500 Words: The Clash at Black Hill

28 Aug

“We are enough,” the lieutenant confidently asserted, looking at his companions. Six other men stood on Black Hill with him. A thousand men stood on the slope before them. These were not what anybody else would deem favorable odds. The thousand had chariots, archers, spearmen. They were an army. The seven men on the ridge had a few swords, axes, and the lieutenant himself carried a spear. They were fools to expect victory, but they did.

The lieutenant, a young man named Hassar, stepped forward and eyed the army. He pointed his spear down at them, sweeping it across them from flank to flank. “I suggest that I and Morthun take the right, while Razin and Taqar take the left. Soazas, Eman, and the Morsian take the center.” Soazas hefted his axe and narrowed his eyes, nodding slowly. There were no more words to be said, and the three wings split up.

The army leapt to meet them, but were thrown back in disarray. Soazas’ first strike landed against a man’s chest, and it exploded in a gout of blood. The power of that blow knocked the surrounding soldiers to the ground, and that was only the beginning. Eman drew his swords like whispering leaves, unleashing his skill. Razin, Taqar, Morthun, and Hassar were all wading in to the enemy. Only the Morsian hung back, his swords resting on his shoulders. Men were broomed away before his companions, but still he waited, dancing on his toes. The army was recoiling, slapped and stunned, victory belonged to the six, and the Morsian refused to claim a share in the shattering.

The army ceased recoiling as a chariot thundered through its midst, proudly staging a man in resplendent armor with a great mace in his fists. He leapt down and dealt two blows to Soazas, cracking against his axe like a boulder’s bones breaking. Soazas reeled and attacked in turn, but the enemy general fended him easily. Eman joined his captain, but still the general held, though he no longer advanced. Now the other four came to protect Soazas, and they splashed impotently against the general and his mace. The army began to turn, and the six were forced to turn their attention to the spearmen around them, warding off the sharp tongues that gasped for their vitals.

The wind screamed from the sky as the Morsian darted to the attack, his sabers blooming like suns. The army had staggered before the six, but now it screamed before the one, weeping red tears. His power slashed out from him like knives, scattering knots of spearmen and upturning chariots. Leaves do not wither before fire so quickly as the army withered before the Morsian, making a path to the six and the general. The six turned and held off the army as the Morsian’s swords came down on the general like hail, battering him with furious blows.

The general faltered. The Morsian pressed. The general dropped to one knee, and the mace flew from his hands as his head soared. Thunder cracked in the blue sky overhead. The six shouted acclaim as the Morsian lifted ruby swords, and then the seven went slavering into the mass.

Black Hill was painted red that day.

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500 Words Per Day: A Sad Boy

26 Jun

Second entry! Not very cheerful, but I’m not too displeased with how it turned out. Read & comment away!

A Sad Boy

“Leave me alone!” she hissed, slapping at his outstretched hand. “We’re done, Ross! It’s over!” She wheeled, an army parading away from a sacked city. The ruins of the man that had stood there remained staring after her for a moment, soaking up her radiance. A broken smile still hung on his face, a tattered banner over shattered gates. The slapped hand fell back to his side, and he bent to pick up the drenched flowers. They’d fallen into the gutter when she slapped his hand.

Shambling, the man started walking after her, shaking his head and still smiling, though tears threatened to soon wash his cheeks. He walked on like that for a while, shaking his head and smiling confusedly through the looming tears, until finally he stopped. His shoulders straightened, and he sighed.

“Well… I guess that’s that, then,” he choked out, dropping the denied flowers into the trash. He walked home weeping.

He didn’t see her again until a month later, when she stopped him on the street with tears in her eyes. The man she had left him for had, in turn, left her, and now she came back to him, an army on the run, seeking sanctuary.

He still wore that broken smile as the gates slammed in her face.

“No. Don’t be silly, Jessica.” She’d always been ‘Jess’ to him. He could see how it cut. “You know as well as I do what I’m like; that I’m a sucker for a love story and a pretty face. You played that side of me, perfectly.” Her breath caught. “But you don’t get to get near that side of me any more. You slammed that door shut and broke the key off in the lock.” He’d never been this on-the-spot articulate before, and Jessica shuddered as the full weight of his words fell on her. He’d rehearsed these words in his head ever since she left him. “So no, you don’t get me back. I wanted to give you everything: a life, a home, a lover, a family, and you said you didn’t want anything to do with it. For a while I wasn’t sure if I wanted anything to do with it anymore, and I really didn’t, because you ripped that capacity out of me.”

