Friday, October 2, 2015

Return to Xuthal

[Originally published in The Robert E. Howard Reader, edited by Darrell Schweitzer, The Borgo Press, 2010. Copyright 2010 by Charles Hoffman.]

Howard’s Original Sin City Revisited

A Tale of Two Lost Cities

The first Robert E. Howard story I ever read was “Xuthal of the Dusk.” I discovered it in that great old Lancer paperback, Conan the Adventurer. “Xuthal of the Dusk,” appearing under the title “The Slithering Shadow,” was actually the second story in the collection. Preceding it was the novella “The People of the Black Circle,” one of the most popular and acclaimed of Howard’s works. “Black Circle” was an excellent choice to open the book, the first in a series of Conan paperbacks, and introduce the character to a new generation of readers. Many years later, I do not clearly recall why I postponed reading it when I first purchased Adventurer. Possibly because it ran to nearly a hundred pages and I wanted to sample the book’s contents with a story I could complete in one sitting. “Meet Conan, the gigantic adventurer from Cimmeria—and discover one of the greatest thrills in modern fiction!” the book’s cover copy had promised. As it happened, I first met Robert E. Howard’s giant Cimmerian in the lost city of Xuthal.

Lost cities have been featured in many works of adventure fiction, most famously those of H. Rider Haggard and Edgar Rice Burroughs. At the turn of the 20th Century, Africa was still very much the Dark Continent, and both Haggard and Burroughs imagined its unexplored vastness to be honeycombed with the last surviving outposts of vanished civilizations. Robert E. Howard followed closely in their footsteps in the lengthiest of his Solomon Kane stories, “The Moon of Skulls.” Kane, in the course of his wanderings through 16th Century Africa, discovers the lost city of Negari. Like Burroughs’ Opar, Negari is a lost colony of Atlantis, and its alluring queen Nakari recalls both La of Opar and Ayesha, Haggard’s “She-who-must-be-obeyed.”

It was while writing the Conan stories a few years later that Howard placed his own distinctive stamp on the lost civilization genre. Conan’s Hyborian world, itself a lost age remembered only in legend, is littered with remnants of even more remote antiquities. Haunted ruins are encountered from time to time in the course of Conan’s adventures, and the Cimmerian twice discovers an entire inhabited lost city while venturing into unexplored regions. The lost cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl are found in “Xuthal of the Dusk” and “Red Nails” respectively. In both stories, the societies within the cities are in decline. Howard frequently expressed the thesis that civilizations carry the seeds of their own destruction. Xuthal and Xuchotl are both microcosms that enable the author to portray a civilization in its death throes. Their cultural decadence is emphasized by being shown from the perspective of the wilderness-bred Conan.

The importance of this theme to Howard, as well as his belief that he did not quite do justice to it in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” are both demonstrated by the fact that he felt moved to return to it at greater length in “Red Nails.” The novella “Red Nails” was Howard’s final Conan story and the last fantasy he wrote before pressing financial concerns forced him to abandon fantasy altogether in favor of more commercial fiction. For his final allegorical statement, Howard returned to the themes of “Xuthal of the Dusk.”

“Red Nails,” to be sure, is the superior treatment of the themes. In fact, “Red Nails” has come to be regarded as not only one of the best Conan stories, but also as one of the finest of all Howard’s works. “Xuthal of the Dusk,” on the other hand, tends to be slighted as a mid-level Conan yarn at best. In his essay “Howard’s Fantasy,” Fritz Leiber singled it out as “a good (or bad!) example of a run-of-the mill Conan story.“ (1) Patrice Louinet, in “Hyborian Genesis Part III,” asserts that “Xuthal of the Dusk is a rather inferior Conan tale…The heroine was insipid and the story was clearly exploitative.” (2)

I cannot help but to regard this out-of-hand dismissal of “Xuthal of the Dusk” as unfortunate. I have already acknowledged my personal sentimental reasons for liking the story. Also, I don’t think it’s too outrageous to suggest that it would be somewhat more highly regarded were it not overshadowed by “Red Nails.” More significantly, however, I believe that “Xuthal of the Dusk” has points of interest apart from the ingredients it shares with “Red Nails.” Facets of the tale serve to illuminate aspects of the character Conan and Howard’s writing, as well as foreshadowing trends in latter day popular culture. These attributes make “Xuthal of the Dusk” an intriguing story in its own right.

Fear and Loathing in Xuthal

The first noteworthy element of the story is its very title. The lost city of Xuthal is “of the Dusk.” It has reached the end of its day. Before the story even begins, Howard employs dusk as an unambiguous metaphor for the city’s impending doom. Unfortunately, the story did not originally appear under Howard’s title. For its initial publication in the September 1933 issue of Weird Tales, editor Farnsworth Wright changed the title to “The Slithering Shadow.” This title, lurid where Howard’s was subtle, was retained when the Conan stories were collected in the Gnome Press hardback editions of the 1950’s, and in the subsequent Lancer and Ace paperback editions of the 60’s and 70’s. Surely this proved a liability that further hindered appreciation of the story over the years. Consider the awkwardness of any discerning reader attempting to cite a story called “The Slithering Shadow” as a favorite.

The next point of interest is a mere line drop away. The story opens:

The desert shimmered in the heat waves. Conan the Cimmerian stared out over the aching desolation and involuntarily drew the back of his powerful hand over his blackened lips. He stood like a bronze giant in the sand, apparently impervious to the murderous sun, though his only garment was a silk loin-cloth, girdled by a wide gold-buckled belt from which hung a saber and a broad-bladed poniard. On his clean-cut limbs were evidences of scarcely healed wounds. At his feet rested a girl, one white arm clasping his knee, against which her blond head drooped. Her white skin contrasted with his hard bronzed limbs; her short silken tunic, low-necked and sleeveless, girdled at the waist, emphasized rather than concealed her lithe figure.(3)

If this description sounds familiar, it is because it was the basis of Frank Frazetta’s portrait of Conan that first graced the cover of Conan the Adventurer. Starting with this image of a battle-scarred titan in a loincloth, Frazetta fine-tuned some details, such as substituting a more characteristic broadsword for the saber, and so created both his own most famous painting and the depiction of Conan that influenced every subsequent illustration of the character. It is Frazetta’s masterpiece, an iconic image, and the definitive visual portrayal of Robert E. Howard’s Conan. And it didn’t come from “The People of the Black Circle.”

In addition to offering this key image to Frank Frazetta, “Xuthal of the Dusk” was essential in defining the character of Conan to Howard’s original audience, the readers who saw the saga unfold in the pages of Weird Tales. “Xuthal of the Dusk” was the fifth Conan story to appear in Weird Tales. The first two tales featured Conan as the middle-aged king of Aquilonia, an adventurer who seized the throne from a tyrant. The third story, “The Tower of the Elephant,” presented Conan as a teenage thief green to civilization, indicating that subsequent installments would fill in the backstory of this remarkable individual. The fourth Conan adventure, “Black Colossus,” had Conan assume the role of mercenary warrior. “Xuthal of the Dusk” followed, again featuring Conan as a wandering soldier of fortune and thus suggesting that this was the Cimmerian’s usual occupation. The Conan series was off and running.

In the story, Conan and his female companion, Natala, are survivors of a defeated army whose flight leads them to the lost city of Xuthal. Xuthal is located in a vast desert south of the proto-Egyptian realm of Stygia and the black kingdom of Kush. It is my opinion that in the Hyborian Age maps featured in various Conan volumes, the southern lands, Stygia and the black countries, are not to scale. This is not unlike the Eurocentric Mercator projection maps of our own world that diminish Africa’s true immensity. In his own sketches of Conan’s world, Howard allotted more space to Stygia. It follows that Xuthal is located in the vast “African” portion of the Hyborian supercontinent, making it in a sense an African lost city in the Haggard-Burroughs tradition.

Conan and Natala explore the eerie walled city, finding it seemingly deserted and haunted by some strange menace. The mysteries of Xuthal are explained when they meet a stunningly beautiful woman called Thalis. Thalis is not a native of Xuthal, but a Stygian who arrived there as a young girl. She informs the wanderers that the people of Xuthal spend most of their time in death-like slumber, dreaming hallucinogenic visions induced by their consumption of the “black lotus.“(4) The city dwellers’ science is sufficiently advanced to provide for all their basic material needs without much effort on their part. Their lives have become “vague, erratic, and without plan.”(5) Thalis also tells of a shadowy horror called Thog that stalks the city and occasionally devours an inhabitant. The Xuthalians simply accept this gruesome state of affairs with a complacent fatalism. Thalis opines that this is not so different from the human sacrifices practiced in her native Stygia.

Hearing this, Conan is moved to declare, “I’d like to see a priest try to drag a Cimmerian to the altar! There’d be blood spilt, but not as the priest intended.”(6) This sort of dry action-hero wit was not characteristic of such pulp magazine do-gooders as The Shadow and Doc Savage. Wry comments such as this are much more typical of latter day heroes such as James Bond or Dirty Harry.

  “Xuthal of the Dusk” is one of the tales in which Robert E. Howard delineated a new type of hero –cool, supremely confident, with more than a hint of ruthlessness and sinister menace. Let us call this sort of hero “the badass” for lack of a better name. Tough and lethal, ever ready for a brawl, the badass has more in common with the hard, dangerous enemies he fights than any candy-ass types he might end up protecting. The latter regard him not with fawning admiration, but with nervous relief that he’s on their side. Though popular enough in Howard’s day, the Conan character was destined to strike a chord with the reading public in the later, raucous decades of the 1960s and `70s.

It comes as no surprise that Thalis, having tired of her city-bred lovers, is attracted to Conan. She therefore attempts to get rid of Natala --but not before tying her up and whipping her. Thalis is one of the more beguiling evil women to appear in Howard’s fiction. In his essay, Fritz Leiber describes her as “sophisticated, hard as nails, sadistic, catlike, and schooled in every vice.”(7) Her name appears to have been derived from Thais, a courtesan who became the mistress of Alexander the Great, and also the name of the title character of a novel by Anatole France and an opera based on it by Jules Massenet. In “The Garden of Fear,” Howard mentions Thais in company with Cleopatra and Helen of Troy.

To the readers of Weird Tales, Thalis the Stygian was the first femme fatale to appear in a Conan story. Howard had previously introduced the golden-haired siren Atali in “The Frost-Giant’s Daughter,” but the story did not see print in the author’s lifetime.(8) In any event, Atali has little in common with the other femmes fatale encountered by Conan. She is not a poisonous seductress, but a kind of ultimate cock-tease able to get away with her adolescent cruelty thanks to the protection of her menacing big brothers and her daddy’s power and authority. Thalis, on the other hand, is a jaded sophisticate, and the femmes fatale who subsequently appear in the series –Akivasha, Salome, and Tascela- are brunette sybarites who resemble her so closely that they could all be members of the same clique.

In fact, the next of these ubervixens Howard wrote of, Akivasha, so nearly mirrors Thalis that she, too, is a Stygian princess. It is interesting to compare Conan’s first sight of each. Howard’s initial description of Thalis reads:

…A figure framed itself in the doorway…It was a woman who stood there staring at them in wonder. She was tall, lithe, shaped like a goddess; clad in a narrow girdle crusted with jewels. A burnished mass of night-black hair set off the whiteness of her ivory body…The Cimmerian had never seen such a woman; her facial outline was Stygian, but she was not dusky-skinned like the Stygian women he had known; her limbs were like alabaster.(9)

And here is Howard’s introduction of Akivasha in The Hour of the Dragon, written nearly a year and a half later:

…A girl stood at the mouth of a smaller tunnel, staring fixedly at him. Her ivory skin showed her to be Stygian of some ancient noble family, and like all such women she was tall, lithe, voluptuously figured, her hair a great pile of black foam, among which gleamed a sparkling ruby. But for her velvet sandals and broad jewel-crusted girdle about her supple waist she was quite nude…(10)

In much of his writing, Howard seems blessed with a pipeline to his reader’s unconscious. The provocative dream-like image of an alluring woman framed in a doorway or passageway, as though poised on some mysterious threshold, seems uncannily resonant. Clearly the image of Thalis lingered long in Howard’s imagination, and undoubtedly in Conan’s as well.

The blonde Natala is the dark-haired Thalis’ victim, and a character generally deemed worthy of little attention. Some commentators on Howard’s work, in an effort to proactively appease feminist critics, cite the author’s ability to create “strong female characters.” Bêlit, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood, and the Devi Yasmina are dutifully trotted out. Of course a woman like Thalis is also a “strong female character,” but the femme fatale tends to be narrowly regarded as another demeaning stereotype, rather than seen as a powerful archetype. “Insipid” heroines like Natala, who merely spice up the story in their capacities as damsel-in-distress and/or sex kitten, are scornfully noted and quickly glossed over.

Natala, however, merits scrutiny precisely because there is so little of the “strong female character” in her makeup; she is almost astonishingly weak and passive. Compared to Natala, heroines like Octavia and Sancha are like Amazons. Wandering through Xuthal with Conan, Natala is at all times timid and easily spooked. When they discover food and drink, Natala worries that they may anger someone by helping themselves, even though she and Conan are dying of hunger and thirst. A sex kitten character like Yasmela may not be much help to Conan, but Natala is explicitly shown to be a downright hindrance. She literally steps on Conan’s heels and endangers them both by clutching at his sword-arm.

