Originally published in Garbled Transmissions.
I woke up screaming in the middle of the night. My mother rushed to my side to see what was wrong, but the dream had always faded away by then. Whatever monster had chased me through my sleeping mind had disappeared, becoming formless black shadow once again.
“Odakota, you don’t have to have these dreams,” she told me once. “You might be asleep, but you’re still in control. Just tell yourself you’re dreaming, and you’ll be able to decide what comes next.”
I nodded and lay back down, but I didn’t go back to sleep. I squeezed my eyes shut and held my breath until my mother’s soft snores floated across our small home. Then I stood up and tiptoed outside, wondering where I could hide from the monsters in my head.
We had been moving farther west each year as the white men continued to take the land for their own. Our tribe had started in the grasslands to the east. Now the prairies of our new home had grown dry. Looking out to the mountains further west, it seemed that we were pushing closer and closer to a wall.
I can’t remember how long I stood outside. When I finally turned to go back to bed, I found my father standing behind me. He stood tall, with well-carved muscles and hardened dark skin that seemed like leather. I craned my neck upwards and looked into his face. His dark eyes seemed like the deep black pools of my dreams.
“We’re a proud tribe,” he said, his deep voice scaring away the rushing wind. “Hiding from nightmares doesn’t become us.”
It’s almost noon by the time I open my eyes. The sun filters in through the dozens of cracks in my hotel room’s shutters. Down in the streets I can hear the dusty groan of carts and the labored stomping of horses as the world goes about its business. Mojave City has been awake for hours, and it’s passing me by.
I push the scratchy sheets off the bed and let my body breathe in the arid heat from outside. My muscles still ache, and the calluses on my hands could take months to heal. Too many days of riding and shooting have taken their toll. I’ve been chasing after a nightmare for weeks. Now all I want to do is wake up.
Someone opens the door without knocking, and I scramble to pull the blankets back over my naked red-brown body. My right hand darts unconsciously underneath my pillow, looking for the six shooter that I took with me into this white man’s world. Naturally, it’s not there.
“Looking for this?” Myrna steps in and closes the door, holding up a heavy gun.
The shooter looks like it might do more damage if I hit someone with it than if I fired it at them. The first few times I pulled the trigger, I thought the barrel would fall off.
“I guess I’m still in the habit,” I say, pulling my hand out from under the pillow. Then my eyes narrow as I finally realize what’s wrong with this picture. “Didn’t I hock that to pay for this room?”
“Yeah, you did. And I bought it back with some cash I had saved away for a rainy day,” says Myrna, smiling her devil-grin. Her family is Chinese, but you can’t tell that from looking at her. They’ve spent so many generations in the states that she was born a mutt. She’s got bright red hair and olive-colored skin. Except for a little slant in her eyes, her ancestry is invisible. For all I know, there could even be Sioux in there.
She tosses the old junker on the bed, where it lands with a flat thud. I stare at it like it’s diseased, and then look back to Myrna, who has made it over to the bed by now.
“I thought we were getting out of this business,” I say sourly.
Myrna arches her back and raises her arms in a stretch before dropping down on the bed next to me. She grabs my chin, hurting my jaw a bit as she pulls me toward her for a kiss. After that soft vice of hers lets me go, she tosses her brown hat, sending it flying carelessly across the room. “You know we’re not the type to settle down and start a family. Besides, you’d never forgive yourself if you let this one go.”
I sigh and pull the blankets over my head. I never did learn to control my dreams. The image of a half dozen wanted posters floats through my brain. The uglier the picture, the higher the reward. The higher the reward, the more time I spend lying on my back getting pieces of lead pulled out of my hide. Of course, Myrna always treats me right afterwards. “What’s the name?” I ask, poking my eyes from beneath the covers. This guy had better be really ugly.
Myrna smiles so widely that it looks like someone carved the grin into her face. “Borden Capano.”
The smell of the dead carcass clung to my senses even hours after we had skinned and cleaned the buffalo. The hide curled a little as strips of fur dried in the hot sun. I crouched next to the log where the smoky gray-brown pelt dried. My skinny hand shook a little as I reached out to touch the soft fur.
“Odakota.” As always, my father’s voice was thick and strong. The guttural Yankton dialect in which our tribe spoke accentuated those properties. “Not yet.”