His smile had faded now, and his eyes were like melting ice. He fished into a pocket and pulled out a tattered card. “I hadn’t expected to run into you, you know. I was going to meet you with those flowers and this card at work, just to make your day a little better. You might as well read it now.” He handed it to her. “It’s all that’s left.”

He turned and walked away, leaving her holding the worn card. Hands trembling, she opened it and began to read.

My dear Jess. Call me cheesy, but I woke up this morning and decided that leaving flowers and a cute note at your work sounded like the best idea at hand, so here they are. I hope you like them. I love you so much, Jess, and every day I wake up thankful for you. It’s not very grand, but there it is – simple, unabashed truth. I’m in love with you, and I want to stay that way forever. Have a beautiful day, love, and I’ll see you tonight at my place.

The army, turned away at the gates, went marching back into the wastes, ragged standards drooping and all grandeur shorn away. The letter trembled in her hand as she began walking, a broken smile quirking her mouth.

“Well…” she sighed, “I guess that’s that, then.” The letter fell into the gutter, and she walked home weeping.

500 Words Per Day: The Chained Man

24 Jun

I’ve a new resolution burgeoning. I’m going to start writing again; 500 or more words every weekday. Maybe related to each other, maybe not. My idea is to encourage my own creativity in writing, and maybe even figure out some ideas for that novel I always say I’m going to write. Here we go.

 

The Chained Man

 

“Tell me the story,” demanded the man in the center. “The real story.”

The man before him chuckled, dry sounds rasping in a dry throat. “What story are you talking about, noble?”

“Don’t waste my time,” spat the prince, viciously kicking the chained man’s knee. When the man cackled in his pain, the blow was repeated. “Tell me about him.”

“Him who? The chamberlain who steals your jewels? That ‘him’? Or the guard who’s bedding your sister? That ‘him’?” The prince snarled and struck the chained man viciously, kicking until he heard bone crunch and the man’s cackles turn to sobs. 

“I’ll make your death slow, old man, if you keep up like this. I only need you alive, I don’t need you in one piece.”

“Take me apart then!” The chained man spat, laughing through his gasps of agony. “Take my legs and my feet and my – ” his teeth clenched as the prince put his weight on the injured knee. ” – HANDS, and my arms and my teeth! I don’t owe you anything, boy, and I’ve been alive too long to get scared when some brat threatens to torture me if he doesn’t get his way.” The room fell silent for a moment, only the sounds of the chained man’s racking sobs echoing off the damp stones.

Torchlight illuminated the prince’s face as he squatted down to his prisoner’s level. Eyes like jade sorcery gleamed in his youthful features, and coal-black hair was strikingly contrasted with a thin silver circlet set with blue gems. Thin lips pursed as he evaluated the man who defied him. Pride told him to drag what he needed to know out of the man, but that would be pointless. He would die in silence just for spite’s sake. White Gates had no terror for him – but where pride and power could not force an entry, tact almost certainly could. Maybe he just wants to be asked.

“Please.” The single word cut through the silence like an arrow, and the chained man’s head snapped up. His eyes, the color of cedar bark, narrowed and a smile twisted his mouth, showing jutting, broken teeth, more like tusks than human teeth. “Please tell me my father’s story,” the prince continued. The prisoner rolled his eyes and laughed.

“Why do you need to know about your da, ah? What’s so important, and what makes you think I know anything about it?”

What do I tell him? Do I tell him that Torthas is disputing my claim, doubting my bloodline? Do I make him feel sorry for the persecuted Crown Prince? No, he doesn’t need to know all that.

“Curiosity. I asked a seer, and she told me to come down here,” the prince returned evenly, smiling. The prisoner smirked.