Early in the story, when they are stranded in the desert, Conan actually considers putting Natala to death as an act of kindness:

[Conan] had not come to the limits of his endurance, but he knew that another day under the merciless sun in those waterless wastes would bring him down. As for the girl, she had suffered enough. Better a quick painless sword-stroke than the agony that faced him.(11)

The point is made that Natala is not Conan’s equal when it comes to facing the perils of the wilderness. Interestingly, Thalis, like Conan, also regards Natala as less than an equal in terms of her fitness to survive. Rather than the wilderness, however, it is the urban perils of Xuthal that Thalis declares Natala unfit to face. Still, Thalis comes to the same conclusion as Conan when she suggests that Natala should be put to the sword because of it:

“…[I]t would be better for you to cut that girl’s throat with your saber, before the men of Xuthal waken and catch her. They will put her through paces she never dreamed of! She is too soft to endure what I have thrived on…”(12)

Natala is thus deemed inferior in some sense to both Conan and Thalis. This point is emphatically reinforced. Crossing the desert to reach Xuthal, Conan carries Natala not only figuratively, but also literally: “Stooping, he lifted Natala in his mighty arms as though she had been an infant. She resisted weakly.”(13) Later, Thalis carries Natala with similar ease: “With a lithe strength [Natala] would not have believed possible in a woman, Thalis picked her up and carried her down the black corridor as if she had been a child…”(14)

Natala and Thalis contrast startlingly with one another, no less than De Sade’s virtuous Justine and her depraved sister Juliette. Natala, the fair, is meek but good-hearted. Thalis, the dark, is haughty and cruel. “I am the daughter of a king, no common woman,” boasts Thalis.(15) Concerning Natala’s background, we are told:

The girl was a Brythunian, whom Conan had found in the slave-market of a stormed Shemite city and appropriated. She had had nothing to say in the matter, but her new position was so far superior to the lot of any Hyborian woman in a Shemitish seraglio, that she accepted it thankfully…(16)

Among the secondary Conan women we find a “buccaneer’s plaything,”(17) a “dancing girl” or two, and even several designated “captive.” But it is Natala who is explicitly relegated to the role of slave. The “slave girl” is, of course, a common erotic fantasy figure, her popularity attested to by John Norman’s Gor series.

To the extent that she conforms to the “slave girl” fantasy, Natala compliments Thalis as well as contrasting with her. In the whipping scene, they represent different sides of the same coin: top and bottom, dominant and submissive. It is revealing that both women arrived in Xuthal under similar circumstances:

[Conan and Natala] were, so far as he knew, the sole survivors of Prince Almuric’s army, that mad, motley horde which, following the defeated rebel prince of Koth, swept through the Lands of Shem like a devastating sandstorm and drenched the outlands of Stygia with blood. With a Stygian host on its heels, it had cut its way through the black kingdom of Kush only to be annihilated on the edge of the southern desert… From that final slaughter…Conan had cut his way clear and fled on a camel with the girl. Behind them the land swarmed with enemies; the only way open to them was the desert to the south… For days they had fled into the desert, pursued so far by Stygian horsemen that when they shook off their pursuit, they dared not turn back. They pushed on, seeking water, until the camel died…(18)

Natala’s backstory is recounted in the third person, while Thalis boldly narrates her own tale:

“…I was abducted by a rebel prince, who, with an army of Kushite bowmen, pushed southward into the wilderness, searching for a land he could make his own. He and all his warriors perished in the desert, but one, before he died, placed me on a camel and walked beside it until he dropped and died in his tracks. The beast wandered on, and I finally passed into delirium from thirst and hunger, and awakened in this city. They told me I had been seen from the walls early in the dawn, lying senseless beside a dead camel…”(19)

Thus, both Thalis and Natala owe their presence in Xuthal to the thwarted ambition of a “rebel prince” and a subsequent flight on camelback in the company of the sole surviving warrior. In Xuthal, Thalis and Natala become rivals for Conan’s attention, possibly due in part to Thalis’s memory of her own one-time protector. There the similarities between the two women end.

While Thalis is contemptuous of Conan’s “little blond” (20), we are told that “[Natala] felt small and dust-stained and insignificant before this glamorous beauty.”(21) It comes as little surprise when Thalis and Natala are joined in a scene of girl-on-girl sadomasochism. Howard has done everything to depict Natala as a meek submissive short of spelling her name with a lower case “n.”

The whipping scene itself is erotically charged:

…As in a nightmare Natala felt her tunic being stripped from her, and the next instant Thalis had jerked up her wrists and bound them to the ring, where she hung, naked as the day she was born, her feet barely touching the floor. Twisting her head, Natala saw Thalis unhook a jewel-handled whip from where it hung on the wall, near the ring. The lashes consisted of seven round silk cords, harder yet more pliant than leather thongs. With a hiss of vindictive gratification, Thalis drew back her arm, and Natala shrieked as the cords curled across her loins. The tortured girl writhed, twisted and tore agonizedly at the thongs which imprisoned her wrists…Every stroke evoked screams of anguish. The whippings Natala had received in the Shemite slave-markets paled to insignificance before this…(22)

This may seem strong stuff for a magazine sold over the counter in 1933. Nevertheless, this very scene was depicted in full color on the September Weird Tales cover. One of Margaret Brundage’s exquisite pastel compositions illustrates the whipping of a demure Natala by a stern Thalis. In a 1973 interview, Mrs. Brundage revealed that the entire print run of that month’s issue sold out, and remarked that they could have used a couple thousand extra copies. Although this was the first Brundage Weird Tales cover to depict a whipping scene, it was not the last.

It has been suggested that Weird Tales began to feature whipping scenes on its covers in a bid to remain competitive with the “weird menace” magazines or “shudder pulps” that began to appear in the mid-thirties. Lurid pulps like Terror Tales and Thrilling Mystery featured covers and stories that depicted grotesque acts of sadism in the tradition of the Grand Guignol Theater of Paris. However, the first shudder pulp was Dime Mystery Magazine, which adopted the weird menace format in October 1933, one month after Howard’s “Xuthal of the Dusk” appeared in Weird Tales as “The Slithering Shadow.” Terror Tales did not begin publication until September 1934, nearly a year later, and its companion magazine, Horror Stories, debuted in January 1935. Weird Tales did eventually feel the heat from this competition and attempted to get in the game by inaugurating the “Doctor Satan” series, concerning a costumed sadist, in the August 1935 issue.

Howard himself dabbled in the weird menace genre, later contributing “Graveyard Rats” and “Black Wind Blowing” to Thrilling Mystery. It has therefore been suggested that the instances of flagellation and bondage that occur in the Conan stories are examples of the author “pandering” to his readers. However, a look at the contents of Howard’s library reveals a more than passing interest in sadomasochism. “I…have in my possession a very good book on sadism and masochism by a noted German scholar,”(23) he wrote to H. P. Lovecraft. His collection also included small press publications that could be considered soft-core erotica, such as An Amateur Flagellant: Experiences of Flagellation and A History of the Rod. A listing of additional titles for sale such as Painful Pleasures and Presented in Leather was found among his papers. Glenn Lord believed that Howard was interested in acquiring such volumes for “research” purposes. The amount of “research” essential for writing for the shudder pulps notwithstanding, mild sadomasochism, such as the spanking of adult women, occurs in some of Howard’s erotic poetry as well. This does seem to indicate something more than academic interest. Considering that REH was a physically vigorous young male with no regular sexual outlet and possessed of one of the most vivid imaginations on the planet, it would actually be surprising if he possessed no kinks whatsoever.

Returning to the perils of Natala, we find things going from bad to worse. Natala’s screams attract the blob-like monster Thog, which engulfs Thalis and carries her off. Before long Thog returns for Natala:

…A dark tentacle-like member slid about her body, and she screamed at the touch of it on her naked flesh. It was neither warm nor cold, rough nor smooth; it was like nothing that had ever touched her before, and at its caress she knew such fear and shame as she had never dreamed of. All the obscenity and salacious infamy spawned in the muck of the abysmal pits of Life seemed to drown her in seas of cosmic filth. And in that instant she knew that whatever form of life this thing represented it was not a beast.(24)

In his essay, Fritz Leiber notes that, “The lost city is terrorized by the beast-god Thog, who dwells in a deep well which strikes me as a symbol (unconscious? –probably) of female sexuality, and who is an amorphous and ravening Lovecraftian monster with the addition of an unlikely sexual hunger…Thog kills Thalis and at least attempts the rape of Natala.”(25)

Thog is some sort of gelatinous invertebrate, solid but shapeless, and Leiber regards the notion of such a creature lusting after a human female as outlandish. To Howard, however, this sequence represents a kind of ultimate perversity. Boneless, Thog is a creature composed entirely of hungry flesh, essentially a monstrous roaming appetite. We are told that the Xuthalians themselves “`live only for sensual joys. Dreaming or waking, their lives are filled with exotic ecstasies, beyond the ken of ordinary men.’”(26) Lustful and voracious, Thog is the embodiment of the city-dwellers’ unwholesome appetites. However, Thog is also a step above the Xuthalians on the food chain, devouring and defiling them in the manner of a natural predator.

We have already seen that Howard was ahead of the curve when it came to introducing sadomasochistic elements into pulp fiction. In depicting Natala being violated by Thog, he was a good half-century ahead of his time. Today there is an entire pornographic sub-genre of Japanese anime commonly referred to as “tits and tentacles.” These adults-only animated cartoons portray the plight of young women, usually teenage schoolgirls, who are sexually abused by monsters very much like Thog.

The only thing even remotely resembling this in the pulps was to be found in the science fiction magazines. There covers depicted attractive female astronauts clad in skintight spacesuits and fishbowl space helmets being menaced by “bug-eyed monsters.” No sexual context was explicit or implied; it was simply a way to pair a cute damsel-in-distress with a scary monster. And again, this could not have influenced Howard. Mort Weisinger introduced the bug-eyed monster format when he became editor of Wonder Stories (which then became Thrilling Wonder Stories) with the August 1936 issue. Howard was dead by the time it appeared.

All things considered, Natala was perfectly justified regarding her many forebodings of dread concerning Xuthal. Conan has his work cut out for him in dealing with the city’s menaces. And here too we see how Howard was ahead of his time as a purveyor of popular entertainment.

When Conan and Natala first enter the city, they find the gatekeeper lying motionless in the courtyard. Cold and lifeless upon examination, the supposedly dead man rises and attacks moments later. The presumed dead or defeated menace that abruptly launches a new attack has become a horror movie cliché in recent decades. This episode is the first of several plot elements of “Xuthal of the Dusk” that exemplify motifs which became commonplace in later works of popular culture.

Later, Conan finds himself under attack by twenty swordsmen of Xuthal. Unskilled and inexperienced, they are no match for Conan as he slices through them and escapes. In Fritz Leiber’s words, “Conan cuts up a besworded bunch of the `ridiculously slow and clumsy’ drug addicts in a battle described with butcher-shop thoroughness.”(27) Fred Blosser has observed that Leiber’s remarks about “butcher-shop thoroughness” seem quaint in light of today’s ultra-violent entertainment.

Taking this observation further, it is worth noting that the battle of a lone protagonist against numerous multiple attackers is the chief scenario of modern video games. Frequently censured for their violence, such games often feature the hero (the game-player’s surrogate) slaughtering whole herds of enemies in bloody combat. Though seemingly hopelessly outnumbered, the hero is possessed of great prowess while his opponents are comparatively lousy. The latter are like the walking dead in George Romero-type zombie movies –another modern violent entertainment—in that they are not all that dangerous one-on-one, but potentially lethal en masse.

  In the end, of course, Conan prevails and rescues Natala. Natala believes that Conan’s flirtation with Thalis led to their troubles, and Fritz Leiber admits that “Conan’s humorous and matter-of-fact, happy acceptance of the two girls’ rivalry for him is refreshing.”(28) In her last thoughts concerning Thalis herself, Natala admits, “`She tortured me – yet I pity her.’”(29)

Submissive to the last.

Xuchotl of the Dusk (or, Red Nails in the Sunset)

Long after the sun set on Xuthal, Conan would tread the gloomy corridors of another lost city with a similar name, Xuchotl, in his final adventure, “Red Nails.” Like Xuthal, Xuchotl is home to a decaying civilization; only here the inhabitants are addicted to homicidal mayhem rather than sex and drugs.

This was not the first instance of Howard’s reworking elements of early Conan stories into later installments of the series. Fred Blosser described how Howard recycled plot elements from “Black Colossus” and “The Scarlet Citadel” to create the novel The Hour of the Dragon, an example of what Raymond Chandler called “cannibalizing.” In this case, Howard was revamping and improving some of his best material to make his only book-length Conan adventure as hard-hitting as possible.

In other instances, however, Howard may have felt that he had failed to do justice to ideas with greater potential. “Xuthal” and “Red Nails” together comprise the most notable example of this principle, but not the only example. “Iron Shadows in the Moon,” written in November 1932, and “The Devil in Iron,” written in October 1933, both feature Conan in the Eastern lands of Hyrkania. In both stories, he is a member of the kozaks, marauders of the wastelands who prey on civilized outposts. However, in the former story, the power of the kozaks has been broken and Conan is first seen as a hunted fugitive hiding in swamps. In the latter tale, Conan is the chieftain of all the kozaks and a thorn in the side of the king himself. Both stories feature similar supernatural menaces found in an island’s haunted ruins. Yet the earlier story’s menace consists of mere “Iron Shadows,” statues that mysteriously come to life and kill some people offstage. The later story raises the stakes with a veritable “Devil in Iron” –a demon walking the earth in a body of iron because flesh is too fragile to contain it. Here we see Howard reworking the story to give it more of a punch.

