8FOLD/CONTEST/ACRA: Journey Into... # 6, High Concept Drifter

Tom Russell milos_parker at yahoo.com
Sun Aug 9 02:18:37 PDT 2009


   The boy's mother was a whore.  Silke didn't remember which one.
Didn't even know if it was his.  But when that mussed-up looking eight-
year-old tugged on his sleeve and asked, Are you John Silke?, and
Silke said, That's one name I answer to, and the kid said, You're
supposed to be my father-- well, Silke supposed that that counted for
   Silke wasn't the sort that asked questions, and the boy wasn't the
sort that gave answers.  He didn't explain where he had come from, who
his mother was, how he had got to Bleeding Branch, or what his name
was. (Silke eventually took to calling the boy Righteous, and it
stuck.)  Most of all, he didn't tell Silke what he had seen.  Silke
could tell it must have been something mighty terrible.
   He was a melancholy child.  Never laughed, never sassed, seldom
spoke.  Did his chores automatically.  The way a man goes to work in
the morning, when he works for another man: no pride in it, no
passion.  Just a broken man.  And there was no melodrama in that-- it
was just the way things were.  Men were made to be broken same way a
horse was made to be broken.  Tamed and tempered.  Righteous was a
thoroughly domesticated child.  Life had broken him before his time.
There was nothing to pity in that.
   Just the way things were.

   It wasn't long before they left Bleeding Branch.  Nature of the
job.  Nature of John Silke.  There were men and things what needed
finding, bounties what needed collecting, and they weren't likely to
just come and pay John Silke a social call.
   The spring after Righteous came to Bleeding Branch (of course,
Silke didn't call him Righteous just then, that was awhile longer),
word came that Ghost Perkins and his boys had committed what was to be
the most daring of all their train robberies.  Not content with
pilfering the purses of the passengers and dissatisfied with whatever
haul might be making its way west in the cargo compartments, the
Perkins gang opted to steal the entire train right off the tracks.
This, of course, caused the railroad a fair amount of distress.
Which, in turn, led to a sizable bounty.
   Now, John Silke was what folks would call a contradictory figure.
He was never one to act brashly or in the heat of the moment, yet he
never thought things through even one second more than they needed
thinking through.  Once he had made a decision, he didn't second-guess
it or mull it over.  The time other folks spent considering
contingencies and pondering possibilities he spent doing what he had
decided on in the first place.  That's one-half of why he was such a
prolific tracker.
   The other half, of course, was the little compass the Good Lord had
saw fit to stitch deep inside his belly.  Whether it was an organ of
flesh and blood or something to do with his soul, Silke had no idea.
And, being that he wasn't the sort to ask questions, he didn't spend a
whole lot of time wondering how and why it had got there.  All he did
know was that once he had decided to find somebody or something, the
thing in his belly knew where they were.  He couldn't pin it on a map,
but Silke knew what direction to ride in and about how far he'd have
to ride.  Wasn't anything he could measure in miles or in minutes; he
just knew when he was closer, when he was farther, when he was almost
there.  Knew it in his belly.  Knew it with his belly.
   And so, when Silke heard about the bounty, he stopped and thought
about it for, oh, eight seconds or thereabouts, and then he told the
boy to go saddle up the horses.  And the boy did as he was told.
   And the two of them road a little ways till they got to McCaskell's
ranch.  They stopped at the gate.  One of the hands saw Silke and so
he went in right straight and fetched Mike Gulliver.
   Gulliver floated up to the gate, smelling of sulfur and crackling
with flame.
   "I see that you're on fire again."
   "Yep." Gulliver snorted, thin curls of smoke shooting out of his
black rocky nostrils.  "You going after Ghost Perkins and that train?"
   "That's the idea."
   Silke nodded.
   "Who's the kid?"
   "Mine.  So I've been told."
   "He got a name?"
   "I don't know.  I didn't ask."
   Gulliver took one of his big charcoal hands and rubbed it against
the grain of his ashy stubble. "Kid, you got a name?"
   The boy only stared at him.
   Gulliver turned his red molten eyes back to Silke. "You'll have to
call him something eventually."
   "Reckon so.  Let's get moving."

   They rode until the sun died and then they set up camp.  Gulliver
hovered above the dry earth as the others held their coyote meat next
to his smoldering body.  Silke was feeling unusually chatty, which
meant that he said more than two words.  "Great thing about you,
Gulliver, is there's never a need for firewood."
   "That's why you're always asking me along," said Gulliver.
"Nothing to do with what I can do to a man.  You just want to save
money on firewood, save time gathering it.  You're just a cheap and
lazy bastard."
   "I suppose that's true," said Silke. That was all he said that
night, and that was chatty for Silke.

