By Keith Good
Part One: Bandito
He craved death. Each bone-stubbled carcass, each spike of irradiated grass growled the dark inside him. Days stretching to weeks, he entertained the fantasy that, like him, these plains would die forever. It was a cruel thought. Flickering lizards—little candles of life—and summer cloudbursts snuffed his macabre fantasies. He could never die, and the world would only live.
He pulled the small book from Rosie’s saddle bag only to put it back. He was almost there. Hypnotized by the steady hiss of Rosie’s pneumatic horseshoes, he surrendered to the familiar dream. Denver City rose from the shimmering heat, woven from the light and fog. He and Rosie trotted the familiar High Street, a squat warehouse on their left. Its hand-carved sign declared:
Metalwork & Horseshoeing
L.M. Smith, Prop.
In this false lucidity, he pulled Rosie’s reins toward their former home. She ignored him; instead breaking into a brisk jog. As all good things do, Denver City faded and died. He tried to ask Rosie ‘¿Que es esto, chica?’ but weeks without water had left his voice as dead as the plains he rode.
The question was superfluous. A black speck squirmed on the horizon, too big for brush and too small for buffalo. It was another horse, which meant another rider. He swung an arm behind him and let the safety off his rifle. Just in case. Rosie, her sight superior, her attentions inexhaustible, recognized the speck and upped her pace. The Rider obliged her enthusiasm and sat firm, a hand on his gun and his eyes fixed on the growing shape.
As in most matters, Rosie’s judgment proved correct. The shape was a horse stretched across the earth, bested by the cruel heat. The poor animal was missing most of a foreleg. A bandito slumped against its neck, pot bellied and bloody-mouthed. Rosalina broke to a thundering gallop, the tubes grafted to her hooves screaming steam. Too proud for bit or saddle, the Rider tugged her mane to maintain his seat.
“Whoa, chica,” he croaked. His words did nothing. Rosalina ran until the greasy outlaw was under hoof. She reared back to deliver vengeance, but a forceful pull on her mane fell the blow wide. The mare stomped murderous intent, snorting and spitting. The Rider, minding his grip lest he end up on the brick-hard ground, whispered in Rosalina’s perked ear.
She settled and The Rider, rifle in hand, hopped to the ground. A bandito slouched in the shade of his dead horse, gnawing a grisly femur. His skin was burned leather, spotted with yellow blisters and the blackness of encroaching death. Blood matted gnarly stubble to his cheek. Flies swarmed his face, landing without reprove on eyelids, nose and cheeks.
“¿Hablas íngles?” The Rider trained his rifle between the bandito’s sunken eyes. His custom scope flickered a red dot against the book-leather skin.
The bandit laughed and tossed the femur away. “No. I sprecken zee Doitch.”
“Get smart with me again and I’ll relieve you of your brains.” The rider punctuated his warning with a kick to the bandito’s ribs. Blood puffed from the wretch’s lips. “You one of the Banditos Rouges that held up the Union Pacific last week?”
“What if I am? You a law dog?”
The Rider lowered his rifle. “If I’m a dog, then you’re the bitch, bandito.” He turned from the wretch and whispered in Rosie’s ear. She snorted, putting a rare smile onto the Rider’s face. He pulled the small book from Rosie’s saddle bag and secreted it to a pants pocket.
“Today is the luckiest day of your life, bandito. The way I figure, your boys are whoring in Santa Fe by now. Rosie here will take you to them.” The Rider took a canteen from his hip and emptied half into the aluminum tanks on Rosie’s haunches. He tossed the rest to the bandito. “Take it easy with the water and you’ll live.”
The bandito laughed.
“You’re gonna give away your horse and your water in the center of hell? Gringo, you’ll be dead by sundown.”
“Doubt it,” the Rider said, staring into the sun.
“Santa Fe is too far for this mare—laden as such with those metal tanks and that steel case on her ass. She’ll die the same as my ol’ Buck.”
The Rider pulled the bandito up by his collars and slung him over Rosie’s back. “Thinking ain’t your strong suit, bandito. You leave the logic to me. Consider yourself fortunate—I’m in a charitable mood. That only happens every two hundred years or so.” The Rider pointed to the rectangular metal case strapped to Rosalina’s hind. “Whatever you do, don’t open Pandora’s box. Hell’s inside.”
With a swift slap, Rosalina and the crusty bandito set off into the plain. He bounced as if strapped to a bucking bull. The boots grafted to her hooves hissed pressurized steam, driving hydraulic rods to the ground in concert with her gallop. The machine amplified her speed tenfold.
“What the hell kind of horseshoes are these?” The bandito roared, his voice heavy with the echo of distance. Within seconds Rosie and the thief were over the horizon. The Rider thought of the noose awaiting the gullible bastard and flashed another rare smile.
He was again alone. The sun needled exposed skin, fighting a battle it could never win. He pulled the book from his pants pocket and put it back. Left to his own devices, Denver City congealed from the haze before him. He stood at the arched door of his old workshop, the damned machine just beyond. Decades wound back like the gears in his pocket watch.
The Rider walked through the arch and into a day dream, shuttled from 1913 New Mexico to the floor of his workshop, at the end of the High Street in Denver City, 1861.
Part Two: Compañera
Electric dragons roamed the warehouse. Birthed from copper and steel obelisks, they flew to the center of the shop, leaving a wake of sapphires. He shoveled one last load of compressed coal into the boiler’s mouth and stepped back. His conglomeration of magnets and locomotive parts conducted a beautiful symphony: coal fire from the boiler shot compressed steam to each of the four magneto towers, forcing the magnets across copper screws which pulled electricity to the domes atop each column.