Howard could also revamp the concept of a previous story to create a purer subtext. Case in point: “The God in the Bowl” and “Rogues in the House.” “The God in the Bowl,” written in March 1932, was Howard’s third Conan story. It was rejected by Weird Tales, and he subsequently reconfigured elements of it in the composition of “Rogues in the House,” believed to have been written in January 1933. In both stories Conan is a youthful thief at odds with civilized society. The action of each story takes place mostly indoors, within some sort of bizarre edifice where a strange creature is on the loose.

Each story was also written as an exposé of the hypocrisy and corruption of civilized authority. Characters in “The God in the Bowl” include a wealthy merchant who plans to steal a treasure and set up an employee as the fall guy, and a foppish young nobleman after the same treasure who hires and then betrays Conan. Then there are police officials who routinely torture confessions from suspects. However, the cast also includes honest men just trying to do their jobs.

In “Rogues in the House,” on the other hand, no one is pure. The “rogues” of the title are Conan, thief and hired assassin; Murilo, another unscrupulous, foppish young nobleman; the Red Priest Nabonidus, who exploits his power in the kingdom for his own gain; and arguably the ape-man Thak, a missing link who endeavors to become more human through murder and theft. But, as though that were not enough, there is also an assortment of unsavory minor characters as well. These include Conan’s partner in crime, who deserted from the army; a priest who plays both ends against the middle as both a fence for stolen goods and a police informer; the girl who sells out Conan to the police; the girl’s new lover, yet another thief; and a jailer who accepts bribes and has underworld ties. There is also an honest jailer, but he is portrayed as petty and drunk with his own authority. A group of assassins attempt to kill the Red Priest for the good of the kingdom, but they are assassins nonetheless. Everyone is guilty of something or has something to hide.

Returning to “Red Nails” and “Xuthal of the Dusk,” we find that “Red Nails” owes much more to its predecessor than those other examples of reworked stories. The lost cities of Xuthal and Xuchotl have nearly identical names, sharing the same first syllable and beginning with the letter “X” –a similarity that invites comparison. They are both located somewhere south of the black kingdoms of Kush and Darfar. Hyborian Age maps show them in roughly the same vicinity. The twin “X” cities are the Sodom and Gomorrah of Conan’s world.

Conan is amazed to discover that the city of Xuchotl is constructed almost entirely of jade. In his earlier adventure, he observed that Xuthal was constructed of “a smooth greenish substance that shown almost like glass.”(30) Green or “greenish” building materials are used from time to time in the Conan series to impart a hint of eldritch menace to mysterious ruins or alien structures. The “shadowy ruins”(31) discovered in “Iron Shadows in the Moon” were built of “greenish stone.”(32) The ruins on Xapur in “The Devil in Iron” that were inexplicably rebuilt overnight, a thing “monstrously out of joint,”(33) were also erected with the “iron-like green stone found only on the islands of Vilayet.”(34) The citadel of the inhuman giants in “The Pool of the Black One” is composed of some “green semi-translucent substance”(35) that heightens the effect of architecture “alien to human sanity.”(36) Outside of the Conan canon, the winged man’s tower in “The Garden of Fear” is also built “of a curious green stone, highly polished, and of a substance that created the illusion of semi-translucency.”(37) One wonders if REH would have described the Emerald City of Oz as “monstrously out of joint” or “alien to human sanity.”

In addition to being composed of similar building materials, Xuthal and Xuchotl are constructed along similar lines. Each city actually consists of a single massive self-contained structure. In “Red Nails,” this is obvious to Conan as he enters Xuchotl. In “Xuthal of the Dusk,” however, he is unaware that the buildings of Xuthal are all interconnected until Thalis so informs him. Her revelation comes when the story is well underway, suggesting that this detail occurred to Howard as he was writing it. An embryonic concept in “Xuthal of the Dusk,” the enclosed city is one of the most striking elements of “Red Nails.”

Other similarities between the two cities include the fact that the inhabitants of both have abandoned agriculture and livestock raising. Instead, all food is produced indoors. The inhabitants of Xuchotl cultivate fruit that “obtains its nourishment out of the air.”(38) In Xuthal, food is manufactured out of the “primal elements.”(39) Each city is illuminated by gems or fossils with luminescent properties. And more interestingly, each city is home to a dark-haired femme fatale whose name begins with the letter “T”—Thalis of Xuthal and Tascela of Xuchotl.

  Of course there are differences as well as similarities between the two stories, and the most striking departure from the earlier tale is undoubtedly the depiction of Conan’s romantic interest. In “Red Nails” the demure Natala is replaced by the bold warrior-woman, Valeria of the Red Brotherhood. Natala and Valeria are both blondes, but there the similarities end. Valeria fights at Conan’s side and more than holds her own.

  “Red Nails” is not without its “exploitative” elements. As in “Xuthal,” sadomasochistic elements enter the story. Unlike the winsome Natala, however, Valeria assumes the dominant role. When a young woman of Xuchotl attempts to drug her, Valeria strips her naked, ties her up, and whips her, as Thalis whipped Natala, with “hard-woven silken cords.”(40) Nevertheless, Valeria meets her match in Xuchotl’s resident femme fatale, Tascela. Their encounter ends with Valeria herself in bondage and finally nude. Readers are treated to the spectacle of a dominant woman being dominated herself.

  Throughout “Red Nails,” Valeria of the Red Brotherhood is presented as a fitting companion for Conan, nearly his equal --yet not quite. Mention is made of the fact that, due to spending so much of her life aboard pirate ships, Valeria cannot run very fast or very far. Therefore, when they are pursued by a carnivorous dinosaur en route to the city, Conan must pick her up and carry her along. Not unlike the meek Natala, Valeria has to be carried by Conan…for a little while at least.


In evaluating “Xuthal of the Dusk” in his essay, “Hyborian Genesis,” Patrice Louinet remarks, “The basic plot of the tale –Conan and a woman finding an isolated city peopled by decadent inhabitants and a wicked woman—would indeed be considerably enriched and developed in the future Red Nails (1935). The theme had profound psychological resonance in Howard’s psyche. In late 1932, however, Howard was not ready to give it the treatment it deserved, and Xuthal of the Dusk pales in comparison with the future Conan tale.”(41)

Perhaps so. Yet it bears repeating that if “Red Nails” had not been written, “Xuthal of the Dusk” would almost certainly be held in higher esteem. Apart from that, “Xuthal” deserves to be seen as more than just a kind of blueprint or rough draft for “Red Nails.”

  If Robert E. Howard is remembered for nothing else, he merits recognition as an important figure in twentieth century art for his key role as a pioneer of sexy, violent entertainment. Howard understood clearly that consumers of narrative art have an innate hunger to identify with protagonists placed in extreme circumstances. After all, Romanticism and its Gothic subgenre were all about unusual situations, intense moods and heightened emotional states. Sex and violence in entertainment are routinely condemned by politicians, teachers, and other authority figures that have an interest in keeping the masses docile. On the other hand, every storyteller, good or bad, knows instinctively that no situation is more dramatic than physical conflict, and that no concept is more compelling than the prospect of total sexual fulfillment. Sex and violence are like the primary colors of the artist’s palette, regardless of how they may subsequently be blended, softened and refined. Howard was adept in employing the “primal elements” of sex and violence in his prose. He made use of them in ways that were decades ahead of his time, and did so in a sure, knowing fashion. Conan eventually superseded Tarzan in the popular imagination owing in part to Howard’s awareness that the typical male’s macho fantasies don’t consist of monogamy and beating up animals.

Howard was without question an accomplished purveyor of electrifying entertainment, but of course that wasn’t all he was. Many readers come to REH for the high adventure, the action and horror, the sex and violence; but they stay for the darker, more compelling aspects of his artistic vision. Howard regarded writing as a profession-- he worked at it; he didn’t play at it. He believed in giving his readers their money’s worth, yet as H. P. Lovecraft noted in his obituary of Howard, he was adept at embodying his worldview within even his most outwardly commercial fiction. Martin Scorcese acknowledged a similar practice among filmmakers when he referred to “the director as smuggler.”

Concerning “Xuthal of the Dusk,” Howard wrote to Clark Ashton Smith that, “It really isn’t as exclusively devoted to sword-slashing as the announcement [in Weird Tales] might seem to imply.”(42) Even so, he later admitted to Lovecraft that he wrote “Red Nails” because “I have been dissatisfied with my handling of decaying races in stories…”(43) “Xuthal of the Dusk” may not rank among the best of the Conan stories, but as we have seen, it is a virtual showcase for the innovative manner in which Howard crafted sexy, violent entertainment. For that reason alone, it merits some attention in its own right.

“Red Nails” casts a deep shadow, but “Xuthal of the Dusk” has been obscured by that slithering shadow for far too long.

Works Cited:

Herron, Don (ed.).  The Dark Barbarian.  Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984

Howard, Robert E.  The Bloody Crown of Conan.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2004.

_____.  The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2003.

_____.  The Conquering Sword of Conan.  New York: Del Rey Books, 2005.

_____.  Eons of the Night.  New York: Baen Books, 1996.

_____.  Selected Letters, 1931 1936.  West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991.


1 Fritz Leiber, “Howard’s Fantasy,” in The Dark Man (Westport, CT: Greenwood Press, 1984 ) p. 9.
2 Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis III,” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005) p. 383.
3 Robert E. Howard, “Xuthal of the Dusk” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 219.
4 Ibid. p. 230.
5 Ibid.
6 Ibid., p. 231.
7 Leiber, op cit., pp. 9-10.
8 Although Howard did donate a variant version of the tale, with the hero’s name changed to Amra of Akbitana, to a fan publication. This version has appeared under the titles, “The Frost-King’s Daughter” and “Gods of the North.”
9 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 228.
10 Robert E. Howard, The Hour of the Dragon in The Bloody Crown of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2004) p. 214.
11 Howard, “Xuthal”, op. cit., p. 220.
12 Ibid., p. 232.
13 Ibid., p. 220.
14 Ibid., p. 236.
15 Ibid., p. 232.
16 Ibid., p. 221.
17 Robert E. Howard, “The Pool of the Black One” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 255.
18 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., pp. 220-21.
19 Ibid., p. 232.
20 Ibid.
21 Ibid., p. 229.
22 Ibid., p. 237.
23 Robert E. Howard to H.P. Lovecraft, 5 December 1935, in Selected Letters 1931-1936 (West Warwick, RI: Necronomicon Press, 1991) p. 68.
 24 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit.., p. 238.
25 Leiber, op cit., p. 10.
26 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 233.
27 Leiber, op cit., p. 10.
28 Ibid.
29 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 247.
30 Ibid., p. 221.
31 Robert E. Howard, “Iron Shadows in the Moon” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 198.
32 Ibid., p. 194.
33 Robert E. Howard, “The Devil in Iron” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 330.
34 Ibid., p. 322.
35 Howard, “Pool”, op cit., p. 260.
36 Ibid.
37 Robert E. Howard, “The Garden of Fear” in Eons of the Night (Riverdale, NY: Baen Books, 1996) p. 45.
38 Robert E. Howard, “Red Nails” in The Conquering Sword of Conan (New York: Del Rey Books, 2005) p. 246.
39 Howard, “Xuthal”, op cit., p. 230.
40 Howard, “Red Nails”, p. 254.
41 Patrice Louinet, “Hyborian Genesis” in The Coming of Conan the Cimmerian (New York: Del Rey Books, 2003) p. 449.
42 Robert E. Howard to Clark Ashton Smith, quoted by Patrice Louinet in “Hyborian Genesis”, op cit., p. 449.
43 Howard to Lovecraft, op cit., p. 72.

Wednesday, June 22, 2011

Remembering Wolfshead

[Originally published in The Dark Man: The Journal of Robert E. Howard Studies, Vol. 5, No. 1, March 2010. Copyright 2010 by The Dark Man.]

Robert E. Howard has been a huge part of my life. Amazing to think that I have been reading, enjoying, studying, reflecting on, and commenting on writings by and about Howard for a little over four decades. Today I am recalling a major milestone in my development as a Howard enthusiast --the 1968 Lancer Books paperback Wolfshead (ISBN: 0-447-73721-060).

Like many Howard readers of my generation, my first exposure to the author's work was with my discovery of the Lancer Conan series. Marc Cerasini introduced me to the Lancer series when I was twelve. To this day, every time I hear The Doors' "Light My Fire" I flash back to when I was lying on my couch in my old house reading Conan the Warrior while the song was playing on the radio. I am not kidding when I say this happens every time I hear that song. That's the sort of impact the Conan books had on me --it was a formative, transcendental, life-altering experience. At the time I was introduced to them, four Conan volumes had already appeared: Adventurer, Warrior, Conqueror, and Usurper. These were soon followed by King Kull and the volume simply entitled Conan. I vividly recall my first sight of these on the book racks of various drug stores and 5&10 stores of that vanished era.

I was no less excited when I first beheld the cover of Wolfshead displayed on the book rack. My eyes were drawn right to it, for here was another glorious, eye-popping cover painting by Frank Frazetta. The cover depicts a barbarian swordsman, this one a Nordic blond, grappling with a monstrous green serpent in some ancient temple. In the background lurks a mysterious robed figure. Now please remember that I was only thirteen at the time, and Howard was being marketed as the master of "sword and sorcery" fiction. But my initial reaction was like, wow, here's another cool barbarian character --some guy named Wolfshead!

The other feature of that cover that immediately caught my eye was something that doesn't embarrass me now. That was the author line: Robert E. Howard. It just said "Robert E. Howard" --no "and L. Sprague de Camp," no "and Lin Carter," no "edited by L. Sprague de Camp." I grabbed the book like a junkie seizing a package of unadulterated heroin.

