Fantasy Horror Literary Fiction Historical

Raney's Hounds

By Jessica Reisman
7,461 words · 28-minute reading time
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From the author: Calvert's been living the hobo life a long time, riding freight trains, taking what comes, but he's never seen anything like these hounds, or the man who appears with them, Kade.


Raney's Hounds

     It was in the empty boxcar of a red ball out of Chicago that Calvert Raney first saw the hounds.  Long sun slatted through the box's sides, the load doors open to the north, letting in sagemint scent off a green climb of ridge.  Calvert sat back in the wash of air; when the fast freight slowed on curves the car's old livestock stench came strong and musty.  The slatted sun flicked across his eyes, the rattle-clack rocked him in the place he felt safest, between nowhere and anywhere and didn't matter much.

     A low rumble reached his ears.  He thought it might be mustangs.  Then the air in the boxcar bent and wavered around a strange shadow.  Out of this smudge in the air a man fell, flopping and flailing like a worm on a hook.  The next breath Calvert saw why.  Attached to the man and worrying at him grimly were three hounds.  A brown, a dun, a black, pure muscle and sheen.  Man and hounds fell out of nowhere more truly than Calvert could ever claim and thumped hard into the boxcar in a rolling tangle of growling and grunting.  The brown and the dun hung on the man like leeches, while he wrestled with the black, holding it snarling and slavering from his face. 

     Pressed back against the thrumming side of the boxcar, Calvert thrust a hand in his sack.  Amid the folds of blanket and spare pants, he found the bunched end of the blackjack.  He pulled the leadshot-packed leather cylinder out and whipped it down on the nearest hound, the brown one.  Impact jarred all the way back up his arm and the dog took no notice.  But the dun dog, a grayish, dirty yellow, lifted its head out of the fray, jaws bloody, a piece of fabric hanging from its teeth, and fixed hellfire eyes on Calvert. 

     Then it leapt.

     Calvert brought the blackjack up and slashed it across the hound's snout.  The dog made a sound then, a hissing chug, like a steam engine stopped on a grade, letting go its build-up.  Calvert's hand ached up to his teeth.  He cursed and swung the blackjack back down on the head of the brown dog.  That one let go of the man and turned toward Calvert, joined by the dun, springing back up from the side. 

     Freed up, the man got a leg under him, flipped and slammed the black hound down, then, with a strangled yell, "ayaahh!" threw the dog out the open doors.

     A yelp rose up, already falling behind them.  A howl followed, like oily black smoke on the air.  Calvert twitched, shivering.  The other two hounds turned at the sound, backed a synchronous step, swung around and leapt out of the boxcar into the air.  They jumped over the man, who lay in the open door, head down and arms splayed out, one hand hanging out the car and flopping with the rhythm of the freight.

     Still clutching the blackjack, Calvert leaned out the door and looked back.  Wind pushed hair over his forehead and cooled the back of his neck.  The hounds ran close beside the train, black, dun, and brown.  For the length of two long hills he saw them, keeping up like no hounds should have. 

     At last they fell behind.

     Calvert sagged down against the slatted siding, just inside the door.  He leaned his head back, closed his eyes a moment, then cast a sidewise look at his companion.

     Man just lay there, bleeding.  After a bit, he slid himself away from the door, rolled over, slowly pulled himself up to sit against the siding. 

     He clutched at the place where the pocket had been, clutched raw, torn flesh instead and hissed, jerking his hand away.  He leaned back, eyes narrowed against the light.  He was younger than Calvert but older than punk, lines of his face pulled taught around pain.  Something about the man was queer--something beyond falling out of nowhere; Calvert couldn't finger quite what it was.

     "I'd say I was alkeed up, except I know I haven't tasted a sip of rare in years."  He pulled a leg up, set the blackjack next to him, keeping his hand on it.

     By the flick of the man's eyes, he didn't miss the blackjack, but he just looked in Calvert's face and moved his lips around words; then his head fell back against the slatted wood.  The man's head swung with the jolting of the freight.  He'd passed out. 

     He watched the man's head loll for a time, then edged over next to him to look more closely at his wounds.  Holes ripped in the dark fabric of pants, enough to show the wounds underneath, what looked like burned skin around deep, purplish red punctures and bloody, torn flesh. One of the pockets was torn clean away, with a hunk of flesh beneath. The skin was blistered and burned around the teeth punctures. Blood leaked oozily, still, out of the one in his left thigh. Deep.

     His clothes were spattered with scorch marks.  Around the skin of his right hand and wrist the burning looked bad. 

     Calvert sat back, rubbing a hand across his mouth, tasting the smell of sweat, blood, the metal tang of fear. 

-=-=-=-=-=-

     The red ball shot along the track into dusk, until Calvert could see the headlight gleam of the engine around a cut and down into a gorge.  He reckoned by the bend of the land that they’d be coming up on Cheyenne soon.  The freight would slow through the station, but not stop. 

