broke left. Slade felt the pace of the mare quicken, she smelled the river. He knew the Federales would cross the river border after him, but he knew from the dead moon sky, bitter cold of an early winter meant they wouldn't chase him forever. If his mare didn't lose too much blood from the gunshot wound, if she could make the cover of the brasada and survive the cut of the brambles and get to those first low hills of el Llano Estacado, Slade knew the two of them stood a chance.

****

Sarah sat still in her chair on the snow drifted porch of her cabin. She'd wrapped herself up, neck to feet, in the white wool railroad blanket against the cold of the dead moon night. A knitted, white wool shawl covered all but a wisp of her grey brown hair. A sawn-off, double-barreled coach gun sat across her buckskin covered loins under the white blanket. At the edge of the porch, a tin plate still simmered with a thick gruel of navy beans and beef gristle. The aroma of the gruel wafted into the cold night air. A crack of brush came from the edge of the woods, and then another. Sarah slid the thumb of her left hand up and eased back the hammer of the left barrel of the shotgun. She poked the end of the barrels out from under the white blanket. A yelp more than howl came from the edge of the woods, and then another.

"The feeble one, they send the simple one in first tonight."

Sarah eased back the hammer of the right barrel of the shotgun. A yellow grey coyote limped two steps out from the cover of the woods and stopped still in the snow shadows. He cocked his head. He took two more staggered steps, stopped and stood motionless in the dead moon night. His nose pointed toward the aroma of the mash of beans and beef. Belly low to the snow covered ground, he crept to the edge of the porch. He buried his nose in the gruel and lapped up the warm mush with his tongue. The tin plate licked clean, the simple one blinked his luminescent eyes away from Sarah and limped back into the woods.

****

Early winter snows up and down el Llano Estacado caught them all by surprise: drovers, cavalry, railroad men, Comanche, coyote. The drovers put down their emaciated and sick cattle. The cavalrymen burned and spread lime over those carcasses to drive the Comanche into the count at the Agency. The railroad workers watched the Comanche bucks give in and follow their squaws and children, picking through the garbage left by the abandoned railroad chuck wagons. Coyote, frenzied with hunger, attacked in packs and, rumor had it, ripped out the throats of humans that tried to stop them.

****

Slade pulled up his fur collar, a black woolen scarf covered his nose and mouth, flaps of his yellow grey fur hat covered his ears. Needles of sleet drilled into the exposed skin around his eyes. He dismounted and trailed his dun colored mare on a long lead behind him. Head down against the razors of the wind, he put one foot in front of the other, his body bent at a steep angle against the gale. He fell face first into the ice-covered ground. Blood flowed from his nose and pooled into his black scarf. He choked to catch his breath. He got to his feet, his left knee buckled under him. The blood black scarf flash froze to the ice.

Prone, in a daze, Slade lost consciousness for a few seconds. He pulled himself up. Chunks of yellow grey fur, black wool, red skin and black blood were left on the frozen ground. His left knee burned with pain. He limped into a zigzag pattern, off of the direct wind to the left one hundred paces, to the right one hundred paces, his mare trailed out behind him. He dragged his left leg for two, maybe three or even four hours, time and sense of place got lost on the trail. The storm worsened. He figured his mare could not take more. He stopped and put her hindquarters to the howl of the wind. The sleet turned into shotgun blasts of hail. He covered as much of his mare as he could with the black railroad blankets of his bedroll and huddled on the ground underneath her.

The wind slowed. The sleet and hail turned into snow. Snow in large flakes. Flakes in a flurry of white. Slade did not go forward into the white. He smoothed the salve he had put on the delicate tissues around the eyes, nose, mouth and genitals of his mare. He touched the gunshot wound on her flank. His stitches held but the potion he had applied to ward off infection had not worked. The wound was infected, her leg inflamed. She winced and whined when he touched her. Slade knew what he had to do and do now. He put the barrel of his Navy Colt revolver at the kill spot on the side of her head and cocked the hammer.

“Girl, you know this is best.”

He did what he knew he should not have done. He looked into her eyes.

“Tomorrow. We can wait until tomorrow. In the morning, girl.”

Slade built up a wall of snow around them. He gave his mare feed and let her lick clean white snow and gave her dun colored sheen a last, light brushing under her blankets. He ate beef jerky and hard tack and licked clean white snow. He built up a bed of snow and rolled himself in with two layers of black blankets.

Slade dreamed in white, the color of death. Death of speared frogs with the renegade kids of the orphanage. Death of slaves he had run back to their masters in Missouri. Death of Yankees he had killed up and down the Mississippi. Death of Mexicans he had killed for Texas Rangers. Death of Comanche he had killed scouting for Mackenzie and Neill. Death of white men he had killed to take their money and their women. Death. Death. Death. Death. Death. Death in white...