When I got home I was able to examine the book more closely. I soon realized that I had embarked on a voyage of discovery. As I looked over the back-cover copy, it began to dawn on me that this was not a collection of stories about a single character like the previous Howard volumes. Opening the cover to the teaser page, I found the opening of the story "Wolfshead" quoted. Okay: "Wolfshead" was the name of a story and not a character. Silly me. But what hit me was that, unlike the previous Howard stories I had read, this one was written in the first person. And it was a horror story, not a heroic fantasy. In his Conan introductions, de Camp had made passing mention of the fact that Howard had written in a variety of genres. At that time, for some reason, I hadn't expected to read any of these other works. But now, I was getting my first indication that Howard was also a noteworthy author of horror stories.

On to the introduction: The back-cover copy had promised "a special introduction by the author." I was looking forward to reading it. Finally, an introduction that did not consist of some editor's or "posthumous collaborator's" evaluation of Howard's fiction --just Howard's own take on his writing. I read what Howard had to say with interest, but in the back of my mind, I wondered when and why he had written these words. Then I reached the end of the piece, where I was startled to learn that it was an excerpt from a letter to H.P. Lovecraft. I had not read Lovecraft at this point, but was aware of him. I could not fail to recall the peculiar name I knew by reputation as that of a great horror writer. So, here was another major discovery: the Lovecraft-Howard correspondence.

In the days that followed, I devoured the collected stories and was not disappointed. First up, "The Black Stone." This was the first Howard story that I read in a genre other than heroic fantasy, and the genre was horror. The first-person narrative was different from the third-person action tales I had read previously, but no less compelling. I savored this eerie story of mystery and menace, and it remains a favorite to this day.

The second story in the collection was "The Valley of the Worm." I was pleased to find that heroic fantasy was by no means absent from Wolfshead. What do I need to say about "The Valley of the Worm"? It's a top-of-his-game Howard story, and a top-ten favorite on everybody's list. And I first read it in Wolfshead.

After "Valley," we come to the story that gives the collection its title. Here was Howard's non-traditional take on a traditional icon of Gothic horror, the werewolf. "Wolfshead" is more interesting to me now in retrospect than it was upon first reading. The story, with its colorful cast gathered at a remote outpost and stalked by a demonic figure, can be seen as a precursor to a much later tale, "The Black Stranger." I'm still not quite sure why "Wolfshead" was chosen to serve as the title story for the collection when there were more impressive stories to choose from. My guess is that the title is both brief and very distinctive. And if some kid was fooled into thinking this was a collection about a new series character, that probably didn't hurt either.

The following story, "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," contained some more notable firsts. Since I read Wolfshead long before any of Howard's westerns, I was thrilling to his depiction of gunfights for the first time. Until now it had all been swords, battle axes, and the like. And it would be years before a specialty publisher issued the tales of El Borak. "The Fire of Asshurpanipal" provided my first encounter with one of Howard's Middle Eastern adventurers.

"The House of Arabu" was the second story in the collection to feature a blond barbarian, so the Frazetta cover wasn't totally misleading. Although the cover does not depict an actual scene from either "The Valley of the Worm" or "The House of Arabu," it captures the mood of the latter quite nicely.

"The Horror from the Mound" was the first story I read in which the author utilized a regional Southwestern setting based on his first-hand knowledge. (Little did I then know that this story was actually Howard's first attempt to use the Southwest in his fiction.) In any case, Howard was on to something. The descriptions of the protagonist's hardscrabble existence lingered with me long after the story's vampire menace had faded.

Rounding out the collection was "The Cairn on the Headland." This remains one of my favorite Howard horror stories. In this tale, the narrator glimpses the horrific metaphysical reality underlying the myths of old. Here also was the first reference to the battle of Clontarf that I encountered in a Howard story --or anywhere else for that matter.

Such are my memores of Wolfshead, all those years ago. Hopefully, they might shed a little light on Howard's literary reemergence after decades of obscurity. Certainly that old paperback, now crumbling with age, holds a pivotal place in my own development as a Howard reader. "The Black Stone," "The Valley of the Worm," "Wolfshead," "The Fire of Asshurbanipal," "The House of Arabu," "The Horror from the Mound," and "The Cairn on the Headland" --all these are Robert E. Howard stories I read before I read Bran Mak Morn and Solomon Kane. The Dell paperback Bran Mak Morn was issued in 1969, and three paperbacks collecting the Solomon Kane stories appeared soon afterwards. I consider it fortuitous that publishers did not wait until all the fantasy series characters were in paperback before issuing Howard stories from other genres. Had this been so, Howard would have been pigeon-holed as a "sword and sorcery guy" that much longer.

That is why I consider the publication of Wolfshead something of a milestone. In the beginning there was just Conan, King Kull, and "sword and sorcery." Wolfshead took me to the next level.

Thursday, October 28, 2010

Guns of the Border Region -- Chapter Eight


[Here it is at last, the wrap-up. And, of course, all the previous installments can be read by scrolling down. What I've tried to do here was to create a pulp adventure novel that wasn't retro, ala Indiana Jones. And the novel is autobiographical in the sense that it concerns my homeland of Southwestern Pennsylvania --not as it is, or was, but as it pleases me to imagine it. Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman.]

The following afternoon a small group gathered for Arthur’s funeral. Pops, Shadow, Leon, Christian, and Cathy Gorman were in attendance, along with some allies from the previous day’s faction fight who wished to pay their respects. They were assembled in the small forest glade on Pops’ property where Pops had buried Steffy.

“Room enough here for a few more graves,” Pops told Leon, “Steffy and I never had a son. Arthur is more than welcome here. I guess I’ll be joinin’ `em ere long.” He paused and looked about. Sunlight parted the clouds and slanted through the mostly-bare trees. A passing breeze rattled the boughs. A few brown leaves drifted down. “Yep,” Pops said thoughtfully, “This will be a nice little cemetery.”

In the glade a fresh grave had been dug. A simple pine coffin had been lowered into it. Arthur rested within the coffin with the Arkansas toothpick he had borne in battle.

Pops gave the eulogy.

“We lay to rest a man of the Border Region. The compass of his soul guided him here, to his home. This land will be stronger with his bones in the ground.”

Afterwards Christian led Leon, Cathy and some of the others in a prayer. Pops and Shadow stood nearby with bowed heads.

When all was said, Pops and Leon picked up shovels and began to fill in the grave. Cathy Gorman burst into tears as the first damp clods struck the coffin lid. She sobbed more loudly as each shovelful of dirt fell. Shadow remained silent, her face as immobile as a stoic Indian’s, but tears streamed freely down her cheeks.

Shadow lingered after the others had departed. The last words uttered at Arthur’s graveside that day were hers.

“Fare thee well, friend. Your love was not wasted.”


Shadow found Pops seated before his fireplace. Pain dozed at his feet. Shadow took a seat on the floor next to the dog.

Pops contemplated the flames for a moment before saying, “I guess you’re pissed at me for not letting old Pain here tear that boy’s throat out.”

It was the first time they had spoken of it. Shadow looked up and said, “No. Not actually. I just wish I understood things better.”

“I had to put an end to it,” Pops explained. “You dealt Mad Dog two terrible hurts. You took away his favorite son and crippled him for life. Now he’s physically handicapped and doesn’t have Sailor to back him up. His power is broken and so is he. I saw the fire go out of him, which is sad in a way, but it took the bitterness with it. He became a changed man before my eyes. Yes, it can come over a man just like that. I’ve lived a long time. I’ve seen it happen before more than once.

“But Clanton has friends. They wouldn’t look on it too kindly if I had taken Joel from him after he had begged and pleaded with me for his life. It would be seen as an act of cruelty, me tearing the last pitiful remnants from weak grasping fingers. It would have prolonged the feud, whatever the outcome of the faction fight.

“As it is, Clanton is forever in my debt. Everyone sees him as beholden to me. No one would back him in a move against me. Not that he would attempt such a thing now. He is not without honor in his fashion. And he may be hobbling on a stick from now on, but at least he can rightfully boast that he once used it to best Connor O’Rourke in single combat. No one can take that away from him.

“Arthur sacrificed his life to save you,” Pops concluded, “And by dying in your stead he bought us the peace.”


After hearing Pops’ explanation, Shadow went in search of Christian. She found him out back by the still.

“I’ve been looking for you,” she told him, “We need to talk.”

“About what?” Christian asked.

“About what you’re doing here. I want to know why you really came to the Border Region. And don’t give me that lame routine about looking for the girl. Anyone with more than two brain cells would have to know how futile that was. I didn’t care because I was getting paid. But now I want the real story.”

“I was going to tell you anyway,” Christian said as he began his tale, “I’m an accountant from North Carolina, like I said. I was working in Liberty’s City as a low-level bean counter for the Confederate government. And I really was engaged to Angel. That much was true. But I did deceive you about her whereabouts. I’ve always been pretty sure she’s in New York. I didn’t lie when I said she left me. She ran off with a Muslim from the Islamic States.”

“I suspected something of the sort,” Shadow informed him, “Go on.”

The whole story came out. The other man was an ISA diplomat who came to Liberty’s City on a state visit. Angel met him at a party and had been swept off her feet by his debonair charm. When he returned home, she went with him. Christian had been left heartbroken and humiliated. He was plunged into a deep depression and his work suffered. At this point he was approached by a government intelligence agency, the heir to the Old Union’s CIA.

High government officials were concerned about the possibility of a growing Muslim presence in the Border Region. The New American Confederacy, the Free Republic of Alaska, and the Border Region all formed a loose-knit confederation. In addition to utilizing a common currency, Alaskans and Border Regioners could serve in what was referred to as the American Military. The main purpose of the alliance was mutual defense. Though not a part of the New American Confederacy, the Border Region remained connected to it in certain respects. Therefore any encroachment upon the Border Region on the part of the Islamic States of America could be viewed as an indirect threat to the Confederacy. Muslims from the Islamic States might emigrate to certain areas of the Border Region and in time achieve majority status there. Then, theoretically, sections of the northern and eastern Border Region could be subsumed into the ISA county by county. For this reason, the number and location of Muslims residing in the Border Region was of concern to the Confederate government.

Unfortunately, Confederate intelligence resources were meager compared to those of the Old Union. This was where Christian came in. He was tapped to play the jilted lover wandering the Border Region in search of his runaway sweetheart. Enough of the story was true that he could act the part convincingly. The plan was for him to get far into the rural reaches of the Border Region to scout out Muslim enclaves, if any. The Confederate spy masters had little doubt that Christian would agree to take the mission. Assuming the role of a daring secret agent would act as a balm to his injured male pride. And if he helped thwart the designs of the Islamic Federation, he would gain a measure of revenge. He was the perfect cat’s-paw.

“You Border Regioners are suspicious of outsiders,” Christian told Shadow, “A trained agent attempting to infiltrate would be spotted a mile off. But a rank amateur like me just might be able to get away with it. Anyway, that’s what the people who recruited me thought. And that’s the whole story.”

Shadow punched Christian in the mouth. “And that’s for lying to me in the first place,” she said as she stormed off.

Christian rubbed his jaw and watched her ass sway as she walked away from him. He grinned sheepishly. He knew full well that if Shadow had nailed him with her best shot, he’d be flat on his back, out cold. Still, it was probably best to stay out of her way until she cooled off. That evening he unrolled his sleeping bag on Pops’ porch and slept outdoors.


Christian awoke early the next morning to the smell of venison sausage cooking inside the cabin. Shadow came out with some breakfast.

“Rise and shine, Churchy,” she said cheerfully, “I brought you sausage and eggs.”

“Uh, so you’re not still upset with me?” he asked.

“We’re good,” she replied. “I just needed to be mad for a little bit.”

They sat on the steps and ate breakfast together. When they finished she informed him, “I’m pulling out of here this morning. Have you had enough of the New Settlements?”

Merciful Lord, yes! he thought. “Where are you headed?” he said.

“Tionesta. That’s up north. Northwest, actually. It’s a couple days’ ride. I have family up there. I think you’d like it. It’s in the middle of some real nice country. And the community there is thriving. It’s a little city-state, almost. They have solar and wind electricity, and a lot of modern conveniences. It’s not like here at all.”

“Then I’m for Tionesta!”

After breakfast they said their goodbyes to Pops. Not long afterwards they were on the road again. Shadow rode Incitatus. Christian was astride the horse formerly owned by the late Sailor Clanton.

Their route took them down from the mountains and back onto the main roads. The trip proved uneventful. They passed the time in conversation. Shadow mentioned looking forward to the big Halloween festival in Tionesta.

“Halloween is not that widely celebrated in the Confederacy,” Christian informed her, “Most people tend to look on it as a pagan celebration. It’s not unheard of, but it’s sort of frowned upon.”

“Well, Halloween is the biggest holiday in the Border Region. Hands down,” Shadow said. She went on to explain its historical and cultural significance in the Region.

The Pennsylvania Uprising that ultimately led to the formation of the Border Region had its beginning in the Pittsburgh area. The Westsylvania secession movement started small, with a series of peaceful demonstrations. However, when a local congresswoman disparaged movement leaders as losers and misfits, things turned ugly. On the night of October 31, 2081, secession sympathizers retaliated by firebombing the congresswoman’s upscale home. This became known as the “Halloween Hellfire” incident. It was the first documented episode of violence associated with the Westsylvania secession movement. Things snowballed from there. Cities and counties erupted in rioting, open rebellion, and finally armed insurrection.

“And today Halloween is celebrated with wild partying all over the Border Region,” Shadow concluded, “I’ve been to some really big blow-outs in Wheeling and Pittsburgh. And, as you might expect, they do it up big in Transylvania. But usually I enjoy getting back to Tionesta for the celebration.”

It was also during the journey that Shadow filled Christian in concerning the Muslim population of the Border Region.

