The Page of Wands
The Nevada sun bit into Jim Negrey like a rattlesnake. It was noon. He shuffled forward, fighting gravity and exhaustion, his will keeping him upright and moving. His mouth was full of the rusty taste of old fear; his stomach had given up complaining about the absence of food days ago. His hands wrapped around the leather reins, using them to lead Promise ever forward. They were a lifeline, helping him to keep standing, keep walking.
Promise was in bad shape. A hard tumble down one of the dunes in the 40-Mile Desert was forcing her to keep weight off her left hind leg. She was staggering along as best she could, just like Jim. He hadn’t ridden her since the fall yesterday, but he knew that if he didn’t try to get up on her and get moving, they were both as good as buzzard food soon. At their present pace, they still had a good three or four days of traveling through this wasteland before they would reach Virginia City and the mythical job with the railroad.
Right now, he didn’t care that he had no money in his pockets. He didn’t care that he only had a few tepid swallows of water left in his canteen or that if he managed to make it to Virginia City he might be recognized from a wanted poster and sent back to Albright for a proper hanging. Right now, all he was worried about was saving his horse, the brown mustang that had been his companion since he was a child.
Promise snorted dust out of her dark nostrils. She shook her head and slowed.
“Come on, girl,” he croaked through a throat that felt like it was filled with broken shale. “Just a little ways longer. Come on.”
The mare reluctantly heeded Jim’s insistent tugging on the reins and lurched forward again. Jim rubbed her neck.
“Good girl, Promise. Good girl.”
The horse’s eyes were wide with crazy fear, but she listened to Jim’s voice and trusted in it.
“I’ll get us out of here, girl. I swear I will.” But he knew that was a lie. He was as frightened as Promise. He was fifteen years old and he was going to die out here, thousands of miles from his home and family.
They continued on, heading west, always west. Jim knew far ahead of them lay the Carson River, but it might as well be on the moon. They were following the ruts of old wagon train paths, years old. If they had more water and some shelter, they might make it, but they didn’t. The brackish salt ponds they passed spoke to the infernal nature of this place. For days now, they had stumbled over the bleached bones of horses, and worse. Other lost souls, consigned to the waste of the 40-Mile.
During the seemingly endless walk, Jim had found artifacts, partially eaten by the sand and clay—the cracked porcelain face of a little girl’s doll. It made him think of Lottie. She’d be seven now. A broken pocket watch held a sun-faded photograph of a stern-looking man dressed in a Union uniform. It reminded him of Pa. Jim wondered if some unfortunate wandering this path in the future would find a token of his and Promise’s passing, the only record of his exodus through this godforsaken land, the only proof that he had ever existed at all.
He fished the eye out of his trouser pocket and examined it in the unforgiving sunlight. It was a perfect orb of milky glass. Inlaid in the orb was a dark circle and, within it, a perfect ring of frosted jade. At the center of the jade ring was an oval of night. When the light struck the jade at just the right angle, tiny unreadable characters could be seen engraved in the stone. It was his father’s eye, and it was the reason for the beginning and the end of his journey. He put it back in a handkerchief and stuffed it in his pocket, filled with an angry desire to deny it to the desert. He pressed onward and Promise reluctantly followed.
He had long ago lost track of concepts like time. Days were starting to bleed into one another as the buzzing in his head, like angry hornets, grew stronger and more insistent with each passing step. But he knew the sun was more before him now than behind him. He stopped again. When had he stopped to look at the eye? Minutes ago, years? The wagon trails, fossilized and twisting through the baked landscape, had brought him to a crossroads in the wasteland. Two rutted paths crossed near a pile of skulls. Most of the skulls belonged to cattle and coyotes, but the number that belonged to animals of the two-legged variety unnerved Jim. Atop the pile was a piece of slate, a child’s broken and discarded chalkboard, faded by sand, salt and sun. On it, in red paint, written in a crude, looping scrawl were the words: Golgotha: 18 mi. Redemption: 32 mi. Salvation: 50 mi.
During Jim’s few furtive days in Panacea, after crossing over from Utah, he had been surprised by the number of Mormons in Nevada and how much influence they had already accumulated in this young state. There were numerous small towns and outposts dotting the landscape with the most peculiar religious names, marking the Mormon emigration west. He had never heard of any of these towns, but if there were people there would be fresh water and shelter from the sun.
“See, Promise, only eighteen more miles to go and we’re home free, girl.” He pulled the reins, and they were off again. He didn’t much care for staying in a place named Golgotha, but he was more than willing to visit a spell.