     Man was still out, from what he could see in the westering light.  He'd slept some himself, with the blackjack in his lap, one hand on it like it was his own hard-on and he was having himself off.  He'd woken at a change in the air's flavor, cooler, the light growing long.

     He put the blackjack back in his sack and gathered himself up.

     "Where are you going?"  A low pitched voice, rough with hurt, no accent Calvert could place.

     "Hitting the grit.  You oughta see about some help, see a pill-roller maybe." 

     The man's hand hovered over his missing pocket, then closed into a fist.  "...hound," he mumbled, staring out the load doors at dusk-green land.   

     Calvert shouldered the sack and turned, standing in the opening and rocking with the slowing freight.  The low voice came again, behind him.

     "They'll have your scent now."

     Calvert shifted his shoulders, shrugging the words away. 

     The train gave a long harmonic whistle.  Calvert leaned out and peered up the line, one hand to the rough edge of the loading door. A stiff night wind smelling of rain slapped across his face.

     The freight slowed to a rolling chug, whistle calling.  Calvert leaned further, sighting through the dusk for a soft spot in the buffalo grass. Then he swung down and out, stepping easy as could be into a running gait that took him into the scrubby growth along the tracks. 

     A thump in the grass behind him, a low cry of pain.  Calvert turned to see the man tumble down the hill.  He hunched there a bit, then climbed slowly to his feet, a silhouette in the dark. 

     "I don't need no company."

     "They'll come for you...when they're finished with me.  But together, maybe, we--" the man put a hand to Calvert's arm.  Calvert flung him off, so hard he stumbled back, went to his knees.  He climbed up again, head tilted, eyes questioning.

     "You're on the fritz, Johnny.  Opposite of help, you ask me, and I don't need no wounded tenderfoot latching onto me.  Especially one as dropped out of nothing."  He turned back around and started walking. 

     The man followed.  Calvert could hear his breathing grow labored, hear him as he stumbled in the brush.  But he managed to keep up.  Damn if Calvert was going to run to lose him--nor had he made up his mind to shoulder a Responsibility. He kept it to a stiff mooch through the undergrowth. 

     "You helped me...on the...the train."

     Calvert pressed his lips together, then said, "Helped myself, no choice."

     The man followed him doggedly all the way to the edge of the grifter jungle sprawled just north of the Cheyenne station in the low wash by a creek.

     Fires chipped bright jags from the dark among sage brush and clumps of tall grasses.  The orange-yellow light broke on the back of a spring creek, whose low glugging could be heard as they came among the little groups of men, some around the fires, some in shadowed spaces.  The fires etched a face here and there out of the night.  Bits of conversation drifted to Calvert as they passed. 

     "Hey, Angus, you take my spare socks?"

     "...pearl diver at a beanery--"

     "Chicago Jake was never no pearl diver."

     "He was--first time he ever did deck and gunnels on a pullman out of Chi, he took to it natural."

     Heads turned slightly, canted glances, as Calvert and his tagalong came through their midst. 

     "Who's that?"  "Looks like Raney."  "Who's the other?"  "Never seen him."  "Tenderfoot, maybe." 

     Calvert kept his head down, giving a nod where he got one, and found a spot by the creek, among the few gnarled trees rooted in the sandy soil.

     He hunkered down, fished through the sack for his tin cup, scooped up some creek water, drank it off.  The cold water washed down his throat.  He scooped up a second and drank it, water tracking cool through the sweat-glued dust on his face and neck. 

     The man stood beside him, swaying slightly.  After a bit he sort of fell to a seated position, like his strings had snapped.

     Calvert sucked at his lower teeth for a minute, scooped up another cup of water, dumped that over his face and head, scooped up a fourth and handed it to the man.  Man took it, kept his hands from shaking enough to drink it.  Calvert untied the cloth from around his neck and dipped it in the creek, soaked and squeezed and scrubbed it over his face, then soaked and squeezed it some more and spread it on the tough grass.  He was bone sore weary and sure he was being had, somehow.  But he rummaged in the sack, found what he had for trading and climbed to his feet.

     "I'll be back in a piece. You watch my sack."

     He traded news out of Chicago for some food and, after a wrangle, the last of his tobacco for a bottle of whiteline.  He shook his head at questions and headed back to where he'd left the man. 

     Found him near passed out sitting up, one hand wrapped white knuckled on the sack, cup cradled in the other.

     Calvert uncorked the whiteline and poured some into his damp neck cloth.  The fumes rippled up through the air and stung his nose and eyes.  Long time since he'd let himself get quite so close to that smell.   He glanced over at his companion.  "You have a name?"

