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Dark Tales from Gent's Pens

Kenneth James Crist: Cook Moves On

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Art by Hillary Lyon 2022

Cook Moves On

 

Kenneth James Crist

 

Persephone snorted, as she reached the top of the hill, then blew her hot breath out from her mouth, making her lips vibrate. She was hot and tired and she could smell water. She was carrying two people, neither of them particularly heavy, but she was a rather smallish dapple-gray mare and the extra weight was beginning to take its toll.

Ahead, there was a small creek, and the cottonwoods would provide some shade. The man heeled her lightly, urging her in that direction, roughly north and Perse picked her way down. She had learned to avoid prairie dog holes and snakes and her owner let her find her own way much of the time.

The second person she carried was a blind woman they had picked up in Dodge City two days prior. They had camped the night before and the man had hobbled the mare and let her graze, but she hadn’t had enough water.

Minutes later, they reached the stream and both riders dismounted. Perse wanted to get to the water, but the man held her back long enough to slip on the hobbles. He didn’t understand that she would never leave him. She was in love with him—as much as an animal could love a human— and she would gladly die at his hand rather than leave him. She was aware in a vague way that the relationship had changed somewhat, now that the woman was with them.

The man walked her carefully to the sweet, clear water and let her drink, watching her closely. He would stop her soon and set her to grazing, not letting her drink too much. Later, before they moved on, he would water her again.

After Perse was grazing comfortably the man took the smallish, blonde woman off into a grove of trees. There, he undressed her and they made love and when they were finished, while he was still on top of her, he pressed his lips to each of her eyes, touching the eyelids with his tongue, and when they got back up from their tryst, her sight was restored. When they were dressed, he carefully wiped tears from her eyes and kissed her again, relishing the taste of her mouth and also her salty tears.

“Why did you blind me?” She asked, her voice breaking just a bit with her emotion.

“Most people never think about their sight and what a blessing it is to see. You will always know, for the rest of your life, how lucky you are to have the gift of sight. You’ll appreciate it more. It’s good to know despair and then to be restored…”

“What’s your name?” Her head was cocked to one side and for a moment he was reminded of a small bird. Her rather sharp nose even sort of resembled a beak.

“I told you that before we left Dodge. I expect you may have been addled somewhat over losin’ yer sight. It’s John Cook.”

“Where do you come from, John Cook?”

“I’m not sure. I remember living in lots of places, some back east, but I cannot remember my own childhood, or my parents. Sometimes it’s as if I was just…born an adult.”

 

John Cook was not his real name, but one he had chosen because it was short, just four letters to surname and given name, easy to remember and just as easy for others to forget. The woman, Madeline, was a prostitute he’d taken with him from a brothel in Dodge City, Kansas. He was a man with no job, no discernable past and no foreseeable future. He was just here, at any given time a presence to be reckoned with by those who let greed and avarice and plain orneriness govern their lives. John Cook was a Regulator, in every sense of the word, unconcerned with the laws of man or the lawlessness he encountered all too often, but very concerned with right and wrong and justice on a Biblical scale.

He carried a matched pair of Colt dragoons, older, black-powder weapons, much heavier, clumsier and primitive than later models, but they suited him and his methods. He wore them backwards in matched holsters mounted on crossed belts. They were never out of his reach and always fully loaded. In his saddlebags, he carried spare cylinders, also fully loaded, that could be changed out in a few moments, should he come under sustained fire from an enemy. In a saddle scabbard he carried a Henry lever-action rifle, for times when situations became really serious.

In spite of the weaponry and his attire, which consisted of black semi-formal clothing, John Cook was a peaceable man. He never went looking for trouble, but it had a troubling way of finding him. He had lost track of how many men he had killed and that fact in no way grieved him any more than a more ordinary person would grieve over killing rats.

“I think we’ll make camp here tonight,” he told Madeline, “it’s as good a place as any and my horse is tired. Carrying two people is tough on her.”

They built a small fire, using dry sticks that would make little smoke. This was still territory on which native tribes roamed—not all of them had been placed on reservations. John Cook usually had little trouble with them. He had learned a number of dialects and the mere fact he was willing to do that gained him some modicum of respect in most encounters. He had much more trouble with white men.

They cut up some bacon which in another day or so would go rancid anyway. They ate that along with some hardtack biscuits and coffee. It was meager rations, but the best they could do with what they had. Later, after the stars came out, they made love again and then John Cook took Persephone back down to the water.

When he returned to their bedroll, Madeline was asleep. He settled in and was just dropping off when he heard a sound that was very familiar to him. It was sort of like the sound of trickling water and a hard wind combined. He quickly got up and moved away, buckling on his guns and grabbing his hat. The sound was not loud enough to spook his horse or to wake Madeline, but he knew well what it meant, and he felt adrenaline begin to kick in.

