A collaborative story by The Parking Lot Confessional
The red-tail hawk coasted on an updraft of arid wind. Clark harnessed the bird, using her sharp yellow eyes to search for the 6:15 train running late out of Jerome. The hawk screamed defiance, but then her hunting instinct took over. Prey was prey, after all.
She spotted the long black beast approaching the cut crossing Stolen Horse Gulch and banked, preparing to dive and snatch the snake in her claws.
Clark crashed back into his body. His legs were numb, his hands sweating a storm inside his leather gloves. Catching his nerves, Pally snorted and shifted beneath him. Clark ran a soothing hand along the horses’ neck. The big pinto gelding always had been too clever for his own good.
“Well?” Foss prodded, his face wrinkled in disgust. The rancid oil he used to wax his mustache gleamed in the slanted afternoon sunlight.
Clark put his heels to Pally, acutely aware of how Foss watched him, like a cur he wanted to kick, but didn’t dare in case the dog was rabid. This might be the crime that made him part of the McLaren Gang, but Clark would never be one of them, no matter what he did. Foss, Slim, even McLaren himself— they would never believe that he was only half a skinwalker. And wasn’t that always the way of it. Clark never caught himself a break, just the scraggedy tail ends of ‘em. Couldn’t get into any school. Tried his hand at farming, but even his dirt crops had been poor— fields rocky and thoroughly studded with caliche, a bastard clay that was too coarse to be useful and too tough for anything but weeds. He’d considered looking for his mother’s people, but Daddy swore up and down that they were all gone. Everyone said Mama was a Navaho or else maybe Yavapai but Daddy claimed her “O’Odham from Snaketown,” which made no sense any way you spread it, seeing as there was no such place and no such people—not that he’d ever heard tell of, anyway. He wondered what she’d think of him now, joining a band of toughs to take this train. Granted, if McLaren hadn’t managed to board in Jerome, there’d be no heist at all.
The sound of squealing breaks snapped Clark’s attention: McLaren had held up his end of the bargain.
“Think of the devil,” Clark muttered to Pally as they swept alongside the train. McLaren was spooky like that. Man gave Clark the cold shivers, truth be told.
Beside him Foss and Slim began to holler, firing into the air. Clark shook his head at the waste of bullets. Didn’t those fools reckon they’d need ‘em more in a moment? The guards weren’t going to go down without a fight. Reaching the express car, Clark dismounted, drew his piece, and approached. Foss jumped down to cover Clark as he wrenched open the cargo door.
The smell of decay, feces and gun oil stopped them more effectively than the door with the lock. Slim heaved alongside the rail car, splashing orange against the steel tracks. If Clark hadn’t been too wound up to eat his breakfast, he’d be adding to the mess on the ground. As it was, he gagged and covered his nose and mouth with the crook of his elbow. He tried to use the burlap sack he carried, but it was too thick to catch the smallest of breath through.
Foss cackled and twisted his waxed whiskers.
“Told ya you shoulda’ waxed it. Smells no worse than a night after Cappy’s chili.”
Clark wiped the tears from his eyes. He didn’t have time to get used to the smell. They had a job to do. He stepped into the rail car and assessed what he could carry. Pistols, rifles, and crates filled with who-knows-what lined half the car. The other half was caged off and steeped in shadows. That had to be where stench came from. Clark did his best to avoid that side of the car.
“Gimme that.” Foss yanked the colt from Clark’s hand.
“More gun than you can handle, Walker.” His last word spoken like he took a swig from a spittoon. He went on to grab indiscriminately at guns and bullets, shoving them in pockets and belt loops.
A series of gun shots fired. It sounded to Clark to be several cars down. No time to get pissed over a stolen, stolen gun.
Clark opened his bag, and threw gun after gun into it. He came across another Colt Peacemaker with pearl grips. Looking over his shoulder he saw Slim and Foss trying to lift a crate of rifles, and he quick-swapped the rust-pocked revolver in his side holster for the Peacemaker.
A loud crash from behind and Clark nearly jumped his skin. Slim had dropped his end of the crate, smashing it on the floor. It wasn’t filled with rifles.
The crate spilled out small brown jars. Several shattered revealing thick gray sludge. Groans erupted from behind the bars on the other end of the car. Shadows moved behind the bars as shadows moved across his mind. The feeling had him gagging all over again.
The door was between him and the cage. He needed out and took a step toward the door. A gun fired from just outside and McLaren ducked into the car, his shirt sweat-soaked and dark beard covered in dirt.
