He swung out of the saddle of his big Appaloosa with a smooth, cat-like ripple in muscle and sinews, reaching for the long barreled Sharps 44-40 caliber rifle at the same time. In the dry dust of the open prairie heavy Spanish spurs jingled as he gripped the rifle in one hand and used the sleeve of the old cotton shirt of the other arm to wipe sweat from his brow.
The large horse, long used to her master, bent down and began munching on the burnt grass of the high plains. The man underneath the wide brimmed, battered looking Confederate cavalry hat eyed the horse once and grinned. The damn horse was smarter than he was. It was she who found the buffalo trail and began following them while he swayed back and forth in the saddle half asleep. It was she who came up down wind from the herd slow and easy like and then snorted just loud enough to wake him.
Dammit. The horse was not only smarter. It was a better tracker as well.
Underneath the hot July sun he turned and gazed off into the distance and eyed the small herd of buffalo milling around feeding a thick carpet of prairie grass. At least 1000 hundred yards away he figured. The blur of black bodies shimmering and dancing in the heat and haze of mid afternoon. The heat and haze would make it a tough shot. Judging distance through the dancing mirage of the summer’s heat was always difficult. But there was no breeze. It was just too damn hot for anything else to be moving around out here. No breeze meant the shot would be a little easier to make. Maybe. If he could knock down the big bull leading the heard with one shot everything else would fall in place.
Back in camp the boys laying track for the new railroad branch leading down to Denver would have fresh meat tonight. If he and his boys could knock down five or six big animals and skin’em, and butcher’em before nightfall. Running a dirty hand across his lips speculatively, narrowing his eyes, he turned his head to peer off to his right. Just topping a hill on the rolling plains were two tiny specks. Maybe two . . . three miles away. His boys. A couple of Chinese cooks and two old Mexican muleskinners who came along to help him dress out the game he knocked down. A messy, bloody, thankless task. But one which required him to do his end of the business first.
Flipping up the blade sights of his rifle he found a flat rock lying on the ground which would be the perfect rifle rest for his shooting. Kneeling to one knee in the hot dust of the open plains he slowly unwound his long frame onto the ground and rested the heavy Sharps onto the rock and reached out with a hand to adjust the rifle’s tall sights for the right yardage. Head above the gun sights he eyed the lay of the ground. A gently down hill slope stretched out between him and the buffalo. Half smiling to himself he lowered his face down to place a cheek against the wood of the rifle stock and peered through the sights at his target.
And grunted in surprise.
The two pale white, translucent, figures were on their knees in the dirt half way between himself and his first target. Maybe five hundred yards directly in front of him. A Nokoni Comanche warrior and his squaw. Yet . . . not Nokoni Comanche. At least . . . not a living Nokoni Comanche.
Ghosts. Both kneeling. Both with their heads down and almost touching their chests. Both obviously weeping in pain and agony.
He frowned. Frowned, but not the least bit surprised. Ghosts. Weeping. Out here in the vast sweeping plains filled with nothing but burnt grass, waves or rolling heat, and buffalo. He knew they were ghosts because he could look through their slightly warped and wavering forms and see the buffalo on down range.
Lifting his head he stared off toward the buffalo but saw nothing of the ghostly pair. Lowering his head he used one eye to stare through the gun sights again. And again saw Comanche warrior and squaw on their knees in the dust, their hands clasped together in front of them now, their heads lowered to their chests. And weeping. Their bodies visibly wracked with pain as they wept.
Lifting his head again he stared off toward the buffalo and paused, his dirty, unshaven face settling into a thoughtful mask. And then, his face turning into a smear of irritation, he sighed heavily, shook his head, and slowly climbed to his feet again. Cradling the heavy Sharps into one arm he turned walked back to his mount, spurs jingling loudly in the hot air.
“Come on, girl. Let’s go see what the hell’s going on,” he said softly as the Appaloosa lifted her head and flared her nostrils inquisitively.
