That orange ball of fire hung in the sky, having just risen only hours earlier. Galen scratched his beard; the growth on his face itched like mad. He'd let the beard sprout over the last two months for no other reason than he'd come to consider himself a different person. Truth was, though, that he had begun the exile from himself a long time ago.
While he had sat in a cramped and fetid cell in a small town whose name he could now no longer remember, he recalled being repeatedly referred to as the “Stranger.” It was a moniker that had stuck, even though at the time of his arrest he gave his name as something even different than his previous—then current—alias of “Tom Holt”. That false name eventually escaped him as the townsfolk came by to gawk at the condemned man, referring to him by his nickname. His true name and identity would die on the gallows, he reckoned, as he now assumed the “Stranger.”
Blue followed closely behind as Blue tended to do, wandering no further than a half dozen paces back, often bumping his wet nose disgustingly against Galen's left hand.
Galen had come to accept this somewhat bothersome behavior, figuring it to be the only way the burro knew to get around; its failing eyes were going the way of its failed ears.
“Time has not been kind to either of us,” Galen said out loud to the burro.
Galen had not seen another human being for nearly a month, the last being a group of families headed west along this trail to satiate their lust for gold. His contact with them was brief, lasting only a few hours while they swapped traveling conditions. Galen had little to tell, since he himself had only been on this particular trail since leaving Texas. The traveling group's leader, a stout man named Lindstrom, had inquired about conditions west of the Rockies and the land’s passability come later months. Galen responded that he did not know—and wondered moments later why he had lied.
They shared a meal together before going their respective ways and, as the Lindstrom party departed, Galen watched the sullen and haggard faces on some of the women and children, knowing they had no idea how much more trying their journey would become.
The story Galen had not shared with the Lindstroms was that of the Donner party. The Donners, another family stricken with the “westering fever” of the last decade, became snowbound in the Sierra Nevadas and, to stay alive, resorted to cannibalism. Galen had served with several men who had been part of the Army rescue team sent to find the Donners’ campsite—men who told stories of finding piles of gnawed boned cut with human teeth marks before into the eyes of the survivors who consumed the human flesh of their own family members in order to stay alive. Galen spared the Lindstroms this grisly tale for fear of terrifying the weary travelers—a courtesy he, himself, had not received.
Galen often wondered about the Lindstroms and hoped they were still surviving their journey, though the conditions of the trail often worked against larger groups moving slowly. Groups who were easy prey for the many predators on the path—predators who spent their waking hours lying in wait for throats to slit.
Shortly after the sun reached its peak in the midday sky, Galen came upon a wooded bluff, being extra careful to yank on the rope around Blue's neck to keep the nearly blind burro from going over the edge.
“Whoa there,” Galen told Blue, staring over the hilly terrain below the rim. He unslung his waterskin and took a sip. The view was magnificent, but from this elevation the path seemed to wind on forever without end, disheartening Galen. His journey had barely begun and he could already feel the toll it was taking on his body. He needed a horse, but dared not consider trying to steal another given the last time he ended up rotting in a Texas jail.
Perhaps there are worse things than dying, he thought. Given the choice between the gallows and what he feared lay ahead, Galen wasn't quite sure which was preferable.
The road broke off in the woods sometime late in the day. The Lindstroms had mentioned this possibility, citing to heavy rains and other travelers’ search for the shortcut, causing them to forsake—and not further beat—the beaten path. Galen sighed and pulled Blue along as he looked for another fresh trailhead.
He spotted fairly recent ruts in the dirt from another wagon. “What do you think?” he asked Blue who, as usual, gave no response.
Now you have yourself talking to a deaf burro, Galen thought.
From the look of the tracks, there had been more than one wagon. Galen knelt down and ran his hand over the ruts; though not a tracker, he reckoned they were very fresh. He began to relish the possibility of catching up with whoever it was. Human conversation would be nice—as would a cup of fresh, hot coffee.
It was sunset and Galen still hadn’t found where the trail picked up, nor had he any sign of the travelers whose wagon tracks he’d been following through the woods. His feet ached and he sat on a rock to take off his boots, which were now falling apart after weeks of abusive walking. At some point they’d have to be replaced, which meant going into a town—which meant deciding whether or not to drink whiskey. He couldn’t even remember the last time the thought of a drink had even crossed his mind—a though that now raced as he sat there looking at his worn out boot. He took the other boot off and placed them on the ground before walking barefoot back to Blue. He unstrapped the saddlebags from Blue’s back; even without the bags, the curvature of the ancient burro’s back made old Blue look as if he was still carrying a heavy burden. Galen hunted around inside his bag and pulled out a hunk of jerky, which Blue noisily began eating.
Running low on food, too, Galen thought as he dug for the last pieces of jerky. He’d have to do something about that as well. From what he could see, hear, and smell, there was definitely plenty of game in these woods.