     Man smelled the corn whiskey, blinked at Calvert.  He released his hold on the sack and straightened out a leg.  "Kade," he said, soft.

     "Calvert Raney. This is going to hurt some."

-=-=-=-=-=-

     Towards the last third of the night, Calvert slept, head on his sack, curled around himself for warmth. His one thin blanket was on Kade.  He woke at a sound and listened for it, tense as steel wire.  Heard only the creek, the shifting of wind through the trees and grasses, the crack of an ember in a banked-up fire. Raw, whiskey-pale moonlight lay like phantom snow over everything. The low harmonic of a steam engine lulled across the wash.  Calvert reckoned it to be the Portland Rose.  He sighed out the breath he'd been holding and then it came, black and heavy as soot, a howling on the air, unmistakable, like no other howling he'd ever heard. 

-=-=-=-=-=-

     They hit Nampa in a dead funk at the end of a two day run.  Calvert led the way to a decaying barn, Kade stumbling along behind him.  There they tucked up in a pile of old hay, scratchy, musty sweet, and warm.  The smell reminded Calvert of his time as a harvest stiff.

     Outside there'd been little enough light, a storm massing across the night sky.  In the barn it was dark as camp coffee. Kade was feverish, Calvert could hear him tossing in his pile of hay.  He caught himself straining for the sound of howling.   

     "Calvert?"  Soft, fever husked voice.

     "Humm?"

     "Ever seen a catfish out...for...a walk?  They exist, you know, that can walk...far away from here."

     "That so?"

     "...on their fins, they walk...Calvert?"

     "What?"

     "...can't get...back on the Cannonball without my whistle..."

     "Your what?  Go to sleep, Kade, you're fevered."

     "Hound got my whistle, swallowed it down like a fish taking a bluebottle."

     "Kade--"

     "...the bluebottles were buzzing in the wild rye...the sun was so warm...the Wabash'll go without me..."  He muttered a while more, no sense to it, then fell asleep, or passed out, head rolling in the hay. 

     Calvert stared through the darkness, shapes and twists of colored light floating before his open eyes.  He closed his eyes and put his hand over them, feeling to be sure they were closed, which he'd been wont to do when he was eight and his brother whispered ghost stories in the dark.   

     The hay smell brought dreams of long fields, deep, dark soil, and whispering rows of wheat smoking through his mind.  In the middle of the night, he woke to the sound of thunder and a howling of dogs.  The howling was close. 

     The barn doors crashed open just as everything lit up outside, lightning veining the sky and silhouetting a woman in a bathrobe and workboots.  She had a shotgun over one arm and a lantern at the end of the other.  An old bloodhound bolted into the barn, stood square in front of Calvert and howled.  Another blood stayed by the woman's legs.

     "That's fine, Drinker," the woman said and the dog shut up. She held the lantern up and peered at Calvert and the oblivious Kade.  She and Calvert regarded each other.

     "Calvert?  That you?" 

     "Yes ma'am."  He added after a moment, in case she had doubts, "Gwen."

     Gwendolyn Hale chewed the inside of her lip, eyes moving from Calvert, finally, to Kade, taking in particulars. Letting pass a number of things she might have said, she lifted her chin and asked, "How'd he come by the hurts?"

     Calvert glanced at the bloodhound; brown eyes reflected lantern light, droopy face twitching as he tasted the air with his nose.  "Wild dogs.  I--didn't mean any harm. Coming here."  

     "Drinker and Shaw are severe on harm, as you might remember."

     "I didn't know where else to go."

     "No, I guess you wouldn't."  She turned, then turned back.  "Flop out here if you want, Calvert.  But there's a bad storm coming in and this barn don't shed water like she used to."

     "That's fine. Thank you."

     Kade rolled in the hay and muttered a few unintelligible words.  Calvert and the woman hovered on the edges of the silence that followed, looking at him. 

     "Hell," Gwen said.  She looked out into the night as lightning whited out the sky again.  She shook her head and snorted at some private thought. "Saint Armand, what a crock."  Looked back at Calvert.  "C'mon then, Calvert Raney, and bring your sick pup with you."  She moved away, leaving the doorway empty.  The bloods followed.  Calvert rubbed a hand over his mouth, feeling, of a sudden, too tired to figure his next move.

     "You coming?"    

 -=-=-=-=-=-=-

     "Patron saint of hotel keepers."  Gwen crouched in front of her oven with a box of matches.  "I mean, I know it's just a rooming house, but you want to have a saint and it seems Armand is the best I can get."   

     In the kitchen, one floor lamp pooled yellow light insufficiently; the corners hid in shadow.  Smoky burn marks of blown wiring stained the ceiling around the frosted glass of an overhead light.  On a long table pushed up under the window, two glasses and a jug of hard cider sat.  Next to them were a cutting board, a pile of vegetable bits, and a casserole dish layered high.   

