The man expected death to be more absolute. One would think the line between the world of the flesh and the world of the damned to be more definite, more concrete. Yet no matter how hard his feverish brain tried to focus, it could not pinpoint the moment of his demise. He had to be dead though. Surely God would not make such a place on Earth. This had to be hell.
He limped silently along the badlands. The trail he left was that of a revenant's. Clear footprints on the right, a single long drag mark on the left. The blood that rolled down his leg hissed against the burning grains beneath him. His visage was that of a leper. No man, a wounded beast.
The left side of his face was gnashed and gnarled almost to the bone. The heat of this new injury mixed with the heat of the sun and the heat of his fevered brain to form an inferno of confusion. Flecks of lead shown from those wounds. Its dull cadence answering the sun's brilliant glow with its own muted shimmer. Below the ruined mask of flesh, he wore a ruined shirt. So blackened with sweat and dust and blood that it looked like the hide of a reptile. The left area above his hip was slick from a second wound, perhaps less grave, perhaps more.
He did not know how long he had been walking. Only that time passed. As the sun crept up to and eventually past its zenith, he became fairly sure that he was not dead. Despite this epiphany, his mind remained resolute in its blurred wandering. It would not travel to how he came to be here or even who he was. Instead, it roved and meandered in it's own limping gait. For a time he thought he was back East, at the country club with his father. He even turned to comment on the absurd heat but found his father absent. He started to look for him, to call out for him, but some slumbering, logical, area of his brain told him such an endeavor was useless.
As the sun set, he continued. Too tired and feverish to recognize the pain and thirst that racked his body. The cooling glow brought a new ghost to him now. Not his father, but his uncle Isaiah. As a child, Isaiah would take him and his Mother out into the harbor on his sailboat. They would spend hours there, sailing until the sun died and turned the world into a neverending gradient of orange and blue. The man talked to his uncle, but he knew not what words he spoke. The swaying of the ship was lulling him to sleep. He fell to his knees and collapsed into the sand.
The desert night was frigid. A dry cold that slowly fought against his fever. Coyotes howled. A lone scavenger, separated from his pack approached the man. The canine took a deep sniff against the pallid flesh of the man and then turned away. The man did not stir. His unconscious mind was elsewhere. Separated from his sickly body by many miles and many years.
He was back at the university. A book of naturalism lay open next to the works of Marsh upon a crooked table. The force of the blizzard rattled the shutters and glass of the window. Violence obscured by the tyrannical falling of snow. He was hunched over the small wood furnace of his dormitory, desperately trying to light a fire. The cold was immense, all-encompassing. It bit painfully at his face and left flank. With shaking hands, he scooped the kindling and dropped it upon the floor. Too weak.
He was there for a long time. Trying to light the fire. Slowly freezing to death. Finally, his spark struck true. A sliver of flame birthed a sliver of warmth. As the fire brightened his dark dwelling, The man heard a dark deep bellowing. At first, he thought it the wind, but again it bellowed, nay roared against the blizzard. He stood listening. Slowly he limped toward the frosted window. Why was he limping? Why did the cold bite of winter persist? Using the sleeve of his coat he wiped the glass portal and gazed out upon the university grounds. There he saw It.
It stood tall and solitary against the ice and snow. Steam rose from its nostrils. Warm. Alive. Its grey skin, strong, scaled, was near invisible against the morning's snow until sunlight lanced through the clouds and struck it. Its tail swayed in the wind, reminding him of a pine tree. Stiff yet whip-like. The beast lurched to the side and faced him. The snow weakened. Sunbeams fell upon the ground like arrows. Its two legs shifted the great weight of his girth, The neck, thick, muscled, hefted the head up and It looked at him. Its eyes were not the black and beady eyes of a lizard. They were blue. They were Human. It's face was almost mannish. Almost sapian. A cracked mirror.
It bellowed again, but the man realized that It was not alone in the hoarse chorus. He too had joined in Its mournful wail. They bellowed again. He began to sweat. The snow had stopped. It was melting before his eyes. The heat. God the heat. They bellowed. Was the dormitory a blaze? Was he burning? They bellowed. Where was he? Who was he? They Bellowed.
The man opened his eyes and glared at the morning sun. Gone were the snows and winds of his dreams. Yet the bellowing remained. It was deep. Primal. Guttural. But it came from no long dead beast. The sound came from him. The sound came out of pain. A deep ancient sound. A rumbling gurgle of anguish. He lay there for a long time. Moaning in pain. In a way, he was thankful for it. The freezing air of the desert night had broken his fever. The sharp, almost razor-like, pain that ravaged him helped him focus. With this focus came his being. His name was Leviticus Lowe. He was injured. He was alone. He was alive.
Forcefully he rolled himself onto his back and inspected his eyes. His left eye was invalid. A darkness hung to his peripheral. Nothing but black pain. His right eye strained under the burden of its new role as sole seer. The hurt was immense. Carefully he reached up and stroked his face. Feeling the injury with timid fingers. Next, he reached down on his flank and felt where the second barrel had unloaded into him. It was far more superficial but strangely more painful.