“Wouldn’t have anything to do with your head being on the block, would it?” The prince’s smile faltered, and the prisoner guffawed. “Oh yes, I know about it all! You need to know if you’re really Marka’s son, if you’re really Gospodar’s heir! You need to know if Crandorpeak is actually yours after all!” The man’s cackling reached a crescendo, and the prince began to shake in cold fury. Standing slowly, he raised his boot again, about to stomp down on the broken knee, but the prisoner stopped him with his next words, howled through his laughter. “Oh, I’ll tell you, lad. But first…” The man grinned. “Some wine, for this old man’s parched throat.” The next thing the chained man knew, he had been hauled to his feet and the prince was shaking him by the neck, spittle flying as he screamed. “Tell me! Tell me now you bastard or I’ll take ten days to gut you! Am I Trevan Markasson?!”

“Of course not!” the man shrieked, writhing in the agony of weight set on his shattered knee. He was instantly dropped. The prince backed away, face pale.

“How do you know?” he stammered. The chained man rubbed his neck as he slowly straightened.

“Because I know your story, lad, better than you do.”

“What is that supposed to mean?” spat the prince.

“Marka only features in your story by chance, boy. Your story begins two generations back, in Morsia, with an exile.”

“What are you talking about?!” the royal shouted.

“I’m saying,” the man returned evenly, “that you are not Trevan, son of Marka, son of Gospodar. You, boy, are Trevan, son of Zecaeus, son of the man that every man of the Pact knew as the Scourge.”

Shaking and pale, the boy dropped to the floor, sitting across from his prisoner. He was silent for a long moment, then stammered, “How do you know all of this?” The prisoner grinned.

“Because I was there, with him.”

“But… but the Scourge took no prisoners, how could you have survived-“

“I said I was with him. I didn’t tell you which side I was on.” The prisoner’s grin deepened to a snarl, and he stood up, his broken leg suddenly irrelevant as the chained man towered over the prince, who sat, eyes popping and mouth gaping as he really saw the man for the first time. He was not tall, nor large, but he was savagely muscular, his hairy body covered in scars and tattoos. Who is this man, anyway? Is he a man at all?

“Tell me the story, please,” Trevan whispered. The chained man’s snarl closed to a grimly knowing smile, and he sat back down.

“Boy, your story begins with an exile. The Pact would come to know him as the Scourge, but I was one of the few privileged to know him by his actual name.” A hint of sorrow painted the man’s tone. “He told us he was called Zechar.”

Things are going to change.

24 Jun

They are. From now on.

Les Arts Marciaux

29 Jul

Good evening! Having returned roughly one week ago from my trip to Europe, I shall now-… well… I guess I should give y’all some account of how my trip went. Okay then! Here goes.

Firstly, we arrived in London via Paris, because apparently Air France doesn’t like England enough to fly directly there from Detroit… losers. We crashed there, visited Winston Churchill’s house at Chartwell, his grave, and his birthplace at Blenheim Palace – both of which were fantastic. I can now say that I’ve stood in the room where arguably the greatest statesman of the 20th century was born. No big deal. After that we visited Oxford and had a grand auld time there; I really liked Oxford. Lots of fun. After we finished our time in London, seeing the War Cabinet bunkers from which Churchill and his aides directed the British portion of World War Two as well as Buckingham Palace (featuring the changing of the Guard), we took ourselves down to Portsmouth and thence by ferry to Brittany, landing in St. Malo. Beautiful little French port town; it’s a walled city, so we got to go up on the battlements and wander around taking pictures. After St. Malo the journey continued on to Caen, where we would spend the majority of our time in Normandy. We saw the grave of William the Conqueror, the Bayeux Tapestry, the Bayeux Cathedral,D-Day beaches, Pointe du Hoc, the American D-Day Cemetary, and most sobering of all, the German Normandy Cemetary. About 22,000 German soldiers buried there, not all of them named and some of them in a mass grave. It was a sobering reminder that no matter what we may say about the Nazis and the Germans in World War Two, they were humans too, and they died too.

After we finished in Caen, we were on to Paris!… aaaand I found it to be underwhelming, honestly. The Musée d’Orsays, the Eiffel Tower and the Arch of Triumph were all impressive (I didn’t see the Louvre, sorry, deal with it), but Paris itself I found to be loud, crowded and smelly. The same goes for Versailles, which we saw on our way in to Paris – resplendent, magnificent, but just too crowded. Didn’t have enough time to see it properly, either. Apart from that, I really enjoyed my trip. DONE, on to the rest! Now for my promised martial arts blog – today, the fabled arts of the Shaolin Five Animals style.

