The Legend of Johnny Smokers: The Beginning
The Appaloosa meandered slowly along the trail, its rider sitting straight in the saddle. He had his hat pulled low over his eyes to shade from the setting sun, and was slowly rolling a cigarette for the end of a long day. The last few nights, something had been tearing the cattle apart, eight or nine heads at a time. They’d heard wolves from that general direction, but the animals were gone by the time they got there, and the tracks they found were nothing they could explain.
His men had quit on him earlier in the week over bogus pay disputes, so each night he had moved the small herd closer and closer to the ranch. His wife’s brothers had been helping him out, but they went home just before sundown. Or they went, anyway. They were good men, but he had never really been sure of their ways.
He tamped the cigarette on the saddle horn a few times, then lit up and took a long drag. He held it for a moment, savoring the taste, then exhaled slowly. The smoke hung heavy with the lack of wind, hugging the curve of his face to the back of his head, then sinking along the line of his duster until it seemed to blend with the gray-and-white coat of his horse, seeping around the black, leopard-like spots like water around rocks. He reached down and rubbed the horse’s neck lightly. “Almost home, Graycloud.”
The horse tossed its head and snorted lightly. Then it stopped dead still and pricked its ears up. “What is it, boy?” The horse snorted again and pawed the ground uneasily. The rider said, “Ho, Graycloud, calm down.” He reached to pat the horse again, but then a scream rang out. Horse and rider both tensed, and the rider said, “Maria?” He heard the snarl of wolves and then another scream. “Maria!” he shouted, and Graycloud was running before he could get spurs into the horse’s sides.
The wind kicked up as they rode, and by the time they covered the short distance to the ranch, it was pushing a full blown dust storm ahead of them, making it hard to see the house from the road in. He could just make out the porch ahead of them, the silhouette of his wife struggling with someone much bigger than her, and…were there more? Was that a man walking towards the house, from across the field? Where were the children? He wasn’t sure, for the storm. Then Maria screamed again, and he didn’t have time to worry about it.
Graycloud charged the house, ran alongside the porch, and the rider leapt from the saddle, losing his hat and hooking Maria’s attacker around the neck, throwing both of them to the porch floor. The rider hit the porch on his back, taking the brunt of the fall, but the attacker snarled and rolled with the fall, rolling off the end of the porch. “Johnny!” Maria shouted, terror in her voice. Johnny looked up at his wife, then his eyes got wide, and he drew a pistol and fired just beyond her, catching an attacker in the shoulder at the other end of the porch, spinning it backwards, out into the dust storm.
“What the hell is that thing?” he shouted, drawing his other pistol. Maria didn’t have time to answer before another crashed through the roof of the porch, landing between them. It looked down on Johnny, who was still on his back, and all Johnny could do was stare. This creature stood like a man, but its body was covered in fur, its hands and feet ended in claws, it had the head of a wolf, and something hung from its neck that looked like Indian beadwork. It breathed heavily as it growled, and when it took a step towards Johnny, Maria screamed. The creature moved swiftly, swinging backwards without looking, knocking Maria away. She bounced off of the cabin wall and fell forward, landing hard on the porch, her long black hair falling over her face.
“Maria!” shouted Johnny, and he unloaded several shots into the gut of the creature, knocking it backwards until it stumbled over Maria and fell backwards off of the porch, one leg still propped on the porch. Johnny moved then, starting to scramble towards Maria, when something snarled and grabbed his ankle. He was startled, but he twisted quickly and put two bullets in the head of the wolf that had rolled off his end of the porch, knocking it into the obscurity of the dust storm again. He got to his feet, and took two steps before the front door exploded outwards, and he found himself just a few feet from another creature. It was snarling, fangs and fur dripping with blood, and then he saw something that chilled his blood. It was holding a leg… and an arm… and they weren’t from the same child. Johnny sobbed involuntarily, frozen in place by the horror of it.
He didn’t move when the wolf gripped the doorframe and began to crouch. His breath caught in his chest as he stared at the growling beast, the blood of his children running from its chin. They locked eyes for a long moment, until the beast’s ears laid back on its head. When it’s lips curled, Johnny snapped back to himself with a scream, and he shot the beast again and again, backing it into the house with each shot, until he was standing in the doorway, pulling the triggers on empty chambers, still screaming as much in anger as in horror. Once his breath ran out, his scream died down. Slowly, he lowered his guns, focusing only on the fallen wolf, because he was afraid to look into the cabin.