I turned and looked at him with the vaguely arrogant eyes of a child who thought himself an adult. “Why not?”
“It’s not ready yet. Besides, we’re going to make something special with it.”
He sat on a stone near the fire and laid the bones in front of them. We had killed the buffalo early this morning, and he had polished the bones white while my mother prepared the meat. Now he began sorting through them, deciding how best to use each one. In the distance I could hear other children in our tribe playing with sticks in the dry prairie. I could have joined them, but instead I crouched beside my father’s stone and watched him work.
“What are we going to make?” I asked as he examined the teeth.
He didn’t respond to me for a long time. Finally, without looking at me, he asked, “Are you still having your dreams?”
My mouth twisted as I tried to lie to my father. If I was still having the dreams, it meant I was weak. If I went through with a lie, though, it meant something worse. Finally, I just nodded. My father turned his head a fraction to see the gesture.
“It’s not your fault,” he said in a softer tone than I ever remembered him using. He made a wide gesture with his arm that took in the two dozen or so teepees scattered nearby. “Everyone here is afraid. We live on the run, ready to pack up like scared rabbits because of the white men. Take a deep breath, son.” I breathed in sharply on his command. “You can smell the fear in the air. It makes everyone sick.” He stood up and strode over to the log where the buffalo hide lay in the sun. “I’m going to show you how to make a mandella. We’ll make one out of the spirits of this land and hang it over your bed. It keeps the demons away at night.”
I smiled and stared in awe at the remains of the buffalo. It had died for so many reasons – food, clothing, and weaponry – and one of those reasons was to keep me safe. My father glanced at my face and saw that wonderment in my eyes. He moved between me and the buffalo skin and fixed me with a stern stare.
“Listen to me, son. It’s not a shield. We’ll make the mandella for you, but it will only help you; it won’t stop the dreams all by itself. The only way to really fight fear is with your own willpower.”
The mandella is the size of one outstretched palm. A patch of buffalo hide stretches across a circular frame, decorated with feathers, wool, and wooden beads. My father helped me assemble it, his long fingers moving nimbly when my inexperienced hands fumbled with the leather ties that held the thing together. When we finished it, my father showed me the largest smile I had ever seen. It seemed like the most natural thing in the world. But now the mandella and all of my pleasant memories lie at the bottom of a satchel, forgotten underneath a crumpled pile of clothes and my holster. I empty my clothes out of the bag, but leave the mandella inside. Except for my brown duster, I wear black these days. I’m not Odakota anymore; haven’t been for years. I’m not even Sioux anymore. These days I’m just Dakota Jack.
“Gun seems a little lighter than usual,” I say when I’ve dressed and finally hoisted the ugly hunk of metal.
Myrna smiles sheepishly. “Slight problem there. I had the money for the gun but not for the bullets.” She fishes through her pocket and eventually comes up with one large piece of lead. “Can you get by with just one?”
She tosses the bullet to me and I catch it in midair. Then I feed it carefully into one of the chambers of the six shooter. “I guess I’ll have to. ’Sides, if I miss I can always just feed him my revolver. So where’s Borden hiding himself?”
“Apparently he’s a legit businessman now. Course, that doesn’t change the fact that there’s still a fat bounty on his head. He’s got a meeting at the bank in an hour and a half. But I hope you have a better plan than just shooting him in the middle of the city in broad daylight.”
“Why? That’ll work, won’t it?”
“Sure, if you want to get nabbed by the law before we even see coin one.”
“Sounds fine by me.”
Myrna doesn’t seem to appreciate my tone. “We’ve been together for almost a year now, you and I. Now you’re just going to leave me high and dry?”
“Course not. You get the body, then you get the bounty. You don’t even have to do any math on the split this time.”
Myrna glares at me, not amused. “You told me we were going to be all business. No vendettas, right?”
A gunshot goes off in the back of my head. I find myself reaching out and pushing her away. “When we got started, you said you’d never sleep with me. Guess we both get to tell one lie.”
She gets up and puts a hand on my shoulder, trying to keep me from doing something stupid. “Don’t do this,” she whispers. “We can both win here.”