Shaolin Five Animals

Shaolin Five Animals is one of the more fabled of the Chinese martial arts, although not many actually know what the Five Animals are. Some think they are Snake, Eagle, Monkey, Tiger and Crane. Others think that the Mantis fits somewhere in the quintet. In reality, Mantis, Monkey and Eagle are separate schools of wushu. The Five Animals are the Tiger, Leopard, Crane, Snake and the Dragon. These five were selected because the founders of Five Animals saw that these five together would answer the problems that they saw in the wushu of their day.[1]

Chinese wushu, as far as is known, actually originates in India. Bodhidharma, also known as Buddha, journeyed to the Orient in the mid-late 500’s A.D., and brought with him the physical exercises and mental methods that now typify wushu. He spent time with the Shaolin monks, and recognized that physically they were far too weak; they could not perform basic chores around their temple or defend their temple from enemies. Therefore, Bodhidharma imparted to them a handful of basic exercises. From these came Shaolin Wushu. There were already some martial arts in China, but these were seen as too focused on physical strength and not focused enough on mental discipline. A martial artist named Zhue Yuen recognized this and began to travel throughout China reformatting Shaolin Wushu. During this time, Yuen met two other famous martial artists named Li Sou and Bai Yu Feng. Together these three men formed “Wu Xing Quan,” translated as “Five Animal Form.” Wu Xing Quan was comprised of 128 movements divided into five groups. These groups were modeled after the motions of the five animals previously mentioned. These groupings were created to be practiced in conjunction with each other so as to help the individual develop five aspects of the body: physical or muscular strength, bone strength, vitality, chi energy (an inner energy, natural to each person), and spirit strength. According to Bai Yu Feng, these were the essential areas for a martial artist to develop.[2]

The most surprising of the Five Animals is the Dragon. Everybody knows that the wondrous dragons of myth are fictitious, so if the motions were based off of the movements of the animal, then how did the founders of Five Animals know how a dragon moved? The answer is simple: they didn’t know how a dragon moved. They created the Dragon form based on what their folklore told them about dragons. They knew that the dragon was a serpentine creature, so the physical motions of Dragon are similar to those of Snake. They knew that the dragon had claws, so they incorporated a hand technique similar to Tiger’s trademark claw hand. They formed Dragon from what they knew of dragons. Dragons, in Buddhist folklore, are oceanic spirit creatures, and are though to have great physical strength as well as great inner, spiritual strength. Thus, Dragon is a more internal form, and the movements of Dragon are softer and more circular, yet with great energy. The soft power of Dragon’s movements suddenly morphs into hard power upon contact for a strike.[3]

Dragon was created to form a balance between Tiger’s raw power and Snake’s soft, flowing movements. While Tiger mandates brute force, Dragon contributes much in the way of internal training by enhancing the practitioner’s spiritual energy. This difference is evident even in Dragon’s signature hand technique. This is known as the long zhua, which literally translates as “dragon claw.” Locking the fingers in a flat, wide claw creates the long zhua, as if you were grasping a thick pole. The long zhua is used to lock an opponent’s attacking limb and to pull or push it aside, or as a battering, blunt attack.[4]

As you can imagine, practicing Dragon, or any martial art for that matter, requires training. Dragon focuses primarily on arm and hand strength. Students develop these by lifting and holding empty jars out from their body. When this can be accomplished with ease, the jars are slowly filled with increasing weight, until the shoulders and arms are very strong.[5]

The second of the Five Animals is the Tiger. China does not indigenously possess lions, thus the tiger ranks as their King of Beasts. The tiger attacks fast and hard; being attacked by one is like being hit by a freight train. It is the Orient’s strongest, most aggressive land animal, and the wushu form corresponds. Tiger is a form that emphasizes all-out aggression and frontal attack. Internal training possesses no place in Tiger, because Tiger’s strength is strictly physical. Emphasis is instead placed on the strength of the student’s upper torso: fingers, hands, arms, shoulders, back, and neck. This allows for powerful stances and strong waist movement, which are key to delivering any sort of power in a technique.[6]

This emphasis on strength of a purely physical nature is reflected in Tiger’s signature attack, the hu zhua, translated as “tiger claw.” This is a hand technique, formed by curling the hand into a circular claw, as if grasping a tennis ball. The tips of the fingers are used to strike, and on impact, they curl and tear at the opponent. For Tiger, training methods essentially identical to those of Dragon are used, save that Tiger students condition their fingertips and fingers. They do this by repeatedly catching small, airborne sandbags with the fingertips.[7]