“I’ve traveled all over the Region. I’ve probably wandered over more of it than most. And I really haven’t encountered all that many Muslims. You probably have just as many, or more, still residing in the Confederacy. There are no Muslim ‘enclaves’ that I know of. Just a family here and there. And these tend to be free thinkers looking to practice a less strict form of their religion. As long as they just want to live in peace and do their own thing, they’re welcome. But if they were to try and proselytize and gain converts, they would be made to feel most unwelcome. That sort of thing doesn’t go over well here.”

Christian questioned Shadow concerning the specifics of where and when she had encountered Muslims in the Region. Finally he felt satisfied that he had enough information to put in his report when he got back to the Confederacy.

“Why even go back?” Shadow asked, “You should stay here. You belong here. Think about it. You killed your first man before you fucked your first woman. That makes you Border Region in my book, son.”

Christian didn’t have an answer for that one. He rode on in silence. But he did think about it.


Tionesta was an isolated community up north in Forest County. Throughout the 20th and 21st Centuries the town had been frequented by visitors. Surrounded by woodlands teeming with game and adjacent to a large lake suitable for fishing and boating, it was a popular getaway destination. Many of the residences were hunting cabins and vacation homes unoccupied for most of the year. A small permanent population provided various goods and services.

Following the Westsylvania secession, the character of the town began to change. Counties to the north including Erie, Crawford, and Warren remained in the Pennsylvania commonwealth by treaty so as to furnish a corridor linking the Northeastern and Midwestern Islamic states. Non-Muslim residents of those areas faced the choice of abiding by Islamic authority or relocating. Many displaced residents came to resettle in and around Tionesta, swelling the population. By the early 22nd Century, Tionesta had become the model of a vital self-sufficient community. It was the northernmost outpost of the Border Region.

Shadow and Christian arrived in Tionesta at about noon on the 31st. They headed for the center of town. There holiday festivities were already underway. The whole downtown area had been transformed into an enormous street fair. Lively crowds milled about everywhere. Handcrafted items and food of every sort was being sold at open stalls. Smoke from the grills scented the air.

“It goes on all day and well into the night,” Shadow informed her companion, “Right now there’s feasting and dancing. After dark there’ll be masquerades.”

After stabling the horses they joined the crowds. Before long Shadow was greeted by an old friend. At the sound of a melodic voice calling her name, she and Christian turned to see a stunning blonde coming their way. The newcomer looked to be a year or so older than Shadow and was roughly the same height and build. Christian watched the two women embrace. Then Shadow made the introductions.

“Christian, this is Anime, or Anna Mae if you prefer. She was my partner in crime during my younger, wilder days. We used to perform in Pittsburgh clubs as a trash dance combo called Filth.”

Christian didn’t ask what a trash dance combo was. Anime warmed him with a smile that would make any man do her bidding. “Pleased to meet you, Chris.”

“She used to be cool,” Shadow said tartly, “Then she settled down and married my blockhead brother.” To Anime, “Where is Hondo, anyway?”

“He’s down in Clarion visiting your parents and your kid sister Penny,” Anime replied, “Any plans to go see them?”

“Maybe at Thanksgiving. I’ve been thinking of going down to Pittsburgh. I could book some sessions at Madame Irene’s and be back up here in time for deer season.”

Shadow noticed the look of sick horror on Christian’s face. She set him straight. “Will you fucking relax, already? I just do domination.”

Turning back to Anime, she asked, “So where are the kiddies?”

“I left them with my friend Sophie to watch while I came over to see you.”

As if on cue two little girls, perhaps four and five, came scampering out of the crowd. They ran straight to Shadow.

“Aunt Tam!” they squealed in unison.

Shadow cast a sidelong glance at Christian. “Not a word out of you, Church-boy.”

Shadow knelt and hugged the children. Straightening she said to Christian, “These are my little nieces that I told you about, Lois and Margo.”

The kids were clearly excited by a visit from their aunt. One of the tots looked up and asked, “Can we ride Incitatus?”

“You sure can!” Shadow promised.

Christian was moved to inquire, “Will Incitatus like giving pony rides to children?”

“I’ll bust him in the snoot if he doesn’t,” Shadow said, then added meaningfully, “You have to show big dumb animals who’s boss.”

Sensing something unspoken between the man and woman, Anime laughed. “You guys must be hungry,” she said.

The group left the street fair and strolled over to a nearby park. There were more crowds of people, and more stalls selling food. Beer, wine, moonshine and cider were sold and consumed in great quantities. From a central pavilion, a band entertained the crowd. Christian remarked that the Halloween celebration seemed to have incorporated elements of Oktoberfest.

For lunch the companions dined on pierogis at one of the picnic tables. The adults drank 33 while the kids enjoyed draft root beer. Following the meal the women got caught up. Shadow narrated her recent adventures, glossing over some of the gorier details. Anime wiped away a tear when told of Arthur’s sacrifice.

Christian proposed a toast --”To Arthur.” He and the women raised their drinks.

The adults sat in respectful silence for awhile. The children played nearby. The youngsters’ laughter proved infectious and the mood at the picnic table began to lighten once more.

“You have to come up to the house and get your vampire costume,” Anime said to Shadow, “You can change before it gets dark.”

“Great,” Shadow replied, “What about you? Are you wearing yours? It’ll be the return of the toothsome twosome.”

“No, I’m afraid not. I’ve agreed to play Sandy this year.”

Shadow laughed loudly and raised her beer in salute. “Halloween Hellfire!” she declared.

From the context Christian assumed this to be a popular toast for the occasion. The reference to “Sandy” puzzled him, however. Anime filled him in.

Sandra Popplevich was the name of the congresswoman whose home had been burned in the Halloween Hellfire episode back in `81. Over the years she became the basis for “Sandy,” an evil witch character in tales told to children. Now on Halloween in communities throughout the Border Region a local woman would dress as Sandy. The children would chase her around and she would pretend to hide. A dummy in similar attire would then be brought forth and set ablaze.

“It’s become a big tradition,” Anime concluded, “And all the kids love it.”

Later that afternoon the group adjourned to Anime’s home. It was located in a semi-rural area not far from the center of town. Shadow and Christian rode there on horseback. Anime and the kids drove in the family horse-and-buggy.

Upon arrival Shadow treated Lois and Margo to the promised pony rides on Incitatus. She then stabled her horse with the others in a small barn to the rear of Anime’s property. After providing the horses with some feed, she rejoined her companions in the house.

Anime was entertaining Christian in the living room. As Shadow came in she was telling him more about life in Tionesta; “As far as essentials are concerned, we’re totally self-sufficient. If we were cut off from the outside, we’d be okay. All of our power is wind and solar. People have been experimenting with wind and solar energy since the late 20th and early 21st Centuries, but it wasn’t produced on a large scale. Advances in the technology finally made it feasible. With communities that are energy self-sufficient, the power doesn’t have to be transmitted over long distance. So you don’t have this vast complicated infrastructure that can collapse like a house of cards.”

Shadow yawned loudly to get their attention. “Glad to see you’re fascinating our guest. If either of want me, I’ll be upstairs getting changed.” So saying, she disappeared up the stairs.

She came down a short time later. Christian turned at the sound of her footstep on the stair and actually caught his breath at the sight of her. Time seemed to slow and she appeared to drift down the stairs in slow motion.

Shadow was dressed to impress. She wore a tight black merry widow corselet. Its heavily-wired cups lifted the ivory globes of her breasts, thrusting them out. Garters from the corselet extended past black panties to uphold stockings woven in an intricate spider-web pattern. On her slender feet she wore open-toed shoes with high stiletto heels. Long satin opera gloves of a deep burgundy hue extended past her elbows. Draped about her shoulders was a black velvet hooded cloak with a red satin lining.

When Christian found his tongue he stammered, “I-I thought you were supposed to be a vampire.”

“I’m a sexy vampire!” she said playfully.

“You look great,” he admitted.

“Thanks. But I still have some bruises on my face make-up won’t cover. So I’m wearing this.”

Shadow produced a mask from somewhere. It was a grotesque affair constructed of several segments of stiff molded leather fastened together with small brass rivets. The segments --smooth domed forehead, cheekbones, upper jaw-- fitted together seamlessly to form the face of a glossy black leather skull. Christian watched uneasily as Shadow slipped the mask on. An elastic band encircling her head held it in place. Most of her face was covered by the skull mask. Only her eyes, nose and chin remained visible. She raised the hood of the cloak.

“I can’t see your face,” Christian objected.

“So look at my tits.”


After dusk they all headed back to town for the Halloween masquerade. The whole group managed to fit in Anime’s buggy for the ride down. Christian thought the kids looked cute in their costumes; Lois as a ghost and Margo as a black cat. Anime wore no costume, but a bag at her side contained her Sandy outfit for later. Shadow rode in silence. It was as though in donning cloak, hood and mask she had adopted a more somber, mysterious demeanor.

The center of town was closed to vehicular traffic due to the street fair. Anime dropped Christian and Shadow off at the outskirts of the festivities, then drove away to corral the horse and buggy. The children waved goodbye as they departed.

Night had fallen and most people at the fair were now cavorting in costume. Shadow said nothing but took Christian by the hand and led him deep into the crowds of revelers, Here there was food and drink, music and merriment. The only thing resembling this anywhere in the Confederacy was the New Orleans Mardi Gras. This seemed different and darker, however. Christian noticed that there were no funny costumes, but all the familiar figures of folklore and Gothic horror were present. And then there were the women, flaunting themselves in all manner of provocative attire. Christian, accustomed as he was to women modestly dressed, was soon sporting an erection. With an effort he avoided looking at them, and gradually it subsided.

Shadow led Christian to the town square. Here a stage had been set up and the community’s children, including Lois and Margo, were being entertained by a puppet show. In the middle of the performance a strange costumed figure came skulking onto the stage. Christian recognized Anime despite her ragged robes, pointed witch’s hat and fake hook nose. She now began to lurch about making menacing gestures. The puppet master reacted in mock horror. “Oh no, it’s Sandy!” he cried, “Help me, kids, help me!”

Dozens of laughing, screaming, jumping children rose up en masse and stormed the stage. “Sandy” was forced to retreat. The crowds parted to allow the youngsters to pursue the robed figure through the streets. She eventually took refuge in one of the shops along the main drag. The door locked behind her and she vanished into one of the back rooms.

Presently two large men in devil costumes emerged bearing a dummy garbed as Sandy on pitchforks. They went forth into the streets brandishing the dummy aloft. The children followed them through the cheering, jeering throngs as they returned to the town square. There a noose had been thrown over a lamppost. The neck of the dummy was placed in the noose and the mannequin was hoisted upwards. A third man in a devil costume stepped forward holding an upraised torch and set the dummy afire. Cries of “Halloween Hellfire” echoed through the crowd.

“A bit gruesome,” Christian observed.

“Let’s take a walk through Pumpkin-Land,” Shadow said in response, “It might calm your nerves.”

He did not question her as she took his hand once more and led him away. The din of the crowd faded behind them as they entered the park where they had eaten lunch that afternoon. In a meadow and along the slope of a hill the townsfolk had placed hundreds of glowing jack-o-lanterns. Pumpkins large and small had been carved into an assortment of frightful and mournful visages. The candles flickering within them cast a pale unsteady illumination, like that produced by scores of winking fireflies. Shadow and Christian were not alone. Other couples sauntered about. The total effect of the scene was one of strange, eerie, peaceful beauty.

Christian was deep in thought. This land, this Border Region, was a land a man like Arthur had watered with his blood. Christian now felt that he could make a home here. He thought of Anime. Had she not once been as wild as Shadow? Now she was wife to some lucky man.

When he was ready, he spoke.

“Shadow, will you take off your mask?”


“I want to kiss you.”


She lowered her hood and removed the mask. The couple embraced and kissed passionately. Shadow was impressed; the boy was learning.

After they disengaged he said softly, “I’m planning on moving to the Border Region. I could probably make a good living in one of the city-states. I still have to go back and make my report, but then I’ll be free of obligations.”

He paused, hesitated, and then continued, “And there’s another thing. I want to marry you.”

Shadow was a little surprised, but only a little. I’ll bet you do, she thought, We screwed out of wedlock, and that would give it a kind of retroactive legitimacy. Nice try, Church-boy.

“Not so fast,” she replied. She preferred doing things her way and she wanted to test him, so she said, “You can start off being my personal fuck-toy and we’ll work it from there. How’s that?’

He had to think about it, but not for long. “That’ll be fine.”

“Good. So when do you think you’ll be heading home?

“I’ll be heading down the to the Confederacy in a day or two. Once there I can give my report and get my affairs in order. Then I’ll be back.

“But as to when I’m heading home, I’m already home. Home is here. In the Border Region. With you.”

Wednesday, October 13, 2010

Guns of the Border Region -- Chapter Seven


[Copyright 2009 by Charles Hoffman]

This isn’t over by a long shot. Such was Pops’ assessment of the situation when informed of the gory details of Shadow’s encounters with Karla and Sailor Clanton. He kept his thoughts to himself for the time being, however. There would be time enough to deal with matters and make future plans on the morrow. For this evening, he busied himself preparing a hearty supper. He knew Shadow and Christian would sleep better with a good hot meal in their bellies. He wanted them to be refreshed and rested when they drew their plans for the trouble that lay ahead.

Shadow and Christian retired to Pop’s bedroom once again. There Christian unrolled his sleeping bag by the bed. So we’re back to that, Shadow thought.

“It’s better this way, at least for now,” Christian said by way of explanation, “I know I let you down.”

