So this is Christmas, that time of year when we of the Western tradition mark the Winter Solstice by celebrating the birth of a man doomed to die. Well, we’re all doomed to die, but this one reportedly met a gruesome end courtesy of the powers of his time. The man’s mission, according to the early cult that sprung-up around him, was to bring about the “Kingdom of God,” which many of his earlier followers believed would be some sort of world-changing event that would reset things and bring about heaven on earth.
What’s remarkable is that the man utterly failed in his mission. The time and place in which he lived had the typical tension and strife to be found when hyper-religious people are occupied by the dominant power of their day. Most people were presumably just trying to get through their lives, but many factions sought power through the occupying authority, while others retreated from the world or to their religious traditions, and dozens of charismatic individuals roamed the countryside promising a better life through religious purity, bloodshed, or all the other usual means.
That one particular individual’s little cult would survive and spread throughout the empire is remarkable on the surface, but also remember that of the dozens upon dozens of factions and cults that existed in Egypt, Greece, and the Levant during this period, as least one would be expected to emerge with just the right characteristics that would allow it to survive and prosper in the greater world. That it would be a desert cult was almost inevitable, considering the historical hit-rate that region’s achieved throughout history.
Still, it must be noted that the original goals of the man (as related by his earliest followers) were unfulfilled. No “Kingdom of God” manifested itself. No great changes were wrought as a result of his teachings or execution, and life went on much as it always had despite the advent of the “victory snatched from the jaws of defeat” storyline that had the guy come back to life, but then leave for the afterlife shortly thereafter (because that makes sense) and would soon return to do the thing he was supposed to have done the first time around. His earliest followers split-up and formed factions of their own. Their cult attracted the dispossessed, the fringe, and those who were looking for answers that the dominant belief systems of the time didn’t satisfy.
Eventually, the cult stabilized and transformed yet again when men began to realize they could wield power and influence through it. At this point, it’s safe to say that whatever the original inspiration for this cult, it had radically changed as different people with differing perspectives and agendas joined and influenced it. Those with ambition found they could gain respect and influence, while those of lesser abilities used it in typical tribalistic fashion.
In fact, the hallmarks of Christianity of that time appear remarkably similar to the one of ours: Ignorance, hatred, anger, intolerance, factional infighting, and victimization with a dash of smug self-satisfaction were the defining traits of the religion in that age as it is in ours.
Once the State embraced and adopted the religion, the final nail was driven into the coffin of the original mission and message of the man called Jesus. The religion that evolved in his wake did not bring about the Kingdom of God — quite the opposite, in fact. It became a means of obtaining influence and wielding power for the elite, and an instrument of exploitation and control for others. For the Roman Empire and the petty kingdoms that followed in its wake, the religion was the justification for terror, subjugation, torture, bloodshed, war, and cultural genocide. In a few hundred years time, the executed had become the executioners.
But it’s unfair to unload upon Christianity itself for the horrors it helped unleash unto the world. Nearly every State power uses the dominant religion of its culture to pursue the things that people want to pursue anyway; they just like to have a mystical excuse to justify murdering wholesale populations and claiming their resources. It’s one thing for a potentate to say that everyone should stop what they’re doing and go murder and steal to increase his wealth, but the affair tends to adopt a more meaningful demeanor once the enterprise is presented as the will of the gods. That Christianity would also be used in this way isn’t remarkable in the slightest.
What is remarkable, though, is that a kernel of the original man’s mission seems to have survived everything we primitive apes have thrown at it in the two thousand years since it’s presentation: It doesn’t have to be like this. That weak and tiny voice has threaded the millennia, to some effect.
It seems to me that what the man was trying to say (or at least what the earliest cultists seemed to think he was saying) was that this “Kingdom of God” that he was going on about was already present and around us, but we had to change ourselves and how we treated each other to see it and live in it. No power on earth could enforce it, administer it, or even inaugurate it. Individuals had to change themselves to see it. We weren’t driven out of Paradise, it would seem. We left it to create a hell on earth. We chose hell –jealousy, power, greed, influence, control– but it seems we also have it within us to create a heaven as well.
