The rattling of the heavy vehicle over the dirt road notwithstanding, Galen and Maria—that’s what he had taken to calling her, although he had no idea if this was correct—had been riding in silence.
She had not been able to make any indication to the contrary. Her last sound came when she had been quite near death. In her delirium approached a specter in bloody and torn clothing. With the sun to his back, he indeed appeared to be a space ringed with a bright halo of light—an angel, come to take her to heaven. Upon this, she audibly accepted her mortal fate.
But instead of ascending with her up into the sky, the specter knelt down on the ground and forced her mouth open with one hand and into it emptied the contents of a paper cartridge with the other. The black powder burned her mouth Her body bucked uncontrollably trying to purge the awful contents, but Galen kept a hand sturdily clamped over her lips to prevent her from prematurely spitting out what he had put in there.
“This is gonna prevent infection,” he repeated, not knowing if she could even understand him, whether they were separated linguistically or traumatically. He finally let her spit out the hastily conceived preventative. There was no further fight. Mercifully, within minutes she passed out from the pain.
Unsure if he had inadvertently pushed her over the threshold of death, Galen put his ear to her breast and listened for a heartbeat. When he brought his face against her chest and a shallow pulse, he noticed how warm she felt.
He lifted her up and carried her back to the wagon. Galen marveled at how light she felt, her body as slack as a rag doll. Placing her in the back of the wagon, he quickly lifted and moved the man the brothers killed into the woods. Her husband or not, she did not need to wake to that sight. Galen hitched up the remaining horse. At first the creature startled, but as Galen put his hand out to let the nag sniff it, he gained the horse’s immediate trust.
With both horses harnessed, Galen rode to pick up Blue and tethered him to the back of the wagon. Of course, the old thing hadn’t moved more than an inch from where Galen left him. Galen took checked the sun and headed east. The pace was slow—partly due to the old burro Galen refused to leave behind, but mostly because if the trailhead reappeared, he didn't want to miss it. Despite the laggard rate, Galen's feet were grateful for the respite.
During the first few hours he repeatedly stopped to check on Maria, who remained thankfully comatose; she’d surely awake to a world of ineffable pain.
As night began to fall, Galen found a clearing where he could safely build a fire and make camp. In the back of the wagon he found a blanket to put over the still-unconscious Maria. He also found clothing and food— what had to have been the extent of Maria and her presumable husband’s worldly possessions. It seemed to Galen as if the pair was off to make a new life.
Among the clothes, Galen found a shirt, which he reluctantly used to replace his current, bloody one. Galen’s mind quickly shot back to the final scene in the woods: paralyzed and mute, Harley had attempted to crawl into the woods, using just his arms to pull his useless legs. Galen placed Maria’s husband directly in the hillbilly’s path, giving the dying man full view of the Mexican man he and his brothers murdered in cold blood.
After he buttoned the dead man’s shirt, Galen grabbed a new pair of pants as well. Luckily, he had lost some weight since beginning his journey.
Galen fed the horses with handfuls of oats from a sack found in the back of the wagon; Blue, however, rejected the offering. Galen reckoned the old beast had grown used to a diet of jerky—a sorry fact for the both of them, since, because of Blue, he’d run out. He tied the horses up for the night and left Blue to wander, knowing the poor old thing wouldn’t stray too far.
After making a small fire, Galen finally sat and immediately felt the exhaustion closing in. In truth, he wasn’t sure how many times he could go through days like today; he knew, however, that his path would not be so cleanly completed, however.
Indeed, each return from the darkness left Galen just a little skewed—his journey a little offset from its previous course. As he was coming to comprehend—albeit incompletely—each return from the darkness resulted in slightly altered memories. Of course, he had no way to confirm that his current memories weren’t his previous memories, but this explanation was the only one he had for the time it took him to resituate himself in his own mind. As far as he could guess, some things would be forgotten and others revealed from the obscured uncertainty of the past. He still had no idea, however, what original past was that which was continually re-tooled and resituated.
It was the metal clang that woke him up. A jarring noise one could never forget—for what it signified, or more precisely, what it signified about for its listener, was dire. So Galen had no choice—his instincts caused him to shoot upright when he heard the unmistakable sound of his jail door closing.
Galen found himself back in the stuffy jail cell in Sagebrush, Texas—disturbed from slumber in the middle of the night.
Standing before him, visible in the thin light of the moon shining through the barred window of his cell, was a tall man whose eyes only were illuminated. The gaze that was both cold and clear—like the sight of a star in the winter night.
“You the undertaker?” Galen said from his haze. “'Cuz some other man already come and measure me for—”
Galen stopped. He was suddenly aware that the man was asking him a question, although his mouth never moved, nor had any sound been made since that of the cell door.