I try to give her a stern expression, but it comes out as a melancholy frown. I was never the man my father was. When I can’t scare her away with a look, I drop my hand to my holster and try another tactic. In the blink of a hummingbird’s eye the gun is out and my thumb is on the hammer. I keep it pointed upward and away from her, but she reads the message loud and clear. “Myrna, I only have one bullet. Please don’t make me waste it.”
Her lips tremble with an unvoiced response. Her face drops with her hands and she lets me go. I turn around and start heading down the stairs. I don’t look back until I hear her slam the door.
The mandella is still in our room, lying forgotten in my satchel.
The object of our collective fears showed up in person one cloudy morning. We had pushed farther and farther west, hoping to avoid a confrontation, but the white people moved faster than anyone could imagine, even when they were in the midst of a Civil War. With their horses, railroads, and cannons, they had almost pushed us to the edge of the world.
I hadn’t slept well the night before. I still thought that I was half-dreaming when the sound of horses thundered up our path. My body didn’t seem to want to respond as I moved toward the front flap of the teepee and peered out. The sun had only just begun poking its way through the thick morning clouds, dyeing the entire world in the color of wheat and blood. The low embers of cooking fires glowed throughout our camp, but our home remained silent. The entire tribe seemed to be holding its breath as we watched my father and the group of strangers.
Six white men had ridden into our camp, each dressed in dusty gray uniforms. Three of them sat on horses, while another two stood nearby with the reigns of the three other mounts. One tall blonde man did all the talking, waving his arms animatedly in frustration at my father. He turned to look at me as I poked my young head out the front of my shelter. I gasped, but didn’t move or look away. His glance in my direction lasted for only a moment before he turned back to my father. Once his foggy gray eyes left me, my vision trailed to his uniform and the hand-stitched name on his confederate jacket. It would take me years of learning my English letters to finally figure out that the strange symbols spelled out the name Capano.
“We’re not asking for much,” said Capano, his voice wavering between a conversational tone and a quiet rage. “We just need a few days worth of shelter and supplies. We’ve got goods to trade. Just give us what we want and we’ll be on our way.”
My father didn’t move. I had to squint my eyes just to see that he was still breathing. He wore a newly made leather jerkin and finally tapped one moccasin-clad foot impatiently before speaking. “You’re deserters and smugglers.” His voice seemed unnaturally stilted when speaking the American English of the officers, even though each syllable came out clearly and loudly. “Those horses have different brands on them, so you’re likely thieves, too. Why should we deal with you?”
Capano clenched his teeth. His face flushed, but then cleared almost immediately. He relaxed and smiled before speaking again. “You’ve got a keen eye. It’s true that we may have done a bit of thieving, but our fight isn’t with you. You and yours aren’t a part of the war between the states. For all we know, there won’t be any America left after it’s over, so what do the rules of a dead country really matter? I’ll tell you what does matter. We’ve got whiskey, gold, and guns. You give us some shelter and supplies, and we can do business like civilized folk. If you don’t,” Capano’s hand dropped to the service revolver at his hip, “there might be trouble. First from us, then from the folk looking for us. Our army isn’t keen on a bunch of redskins getting in their way, and the union doesn’t do much to protect you, either.”
My father’s eyes trailed down to the pistol and then darted over the rest of Capano’s group. Each of them had rifles or revolvers of their own, and they had casually begun to reach for them. Finally he looked to his own people, surveying the dozens of eyes watching the scene. “Guns or not, you’re outnumbered. If you start anything, your army will only find your corpses. We can always pack up and disappear. It’s a big land.”
Capano’s eyes stayed bright, although his smile turned into a malicious sneer. “The land’s getting smaller. You help us, we’ll give you some guns. Then you don’t have to run.”
My father let out a sarcastic chuckle. “For all your guns, you’re still running scared.”
Capano didn’t speak this time. His hand jerked, and in one swift motion the pistol came clear of its holster. My face froze as he moved. Sound disappeared and the world around me melted away. No one except for Capano and my father existed anymore. I didn’t even exist; it was just those two figures, spotlighted by the flickering rays of a rising sun. My father rushed toward Capano, trying to pull the gun away. I focused my mind on his movement, trying to make him go faster, trying to control what was about to happen. The gunshot ended the silence, and my father fell to the ground. The world exploded into the sound of dozens of shouts and the acrid smell of gunpowder.
I have never learned how to control my nightmares. And I have never woken up.