Above the boiler, insulated from its hellfire by layers of Comanche fabric, sat a crystal dodecahedron 12 inches across. The dragons swarmed a filament ascending from the box and plunged inside.
Protected by the crystal and glowing with electricity, sat a human heart. Each snapping dragon made it dance. The man stepped to a small dial atop the boiler and nudged it clockwise. The pistons increased their intensity. Sparks flew faster, stronger, until one dragon chomped the tail of the next into continuous arcs of power. Electrons sputtered from the machine, condensing an electric cloud over the man’s head.
He lowered blacktinted goggles and peered at the heart glistening inside the crystal box.
The heart beat. It was alive.
The man fell to his knees and cried in savage ecstasy. Electricity rained over his hands, his eyes, until his veins ran blue and he was indistinguishable from the cloud above him. The dragons, weary of their mechanical master, began to fly free through the shop. They exploded vials like glass bombs. They kindled errant papers and wood like struck matches.
Even for one who can not die, the chaos proved too much. Frantic to save the machine, to preserve the two tons of steel and 78 years of toil, he lunged to the copper kill switch glinting from the boiler. The machine shrieked in agony, bleeding molten metal. The pistons halted, the steam fizzled and died.
The familiar dark draped over his eyes. In the haze between life and death, the man saw a strange beast—maybe imagined—roaming his workshop. A chimera of water and flesh doused the shop, squelching the hungry fires. The water-beast hovered to where the man lay, stooped down to his face. He opened his mouth to speak but the curtain of consciousness dropped, plunging him again into the unfathomable abyss.
She perched on a charred stool, his rifle bouncing across her knee. “You should be muerto.” She was dark as the room, only eyes and teeth. Her hair tangled to bare shoulders.
“True.” It still hurt to speak. He coughed ash and propped to his elbows, pain cramping his every muscle. Most humans he read like children’s rhymes: all definition and subtext gleaned from a simple once over. This black wraith, however, was obtuse—indecipherable. She wore rags but had the air of an oil baron.
“Who are you?” he asked.
“The chica that saved you from the ashes.” A slender cigar bounced from the corner of her mouth, ruby ember conjuring peacocks of smoke that strutted and swirled above their heads.
“That’s a fifty-cent cigar you’re chomping on.” He made incremental movements in the low light, inching forward while looking stationary.
“Esta cigarillo es mia.” A steely cloud rolled from her mouth. “The way I figure, you owe me for saving your skin.”
“My skin needed no saving.”
“Tu máquina, then.” She tossed her black hair to the mass of iron, copper, crystal and magnet behind them. He gave the machine a once-over: it was mostly intact, cogs and wheels still in the right place. The worst damage was to the crystal heart—a crack ran top to bottom, precious liquid dripping to the floor.
“Fair enough.” He pushed from his elbows to his palms, sitting up in the low light. “If that Cubana de Oro pays part of my debt, what more do I owe?”
Her eyes sparked with bemusement. “When the Law shows up, you tell them I'm not here and you never saw me.” She looked to the arched doorway across the workshop. Her attentions foolishly divested, he jumped from the floor, stole the rifle and trained it between her chocolate eyes.
“Chica,” he snorted, “Law ain’t piss next to a malo like me." He swung the barrel skyward and boomed a shot into the rafters. “I despise humanity. Pray tell why I shouldn’t blast your head clean off and bury you under the floorboards with the rest.” His finger flexed against the trigger, rifle nestled into his shoulder.
“Easy,” she snorted. “No soy humana. Soy monstrua.” She bared her incisors and growled.
“A monster?” He lowered the gun a shade, the potential shot no longer a lethal blow.
“Mi madre was a slave in El Paso. Una dia, a pack of banditos came riding in; slaughtered her master like the puerco he was, burned the house, plundered its stores. It would have been a blessing if they’d burned mi madre with the house but they were coños without compassion. They cut her face, stripped her clothes and took turns with her. Twelve banditos, one after another for days. When they got bored, when she stopped fighting against their greasy hides, they rode away, left her for dead. The law came around, sold her to another puerco. Nine months later I arrived…she died not too much after.”
She stared past him, into a dark corner of the warehouse. “Soy una monstrua. Half bandita, half negra. In this country, a Mexican half of three-fifths ain’t shit.” The woman looked to the barreled ceiling and whispered feathers of sugary smoke.
“Alright.” He swung the rifle point to dirt and leaned elbow to its stock. “What’s the law want with a monstrua like you?”
“The sheriff of this town mistook me for a sporting bitch. I told him my honey wasn’t for sale, not even to no bigshot lawman, but the coño didn’t listen. He slapped me around and stole the poke I wouldn’t sell. When he was done, sleeping like a baby, I took a set of butcher shears and – snip!” she mimed this with her fingers, “Sliced off his tiny little pene. I was out the window and down the street before he realized the blood was his.”
He had no choice but to laugh with her, sap the electricity she generated. It had been centuries since he’d laughed. The ease of the smile on his face and the helium rising in his chest surprised him—joy was a luxury he thought long dead.
“Fine.” He tossed the rifle onto the girls lap. “The Cock-Butcher of Denver City can stay in my shop as long as it would have taken me to rebuild the machine she saved. Two months sound fair?”
“Sí.” She answered with a firm nod.
“¿Como te llamas, senorita?” he asked, striding to inspect his damaged machine.
“Rosalina.” She quit the stool and followed.
“Get a wrench, Rosalina, we have some repairs to make.”