“I didn't mean to fall asleep. I just—” Galen said, his voice trailing off when the man interrupted. Though he still didn't speak, Galen could hear the man's voice—that of a country rube—in his head.
“I don't underst— Yes, I know what day tomorrow is. I'm ready to go to the gallows,” Galen answered. “I'm quite tired.”
The man gave no reaction. His unwavering gaze continued to dissect Galen.
“Do I know you?” Galen finally asked, inching closer to dread. “I don't understand what you’re asking,” Galen responded to the voice in his head.
The question came to Galen once more.
“Of course I know who I am. But you still haven't told me who you a—” he answered though cut off again.
“I don't understand what you're say—”
“I'm Galen Altos!” he finally shouted. He covered his ears, but the inquisition continued.
“I don't understand! I told you: I am Galen Altos!”
“What do you mean ‘before that’? Before what?”
Galen shook his head. “I've always been Galen Altos!” he cried. “I don't understand! Before what?”
With that the man's mouth opened slightly, his thin lips breaking into a cruel grin.
If I could only place why this man seems so familiar, Galen thought, amidst the invasive voice.
But the real truth eluded Galen's memory; the smooth timbre of the voice had begun to have a hypnotic effect on Galen, clouding his faculties.
If you only knew who I was, you’d realize how very mistaken you are, he heard the voice whisper in his mind.
The man chuckled from deep back in his throat. Galen could very much hear it with his own ears.
Feeling the stab of anger in his heart, Galen lunged off the bed and at his tormentor, but when he went to wrap his arms, he got nothing but air—for the man who had come to visit him had vanished like a wisp of smoke. Galen opened his eyes to find the sun shining through the bars of his window. He sat up, puzzled after what he figured was another in a series of nightmares. From outside came the sound of a public gathering—something he hadn’t heard in his entire three-week stay in his cell. But it wasn’t until he peered through the bars that he realized the gathering was at the foot of the gallows over-looking his hold.
No sooner had he turned away from the window then the front door of the Sheriff’s office opened. Entering behind the stone-faced sheriff Overton was the rail thin deputy Kentuck holding a pair of old manacles, grinning.
“Time to go,” growled Overton.
As they led him out to the gallows, Galen kept his head low, for he was too tired to stare back into the eyes of townsfolk who’d come to watch him hang just for sport. The crowd parted, and Galen was all too aware of the murmurs and hissing. The family of the man he’d accidentally killed had obviously come to pay their last respects to the condemned.
Galen climbed the steps very slowly—not out of fear, but because Overton held him back by his cuffed hands to milk every last second of the spectacle. Once on the platform, Overton dramatically read the sentence. “Today, on the twenty-third of June, the year of our Lord eighteen hundred and fifty, we are meting out this punishment of an eye for an eye—as was the way God had justified in the Bible.” The Sheriff’s words were met with nodding heads of unspoken assent.
No blindfold was offered, nor was the opportunity for last words; instead, the ten-strand hemp noose was placed around Galen’s neck. Galen looked up. His worst fears were confirmed: the rope was indeed short. There would definitely be no quick neck break for him; he was going to dangle and dance for the crowd’s delight. He promised himself to let loose and give them a good show.
Overton nodded to Kentuck, who put his hand on the lever for the trapdoor under Galen’s feet. It was not until this moment that Galen finally looked at those folks staring so intently back at him. Men, women, and children—some whom he imagined had traveled to town for this very occasion, their faces hungry for the excitement they’d been promised.
And it was there among these people that Galen saw him—the man who visited like a wraith in the dead of night before disappearing in smoke.
Suddenly Galen realized where he had seen that face. His chest tightened—for the man standing before him, the man who spoke in the accent of a southern gentleman, was the very same man who appeared in Galen's new nightmare of the burning church; the very same man who, in the midst of the flames and those dying around them, addressed him not as Galen but as Brother Thomas.
The world dropped before his eyes as he plummeted downward, the rope pulling taut. Galen’s head jerked upwards, his body downwards, and his windpipe collapsed, suffocating him. The muscles in his neck tensed and burned like fire. Galen squeezed his eyes shut only to hear the man’s voice again. Galen’s legs kicked uselessly under him, trying to fight off the inevitable. With every last bit of effort, he forced his lids to open, though the pressure in his head made his eyes feel like they would explode. Again he saw the man, this time draped in a halo of light, wings coming from his back. No one else seemed to take notice.
The man spoke without uttering a sound; it was a distinct warning. “The Coyote is coming, Galen. Today I flee, but tomorrow you must find me before it’s too late.”