The trail continued, the distance measured by the increasing ache in Jim’s dried-out muscles, the growing hum in his head that was obscuring thought. The sun was retreating behind distant, shadowy hills. The relief from the sun was a fleeting victory. Already a chill was settling over his red, swollen skin as the desert’s temperature began to plunge. Promise shivered too and snorted in discomfort. There was only so much farther she could go without rest. He knew it would be better to travel at night and take advantage of the reprieve from the sun, but he was simply too tired and too cold to go on, and he feared wandering off the wagon trail in the darkness and becoming lost.
He was looking for a place to hole up for the night when Promise suddenly gave a violent whinny and reared up on her hind legs. Jim, still holding the reins, felt himself jerked violently off the ground. Promise’s injured hind leg gave way and both boy and horse tumbled down a rocky shelf off to the left of the rutted path. There was confusion, and falling and then a sudden, brutal stop. Jim was prone with his back against Promise’s flank. After a few feeble attempts to rise, the horse whimpered and stopped trying.
Jim stood, beating the dust off his clothes. Other than a wicked burn on his wrist where the leather reins had torn away the skin, he was unharmed. The small gully they were in had walls of crumbling clay and was sparsely dotted with sickly sage plants. Jim knelt near Promise’s head and stroked the shaking mare.
“It’s okay, girl. We both need a rest. You just close your eyes, now. I’ve got you. You’re safe with me.”
A coyote howled in the distance, and his brethren picked up the cry. The sky was darkening from indigo to black. Jim fumbled in his saddlebags and removed Pa’s pistol, the one he had used in the war. He checked the cylinder of the .44 Colt and snapped the breech closed, satisfied that it was ready to fire.
“Don’t worry, girl; ain’t nobody gitting you tonight. I promised you I’d get us out of here, and I’m going to keep my word. A man ain’t no good for nothing if he don’t keep his word.”
Jim slid the coarse army blanket and bedroll off the saddle. He draped the blanket over Promise as best he could, and wrapped himself in the thin bedding. The wind picked up a few feet above their heads, whistling and shrieking. A river of swirling dust flowed over them, carried by the terrible sound. When he had been a boy, Jim had been afraid of the wind moaning, like a restless haint, around the rafters where his bed was nestled. Even though he knew he was a man now and men didn’t cotton to such fears, this place made him feel small and alone.
After an hour, he checked Promise’s leg. It was bad, but not so bad yet that it couldn’t heal. He wished he had a warm stable and some oats and water to give her, a clean brush for her hide. He’d settle for the water, though. She was strong, her heart was strong, but it had been days since she had taken in water. Strength and heart only went so far in the desert. From her labored breathing, that wasn’t going to be enough to reach Golgotha.
The frost settled into his bones sometime in the endless night. Even fear and the cold weren’t enough to keep him anchored to this world. He slipped into the warm, narcotic arms of sleep.
His eyes snapped open. The coyote was less than three feet from his face. Its breath swirled, a mask of silver mist in the space between them. Its eyes were embers in a fireplace. There was intelligence behind the red eyes, worming itself into Jim’s innards. In his mind, he heard chanting, drums. He saw himself as a rabbit—weak, scared, prey.
Jim remembered the gun. His frozen fingers fumbled numbly for it on the ground.
The coyote narrowed its gaze and showed yellowed teeth. Some were crooked, snagged, but the canines were sharp and straight.
You think you can kill me with slow, spiritless lead, little rabbit? Its eyes spoke to Jim. I am the fire giver, the trickster spirit. I am faster than Old Man Rattler, quieter than the Moon Woman’s light. See, go on, see! Shoot me with your dead, empty gun.
Jim glanced down at the gun, slid his palm around the butt and brought it up quickly. The coyote was gone; only the fog of its breath remained. Jim heard the coyote yipping in the distance. It sounded like laughter at his expense.
His eyes drooped, and closed.
He awoke with a start. It was still dark, but dawn was a threat on the horizon. The gun was in his hand. He saw the coyote’s tracks and wondered again if perhaps he had already died out here and was now wandering Hell’s foyer, being taunted by demon dogs and cursed with eternal thirst as penance for the crimes he had committed back home.
Promise stirred, fitfully, made a few pitiful sounds and then was still. Jim rested his head on her side. Her heart still beat; her lungs struggled to draw air.
If he was in Hell, he deserved it, alone. He stroked her mane and waited for the Devil to rise up, bloated and scarlet in the east. He dozed again.
* * *
He remembered how strong his father’s hands were, but how soft his voice was too. Pa seldom shouted ’less he had been drinking on account of the headaches.
It was a cold West Virginia spring. The frost still clung to the delicate, blooming blue sailors and the cemetery plants early in the morning, but, by noon, the sky was clear and bright and the blustery wind blowing through the mountains was more warm than chill.