   When Gulliver fell asleep, he remained hovering above the ground,
only lilting slightly backwards; his flames stopped licking the air
and were replaced by the hot but faint amber glow on his skin.
   It was by this soft light that Silke saw that his boy was standing
over him, holding Silke's gun in both hands like he was cradling a
bird.  He stared at the boy staring at the gun for a long moment,
unsure of what to make of it.
   The boy's looked from the gun to Silke, noticing that the old man
was awake.  They locked eyes.
   Silke reached up for the gun.  The boy handed it to him.  Silke
slipped the gun back in his holster.
   The boy stepped back, curled up in the dust, and went to sleep.
   Silke closed his eyes again and did the same.

   Come the morning, the three of them struck the camp.  Gulliver
tried to talk with the boy while they waited for Silke to fix on a
direction, but the boy proved to be remarkably terse.
   "Now I know he's your father," said Gulliver.  "You got his gift of
   Gulliver was the sort who, if he had amused himself by saying
something he reasoned to be clever, would repeat it at the next
available moment.  And so he did not hesitate to sidle up next to
Silke.  "He's your boy alright.  He's got your gift of gab."
   Silke didn't respond to this.
   "Which way are we going?" said Gulliver.  "You've been standing
there an awful long time. Your pointer ain't bent, is it?"
   Silke shook his head. "Just feels different."
   "Different how?  Stronger?  Weaker?"
   "Just different.  Deeper.  This way."
   Silke got on his horse and the boy did the same.

   The compass in John Silke's belly twisted in on itself as they
neared the top of a hill, and that's when he told Gulliver to ease off
on the flame and walk on the earth like a man.  Only he didn't say all
that. What he said was, "Gulliver."  And Gulliver knew what that
   Silke gently tugged on the reins, and his horse came to a stop.
   The boy did as Silke did.  His young palms ached and twitched
involuntarily; the boy looked at his hands and felt an ache in his
knuckles, a yen in his fingers.  He looked at the gun in Silke's belt,
and then at Silke himself.  "Sir..."
   The old man looked back at the boy, and he felt something deep and
wrong inside his compass, inside his belly. "Get down."
   Silke flung himself down to the dusty earth, and the boy scrambled
to do the same, hitting the ground just as an arrow struck his horse
hard and splintering into its neck.  The horse reared back, a terrible
whinny blaring past its chattering white teeth.  It stamped about the
ground madly (the boy's life preserved only through providence) for a
few long seconds before another arrow split its skull and brought it
to the dust.
   The boy kicked and shimmied until he was right next to Silke.  The
old man's horse, unwilling to share its cousin's fate, had rushed off
down the hill.
   Gulliver had already taken back to the air, fully aflame, forming
balls of glowing magma in his huge paws, only to throw them down at
the injuns below.
   For they were injuns, a couple dozen strong; the boy watched them
explode and burn.  But if they were below, where did the arrows come
from that killed his horse?
   The answer ripped through the sky, hitting Gulliver in the chest;
the impact sent him sprawling backwards through the air like a Chinese
acrobat.  He tumbled down the way they had come up.
   The boy turned his eyes forward once more and saw three injuns,
bows drawn tight, riding on leather-winged bat-horses.
   Silke rose his hands in the air, and the boy did the same.
   One of the braves said something, and a swarm of injuns climbed up
the hill.  Silke and the boy were helped to their feet, and knives
were pressed to their gullets.
   By this time, Gulliver had righted himself and made his way back
up.  He sighed and rose his own hands in the air.

   The captives were led on foot down the hill and along a stream.
   Gulliver looked up at the skies. "Those what I think they are?"
   Silke nodded.
   "I heard tell of them during the War," said Gulliver. "North and
South fighting together, Grant and Lee and one big American army
against the Bleak Invaders and their airborne steeds, fighting to save
both the nation and the whole world.  You hear tell now and again of
some of them surviving, sighted here and there, but I'd never have
believed it."
   "Course," argued Silke, "people said the same when they heard tell
of you."
   Gulliver laughed; his captor prodded him with the tip of a spear.
   "Bat-horses, as I live and breathe," said Gulliver quietly. "Injuns
with bat-horses.  Great."

   Soon, the party came to a camp.  From their travels, Gulliver and
Silke could recognize the markings on one tent as belonging to the
Apache, another to the Cherokee, another to Shawnee: the latter two
were never this far West and, having long been enemies, had no good
reason to make camp together.  And so it was that it dawned on them,
Silke much sooner than Gulliver, that they were among the Second
Tribe: the outcasts, the traitors, the mischief-makers, the
malcontents, the mad-men, the exiles, the unwanted.
   Bat-horses and the Second Tribe, in the same day; and all Gulliver
was hoping for was Ghost Perkins and the train he had stolen whole
right off the tracks.
   They were made to wait as two of the braves went to talk with the
chief; the villagers stared at them as they passed by, going about
their business.  To Silke's surprise and mild disconcertment, most of
their gazes were not fixed on Gulliver but on the boy.  Something
about the darkness in his eyes...
   The two braves returned.  One spoke in polished English. "Chief
Smiling Horse grants you an audience."