It had been his own sheer ignorance and negligence that saved him. Luke had shot him with his own scattergun. A beautiful thing his father had given him years ago. It had been the bane of many a flock of doves or quail, but never once had it been fired at a man. At least, until yesterday.
When Leviticus came west, he figured the danger to be greatly exaggerated. He refused to buy a six iron, stating his proficiency with the scattergun as an ample excuse. He never thought about which ammunition he brought along. All he ever used was birdshot, as all he ever shot was birds. It never occurred to him that such a round may not kill a man. It never occurred to him that such an action would be necessary, let alone that it would happen to him.
With great effort, he sat up. With a singular, teary eye he gazed upon his surroundings. The area was alien to him. Flat broken rock the color of pale wheat. Cracked earth, indistinguishable from the rock in all but texture, spread out in every direction. The sky, the color of old denim, shimmered in the heat. For the first time in hours, Leviticus recognized his thirst. For a moment it was so strong it overpowered the pain. His torso curled inward as his stomach cramped. This only irritated his wounds and caused the burning knives to stab him again.
He sat there for a long time. Not in a feverish haze but in consideration. He knew he was at least four miles from town, probably more depending on how far he wandered yesterday. He also knew that he had no chance of making it without water. Deciding to focus on one problem at a time, he removed the knife from his boot and stared into the blade. The distorted illusion of himself stared back from the reflection. He studied the image. Noting every line and break of his wound. He took his mirror by the hilt and began to scrape the sand stuck to his gore off as one would shave stubble. It was painful. The irritation caused flesh blood to flow, mixing with the sand and creating a muddy tincture that dripped from his face in dark clumps.
Using the tip of the knife he popped a dozen small grey beads of metal out of his wounds. The pain became unbearable as his work reached its conclusion. He dropped the blade out of frustration. It was well past noon now. His work had been long and soul-breaking. By the time he resolved his nerve and reenacted his pitiful surgery on his stomach, the sun was setting and he was convinced the water was a myth.
Delirium crept in once more. Not the foggy haze of fever but the slow creeping fog of dehydration. He could feel his mind slipping. It came back and It was not alone. A herd of the reptiles trampled around his broken body. Moving in great circles around him. Peering down upon him with their baby-like faces. One reached down and lifted him up from the cracked earth. Swaddled like a babe the beast held him to its scaly breast and nursed him.
But it was not milk or blood or honey that filled his mouth. It was water. Dusy, stale water. The sweetness of it jolted him back to reality. It was late at night, yet a small fire glowed beside him. Above his body stood an Indian. He was as weathered as the terrain. In his hands was a water skin, made from the stomach of some medium-sized game. He seemed unsurprised at Leviticus's waking. He merely lowered the waterskin and stared at him.
Leviticus stared back at the Indian. It was the first one he had ever seen. The creature above him looked nothing like the devils in the dime novels. He wore white man's clothes. A white man's gun was tucked into a white man's belt. The only indication as to his ethnicity was the shine of his skin and his ebony hair in the firelight. Leviticus had been excited to see Indians when he first left New England. Excited to see Buffalo. By the time he reached Missouri, he realized both species were near gone. By the time he finally entered Montana, he no longer mourned their loss.
He looked upon his savior and tried to speak, only the husk bellowing left his throat. More beast than man. He tried again. The bellowing turned into a croak then a squeak then into words.
"Water . . . please."
The Indian shook his head. "Your stomach is dry. Too much water will make you sick. Your sickness will dry what you have left and you will die."
Leviticus groaned. He tried to speak again but failed. He expected the Indian to comment on this but he did not. The cracked form only turned and faced the fire. Slowly, carefully, Leviticus propped himself up. The fire was burning an oily weed-like brush in a small pit. From a distance only the light was visible. No flames. No smoke.
"I was shot." Leviticus finally said. Interrupting the silence of the fire.
"Not well." The Indian answered.
Leviticus started to chuckle but stopped as the pain grew too sharp. The silence returned. Occasionally the Indian's hobbled painted mare would snort from the edge of the light, only for the emptiness to rush in once more.
"What is your name?" the white man asked
"Joshua." The Indian replied.
This took Leviticus aback. He thought to inquire but instead said "Why did you save me?"
"It was not my will for you to die," Joshua answered.
Silence returned. It hurt more than his wounds. "My foreman shot me." Leviticus began again. "He and my crew. We had a dig to the northeast. We found the motherload. I mean, the proverbial motherload . . . "
The Indian said nothing.
Leviticus felt odd after saying his story. Alien. They were not his words. Not his story. It had been his words and his story once. Not anymore. Shame. That was his feeling. He felt shame at his story. Shame at his willful ignorance of the harshness of this place.