The law hobbled in a week later—comical in his ill-fitted waistcoat, over waxed moustaches and frayed bowler. His accessories—a gauze diaper and sapling crutch—proved too much for the Blacksmith's sense of humor. It was only with the greatest self-discipline (and molars gnashing his tongue) that he kept laughter at bay.
“Now, John, I heard of cowpokes coming in from the trail, asking the whores to diaper them and let them suck the tit, but honestly, I didn’t figure it the kind of thing you’d go in for.”
“Where is she, blacksmith?” The sheriff's voice was more cry than command.
The Smith put on a cocksure smile. “I'm sorry, but of whom are we speaking?”
“The mulatto who tried to kill me, that's who!”
“I heard she only tried to geld you, John.”
The Sheriff was sweating and out of breath, struggling to stay upright. The strain of argument was almost too much for him to bear. He took a few breaths and swallowed before starting again in a calmer voice. “We know she's here, Blacksmith. We ain't found her tracks out of town and we checked every dern building. Hand her over so she can hang for what she done.”
The Smith showed the sheriff his upturned palms, absolving himself of sleeved aces. “As much as I'd fancy a drink with any dame that snips off your prick, I regret to say I haven’t seen her.”
The sheriff stood fast at the door, blood dribbling down his diaper. Clearly he was not one to be led away so easily. The Blacksmith, palms still out, stepped aside and waved the law inside.
“You and your boys are more than welcome to nose around the shop at your leisure. I should warn you though,” he pointed to the mass of blackened behind them, “I'm doing some experiments with electricity. I’d hate for an experiment to go bad with you and yours in here.”
The Sheriff righted himself as best his gnarled groin would allow, face scrunched with skepticism. Trickles of sweat arched his convex jaw, quivering at each of his three chins. With his non-crutch hand, the Sheriff removed his bowler—blonde wisps matted to a bald head—and mopped his flop sweat with a sleeve. Bowler back in place, he unleashed a heavy-hearted sigh.
“I suppose I’ve no reason to think you a liar.”
“Very good,” the Smith replied.
The Sheriff nodded—bookending their interaction—and the Blacksmith swung the massive oak door. It slammed into the jamb with a resounding thud.
The Smith turned to face the waiting dark. “Don't think he’ll be back.”
Rosalina proved to be an inexhaustible fountain of questions. Had the Smith known this from the start, he may have shot the woman and been done with it.
“¿Que es esta máquina?”
Her first query came before the diapered law came knocking. The Smith was walking a slow circuit of the contraption, hands clasped behind his back, head swiveling, when the reserves of Rosalina’s restraint evaporated, exposing her vast bed of her curiosity.
His first thought was to be glib—to say, “Metal and glass,” but the girl had saved the machine. She’d earned enough currency to purchase a few answers at least.
“It is a mechanical heart,” he said. “Each of the four magnetic towers turn steam power into electricity. The electricity flows from the dome atop each tower to the central chamber. At just the right frequency and power, the electricity revivifies the heart inside the machine.”
“¿Una Corazon maquinal?”
“It’s not too unlike the function of your own heart. You body metabolizes the food you eat into small parcels of electricity which then move your muscles and beat your heart.”
Pausing at the northwest tower, the Smith noticed a hairline crack tracing the perimeter of its copper coil. He made a quick mental note: “Copper winding on NW Tower compromised; refire or replace.”
“It looks like a torn up train to me.”
He turned around. As requested, Rosalina stood behind him, wrench at the ready.
“Yes… excepting the magnets and crystal, the machine’s components were… borrowed from the Southern Pacific 2224.”
“They just gave you a train?”
He resumed his diagnostic circuit.
“A rifle between the conductor’s eyes can be an invaluable bargaining tool.”
“How do you know Spanish? You don’t look like no Mexicano to me.”
They were seated for dinner a few nights into Rosalina’s stay. She spoke between savage mouthfuls of potato while he played with the small portion on his plate.
“In my youth I was a bit of an explorer. A Privateer. I spent years in the southern reaches of the American continent with a group of buccaneers.”
Rosalina’s eyes bulged, contrasted against her dark face.
“In your ‘youth?’ ‘Many years?’ You’re barely older than I am! ¡Gringo loco!” She petered into a disbelieving chuckle, amusement glinting her eye.
He flattened his mashed potato Matterhorn with the brunt of his fork, leaving a great grey plain. “Yes…” The Smith cleared his dry throat. “I suppose it only seems like many years ago.”
“What were you looking for?”
He shrugged his shoulders.
“How do you know so much?”
Rosalina interjected during an explanation of magnetism and electricity, placing a hand on his forearm. He was surprised at the softness of her palm, the light kiss of her fingertips. Like a spooked rabbit, he hopped backward. Rosalina’s arm hovered for a moment, then folded gently over her bosom.
“It would take ten lifetimes to gather so much into one head, gringo.”
Her observation elicited a single surprised word from the Smith:
It took the Blacksmith, aided by his water-wraith, thirteen days to repair the mechanical heart. He hadn’t considered the value of extra hands until he had Rosalina. Fresh copper was fused into cracks, each magnet calibrated, the crystal box patched and refilled with saline solution. No precaution was overlooked. Both the Smith and Rosalina wore rubber gloves and smocks to insulate them from the electrical maelstrom. Buckets of water, four for each tower and six circling the heart, sat ready.
Rosalina wore excitement in flush cheeks and glowing eyes. She stood at the mouth of the boiler, a shovel of fuel ready. Her wards were the fire and the kill switch. Her head followed as the Smith made a final pass to inspecting their repairs. Satisfied, he took three brisk steps to Rosalina and whispered in her ear.
“Esta es el tiempo, señorita.”