Perhaps that was the goal of this man, and others like him throughout human history who’ve tried to tell people that it really doesn’t have to be this way. We can be better than we are. Paradise would be ours for the taking, if we chose to have it. It may be an impossible dream, but it’s always been one worth pursuing. It’s nice to remember that as we celebrate the fictional tale about the birth of a man we hardly know anything about, and whose better message still persists, despite his religion’s best efforts to stamp it out.
(This is an expanded version of a story I wrote on Twitter today, inspired by this article in the Boston Globe about changes made to NORAD’s popular “Santa Tracker” program.)
The jolly old elf known to many as “Kris Kringle” and to the United States government as “Threat Vector 19″ crossed into American airspace at 0520 Zulu just north of Duluth, Minnesota. A pair of F-22 fighter aircraft silently slid in behind him and maintained station a few hundred meters away. This is new, the Claus thought.
Suddenly invigorated by the presence of high-performance aircraft, he let out a right old laugh as he took the rare chance to perform close-quarter aerobatic maneuvers, thinking the pilots of the fighter craft behind him would relish the opportunity to do the same. It was a fatal error.
Just as the tiny red sleigh completed its barrel roll, the pilot of STARFISH 3 announced to no one in particular, “FOX 1!”
Santa barely evades the AIM-7 Sparrow missile and dives for the ground as the missile’s contrail glistens above him in the moonlight.
Just a few weeks before, the US Government informed Kringle that he had to appear at an FAA facility for inspection of his vehicle and a flight competency test before he would be permitted to fly in US airspace. Always willing to help out the good people at the Federal Aviation Administration, Santa appeared as instructed in his trademark sleigh drawn by eight flying reindeer.
The FAA inspector approached with a clipboard in one hand and a shotgun in the other. Santa was alarmed, but you know, America.
The FAA inspector noticed Santa’s discomfort and smiled as he boarded the magical craft. “Listen, I’m not supposed to tell you this because it’s your test, but,” he nodded his head toward the reindeer,”you’re going to lose an engine in flight.”
It was a joke, but Santa isn’t laughing now as he deftly evades dozens of 20MM rounds zipping all around him. He jukes to and fro in a mad dash for any type of haven from the onslaught, the tracers leaving ghastly after-images in his eyes. The trees whip by in a blur as he increases speed, but Kringle’s mind recalls a fact heretofore never needed: these aircraft are ungainly at low-altitude and low-speed. Santa promptly pulls-back on the reigns, decelerating so rapidly the inertial dampeners can barely compensate. A quick check of his magic sack reveals none of his precious cargo has been lost as the F-22s speed overhead and quickly pass out of sight in a matter of seconds.
The old Saint removes his cap and wipes his brow. He chuckles to himself at the near escape from almost certain doom, but unbeknownst to him a Global Hawk UAV has been monitoring his movements from 60,000 feet overhead and relaying them back to NORAD. Even now, as Kringle speaks comforting words to his frightened reindeer, electronic signals are forming an invisible net around the elf from which there will be no escape.
With a wry smile, Claus snaps the reigns and begins to rise once again into the night just as a pair of Apache helicopters appear above the tree line, their cannon trained directly upon his sleigh. Santa looks over his shoulder to see another pair of Apache approaching from behind. Above, he can barely make out the silhouettes of two armed Predator drones circling overhead. He briefly considers making another run for it before spying a black cross slowly diving toward him. Kringle’s blood runs cold. It’s an A-10, the same beast that had taken out Jack Frost years before on Alaska’s North Slope. The gig was up.
The pilot of the Apache directly in front of Claus signals him to land immediately as a long line of black SUVs approach. They encircle the sleigh as Claus descends to the ground. Men in cheap suits empty from the vehicles by the dozen, guns drawn just as Santa touches down.
Kringle holds up his hands, but Comet, sensing danger, bolts and makes a run for the treeline. He staggers and falls as his body is riddled with hundreds of bullets. The muzzle flashes from the massive array of small arms fire form a constellation of death in the dark night. With a gargling moan, Comet breathes his last.
