Part 2 of my Western short story “Blood Quantum.” Check out Part 1 here.
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The next morning Everett walked down a hillside from the mountains leading his horse by the reins. He had run a zigzag path the night before until he exhausted his equine and then took a position against a sheered cliff-face that looked out into a small valley surrounded by a grove of tlacocote that tangled thick. The small valley had only one entrance that he had guarded like some stern despot and he had only slept for thirty minutes, shivering under his thinned coat and caught beneath stray and howling gusts that wound in looping patterns.
He pressed on further from the hillside, stopping at a small creek that snaked down through the parched ground that was more mud than water and he let his horse drink while he inspected the map again. His detour had ousted him too far north and on the west side of the Organs and now he’d have to cross back through. Everett clicked his teeth for amusement as he computed his new trajectory south and east and he looked for any mention of a trail or road through the mountains. He found none but felt optimistic that he was about a day’s ride from Mesilla and he folded the map again along the worn creases and placed it back in his shirt pocket. He took out the miner’s stolen pistol and broke open the cylinder again and blew into the empty chambers and tucked it back into his belt. He ran his fingers over his own large holster and stalled on the basket-weave pattern and then onto the walnut stock of the gun as if he was anticipating the arrival of a duel.
He yawned wildly and scratched the back of his head where it met the neck and bent down to the stream. He lifted a handful of the gray water to his head and spooned it over and slicked his hair back. Then he took another cupping of water and slurped it greedily and then sat along the bank and watched his horse which had taken to grazing on a sweep of hoary feather-grass. He unwound the bandage from his leg and dipped it in the creek and rung it out. Watery red sifted from the dressing and he scraped it along his forehead which revealed a deep and festering gash that had begun to scab over. He reapplied the covering to his leg and it was cold against his torn skin and he sucked in air through his teeth as if it deterred the stinging sensation.
Everett pulled out the pocketknife and extended the blade and splashed water on before thumbing it clean. He admired his reflection in it then saw the scraggly beard that had supplanted his jaw. He wet his face again thoroughly and took to peeling off layers of the hair with the knife one stroke at a time. He cut himself repeatedly and left a twizzled mustache and when he was done he splashed water on his face again and it burned like fire, his neck dotted with red like Dalmatian-spots.
He stood and looked out into the distance and he limped to his horse and caressed the haversack that held the silver. He pocketed the knife and looked out onto the landscape as he swallowed down a great wave of pain. He took off his coat and held it up and traced the mementos of battle, fingering where grapeshot had ripped through the cape and noting the splatters of blood that formed garish patterns where an elaborate sleeve-braid used to reside on the left cuff. He laid it over the horse’s shoulders and orientated himself in his intended direction and he looked out on the brown rangeland and he felt tired.
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Everett had been riding for hours when sleep began to take him over in the saddle and he slapped his face to stay awake and calculated it was sometime in the afternoon. He approached a young Emory oak whose branches cascaded out like a hundred tentacled arms and he tied his horse off and propped himself up against the darkbrown knotted bark. He unholstered his heavy revolver and laid it on his belly and he fell asleep under the shade of the bell-shaped tree, settling almost immediately into a rhythmic snoring.
He awoke two hours later when his horse began to bray wildly and stomp the ground as if it were dancing to an unheard beat. Its eyes were large and white and rolled back and its mane stood up on its own. His senses still percolating, Everett wiped his eyes clean and felt a great pressure behind his nose. The ache had had been festering for days and for a moment he felt his face and thought he was conscious of someone else’s body, remembering after a minute further that he had previously shaved. It was then that he grew alert to his horse’s alarm and he heard the crackle of a rattler’s tail and he spun and saw the graybrown snake coiled at the side of the tree, the dorsal diamond-shaped blotches running the length of its spine mesmerizing.
Everett jumped back as the snake lunged and its fangs nicked the heels of his boots as he landed. The snake reloaded for another attack and Everett stomped down hard on its head, repeating this action until it thrashed in place and was no more. He slumped back against the tree and breathed hard and loud, the adrenaline momentarily taking over the pain that spouted from the wounds he suffered. He bent down and sawed the snake’s head off with the pocketknife and then unfurled it lengthwise and marveled at its span and girth.
He waited until dusk and he scouted the area on foot until he could no longer take the pulsing of his hurt leg and he returned to the oak and felt comfortable that he hadn’t been followed. He set to making a fire and skinning the snake, slicing the meat into finger-length strips, and then cooked the flesh in a small and near-smokeless blaze. He ate until he felt fat and bloated from the stringy meat and gathered a handful of acorns still clinging to the tree and cupped them between a set of limestone bricks that ringed the fire until the outsides of the nuts had seared. The roasted perfume reminded him of his youth and he peeled the largest of the acorns and bit into it, finding it sour and tough. He finished it for the nourishment and pocketed the rest.
He limped around the camp to keep the blood flowing regular and he found a snapped bough nearby that split at the ends. He inserted the sheath of the knife into the split and held the blade out into the fire until it glowed whiteyellow around the edges. He hopped back to the saddle and took out a small tin flask and sloshed it around. It was nearly empty and he took it back to the fire and opened the tear in his trousers wider with his hands, pouring the liquid over his wound and he growled at the twinge. The knife had cooled some and clenching his teeth he began digging into the flesh of his thigh until he had carved his way around the expanse of the lodged cartridge and he began prying the thing up until it popped out like a cherry pit.
Night had settled fast on the rangeland and he began to feel the faint of darkness approach him like a train. He picked up the crinkled shell and examined it and chucked it out into the brush. He then rewrapped his leg and piled a mound of sand on the fire to squash it out and he dropped into a deep and senseless sleep.
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