The rest of Borden’s men died in the chaos after that gunshot. But Borden Capano is as slippery as a snake. I’ve spent ten years hunting him, and I had just about given up when Myrna came through with her tip. I stand across the street, all dressed in black with a wide-brimmed hat like I’m some sort of cowboy. Borden steps out of the bank, and I almost don’t recognize him. The slime has a change of clothes. Now he wears a fine navy suit. His long blonde hair is neatly combed, barely reminiscent of the dusty, tangled mess that belonged to the confederate soldier so long ago. He even carries a cane, thin, black, and topped with a brass eagle. As long as I don’t miss, he’s wearing a perfect funeral suit.
I trail after him for a while, watching his dealings about town. He’s a regular busybody these days, talking with folk on the street and laughing it up with the merchants that he comes across. You’d think he’s running for mayor.
Eventually, he turns down a side street. Then it’s time for me to make my move. I’m not exactly quiet about it, though. Myrna was always the subtle one. That’s how we’ve worked for the past year: she comes up with the plan to line the bounties up, and I walk in with my gun and knock them down. But Myrna’s back at the hotel, so my simple plans will have to do. I stride up behind Borden and tap his shoulder. When he turns around, I smile and drop my hand to my gun.
“Dakota Jack,” he says grimly. He takes a few steps backwards, glancing toward the alleys around us and trying to figure out an escape route. I draw my gun and level it at his head, letting him know that I’d appreciate it if he stayed still.
“You’ve heard of me?”
“Not really. I just seem to remember seeing some of your folk in the Dakotas a while back. Then I threw out the most dirt common name I could find.”
Some folk start coming by now, forming a small crowd around us. They give a buzz of concern, but nobody moves to stop me. I’m the only one who knows how many bullets I have.
“I’ve been busy back east,” says Borden, not even sweating a drop. “I’ve got a big bounty on my head. There’s more cash involved if you take me alive.”
I cock the hammer. He knows and I know that this isn’t about money. Even as I draw a bead on him, Borden doesn’t stop smiling. Why is he still smiling?
That’s when I hear footsteps coming up behind me. They don’t keep their distance like the concerned bystanders – the owner of those feet walks to within an arm’s reach of my back. I turn my head part way, keeping one eye on Borden and checking behind me out of the corner of my other eye. I don’t need a good look at the woman; her bright red hair tells me almost everything. The sound of her cocking her gun tells me the rest.
“We really should have quit, Jack.”
I turn back to Borden, pressing my finger against the trigger. His smile doesn’t fade as Myrna’s gun goes off, cutting off my shot. A hot kiss of lead cuts just below my shoulder blade, sending me toppling face first into the sun scorched street. Borden walks smoothly around me to Myrna’s side. She gives him a kiss on the cheek before my vision fades.
The crowd won’t chase after Myrna; they won’t even get in her way as she and Borden leave town. I’m not one of their people. I’m not a part of any people, anymore.
“You never learn, do you Jack?”
Ella is a twig of a girl, maybe ninety pounds at the most. She has mottled dark skin and brown hair that can almost be black. Her voice is deep and heavy, completely disproportionate to her body. It weighs at least four or five times what she does. When she’s angry, her words hit me like a velvet freight train.
“Course I lerrn,” I mumble, my words heavy with alcohol. “Jes takes a while.” I take another long pull from the whiskey bottle that Ella has provided as my anesthetic. A grunt of pain follows the swallow as Ella fishes more shrapnel out of me.
“No one was going to help you, you know. If you hadn’t been in my town, I never would have heard thing one about it, and they would have let you die in the streets.” She reaches into the wound again with her tools and pulls the bulk of the bullet out of me.
This is where I usually end up after a bounty, whether it’s successful or not. Myrna is smarter than me; she manages to stay out of a gunfight and play things without getting shot up. I tend to be a bit more cocky, going in with guns blazing and killing the poor bastard more often than not. Then Myrna brings me back to Ella’s bar. My half of the bounty pays my tab for Ella’s booze and back alley surgery. At least, that’s the usual. I got lucky this time, seeing as Myrna isn’t around anymore.
“Stupid men,” breathes Ella.
“Shows whut you know,” I reply. I finish off the bottle, and then watch the room dance a little jig around me. “A woman did this ta me.”