Before he could remove himself, Rosalina swept in planted a kiss on the Smith’s cheek, warm and full of the life he envied.
“For luck.” She winked and heaved the first shovel of coal into the boiler. Fiery teeth gnashed into the fuel, tearing molten bits to feed the inferno. Her back turned, the Smith rubbed his cheek where the girl’s lips had been, hoping to trap her lingering heat.
The machine groaned.
“More!” The Smith mimed shoveling coal. Rosalina scooped a mountain of briquettes—eyes clenched and arms trembling with strain—and heaved toward the furnace. Her effort was rewarded with a surge of raw power—aroused fires drove the machine’s four pistons. The towers moaned jets of steam. Lubricating oil squished obscenely, accumulating at each piston’s base
Satisfied all was within operating parameters, the Smith again mimed Rosalina to feed the boiler. She threw more coal, sending the machine to frenzy. Pistons pumped violent lust, hungry for more. The towers quivered, copper screaming against steel. The workshop floor shuddered with the machine’s primal force. Vials and test tubes clinked a ghostly dirge. Rosalina clenched her eyes, certain the vicious coupling would kill everything.
But the machine quieted to a low hum. Having achieved some degree of equilibrium, the earthquake shivers lessened. A hush fell, laden with anticipation. The hum matured into a buzz and Rosalina felt the hairs on her arms stand on end. She turned to the Smith, saw him staring at the southeast tower with a grin on his face.
Pearlescent electricity squirted from the tower. It looked like heavy water, morphing through the blackness. Sparks rained over them, everything fizzing and blue. The Smith, one final time, thrust his fists forward and tossed them left. One last shovel of fuel.
Rosalina tossed in the last of the fuel and slammed the boiler door. Ropes of glistening light shot from the machine, turning and weaving over their heads. Rosalina raised a gloved hand and watched as electricity ran over her fingers and down her hand.
Then came the scene she had witnessed two weeks prior: the ropes and globules congealed to steady streams of blue fire, arching from each of the towers to the central heart. This spectacle, now that Rosalina understood the machinations, resembled a dance. Arcs of electricity (egged on by the grunting towers) grew in stature and quickened their steps until, at center, illuminated by an oceanic glow, the heart began to partner in their dance.
The shimmy was life itself. Rosalina looked to the Smith. His shoulders were rounded, arms and legs slack, utter relief on his face.
His joy, however, was short lived. The scene continued as it had before; the electric dragons grew bored of their restraints and fled. The Smith rushed to the heart of the machine and began finessing the control knob, but the dragons refused to obey. Again they leapt from their towers, eager to explore the shop.
Rosalina put her palm to the emergency stop. It was warm to the touch. She awaited an order she knew wouldn’t come. The Smith’s face slackened in defeat as vials exploded, fractured by raw electricity. He watched the heart dance faster and faster, a St. Vittus’ Dance beyond his control. He did nothing but stare at his failure as the world burned about him.
Entropy advanced, great snakes of blue lighting invading the shop. Sparks tumbled from the heart itself, attacking the Smith. He offered no resistance. He only fell to his knees, hands cradling the violent heart in its crystal shell.
Rosalina would take no more. With hell closing in around them, she slammed the copper emergency stop with all her might.
The Smith fell to despair. He existed only in dark recesses of the shop, staring at nothing, eyes unfocused. His reverie plunged deep, his isolation colder than Rosalina thought possible.
The Machine became proxy in her desire to nurse the Smith. Rosalina checked every inch of copper, steel and crystal—the little trauma was easily fixed. Only minor burns remained as badges to this second failure.
Rosalina, anticipating the eventual buoyancy of the Smith’s spirits (he couldn’t wallow for eternity, could he?), catalogued theoretical improvements to the machine: three towers instead of four (three being the number of the Trinity), a restraint mechanism to prevent the pistons from quaking, an intermediary—a battery of sorts—to protect the heart from cruel electricity. The Smith was a statue in the corner, eating and relieving himself only once exhaustion had pulled Rosalina to sleep.
Through this cloud of pessimism and defeat, Rosalina cast her light. After fixing the machine, she went about cleaning the shop, removing the ash of failure that seemed to smother everything. But six days on, Rosalina’s patience broke. With the last traces of day beaming orange over the workshop, she put a gentle hand to the Smith’s shoulder. His cold demeanor seemed to manifest physically—chilling her fingertips.
“Cheer up,” she said, leaning over, lips to ear, “esta es temporary.”
“Don’t,” he growled.
Rosalina disobeyed, massaging his shoulders and back, her hands sliding lower with each pass, eventually finding his chest. His muscles softened under her hands. She lingered, playing gentle notes over ringlets of hair.
“I can take your mind from here.” She nuzzled his neck.
“Please—” his protestations were squelched as Rosalina swung around onto his lap. Eager hands yearned down his torso, ripping buttons from his shirt, her lips exploring the topography of his clavicle. With a playful tug the tails of his shirt pulled free and fell to the floor. He sat bare-chested and bowbacked, Rosalina astride him.
“Please.” His tone was nasal and desperate. Rosalina’s kisses traveled south, trekking his mountains and valleys.
Then, in a burst of animal sexuality, heat flowing from her in great rolling waves, Rosalina leapt from his lap and clawed away his belt, tearing the sliver buckle from leather.
“Now comes the real fun, gringo.” Her fingers dove under his pants into tufts of pubic hair.
But he did not react—could not react. He sat petrified on the stool, face to the sky. His skin would not warm under passion’s flame. Like so many other times in his life, days and years gone, the Smith wished with all his might that he could just die. He scorned himself for even thinking it—hope was a bankrupt enterprise.