   The chief was at once aptly and inaptly named.  Silke could not
discern any capacity for smiling in the long worn black face that
stood before him; but that could be expected, as he was, indeed,
   Smiling Horse whinnied and then stomped his foot three times (one,
one-two), his heavy feather head-dress shaking, the strange steel-
framed jewel at the center of the band sparkling with menace.
   A translation was provided: "Chief Smiling Horse extends to you a
   Silke returned it with a nod.
   Smiling Horse whinnied and then stomped his foot three times (one,
   "He extends to you an apology if our attack appeared to be
   "How can you tell?" asked Gulliver.  "He did the same thing both
   "It takes a well-trained ear and eye to perceive the subtle
   "A well-trained...?" Gulliver burst out laughing.  "I'm sorry, but
this is so flipping ridiculous!  Horse stomps his foot and you're
listening to it like it's the second revelation!"  Another burst of
   A bullet of pure red light spilt forth from the Chief's head-band,
cutting a small hole through Gulliver's arm.  The unearthly sound it
made was punctuated by three more stomps (one-two, one).
   "I heard the difference that time," griped Gulliver.
   The translator said nothing; he stared at the small boy who was now
pointing Silke's gun directly at the Chief.
   Smiling Horse looked at the boy, and then at Silke.  Silke nodded
and took the gun back in his holster.  He kept his hand on it this
time; he had not seen the boy grab it.
   "Our apologies for any offense," said Silke. "The three of us mean
you no harm, and only returned fire when fired upon."
   Smiling Horse seemed to understand what Silke was saying.  He
responded with a neigh (no stomps).
   "Smiling Horse accepts your..."
   "But we were encroaching upon your territory," said Silke.
   "Yes, how did...?"
   "I have a well-trained ear."
   Smiling Horse stomps twice.
   "And eye," said Silke.  "We're in pursuit of a thief, a kidnapper.
He's stolen a large train.  Perhaps you've seen it?"
   Smiling Horse reared up on his hind-legs and then stomped his front
hooves down with a confident exhalation of air.
   "Um," said the translator.  "I didn't actually... catch that...
   His voice trailed off because Smiling Horse was now moving.
   "Uh, Chief Smiling Horse...?"
   Smiling Horse kept walking.
   "Chief Smiling Horse...!"
   The translator touched Smiling Horse on his side.  Smiling Horse
turned around, bared his teeth, and the red light from his head-dress
exploded the translator on the spot.  Smiling Horse whinnied.
   "He wants us to follow him," said Silke. "He wants the rest of you
to stay here."
   The people of the Second Tribe were more than happy to oblige.
   Silke looked at Gulliver and his boy.  "Don't touch the horse."
   Gulliver nodded, a bit shaken.

   As they followed Smiling Horse, Silke could feel the knot in his
compass come undone.  Perkins was in his belly, throbbing strong; the
horse knew what he was doing.

   Silke felt it before he saw it; the train sat pristinely upon the
dust.  He didn't see Perkins or his men.  "They must be inside," he
told the boy, though Silke reckoned that he probably knew that
   Smiling Horse circled around to face his companions, and then
thrust his head first to the left, then the right.
   "You want us to split up?"
   Smiling Horse nodded, then stamped his foot twice.
   "He's going to stay out here," reasoned Silke, "try to catch any
bandits trying to escape."
   "Better be careful that he don't kill any hostages," groused
   Smiling Horse's deadly jewel glowered menacingly.
   "Just sayin'," said Gulliver.
   "You best stay here," Silke said to the boy.  "Gulliver, you fly up
and go in through the back.  I'll take the front."

   The passengers were mighty glad to see Silke, mighty glad.
   A man with a handlebar moustache explained that Perkins and his men
were in the next car.  He thought there had been some guards outside;
least that's why the passengers hadn't made a run for it.
   "Is that your boy, Mr. Silke?"
   Silke turned to see the boy. "Don't appreciate that you disobeyed
me.  Reckon I'll have to beat you after."
   The boy nodded glumly.
   Silke felt the trouble in his stomach.  "Get down!" He pushed the
boy to the floor as one of Perkins's men climbed up into the train.
Silke reached down into his holster, only to come up empty.
   A bullet rang out from between his legs, striking the bandit in the
head.  Said bandit stumbled backwards and fell from the train.
   "Quite a boy you have there," said the man with the handlebar
moustache.  "A natural born shootist!"
   Silke looked down to the boy and reached for the gun.
   The boy flipped onto his stomach and fired two shots in as many
seconds; two more bandit heads, en route from the other car, exploded
in blood and death.
   Afore they even hit the floor, their master came through the door,
spectral and with both pistols at the ready.
   The boy fired three shots without a pause; one for each pistol (lo,
how they flew!) and one for the amulet that tied Perkins to our
world.  It exploded, and the ghostly villain melted into smoke.  How
the boy knew that was the only way to hurt the ghost, Silke couldn't
   The boy handed the empty gun back to Silke.  Without a word, he
walked up to where Perkins once stood and picked up the cursed pistols
and the magic belt.  Pistols felt good in his hands; belt fit right
nice around his waist.  He slipped the pistols into their holsters and
looked up at his father with his cold black eyes.
   And it was then that Silke knew why the boy's eyes were so cold and
so black, why he had that broken-in feel at such a tender age, why he
seldom talked and never smiled.
   It wasn't, as he had supposed, some sort of tragedy he had survived
or any nightmare he had encountered.  It wasn't something that was
done to him.
   It was something that he did.