“Well, she probably had good reason to.” Ella drops her tools and starts looking around for the bandages. “Where’s Myrna, anyway?”
The fabric of my shirt itches when I put it on again, rubbing uncomfortably against the thick strip of bandages that Ella has kept fresh for me. With a shrug, I head out of the back room and toward the door of the bar.
“You need to stay in bed for a few more days.” Ella’s voice hits me from the shadows as I reach for the doorknob. She’s sitting in the dark at the table closest to the exit. I should have seen her, but she’s skinny enough that she’s almost two dimensional. I must have looked at her sideways and missed her entirely.
“I’ve been down for close to a week. If I stay in bed much longer I’m going to get sores,” I reply. “Besides, there’s no way that Borden and Myrna stayed in town. They’ve got a good head start on me, and I’ll lose them if I wait any longer.”
Ella stands up and walks toward me, her face gaunt and serious. She reaches an arm around me like she’s about to hug me, and then taps me right under the shoulder, digging a long fingernail into my wound. I wince and grit my teeth to keep from shouting.
“You’re going to bleed right through those bandages,” she says, pulling her finger back and crossing her arms as she looks up at my face. “I’m not going to leave town to hunt you down. If you get hurt again, I won’t patch you back up.”
I shrug, and her face flushes in aggravation. Then I turn away and open the door, stepping into the chilly desert air.
“You’re not dreaming, you know,” she calls after me. “Most folk only have to pinch themselves to figure that out. They don’t need to get shot like you.”
I turn back to her and smile humorlessly.
“Course I’m dreaming. Why else would I be wearing this silly hat?”
My one advantage is Borden’s new taste in women. Except for his fancy suits, he blends in pretty well wherever he goes. But Myrna never was much for hiding. There aren’t exactly many tall quarter-Chinese redheads wandering around the west, especially not with all the lecherous minds in the Mojave City area. It takes me less than a week of looking to find Myrna. She and Borden are holed up in a sleepy village called Vivian. Coming into town, I notice that someone’s marked up the welcome sign with a note that says, “Good til 1875,” letting the world know that at least one person doesn’t expect this tiny piece of mud and sand to last past next year. Personally, I don’t think I’d miss it if the whole world disappeared.
I step into the saloon, and it takes me less than a second to spot her at the back table. Since subtlety and I are complete strangers, I order her a drink. I bring her a shot of tequila, along with some bandages and a glass of ice for myself. Hopefully, they’ll start a tab for me when they find out I can’t pay the bill. Otherwise I’ll likely get lynched.
She reaches below the table for her gun when she sees me coming. I sit down opposite her and put the drink on the table. Then I draw my gun with two fingers and lay it on the table next to my bandages.
“I shoot you, and you buy me a drink.” She arches an eyebrow at me and I nod. “Are all Indians crazy like you?”
I grin at her. “You know me. I’m one of a kind.”
“What’s the ice for?” She takes the glass in her slender fingers and takes a sip, making a bitter face at the quality of liquor in this joint.
I unroll the bandages and press some of the ice against my knuckles. My hand is swelling by now. “The fellow who told me where you were was sort of crass. I had a disagreement with his attitude, and he eventually apologized.” She doesn’t even blink at my lie. Finally, I give in. “Okay, I punched him in the teeth and ran away.”
“You don’t get to defend my honor, Jack.”
My face hardens a little bit. “I know. From what I hear, Borden does that now.”
Myrna shakes her head and reaches into a pocket. Pulling out a pouch of tobacco and some paper, she starts rolling a cigarette. “And you want to know why. Is that it?”
“Well, I’m really looking for Borden. But I wouldn’t be upset if you explained why you thought I needed some more lead in me.”
Myrna keeps shaking her head slowly, paying more attention to her fine tobacco than me. “I could’ve killed you, you know. I don’t have quite the dead aim you do, but I know where to shoot if I want someone dead. I figured you might have taken the bullet as a warning and left well enough alone.” She finally turns her head back up to me, placing the cigarette between her lips but leaving it unlit.
“So you went from wanting to settle down with me to shooting me in the back in less than a day?”
“What can I say? He offered me more money.”
“We’ve had bounties try to buy us off before. You always told me it was bad for business. So what’s your real reason?”
Myrna searches through her pockets until she finds a match. After she’s finally lit her cigarette, she looks at my face again. “You’ve been chasing Borden for what, ten years? You don’t even know why.”