An enraged Prancer charges a group of agents directly in front of him and manages to connect head-on with one of the anonymous men as small arms fire again erupts in the night. Though mere inches away from a withering barrage of gunfire, Prancer is a credit to his name as he spins to and fro, kicking here and there with his massive hooves. Viscera hangs from his antlers and human bones crush beneath his bulk during his mad dance of death. A direct shot to the head finally fells the great beast, whose momentum allows him to crush one more suited figure beneath him before he, too, expires. In all, half a dozen men lay dead or dying in a circle around the reindeer.
An inconsolable Santa tries to make a run for it, but without the extra lifting power of Prancer and Comet, he can’t achieve take-off speed. Agents board his sleigh and forcibly toss him from the still-moving craft. As Kringle lands on the ground, he rolls and comes to a stop. He looks up to find a dozen guns pointed at his head.
The government agents, inexplicably wearing aviator-style sunglasses even in the dead of night, strip Claus of his famous red suit and cap, leaving him shivering in just an undershirt and boxers in the snow. He’s handcuffed by an agitated agent who makes sure to tighten the cuffs real tight, restricting blood flow to Santa’s hands. Numb from the cold and likely in shock, Santa doesn’t notice. He winces as a boot hits him square in the back and plants him face first into the snow. The agent grabs the jolly old elf by his magnificent white mane of hair and drags him to one of the waiting SUVs.
Through his tears, Kringle sees his magical reindeer punched, kicked, and rifle-butted, their moans of agony piercing the silent night. It’s the last thing he sees before a black hood envelops his head.
As the black line of SUVs snakes off into the night, they leave behind a scene of utter horror. All that remains are a few tufts of fur and chunks of meat in massive pools of maroon blood against the purest white snow. By morning, the wolves and other carrion will have removed the remaining evidence of slaughter, leaving only the blood behind as silent witness.
Santa is never seen nor heard from again. Rudolph, it is rumored, is an unwilling test subject of the Department of Energy at a secret facility in Utah.
After drone strikes destroy Santa’s workshop, Mrs. Claus and the surviving elves seek asylum in Norway, only to be rebuffed at the last second. At the moment, they are all living in a dacha as guests of the Russian government. Some say they’ve converted to Orthodox Christianity, though many believe it’s just Putin making stuff up again.
The sudden disappearance of Santa Claus causes widespread distress, but American corporations soon fill the void with their own mascots, working in concert with other brands to create synergy.
Coca-Cola’s Polar Bear® Brought to You with Limited Interruption by FedEx Air® is currently the most popular of the bunch, though Nike’s Lebron James in the Just Do It™ Sled Sponsored by Foot Locker is gaining influence out West. The Waffle House’s “American Jesus” remains a mainstay of the South, even though he was a short-lived promotional tool to celebrate Labor Day. Tim Horton is popular in Portland.
I’ll now end this tale and leave you with the inspiring words of the Macy’s Holiday Savings Elf®, beloved by children aged 4-8 in desirable demographic households with at least one college-educated parent: Festive Celebration to All and to All a Good Night™ (All Rights Reserved)!
(Also: Sleep tight, America, your nation’s armed forces are awake.)
(I’ve decided to write a story off the top of my head and see where it goes. I’m making this up as I go along and giving myself a time limit of 20 minutes to finish each post. “Dak McManus and the Silver City Swindlers” is the title for the overall story. This is Part 5. )
“Is there an actual spring here?” I was genuinely amazed. I’d seen references to springs in this region on old signs, yet the land we found was as dry and arid as anyplace this side of the Sierra. Dak and I came out of the mountains just after winter, yet we still had to beg, borrow, and steal our way through the desert. If we’d come out in the summer, we would have surely died in the parched wastes. Every random clump of humanity we’d come across since leaving Mono Lake in California told rumors of lakes and rivers just beyond the next range, yet every vista from every peak yielded only the promise of dust and salt. Word of this treasure should have spread far and wide by now, yet there was no sign that this little hamlet had seen any real action.