“And where do you think you’re goin’?” He stared at Clark through squinted eyes. “Your bag’s near empty, Walker.”
“Half,” Clark said more as reflex than defiance.
“You’re still sticking with half are you?”
McLaren kicked open the door all the way, letting light fall into the cage. Fur, feathers, and flesh all trembled at the light. Taloned hands covered human faces, paws and feet paced back and forth. They screamed and growled and pleaded. Clark heard in his ears, and even clearer in his head.
“These are the only Halves I know, Walker.”
Clark counted five… what? People? Animals? Monsters? He wasn’t a monster. They weren’t skinwalkers. The screams in his head said otherwise.
Foss and Slim laughed and scooped up the unbroken jars.
“Break any more and it comes out a your cut. And you, Walker.” McLaren pointed his gun at Clark, a small tendril of smoke escaping the barrel. “You. I’ve got something else for you.”
“Sure, boss. Whatever. You know I’m good.” This wasn’t the time to press his luck with McLaren. Failing this job would leave him in a cell or worse.
“Glad to hear, Walker.” A smile split his beard wide, but he didn’t lower his gun.
Yelling came from outside. Whatever guard was on the train sounded like they were regrouping. Time was up.
“Now tell me again what makes you half a skinwalker? Nevermind, I don’t care. The proofs in the Walkin’, right?”
McLaren pointed to the caged monstrosities with his other hand.
“Move that load,” McLaren barked, and his voice snapped the tension like a stick. He rolled the train door open, his pistol ready. As soon as he stepped into the sunlight, the shooting riled up. Foss and Slim grunted, working to right the fallen crate.
“No. The other end, idiot.”
“Heavy.” Foss stumbled in the spilled sludge and cursed. “Slippery, too.”
Beyond him the creatures shifted in the cage. Their talons screeched against the metal bars, sending sparks up Clark’s spine. McLaren’s words slithered through him. Halves.
In his half-seeing eyes, he saw his mother, her braid snaking own her arm, her hand doling out sand. As she painted the ground, she sang the night chant, her words weaving together a powerful healing, a return to balance, to order.
The spirit wind carried the sand away.
Slim’s scream pierced the dark, jerking Clark to action. He slinked through the crates to the far end of the car. The cage end. Clark fought against the stench, and darted to avoid the creatures’ mirror eyes.
Slim had gotten too close. A taloned hand had reached through the bars, caught him by the belt. Outside the train, the sounds of gunfire and death.
“‘O ‘ab him.” Free of effort, Clark’s mouth formed the ancient words. They are coming.
The creature eyed him, cocked his head to the side. “‘O ‘abai him.” They are here.
Clark nodded. Understood. He watched the talons ease and Slim scuttled away, eyes wild as a cornered coon. “Devils,” he said. “All of you.” His boots found purchase and he bolted from the car, leaving the door pen behind him. Sunlight splashed across the crates bringing with it the sharp tinge of sulfur and gun smoke.
“Don’t just stand there, Walker.” Foss’s hands still gripped the end of the crate. , his hands still gripping one end of the crate. “Get the other end.”
Clark stepped through the sludge, feeling it collect around his feet as he worked. Set his hands to the crate handles and heaved. Heavy. How much had been harvested? He pressed away the sick chill and wiped an arm across his forehead. The grey sludge sank into his skin, vanished into his pores. He knew it–understood it–and not just from the look on Foss’s face. Clark reset his grip on the crate handle. “Let’s move.”
Together they shuffled their burden toward the door, knocking over other crates, making a mess of metal and wood. Outside the battle quieted and Clark’s stomach twisted inside him. What fate awaited them on the other side?
Clark felt the change in his hands first. The surging of nail growth. The knotting of knuckles. The prick of pin feathers forming along the tendons at the backs of his hands. The swath of sunlight that lit his skin confirmed what he already knew.
Foss fumbled out the door as Clark’s face stretched to razor-sharp. Clark let the crate go, let the jars tumble to ruin. He rolled the heft of the door, closing out Foss’s cruse. The creatures moaned, the blood of their kin felled to dust.
Clark turned toward the darkness. “Hema,” his voice rasped. One.
His steps light, he wound his way toward the cage, pulled the pearl-gripped Colt from his bag and fired a single shot. The lock gave way. The cage door swung open. Sunlight split the car in two.
He waited for the others to find their way, waited until the change grew complete.
At the door, he stretched his wings wide. Caught an updraft of arid wind. His eyes searched out the carnage below. The vengeful spilling on the sand. A returning to order, to balance.
His cry of defiance rendered the air. Free of effort, the spirit wind carried him away.