Pa and Jim were mending some of Old Man Wimmer’s fences alongside their own property. Pa had done odd jobs for folk all over Preston County since he had come back from the war. He had even helped build onto the Cheat River Saloon over in Albright, the closest town to the Negrey homestead.
Lottie had brought a lunch pail over to them: corn muffins, a little butter and some apples as well as a bucket of fresh water. Lottie was five then, and her hair was the same straw color as Jim’s, only lighter, more golden in the sunlight. It fell almost to her waist, and Momma brushed it with her fine silver combs in the firelight at night before bedtime. The memory made Jim’s heart ache. It was what he thought of whenever he thought of home.
“Is it good, Daddy?” Lottie asked Pa. He was leaning against the fence post, eagerly finishing off his apple.
“M’hm.” He nodded. “Tell your ma, these doings are a powerful sight better than those sheet-iron crackers and skillygallee old General Pope used to feed us, darling.”
Jim took a long, cool draw off the water ladle and looked at Pa, sitting there, laughing with Lottie. Jim thought he would never be able to be as tall or proud or heroic as Billy Negrey was to him. The day Pa had returned from the war, when President Lincoln said it was over and all the soldiers could go home, was the happiest day of Jim’s young life. Even though Pa came back thin, and Momma fussed over him to eat more, and even though he had the eye patch and the headaches that came with it, that only made him seem more mysterious, more powerful, to Jim.
Lottie watched her father’s face intently while he finished off the apple, nibbling all around the core
“Was it Gen’ral Pope that took away your eye?” she asked.
Pa laughed. “I reckon in a matter of speaking he did, my girl. Your old daddy didn’t duck fast enough, and he took a bullet right in the eye. Don’t complain, though. Other boys, they got it hundred times worse.”
“Pa, why does Mr. Campbell in town say you got a Chinaman’s eye?” Jim asked with a sheepish smile.
“Now, James Matherson Negrey, you know good and well why.” He looked from one eager face to the other and shook his head. “Don’t you two ever get tired of hearing this story?”
They both shook their heads, and Billy laughed again.
“Okay, okay. When I was serving with General Pope, my unit—the First Infantry out of West Virginia—we were in the middle of this big ol’ fight, y’see—”
“Bull Run? Right, Pa?” Jim asked. He already knew the answer, and Billy knew he knew.
“Yessir,” Billy said. “Second scrap we had on the same piece of land. Anyways, old General Pope, he made some pretty bad calculations and—”
“How bad, Pa?” Lottie asked.
“Darling, we were getting catawamptiously chawed up.”
The children laughed, like they always did.
Billy continued. “So the call comes for us to fall back, and that was when I … when I got a Gardner right square in the eye. I was turning my head to see if old Luther Potts was falling back when it hit me. Turning my head probably saved my life.”
Billy rubbed the bridge of his nose with his thumb and forefinger.
“You all right, Pa?” Jim asked.
“Fine, Jim. Fetch me some water, will you? So, Lottie, where was I?”
“You got shot in the eye.”
“Right. So I don’t recall much specific after that. I was in a lot of pain. I heard … well, I could hear some of what was going on all around me.”
“Like what, Pa?” she asked.
“Never you mind. Anyways, someone grabbed me up, and dragged me for a spell, and finally I heard the sawbones telling someone to hold me still, and they did and I went to sleep for a long time. I dreamed about you and Jim and your mother. The stuff they give you to sleep makes you have funny dreams. I remember seeing someone all dressed up fancy in green silk, some kind of old man, but his hair was long like a woman’s, and he was jawing at me, but I couldn’t understand him.”
“When did you wake up, Pa?” Jim asked. Even though he knew the story by heart, he always tried to flesh it out with any new details that he could glean from the retelling.
“Few days later in a hospital tent. My head hurt bad and it was kind of hard to think or hear.” Billy paused and seemed to wince. Jim handed him the wooden ladle full of cool water. He gulped it down and blinked a few times with his good eye. “They told me we had fallen back and were on our way to Washington for garrison duty. General Pope was in a powerful lot of trouble too.
“They told me I had lost the eye, but was mighty lucky to be alive. I didn’t feel too lucky right that minute, but compared to all the lads who didn’t come home at all, I figure I did have an angel on my shoulder.”
“So tell us about the Chinaman, Pa!” Lottie practically squealed.
Billy winced but went on, with a forced smile. “Well, when my unit got to Washington, a bunch of us fellas who were pretty banged up, we all went to stay at a hospital. One night in the hospital, this strange little Johnny, all dressed up in his black pajamas, and his little hat, he came sneaking into the ward and he crept up beside my bed.”
“Were you scared, Pa?” Jim asked.