Steiger seemed nonchalant about the whole thing. “Sure! Most of the area around the ranch house has an aquifer underneath and you can see some small pools here and there in the springtime and fall. We’ve got wells dug for the folks here, so it’s no problem t’all.” Steiger nodded his head toward the ranch house. “Anyway, you should get going to Baumgarten’s house. He’d be expectin’ you and it’s best not to keep him waiting.”
As we left Steiger behind, I noticed Dak’s usual enthusiasm for quick action had abated. He was actually taking his time.
“Our Mr. Baumgarten can cool his heels for a bit,” Dak said by way of explanation, “while we take our sweet time observing this most unusual village.”
“Something amiss here, other than the usual?” I asked.
Dak pointed at the perfectly-aligned tents on either side of us. “Look at this encampment. Such precision! It implies a discipline more suited to a military camp, yet where are the soldiers?”
I had to admit that there seemed to be a lack of the usual armed guards who existed more to protect the leadership from threats within than defend from threats without. I mentioned as much to Dak.
“Indeed! And where are the weapons? Is it not customary for a town to present a show of force to strangers? Yet, it’s as if we’re not even here.”
There was no guard to escort us to the leadership, nor did anyone with actual authority present themselves to demonstrate their dominance over us. Even the folks in this burg didn’t really pay us much mind at all. Men proceeding through town on horses would bring the kids out, if nothing else, but we may as well have been part of the usual scenery.
“There is no novelty in our presence and that worries me greatly,” Dak said.
I’d usually let a comment like that fly right on past me since everything “worried” him greatly, but I found myself agreeing with Dak’s general paranoia. This place was quiet and orderly. No one bustled here. No one shouted. There was a place for everyone and everyone was in their place.
As we progressed further up the road, a general unease slowly took form in my mind and its grip tightened around me. I was genuinely creeped-out.
“If this is how they react to strangers,” Dak said, “they must be supremely confident that two heavily armed men on horse pose no significant threat. Is this arrogance? Unlikely. Word of that spring would have travelled quickly in this blasted land. There would be no end of visitors looking to slake their thirst, yet the population encamped within these walls doesn’t appear to exceed a couple hundred souls. Note the lack of turrets or high places from which to shoot besieging forces. Remember the complete absence of anti-personnel traps along the exterior walls as we approached. When we arrived we were confronted not by crossbows and shotguns, but by a simpleton and an old man. By all rights, this place should have been seized and encamped by a warlord long before we arrived.”
“Maybe it already has,” I said.
Dak’s face was grim. “Paco, I fear that we are not intended to leave this place alive. The only way to maintain the secret of the spring is to prevent anyone from communicating its existence to the surrounding world.”
“So it’s a prison?” I asked. It wouldn’t be a bad prison, I thought. It was clean and neat. A little too quiet for my tastes, but the promise of steady food, water, and shelter would compensate. Not a bad deal, as far as prisons went. Normally, you’d be left to rot in a dark metal box, or trapped in a cage as a curiosity for children to mock–when they weren’t stabbing you through the bars to test the sharpness and durability of their home-made knives, that is.
“If you meet their selection criteria, whatever that may be. If not…” Dak paused and looked out at the expanse we’d traversed that day from the mountains. “The desert may hold the bones of thousands who didn’t make the cut.”
(I’ve decided to write a story off the top of my head and see where it goes. I’m making this up as I go along and giving myself a time limit of 20 minutes to finish each post. “Dak McManus and the Silver City Swindlers” is the title for the overall story. This is Part 4. )
I was snapped out of my musings of human sacrifice by the slow, metallic grinding of metal on metal as the gate closed behind us. My jaw clamped tight and my eardrums vibrated in revolt to the interminable screeching coming from a gate whose closure rate could be measured on geologic timescales. After what seemed like an eternity and then some, the interminable sound stopped with a dull thud. I kept a wary eye out for the dead who’d surely been awakened by the racket.