A hundred yards away, a shaft of cool blue light pulsed straight down from above. Its source was too bright to look directly at. He hurried along as quickly as he could in western riding boots combined with the aches and pains of an older man. When he reached the blue light, he did not hesitate at all. He took off his hat and stepped straight into the beam. He faded to transparency and the blue light snapped off. The only sound then was crickets. Persephone had raised her head at the sound of the beam and then continued grazing. She had seen it all before and she knew the man would return, sometimes in minutes, often in mere seconds…

 

The highway bustled with shiny automobiles, their lights bright in the darkness, a white river flowing one way and a red river flowing the other. John Cook stood in a large area that was painted with stripes and had a few of the metal machines parked in it. He had moved forward and back in the timestream so many times, he had learned to observe and learn without wasting time on curiosity.

While he was being transported, he was given orders and now he acted quickly. From his instructions, he knew it would be a near thing. He had been told of the importance of saving one particular person, a girl who had already been killed further down the time-stream. He had been inserted at just the right time to save her.

He stepped off in the direction of the brightly lighted convenience store across the street. He remembered to walk to the corner and wait for the signal and then use the crosswalk. His attire caused a few heads to turn, but not as many as might have been expected. He wasn’t sure of the date, but he knew for sure the location. He was in Las Vegas, Nevada.

He went directly to the front of the store and pushed open the door and stepped inside. His advisor had told him there would be two of them and had given descriptions. It would not have been necessary, he could see now. Both individuals were hooded and masked and were none too clean. Everyone else in the store was lying on the floor. The larger of the two was intent at that moment on intimidating the clerk, yelling for him to open the safe. The smaller robber was more interested in a rather smallish girl, who was sobbing on the floor. He was standing over her, a small black revolver in his hand, practically drooling. John Cook had to admit, she was a cute gal. But he didn’t have time to really check her out. It was time to go to work. He stepped to his left and drew one of the Colts.

First things first, he decided. He cocked the dragoon and fired a quick snap shot that caught the robber at the counter at an angle, the heavy slug entering just below his right shoulder blade and exiting to the left of his left nipple, taking out the heart and both lungs, and knocking him off his feet and landing him in a rack of magazines. He was dead before his blood soaked a current copy of something called “People.”

The second thug froze for just an instant, trying to figure out where the shot had come from and which way he should run. He fancied himself a lover, rather than a fighter and he had only come along on this caper because his bro had made it sound so easy. His hesitation gave John Cook plenty of time to cock the dragoon and bring his sights to bear. The shot took the entire top off the second guy’s head, a shower of blood and brains spattering everything within eight feet. It took the thug a second and a half to fall to the floor. He landed half atop the girl he had been dreaming about raping seconds before. Her sobbing turned to screaming in record time.

Problem solved. John Cook stepped back out the door and walked unhurriedly to the alley just next door. He walked into the alley and directly to the circle of blue light beaming down. As he stepped into the beam, he holstered the Colt and removed his hat. There was the usual jolt and feeling of falling and then crickets. Fifty feet away, Persephone had stopped grazing and was standing, her knees locked, sound asleep.

In Las Vegas, a hundred and two years later, detectives would work a double homicide of two gangbangers who were killed while robbing a 7-11 store by an unknown man in a cowboy suit, armed with black powder pistols. Several descriptions came in from witnesses who had seen him just before the shit went down, but no leads were ever developed, and the Las Vegas dicks didn’t put a shitload of effort into it anyway. They figured two less thugs pulling robberies was a good deal and they moved on to more current crimes with better “solvability factors…”

John Cook changed out the cylinder in his recently-fired Dragoon. He would reload the two fired chambers later when convenient. He slid in next to Madeline and was asleep in minutes.

#     #     #

They left early in the morning before sunup and had made seven or eight miles, when Perse lifted her head and chuffed. She was ready to whinny and the man knew it and said, “Silencio, por favor…” He seldom spoke Spanish to her, but when he did, she knew he was serious and besides, she could smell the tension in him. She could also smell other horses.

The man guided her off to their right and toward a small stream where there were some willows that would give some concealment. He moved Perse down into the creek and the coolness of the water felt good on her feet. He had the woman dismount and he gave her one of his revolvers and sent her further north, telling her to keep low and if he was killed, she should hide. He didn’t need to tell her what the gun was for.

Soon a single rider came into view, riding one horse and leading another. The rider was an Indian brave who looked to be about twenty-eight to thirty years old. The man stayed hidden, but the warrior continued his approach, holding his hands out to show they were empty. Finally, he stopped directly in front of the spot where Perse and John Cook were concealed.