Rosalina, eyes alight, apple cheeked and lips flush with anticipation of kisses yet to land, reached down and felt the Blacksmith flaccid. Cold. Unresponsive to her advances. Her playful smile died with the sunset. She recoiled her hand as if bitten, his limp member peeking from his fly.
She backed from him, hips jutting and eyes narrow. “You a fairy? You like boys?” Her gaze was a cutlass.
“No,” he said, “No… It’s—”
“Porque soy una monstrua.”
He moved in to grasp her, smother her fires of self-loathing. She welcomed his embrace with a flurry of body blows—open palms and knuckles to his cold heart.
“You’re not the monster, Rosalina. I’m the monster.”
She broke into sobs on his shoulder.
“I’m the monster,” he repeated.
They stood in the advancing shadows, her body rocking against his, the Smith doing his best to reassure her that not a single thing was wrong with her, that the problem truly was his alone.
Rosalina looked up to him, red eyes trying to read his face. A million questions flew through her mind—inquisitions, accusations, expeditions to the core of this man, but all she could ask was:
His answer was simple and profound, not words to be misinterpreted or read incorrectly, but a simple action to erase all doubt.
“Porque.” He took her hand in his, and stepping back, placed her palm over his heart.
The infinite questions were answered; why he rarely ate, why she spied him awake at all hours of the night, his vast knowledge and why he’d put so much of himself into that damned hulking contraption.
The Blacksmith had no heart beat.
His chest was cold, unmoving, like a doll. Rosalina stared at the stagnant flesh, searching for a tremor to disprove what she knew to be true.
“It stopped beating two thousand years ago,” he said, barely a whisper.
Rosalina’s mind raced through the horror stories whispered around dying fires in the slave quarters. Their macabre words bubbled to her lips.
“¿You…,” she stammered, “¿Vampiro?”
The Smith released Rosalina’s hand. It stayed fixed to his chest, probing for some hint of life.
“Vampire?” The Smith looked to the ceiling. “Vampire—yes. It’s been some time since anyone has used that term… But yes, they used to call me ‘vampire.’”
Rosalina cupped her hands around her neck.
“¿Quieres mi sangre, no?”
The Smith pried Rosalina’s trembling hands from their protector positions.
“The stories are exaggerated. I did experiment drinking human blood, but never from living necks.” His fingers played down from Rosalina’s hands. “Wrists are much easier to drain—less splatter.”
His ill-advised attempt at humor only fanned Rosalina’s fear. She was wracked by feverish shivers, her gaze elusive.
“I’m not alive but I can’t die. My heart doesn’t beat…” he swept errant coils of hair from Rosalina’s face. She flinched but dared not move. “I am every monster history has ever imagined, impotent in every way.”
Her terror a poison, the Smith broke from Rosalina, toward his machine. He stroked the crystal box, gazing at the dead heart inside. It shimmered like a carefully wrought gemstone, beautiful but without intrinsic value.
“Years ago I discovered lightning could make cobbled corpses walk again. So this collection of magnetized ore and locomotive parts is my attempt to create and harness pure light—life.
“It was my hope that the proper application of electricity would force my shriveled heart to beat once more. I long to restore my life so as to finally die in peace.”
Rosalina shook, crumpled onto the floor, trying to reconcile reality with the man-shaped monster before her. She steeled herself, forced the panic to subside until she could again speak.
“Like so many of the events in my half-existence,” the Smith spoke in a voice as distant as his origins, “my genesis is more myth than history. The truth is I can no longer remember. Myth says I was, at the dawn of human civilization, a rake and a thief—condemned for coveting that which was not my own. In my final moments, I asked another, one much greater, to save me my fate. I expired and was laid to tomb, only to wake in the blackness, neither alive nor dead.
“Had I known the curse for which I begged, I would have gladly died for my crimes.
“I spent generations debauching, reveling in excess, devil may care to the consequences. But each passing year brought diminishing joy, fading happiness. All things human and good evaporated, leaving me an empty shell, a zombie, cursed to roam the earth.
“I turned my energies to death, spent centuries spreading famine, plagues, pestilence—secreting help to those who joyed in sorrow and pain. I led holy conquests. I built the gears of war and oiled them with the blood of the innocent. Always in the hope—silly hope—that the next wave of death would carry me with it. I sparked revolutions, kindled wars, burned homelands until all was ashes and death.
“In my máquinations, I found the greatest tools of death were not powder and steel, not blades or pandemic illness, but the hands of man. Ensconced in the European mountains, I set about the task of creating the ultimate weapon—human life.
“Needless to say—undoubtedly you’ve heard the gothic tales—I succeeded. The true value of my creation was not in cloning man as the tales sing, but as proof of principle. If I could spark life in a foreign bosom, then by extrapolation, I could spark life in myself. I came here following stories of rocks which could draw electricity from metals, and created this…this monstrosity.”
He turned from the limp heart, saw Rosalina sitting still on the floor. She stared to him with curious eyes—an attentive school child before the lecturing head mister.
“My machine has twice proven a failure. Electricity alone is unable to endow enduring life. I failed to realize that even cobbled corpses contain…for lack of a better term…the vitreous humor of soul—the essence of life, a substance foreign to this mass of steel and magnets.”
His words melted the doubt frosting Rosalina’s bosom. She pushed from the floor and strode to the Smith. With memories of sunlight dancing over her skin, Rosalina took his cold hand.
“If you are cobbled from myths, perhaps myth is where your answer lies.”
The Smith looked to her—eyes brimming with curiosity and surprise—and gave an almost imperceptible nod.
