Not sure why, but I’ve always been been a big fan of Westerns (both films and literature – I’m quite fond of Elmore Leonard’s work in the genre, as well as the undisputed master himself, Louis L’Amour). I don’t exactly know what hit me a few years back, but for about a year and a half, all I could do was write Westerns. My love is still there, although I tend to write in different directions these days, but something about the alluring American West will always sit deep within me.
Thus, I’ve decided to serialize one of my favorite Western short stories, “Blood Quantum” (circa 2007). The story follows Everett Root as he makes his way through the barren countryside with a bleeding wound in his leg and a piece of silver ore the size of his head, all while out-maneuvering a mysterious assailant who seems to be on his heels the whole time. It’s simple in it’s premise (survive and cash in), and I went for a very Cormac McCarthy-esque route here, as far as the sparseness of the dialog and the setting itself goes.
At any rate, I quite enjoy this story, and, again, being a fan of old-timey serials, thought it might be fun to offer this story as one. I’m not sure how often I’ll post a new segment, perhaps every other day, perhaps once a week, but make sure you stick around til this one ends. I promise it’s good fun. (Ap0logies for any formatting issues – WordPress doesn’t play nice sometimes.)
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊
Bob Antrim felt a cold steeled barrel matt his thick hair down and wedge into the back of his skull. He heard the hammer click back metallically and in that moment recalled his wife dying of consumption, spittles of blood curtained along the contours of her sunken face and chest, and then he mulled on his boy who had died in infancy. His hands gripped the splintered haft of the pick and for a minute further he dreamt of spinning in place and lodging the wedged spade into his attacker but amid the hallucinated escapades a shot thundered out like drums. The bullet churned down the barrel of the spunked and dusty revolver and it crushed through Bob’s skull and out his right eye socket as fluids sprayed like some geyser and his body fell to the ground sharp like stone.
Everett Root rolled the dented .44 caliber Dance revolver around his index finger and holstered it as if he were some dashing and wily roughrider that had been wrangled into a Wild West Show. He coughed a bit and waved the smoke away from his face with his hands and then set his eyes on the heaped body, smiling crookedly and scratching his chin. The ache in his leg gathered up again like a fist and he snorted out a dollop of snot from his nostrils and lowered himself carefully to the floor of the gritty mine. He set his feet up on the twin timber planks that bridged across mud and wet recessed puddles in the rock. The air smelled like sulfur.
He unwound a piece of stained-red cloth from around the upper part of his left thigh and he dropped the saturated tourniquet into a soaked pile beside him. Then he took two fingers and peeled an opening in his gray trousers that sat dark like cotton flesh and beneath the opening laid a bullet wound that fizzled deep, the opening lipped out as if it had been disturbed by some plated tremor deep below. A glossy covering of black-red blood formed at the surface and he thumbed at it curiously as if he had previous familiarities with human anatomy, then recoiled from the shocks of pain that shot back. He coughed deeply and squinted his eyes at the gaping hole, imagining he could see the top of the stunted round poking out and he wished he had dug the thing out in San Augustine.
He scooted himself along the ground to alleviate the pressure on his hurt leg and kept at it until he reached the miner’s boots and he stopped. He sized them up mechanically and concluded they were too small and then he wormed his way along the body further, grimacing with hurt at every length he moved. He stopped again at the miner’s waist and breathed hard and squinted his eyes again into the dark and smiled at the smoking wound lodged in his pale face. Then Everett took a smudged hand and turned the man’s head from side to side, gripping it along the jaw with the charm of a grandfather admiring a boy.
He guffawed and looked around for encouragement as if he had hallucinated an audience that likewise enjoyed his clowning and then let the head flop back with a heavy bump.
“From the right angle, boy, you look like my brother Jesse.”
He coughed again and rummaged through the large denim pockets of the man’s overalls and pulled out a small pocketknife with a pewter handle that it folded back into. He unfurled the blade and it was dinged around most of the edge but the tip still pricked hard into the whorl of his thumb. He collapsed the knife and slipped it into his shirt pocket and kept digging. He pulled out a piece of folded paper that had browned along the edges. He placed it into his teeth and bit down to keep it in place and the prospect of something other than his tongue taking up room in there caused him to slobber a bit around the corners and wet the edge of the note. He then pulled out another folded and waxed piece of paper and he unfolded it. He examined it and it appeared to be a map of the area with hashes penciled in and around the mountains he was currently in, possibly marking failed claims and there was a longer scratch that portended to what might be a homestead a few miles off. He laid the map down and then dug through the remaining pockets, pulling out a length of twine and he pushed it aside. He noticed the claw hammer slung along a leather belt askew along the miner’s hips and he fingered the splintered handle and the iron cheek felt cool against his skin.
Everett sighed loudly and fisted the map and with the note still tucked between the bite of his misaligned teeth he squirmed his way backward along the ground until he was again propped against the rock next to his used dressing. He extended the map, running his index finger along the creases until it laid flat and he set it at one side then took the note from his mouth and wiped it along the seam of his shirt to take the moisture. He then reexamined his bullet wound and grunted at the shoot of pain and rested his head back again and he wished for a drink of water. His eyes began to glaze over and he slapped himself awake again and then turned onto his side with the map spread before him. He traced his finger along a ridge of the Organ Mountains then down through the scrublands until he hit Mesilla and he tapped it twice as if to make sure it was no phantasm of his mind. The edges of the map flayed and he took his thumbnail and chipped off dry mud from the lower left corner which revealed the words Johnson’s California, Territories of New Mexico and Utah by Johnson and Browning 1860. He stroked his hand over the dulled reds and yellows and greens that covered it and imagined they had been brighter once.