He quietly spoke from his mounted position. “Hau, white man.”

John Cook stepped farther up the bank and said, “What do you want?”

“You need horse? For woman?”

“I’ll not trade the woman, no.”

“White man…you need horse for her to ride.”

“What do you want?”

“You have wit-ski?”

“Whiskey? Yes, I have some…”

“You have wit-ski, I have horse.”

“Where did you get that horse?” John Cook was looking it over closely. It was nothing special. Not an Indian pony, but a well-used nag, what was commonly called a bucket-head. It wasn’t much but it would do…

“Got horse from white man,” the brave said, noncommittally.

“Did you kill a white man for it?” John Cook’s revolver was in his hand, tucked behind his back.

“No. No kill. Count coup and take horse. White man too scared to fight.”

John Cook stepped over to Persephone and opened a saddlebag and withdrew a bottle of rye whisky. It was cheap, rotgut stuff he only carried in case of snakebite. So cheap it didn’t even bear a label. He stepped up the bank and held out the bottle for the brave’s inspection.

“I taste,” the brave said, and got down from his pony. He’d been fooled before by unscrupulous white men. Cook handed over the bottle. The brave pulled the cork and smelled, then tasted the raw contents. Satisfied, he corked the bottle and untied the second horse, handing the reins to Cook.

Cook stepped back and the brave mounted and rode away, without another word. Cook whistled and a few moments later, Madeline appeared. “We’ve got to move now. He’ll be back with more braves and try to kill us. He knows now we’re alone. The trade was too easy. He’ll want to take back the horse and whatever else we have. And he’ll want to take you, too.” He helped her up onto the other horse, which had no saddle and they headed out, moving on north at a quick pace.

Perse was glad to carry only John Cook, but she could feel and smell his tension. She knew the incident was not over.

They rode on northward until dark, John Cook keeping an eye out, looking back often and checking their flanks. After dark, he found a place not far from water and there were two huge fallen cottonwood trees. Cottonwoods were not good for lumber or much else, he reflected, but they would stop bullets. He put the horses in between the fallen trees and gave Madeline a revolver. He got out his rifle and told her, “Don’t trust your hearing. They’re very quiet and stealthy. Anything you see, if it doesn’t call you by name, shoot it.” He then slipped away into the dark. For her own safety, Madeline stood between the horses. Her eyesight had actually improved since Cook had blinded her, then restored her sight.

An hour went by and then the moon came up, its orange orb lighting the area quite clearly. Minutes later, Madeline heard a bird call, then another. She was not fooled. This was the Kansas prairie. Birds didn’t have shit to say after dark. The brave and his friends were moving in.

She saw the first brave, on foot, as he moved across the moon. A classic mistake, perhaps meant to cause her to shoot and give away her position. In a second, there was the crack of a rifle shot and a breathy scream as the brave went down. Then, a second shot whizzed by her head and thudded into the body of another brave, one she had not seen or heard approaching. It was at that point Madeline realized Cook was using her and the horses for bait.

She dropped down to her knees and cocked the huge, clumsy revolver. Two more shots and more cries as more braves went down. Then, an arm slid around her from behind, a hand caressed her breast and then moved to her mouth to keep her still.

Casually, almost without thinking, she brought the revolver up under the brave’s chin and squeezed the trigger. The shot deafened her for a moment and a splash of blood and brains soiled her hair and dress. The man fell behind her and she scuttled away into the dark. The horses were agitated by the gunfire, and she narrowly missed getting stepped on.

“Madeline! Coming in!” Cook eased up to her in the dark and she could also hear the gallop of hooves moving rapidly away.

“Is it over?” There was a shuddery quality to her voice.

“Maybe,” Cook said, “but we’d better move anyway.” They quickly watered the horses from a small pool nearby and mounted back up. They rode for an hour, then stopped and bedded down without making a fire.

They awoke to gunfire off in the distance to the east. The shots rolled and echoed, the concussions could be felt as well as heard.

“Stay here. Keep that revolver ready. I’m going to check this out.” Cook mounted Perse and moved off to the east. In about ten minutes there were two quick rifle shots and soon he returned.

“Who was that?” Madeline was merely curious, but Cook’s countenance was darker than she’d ever seen him look.

“Buffalo hunters. I took care of it.” Madeline was afraid to ask any more, but he continued. “Stupid bastards shoot the buffalo and cut out the tongues and strip the hides. They leave everything else to rot out in the sun. They get a whole dollar for a hide. Sons of bitches…”

“John, what did you do…?”

“Well. They won’t be getting any more dollars…” He shot her a ghastly smile and reloaded his rifle. “Let’s go. We’re almost in Nebraska now. We’ll see the railroad tracks soon.”