Instead of a shambling corpse, we were greeted by the next best thing: the old man who had interrogated McManus at the wall. “Greetings, Marshal! Name’s Ron Steiger.” Steiger held out his fist and Dak bumped it with his own, holding it in place for a few more seconds than usual as a sign of respect for the elderly gentleman.
“Thank you, Mr. Steiger,” McManus replied as both of us dismounted our horses. He nodded his head in my direction. “This is my erstwhile comrade, Paco. He’s weak of mind and strong of back, so if you require any manual labor, he would be more than happy to assist you in your endeavors.”
Steiger looked me over, as if inspecting a side of beef for any imperfections. Satisfied with the results of his appraisal, he held out his fist for me. “Welcome Mr. Paco–“
I cut him off. “Just Paco, thank you.”
“Okay, Just Paco,” the old man said. “Don’t worry about schlepping shit from place to place. We’ve got things pretty well locked down here. You boys can go ahead and just relax for now.” I smiled in thankful relief, savoring the sweet release from the drudgery that McManus inevitably volunteered me for at every opportunity.
“So, how long have you been here, old timer?” I asked.
Steiger scratched his chin and thought for a second. “Oh, I’ve been here since I was a kid. Six, maybe seven, years old. Dad found this place with the Baumgartens.”
“The Baumgartens?” asked McManus.
Steiger’s eyes grew wide. “Oh yeah, they’re the ones who live over there in the house. Back then, we’d been comin’ up the highway soon after everything went to shit and joined up with them. We were both in RV’s, so I guess we thought we could trust each other,” Steiger snorted at some private memory and continued. “Our RV’s are the ones up there by the ranch house. Anyway, Dad had a motorcycle, so he took off scouting one day, and came back a couple of hours later saying he’d found this place.”
“What happened to the people who lived here?”
Steiger rubbed the back of his head. “Well, Baumgarten went back with Dad to check out the spread. They’d been gone a long time, but when they came back Baumgarten said it was safe for us to come on over. He said the family who lived here been killed by marauders.”
Dak grimaced. “My father often told us tales of the things he’d seen in those days as a child.” He paused and stared off into the distance, his face suddenly haunted and looking far older than his thirty years.
I recognized that stare, so I quickly steered the conversation back to Steiger. “So, you and the Baumgartens moved into the house and the rest is history, I guess.”
“Well, the Baumgartens moved into the house,” Steiger replied. “Dad wanted us to stay in the RV. He said it felt more like a home to him than that house, so that’s where we lived. Well, until he died, at least.”
McManus snapped back to the present. “What happened then?”
“We were…relocated…from the RV after Dad died. Baumgarten said that since there were a lot more people here, he needed it for a security office to help keep things orderly. So we got kicked on down to the Shantytown and his goons moved into our place,” Steiger said. Judging by the tone of his voice, this was obviously a sore spot with him.
McManus swept his arm in a wide arc over the tent city. “And what of the multitude encamped here? Where did they come from?”
Steiger shrugged. “Every so often someone comes upon us like you just did. If they’re a good fit for the community, we let ‘em stay.”
“What if they’re not a ‘good fit’ for your community?” I asked.
“Well, we give them some basics and send them on their way,” Steiger replied. He nodded toward the ranch house in the distance, “Baumgarten will probably be wantin’ to see ya, seeing as how you’re a lawman and all, Marshal. It’s best not to keep him waiting.”
McManus and I agreed, so we mounted their horses. As we turned toward the house, Dak looked down and asked Steiger, “What do you call this place?”
(I’ve decided to write a story off the top of my head and see where it goes. I’m making this up as I go along and giving myself a time limit of 20 minutes to finish each post. “Dak McManus and the Silver City Swindlers” is the title for the overall story. This is Part 3. )
As we crossed passed through the gate into the town, I was struck by the unusual cleanliness of the place. From the outside, it looked like any other shithole. Rusted metal of varying geometric shapes were crudely tacked together to form a rudimentary wall, with bits of other detritus and debris shoved into the gaps to form a kind of mortar. The inside, however, was far more expansive and clean then any place I’d ever seen. The ground wasn’t covered in shit, for one thing, which I’ve always found to be a plus.