At first light, Pops set out for Leon’s cabin. Leon and Arthur had returned there on the same day Shadow and Christian had gone to Eden. Pops needed to inform them of recent developments and to learn if they had caught wind of any news that might have come drifting down the trails from the north.

Back at Pops’ cabin Shadow and Christian took turns freshening up in the bathhouse. Shadow went first.

While Christian made use of the facility, Shadow selected a change of clothes from a trunk of her belongings left in Pops’ keeping. Standing before a mirror she admired her reflection clad in the late Sailor Clanton’s red mesh tank top. This thing shows pretty much everything I got, she mused, It would look just hot enough if I wore it over one of Steffy’s black bras. But there’s no way I could fill one of those out. Upon further reflection, she just decided to get rid of it. She really didn’t need any reminders of Sailor Clanton after all.

She also decided that it was getting a little chilly for crotch-huggers. She switched those for a pair of waist-high leather pants. The top she selected was a simple black sleeveless t-shirt with a scoop neck. Shadow completed her ensemble with a new pair of unadorned wrist gauntlets that covered half the length of her forearms, furnishing protection and stability for her gun and knife hands. Now she felt ready for business.


It was late afternoon when Pops returned with Leon and Arthur. Pain’s bark alerted Shadow as they rode up. She greeted Leon and Arthur with warm hugs. Christian couldn’t help but notice that she seemed especially glad to see the latter. Presently they all gathered around Pops’ table to discuss matters. Leon and Arthur had already been given a summary of events. Now Shadow related a fuller account.

“This touches us all,” she told the group, “So you have a right to know everything, and that means the ugly stuff.” She then proceeded to narrate her recent misadventures, omitting only the tryst with Christian. As she told of her abduction and rape by Clanton, she felt the mood in the room grow grim. She noted the firm set of Leon’s jaw and the outrage blazing in Arthur’s eyes. Most of all, she was acutely aware of the tremor of Pops’ tightly clenched fists. It was as though he was fighting to control their independent urge to rend and smash. Shadow hastened to the part of her tale that concerned her bloody revenge. She sensed the group’s mood shift again in light of that revelation and their growing awareness of her ability to give payback with liberal interest. All the men, except for Pops, grew very quiet and still after glimpsing this frightening side of her.

“Anyway,” she concluded, “There’s more trouble on the way. Sorry, guys. The shit-storm about to come down is all my fault.”

“That’s bullshit,” Leon objected, “This started when Clanton trespassed on my property, shot up my home and wrecked our still. He might not have actually been trying to kill Arthur and me, but it could have happened real easy.”

“Maybe so,” Shadow admitted, “But there was no actual bloodshed until I got into the act. I went up the trail and left five bodies on the ground before I came back down.”

Christian didn’t hesitate to correct her, “That’s just four bodies, actually. One of them was my doing, God forgive me.”

Shadow favored him with a warm smile, “Thanks, Quick Draw.”

“And Karla got dead by her own choice,” Leon added, eager to offer encouragement, “We heard about that the next day. You didn’t go for a weapon until she did. There were any number of people there who saw it and will swear to it.”

“That’s all well and good, Leon. But what I did to Sailor Clanton’s boys was sheer murder.”

Christian spoke up again, his voice uncharacteristically stern, “Shadow, I was there and didn’t lift a finger to stop you. If you’re guilty of something, so am I. But I’ll never forget how I found you.” He vividly recalled the sight of her bound, raped, flogged and pistol-whipped. The others could see the gun barrel-shaped bruise that marred her face. “They would hang in any state in the Confederacy,” Christian concluded.

Now it was Pops’ turn. “Sailor Clanton has been running amok for years. There was bound to be a bullet with his name on it sooner or later. I say good riddance. The world becomes a little more like Hell every time an asshole gets his way.”

“Who actually knows that you killed Clanton?” Arthur asked Shadow.

“Just you guys,” she said, “But everyone in Eden knows I was looking for him. And somebody would have investigated the burnt cabin. The smoke could be seen for miles.”

“So what kind of trouble are we looking at now?” asked Christian.

“Feud,” Pops said simply. And to Leon and Shadow, that one word spoke volumes. It told of bloody ambushes, of furtive shapes skulking through the night, shots in the dark fired at silhouetted figures in cabin windows, men treading softly and looking ever over their shoulders. It told of creeping paranoia, fear, suspicion and death.
Once started a feud could drag on for years, even decades. Many people could be drawn into it before it was all over. People in isolated frontier regions grew to depend on one another in ways inconceivable to those dwelling in a more civilized milieu. Ties between members of large extended families remained strong. Bonds of friendship were forged of steel. Therefore, if someone on the periphery of a feud --say, the friend of a relative of one of the main combatants-- were to fall, then one of his friends could take up the vendetta and the whole bloody business would ripple outwards. Pops, Leon and Shadow had all spent enough time in the New Settlements to be familiar with such strife, but none of them had actually become embroiled in a feud. Until now.

Pops explained the grim nature of mountain feuds to Christian and Arthur. They both sat silently and absorbed it all. After digesting it all for a moment, Christian asked, “So who’s going to be on the warpath?”

“Mad Dog Clanton,” Pops grunted. The words seemed to hang in the air like the rumble of distant thunder. “That’s Sailor’s old man,” he added after a meaningful pause, “And he is one nasty son of a bitch.”

This was an understatement. Mad Dog Clanton was a veritable devil. He had been likened to a walking mass of muscle and rage. The elder Clanton was not quite as tall as Pops, but more broadly built and decades younger. Though powerful, his physique was not comely and symmetrical like that of his son Sailor or his rival, Pops O’Rourke. In places he looked almost grotesquely overdeveloped, his terrible thews bunched and knotted like those of a gorilla. Adding to his bestial appearance was the unkempt shock of thick black hair and a bristling black beard. Wiry black hair covered his massive chest, broad back and wide shoulders as well. When his face was contorted by rage, as it frequently was, it was enough to make demons take fright. Mad Dog Clanton would not have looked out of place lurking in a cave and wielding a stone axe.

Pops thought of Mad Dog Clanton as an atavism, a throwback to some dark lost age. He was an outcast from civilization. Even in the wilder towns such as Weirton he would have been shot dead had he chosen to linger there. The more organized criminal elements would have scant tolerance for such a loose cannon rolling around on their deck. In areas and communities still struggling to rebuild atop the ruins of war, he would be even less welcome. But the New Settlements were home to those who, for whatever reason, had chosen to turn their backs on everything that had come before and hew out a rude new world in the midst of virgin forest.

It was in this backwoods setting that Mad Dog Clanton had made his home. A grim, towering figure, he could win a dominant position in such a society. He assumed the mantle of a lord and raised his eldest son, Sailor, in the manner of a prince. Sailor’s Adonis-like good looks had been an immense source of pride to his brutish father. Mad Dog especially enjoyed basking in the reflected glory of his son’s sexual conquests. He had egged Sailor on, had urged him to take what he wanted, had fostered a sense of entitlement in his son by asserting his “God-given right” to this or that. Mad Dog had no small hand in making Sailor Clanton the monster he became.

Pops said little of this to the others, but was careful to emphasize just how tough and dangerous the elder Clanton was. “They don’t call him Mad Dog for nothing.”

“So how much trouble is this guy going to be?” Arthur asked, “I mean, who would side with someone like that? Who’s backing him up?”

“The bad elements mostly. The McCleans, the Martenses, the Wolanskis.”

“Anybody on our side?” It was an innocent enough question, but it evoked a strong response from Pops.

“I’ll be damned if there ain’t!” Pops replied testily, as though his integrity had been impugned, “I’ll walk right out of here and head straight into Hell if my name doesn’t carry more weight in these settlements than some piece of psycho scum like Mad Dog Clanton.”

“So who can we count on for certain?”

“The Woods, the Nixons, the Parkers. The Gormans for sure.”

The latter were distant kin of Shadow’s. Centuries earlier the Gormans had drifted south and west and finally settled in West Texas. After the War, most of the Southwest seceded from the Old Union and rejoined Mexico. The Gormans then relocated once again, this time to the Border Region.

“So what do we do now?” Christian asked.

“We assemble our allies,” Pops told him, “I expect that’s what Mad Dog Clanton is doing even as we speak. So there’s no time to lose. I’ll be on the road first thing tomorrow. I’m going to travel through the Settlements and talk with those people I mentioned, and some others. There are plenty who are spoiling for a fight with Clanton and his ilk. Others will offer support and backup. I intend to bring as many as possible into the fold. Leon and Arthur will accompany me. Christian and Shadow will stay here with Pain to guard the cabin. I suggest we all turn in early. It’s going to be a busy day.”


Pops slept in his own bed that night. The others bedded down in their sleeping bags. Before retiring, Pops took a moment to reflect.

I swear I don’t know if the New Settlements will ever amount to anything, he thought. What have we wrought here? A log-walled, dirt floor hell? Why did we do it? There was plenty of challenging work to be done in the years after the War. Most anywhere in the Border Region, in the city-states, in the rural areas, a man could carve out a niche for himself in any number of new societies springing up from the ashes. Why take to the deep woods with axes? Why take it all the way back to frontier days?

“A clean break with the past” was an expression that had been bandied about often. But Pops had been well aware, even at the outset, that Americans had always tended to romanticize the frontier life of the early pioneers. Yet such a life must have entailed no small measure of dark, grim, primitive squalor. Perhaps that was why the New Settlements drew dark, grim, primitive men like Mad Dog Clanton. As for Pops, he had been a restless giant seeking to grapple with the greatest challenge a brave new world had to offer.

Still had plenty of juice back then, even though it was only twenty-odd years ago, he recalled. Can’t believe Steffy went along with it, considering the world she came from. Still, she had that adventurous spirit.

The trouble was, Pops mused, that the New Settlements may have started as crude clusters of log cabins, but they shouldn’t remain as such. Maybe if certain undesirable elements --for instance, Mad Dog Clanton-- were taken down, the Settlements might yet amount to something. But a bloody protracted feud in these hills would only make matters worse. Pops did have a plan for ending the feud before it really got rolling. The only problem was that it probably wasn’t going to be pretty.


Pops arose during the darkness that foreruns the dawn. He, Leon and Arthur set out shortly after the first glimmer of daylight.

Christian and Shadow remained behind with Pain. At first a tense awkward silence hung between the man and woman. Christian attempted to engage in idle conversation. Shadow remained sullen. Gradually, however, she warmed to his boyish charm. She relaxed and began to engage in some small talk. It still seemed like something was bothering her, but he didn’t ask what it was. Following a lull in the conversation, she let him know.

“Christian, I want you out of here,” she said bluntly, “This is no place for you. Bad shit is about to go down. It could make the trouble you’ve seen so far look like a church picnic. You can get yourself killed or really, really messed up.”

Christian paused for a moment to digest this before raising any objection. At length he said, “But I’m a part of this too. The blood isn’t only on your hands. I killed that guy Chester.”

“Chester was a nobody. No one will give a shit about him. The riff-raff around here shoot and stab each other all the time. You saved my life. You’ve done more than enough.”

Another pause. Christian seemed to choose his words carefully before he spoke. “That may very well be true. But I can’t leave you. I cast my lot with you when I came to the New Settlements. I would not have left you before, and now, well…honor demands that I stay.”

Shadow rolled her eyes at the last part. “Okay Galahad, have it your way. But don’t say I didn’t warn you.”


It was early afternoon when Pops and the others came riding back at the head of a dozen men on horseback, all heavily armed. Shadow recognized members of the Nixon and Gorman clans. The men dismounted. The newcomers began to unload gear from some spare horses and to pitch tents here and there on Pops’ property.

Pops briefed Shadow and Christian concerning recent developments. “These men are solidly in our camp. Still others are out on the roads spreading the word. I’m hoping to herd as many as possible on our side, packing as much heat as possible. It’s not that I’m preparing for slaughter. On the contrary, I hope to avoid or minimize bloodshed. But it’s advisable to negotiate from a position of strength. It’s the only thing a man like Clanton understands. I mean to confront him with a really formidable show of force. My plan is to set up a meeting with Clanton. Douglas Parker is riding up to his territory under a flag of truce, with some tough hombres to watch his back. Doug’s a good man, respected by all. Leave it to him to arrange the meeting. Once it’s set, we’ll ride up in force. These men will go with us, and our other allies will muster at the location point.”

“And where might that be?” asked Christian.

“Jericho. That’s in the place we around here call Heaven. Neither side will hold any special advantage.”

For Christian’s benefit, Pops explained the significance of those place names. Jericho was a log cabin settlement similar to Eden, only bigger. Its largest structure was sufficient to serve as a meeting hall. Because of its central location, Jericho was utilized as a gathering place for residents from throughout the settlements to address common concerns.

Both Jericho and Eden lay within the area locals referred to as “Heaven.” When Westsylvania seceded from Pennsylvania, the old Commonwealth fractured along county lines. Heaven was a notable exception. It was carved out of the southwestern corner of Centre County by mountaineers who refused to abide by the county’s Islamic majority and refused to locate further west. Authorities in the sparsely-settled county eventually abandoned the area. One mountaineer referred to their new domain as “a little piece of Heaven” and the name stuck. The New Settlements were lawless enough, but Heaven was wholly without legal authority.

Christian was incredulous. “And this is where you hope to avoid a bloodbath? I’m sorry, Mr. O’Rourke, but this all sounds like a blueprint for disaster.”

Pops chuckled in spite of the gravity of the situation. The lad had a point. There might have been a very slim microscopic chance that Mad Dog Clanton could be persuaded to reason had both sides suffered casualties. But the bloodshed had been one-sided --thus far. The best Pops could hope for would be to get Clanton to agree to settle the matter by single combat or one pitched battle between groups of chosen warriors. At least that way the strife would remain small and short-lived.

