Galen spread on the ground staring up into the morning sky while he replayed the scene in his head. It hadn't been a dream—this much was certain. Never mind that this scene felt heavy—like a weight; that it felt at all was enough to concern Galen. What he'd seen was a dormant memory, a fragment unearthed in the shifting sands of his mind, as if dug up by an accidental explorer. Over and over, he was able to replay each moment of his incarceration—every sleepless night in that stuffy cell; every beating at the hands of Kentuck and the fat sheriff. All of it led to his trip to the gallows, his short, five-foot drop, and slow, agonizing strangle. As it did each time, the memory of Sagebrush ended moments after he had seen the man with the charred wings and the dire warning had been delivered. Galen remembered the pain he felt—the unrelenting pressure of asphyxiation exploding behind his eyes each time that trapdoor opened beneath his feet.
What it truly meant, though, was the fine folks of Sagebrush had made good on their promise to execute him.
The day I woke up in the cell. Something hit him. It couldn’t have been the day of his hanging, as he originally thought, but a day or more later. Though he had no memory of it, Galen reckoned they must have taken his dead body back to the jail while the entire town celebrated—just waiting until someone was sober enough to bury him. He remembered what he'd seen: the mangled and bloodied bodies of every adult and child who had been freshly slaughtered.
Whoever had done this had come in a large pack, he thought.
Who or what?
The thought bothered him greatly because, in the recesses of his mind, this memory was somehow connected to something he was unable to see—a mist beyond his grasp.
He was able to finally admit something, however—something had become clear. He had purposely stopped to help Maria; he had deliberately delayed his journey.
Nevertheless, he thought that Maria was more than his conscious will manifest; this woman, he reckoned, had been put in his path for a reason. He’d been given the choice to intervene or walk away, and, at his own peril he chose the former. Whether it was a test or not, he now believed that ensuring this Mexican woman’s survival was a key to his journey.
Is it selfish to offer up a selfless act for this reason? He wondered. Is it too late to buy my salvation?
Suddenly, and with a loud crash, Galen’s mind was torn away when the wooden gate on the wagon fell open. Maria had awoken in the back, disoriented and in tremendous pain, her foot finding the door. He ran to the back to check on her; Maria’s expression changed from relief to horror when she realized that the man in her husband’s clothing wasn’t her husband. Her mental capacities came rushing back, and she screamed from her butchered mouth, remembering what had just happened. She remembered how the hillbillies had ambushed them. She remembered how they had dragged her husband from the wagon and how two of them held him down on the dirt by his shoulders while the third cut his throat with a large well-worn blade.
Galen came to her; first, she shoved him away, punching at him. He did not try to block her hysterical swinging blows, but instead drew closer until she fell sobbing into his arms.
It was when he put his cheek against her forehead that he felt the intense fever burning her up.
Maria laid down in the wagon and sobbed herself back into unconsciousness. Galen harnessed up the two horses, intending to look for a town of some kind—hopefully one that had a doctor. He climbed into the driver’s seat and picked up the reins.
Blue, he thought. The deaf and mostly blind creature was nowhere in sight. Galen reckoned the old thing wandered off and passed away in its sleep. In a way it was a relief—mostly because Galen realized he would have had to leave old Blue behind on account of how he'd been slowing them down. If Maria had some kind of infection, as her fever indicated, every minute would count.
He took the reins and nervously pointed the cart eastward. In truth, Galen had no idea what state or territory they were in—or how far away the next town would be.
As Galen pushed forward, the woods began to thin and the ground to rise until there was nothing above his head except sun and air. The forest had opened up into a half-mile wide corridor lined with trees. And though the woods seemed to thicken on either side of him, what lay ahead appeared to be a clear path.
For the next two hours he coaxed the horses up a hill, noticing its rise was growing steeper, until he found himself at the top of a fairly large gorge.
Below him another forest spread as far as the eye could see, the leafy green canopy headed all the way to the horizon. From his many travels, Galen knew the country had been carpeted with these thick ancient woods.