“Travelling monks tell tales of a spring at the heart of a volcano,” Rosalina spoke in low musical tones. “Legend says one of their number wandered the Sangre de Cristo mountains, converting natives. One day, near the Southern ridges, he was ambushed by a warrior tribe. They gave chase, arrows flying. This monk’s escape brought him to the lip of a volcano. There, an arrow hit true and sent him tumbling into the mountain’s bowel. Figuring the interloper dead, the Natives quit their chase and offered prayers of sacrifice to their god.
“Badly wounded and expiring of thirst, the holy man prayed to his savior. He swooned, and in his dream, he saw a vision of the Savior weeping over a lame lamb. The monk awoke to find a fountain of purest holy water at his feet. He bathed and his wounds were healed—he drank and was thirsty no more.
“Legend says the monk lived to be one hundred and seventy-five years old, preaching to his last breath of the sacred waters of the Southern Volcano.”
The Smith did not respond. Countless times he’d tried to quit the vice that was hope. Against the warnings in his head, infected by Rosalina’s inexhaustible vigor, the Smith nodded
“Yes.” The word was like a magical incantation, transubstantiating the Smith into pure hope. “Yes.” He felt centuries of weight being lifted from his body with each repetition, until he felt he would quit the dreary earth forever. “Yes,” he whispered, “yes.”
Claire was uneasy, huffing, her hooves dancing in place over the dark earth. The passing clouds blanketed her dark hide so Claire was only the white lozenge on her muzzle and the glint of queer metal boots. She moved in uneasy bursts, apprehensive of the steel grafted to her legs.
The Smith sat bareback. One hand on her neck, he made a final once over of the machinery strapped to Claire’s flank. The cylindrical water tanks were full, the metal box over her tail secure—waiting. Of most importance was the small luggage bag behind where he sat. Inside were two thick glass carefully wrapped and wrapped again. His rifle—scope extended and ready—lay across Claire’s neck.
“So I follow the mountains south?” He asked the dark.
“Sí,” the dark answered. “The volcano is at the southern end of the ridge, north and east of Santa Fe. Take the east fork when the ridge splits in two.”
The Smith, satisfied in his preparations, turned face forward on the saddle and spoke to a spot some fifteen yards away on the shadowy ground.
“Claire and I will return no later than sundown tomorrow. It would be in your best interest to stay in the shop until then. There’s food and water in the cabinets.”
“¿Mañana?” the shadow retorted, “Gringo, it’s a day and a half just to get there.”
“You don’t worry about that.” Mischief put a half-smile on the Smith’s face. “I work in horseshoes the same I do hearts, señorita.”
He spurred Claire, shooting horse and rider into the unfathomable dark. Steam hissed from Claire’s horseshoes with each step, shooting them into the southern wilds like a bullet from a rifle. As the city melted into earth behind him, the Smith heard a valediction whispered from the dark:
Claire’s satisfied breaths fell into the rhythm of hissing steam and drumming earth and the darkness swallowed them whole. Without landmarks to measure time, it seemed horse and rider floated through a vast black nothing. Night’s ether was superconductor to the familiar thoughts. Regrets and fears materialized from the black and ran circuits of his aching head.
Disappointment after disappointment, he had vowed to never again chase hope’s evanescent promise. Hope was a child’s story, a fairy tale, something he’d long outgrown. Emboldened by hope he had transfused alien blood into his veins, created the vampyre. Hope drove spikes into his chest, wound ropes around his neck, immolated flesh… Hope that each time he would be swallowed by the blackness never to emerge. But light always followed dark.
A wretched invention, hope. Always fungible, never dried up, photosynthesized with the slightest hint of sunshine. It was the pious hopeful whom the Rider despised most, yet there he was, astride his machine-aided horse, riding into hope’s waiting trap.
A dome of sun soon lazed over the horizon, reluctant to quit dewy sleep. Through its pink glow, rose a cone of earth. Claire, sensing the proximity of their destination, pushed to a sprint. Morning’s full bouquet—the sky all hyacinth and dandelion—found horse and Rider at the volcano’s base. The Rider shielded his eyes from golden sun blaze as he surveyed for a route to the top. The steam boots, far too dangerous on fragile volcanic soil, he toggled off.
“Well chica, what do you think?”
Claire dug anxiously at the mountain’s skirt. She craned her neck to the apex, and, having made the appropriate triangulations, leapt to the volcano’s face. They found the monk’s myth to be popular—a few yards up the west face, Claire and the Smith came across a path hewn by the feet of countless pilgrims. The trail spiraled to the volcano’s cone.
Horse and rider crested the basin’s lip at noon. On their heavenly pedestal, the world seemed a child’s toy below. Black earth yawned to his left, a downward path catching glints of noonday gold. A platinum glint of liquid shimmered at the crater’s bosom. Claire pawed at the rock, testing its composition and hardness.
“Well, Claire, that’s enough sight-seeing. Let’s begin the end.”
With a pat to her neck, Claire started forward. Her forehoof was slow, hesitant to contact the inner face of the volcano. The Rider, impatient with the prize so close, spurred Claire downward.
Claire lurched into the volcano, front hooves exploding the volcanic loam. Desperate for a foothold, she bucked the Rider into the earth’s bowel.
The volcano buffeted the Rider with bone crunching blows as he fell. He flailed his arms, desperate for any hold to stall his descent, but the volcano gave no quarter. His falling dream came to crescendo with a sonorous crunch as his skull split like summer melon. He tasted iron, smelled roasting almonds as his consciousness hemorrhaged to black.