Actually, it was four more hours before they found a few buildings and a single railroad track that was being built, as a rip-roaring railroad camp moved with it. They had reached McCook, Nebraska. As they clopped along down the single mud street, John Cook observed several women in less-than-decent attire, watching him. He also noted that Madeline had seen them, too.

Well, he thought, the railroad is here, the whisky is here and the whores are here. What more could a railroad crew ask for?

The local hotel was a two-story, clapboard affair, the siding already warping from the cheap green lumber used to hastily knock it together. John purchased a room and it was none too clean and sparsely furnished. Madeline opted for a bath and he left to get their horses settled at the livery across the way.

As soon as he walked the horses up in front the livery man stepped out and gave him the evil-eye. He was a grizzled old fart in a sweat-stained plaid shirt and leather apron. He was missing a few teeth, but that wasn’t uncommon.

“The fuck you git that horse?”

“Which horse would you be referring to, friend?” John Cook knew damned well which horse the man was asking about.

“That fuckin’ roan right there. Where’d ya git it?”

“Why would that concern you, Mister?” Cook was getting irritated.

“Cuz I know’d the got-damned owner, that’s why.”

“I traded an Indian a bottle of whiskey for him, yesterday afternoon.”

“Man that owned that horse was found dead day before yesterday on the tracks, ‘bout six mile up that way.” He nodded toward the east and spat tobacco juice into the dust, narrowly missing Cook’s boot.

“Don’t know anything about that, friend. I told you where I got him.”

“Well…I’m wonderin’ if you ain’t a got-damn liar. And a horse thief…”

Cook’s stare was now levelled at the livery owner like two gun barrels.

“Ya know what we do to horse thieves around here?”

Cook’s Colt revolver was suddenly in his hand, cocked and stuck under the man’s chin, pointed roughly toward his Adam’s apple. “No, tell me, friend. What do you do to horse thieves?”

The man’s voice seemed to have suddenly left him and he stared into John Cook’s eyes. Cook said, “I’m not a thief. Of any kind. And I don’t lie. Did the man leave a widow?”

“Y-yes. Yes, he did…”

“You’ll take the horse then and sell it and give the money to his widow. I’ll buy another horse from you, if you have stock to sell. Do we have a deal?”

“Yeah. Yes. Yessir. We have a deal.” The Adam’s apple bobbed up and down. As quickly as it had appeared, the Colt went back to sleep in its holster.

Cook handed over the reins of both horses and said quietly, “Good. We’ll settle up in the morning then.”

The liveryman watched the smallish man stroll back across the street and shivered slightly in the afternoon sun. He had felt a goose walk over his grave.




Kenneth James Crist is Editor of Black Petals Magazine and is on staff at Yellow Mama ezine. He has been a published writer since 1998, having had almost two hundred short stories and poems in venues ranging from Dark Dossier and The Edge-Tales of Suspense to Kudzu Monthly. He has several books in print, Jariah and the Big Green Booger, and What Really Lives in Loch Ness, both children’s books, and Groaning for Burial, a book of zombie stories, plus A Motorcycle Cop’s Motorcycle Manual, all available through Amazon.


He reads everything he can get his hands on, not just in horror or sci-fi, but in mystery, hardboiled, biographies, westerns and adventure tales. He retired from the Wichita, Kansas police department in 1992 and from the security department at Wesley Medical Center in Wichita in 2016. Now 77, he is an avid motorcyclist and handgun shooter. He is active in the American Legion Riders and the Patriot Guard, helping to honor and look after our military. He is the owner of Fossil Publications, a desktop publishing venture that seems incapable of making any money at all. On June the ninth, 2018, he did his first (and last) parachute jump and crossed that shit off his bucket list.


Hillary Lyon is an illustrator for horror/sci-fi and pulp fiction websites and magazines. She is also founder and senior editor for the independent poetry publisher, Subsynchronous Press. An SFPA Rhysling Award nominated poet, her poems have appeared in journals such as Eternal Haunted Summer, Jellyfish Whispers, Scfifaikuest, Illya’s Honey, and Red River Review, as well as numerous anthologies. Her short stories have appeared recently in Night to Dawn, Yellow Mama, Black Petals, Sirens Call, and Tales from the Moonlit Path, among others, as well as in numerous horror anthologies such as Night in New Orleans: Bizarre Beats from the Big EasyThuggish Itch: Viva Las Vegas, and White Noise & Ouija Boards. She appeared, briefly, as the uncredited "all-American Mom with baby" in Purple Cactus Media’s 2007 Arizona indie-film, "Vote for Zombie." Having lived in France, Brazil, Canada, and several states in the US, she now resides in southern Arizona.  https://hillarylyon.wordpress.com/                                    


In Association with Black Petals & Fossil Publications 2022