“Friend. Friend. She is dead. We ask your permission to take her, for the orphan children. Friend, are you alive?”

Slade opened his eyes and saw the white angel of death.

“Friend. Friend. She is dead now. Can we take her for the orphans?”

Death with white hair, white beard, white robes.

“Friend. Friend. Are you awake? We need food for the little ones. Can we take her? She is dead.”

Slade awoke to a world of white under a clear sky and a sun just up. He saw a man covered in snow.

“Friend, do you speak English? Spanish?”

“Yes. Yes. Si. Both. Who is dead? Where is she dead?”

“Friend, your mare. She is dead.”

Slade hobbled to his feet and brushed off the snow that covered him. He looked to where the man pointed. His mare was death white, covered in snow. She had gone down, knees apart, head bowed down between them.

“Friend. We could hear you come in last night. With the morning light I entered your camp.”

“What children, Padre?”

“Yonder. Not far. In our camp. Six Comanche brethren: one old man, one old woman, four children, three Indian, one white. We, like you, were caught by the storm. The children have not eaten. We would like your mare. For them. Come. Come. Look for yourself.”

“No. No need for me to see, Padre. The mare, I cannot, I… “

“We will wait to take the mare until you are over the near horizon,” the priest put both his hands on the shoulders of Slade, “friend, you carry death, death in your saddle bags, you can choose life, my friend, life, but… only if you wipe the blood from the knife.”

****

Sarah sat still, covered neck to feet in her white railroad blanket in her chair on the snow drifted porch of her cabin. Her grey brown hair fell across her shoulders under her white, knit shawl. At the edge of the porch, a feeble coyote buried his nose in a tin plate of fresh warmed gruel of navy beans and beef gristle. Shadows from night clouds across a waning gibbous moon moved across new fallen snow that half covered the yellow grey carcass of a coyote. Black blood spatters led the way to another coyote, fresh dead at the edge of the thick stand of woods that surrounded Sarah's cabin. The feeble coyote raised his snout from the gruel. He cocked his head once, twice and limped off. Padded footfalls came from the woods. Sarah slid the thumb of her left hand up and eased back the hammer of the left barrel of the sawn off coach gun set between her knees across her buckskin covered loins. She slid the thumb of her right hand up and eased back the hammer of the right barrel of the shotgun. She poked the end of the barrels out from under the white blanket wrapped around her. With a flick of her head, her white wool shawl fell away from her grey brown hair.

Slade limped out of the woods, Navy Colt revolver strapped tight into his holster, hands raised up, black fingerless riding gloves palms out.

“I’m hungry,” he said.

Sarah pointed the barrels of the coach gun at the tin plate of half eaten warmed gruel.

“The smell got to me. Woulda kept moving, heard your gunning," Slade pointed to the coyote carcasses, "the smell guided me," said Slade, "I'm hungry."

“Squat, there, at the end of the porch," said Sarah.

Slade squatted awkward. He took off his yellow grey fur cap with his left hand and grabbed the tin plate with his right. What was left of the gruel rolled down his throat.

"I'm cold," he said.

"Me, too," she said.

Slade stood up and nodded toward the door of the cabin.

Sarah nodded back.

He limped past her on the porch and held the cabin door open.

Sarah took the white railroad blanket from around her and bunched it into her lap with the sawn off coach gun. She pushed her mane of grey brown hair behind her shoulders and rolled in her wooden wheel chair through the cabin door.

****

Sarah smiled at Slade and gave in to the mystery that wasted her body but not her mind. He undressed her dead form and folded her clothes at the end of the bed they shared. He washed her, put the wolf-tooth dream necklace around her neck and splashed kerosene on her before he laid her out under their white railroad blanket. The smell of her burned flesh made him vomit when he fired their cabin in the high woods canyon of el Sangre de Cristo.

Sarah knew the smell of dead rot in the dirt from nursing at Shiloh, The Wilderness and the siege of Vicksburg. She had told Slade she did not want that. She made him promise. She knew he knew what the pyre wrought from his killing and burning at Fort Pillow with Nathan Bedford Forrest, the remnants of a Quantrill band in Texas and on his quest for vengeance in The Indian Territories.

The embers popped and smoked for two days. On the third day, Slade smashed her bones into bits and scattered them into the winds of a dead moon night atop a precipice of their canyon. A coyote yelped in feeble mourn.

A day out, headed West toward the lust of lost gold behind The Iron Door in the Santa Catalina Mountains of the Arizona Territories, Slade had enough of walking and killed a drifter for his horse.