In the perfect black, it took minutes before he realized his eyes had again opened. It was the dirge of midnight crickets which finally roused him. Evening or a week of evenings—he didn’t know. The Rider turned his head—burning pain!—and gazed to Claire’s unblinking eye. She lay breathless beside him, flies already swarming for food. They dove like keen-clawed raptors to her deformed rear knee—insatiable for the blood curdling from an open wound.
“Oh, chica,” he rasped. His body prickled as molten needles knitted repairs to shattered bones, melding fragments of flesh again into one whole.
Pushing to hands and knees, he saw before him the silver pool. His palms sank into wet earth as he crawled forward. He inhaled, smelling nothing beyond water and dirt. Cupping the liquid in trembling hands, the Rider drank and then waited. He pressed a damp hand to his heart, anticipating.
Fooled again by hope.
“Just dew in a crater.” He patted Claire’s still head with a dripping hand. “My apologies, girl.” The dew sunk into her hide, finding channels around her milky eye toward Claire’s open mouth.
The Rider, sitting cross-legged on in volcanic mud, searched the sky for portents to explain his perpetual misery. Night cast a faint glow into the crater, highlighting the fractured path—jagged debris tracing where horse and rider’s fall.
“Seems we just missed dusk,” the Rider mused. Stars saturated the orb of sky beyond the volcano’s mouth. “Curious, though, all these stars. Sunset usually washes ‘em out.” The Rider glanced to his fallen companion. Like a struck match, hope rekindled in his breast.
Beside him, Claire flickered with light. Her skin was damp, slick with luminescence, quitting its black for an earthen brown. It seemed her flesh wasn’t muscle and sinew but pure electricity, illuminating a shattered skeleton. Light coursed through her body, bright rapids eroding the fractures to nothing. Her bones melted and re-cast as the glow shot from her nose and muzzle.
The Rider shielded his face from Claire. She was a star—burning hot beside him. With a sucking gasp, Claire whinnied. The earth shook, threatening to unmake the very fabric of the universe. Pure energy swallowed the rider, gnashed him like a crumb in a giant’s mouth. The heat and light dissipated as soon as they’d come, leaving only the cold night.
A horse stood before him, alive and well. She was both Claire and not Claire. The same white lozenge covered her face, but now her hide was the light brown of coffee with cream.
“Claire?” He stared at the familiar and foreign creature. The horse splashed muddy earth, rebelling against her old name. Claire was dead—truly this was a new horse.
“Okay.” He searched his mind for a name befitting one stubborn enough to spurn the reaper himself. “How about…Rosie?”
The horse turned to profile, presenting saddle. Rosie it was.
He reached into the pack strapped to Rosie-nee-Claire and found the two glass vials miraculously intact. He baptized them in the pool and gathered the blessed water.
He held a bottle to the night sky, saw the universe dancing in its waters. Retrieving his rifle from the ground, he strode to Rosie, and careful to pack the bottles in layers of cloth, saddled up for the journey home.
The ride back to Denver City was instantaneous. It was as if he traversed a tabletop map; the Sangre de Christo Volcano and Denver City pinched together by a Titan’s fingers. Excitement and hope turned miles to meters. His mind ran the improved experiment: a thousand times he watched as aqua vita goaded life from the steel heart.
It was near midnight when Denver City broke the horizon. His stomach dropped. Heat rippled through the dark, refracting tendrils of light into the black. Buildings stood in silhouette, the red flicker of a fire pulsing like blood. The Rider reached back to ready the box on Rosie’s flank and spurred her on.
His hunch was confirmed by a stumbling drunk.
“The whore is deaaaaaaaaad!” he sloshed an empty bottle of Bourbon, took a slug and kissed the ground.
The Rider passed his shop. Its door was torn clean from the jamb, smoke and fire belching into the night. Bloodlust echoed from the town square ahead.
The last of his pity evaporated in the searing heat. Without thought, the Rider clipped back the latch holding shut his steel Pandora’s Box. Spring-loaded, its metal sides blossomed like a mechanized flower. Two Gatling guns, each the size of a forearm, flipped out and clipped into stays at Rosie’s hip. They spun with a sound like rattlesnakes ready to strike, driven by the rods pushing Rosie’s gallop. Hand behind him, the Rider itched to release the safety. For good measure, his other hand cradled the rifle, ready to cast Denver City into the Hell he knew so well.
The square opened before him, lit by makeshift bonfires, drunks and puritans alike dancing like Pagans. Their false idol hung from the gallows at center, her head bowed and feet dangling.
Rosalina. The woman, the one thing still connecting him to the living world, was dead. Damn that sheriff. There was no longer any reason for restraint. Teeth gnashed against his tongue, desperate for any feeling at all, the Rider toggled the safety.
The machine roared, spitting death and hellfire without aim. Clouds of brain and muscle tore from the crowd and blood fell in torrents. Man, woman or child—neither Rider nor gun gave a damn who crossed its path. Bullets cut through the mob, felling bodies left and right. Their drunken song morphed into panic. Revelers fled for their miserable, worthless lives, splashing through rapids of their kinfolks’ blood.
He leapt from Rosie at the gallows, rifle in one hand and knife in the other. The horse ran laps around the square, pumping hot lead into those too drunk or stupid to run. Amidst a chorus of moans and gurgling, blood slick breaths, the Rider stepped to his fallen angel, knife ready.
“Stop.” The voice behind him was strengthened by the click-clack of a shotgun cocked. “I knew you were hiding that filthy whore. Your noose is nex–”
The Rider’s spun and gagged the sheriff with three rifle hits. His torn jugular a fountain, his shit-for-brains exploded out the back of his skull, and a poppy blooming over his heart, the law staggered back. He opened his mouth to speak, but his dying words were drowned in blood and bile. Another shot blew off what was left of his head and the sheriff folded over his knees and fell.