     Gwen had led Calvert, encumbered with Kade's limping weight, up to her house on the hill above the barn.  Her lantern bobbed just ahead of them in the dark as the sky was sliced open by lightning.  Thunder pitched along the ridge like giant marbles or stampeding mustangs.

     They'd put Kade to bed in one of what Gwendolyn Hale called her guest rooms.  "Only two fit for guesting, right now," she said.  "All the rest got leaks and missing window panes.  Hell, got a leak in my room."  But she showed them into the room with a sweep of her arm, proud of the dark, polished wood floor and furniture, the blue chenille-covered twin beds.  The bedside lamp was a dancing figure with a swagged shade.

     She cleaned and dressed Kade's wounds proper; her eyelids puckered over the burns, but she ventured no comment.  She made him drink some aspirin powders dissolved in water.  As they were leaving him to rest, Gwendolyn reached to turn the lamp off. Kade muttered "...light...please...so dark here..."  So she left the light burning.

     Now the rain tinned on the roof and splattered across the window glass above ruffled, white cafe curtains.  In the corner by the stove, a large china bowl, a tin basin, and a bucket caught the arrhythmic dripping from a leak in the roof.  Wind creaked and worried at the house, drafts eddying from the hall. The bloods, Drinker and Shaw, slept on the other side of the stove, red brown bodies and big paws twitching in dream on a green oval of rag rug.  

     "I lit a candle for some guests, see.  Guess I forgot to specify paying guests."  She flicked a match across the box, held it, looking at the flame until it steadied, then turned on the gas.  A solid, round faced woman with brown hair loose about her shoulders, she had lined hands and a burr in her voice that Calvert had always placed as Maine-bred.  The robe she wore hung in worn folds of purple and crimson Chinese silk, opulence at odds with her plainness. 

     Food in the oven, she sat. She ran a finger along the inside edge of her glass, licked the finger absently.  Then she fixed brown eyes on Calvert's untouched glass.

     "You're not drinking, Calvert?"

     "No."

     She nodded.  "How long?"

     "Awhile."  Calvert shifted, feeling the sharpness of his bones against the wooden chair seat, the stillness and echoes and history in the house.  He felt short of air, forced a breath and clenched his hands to stop them shaking.  "Are you really thinking to turn the place into a hotel?"  He gestured vaguely to the ceiling.

     "Yeah."  She leaned forward, chin in hand.  Spread the fingers of her left hand in front of her face.  A gold wedding band winked in the light.  "Barton would have laughed himself halfway across the state at me."  She picked up and rolled the glass between her palms, clinking it against the ring.  Lightning splashed against the window glass.  Rain shadows pocked her face and robe in the brief light.  "I didn't think ever to see you again in this world, Calvert," she said. 

     Calvert looked down at his hands, clutched together in his lap, and tried to call up the memory of being at ease sitting at a table like this, in a home.  The casserole began to smell good, a savory deep smell that made Calvert salivate.  No better than a dog, he said to himself and forced another breath.

     Gwen uncorked the cider and poured a finger more.  Smell of apple fire.  "Barn's not what it was last time you flopped there.  Whole place..."  She sipped, swirled the cider.  "So, Calvert."

     She cocked her head at him.  She wasn't near so careless as she appeared.  The shotgun leaned by the table on the other side of her from Calvert.  "You never took on a tenderfoot before.  You're turning down my cider.  You look like Calvert Raney."  She rubbed a finger over her lower lip.  "Like a man who goes away sometime in the night.  You going to be gone in the morning, Calvert?  Going to leave him," she gestured toward the back of the house, "and deck the six-ten out of here?"

     Calvert didn't answer.  A steam engine whistle called up from the tracks, through the rain.

     Gwen looked down into her glass, tipping it to catch reflections.  "I've been trying to decide wether to call my establishment Hale House or Ridge Hotel.  Which do you favor?"

-=-=-=-=-=-=-   

     By Calvert's reckoning it was near four a.m. when he made his way down the dim, drafty hallway of Hale House into the warm light of the room where Kade slept.   

     He sat gingerly on the bed, ran his fingers over the blue chenille spread.  A faint balm of starch and lavender reached him.  Abruptly he stood.  He poured water from the pitcher to the basin on the bureau, stripped off his clothes, unfolded one of the towels and laid it on the floor.  With a block of yellow lye soap, he washed himself head to foot.  He fingered his chin and thought about getting out his razor, then decided to leave it for the daylight. 

     Wearing the cleaner pants from his sack, he lay back with his arms crooked under his head, listening to the rain.

     He looked over at Kade, examining him in the dim light.  Short nap of brown gold hair, light beard barely shadowing his cheeks.  Compactly built and contained, even through the extremity of recent events.  That, Calvert mused, accounted for him seeming older. 