Forty days out and into the Santa Catalinas, on a Venus moon ride in the high desert cold to avoid the heat of the day, his horse balked and sent Slade down to the bottom of a rock pit.

A day and night went by, perhaps another one or two, maybe more.

What brought Slade back was the high noon sun in his eyes, the tickle of poly fiber rope end on his face and a soft and sharp female, "Hallo down there, you alive?"

He shook off the dizzies and struggled to his feet. The rope was silvery, shiny, not Manila hemp.

"You gonna grab ahold or stay down there?"

Slade shook off more dizzies and worked with the rope up the side of the rock pit. At the top and over the edge he struggled to his feet, fell to his knees and vomited. A few dry heaves and he stood up. Sweat dripped from his face and smelled up his arm pits and waist band. A slip of a woman, skin gnarled by the sun, hair straight, short, dun-colored and streaked with grey, handed him a blue paisley kerchief from around her neck.

"Here."

Slade wiped spittle from his mouth and scruff of beard.

"My horse,” he said.

She looked Slade up and down in his raw denim jeans, riding boots, flannel shirt and drovers coat. She paused at the heavy Navy Colt revolver strapped tight into his holster and looked him square in the eyes.

"No horse. You Triple-T outfit outta Nogales, our side?"

"My hat."

Slade got to his knees and peered over into the rock pit and pointed.

"My hat."

He vomited again and almost fell back into the pit. She pulled him to his feet, his left arm around her sinewy shoulders, walked him to a four wheel drive, independent suspension, all-terrain vehicle covered in high desert dust.

"Get in. Ball that coat up in the container. There. Just stuff it in. My found crystals,

and flora. I press my own colors for my ceramics. Close the lid. Tight."

He did.

"Names Sybil, yours?"

"Slade."

She got in, turned the key and an engine kicked in and purred and did not snort like the steam engines of the railroads and ironclad gunboats Slade had known from the siege of Vicksburg.

"First or last?"

"Slade, just Slade."

"OK, Slade just Slade. Buckle up."

He sat, a vacant look on his face, retched a dry heave and watched what she did and buckled up the over-the-shoulder seat belts.

She pulled an iPhone from a velcro pocket of her sleeveless vest and touched up the Maps app with long fingers. Slade jerked his head toward the illuminated face of the iPhone, mouth open. He retched again and covered his mouth with her blue paisley kerchief.

"See, we're here. You have a concussion, maybe worse. I could take you to my doc in Tucson but we’d need to get across this wash here," she pointed to the map on the iPhone, "before the rains start. We can't make my cabin in the Catalinas here, same reason, this wash here. So, to my place, Oro Valley, near Sun City, here. I'll put you up in my casitas 'cuz once they start, the rains won't stop. One thing, Slade, just Slade. You put that revolver, gun belt and ammo into my gun safe soon as we get there. They got open carry in this state of Arizona, clarified in the law a few years ago, the year of our lord 2015, but no open guns in my place. Got that?"

Slade stared at her and retched a dry heave again. He moved his mouth to talk but no words came.

"Here, put this hat on your head. Pull the brim over your eyes. Close 'em. Relax as best you can. Breath slow and deep, in and out. Be awhile. Bumpy.”

Slade sat alone, eyes closed, cross-legged on the red tiles of her casitas floor. She had put a crystal hung on a leather thong around his neck, kissed him full, wet and hard on the lips and left him alone for a day, maybe two or more. He wore a pair of khaki, front-pleated slacks and the favorite, mauve colored, long sleeve and tattered, cotton crew neck of a dead man... "He was Starke, just Starke," she had told him, "a heister. For you, highwayman. Used my cabin in the Catalinas to lam between heists. I was his moll. Died. Lou Gherig's. Awful for such a man. Awful for any man, woman. Left me money. A lot of money. Don't get any ideas, Slade, just Slade. All electronic now. Bits and bytes. All in securities now. Spread around. Safe. Live off the dividends and interest."

His feet were bare on the red tiles. He wriggled his toes. A mix of soft, ambient music streamed from hidden speakers. Rain spattered against the windows. A 32" Sony flat screen television sat dark on a table. Slade had seen the gas lamps and indoor commodes and running water of Saint Louis. During the war, he had tapped morse, cut telegraph wires, been up in an observation balloon. When Sybil had given Slade what she called a systems check of the programmable thermostat, the lighting pad, the media stick, the full body shower, the sink and the commode, the latter three with photocell controls, he got dizzy again and collapsed in her arms. She had made him sit cross-legged on the red tiles, head between his knees, and told him to breath slow, in and out. His face in her hands until he had nodded yes, she had told him to leave the TV off and keep the lights low because of his concussion. She had not kissed him again.

