Pass the bottle, stranger, and I’ll tell you a true story of a West that never was. A tale of the lawman Zarahemla Two Crows and his quest for the widow’s son that led him through the gates of Hell.
A story of the child’s young pioneer mother who joins Two Crows, and the vampire-hunting nun and cavalryman with his steed of steam and iron who come to their aid. A tale of a world where one needs a trusty six-gun at their side and an even greater trust in God to survive.
I’ll tell you of their battle into the heart of darkness, and the faith required to prevent the resurrection of a godlike entity of evil—a power greater than the world has ever known.
I’ll tell you a story, friend, of when the West was weird.
The Widow’s Son is a gritty blend of steampunk fantasy, the occult, and Western adventure “that will take you on a wild ride unlike anything you’ve experienced before.” (Woelf Dietrich, author of The Seals of Abgal)
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Canyon de Chelly, Arizona Territory, 1867
An unforgiving sun watched impassively as two men rode through the canyon. The lead rider, a massive dusky man on a plodding draft horse, kept carful watch on the Anasazi ruins that dotted the towering cliffs, his ice-blue eyes scanning the ancient dwellings under the shade of a weathered old Hardee. He could sense unseen predators hidden deep in the shadows, tracking his progress.
The wind rustled coyote skins bound to his cantor and whipped at his loose duster, revealing a flash of silver and ivory holstered at his side.
Behind him a Navajo man wrapped in a blanket rode bareback on an old palomino, his shackled hands wrapped in the horse’s long white mane. He watched the ruins as well.
The lead rider reigned in his horse and the prisoner stopped beside him, grinning and flashing yellow teeth that had been filed down to sharp points.
“What do you think,” the prisoner asked, “is it a good day to die, Two Crows?”
The man scratched at his overgrown beard, a messy thatch of black covering most of his face, and looked at the prisoner with narrowed eyes, his bushy eyebrows furrowing.
“Weren’t planning on it, Ata’halne,” he grumbled in a deep bass like thunder on the horizon. “Your brothers ain’t what’s got me taking a pause.”
“Horsemen,” Two Crows continued, gesturing ahead of them with his lips. “Half a score or more, coming this way. I can smell ’em.”
Ata’halne squinted in the direction Two Crows had indicated, a towering spur of red rock several hundred yards ahead. A small cloud of sand in the wind was caught in a dust devil and briskly danced across the canyon floor.
Moments later a small troop of horsemen in dusty blue coats rounded the spur and rode into view. On catching sight of the two men, they quickly formed their ragged column into a line and advanced at a canter, carbines at the ready.
“Horse soldiers.” The Navajo nodded and spat on the ground. “Good day for them to die too.”
At fifty yards the patrol reigned in and an old straw-haired sergeant rode forward to meet Two Crows, accompanied by a nervous trooper. He pulled up a few yards short and surveyed Two Crows and Ata’halne critically as he jawed a wad of tobacco.
“1st Battalion Cavalry, D-Troop,” the Sergeant said. “And who might you be?”
“Special Agent Two Crows.” He flashed a shiny badge under his duster and nodded to Ata’halne. “And this is my prisoner.”
“Fed, eh?” the Sergeant asked, spitting a stream of black juice between them. “Whatcha doing in my canyon?”
“Transporting this man to Albuquerque for safekeeping, while I round up the rest of his fellows.”
“What’s he charged with?”
“That’s Federal business.”
“Your tin badge don’t mean nothing to me, mister Two Birds. That dirty Injun looks like a rebel. We got orders to shoot their kind on sight. Ain’t no Injuns left in these canyons but rebels.”
“Two Crows,” the special agent corrected. “Zarahemla Two Crows.”
The Sergeant raised an eyebrow as he jawed his tobacco slowly. His gaze swept over to Ata’halne. “What’s your story, redskin? You something special? What’s this fed want with you?”
“Yátaashkiʼ, your voice hurts my ears.” Ata’halne replied.
The Sergeant spat a stream of tobacco in the Navajo’s general direction, missing him. He frowned and turned back to Two Crows. “What department you say you’re a special agent of, anyhow?”
“Department of the Interior,” Two Crows replied. “Occult Research Bureau.”