     Kade's eyes opened, hazel blue, clearer than Calvert had yet seen them.  

     "Feeling better, then?" 

     Kade pushed himself up some, grimacing, then sighed.  "Yes." He looked at Calvert, curiously as Calvert had been looking at him.

     "I've been thinking about it," Calvert said.  "You don't seem much like a ghost, you smell like sweat and fear and blood--you bleed.  You're heavy when you pass out and your heart's beating in there, same as mine.  If I'm crazy, well, then," Calvert shrugged, drawing his elbows in a bit, letting them fall back, "there I am."

     Kade scratched his chin.  "You're no crazier than most, I'd say.  Less than some."

     "Not reassuring, really, coming from you."

     Kade laughed, then he scratched at his chin some more, a low, sandpapery sound of fingers over bristle.  "You've been on the rails nearly, what, ten years?" 

     Calvert looked at him sharply.  "Near enough." 

     He glanced toward the window, around the room.  "You've been here before, at this house?"

     "I flopped in the barn for a while, long time past." 

     "Calvert, the thing about the hounds--"  Kade met his eyes, sober as Sunday morning.  "They won't stop; they'll keep coming."

     "With all those freights we decked, and the rain, they'll have lost us by now."

     "No.  They're still coming."

     Rain splattered, mixed with hail, across the window and roof.  Calvert shivered, smelling the house scents of starch, lavender, wood polish.  Feeling himself fed and warm, he thought about all the times he'd been out in weather like this, or worse.  How he'd chosen it, over and over, until it wasn't a choice anymore. 

     "You're just fevered, kid.  And scared of your own nightmares.  They're dogs--"  he broke off his own sentence in the middle.  Fact was, they didn't seem like dogs, not like the bloods in Gwendolyn's kitchen.

     "You smell of the rails.  They'll home in on that scent.  You could stay here awhile.  I mean really stay.  The scent would fade off you."  Kade leaned his head back, eyes closed.   

     "Well, and so could you."

     Eyes still closed, Kade smiled at Calvert's tone, that had gone calming, like, Calvert knew, parent to frightened kid, sane man to nutjob. 

     "Could I?"  Kade's voice loosened; he slid back down in the bed. 

     "Huh,"  Calvert said, thoughtfully.  "Huh."  When he looked over at Kade the man was curled there, eyes closed, asleep.     

-=-=-=-=-=-=-

     The rain slacked off as light crept across the sky.  The lace curtained window grayed, a calm, monkish illumination filling the room.  Calvert lay on the bed, awake; he had been most of the night.  As light etched the dancing figure of the lamp out of the dim, he blinked tiredly, figured he was done thinking, and went to sleep.

     A smell woke him, a complex fragrance more miraculous than the Wabash Cannonball would have been, chugging down endless track out of blue and balmy myth.  Sweller than cigarette trees and clean socks.  Calvert's nose quivered.  Sausage, eggs, coffee.

     Kade's bed lay empty, remade, spread carefully smooth as if the man'd never been there.  Overcast daylight made the room murky without the churchy feeling of the early hours.  He shaved and put on his shirt, then stood at the window.  A road wound to Nampa's gathering of houses and buildings some distance away.  The land swept up from the town, toward foothills.  He couldn't see the train tracks.  He felt ready to be gone--and he felt like staying.  The latter spooked him so bad he wanted to be gone now, without even a taste of the heaven scent that had woken him. He hung between motivations. For the first time in years, he didn't know which side to swing down on.

     In the kitchen, Kade worked slowly at a plate of food with a fork and knife in his bandaged hands.  The door stood open and cool, spring sweet air brushed through.  One of the bloodhounds stood in the door.  He looked around at Calvert, lifted his head with a soft grunt, then faced back out.  Down the hill, Calvert could see Gwen at the pump.  A burgeoning garden lay behind her.  The other blood stood with her, the shotgun leaning nearby. 

     Calvert helped himself to the rest of the eggs and bacon and poured some coffee.

     Kade eyed Calvert's sack as he shrugged it off his shoulder to the floor and sat down.  "Leaving?"

     Calvert forked a big mouthful of eggs before answering.  "Say those hounds are still coming, no reason to bring them down on her.  You're doing okay; I figure we split up and go in different directions, it'll split the hounds, confuse them."

     Kade shook his head.

     "What?"   

     Kade leaned on his elbows, stared downwards.  "It might work," he said, and now he sounded like the parent reassuring a child.  "Maybe--maybe they'll come after me first."

     Calvert chewed.  "They might split up."

     "Calvert--you saw them on the train."

     "Won't bring them down on her."  He gestured.

     "They won't go after her.  If she offered them her throat, they wouldn't."

     Calvert rubbed a hand over his eyes.  "Sure.  And why is that?"