Blue tied up not far behind, Galen crept through the woods looking for jackrabbit, a Dragoon at the ready, the other in its holster. The thought of one roasting over a small fire made his mouth water. If he were lucky enough to get two, he’d treat Blue to something other than jerky. He crouched behind the trunk of a fallen tree and waited.
He saw the white jack enter the small clearing, completely unaware it was being hunted. With a steady hand, Galen lined up the rabbit in the sights of the pistol. Galen waited, inhaled quietly, and started to squeeze the trigger when he heard the scream of a woman coming from—what seemed like—not too far away.
Galen began running toward the sound, receiving further direction from a second scream coming from just over a rise above him. Quietly, he scrambled up the hill, pistol in hand. Once more he heard it, though this time cut it off in mid-scream. Now Galen could hear other voices—those of men, yelling.
“I tole you to shet up!” yelled one.
Galen crawled on his chest to the top of the hill and peered over into a clearing. Standing fifty feet away, his hair-covered back to Galen, was a shirtless hillbilly—his gut hanging over the top of his pants, one hand holding a knife, the other clutching a bloody pink ribbon of flesh. Below him, on the ground, lay a fragile-faced, brown-skinned woman—her dress torn open and hiked up past her thighs—who was being viciously raped by a second similar looking hillbilly. His large pale white ass pumped back and forth with every grunt he made.
Galen turned away, unsure of what to do. He squeezed his eyes shut and rubbed the barrel of the Colt against his right temple.
Damnit. From this distance he could hear the one with the knife encouraging the rapist. “Do it! Do it!” he brayed, his voice taking an excitedly high pitch.
Galen took a deep breath. After Sagebrush, he never wanted to take a human life ever again.
He took a peek toward the sky. “I'm sorry,” he muttered under his breath before turning and dashing toward the hillbillies, Colt firing. The hillbillies looked up, stunned. Galen's heart pounded wildly as his first two shots went far wide. The third and fourth found their mark in the ribcage of the fat hillbilly lying on top of the woman. The one with the knife found his feet fast enough to begin running, leaving his accomplice behind. Galen emptied his revolver at the escaping hillbilly, half-heartedly firing in his direction without actually aiming.
He holstered the weapon and turned back to the woman but, as he took his first step, he saw the ribbon of flesh that the escaped hillbilly must have dropped. Galen stopped, instantly recognizing it: a tongue.
Immediately Galen understood why her last cry for help had cut off mid-scream.
He looked toward the woman—sure she was dead. But she turned her head toward him and coughed up a large, messy mouthful of blood. Her face was turning purple.
She was suffocating under the dying weight of the obese rapist.
Galen rushed to her side. With his boot, he rolled him off of her, allowing her to immediately gulp for air. The hillbilly moaned, blood pumping from his bullet wounds. He looked up at Galen, eyes wide in terror.
“Help me,” he gasped.
Galen looked down at the rapist, his dirty dungarees pulled down below his knees, revealing his filthy, pathetic, and shriveled prick. Galen reached into the small leather ammo bag slung around his neck, withdrew a percussion cap, and placed it on the cylinder nipple of the only unfired chamber of the Colt. As a precaution, he’d been taught to leave one uncapped to prevent accidental discharges; there would be nothing accidental about this. Galen aimed the gun between the dying hillbilly’s eyes and fired the round into his skull.
Galen holstered the again empty Colt and knelt down next to the woman. He turned her head to drain the blood that was pooling to prevent her from suffocating. He looked back toward her severed tongue and wondered if he was going to watch her die.
She was obviously Mexican—or at least of Mexican decent. Galen began to wipe the tears streaming from her eyes.
“It’s going to be okay,” he said, fairly certain he was lying.
From her mouth came a series of sounds as she tried to speak. Without a tongue, her words were unintelligible at best.
“Shhh,” Galen commanded. “Don’t try to talk.” He wanted her to conserve her strength, but she began pointing back to the woods in the direction of the escaped hillbilly. She spat out another mouthful of blood and hysterically gestured again at the woods.
“I... I can’t understand you,” Galen said, frustrated.
What she was trying to communicate became very clear the moment gunshots rang out from the woods, bullets flying in their direction.
The rider had come a long way to Kansas City. He had endured quite a bit to get here, but as he entered the town he suddenly felt refreshed, invigorated. He had memorized the address of his destination and found it without trouble. He stopped his horse at the waterfront house and dismounted. Squaring his shoulders, he approached the mansion’s door and knocked—loudly.
When Dunburton opened the door, he was only slightly surprised to see his old charge standing before him.
“Major Dunburton,” Cyril spoke, clicking his heels together and saluting.
Dunburton returned the salute and smiled.
“Please, come in,” the banker said. “I’ve been expecting you.”