Billy shook his head. “Not really, Jim. That hospital was so strange. The medicine they gave us, called it morphine, it made you feel all flushed and crazy. I honestly didn’t think the Chinaman was real. He spoke to me and his voice was like a song, but soft, like I was the only one in the world who could hear him. He said, ‘You will do.’ I don’t to this day know what the blazes he was going on about, but he said something about the moon and me hiding or some-such. Then he touched me right here, on the forehead, and I fell asleep.
“Well, when I woke up I wasn’t in the hospital anymore; I was in some den of Chinamen. They were all mumbling something or other over top of me, and they were pulling these great big knitting needles outta my skin, but I didn’t feel any pain at all. The one who came into the hospital and fetched me, he said that they were healers and that they had come to give me a gift. He held up a mirror and I saw the eye for the first time. He told me it was an old keepsake from his kin back in China.”
“Did you believe him, Pa?” Jim asked.
Billy rubbed his temples and blinked at the afternoon sunlight again. “Well, I was a mite suspicious of him and his buddies, Jim. He told me the eye was real valuable, and that I should probably hide it under a patch, ’less crooks might try to steal it. That seemed a bit odd to me. He and the other Johnnies, they all chattered like parrots in that singsong talking those folks do. I couldn’t understand any of it, but they all seemed powerful interested in me and the eye. Then they thanked me and told me good luck. Another Chinaman blew smoke in my face from one of those long pipes of theirs, and I got sleepy and kind of dizzy and sick, like with the morphine. When I woke up, I was back in the hospital, and it was the next day. I told the doctors and my superior officer what happened, and they just seemed to chalk it up to the medicine they gave me. They had more trouble explaining the eye. The hospital was pretty crazy on account of all the hurt soldiers. They didn’t have much time to puzzle over my story—I was alive and was going to keep on living. They had to move on the next poor fella. Couple of them offered to buy the eye right out of my head, but it didn’t seem proper to give away such a fine gift. And it gave me a great story to tell my kids for the rest of my life.”
Billy grunted, and pulled himself to his feet. “A while later, the war was over and I got to come home. I never saw the Chinaman again. The end.”
“Let me see it, Pa!” Lottie said eagerly, practically humming with anticipation. “Please!”
Billy smiled and nodded. He lifted the plain black eye patch that covered his left socket. Lottie laughed and clapped. Jim crowded forward too to get a better glimpse of the seldom-seen artifact.
“It’s like you got a green-colored eye,” Lottie said softly. “It’s so pretty, Pa.”
“That green color in it, that’s jade,” Billy said. “Lots of jade in China.”
“Tea too,” Jim added.
Lottie stuck out her tongue at him. “You’re just trying to be all highfalutin and smart seeming,” she said.
“All right, you two, that’s enough,” Billy said, lowering the patch. “Let’s get back to work, Jim. Lottie, you run on home to your momma, y’hear?”
Jim watched Lottie dance through the tall, dry grass, empty pail in her small hand, the sun glistening off her golden curls. She was singing a made-up song about China and jade. She pronounced “jade” “jay.”
Jim glanced to his father, and he could tell that one of the headaches was coming on him hard. But he was smiling through it, watching Lottie too. He turned to regard his thirteen-year-old son with a look that made the sun shine inside the boy’s chest.
“Let’s get back to it, Son.”
* * *
He awoke, and it was the desert again. The green and the mountain breeze were gone. The sun was coiled in the east, ready to rise up into the air and strike. It was still cool, but not cold anymore. He remembered the coyote and spun around, gun in hand. Everything was still and unchanged in the gathering light.
Promise’s breathing was labored and soft. The sound of it scared Jim, bad. He tried to get her to rise, but the horse shuddered and refused to stir.
“Come on, girl, we got to get moving, ’fore that sun gets any higher.”
Promise tried to rise, coaxed by the sound of his voice. She failed. He looked at her on the ground, her dark eyes filled with pain, and fear, and then looked to the gun in his hand.
“I’m sorry I brought you out here, girl. I’m so sorry.”
He raised Pa’s pistol, cocked it and aimed it at the mare’s skull.
“I’m sorry.” His finger tightened on the trigger. His hands shook. They hadn’t done that when he shot Charlie. Charlie had deserved it; Promise didn’t.
He eased the hammer down and dropped the gun into the dust. He stood there for a long time. His shadow lengthened.
“We’re both getting out of here, girl,” he said, finally.
Jim rummaged through the saddlebags and removed his canteen. He took a final, all-too-brief sip of the last of the water, and then poured the rest onto Promise’s mouth and over her swollen tongue. The horse eagerly struggled to take the water in. After a few moments, she rose to her feet, shakily.
Jim stroked her mane. “Good girl, good girl. We’ll make it together, or not at all. Come on.” They began to trudge, once again, toward Golgotha.
Copyright © 2013 by Rod Belcher