I raised myself from my saddle and scanned the compound to spy the course of Shit Creek, but could find no sign of its meandering path. I’d yet to see a good-sized settlement that didn’t feature a stream of effluent flowing through town, complete with half-naked children daring each other to jump across it. Depending on the topography and population, it could be anything from a pitiful creek to a healthy tributary, but try as I might, I could not divine its location. This could only mean that I would discover it via an accidental fording on foot. The gods were probably taking bets on when it would happen right this moment.
McManus snapped me out of my reverie. “Look there, a sturdy and stout wooden building! You don’t see too many of those,” he said, pointing toward the ranch house in the distance.
“Not any that are still standing,” I replied.
The house occupied a higher elevation than the main encampment, owing to a gentle rising slope that abruptly gave way to a mountain. A single, broad road led from the town gate to its front door. A couple of high berms curved out from the foot of the mountain before bowing back in to terminate across from each other at the main road. Two old RV’s were parked just behind the terminus points of each berm, presumably serving as some kind of gate to the upper section of the town. The berms then curved back outward to encircle the lower part of the settlement, giving the whole work the appearance of a large figure eight. I’d never seen anything like it before. The engineering and sheer effort involved in its construction must’ve been massive.
At our location near the main wall was the lower settlement, featuring a perfect grid of tents with arrow-straight streets. Each tent was allotted an eight foot by eight foot area, bounded on all sides by a dirt path wide enough for two men to walk side-by-side with ease. It was without a doubt the most impressive burg I’d seen since we left Sacramento years ago. It was like an army of white triangles had descended upon the earth to demonstrate their pythagorean splendor in a chaotic world.
“It looks like these folks have got themselves together,” I said, hoping against hope that the astonishing cleanliness and good order would convince Dak to quickly resupply and leave. I was amazed by the organization and wealth on display out here in the middle of nowhere, but that only increased my willingness to get out of town before sunset. People like this coveted their wealth like a miser and were distrustful of any envious strangers in their midst. Sure, most townsfolk were kind at first, but the longer you lingered the greater the chance they’d turn on you. If you were lucky, they’d just run you out of town. In most cases, they’d just beat you to death. If they were feeling especially fancy, they’d put on a big production and hang you.
McManus, of course, didn’t like the look of it. “A calm surface only belies a deep evil,” he said. He leaned forward in his saddle and sniffed the air. “We must dig until we find it.”
I let out a small sigh, knowing it was useless to argue otherwise. As far as Dak was concerned, evil was always afoot until he had rooted it out and vanquished it. From the look of it, we were going to be here a good long while before that ever happened. Maybe this town was finally the place where I would grow old and tell young children the legendary tales of Paco the Brave and his erstwhile sidekick, Duck MacMantis. Or this village was the center of a nefarious cult who required a regular blood sacrifice to their great goat god. If so, I hoped that they’d at least extend the courtesy of allowing me to sleep on something soft first. I preferred to be fully rested for my appointment with whatever eldritch deity lay in wait here.
(I’ve decided to write a story off the top of my head and see where it goes. I’m making this up as I go along and giving myself a time limit of 20 minutes to finish each post. “Dak McManus and the Silver City Swindlers” is the title for the overall story. This is Part 2. )
I arrived at the walls of the settlement to a familiar scene: Dak McManus attempting to convince the gatekeeper to let him inside the town. For some reason, it always took a fair bit of persuasion. It wasn’t just that he was what you’d call a tad enthusiastic, he was also a veritable mobile armory. In addition to the rifle slung across his back, he also rolled with a Smith & Wesson holstered to his left hip and Beretta strapped to his right. Most folks would consider themselves well-appointed with this kind of hardware at the ready, but Dak often said he didn’t feel quite right without the twin Glocks nestled snugly in their nylon holsters under his duster. For just that added bit of safety for those times when a street howitzer might be needed to clear the way of recalcitrant street urchins or vicious hobos, McManus fielded a Remington pump-action shotgun that could be quickly retrieved from its saddle holster. Various ammo pouches completed the ensemble, punctuated by a stylish but deadly K-Bar knife.