He trembled as he took a step backwards, back out onto the porch, and then another. He reached to his belt for a bullet, and began reloading. He had one reloaded and three in the chambers of the second gun when he heard a low growl. He looked to his left and saw the first wolf he had tackled, bleeding from the head, hoisting itself back up onto the porch. He heard two more growls from his right, and the two near Maria were climbing back up also, one holding its shoulder, the other holding it’s gut. They all wore the same beadwork around their necks. He snapped the half loaded barrel back into the pistol and pointed a gun in each direction. The wolves growled a little louder and suddenly a voice from the yard yelled, “NO!”
Johnny spun quickly, swinging his guns towards the voice as it said, “He’s mine.” The voice walked calmly through the dust storm, and took the form of a man as it got closer. An Indian actually, with long black hair, a duster, and a knife sheathed on his hip. He was smoking a cigarette, and he wore the same necklace as these creatures around him. The dust storm died abruptly. Just then, Johnny heard a growl at his back, and felt hot breath on his ear. The wolf from the cabin, still standing? He forgot the man in the yard as he turned slowly towards the creature, its teeth only inches from his face. He instinctively shuffled one foot to attempt to back away, and the beast lashed out, slamming a backhand into Johnny’s chest that sent him flying out into the yard. He landed on his back, his head at the stranger’s feet, looking up into his face. When he realized he had not let go of his guns, he pointed them up at the man.
The Indian did not look impressed. “Do you know why I carry this knife instead of a gun, stranger?”
‘Stranger?’ thought Johnny. They did all of this, and they don’t even know who I am? Johnny breathed hard and shook with rage. Through gritted teeth, he responded, “Deathwish?”
The man bent down so his face was inches from the barrels, smiled, and said, “To make it a fair challenge.” Johnny went to pull a trigger, but the Indian moved faster, snatching the guns from his hands and tossing them aside.
Then one of the wolves leapt from the porch. The Indian reacted instantly. He whipped a gleaming blade from its sheath, caught the wolf in the belly as it came down, and then slammed him into the ground. Straddling the creature, the Indian ripped the knife from his belly, held the bloody blade to the wolf’s throat and yelled, “I told you: he is mine!” He then slashed the wolf’s throat, tearing the necklace from its neck in the process. The wolf died instantly. The other wolves howled as the Indian wiped the blade in the beast’s fur. He stood, returned the blade to the sheath on his hip, turned towards the other wolves on the porch and roared, “HE’S MINE!” The wolves all stooped and whined, ears laid back on their heads as they backed up and tried to hide behind each other. The Indian’s eyes narrowed, and then he pointed at Maria and said, “But I don’t want her.”
The wolves perked back up at that, and Johnny screamed as they fell upon his wife and ripped her to pieces. The Indian watched the wolves impassively as Johnny rolled back-and-forth on the ground, sobbing for his wife. The Indian looked on the man with disgust as he lay face down in the dirt, crying over his woman. He strode over, grabbed Johnny by the hair and jerked his head upwards as he said, “Time to die, boy.”
Johnny came up with his guns in his hands, which he had rolled over on while the Indian wasn’t looking. “I don’t think so,” he raged, as he jammed a gun into the Indian’s face.
The Indian smiled. “Why? Because you have a gun? I’ve already shown you I can take it before you pull the trigger.”
Johnny backed away a step, gun still pointing at the Indian, and he said, “No, not because I have a gun. Because you want me for something.” He backed away out of arm’s reach, but still didn’t feel safe, despite the guns.
The Indian smiled like he could sense Johnny’s fear. “Yes I do,” he stated, as he took a step forward. “I want you for sport,” and then he turned into a wolf and advanced on Johnny who was now backing up rapidly. Johnny was in a full backwards run when the wolf leapt at him, and he was surprised when he heard a loud neigh and Graycloud slammed into the wolf at a full run.
The wolf snarled and slashed at the horse’s neck as he fell to the ground. Graycloud reared up and came down on the wolf with his front hooves, causing him to howl in pain. He reared up again, and Johnny shot the wolf a few times, which caused the horse to turn away. Johnny wondered why he hadn’t shot before, but wasted no time running to his horse and swinging into the saddle. “Go, Graycloud!” The Appaloosa chafed at the rein brushing the claw marks on its neck, but it took off at a run.