   Just coming in under the wire with this one, and it almost didn't
get done.  Once I had figured out what I wanted to do with this
particular High Concept challenge (combining "superpowered father
worried about superpowered offspring" and "elevated animals"), I had a
vague outline for a story that was easily three times the size of this
one.  A big reason why I had to skinny it down was that I waited too
damn long to write it.
   Another was the characters themselves; Gulliver aside, none of them
were particularly chatty.  The story itself is certainly very stripped-
down and straight-forward.  It should come as no surprise that I
wasn't trying to emulate the operatic spaghetti West but rather the
taut, terse psychological westerns of Budd Boetticher. (If you're
unfamiliar, he's definitely worth seeking out; start with THE TALL T.)

   One idea that Jamie Rosen and I kicked about near the start of
Eightfold was that the first great wave of super-powered heroes and
villains didn't occur near World War II, as they do in most superhero
universes (because, of course, that's when the genre itself was born
and when it peaked in comic book sales), but rather the Old West.  The
image of a Magnificent Seven with superpowers struck as frankly kind
of awesome.
   It's one of those ideas that, up until this point, I haven't really
had a chance to play with.  That's not for lack of trying; I've
written (and abandoned) other introductions to this corner of
Eightfold before, and I've got a fair amount of Wild West World
Building mapped out in FAQ form.

   While I think it didn't need to be spelled out explicitly in the
story, all four of these main characters are super-powered.  Gulliver,
obviously, is a burlier and more agitated version of Human Torch-type
characters; visually, I imagine him looking very much like Charcoal,
the Burning Man but with fireproof chaps.  Silke's "compass" is an
idea that I had right around the time Rosen and I were kicking around
Western ideas; having a character with an innate tracking ability just
makes sense for a Western.
   The same goes for Righteous's abilities as a shootist.  One could
argue, I guess, that a normal human being could hone their skills to
his level.  I tried to imply more strongly that his ability was
supernatural or superhuman by having him sense how to kill/defeat
Perkins without being told.
   And then, of course, there's Chief Smiling Horse, who serves as an
elevated animal.  In my original outline, he was a much bigger part of
the story but I think he and his laser-firing head-dress provide some

   Speaking of lasers, it can be assumed that the head-dress's jewel,
like the bat-horses, are a remnant of the Bleak Invaders or some other
kind of hostile extraterrestrial force.

   And speaking of Chief Smiling Horse, I did consider making him the
Mayor of a town of outsiders and rogues instead of an American Indian
Chief.  The Old West, iconic and mythic though it may be, is founded
on a certain level of racism, in which the indigenous peoples of the
United States are otherized as "savages" (noble and bloodthirsty
alike) and "injuns".  By making Smiling Horse a Mayor of a non-
minority community, it would avoid any risk of otherizing American
Indians/Native Americans, ala "look how dumb and primitive they are,
having a horse be their chief!"
   This was something that vexed me to no end.  But after a lot of
agonizing, I decided that the image of a horse in a giant laser-firing
head-dress is much funnier than the image of a horse wearing a top-hat
or suit.  I decided to create a fictional tribe, made up of the cast-
offs and crazies of other tribes, to prevent the misrepresentation or
maligning of a particular culture.
   I decided to use the word "injuns" in-story because I was writing
from the point-of-view of three white men of the period: Gulliver,
Silke, and the boy Righteous.  They would not, after all, be
particularly enlightened.  I'm hoping that the reader doesn't think
that representing things through these viewpoint characters implies
collusion with their views; I'm also hoping to revisit this corner of
Eightfold in the near future, so that I can write a story with an
indigenous American character in the lead.

   Finally, the story's title comes from the Clint Eastwood film HIGH
PLAINS DRIFTER though, not having actually seen that particular
Eastwood western, I can't say if it resembles it in any way, shape, or
form.  I'm fairly confident it didn't feature a horse that fires


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