The Snake places at the top of Five Animals’ “Most Easily Remembered” list. Snake is the third of the Five Animals, and also the most passive. Developed to be the polar opposite of Tiger; it focuses almost exclusively on internal training and development of chi power. The snake is a very reserved and cool animal, thus Snake is very gentle and soft, focusing on internal strength. Following this rule, Snake uses no fist strikes whatsoever, and no noise is made during combat. While some Tiger practitioners will literally growl or shout to add power during a fight, the Snake is silent. Instead of fists or claws, Snake uses the fingertips to execute pinpoint accurate vital strikes on pressure points and weak areas. Mimicking the fluidity of a snake’s motions, there are no motions in Snake that are specific blocks or attacks; everything can be used one way or another. The movements are very soft and circular, yet when they connect there is definite power to them. Hence, Snake requires precision, accuracy and smooth execution. A Snake student keeps his body moving during the fight, never standing still. He must be relaxed, yet focused in order to best utilize his chi energy.[8]

As a unique facet among the Five Animals, Snake has no especial training methods. The assumption is that the Five Animals student will be practicing all Five at once, and that the training methods of the other Four will sufficiently condition and train the student.[9]

Crane places fourth among the Five Animals. In Shaolin, the crane is a symbol of longevity and vitality; a patient, calm animal with great strength. Crane, therefore, develops both internal and external strength. It hones the student’s chi and strengthens their bones and muscles. Crane’s movements are similar to those of Snake: soft, relaxed, and circular. Crane’s motions are designed to prevail with minimum effort, using soft power until the strike connects, at which point a quick, hard power is used. The motions mimic the wings of a crane by using long-hand and short-hand techniques. The short-hands are generally joint-locks, limb-locks and other techniques designed to incapacitate an opponent’s limbs. The long-hand techniques are pressure-point strikes on the opponent’s vital areas. Both long- and short-hand techniques use the he zui, translated as “crane’s beak.” This is a hand technique formed by clamping together all four fingers and the thumb into a single pointed striking unit and bending the wrist slightly. This formation allows for strikes and also a hooking block to scoop an enemy’s arm aside.[10]

To effectively use these techniques, the student must condition their fingertips and wrists to withstand the force of the blows. This is Crane’s conditioning focus: the hands. Snake has added chi to his hands, and Dragon and Tiger have added power. Crane adds resilience. The student conditions his fingers by performing repeated he zui strikes on sandbags. Once comfortable with that, the student switches to rough gravel. For wrist conditioning, the student performs pushups on his bent wrists. Crane students also practice deep relaxation, focus and concentration.[11]

The fifth and final of the Five Animals is the Leopard. In China, the leopard is second only to the tiger for strength and ferocity, despite the fact that pound for pound, leopards are stronger. The leopard has a power as solid as that of the tiger, but the leopard is a sleeker, faster animal. Their power is more loose, more relaxed. It stems from agility, speed and balance. Therefore, while both Tiger and Leopard are ferocious and strong, Leopard focuses more on speed and fluidity, resulting in a quicker and more dance-like form, balanced between Crane and Tiger. It develops speed as well as strength, emphasizing strong stances, footwork-speed, strike-speed, and waist power.[12]

Very little of Leopard focuses of chi; primarily, Leopard focuses to train the skin, bones, muscles and tendons. The Leopard uses a certain hand technique for its signature strike; this is called the bao chui. It translates as “leopard fist.” A bao chui is performed by folding the fingers back at the first joint rather than at the knuckle, and laying the thumb alongside. This results in a stable, flat, streamlined knuckle attack, designed to penetrate and cause severe trauma. However, if attempted without training, a bao chui could severely damage the knuckles of the deliverer. Leopard students remedy this via repeated punches against hard sandbags and pushups on their knuckles. To increase hand strength, Leopard students also practice compressing a firm ball with both hands, full strength, at least one hundred times a day.[13]


[1] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, “Shaolin Five Animals,” (Unique Publications, CA, 1988), 5

[2] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 1-5

[3] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 7

[4] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 7-9

[5] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 9

[6] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 13

[7] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 14-16

[8] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 19-22

[9] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 22

[10] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 25-26

[11] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 29

[12] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 33

[13] Wong, Doc-Fai & Hallander, Jane, 31-32

WEEKEND UPDATE

2 Jul

So! Being in the resolution of blogging more often, and not currently having any grand musings or ramblings with which to bless you, my avid readers (I love you both), I figure I’ll give a basic run-down on my life these days.