Each time she had knocked and set out food and water for him, Sybil had told Slade the roads to Tucson and the roads to the community center café at Sun City were awash and they were isolated but safe. She had kept an incense punk alight in a ceramic olive dish... "I do little ceramic things, everyday things. Burn the incense and wear the crystal,” she had told him.

Slade had burned peyote with Sarah in a cave near their cabin in el Sangre de Cristo when she had had her worst spells of hysteria from the loss of control of her limbs. He had built sweat lodge rock fires in the cave to soothe her. A Kiowa woman he had been with had taught him to build sweat rock fires and how to be with the after spirits. The Kiowa woman had made him wear the teeth of a wolf, a dream necklace, she had said.

Sybil knocked on the door of the casitas and entered. She put a tray of fresh cut fruit, a pitcher of Albariño and two crystal champagne glasses on the red tile floor in front of Slade and sat cross-legged across from him. She poured them each some of the white wine, handed him one of the flutes, took the other and said, "To us."

They sipped.

"We both have pretty much figured out what's going on here," she said, "this is 2019 but you ain't from this time, are you?"

Slade looked at her and shook his head no.

"I'm thinking you’ve been through the Civil War and most of the Plains Indian Wars, 1870s, by your clothes. I burned them, dirty, they smelled, a man smell," she put her nose to the side of his neck and breathed in, "they needed to be burned. And by that heavy Navy Colt revolver you're packing. Yes?"

Slade nodded his head yes.

"See, most of them here at Sun City, they come here, 55 or older, in couples or singles to recapture the times when they were the hero jock or the cheerleader. They got a place or family back East or the Midwest they go back to in the bad heat. So this place ain't real. You'll be amazed at what you see here in Sun City, pickle ball, wood working shops, emerald green golf courses, driving to and from the stores in golf carts. If they come single, especially the men, they want to latch on to a woman, follow her around puppy dog like, let her make their meals, do their laundry. Drive you crazy if you are a single woman like me. So's you know, they call me Sybil the Ceramic Siren, sometimes even to my face, 'cuz I believe. In the crystals, the wolf teeth, the mourn of the coyote, the vortexes. See, I think that rock pit was a vortex... You following all this?"

Slade paused, "A sweat lodge, with a woman. Kiowa woman sweat lodge, peyote... "

"Hallucinations, altered states, souls floating outside of bodies, up above... ,” she said.

"Yes."

"Burning Man."

"What?"

"There is this thing out here in the high desert called Burning Man. Mostly just people frying their brains on every drug imaginable for a few days, but some of us, a few, a very few, sit in a smoke lodge. No drugs for me. The most I do is white wine," she clinked their flutes and took a sip, "we sit in a smoke lodge with shamans, Yaqui, Tohono, Pima... "

"I don't know them. I know Mimbre, Kawahada, Panatekas... "

"Yaqui, Tohono, Pima, they go way back. Paleo. We've had a Kawahada at Burning Man. He scared me. Carried a knife. Anyway, the point is, I believe."

"Believe... "

“Spirit world. Reincarnation. Shape shifting. Time bending vortex… Can you read?”

“Yes.”

“Have you seen derroogatypes, stereoscopes, the paper flipping that makes pictures move?”

“Yes. Yes. And camera obscura. Saint Louis.”

“When I turn the television on, the black square there, just think of those things. That’s all, pictures that move. The rains will not stop for days. We will sit together, sip white wine and watch pictures that move.”

Sybil helped Slade to an overstuffed coach and refreshed their glasses of Albariño. They sipped the white wine. She turned the lights low and sat next to him, her right thigh to his left, her right arm around his left. She leaned into him, and brought up…

Woman in the Dunes.

Grains of sand spattered into their windows like drops of rain.

All Quiet on the Western Front.

She entwined the fingers of her right hand with his left to save him from the butterfly.

Lawrence of Arabia.

She stroked the hair on the back of his neck when the man across the Suez yelled to him, "Who are you?"

Z.

He nuzzled his nose to that place just below her right ear when she covered her face with his shirt and breathed in.

Il Postino.

She kissed the tears on his cheeks when he recorded the sounds he could not write.

Ridicule.

He blew powder from his hands over her body as she twirled naked after their bath.

La Dolce Vita.

They sat in awe.

Map of the Human Heart.

They made love on the top of a barrage balloon and cried in the arms of each other for the end of their cultures.

****

The rains stopped. She drove him in her four wheel drive, independent suspension, all-terrain vehicle to the edge of the rock pit in the hills of the Santa Catalinas. They held hands and breathed in the feminine breath of the night.