He sat back up and another surge of pain shot up and he crossed his legs at the ankles. He unfolded the note and turned it in his hands, fascinated by the theatrics of it and he held the paper close and squinted at the longhand words. He lowered the note and looked around and spotted a thick and white candle wedged onto an iron rod that had been wedged into the working face beyond the body, the flame nearly wicked away. Then he angled the paper in such a way that the remaining flicker of yellow-orange light illuminated the page. He licked his lips and ran a hand through his greased hair and glanced to the entrance of the shaft a ways to his right and the sun had yet to recede. Then he focused on the extravagant loops staring back at him and enunciated with all the precision he could afford.
My dearest Bob,
I knowd you aint seen me for a while now but I just wanted yuh to know I’s doing alright. And I’s really proud of how good things are going for yuh now that yuhs working the land for the colors.
I don’t know if yuh forgot or not, but my berthday was last week. And now that I’s fifteen years old Ma’s making me work down at William’s store when I can. I’m meant to earn some extra money because of Pa’s arm being shot off by the Mexicans. I hope yer still planning on saving up to come marry me and build me that house you told me of. And I never did tell anyone what happened between us and I never would either. I wouldn’t risk getting yeh in trubble because of me nohow.
I hope this letter finds yeh well and I hope yeh can take me far from here soon and we can live forever together.
Signed with great love,
Everett found himself smiling at the very notion of the correspondence and he carefully folded the note back up and set it aside and exhaled loudly. He looked up to the jagged ceiling which sat serrated by erosion and the hands of man and then counted the lateral wooden girts that had been placed at intervals of the shaft, bracing between walls and doused in runoff that seeped from some unknown source above. Everett then tried to calculate how long Bob had been working the coyote-hole and his leg resounded with another flirt of sharp hurt and he took the knife out and opened the blade. He looked back to the candle and thought maybe he would try to dig the bullet out now and he saw how infection had spread up his thigh and neared his groin, the skin tender and yellowblack. He grunted and rested a hand on the rock behind him and rose carefully without putting any pressure on his left leg.
Everett panted for a moment with the knife still poised and he turned toward the body and then heard a thunderous recoil echo back from somewhere outside, bouncing off the walls of the mine until the sound hit him fierce. He stopped and arched his back and the hair on his neck stood and he pursed his mouth so as not to produce any sound and he waited and blood pumped to his leg and it ached. The reverberation had deteriorated to a faint nothing and he couldn’t quite decide if it was thunder or a rifle shot. He thought he had lost him days ago.
He felt his nerves give way and his heart raced and thumped erratically and he hobbled to the body ignoring any better judgment to rest. He bent down and took the man’s sweat-stained shirt and ripped a thick strip off, cutting the end free with the pocketknife and he tied a new tourniquet tight around his thigh. He winced as he double-knotted the bandage and then he noticed a tin ore bucket resting beneath the candle soaked by shadows.
A piece of loose rock stripped from the walls somewhere behind and he anxiously stared back to the entrance of the angled shaft that glowed white from sunlight and then back to the body. He swallowed hard and his throat was dry and the new bandage provided a bit of release from the pain as he lurched forward. Then he reached into the dark tin bucket and pulled out a large and blocky hunk of silver ore that fizzled in parts from the candleglow. He took his thumb and scraped dust off the surface and deliberated on the worth of the ore then reached back in the bucket and pulled out a Colt 1851 Navy. The grip had been worn away and the steel of the frame and barrel had been dulled and tarnished. He broke open the cylinder and counted two full chambers and then jammed the gun into his belt.
Everett stood there over the body a moment longer and breathed hard. He detailed the scene as he lingered and noticed an iron chisel peeking out of a fissured line of rock and an old shovel lying near. Finally satisfied he had scavenged anything of value from the place he hopped on his good leg along the planked runners. They creaked and swayed in addled piles of mud as he moved awkwardly and he emerged along the entrance of the cave and pulled his Dancer out. The flat and polished-silver frame sat in contention to the pieced walnut grips and the brass trigger guard glistened in the afternoon sun as he knelt and rested it along the ground next to him in preparation for some ambush he figured was imminent. He squinted his eyes as they adjusted to the flood of light and surveyed the scrubland then slowly stepped onto the graveled slope that ran down to his horse that sat posted where he left it. He stood tense until he was sure nothing had stirred in the distance, musing that maybe he had been on the run for too long, and he distracted himself from the specters he created by looking at the ore heavy in his hand still. He rubbed his forearm against his cheek where sweat beaded and there was dried blood thick like jam along his brow. He smiled crookedly at the ore and rubbed the surface clean and he began shoveling his way down the steep slope past a bouquet of mesquite.
He reached his sorrel-hued Morgan horse and he placed the silver ore in a thick leather haversack that slapped against the animal’s loins and he gripped the horn and pulled himself up. He took a double-breasted butternut frockcoat lying flat along the rear housing and placed it over his shoulders and it hung long and tattered at the cuffs. He then reached forward to a black fur-felt Kossuth whose hat-cord was tied to the front rigging ring and he placed it on his head. He scratched his chin and balled up a wad of phlegm he intended to spit and suddenly a rifle-shot rifled past him and struck the gravel slope to his left, catapulting pieces of stone and dirt up and out.
Everett heyawwed and clicked and dug his heels deep, slinking low in the saddle as he fled. He rose up a winding path back into the mountains and looked back only once to see where he was but the glare of the fading sun was strong in his eyes and he couldn’t see his attacker as he raced further into the hills.
◊ ◊ ◊ ◊