     "She doesn't exist for them.  She's less than a ghost.  Even to me..."  He mopped up eggs with a heel of bread and chewed thoughfully.  "Even to me, she's like, a kind of memory, solid, but light-filled; like an angel, maybe, or a figment come to life."

     "Food seems real enough to you."

     Kade grinned, wolfish.

     Calvert grunted and tucked the whole exchange away with the rest of the ravings.  "I'm going.  Time to be out of here and shot of you."

     "Calvert, if you stayed here, helped out for a while...they might pass you by. It'd change your scent."

     Calvert sipped coffee.  "Well, I am going to see what chores I can do here.  Then I'll be on my way.  Not much you can do with them hands, so you better not worry about it.  Rest some more."

     Kade looked at his hands.  "No. I'll go now."  He shook himself slightly, then stood. He looked at Calvert, smiled with his whole face, a look out of somewhere else. "Thank you for the help, Calvert."  

     Calvert watched him as he walked off down the hill, stopped to speak to Gwendolyn, walked on.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

     Gwendolyn found things for Calvert to do.  He fixed a broken step at the front, weeded in the garden, the near-mint spice of tall basil plants in his nose, cleaned out the chicken coop.  There was plenty to do. 

     In the beginnings of gray evening, he helped her load her truck with crates of early produce and hay-padded baskets of eggs. 

     "Hal Pearson prefers to do his buying after business hours," she said, gossiping about her neighbors.  "Man stays up all night doing stock and sleeps in the morning, leaving the sales to his wife."  She squinted at the sky. 

     Another storm was piling darkly on the northeast horizon, moving in over the valley.  Calvert stood back and wiped sweat from his face with his neck cloth.  Gwendolyn opened the Ford's beat up green door; it gave a wheezing groan.  She wore a man's denim shirt and work pants and had stuck her old work gloves into the waist. 

     "Drinker, Shaw!" she called.  The bloods leapt up into the cab with a whine and a mutter.  She climbed in after them, slammed the door and looked at Calvert.

     "Well, Calvert."  She pursed her lips, squinting toward the weather again.  "You'd be welcome to stay another night.  I can use the help."  This last seemed hard for her to admit, but then she laughed.  "Maybe you could tell."  Then she shook her head.  "But you won't."  She shoved the Ford into gear and the truck rumbled and bounced down the dirt drive.

     Cool, slowly darkening air dried the sweat on Calvert's face and neck.  He twisted the cloth, retied it and stood there, thinking, though it seemed to him he'd done enough thinking lately to grow a second head.  The first raindrops specked across his face coldly and thunder crackled in the distance.  The air grew colder as he stood there; it blew stiffly, pawing at his clothes. An old weathervane creaked on top of Gwendolyn's house. 

     A familiar, belling howl pierced the air.  Two others shadowed it.

     Calvert shuddered at the awful harmony and took several deep lungfuls of the cold storm air.  Then he climbed the hill to  Gwendolyn Hale's house.  Her shotgun leaned against a wall in the kitchen.  He hefted it and checked the chambers. 

     The scent of gun powder came sharp in his nose.  The cold metal and hard, smooth wood in his hands settled a weight of consequence ghostily into his muscles.  Long lost motivations stood in his spine and flexed in his arms.  Like shadows cast by thick lamp light, it felt both familiar and strange.

-=-=-=-=-=-=-=-

     Nampa train yard huddled under the weather, small and deserted, the gandy tucked up out of it in his line shack.  The rain had arrived, bitchy with wind.  Calvert took shelter in the lee of a tin and branch lean-to, hobo-built.  Hunched down in the driest spot he could find, he listened to the rain drumming the earth, watched lightnings fire distant clouds, breathed the rain's wet, the rank green of the weeds, and the steel tang of the tracks.

     He cradled the shotgun in his lap.

     Calvert didn't hear Kade, didn't know he was there until he'd ducked under the shelter.  He'd expected him, though.  Man would go to the track whence he came, where else?  Kade hunkered down beside him, looking out at the rain.  He blew on his bandaged hands, tucked them up into his jacket, wrapping his arms about himself.         

     Howling planed through the wet evening, closer now, coming.  Calvert wiped his mouth with a shaking hand, glanced at Kade. 

     Kade gestured to the shot gun.  "You know how to use that?"

     Calvert grunted.  "Lawman...once."  He imagined somewhere, away in a graveyard in Pennsylvania, the dead he thought of as his own turning in their graves, watching him.     

     Calvert felt his heart shudder, like missing a step.  Was it the hell hounds, getting closer?  Or the familiarity of the shotgun in his hands, the shadowy weight that had settled into him when he took it up?  No, earlier; it had crept up on him, hovering over his shoulder and whispering through him since...since he traded his last tobacco for a bottle of whiteline to doctor a man who dropped out of nowhere. 