“Sounds like bullshit to me.” The Sergeant turned to the young trooper beside him. “Watch them, Thorn, I gotta confer with the old man.”
Thorn nodded nervously as the Sergeant spun his horse away. The young trooper trained his carbine on Two Crows and Ata’halne as his horse shifted uneasily beneath him.
“What do you think, yázhí?” Ata’halne bared his teeth at Thorn in a rictus of contempt. “Is it a good day to die?”
“Don’t let him get under your skin, son,” Two Crows said. “And stop pointing that thing at me.”
“These children will be poor hunting for my brothers,” Ata’halne hissed to Two Crows in Navajo. “There will be no honor in slaughtering them. Much pleasure, perhaps, but no honor.”
“Your kind knows no honor,” Two Crows grumbled.
“We respect a worthy enemy,” Ata’halne said. “Your heart I will eat myself. These men—” He shrugged dismissively. “—We will leave them for the buzzards and worms.”
“What’s he saying?” Thorn asked Two Crows. He had a bad stutter and struggled to form the words.
“Just a load of nonsense,” Two Crows replied. “Ata’halne likes to hear himself talk.”
The Sergeant returned, flanked by more troopers, including the Lieutenant.
“We’ll take him off your hands and make sure he gets to Fort Sumner where he belongs,” the officer said. “Meanwhile you get yourself out of my territories and I’ll forget I laid eyes on you.”
“Reckon I can’t do that,” Two Crows grumbled.
“Why? He got a bounty or something?”
“Something like that.”
“How much your lice-ridden scalp worth?” the Sergeant asked Ata’halne, jawing the tobacco.
“You die first, Bilagáanaatsoí,” Ata’halne replied.
The young widow was tall and willow thin, with a long braid the color of a wheat field at sunset. A thick constellation of freckles covered the permanently sunburnt skin of her face and neck; her green eyes—flecked with gold and framed by short white lashes—were creased at the corners, prematurely weathered from the harsh Southwestern sun. Cicadas thrummed around her in the sweltering heat as she crawled through the sagebrush and peered over the ridge to the canyon below.
Two Crows sat atop his massive horse, conferring with a handful of cavalrymen. Tucking the butt of her .54 caliber Sharps Berdan rifle under her collarbone, she held her cheek firmly against the stock, cocked the hammer, and looked through the long brass scope. She had been following the bear-sized lawman and his prisoner for weeks. The cavalrymen were an unexpected complication. She swore softly as more of the troopers moved in to circle the pair. Ata’halne, wrapped in his blanket, grinned at them.
Her breathing slowed as she relaxed her muscles and melted onto the rocky ground. The cavalrymen were becoming agitated. Her index finger slipped off the side of the receiver and pulled the rear trigger. There was a faint click as the forward trigger set. She tapped the trigger guard lightly with her finger in time with her heartbeat.
It would take less than two pounds of pressure to trip the forward trigger and drop the hammer. A light wind picked up, and she adjusted her aim slightly to compensate.
She watched and waited.
“You got yourself an uppity Injun there,” the Sergeant said to Two Crows. He spat another stream of tobacco, this time squarely hitting Ata’halne. The Sergeant grinned.
Zarahemla leaned forward in the saddle, his voice low and rumbling. “’Tween you and me, it’d be best you men let us alone, iffin you know what’s healthy-like.”
“I don’t take kindly to threats,” the Sergeant said, raising his carbine and thumbing back the trigger. “Not from no redskins, and ’specially not from no mullato sumbitch, Fed or no.”
“No threat intended.” Two Crows leaned back and motioned with a large hand toward Ata’halne. “This man here’s yee naaldlooshii. Reckon there are several more of his kind lurking round abouts.”
The Sergeant looked doubtful for a moment, then laughed. “Skin-walker? Skin-walkers ain’t nothing but boogiemen conjured up by old squaws to frighten children.”
There was a blur of motion behind him and one of the troopers shouted as Ata’halne slipped from under the blanket, off his horse and, naked as a jaybird, leapt over to Two Crows’ horse, ripping a coyote skin free from the bundle as he passed.
He pulled the skin around his shoulders as he circled the large horse in a low, crouching sprint. Thick, spiny hair sprouted down the length of his back and over his shoulders as his face elongated into a snarling muzzle full of razor-sharp fangs.