With the workman attitude of one driving railroad spikes, the Smith strode to the corpse and fired shot after shot. Skull, brain, teeth and bone exploded like a 4th of July firework. The Smith shot his breech empty, reloaded, shot empty, reloaded and shot empty again. The Sheriff’s blood ran dry, his body perforated and torn like used paper. His ammunition exhausted, the Smith threw his gun and ran to his dangling compañera.
He sawed the rope until Rosalina’s weight fell to his cradled arms. Her body against his, the Smith leapt from the gallows and, a bottle of liquid pulled from his horse’s flank, ran at full sprint from the square.
Will-‘o-the-wisp fires roamed the floor of his shop, searching for mischief in dark corners. Kicking dust and ash, the Smith carried Rosalina to the waiting machine. He swept away the false heart and lay his idol in its place. The Smith plunged a filament through Rosalina’s breast, giving electricity direct line to her heart.
“For hope.” Pulling cork from vial with his teeth, he dribbled the liquid over her bosom and into her mouth and swilled the dregs. The push of a button fired the boiler and shovels of coal stoked it to fury.
The machine roaring, the Smith ran to a sideboard and pulled a second filament. He impaled himself and lie next to Rosalina. The Smith watched as electricity twisted down the filaments, like ivy down a signpost, plunging into two dead hearts.
The raw power tried to tear him muscle from bone. Each spark pulled him tight as a piano wire. He burned from inside out, his guts a desert. Feeling the blackness close around him, he turned for one final glimpse of Rosalina. In the flash before total black, the Smith saw her heart glowing through the shadow, its beat strong and steady.
Part Three: History & Myth
The two-story house sat centered in his rife scope. A whitewashed picket fence guarded a verdant yard from the surrounding plain. He swung his scope left and saw three horses in an adjacent corral. The one colored like coffee with cream turned its white-lozenge face to the scope and whinnied.
Farther, maybe a mile past the house, stood a gnarled Joshua Tree, its tarantula shadow long in the setting sun. From a low branch swung a lifeless form. Little more than a smudge in his sights, the Rider snorted to see greasy bandito’s Karma paid out.
He lowered the rifle and approached, watching three girls bounce through the yard. Their chestnut skin was splotched with sweat and dirt, their white dresses matted with play. ‘Grandchildren,’ he thought. His approach sent a wave of excitement through their game. Like magnets to iron they crowded the front gate, waiting in silent expectation. Damn if their chocolate eyes didn’t look familiar.
With a forced smile slashing his skin, he pulled the small string-bound book from his back pocket. “I’m looking for the author of this story. Miss de los Santos.”
He held a thin collection of parchment pages, folded lengthwise and bound with loops of twine. Its cover, yellow and curled from its infinite travels, was printed with an ornate border, its title and attribution at center:
By Rosa de los Santos
The tallest of the three girls, upon seeing the tract, turned to the farmhouse behind. “¡Mama! Un visitor! ¡Tiene tu novella!”
The door swung open, dark save a ruby ember and feathers of smoke
“¿Que quiera, visitor?” Her voice had changed, gravelly with a patina of age, but the notes were unmistakable.
The Visitor crossed the threshold onto the yard, sending the girls scattering back to their game. He held the book, his history, in outstretched hands. “I have something I’d like you to sign.”
“Let me see.” She strode from the darkness and took the tract from him. The Visitor gasped. Sixty years had only managed to age her twenty. The thin lines in her face only highlighted her beauty, traced her laugh, pointed to her chocolate eyes. As she turned the pages in her hands, the Visitor saw the hangman’s scars like a necklace under her jaw.
“You’ve torn the last chapter from my book.” She spoke without looking to him, voice steady. “You’ve skipped poor, stupid Rosalina waking alone—hunted like a dog for more than a decade for a massacre she had no part in. You’ve torn out the chapter describing how she outlives her children, her grandchildren. She ends up a filthy monster in the end, just like that bastard Blacksmith.”
The Visitor took her shaking hands, put them over his eternally still heart. “Rosalina.” He dared touch her chest. Her rebellious heartbeat made him shiver. “Rosalina—”
“No.” She stepped back from him, disengaging from the Visitor’s icy grip. “Anymore, Rosalina is just a character in a book.”
The woman produced a pencil from the folds of her wrap and scribbled the book’s cover. She finished with a flourish and threw it back to her Visitor.
For the briefest of moments, made even smaller by his unending life, their eyes met. The lingering doubts evaporated in the fire of her glare. It was her, the part of him still smoldering with hope’s spark, the last vestiges of everything human and good clinging to his perverted soul.
“Rosalina,” he said.
Her gaze hardened, jaw clenched with inexhaustible anger. She stepped back into the shade of her home and slammed the door, her final word terse and stinging.
The Visitor looked down to the salutation penciled on his tract:
“History and Myth are the same tale, told differently – Rosa”
The girls, witness to the scene, could no longer dam their questions. Inquisitive voices sung in chorus, the jumble of ‘quiera’s and ‘mama’s forming an incomprehensible and beautiful round.
The rider put his fingers to his lips and blew a shrill whistle. His horse—the only true Rosie now—jumped the corral fence and ran to his side.
With a tip of his hat he mounted the horse. He flung the book into Rosie’s saddle pack. Its pages curled around a small vial of luminescent water. He turned Rosie east, toward the spilled ink of night, and without taking pause to look back, spurred her on. The Rider galloped toward the blackness, ready to pen another chapter in his miserable and infinite fiction.
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Winner of the 2019 Pulitzer Prize
Labels: Keith Good