an excerpt from
THE DROP EDGE OF YONDER
The winter that Zebulon set his traps along the Gila River had been colder and longer than any he had experienced, leaving him with two frostbitten toes, an arrow wound in his shoulder from a Crow war party and, to top it all off, the unexpected arrival of two frozen figures stumbling more dead than alive into his cabin in the middle of a spring blizzard.
Rather than waking him, the cold blast of wind from the open door became part of a recurrent dream: a long endless fall through an empty sky towards a storm-tossed sea… Come closer, the towering waves howled, closer to…
He opened his eyes, not sure for a moment if the man and woman staring back at him weren’t hungry ghosts. Frost clung to their eyebrows and nostrils and their swollen faces were raw and crimson from the tree-cracking cold. The man wore a hard-brimmed top hat tied under his bearded chin with a long red scarf along with a buffalo robe coated with slivers of ice. The woman appeared to be a Shoshoni half-breed. She was wrapped inside a huge army overcoat distinguished by sergeant stripes at the shoulders and, at the chest, two bullet holes, one over the other.
The man sank to his knees, swearing and choking from the smoke pouring out of the cabin’s leaky fireplace and the overpowering stench of a nearby slop bucket. He spoke in a rasping whisper, as if his larynx had been smashed.
“I figured we be dead meat for sure until the breed told me you was camped on the Gila. She knows things that ain’t available to other mortals.”
The man was Lobo Bill, an old trapper and horse thief, known for his wide range of windy tales and maniacal rages that he had run into and away from in various saloons and hideouts from Tularosa to Cheyenne. When he removed his top hat, he exposed a face sliced on one side from cheek to jawbone, as if neatly quartered by a butcher’s knife.
Lobo Bill nodded towards the breed who was standing with her back to the wall, staring at Zebulon with huge empty eyes. “She ain’t one for words, but when she does open her flap, she packs a punch you don’t want to know about. Even so, I owe her. She saved my bacon when a wolverine took after me. Axed it into quarters, and sliced me up as well. I won her in Alamosa from a horse trader. A straight flush to his full house. A hand for the ages. She’s half Shoshoni, half Irish. Not Here Not There, is what I call her, and I’m favored to have her, things bein’ what they is these days, or ain’t, depending on which way the wind blows, and even if it don’t.”
Lobo Bill and Not Here Not There took off their clothes. After their bodies thawed out, they collapsed on a pile of bearskins near the fireplace.
Zebulon spent the rest of the night stoking the fire and drinking from one of his last bottles of Taos White Lightening; pondering Lobo Bill and all the other mountain lunatics he had known, and what he and they used to be, or not, and what he was meant to do, or be, depending on his view from the valley or mountaintop. It wasn’t so much that the old mountain ways were played out, although that day was coming. There was something else that Lobo Bill and his breed had brought in with them, a mysterious presence or shadow that he was unable to define. Or maybe it was just the sight of two strange and lost figures snoring on his bed.
It was dawn when the wind died, along with most of his premonitions, enough, anyway, to let him pass out next to his guests.
When he woke, a hard brittle light was splattering against the cabin walls. There was no sign of Lobo Bill. When he questioned Not Here Not There, she shook her head and rolled her eyes back and forth, which made him think that Lobo Bill had either gone off to find his mules and traps, or he had decided to skip out altogether. Around him, the cabin had been swept clean. The slop bucket had been emptied, his stock of flour, tobacco, whisky, coffee, and dried jerky were stacked neatly in one corner, and split logs were piled up on either side of the fireplace.
The extreme tidiness of the cabin, together with Not Here Not There’s sullen silence, made him uneasy, as if she were harboring secret thoughts or maybe, God help him, some ill-intentioned plan. Never mind, he thought. Whatever was meant to come would come, ready or not.
While they both waited for Lobo Bill to appear, Zebulon hunted for small game and prepared for the annual spring rendezvous by taking down and sorting the hundreds of muskrat and beaver pelts he had stashed in the crooks of several trees.
After three days, Lobo Bill still hadn’t returned. Most of the time, Not Here Not There sat on the bench outside the cabin, staring at the river and the dark blue ice that had begun to splinter into large moving cracks. In the evening she avoided looking at him as she cooked one of the rabbits he had shot. After they ate dinner, instead of retreating to the corner she had chosen to sleep in, she joined him near the fire. Looking at him with a sly grin, she took his bottle of Taos White Lightning from him and drained the rest of it, then swayed back to her place across the room.
That night he was woken by her long nails scratching lines of blood down his stomach and across his groin, a violent gesture which she repeated even as she pulled him inside her, locking her legs around his waist as if she wanted to break him in two.
For the rest of the night, she dictated their furious passion on her own insatiable terms. In the morning, she left the cabin without looking at him or saying a word.
Two days later, she returned in the middle of a thunderstorm. Standing before him, she looked into his eyes as he removed her clothes and positioned her over the table, pinning her arms above her head.
When the door opened, he was plunging on inside her, as if they had never been apart. When he became aware that Lobo Bill was standing above them with a raised hatchet, he decided that he might as well go out in the same way that he had been conceived. Part of him enjoyed the prospect, and he was damned if he was going to give Lobo Bill the satisfaction of an apology. He continued to thrust himself inside her with even more abandon, letting out a long mountain yell: “Waaaaaaaaagh!”
His fury broke the table, sending them both to the floor. Lobo Bill’s hatchet missed Zebulon’s skull by an inch and sliced a large hole in the middle of Not Here Not There’s stomach.
Before Lobo Bill could react, Zebulon reached for a pistol inside Lobo Bill’s belt and shot him between the eyes.
He sat on the floor, unable to move or speak, watching Not Here Not There stagger through the door.
When he finally went after her, she was standing naked on a slab of ice halfway into the river, her hands trying to hold back the blood oozing from her stomach.
“You killed the only man that ever cared for me,” she said. “And now you’ve killed me.”
It was the first words that he had heard her speak.
As the ice sank lower, carrying her downstream, and the black freezing water rose over her legs and hips, she called out to him again: “From now on, you will drift like a blind man between the worlds, not knowing if you’re dead or alive, or if the unseen world exists, or if you’re dreaming. Three times you will disappear to yourself, and all that you know, and three times you will–”
She said something more, but he was unable to hear the words as she slowly sank beneath the ice.
|Rudy Wurlitzer is Road Editor of Smoke Signals. A novelist (Nog, Quake, Flats, Slow Fade and The Drop, Edge of Yonder, essayist (Hard Travel To Sacred Places) and screenwriter of cult classics like Two Lane Blacktop, Pat Garrett & Billy The Kid, Candy Mountain, Walker and Little Buddha, among others, an excerpt from Slow Fade, his 1984 opus exploration of film biz hustlers riding the dharma trail originally appeared in the 1983 Unbraining issue, and can be found @ http://smokesignalsmag.com/7/?p=1894