Pops admitted as much to Shadow and Christian. The latter remained skeptical. “I still don’t think this meeting or council or whatever you care to call it is a good idea. You’ll have all these angry men waving guns around. One shot and the whole thing turns into a massacre. I mean, what’s to stop it?”

“The Amish,” Pops replied, smiling once more at Christian’s look of astonishment. “We’ll be arranging for some of the Amish Elders to preside over the meeting. This is customary when arbitrating disputes. The Amish are held in high esteem in rural Westsylvania. They were instrumental in teaching folks to become self-sufficient during those horrible years just after the War. You’re too young to remember. A good bit of the eastern part of the Old Union was buried in rubble back then. Just ruin and utter devastation. But it was the Amish that helped survivors get back on their feet. Today, they’re untouchable. None will raise a hand against the least of them; the person who did so would be totally ostracized, even by family members. Now by tradition the counsel of their Elders is sought. Even a fiend like Mad Dog Clanton will respect that tradition.”


A messenger came riding into the O’Rourke camp at daybreak the following morn. The rider dismounted. Pops strode forth to greet him. The men clasped hands.

“Good to see you, Doug,” Pops said warmly. He introduced the man, Douglas Parker, to Christian and Arthur. “So what’s the good word?” Pops asked.

“It’s all been set up,” the man replied, “The meeting will convene in Jericho as soon as everybody’s there. The Amish have agreed to send a couple of emissaries.”

After breakfast, the O’Rourke faction broke camp and prepared for the trek to Jericho. Leon and Arthur loaded the wagon with provisions and some items Pops supplied. The dog Pain rode in the wagon. When everything was in readiness they all moved out. Pops rode at the head of the column.

They rode north to Jericho passing through Eden. In Eden the sullen residents peered silently from cabins or stood about on the unpaved streets to watch the horsemen go by. Along the way the column was joined by others who had come up separate trails.

The O’Rourke party arrived in Jericho early in the afternoon. Unlike Eden, where dark woodlands pressed in ominously on all sides, Jericho stood in the midst of a wide clearing. Its rough-hewn buildings were more numerous and better constructed than those of the smaller communities. There were several corrals for horses. Pops led his riders towards one of these. He saw another group assembling at a corral on the other side of the settlement.

“Those would be Clanton’s men,” Pops informed Christian and Arthur, “But I don’t see Clanton himself.”

Before long O’Rourke’s group was joined by other allies who had come down from the north. These included members of the Wood and Nixon clans and their kin. Still others had come to Jericho. These were of old Pennsylvania German extraction like the Huffmans and the Holcrofts. They were sympathetic to O’Rourke or neutral, but definitely no friends of the Clantons. When all were assembled, the O’Rourke faction numbered almost a hundred men and a few women. All were heavily armed, toting M-16s, Uzis, AK-47s and various other assault weapons including some very advanced models that had seen service in the War. This was in addition to the sidearms that all wore on their belts. The Clanton group was similarly outfitted. To Christian it seemed like half the guns of the Border Region were in the hands of these men.

By Pops’ reckoning his group outnumbered Clanton’s people about three to one. Well, that’s good, he thought, Makes it less likely that Clanton will try to turn this into a gun battle.

Pain leapt down from Leon’s wagon and trotted over to Pops. The beast growled as Pops forced it to submit to wearing a chain and collar. “Easy, boy,” Pops said soothingly while stroking the animal, “We just don’t want anyone around her getting antsy.”

Elsewhere in the corral Shadow was introducing Christian and Arthur to a young girl of perhaps nineteen years. This was an attractive redhead named Cathy Gorman. Though not quite in Shadow or Karla’s league, Cathy could hold her own in most any kind of a brawl.

“You’ve been holding out on me,” Cathy said cheerfully, “Keeping all these handsome men to yourself.” Cathy seemed especially attracted to Arthur, but he was uncertain of how to respond to the girl’s flirtation. “I hope to see you again soon,“ she told him, offering encouragement when they parted. It was the only light moment of a very grim day.

Pops’ conversation with other of the newcomers was of an altogether more somber nature. As he had suspected, Chester, Mike and Lyle were as completely forgotten as though they had never existed. On the other hand, the popular Sailor Clanton and Karla were already being accorded the near-mythological status of Tristan and Isolde, Antony and Cleopatra, and other such star-crossed lovers. This did not bode well.

“Still no sign of Mad Dog,” Pops muttered as he scanned the enemy camp. Probably waiting to make an entrance when things gets started. And he’s probably been told that I’ve arrived. It was then that he noticed some activity. The man had started to file out of the corral and head towards the settlement’s large central structure.

“It’s on,” Pops informed his allies, “Let’s go.”

The O’Rourke contingent now left the area about the corral where they had been congregating. A few men were left behind to guard the horses. Pops left Pain behind with Cathy Gorman, who had known the dog since he was a puppy. Everybody else began to make their way towards the central building. They moved slowly and warily, keeping pace with the men approaching from the opposite direction.
Jericho’s central building was a massive structure solidly built of sturdy timbers. Even from the outside it was apparent that the structure housed a single large room intended to serve as a gathering place for meetings, celebrations and other communal events. The building was rectangular in shape, with sets of double doors on either of the longer sides. It could hold about a hundred people. That meant that a number of those who had arrived in Jericho today would have to wait outside and observe the proceedings through windows and open doorways.

Clanton’s men had already begun to enter the hall by the time O’Rourke’s group reached it. Douglas Parker insisted on going in first accompanied by some formidable companions to make sure that none lie in wait to bushwhack Pops or Shadow. Pops saw the wisdom of deferring to his friend’s prudent judgment. A large number of his party preceded Pops into the hall.

Inside the hall local residents had made arrangements for the meeting. Two rows of benches had been set up with an aisle running between them. Clanton’s group had already taken seats on one side of the aisle and O’Rourke’s people were now filling the opposite row. Locals and other neutral parties occupied standing room in the rear. At the front of the hall a table had been placed on a raised platform along with two chairs reserved for the Amish Elders.

Pops O’Rourke entered the hall flanked by Leon and Arthur, followed by Christian and Shadow. Muttering in the Clanton section died down as the giant O’Rourke strode in, but started anew when Shadow glided in after him, clad all in black, her duster billowing out behind her. A slender man rose and pointed an accusing finger.

“That’s her!” he cried. It was Danny Martense, a high-strung youth with a reputation for being a hothead. “That’s the witch! That’s the witch that slew Sailor and Karla! Devil spawn! Devil spawn!”

This was bad. It was just the sort of thing that could turn an already irate crowd into a howling mob shrieking for blood. One spark in that tinderbox could ignite a conflagration. This had to be stopped, and fast.

In the space of a second O’Rourke stepped up to confront the youth, covering the distance with a few long strides. A single mild blow from Pops’ sledge-like fist was sufficient to knock Danny Martense back onto his seat with a fractured jaw.

“Sit down and shut up!” Pops roared. He raised his clenched fists high. The gesture was a signal, understood by all, both that he held no weapon and that he would take on any of them mano a mano. He transfixed the crowd with his volcanic gaze. Pops didn’t know what to expect, but at least he had shifted the focus from Shadow back to himself. For a tense moment the tableau held. Then another spoke.

“Let everyone settle down and be seated.” It was a rich, clear solemn voice laden with calm authority.

All heads, including Pops’, turned toward the speaker. Two tall old men clad in the somber garb of the Amish stood framed in the doorway. Both were ancient, with long white beards reaching to their waists, but stood as straight and sturdy as oaks. They assumed their appointed place behind the table on the platform. The Elders had arrived.

Pops and his companions seated themselves in the front row of their section. “My God,” Pops said in a hushed tone, “That’s Abner and Ebenezer.”

Catching the note of awe in his voice, Arthur asked, “So are they, like, pretty big?”

“There are none bigger.”

Pops knew whereof he spoke. Yet his simple statement to Arthur failed to do justice to the true stature of Abner and Ebenezer among the Amish of Westsylvania. They were much more than community elders; they were patriarchs and living legends. Each had taken on the mantle of Moses during a latter-day Exodus.

After the War, the Special Election of ‘81 established Islamic law in Pennsylvania. This in turn sparked the Pennsylvania Uprising that led to the secession of Westsylvania. However, the Amish of Lancaster County and environs remained isolated in the midst of what had been the eastern half of the old Commonwealth. If they remained there they would be obliged to accept Islamic rule. Abner had taken the initiative in planning and successfully orchestrating their relocation. He led his people westward into the mountains.

Ebenezer had assumed a similar role, only in his case the circumstances were more complicated. In addition to those in Lancaster and the eastern part of the state, there were Amish enclaves in northwestern Pennsylvania as well. Most were centered around Spartansburg in Crawford County. Had Westsylvania come to include all the western counties of Pennsylvania the Amish there would have been able to continue to dwell there as before. Their brethren from Lancaster might even have joined them there. But as fate would have it, the northwestern counties became the subject of controversy.

Westsylvania secession was ultimately achieved without bloodshed, but not without compromise. Secession leaders met with government officials in the state capital of Harrisburg to hammer out an agreement allowing for a peaceful separation. A major point of contention concerned the northwestern counties of Erie, Crawford, Warren and McKean. Political and religious leaders were already looking to the day when the Islamic States would achieve full independence. It was important to them that those four counties remain part of Pennsylvania to form a corridor linking the eastern Islamic states with those in the Midwest. In this way the future nation would encompass a single geographically contiguous area. Secession leaders agreed to this compromise in order to settle the matter while they still held a strong position.

This development did not go over well in some quarters. Although the secession movement originated in the southwestern portion of the state, it had ardent supporters in the northwestern counties. The most militant resided in the town of North East, located in the northeastern portion of the state’s small panhandle that extended to Lake Erie. Secessionists there complained that the movement’s leaders had betrayed them. Both state officials and movement leaders pointed out that the majority of Western Pennsylvania’s Muslims resided in or near Erie; therefore the compromise made sense. In any event the disgruntled numbered too few to mount an effective counter-movement. They ultimately had little choice but to relocate. A number of them opted for the hardy frontier life of the New Settlements.

Thus the Amish of Crawford County faced the same dilemma as their brethren far to the east in Lancaster County. Ebenezer took on the leadership role in their subsequent migration. During the following years Ebenezer and Abner worked together to establish new Amish enclaves along the eastern fringe of the Border Region. As patriarchs they became the stuff of legend. It was as though Pharaoh’s daughter had plucked twins from the bulrushes.

The significance of their presence here and now at this meeting was not lost on Pops. It meant that the Amish Elders were taking the recent turn of events very seriously indeed. They knew as well as he did the potential of a protracted feud to rob the Settlements of some of their best blood, leaving women and orphans to wail for their dead.

When all were seated Abner said, “Let the proceedings begin.”

Already there was an objection. “But they cain’t begin,” someone shouted from the Clanton section, “Mad Dog …I mean, Mr. Clanton… ain’t here yet.”

As if on cue a ruckus suddenly arose in the rear of the meeting hall. Heads turned towards the source of the commotion. A small group of newcomers was making its loud way through the rear entrance. At the group’s center was a massive bear-like man clad in buckskins. A wild tangle of thick black hair hung to his shoulders and his heavy beard was split by teeth bared in a perpetual snarl. His small bloodshot eyes darted about, habitually scanning for enemies. The man bellowed curses as he strode down the center aisle. Mad Dog Clanton, for this could be none other, had arrived.

“Where be the bitch that murdered my boy?” he demanded.

Shadow shot to her feet; she hid from no man. “Right here, asshole!” she spat back, “Your ‘boy’ kidnapped me and raped me.”

“Is this true?” Ebenezer the Elder asked sternly.

Clanton growled but held his temper. He was outnumbered and outgunned by his foes, and the authority of the Elders was almost tangible. “We have only her word for that!” he snarled.

“Not so!” A new voice rang out. It was Christian. He rose and took his place alongside Shadow. “I saw Sailor Clanton take her away. I found her tied to his bed after he violated her. I swear to it by God and my Lord Jesus Christ, and I do not make such an oath in vain!”

Christian’s voice carried the ring of truth. His tone of righteous sincerity evoked nods among the listeners, including some in the Clanton camp. Even Mad Dog himself was taken aback slightly. He was far from mollified, however. He switched to a different tact. Grasping the first thing that came to mind, he stabbed an accusing finger at Shadow.

“You took the law into your own hands!”

Some of Mad Dog’s supporters had to stifle cynical laughter. Shadow grew visibly angry. She seemed ready to launch herself at Mad Dog Clanton despite being physically outmatched.

“There is no law in Heaven!” she roared, “And what passes for it in the rest of the Settlements is a joke. And you know it.”

“What I know is that you’re a mass murderer. You murdered that fine woman Karla as well as my boy!”

“That’s a lie!” This was shouted from one the neutral factions standing in the rear of the hall. “It was a fair fight!” exclaimed one of the men, “I was there and saw the whole thing. Shadow didn’t go for her bowie until Karla did.”

“Enough of this.” Now it was Abner who spoke. At the sound of his voice the others fell silent. He turned to Pops. “Mr. O’Rourke, it was you who arranged this meeting. What is it you hope to accomplish?”

Shadow and Christian took their seats. Pops rose and addressed the Elders. “I hope to forestall further bloodshed,” he told them, “It seems insane to me that this began as a dispute over whiskey. As all know, there are no laws pertaining to the home manufacture and sale of spirits in these parts. Sailor Clanton wrecked a still on the property of my good friend Leon Jackson and fired shots into his home. His goal was to eliminate competition in the moonshine trade. He admitted all this to Miss Lane while she was his captive. Miss Lane was Mr. Jackson’s partner. She went in search of Sailor Clanton in the hopes of talking things out. For her pains she had to defend herself in a fight to the death, then was kidnapped and raped.”