One word: READING. I’ve been actively rediscovering my appetite for verbiage, and it’s been grand. I just finished Dumas’ The Three Musketeers, and upon learning that it is the first of a trilogy featuring the same characters, I promptly ordered the next two books. So those are on my reading list, along with Aristotle’s Nicomachean Ethics, a biography of George Washington, The Portrait of Dorian Gray, and The Count of Monte Cristo. Should be fun. I’ve realized that reading consumes a lot of time, and therefore is to be a lifelong pursuit. Works fine for me.

Also, reading all these swashbuckler books has irrevocably decided me in favor of learning to fence. I want to learn the differences between the Spanish and Italian and French schools, and to get into some of the really hardcore European martial arts. Didn’t know that the knights had martial arts, did ya?! Well they did!! If you guys want, I can do a whole spiel about those. I would enjoy that. I’ve got plenty of material on Oriental martial arts already, and could probably do a series on martial arts. In fact, I shall! Consider that my new project. I shall begin as soon as I return from…

EUROPE. I’m going on a study abroad trip to England and France, centering around the great Winston Churchill and WWII; so we get to visit London and Oxford, see Blenheim Palace AND Chartwell, and then spend most of our time in Normandy before ending our trip in lovely Paris. I’m rather excited.

Anyway! That’s all for now, hope you all appreciate this little newsflash. Be safe, grace and peace to you all.

-Dr. Fiction

Blood for Blood

18 Jun

The latest entry in the ranchers’ story. It’s going to be darker than the last two, methinks, but I hope you enjoy it nonetheless.

—————————————-

Blood for Blood

It had taken about three weeks for him to get through it.

Mack had come back to the ranch complaining of headaches and shivers, and by the end of the day he was bed-ridden and feverish, racked with wild delirium. He ranted and screamed about a woman named ‘Kate,’ babbling incoherently about things that made no sense to the ranchers. They didn’t know anything about drugs like cocaine, or the effects that they could have over a lifetime of usage, or what would happen after their use was suddenly cut off.

So the put him in an empty stall in the stable, away from the house. They could still hear the screams.

Then after three weeks, the gunslinger came out of the stable. He wobbled and staggered a good bit, but his eyes and his mind were clear. That began his recovery. The ranchers tended to him, ensuring his safe recuperation.

It was months later that Mack and Hawke came riding back to the ranch. He was one of them now; he knew how to herd, ride, survive, scout, track, work a bullwhip, use a knife, and shoot the ranchers’ long rifles. They’d taken him in, no questions asked. They were strong people, good people. Mack had helped them in the bar, and now they helped him get back on his feet. He still helped them by working on the ranch, really. Life had been quiet; no real repercussions from Mack’s escapade in the town, no echoes of Opeck mischief, no issues with the family, or the herds, or the ranch. Life was good.

“‘sat you?”

It was Reuben’s young, cheerful voice that hailed the two riders. He sat on the porch, building a cigarette in the late afternoon heat. The setting sun threw an orange glare into his face, painting everything under its gaze in molten copper light.

“Well what y’think, Roob?”

“I think you two look like a pair of mangy fleabit tumbler weeds.”

“Y’always talk so sweet.”

“You look worse’n he does, cricket.”

The moniker was accurate. Mack had come out of his withdrawals feeling twitchy, and he’d become prone to little jerking motions and spasms. So they’d taken to calling him ‘cricket.’ The gunslinger grinned and swung down from his horse, cheerfully accepting the remark without rebuttal. Within an hour, the three men were seated with the rest of the family inside at the dinner table. It was a special dinner; since it was the end of the week, they some sweet jellies and biscuits in addition to their usual fare of coarse bread and meaty stew. The night came on, warm and soft, the kind that’s easy to sleep in. Everything was quiet; only a soothing buzz of bug-speak providing accompaniment as the last rays of sunlight surrendered and withdrew their glory, ceding the sky to velvet night. The whole house slept, and calm embraced the ranch.