He tended to intimidate most honest folks, which was a shame, since most of his guns could only be properly used as clubs. Ammunition was limited for most of them, but that wasn’t the point of their conspicuous display. They were the trophies taken from the cold dead hands of the California Justice League’s most notorious leaders. Each weapon served as a reminder of a debt paid and an oath fulfilled.
McManus leaned over to me and whispered, “I believe these people to be under extreme duress.” He then nodded up to the gatekeeper. “This man is nervous and fearful. We should assault the town at once.”
I put on my practiced face of mock severity, complete with requisite frown. “They’re already alerted to our presence and will no doubt expect us to attack. We should recon the surrounding area and spy the weak points before an assault.”
McManus briefly considered my idea but shook his head. “Normally I would agree, old friend, but we don’t have time to spare.” McManus paused as he tried to solve the conundrum, but his face betrayed no confusion.
“Gatekeeper!” he yelled.
A slight man appeared on the rampart. “Hey there, you still here?”
“Of course I’m here!” McManus shouted back. “Dak McManus does not shrink from danger!”
The young man shifted back and forth on his platform for a few seconds before finally yelling down to us. “How do I know you’re not just marauders?” He pointed at the distant hills. “What’s to say your buddies in them hills ain’t gonna come ridin’ down the minute you get inside the walls and blow us all away?”
In a flash, McManus drew his Beretta and aimed it squarely at the head of the gatekeeper before the inquisitive guard could react. “You accuse me of villainy, sir?”
Normally at this point four or five other men would appear on the wall with rifles, bows, or improvised projectile devices pointed squarely at McManus, yet only an old man poked his bald head over the wall and looked at him, then the gatekeeper, and then back to McManus again.
“Who’d you say you were?” the old man yelled down.
McManus stifled a sigh. Though frustrated at the needless delay, he would not disrespect the elderly. “I am Dak McManus, US Marshal.”
The old man stroked his chin. “US Marshal, eh? Where’s your badge, Marshal?”
McManus opened the left lapel of his duster to reveal his US Marshal badge, an impressive nine-pointed star with “Sacramento Police” stamped across its face. The apparent incongruity had never really been a problem, since no one ever took a close look at it. And even if they could, most of them couldn’t read anyway. A shiny piece of metal in the general shape of a star was enough for most folks.
“Okay, Marshal, sorry about the trouble,” the old man replied. “My nephew Timmy here ain’t the sharpest knife in the drawer. Takes it from his mother’s side. A bunch of special people over there…lackin’ a frontal lobe or somethin’. Pretty ladies, but stupid. Best kind, I guess.” He cackled as he pushed himself away from the wall and slapped Timmy upside the head as he ambled away. “Open the goddamned gate, Timmy!”
McManus smiled. “It appears the danger is not as imminent as we believed, Paco. Any band of outlaws would surely have gunned down the elderly first, as their frail bodies and addled brains would make them unfit for any useful labor or satisfying sexual exploitation.”
“I’ll remember that when I’m 60.”
“Never fear, Paco!” McManus assured me. “Your tales of my exploits will be cherished by your grandchildren after a lifetime of faithful service!”
“Well, I’ve got that going for me, at least.”
“That you do. Come, they’re finally opening the gate.”
(I’ve decided to write a story off the top of my head and see where it goes. I’m making this up as I go along and giving myself a time limit of 20 minutes to finish each post. “Dak McManus and the Silver City Swindlers” is the title for the overall story. This is Part 1. )
Dak McManus, US Marshal, held up his hand. “Easy, Paco. There’s a town in the valley below.”
From what I could see from our vantage point, the town itself resembled a settlement from California more than the shantytowns we’d seen so far out here on the high desert. Most places in the Central Valley were haphazard collections of buildings fashioned from the debris of a long-dead world. The towns, like their people, were small and ugly. The cities? Well, you just didn’t go there unless you were looking to be slowly and painfully relieved of your mortal existence.