     He closed his eyes and leaned back.  Put shaking fingers over his lids to feel them closed.  Cold at the outside of his skin shivered down into him.  He took a breath, and another.  They hurt in his lungs.

     "Calvert?"  Hands touched him.

     "Leave off," he coughed, voice thin, and waved a hand.  Kade dropped his hands, crouched beside him.  Calvert stared at the sky.  Lightning roiled in a distant cloud, a far away lamp briefly lit.  He coughed again, found himself laughing.

     Kade tilted his head back, watching him.  The laughter faded.  Calvert wiped his mouth.  He thought of his ghosts, looked at them across time.  They were no longer accusing, no longer hungry for his life.  They were just dead. 

     "Go back to the house, Calvert."

     Calvert stretched a hand out from under the shelter, caught some rain and put wet fingers over his eyes.  "House is a figment.  Hounds are a figment--all of it--like cigarette trees and the Wabash Cannonball arrowing out of heaven.  You, too."

     Kade looked at Calvert like a fox looking up from a pile of feathers.  "Am I?"

     "No."

     They sat listening to the rain hiss on the shelter's tin roof.

     Howling rang out, close by, long air-shredding chorus.  Kade looked out, back at Calvert.  He scrambled to his feet and stood in the entrance of the lean-to.  

     The dogs came, snarling and smoking through the rain, graceful demons, hellfire hallucinations, giving off a phosphor glow that steamed through the rain and darkness. Calvert shivered, watching, hypnotized.  They stopped, light steaming into the air around them. 

     Tall hounds, so dense with muscle they seemed to bend the air where they touched it.  Hard and sheened like oil. Their eyes gleamed, flickering.  Smoke blue as a steel rail curled up from their bodies in freshets and wisps.  Saliva dripped from sharp teeth and snarling mouths.  Where it hit the dirt, steam hissed up into the cold rain.

     Their growling fetched through Calvert's blood.  The glow in their eyes burned out at him like glims to a cigarette in the dark of a boxcar.  He was hypnotized, his mind fear-stunned.  His hands dropped from the gun, dragged on the rough, hard-packed soil.

     The dogs closed in, dark shadows with burning eyes.  Then the dun dog melted through the air, a movement Calvert couldn't track, past Kade and suddenly beside him.  Calvert stared into glowing, whirling eyes.

     He felt a terrible spinning, an utter despair that billowed up, like heavy air, from within him.  It was within him...it was him...he was nothing, alone, nowhere.

     He turned his head from it, closed his eyes.  But he couldn't close his eyes against the substance, the dark, utter hopelessness spinning heavily up from within him.  Calvert heard his own voice give a wracked, painful mewl.

     His heart pumped hard as hail on a steel rail.  He canted his head as far back as the lean-to allowed.  The dog snarled, lips pulled back from teeth, leaning in close to Calvert's face.  It smelled of metal, coal, kerosene. 

     Vertigo.  The hound's breath came hot as steam and smelled like it: hot engine steam.  Sweat prickled on Calvert's skin.  Saliva dripped from the dog's mouth, splashed on Calvert's arm, scalding.   

     He felt the weight of the shotgun across his thighs.   His hands rose, spasmed and locked.  He thrust the muzzle in the hound's snout.  The hound pushed past it for his shoulder, closed teeth in flesh.  Sickening pain went down into his arm, flared like fire over his heart.  He surged back against the lean-to, the whole thing shaking.  The hound dragged him back forward, heavy, wiry body inexorable. 

     Burning pain overtook him; his trigger hand began to go slack, to let go and slide away.  A sudden crack of thunder shocked his mind wide; in the flash of lightning that followed closely on the thunder, he saw, not the tracks and scrubby land of Nampa, but a long, endless gleam of tracks into tunnelled blue distance. 

     It was beautiful, a fabled road into grifter myth.

     Calvert shut his eyes.  With a gasp, he made his hand take the trigger and lift the shotgun again.  In a spasm of pain, he squeezed cold metal. 

     The explosion flash blinded and deafened him, throwing heat and light in his face.  A brief moment of darkness followed as the recoil slammed him back into the lean-to. Then the darkness lifted.  He heaved a breath of cold air.  His shoulder throbbed. 

     He heard a screeing sound, like the grate of a brake on the rails.  It came from the dun hound beside him.  The hound stood there, with his blood dripping from its teeth, staining pale fur, a double fist-sized hole in its body, just behind the front legs.  Its glowing eyes whirled.  A thin whine went up from it, escalating into a shriek. 

     The hound panted, head flung up, neck stretched with a howl that was lost in the shrieking.  Calvert blinked.  The shrieking didn't issue from the dog's throat. It came from the shotgun-blasted hole in its body.  It rose and rose. He'd seen a train derail and crash once, car into car, into itself. 

     It was like that.