“He killed my father,” I state flatly. “You know that.”
“Yeah, I know. But you’re so dead inside that it’s not even about revenge. You chase after him because that’s what you’re supposed to do. I don’t even think you’re capable of hatred.” Her voice drops a bit. “I know you’re not capable of love. Not with me, at least.”
“You know that’s not true.”
“We had a good time, Jack. But you never treated me like I’d be around when you woke up in the morning. You said you loved me, but the second I dangled Borden in front of you, you kicked me to the curb. You live in the past, and I need someone who knows what the present looks like.”
“Then why’d you even tell me that Borden was in town?”
“It was a test, Jack.” Her voice is a kind of bitter that I haven’t heard before. “One you failed. You proved that you don’t need me. Then Borden put an offer on the table to get this pesky bounty hunter away from him, and I saw someone who did need me, even if it’s just to keep him safe from you.”
She takes a long pause, pulling the cigarette away from her lips and taking a sip of tequila. I wait for her to put the cigarette back in her mouth, picking my moment to interrupt.
“That’s the biggest load I’ve ever heard.”
Myrna frowns disgustedly. “I don’t expect you to understand. But you don’t get any more answers out of me.” She finishes her drink and stands up. “I’m leaving now. Follow me, and I’ll start shooting to kill.”
She turns her back to me and strides toward the door. Then she freezes, along with the rest of the saloon, as my revolver gives two loud barks. One of the bullets cuts into the floor by Myrna’s feet. The other one bites into the wall, coming close enough to Myrna’s head to part some of her pretty red hair.
“Didn’t I tell you?” I stand and walk toward Myrna, training my gun around the room to make sure no one tries to jump me. “I borrowed a few extra bullets from Ella.” I press the gun into her back. “Now take me to Borden, or you’ll find out exactly how many bullets I’ve got.”
After a moment of hesitation, she gets walking. We step into the streets and hear someone shout for a lawman almost immediately. No one comes; odds are that the sheriff and his deputies are drunk in their office in a quiet place like this. Myrna leads me to a hotel across the street and up the stairs.
“Now put your guns on the floor.”
She moves like she’s in a trance, unbuckling her holster and dropping the revolver to the ground with a thud.
“Both of them,” I say. After I press the gun deeper into her back, she pulls a derringer out of her shirt sleeve and sets it on the floor next to its partner. I bend over and scoop the guns up, not taking my eyes off of Myrna. “Now let Borden know you’re here.”
“What would your father say if he saw you now?” she whispers. She doesn’t wait for an answer, and moves to the door.
The bronze number nine nailed to the door falls crooked when Myrna knocks. “Who’s there?” comes Borden’s voice. Myrna knocks twice again in answer, and her safe code to Borden leads to the sound of a pair of locks sliding open. She turns to me and nods. I smile, heft my gun, and open the door.
Borden’s sitting at a small table, looking over a set of legal papers in the stilted light of his window. Expecting Myrna, he doesn’t even look up until I’ve pressed the barrel of my gun right to the back of his blonde head. His hands start trembling when I pull the hammer back, but he doesn’t move.
“Don’t be stupid, Jack.” Myrna voice sounds more pleading than I expected it to, but she doesn’t move to stop me. “He’s still got a bounty on his head, and we can still be together. We can bring him in alive and double our profits. Play this right. Live in the here and now.”
Borden starts to whisper a prayer, something he never gave my father a chance to do. I hesitate for a second, but that’s all.
“You were right, Myrna. I do live in the past.”
A single gunshot goes off. Borden’s body buckles forward. Myrna gives a short scream and looks away as a pool of red begins to spread across the table. My hand trembling, I put the gun in my holster. Then I turn and walk toward the door. Myrna steps away from me as I pass her, wondering if I’m going to kiss her or shoot her. I do neither. I just drop her guns on the floor and keep walking, giving her the chance to shoot me in the back again if she wants. It’s supposed to be over now. My father is avenged, and my nightmare should be over. But there’s nothing but numbness inside of me, and I can’t stop thinking about the mandella, still lying forgotten in a sack back in Mojave City.
“I never could be the man my father was,” I tell Myrna before walking down the stairs.
I step outside and make my way out of town. Myrna doesn’t follow.