To the north, he spotted a thin plume of smoke several miles off. He squinted and looked again, catching at least two more smoky plumes—telltale indications of a settlement or town. Galen's eyes darted back and forth, scanning the woods for a thin break in the tree line, a trail headed directly toward those fires.
The trail, Galen thought.
But where was the way down into those woods several hundred feet below? It had to be here somewhere.
He kept looking from the rim of the gorge into the basin; nowhere in sight was there a way down. Galen scratched his head. Suddenly, from his right, he heard a noise, causing him to draw one of his Colts before turning to the noise. It was the rustling of feet, and it came again; Galen drew the second gun, thumbing back both hammers simultaneously. He took a breath and held it to keep his aim steady, set to fire as soon as something appeared. The rustling grew closer still and as Galen tensed his fingers on the triggers ready to fire…
“Blue?” Galen asked, stunned to see the animal he’d thought dead. Its body was unmistakable.
Blue stepped right up to Galen and licked his hand—the typical indication that Blue wanted jerky.
“Sorry, old pal—I don't have any,” Galen apologized...
He looked back to where Blue had emerged; there was the trailhead.
Galen took another look at the burro. Given the pace Blue walked, the old fleabag had to have left camp last night to get here.
“Blue!” Galen shouted right into the burro's ear. Just a test; Blue didn’t respond, let alone startle. Galen reached down and scratched the burro between the ears before tying Blue's lead to the back of the wagon. Maria was still asleep. Galen reached over to put a hand on her forehead, but her fingers shot out and wrapped around his wrist like a steel trap. Instantly, her eyes opened wide, full of hate and anger. Her mouth, still encrusted with the dried blood and mucus, parted and—from untold, preverbal depths within her throat—came a hiss.
That hiss evaporated into a deep and growling whisper. “We shall live in His house. We shall live in His name. We shall live in His house. We shall live—” The whisper from Maria's throat faded away, as did her grip on his arm. Slowly, her eyes closed and her body relaxed, resuming the heavy breathing of sleep.
Galen watched her chest rise up and down to make sure she was indeed alive. “In His name,” He said to himself. “In His name.”
Galen spent most of the remaining daylight navigating the two-horse wagon down the serpentine path cut into the woods by the gorge. After one sharp turn, he spied what looked like trouble ahead: a thick deadfall obstructing the way down.
With the path so narrow, there would be no way to turn the wagon around. Galen cursed himself for not walking the trail first.
Through the brush, Galen could swear he was being watched. There were no sounds, making it that much more foreboding.
For the first time, Galen felt the horses become scattered in their focus; he was not the only one getting spooked by this dark and uneasy trail. Spotting a slight opening, Galen carefully drove through, its edges brushing lightly against the side of the wagon, which barely made it through.
Moments after he’d gone through the opening, he looked back; again, it appeared to be an impassable wall of forest debris.
Just a trick of the light, Galen assured himself. That’s all.
As he reached the bottom of the basin, the woods gave way to a clear-cut path—obviously some kind of road.
Galen held his hand to the sky; the sun was exactly four fingers width above the horizon. He knew that meant he had, at best, another hour of daylight. He pushed onward knowing it would be tough on Blue—but Galen aimed to get to that settlement tonight.
But will the dark keep away that which you may find out here? He wondered.
As he had first seen from the rim of the gorge, the road was a straight shot leading into the settlement Galen grew uneasy; the last time he’d been around a lot of people, he ended up dangling from a noose—and they ended up brutally slaughtered.
If Maria hadn’t been in such dire need of medical attention, he would have turned the wagon back—even risking the climb up the gorge path. But he couldn’t just leave her; she was dying and needed any help she could get.
She was most likely to die anyway, he tried to justify. But at the very least he had to try, he knew.
The closer he got, the clearer it became that he was coming up on a well-populated town. As the night slipped in all around him, he could see the dim firelight of their camps glowing, first as pinpricks in the distance.
As he got within a half mile, he could even hear voices, laughs, and rowdy shouts punctuating the otherwise silent night.
And then he blinked in disbelief, trying to verify what he saw. In the shadow there were two eyes glowing in the moonlight coming toward him.