“So there is,” I said, my voice even. Villages represented trouble. In my time, I’d come to realize that people were the same all over: sadistic, vindictive, and cruel. One or two out on their own were by necessity quite polite, but when gathered together their combined numbers afforded them the luxury to visit any depravity they could conjure upon the hapless souls who crossed their path. I’d cleaned out enough of these nests over the years to know the smart move was to steer clear and move on.
McManus’ mustache twitched. “I sense distress.”
I slumped in my saddle. As far as Dak McManus was concerned, there was always distress wherever more than a few people gathered. Ever since we’d come out of the mountains a few weeks ago on our grand and glorious mission to bring Justice to the Nevada wastes, we’d seen few settlements, if you could even call them that. They were really just settlements in the technical sense. Mostly, they were places where some random strangers bumped into each other and stopped moving. Some even looked like they’d just given-up and were just waiting for the inevitable to finally overtake them. So it wasn’t much of a surprise to see Dak getting all excited at what looked like an honest-to-goodness town after weeks of barren waste and half-dead stragglers.
McManus tensed as he always did upon sensing the opportunity to confront the servants of evil. He straightened-up in his saddle and he had that wild glint in his eye that usually meant one or both of us was going to end up on the wrong end of a gun barrel. He tightened his grip on the reigns and yelled, “Come, Paco! We ride!”
He was off like a shot, his horse kicking up enough dust to quickly obscure his form as he raced to the town far on the desert floor below. The potential for cannibalism or mere horrific death didn’t excite me as much, so I continued the same gentle pace as before. I’d been to what I thought was hell and back with Dak, but after several weeks out here in the desert I realized the Central Valley wasn’t Hell, it was merely the balcony. Nevada was the ground floor of Gehenna.
I finally caught-up with McManus a few moments later. He’d stopped to wait for me on what appeared to be an old paved road. His whole body seemed to be repulsing an invasion of ants as he impatiently waited for me to come along side. “Is your horse lame? Does it require medical attention?” he asked. He made no attempt to mask the urgency in his voice.
I quickly raised my hand to avoid any possibility of veterinary attention. “Dak, let’s stop and ponder for a moment. Why are we rushing down there? We don’t know who those people are or what they’re about. Besides, it’s not like there’s a lot of water around here and it doesn’t make much sense to wear out the horses for no good reason. Why not just take it easy until we know what’s what?”
I thought, against all experience, that this reasonable tone would dampen Dak’s enthusiasm. After all, we’d quickly learned that distances were deceiving out here. Something that looked fairly close from the top of a mountain often turned out to be more than 20 miles away. There wasn’t any reason to run full tilt at something that might actually be half-a-day’s ride away.
“We didn’t venture forth into these savage lands to ‘take it easy’, old chum,” Dak said. “We came to establish law amongst the lawless. To bring the light of Justice to a darkened land. Those poor souls down there most assuredly require our full and immediate assistance!”
“Or they’ll most assuredly shoot us, take our horses, and leave our naked bodies out in the sun for the vultures,” I shot back.
McManus shook his head. “You know as well as I do that evil never rests, Paco. Those poor folks could be under assault from nefarious gangsters even as we speak! How can we delay when lives are stake?”
“What about our lives?” I asked. “This isn’t California! We can’t just ride into god-knows-what like a couple of jack asses and hope everything just works out for the best. We can afford to take our time here. I doubt the bandits down there were just waiting for us to notice them before they initiated their sinister plot. Besides, if there actually is anyone down there, they’ll have seen our dust trail long before we get there. They’ll be prepared.”
McManus’ ashen face betrayed genuine concern—not for us, but for the welfare of those within the settlement. He quickly pointed his horse toward the valley floor and turned to look back at me. “I can tarry no longer! Let’s ride!”
Waving the dust from from my face, I decided to kick it up a notch to a slow trot.