Behind them, Johnny heard, “You’re mine! You’rrre miiine! YOU’RE MIIINNNNEE!” and then he felt a hot pain in his left shoulder as the Indian’s knife found its mark, and he tumbled roughly from the saddle, digging the blade in further as he rolled.
The Indian wolf smiled, but before he could advance, an arrow pierced his leg, and he howled. More arrows zipped through the air and the other wolves howled too, as the arrows found back, shoulder, and heart. The one hit in the heart fell dead. More arrows hit the porch columns, the cabin, and the Indian wolf, now just an Indian again, took another in the arm. He snarled when he was hit, and it still sounded like a wolf. He looked at the two remaining wolves, and they all bolted for the woods on the far side of the field.
Johnny watched all of this from where he lay in the road as he faded to unconsciousness. Just before passing out, he saw more Indians advancing on him, and he felt no relief. Maria’s brothers, he thought, and then everything went black.
He woke with a start in the teepee, but a hand, old but firm, rested on his good shoulder before he could attempt to sit up. Johnny looked at the hand and followed the arm up to the face of its owner, the shaman Two Rivers- so called because his people say two rivers run through him: his own spirit, and the Great Spirit. Right or wrong, he was one of the wisest men Johnny knew. Right now though, he had a stony look of pain, calm, and angry contemplation that only Indians seem able to master. The old man pressed Johnny’s shoulder one more time, silently telling him to lie still, then said, “It has been many moons, Johnny Smokers.”
Johnny winced, then smiled lightly. His last name was Smuckers, but the old Indian had always said it “Smokers,” and Johnny loved the man’s daughter too much to insult him by correcting him. He could barely look at him now, sure that Maria’s brothers had told him how she died. Johnny expected death, and had no doubt that this man could deliver it. Eyes closed, he started carefully, “Two Rivers…I…”
“I told you that death would find my daughter Running Rivers if you took her as your wife, and here we are,” the shaman said simply, in a voice that rasped like dry leaves. “I gave her up to the Great Spirit when she accepted you as her husband anyway,” he continued. “My anger over her death was spent many winters ago. You need not fear for your life here, Johnny Smokers,” he said knowingly, “for how can I kill you when all that is left of Running Rivers now runs in you alone?” Pressing two fingers over Johnny’s heart, Two Rivers said, “Bound together by the Great Spirit, the river of her spirit now runs in you.”
Now it was Johnny’s turn to look pained. He squeezed his eyes shut tight, and placed his right hand over Two Rivers’. The old man did not flinch from his touch, and after a minute, Johnny said, “Thank you, Two Rivers.”
The old shaman smiled. “You are welcome, Johnny Smokers. Now rest. We shall talk more when you wake.”
“Tomorrow then,” replied Johnny.
“I did not say tomorrow,” answered Two Rivers. Johnny worried at that, but soon closed his eyes to sleep. He dreamed terrible dreams of wolves that stood like men, his wife screaming, and a river in which he found peace and safety, because the wolves could not cross it.
When Johnny woke, his shoulder felt better, but he was stiff as a board, and his mouth was dry. Two Rivers still sat beside him. The shaman held a small bowl of water to his lips, he drank, and once the pain from swallowing subsided, he asked, “How long was I sleeping?”
“The fever from your wound took you, and you slept a sleep like death for a moon.”
Johnny thought for a second, repeating, “A moon,” then started with shock as he said, “A month? I’ve been asleep for a month?” He tried to sit up, but Two Rivers put a hand to his shoulder, just as he had done a month ago, and he laid back.
“Yes, and while you slept, Coyote came looking for his knife,” answered Two Rivers. He held the gleaming blade up for Johnny to see and smiled. “We did not let him have it.”
Johnny studied the blad and asked, “Why does that and the arrows of Maria’s bro…” He caught Two Rivers’ scowl and corrected himself, “Running Rivers’ brothers killed a wolf man with arrows, but I emptied my guns into them, and they just got back up.”
Two Rivers turned the blade over in his palm, and holding it up again, he said, “Silver can kill them. I do not know why, but we found much of it in the cave at the foot of the mountain, and we use it to make our arrowheads, our knives, and to tip our javelins. We ran Coyote off with them, as we have done many times.” The shaman studied the knife for a moment before placing it on the ground before him. Johnny could tell that something else was coming, so he waited. Two Rivers rocked a bit, his hands raised palms up before him. He then clasped his hands together, shook them slightly, and plopped them in his lap as he looked to the sky through the top of the wigwam. The stone left his face as he searched for the right words, but finally just said, “Graycloud was a great help in fighting Coyote, this time.” For once, it was Two Rivers that didn’t meet Johnny’s gaze.