     Smoke went up from the dog into the thin rain.  The glow went from its eyes and its body caved in on itself in the center.  It knelt, then fell to its side, smoke wisping and curling up from it.

     Calvert looked past it to see Kade standing against one of the shelter poles, a heavy stick in his hands, canted between the brown and black.  Even as Calvert looked, Kade went down under the brown as the black took the stick from his hands.

     Calvert came to one knee, then to his feet.  Staggering, he came out from under the shelter.  Rain slicked his face and hands coldly. 

     Kade rolled with the brown nearly under his feet, the hound's growling and Kade's grunts the only sound but the rain.  Calvert aimed at the black as it joined the brown.

     The shot threw the hound back from Kade, caving in its head.  Its legs struggled for purchase a moment, then the same screeing sound went up from it as from the dun. 

     The brown let loose of Kade and raised its muzzle, dripping blood and gore.  It stared at the black, then turned to Calvert.  Hellfire eyes whirled.  It put back its head and howled, a long, mournful sound, so like to a train whistle Calvert shuddered, and knew he'd never hear such a sound again without hearing this moment in it. 

     The fire in the eyes died away.  The howling slowly faded to rain-steeped silence.

     Kade struggled to half-sit.  He let go the ruff of the brown.  It didn't move.  It stood there, frozen.

      Calvert knelt by the dun.  What he saw in the caved-in wreckage of the dog’s body was metal, pistons and gears, broken and twisted, bits of smoking coal and ash, and something that looked like honeycombed porcelain.  Slick with oil.  He could smell the oil, a bitter tang on the air. 

     Kade put his hands over his eyes for a while.  After a bit, he shifted out from under the brown with a grunt.  His breath steamed in the chill wet air.  He came over and fell to his knees by the dun.  Plunging a hand into the broken metal and porcelain body, he felt around.  Steam rose up.  Calvert listened to the sloshy sounds, watched viscous oil ooze out, staining the bandages on Kade's wrist.  With a sucking squish, he pulled his hand out, covered in goopy oil and bits of other matter Calvert couldn't identify, his fingers fisted around something. 

     He uncurled them to reveal a silver whistle; the metal was patterned finer than lace.  Inside it Calvert could see movement, burning color speaking in minute figures, bewildering, vivid and deep... Calvert jerked his head back and squeezed his eyes shut.  When he opened them Kade had closed his fingers around the thing. 

     "Calvert," Kade said, then shook his head and grinned.  The rain trailed through the blood on his face; he looked like a ghoul.  He touched Calvert's face with his empty hand.  Calvert felt the scratch of bandages, the warmth of fingers. 

     "Thank you."

     Kade stood straight. He tossed the whistle into the air and caught it, then winced.  But he seemed uncommonly pleased for a man so hurt.  He turned and started to walk away.  Calvert stared after him, then shook his head.

     "Where are you going?"

     "Train coming," Kade said over his shoulder.

     "I don't hear it."

     "Give it a minute."

     Calvert listened to the rain, peered up the track into the dark.  He looked back at Kade.  "So you're taking to the life?"

     Kade gave him a lifted brow.  "Did I ever say I was tenderfoot, Calvert?"

     He heard it then, through the multiple voices of the rain dripping on the tin, trickling in rivulets along the oversoaked ground, hissing into the land far and near, he became aware of the sweet call of a train whistle.  A freight line, slowing for its pass through station.  After a while, he could hear its rhythm.  Soon the locomotive's head lamp cut through the dark, its beam stitched by a thousand needles threaded with rain as it poured across track, grass, platform. 

     Kade turned away and fell into an easy lope toward the slowing train.  He limped only slightly.

     Calvert started after him.  The rain stung his face with tiny cold touches.  His boots squelched in the mud, water seeping into the right one.  The train slowed.  He could see the gunnel, at this speed an easy deck.  He started into the long-legged lope that would bring him to it, and away. 

     Within a few feet, he slowed, stopped.  He hefted the shotgun.  Gwen's shotgun.  He held it close to his body and watched Kade make the running leap and swing up into a boxcar.  He raised one hand to Calvert and put the whistle to his mouth.  

     The air wavered, like the hot shimmer over a red ball freight arrowing through an August heat.  Kade was gone, the boxcar empty. Calvert blinked and looked around him.  The lifeless hounds were gone, too.  There was only the slapping rain, the dark night.

     Calvert rubbed a hand over his mouth.  His shoulder throbbed sickly, and his elbow dully.   

     The freight chunked past him, filling his vision.  Coal cars, soda ash, potatoes, livestock.  Then it was past and the world opened up again on the other side, all around.  The train put on speed for the climb out of the valley.  Some moments later it was gone around the station curve.  Wiping the rain from his eyes, he crossed the tracks and started up the ridge to Hale House.

 

Fin

 

This story originally appeared in Realms of Fantasy.


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