Across the rolling plains horse and rider rode. It did not take long. Slipping down into a low gully the two came slowly up a gentle rise toward the top of a hill before the big boned horse pulled up sharply. He glanced forward, eyes narrowed, and saw the grisly sight lying half covered in the ground. Bones. Human bones. Along with the cloth and leather remnants of clothing a Comanche man and woman might have worn. Rolling out of his saddle, the Sharps rifle back in its saddle holster, the tall man stepped away from his mount and began walking toward the bones. As he did he reached behind him and pulled out an ancient looking weapon from the back of his gun belt and gripped it firmly. It had a long curved oak handle and an old iron, but razor sharp, axe blade cleaved into the end of the handle. The handle was decorated with odd looking but colorful symbols. And four long, hoary old Crow feathers dangled from it from leather thongs.
It was not a weapon normally found on the high plains. No Comanche, Sioux, or Apache warrior carried a weapon of this design. This war axe was old. Very old. Far older than the man who gripped it tightly in his right hand. Far older even than the man’s great grandfather who took it away from an Iroquois medicine man back before the American Revolution. Nevertheless, in the hands of the man Fate had touched even before his birth, the ancient Iroquois war-axe was a powerful weapon.
It was a weapon filled with magic. Ancient . . . long forgotten magic. Magic powerful enough to summon ghosts. Or hurl the supernatural wraiths back beyond the veil which separated the Living from the Dead.
Wife! the male of the two hissed, coming to his feet hurriedly and reaching out to touch the shoulder of his grieving wife as he watched the tall man approach. He sees us! This hunter sees us!
The woman, still beautiful in a plain way even in death, came to her feet and turned to face the approaching man.
What shall we do, husband? We cannot run. We cannot leave our children!
We will stand our ground, wife. There is nothing this hunter can do to us. Our fates have been written. It cannot be changed.
The tall hunter came to a halt in front of the ghosts and eyed them cautiously. The power talisman of the Iroquois war-axe in his right hand he first eyed the ghostly couple in front of him and then dropped his gaze to the ground and eyed the collection of bones half buried in the dust. The bones told a grim tale. A horrible tale. A tale of senseless slaughter of an entire family by someone . . . or something . . . which had long past what could be called human.
I am called Jeremiah Pitt. My ancestors are both White and Indian. My Indian ancestors are mostly Mohawk and Onondagas. They lived beyond the Great River to the east of us. My White ancestors were famous Puritan witches and warlocks of old. Hunters of the Dark Magic, one and all. I see, sister and brother, you still mourn for you children. Is there anything I can do?
The ghostly couple looked hopefully at each other and reached for each other’s hand to clasp as they turned to look at the hunter again.
The monster took our children’s souls. He killed us all with his powerful hands and then somehow reached out and ripped from us our children’s spirits and rode off into the sunset. Can you find them for us, Hunter? Can you bring our children back to us so that, together, we can journey beyond the great divide?
Pitt turned and looked off toward the west and narrowed his eyes thoughtfully. Toward the sunset. What kind of monster was powerful enough to steal souls? Even more curious . . . why, apparently, only the souls of children? He did not know the answers. But something deep inside him stirred. The voices of his Mohawk and Onondagas . . . powerful medicine men and warriors all . . . along with his Puritan forefathers . . . stirred deep in his subconscious. They were telling him he had to hunt. To hunt and rescue the souls of the children.
The eyes of a relentless hunter returned his gaze back to the grieving parents.
I will bring them back to you, brother. If they and this creature who keeps your children captive can be found, I will find them. This I promise.
Without saying another word he turned and walked back to his big Appaloosa and swung into the saddle. Galloping across the rolling plains he pulled up beside the lumbering wagon and his comrades and told him he would be gone for a few days. Handing them the big Sharps .50 and a full ammo belt, he waved, and wheeled the big Appaloosa around and galloped off into the west with thundering hooves.