“My horse?” asked Johnny. “He saved me back at the cabin, but he was injured. How did he help you here?”
The shaman raised his eyebrows as he stared out the opening of the teepee, and he said, “Graycloud has much changed since he was a colt.”
Johnny had never seen Two Rivers be evasive before. It would have been funny, if it weren’t so frustrating. “Two Rivers! What happened to my horse?”
“You will see…in time,” answered the shaman. Then clearly changing the subject, he held up the broken necklace from the wolf man that was slain by Coyote. “Do you know what this is?”
“I was hoping someone could tell me,” Johnny answered honestly. “All of them wore one, including this Coyote.” He looked at it laid over Two Rivers’ hands, and noticed its crescent design in the middle, curving downwards with the curve of the beads.
“It is the eye of the wolf,” answered Two Rivers.
“It looks like the moon,” said Johnny.
“Are they not the same?” asked the shaman.
Johnny furrowed his brow, but answered, “Sure, I guess.” He was actually a little aggravated with the wise man bit at the moment, but he figured that was because he hadn’t eaten a decent meal in a month, so he tried not to let it show further. Realizing how hungry he was, he decided to change the subject himself, and he asked, “What’s the possibility of getting some grub?” Two Rivers smiled.
A couple of weeks later, Johnny was up and around, moving easily. He had been practicing at throwing Coyote’s knife, and was getting pretty good. He’d shown a remarkable talent for the javelin as well, but almost none for the bow and arrow, but that was probably because he was so much weaker than usual from having lain around for a month. Or maybe it just wasn’t his weapon.
He put the knife back in its sheath, and for the first time, it occurred to him to wonder where the sheath had come from. He hadn’t gotten a good look at it that night, but he was fairly certain this was the same one worn by the Indian wolf man. He looked at it closely. It did carry Coyote’s half moon mark. He strode purposefully to the center of the village, where Two Rivers sat on a log. A couple of braves had followed closely behind when they saw Johnny heading for the shaman with a knife, but they were waved off by Two Rivers. He pulled the knife from the sheath and jammed the blade into the dirt before him. Holding out the sheath, he demanded, “How did I get this, and where are my guns?”
Two Rivers only glanced at the sheath, but nodded to the braves behind Johnny, one of whom ran off. The old man pulled one of Johnny’s pistols from under his blanket, and handed it to him butt first. The butt had a half moon carved in it. “We were not able to simply turn him away, while you slept. The knife was not ours to return, so we told him that he must return for it when you awaken. But Coyote is the trickster, so he does not trust easily. He asked for something in return, in case you did not wish to give it back. We gave him one of your guns.” Just then, the brave returned with Johnny’s gunbelt.
Johnny took it, looked it over briefly, and said, “And one of my holsters?”
“And he gave you the sheath for his knife,” answered Two Rivers, “in good faith. He is a trickster, but often fair in his dealings.”
“FAIR?” shouted Johnny. “He took my family, Two Rivers!”
Two Rivers shook his head lightly. “You took his first.”
Johnny was stunned. He stared at the shaman in disbelief.
“Running Rivers was promised to Coyote by her grandfather, my father,” continued Two Rivers. He raised his eyebrows and shrugged, “What do you think Running Rivers was running from? All rivers run from something and to something else.” He fixed Johnny with a look, and said, “Coyote is often fair.”
Johnny hung his head low and whispered, “Of course. That’s why she was willing to change her name. She was hiding.” Johnny was silent for a minute, and the village waited for his silence to be over. Finally, he breathed deeply, jammed the pistol into its holster, and strapped on his gun. He picked up the knife, sheathed it, and placed it on his other hip.
“You will return that to Coyote?” asked Two Rivers.
“If he wants it, he can come and get it,” answered Johnny, and he turned to leave. A squaw met him with Graycloud, and he took the reins and began walking out of the village.
Two Rivers called after him, “Take heed, Johnny Smokers! You must return that blade to Coyote! But as long as you carry your guns, death and smoke will follow.”
Johnny turned back to the shaman and answered, “They can follow. They just need to stay out of my way.” Then he turned again to leave the village.