What woke Cain wasn’t any particular noise or sensation – rather, the absence of it was what disturbed his rest. The usual racket and clamor of insects in the scrub-brush surrounding the ranch was silenced. The only reason why that would be was that they had left altogether, and that only happened when something bigger than they entered their vicinity and frightened them.

The long rifle and cartridge belt next to his bed were instantly donned, and he slipped into his boots. His wife muttered in her sleep, unconsciously unsettled by her husband’s movements. Cain stepped into the hall, where he met Mack. The gunslinger was already belting on his profusion of pistols.

“Somethin’s up,” was all he had to say.

Cain simply nodded. Unsurprisingly, the next few seconds during the walk to the front room saw the arrival of Hawke, Reuben, Nal, Ben, Zach, and Matthew. Each man; the seven brothers and the gunslinger; carried their long rifles and cartridge belts. They stepped towards the windows. They all knew the signs of warning; even Mack, comparatively unused to prairie life, had been informed and alarmed by the change his environment. It wasn’t the first time he’d been warned by an absence of sound rather than its presence.

Six men stepped to the windows while Mack and Cain stepped to the door and edged it open. Instantly, from the surrounding brush, there was a volley of gunfire and war-whoops. The ranchers threw themselves to the floor as the walls and windows exploded in splinters and glass shards. Everything was immediate chaos – the families awoke as Cain began to thunder commands for retaliation; the ranchers returned fire at the attackers. For the next hour, everything was a blur – at some point a fire broke out in the house and in the stable, sending Nal, Zach and Matthew to recover the horses while the others tried to get the families outside. As soon as they did, they were under fire from their unknown attackers. Mack was in his element, standing in the wide-open and blazing gunfire from either hand. A shadowy figure rushed him; he drew a knife, stabbed the man a few times, then let the body drop at his feet. It lay there for the rest of the night. It was a long, hard night.

When morning broke, everything was burned. The horses had scattered to the prairie, and Nal had gone off with Reuben to try and track them down. Ben, Zach and Matthew were dead. Grandma Herst was dead – scalped. The women had either been scalped or beaten to death. Cain sat in the wreckage of his part of the house, cradling Mose’s lifeless body. The boy had run out to defend his family, and he’d been shot through the throat. Hawke and Mack stood nearby, wordless. What was there to say? They’d all lost everything. Nal and Reuben managed to bring back some of the horses, but there was no way to feel happy about this small grace. The ranchers’ livelihood was gone. Everything they’d worked to build was destroyed. They were alone.

It was mid-afternoon when Mack finally roused himself. The well was still there, and he walked over, drew a pail and splashed himself until he was reasonably clean. Then he put on his shirt and belted his guns on. The gunslinger walked to certain place on the side of the house and went down into the cellar. From there, he dragged a big chest back into the sunlight. The ranchers watched dully as he opened it and began to unload box after box of cartridges for his pistols and the ranchers’ rifles, loading his weapons with meticulous precision. Then he saddled a horse.

“What are you doing?” Hawke finally droned. He sat next to the body of his toddler daughter. He’d not moved since morning.

“I’m going out for a ride. Figure I’m gonna kill as many Opeck as I can.”

“Opeck?”

“These was Opeck, Hawke. Look at the body.”

Sure enough, the body of the man Mack had knifed still lay in the yard. It was the leathery, copper-colored skin of an Opeck, marked with blood and smeared war-paint… but carrying a new lever-action rifle.

“Somebody gave ’em the guns, and I’ll get to them, but for now, I’m gonna go hunt some redskins.”

Mired in his sorrow, all Hawke could think to say was: “Why?”

“That’s how I work, Hawke. Hit me, I hit you. Eye for an eye, tooth for a tooth, blood for blood. Now I’m gonna go draw some blood, and I don’t rightly know why y’all ain’t saddling’ up with me right now.”

“…me neither.”

For the first time since that night, Cain spoke and stood up. There was a terrible set to his face and a light in his eye.

“Blood for blood.”

The other brothers roused themselves at their brother’s words. Within an hour, all five men were armed, loaded, saddled, and riding west.

That night they caught up with their attackers. They left the dirt stained with blood and the corpses to rot in the sun, and kept riding. They kept riding.