He stared into the flames alongside the Indian. Thoughts racing back. Lucas had seemed uninterested with the smaller finds. Even bored. But the moment he read the excitement on Levitucs's face about It he understood It's worth. Understood that he needed It. Just as Leviticus had needed It.
The white man and the Indian sat in silence. For the first time, Joshua asked a question.
"Will you kill him?"
"I think so," Leviticus answered.
"You have never killed a man," Joshua said. It was not a question.
"I know death better than most." He answered.
The Indian said nothing.
Leviticus thought about his response. Those were harsh words but true words. New words. The words of the man he was, not the man he had once been.
The sun began to rise. The pair drank a thick broth boiled over the flames. It amplified his lucidity and his pain. Silently the Indian removed the pistol from his belt and handed it to Leviticus. It was an old cap and ball Colt. It's iron pitted. Its chamber smeared with pork fat.
"Their wagon is two miles north," Joshua said. "Their wagon broke a wheel yesterday and they refuse to leave their treasure. Take my horse. Do your business and return."
It took Leviticus a moment to process this. He wanted to question how the Indian knew this, yet he did not. He knew that the Indian knew, and that was enough. "You are placing a lot of faith in me. I could just steal your horse." Leviticus said.
"You won't," Joshua answered.
"I could die, then they will have your horse and your gun."
"It was not my will for you to die."
They both sat for a moment longer, then Leviticus stood and saddled the pony. The pain was incredible, As he flung his leg over the beast's back his world turned white, yet he mounted. He looked back at Joshua only once as he left. The Indian sat by the remains of the fire, disinterested, staring into the coals.
The ride seemed swift but he knew it to be much longer. He focused his thoughts inward. He had awoken and found himself a stranger. Everything was different. The boy from the East had died in the desert. He was scared of the man that had crawled out of the boy's grave.
The wagon was exactly where the Indian said it would be. They were very close to town. Easily within walking distance, but greed kept them rooted. The four of them were wrapping wire around the shattered fellows in an effort to bind them back to one singular whole. Lucas saw him first.
Lucas Shaw was a seasoned man. He left Tennessee as a boy for California and its wells of gold. There he prospected many years. The only wealth he found was wisdom. A sly wisdom. A coyote's wisdom. He had killed men. Killed women. He was not one to be afeard. Yet fear found him that day. Fear manifest. Fear in a form more corpse than man atop a painted pony.
He audibly gasped. The other three stopped and turned. Leviticus was close now. He had brought his perpetual silence with him. The horse snorted. The sand shifted. The men's hearts convulsed within them. The pony stopped.
Cole, the boy, spoke. "Levi?"
Lucas felt ashamed. He was the grand usurper. He should have spoken first.
Leviticus didn't know how to respond. In the dime novels he read as a boy the hero always said something venomous and clever before the showdown. Yet his tongue was bound by pain and anger and something else. Something hard.
He drew his borrowed pistol in a controlled manner. It was neither fast nor slow. His betrayers would have had ample time to react if their senses were about them. They were not. Four shots. Evenly spaced in time. The boy and Roger died well. Their skulls caved and buckled and vomited gore from their occipital lobes. Walter died harder. The ball struck his heart. He fell and perished quickly but in pain. Lucas had the worst of it. The force of the shot sent his shattered ribs into his left lung. He fell and was a long time dying.
Leviticus sat atop the pony and watched until he was sure they were all dead. Part of him thought this was not right. That he should use his spare two balls to end the survivors' suffering. Another part, the new part, the hard part, recognized that this was a borrowed gun. Borrowed ammunition. Thought it unwise to waste it. He felt the entire affair was anticlimactic. That this was not fair to him or them. Yet that same deep primal voice that spoke of borrowed weapons noted that it wasn't about them. It was about It.
He walked to the wagon and found the crate. He opened it. The dry wooden planks were rough in his sunburned hands. He removed the canvas and brushed the straw away. He needed to see It. To know It was real. That It was worth it. The pain. The killing.
He removed the lesser fragments and put them to the side. Impressive but not awe-inspiring. In the bottom of the crate in a potato sack filled with cotton and linen rags lay the skull. Iguanodontidae. It. He held It in his hands. Felling the curves. The eyesockets. The chips and fractures. He caressed the skull of the long-dead giant and wept. Wept out of pity and pain, but not sadness.
He sat there holding it for a long time. The sun fell. The night came. The pony grew restless. He never appreciated the beauty of fossils before. He had always thought them inferior to bone. Calcium became stone. Life became unlife. Now, as he sat there holding It he saw the beauty for the first time. Death had not stopped It. Only hardened It more. A painting of flesh turned into a sculpture that outlasted countless species and empires.
The coyotes howled. He thought of leaving with the pony. Returning East with It. But that was not It's place. It became as It was because of the hardness of this place. The badlands were the catalyst of that transformation. The vessel that turned life hard. He buried the bones next to the stinking corpses of the men and rode south to the Indian.