“Dagnabbit!” Zarahemla cursed, drawing two massive, nickel-plated revolvers. He swung in the saddle to try and get a bead on his prisoner.
The Sergeant froze in horror as the monster Ata’halne was transforming into pounced. Man and beast tumbled off the horse and into the dusty ground in a spray of blood and viscera.
Troopers shouted in alarm and fired their carbines wildly as more harrowing shapes leapt from the shadows of the canyon walls and charged. Horses screamed, throwing their riders in panic. In moments the air was filled with a blinding cloud of dust, gun smoke, and the red haze of blood.
One of the beasts roared and charged Two Crows. In a blur of motion like a flash of summer lightning he brought up his revolvers, powerful .577 Snyder cartridges thundering. A second volley followed a fraction of a heartbeat later and the beast slid to a stop at the horse’s feet, shuddering as it transformed back into the body of a young man. Zarahemla spun out of the saddle and rolled under the leaping form of another as it pounced. Knifelike talons raked his duster as the creature flew overhead, and he felt hot blood erupt from his shoulder.
His revolvers roared as he poured lead into the skin-walker’s belly.
Ata’halne hit him in the back like a freight train, and Zarahemla went flying into a thicket of cat claw. He struggled to get up as hook-like thorns tore at his flesh.
Gritting his teeth, Two Crows ripped one arm free and squeezed the trigger as Ata’halne pounced. The tinny click of the hammer hitting a spent cartridge was deafening.
The beast smashed into him and the two went tumbling through the thorns.
Zarahemla flipped the gun in his hand as they rolled and caught the searing barrel, clubbing the skin-walker in the head.
Ata’halne bellowed and drove his talons through Two Crow’s arms, pinning him into the hard ground.
“This is sacred ground, Two Crows,” he hissed, the words slithering through his muzzle in a guttural lisp. “You have violated the treaty.”
“That arrangement ended when you left your lands to take the white man’s son,” Zarahemla wheezed under the weight of the monster.
Ata’halne smiled through a mouthful of fangs. “You great fool! That old cuckold wasn’t the child’s father. The boy is a son of Kokopelli. We were in our rights.”
Zarahemla frowned. That would complicate things. “Where’s the ánti’įhnii who took the boy?”
“Ooljee walks her own path,” Ata’halne said. “And it is a path you will not follow.”
Hot, fetid breath washed over Two Crows as he considered his options. Even if he had a live cartridge left in the other pistol—and in all the excitement he had to admit he’d lost count—that arm was pinned under him at an unnatural angle, worse than useless.
Ata’halne shifted his weight, twisting his talons deeper through Zarahemla’s flesh. His mighty jaw unhinged, saliva dripping down rows of gleaming stiletto teeth. Yellow eyes locked with blue.
Suddenly a cavernous hole appeared in Ata’halne’s forehead as the back of his skull blew out across the desert floor. Inky black gore oozed out of the cavity and he collapsed on top of Zarahemla with a grunt.
Moments later the unmistakable booming report of a Sharps rifle echoed through the canyon.
Zarahemla shimmied out from under Ata’halne and stood, wheezing and caked with dust and blood.
“Took her long enough,” he muttered.
Far above him the widow stood watching with a rifle perched on her hip. He picked up his old felt Hardee, dusted it off, and put it on. Looking back at her, almost as an afterthought, he tipped his hat.
The big old ten-dollar dappled mare he had bought in Prescott grazed nearby, apparently too lazy or stupid to run far. Zarahemla limped under the blazing sun toward her. Peering back over his shoulder he watched the widow leading her horse down into the canyon, a dark grey shape moving through the scattered stands of piñon-juniper.
He mounted with a grimace of shooting pain. He saw little use making for Fort Defiance now and didn’t fancy explaining to the Colonel why his troopers littered the de Chelly canyon floor like butcher’s scraps. Leaving their corpses to the scavengers bothered him, but he was in no shape to dig a dozen graves, and with his bare hands no less. He nudged the horse gently with a knee and steered her southeast along a labyrinth of washes and out of the canyon.
To the east in the Tunecha Mountains he could find a safe place to rest and recover, and with a little luck, a man who could help him.
Now available on Amazon. Read it for free with Kindle Unlimited.