The Elders mulled this over. Ebenezer addressed Mad Dog, “Mr. Clanton, death is harsh but so is the outrage of a woman. Would ye be willing to forego vengeance?”

“I’ll be damned if I will!” Clanton thundered, “Beware, Connor O’Rourke! I mean to have your hide and that of your girl.”

Pops face betrayed no emotion, but inwardly he felt relief. Had Clanton readily agreed to a truce, the situation would have been decidedly more dangerous. There was no chance whatsoever that Mad Dog Clanton would keep such a promise. O’Rourke and his friends would be in constant peril. Their lives would be spent looking over their shoulders. None would know when shots would be fired from the dark. Blood would call for blood, and on it would drag. The feud would cast its gloomy pall over all. No, it was better that Clanton declared his intentions openly. This gave O’Rourke the chance he had been hoping for all along. As he saw it, his best option lie in settling his differences with Clanton with one quick, decisive bloodletting.
In response to Mad Dog Clanton’s wild oath, Pops said simply, “I’ll not have my people dragged into endless feuding. I propose we settle this once and for all, the way our ancestors in the old country did.”

Clanton eyed Pops warily. “Are ye callin’ for a faction fight?”

“I am.”

Faction fights were common in 19th Century Ireland. These were pitched battles between rival clans, gangs or communities. A faction fight could erupt over property disputes, debts or various sorts of grudges. Weapons usually consisted of sticks, stones and similar primitive implements, although the use of swords and even guns was not unheard of. There was a certain structure to the battle, the main rule being that the sides be evenly numbered. Hundreds or even thousands of combatants could be involved. The largest faction fight on record took place in County Kerry in June 1834. Three thousand fought that day. When it was all over two hundred of them lie dead. Irish immigrants to America were known to engage in faction fighting. In old New York the Dead Rabbits and rival gangs fought for turf in the Five Points section.

Mad Dog Clanton readily agreed to a faction fight. Ever the schemer, he saw a rare opportunity to utterly crush his rival O’Rourke. Then, unopposed, he could pretty much call the shots in the New Settlements. He would be a king ruling from a palace of logs.

Pops addressed the Elders once more. “There can be no peace between me and Clanton. I see long years of feuding ahead. That’s something to be avoided. I propose to settle it once and for all in a day. Clanton’s people will fight mine. All will abide by the outcome.”

Abner conferred briefly with Ebenezer. It was Ebenezer who spoke. “It would be a vain hope for you to forsake your blood-mad ways. If violence there must be, let it be as a summer storm that passes swiftly. Better that than unending feud.”

Pops turned back to Clanton. “We will have our battle. How many can you field?”

“There be only thirty I can count on for sure.”

“Then I’ll meet you with thirty of my best. Weapons?”

“Blades and bludgeons!”

“Very well. I call time and place. Bender’s Field. Noon, the day after tomorrow.” Bender’s Field was a central location not far from Jericho. Both parties would travel an equal distance to reach it. A full day would give them plenty of time to prepare.

“I will meet you on Bender’s Field,” Mad Dog Clanton growled, “And then I will see you in Hell!”


Two days later the factions gathered on Bender’s Field. A fog hung over the field as the hosts assembled throughout the morning. As the noon hour approached the fog cleared and the clouds parted. The day was warm and fine.

The factions had formed staging areas at opposite ends of the field. In O’Rourke’s camp, Christian found Shadow practicing with a curious looking weapon. It consisted of two hardwood sticks just over a foot long joined by a short length of cord. Apparently it was designed to be used as a flail. Shadow held one of the sticks and used it to whirl the other about. She whipped the sticks around faster and faster, switching from hand to hand. Christian asked her what the weapon was called.

“This? It’s a nunchaku,” she said, “It’s an Asian weapon like the manriki-gusari I gave you. Haven’t you ever seen old Bruce Lee movies?”

Christian explained that in the Christian South the Asian martial arts were associated with pagan religions like Buddhism and therefore not widely taught. As for movies, his parents had frowned upon violent entertainment.

“What in God’s name are you doing here, Church-boy?” Shadow exclaimed in exasperation, “I told you before to stay the hell out of this.”

“I don’t recall you asking Arthur to leave,” Christian replied.

“Arthur’s Border Region. He lives in the Settlements. He has a stake in what goes on here.”

“Well, so do I,” Christian said. He looked at her meaningfully.

Shadow rolled her eyes. “Oh, all right. Go see Pops and get outfitted with a weapon. And if you get your head bashed in, don’t come crying to me.”

Christian wandered over to a wagon where Pops was standing with some of the Gormans and the Woods. O’Rourke was clad as Christian had first seen him --grey tank top, jeans, knee-high leather moccasins. With his massive physique and long white hair, he once again reminded Christian of some pagan god of mythology.

“Good morning, Mr. O’Rourke,” Christian said casually, as though they were meeting for breakfast, “I guess I’ll be needing a weapon.”

“Glad to have you with us, son.” Unlike Shadow, Pops made no attempt to dissuade Christian. That meant a lot to the younger man. “We’ll try to make short work of this.”

Pops rummaged through an assortment of weapons he had in his wagon. He presented Christian with an axe handle.

“The axe handle is a more versatile weapon than the axe itself,” Pops explained, “Better balance. Much easier to wield. You can strike with either end. Also, you can thrust with it as well as swing it.”

Christian practiced with the axe handle for a few minutes and seemed to get the hang of it. Curious, he asked, “What sort of weapon will you be carrying, Mr. O’Rourke?”

Pops showed him a stout black walking stick with a knobby head.

“This is a shillelagh, cut from an Irish blackthorn stem. It’s light, but hard as iron. I actually have several. Originally a shillelagh was a short cudgel about the length of a police baton. It was the traditional weapon of rural Ireland. In time it evolved into the blackthorn walking stick, which was socially more acceptable. Be that as it may, taking a hit from one of these is like getting hit with a piece of pipe.”

Christian watched as Pops hefted the stick and whipped it about as though striking at imaginary foes. Satisfied, Pops turned to the younger man and said, “Come. I’ll introduce you to some of the others who will be joining us today.”


Across the field, Mad Dog Clanton observed his enemies making their preparations. Near him stood a sallow youth of medium height and nondescript appearance. This was Mad Dog’s second son Joel, upon whom no one had bothered to bestow a nickname. Dull, timid, and sad, Joel had withered in the shadow of his adored older brother.

“Do you think we can whip ‘em, Pa?” Joel asked.

“Shet up!” Mad Dog growled, “To think that Sailor’s gone and you’re still here. Just do your part when it comes to avenging your brother.”

“I will, Pa,” Joel said meekly.

Mad Dog wasn’t listening. He was focused on the battle looming ahead. He had stripped to the waist, exposing chest and arms as hairy as those of a gorilla. In his eager hand he gripped his weapon of choice. This was a tomahawk cut in one piece from a sheet of steel, the handle wrapped in strips of leather. Mad Dog customarily carried it on his belt in place of the bowie knife usually worn in those parts. Now he practiced smiting blows with it.

“Today will be a day of reckoning!” he vowed, “I kill O’Rourke and that girl of his loses a man who was like a father to her. Or I kill her and O’Rourke loses a daughter. Either way one suffers a loss like the one I’ve suffered. But not for long. No, not for long. Before the day is done I’ll see both of ‘em dead!”


As the sun neared its zenith the battle lines began to form. Each faction fielded thirty combatants chosen from volunteers. Other allies of either faction retained their firearms and formed a loose perimeter about the field. Beyond the perimeter some of the frontier physicians had set up a triage unit using military field hospital equipment. Here the wounded would be received and treated.

Christian noticed Arthur standing in the O’Rourke lines, but Arthur did not seem to notice him. Arthur had a far-away look in his eyes, as though fixated on something no one else could see. He was prepared for the battle ahead. His clothing looked padded, the better to absorb the shock of blunt instruments. He wore a heavy leather jacket with metal strips attached to the left sleeve to afford him some protection against edged weapons. In his right hand he gripped a broad-bladed knife as big as a bowie, but double-edged like a dagger. The blade tapered to a diamond-sharp point. Christian had heard such a weapon referred to as an “Arkansas toothpick.”

The dog Pain remained behind with those who formed O’Rourke’s part of the perimeter. Cathy Gorman held the dog’s leash. The slim girl had no trouble keeping the beast in check even though the great hound outweighed her; she had doted on the animal since it was a puppy. Just before the battle commenced, Pops told her, “If anyone pulls a gun or does anything dirty…unleash Pain.”


At high noon the thing got underway. There was no pre-arranged signal; everyone just knew it was time. The lines advanced towards one another slowly at first, stalking grimly forward, then began to pick up speed as they closed distance. There was no yelling yet. The factions closed on one another in stony silence.

It was Arthur who drew first blood. He abruptly broke from the pack and ran to the nearest foeman as though rushing to a long-separated sweetheart. Arthur collided with the man, who rebounded roughly from him. As the man staggered off-balance, Arthur drove the deadly Arkansas toothpick home. The man groaned and pitched headlong. Before he had even struck the ground, Arthur was already lusting for a fresh kill. Demons drove him. He now sought to drown a lifetime of repressions in blood.

When the first man fell, the field erupted in a dreadful cacophony of screams and shrill battle cries that chilled the blood of those on the perimeter. The lines crashed together like waves and broke into small clumps of combatants.

Christian found himself in the midst of a swirling chaos, but did not lose his bearings. When a foe leapt to confront him, knife in hand, Christian struck first with the axe handle. A glancing blow to the head stunned the attacker. Christian followed through with a hard smash to the thigh that sent the man down, his nerves screaming in pain. He was relieved to have put the man down without doing him grievous harm. But any such relief was short-lived.

Another foe instantly sprang to the attack. Christian recognized him as Danny Martense from the Jericho meeting. Martense came right at him swinging what looked like a small aluminum bat. Christian raised the axe handle to block. Stung to fury, Martense struck at the axe handle again and again. Christian felt his arm growing numb under the repeated impact. An especially hard blow broke his grip. The axe handle flew spinning from his hand.

Fortunately Christian had spent too much time with Shadow to dumbly watch his weapon fly away. His eyes never left his opponent. Thus he was able to avoid the follow-up swing of the bat with a desperate backward leap. Hard-pressed, he was at a loss as to how to counter. Then he remembered the ninja chain.

With a practiced motion his hand flashed down and yanked free the manriki-gusari. As Martense chambered the bat for another swipe, Christian surprised him by suddenly rushing in and closing distance. Swinging the manriki-gusari up and about, Christian struck Martense a vicious blow across the face with both weighted ends of the chain. Martense was momentarily stunned, enabling Christian to grab the arm that held the bat with his free hand and hold it immobile.

With a flick of his wrist Christian wrapped the ninja chain about his hand and used it like brass knuckles as he punched Martense repeatedly in the face. A blow to the jaw previously fractured by Pops caused Martense to howl and drop the bat. With an audible sigh of relief, Christian kicked it away. A few more stout blows caused Martense to sag and drop to the ground. Christian kicked and stomped him to make sure he stayed there.

Christian stepped free of his fallen foe. Gripping one weighted end tightly in his palm, he let the ninja chain play out at full length as he spun it to generate centrifugal force. Then, with the manriki-gusari whirling in a deadly gyre, he waded back into the fray. Enemies on the receiving end of a head blow from the chain went down as though struck by a bullet, or were rendered easy pickings for Christian’s comrades. Christian was now part of the madness that swirled about him. When one of the Nixons went down yowling, Christian instantly stepped into take his place.

Christian and Arthur were both fighting on fringe areas of the battle. Pops O’Rourke was in the thick of it. He held a blackthorn stick in either hand, wielding them simultaneously in the Filipino style. Pops moved through the enemy host like a juggernaut, striking down foes like a reaper cutting grain. He was working his way inexorably towards Mad Dog Clanton.

Clanton awaited him. He stood to the rear with his son Joel. Mad Dog was hanging back deliberately. He knew O’Rourke was coming for him and was positioning himself as bait. He wanted to draw O’Rourke into his own lines where he’d be surrounded. However, surrounding O’Rourke proved to be no simple task. Shadow guarded his back with a flailing nunchaku.

Mad Dog Clanton saw that there would be no trapping O’Rourke. That was fine; he was loath to leave the work of dispatching his rival to minions in any event. Hefting his tomahawk, Clanton strode forth to meet his foe half-way. An O’Rourke ally who tried to bar his way went down with a split skull.

Pops battered his way through a final group of foemen to stand face-to-face with Mad Dog Clanton, who awaited him with dripping tomahawk. He threw back his head and roared, “Let the fighting cease! This is now between me and Clanton!”

The booming voice of Connor O’Rourke swept across the field like a thunderclap. Even the most frenzied combatants were arrested by its power. Struggle ended within moments. All eyes turned to the two giants in the center of the field.

“Single combat, Clanton,” came Pops’ challenge, “No more need shed their blood this day. All this can be settled between you and me.”

It was a challenge Clanton could not ignore even if he had wanted to. And he didn’t want to. He felt certain he could best O’Rourke in any form of single combat.

“I accept,” Clanton snarled.

“Let these be the weapons!” Pops declared. He brandished both blackthorn sticks aloft in one mighty fist. With his free hand he unbuckled the belt that held the big Alaskan bowie and let it drop to the ground.

Mad Dog Clanton cast his tomahawk aside. “Shillelaghs it is!”

Bataireacht, or Irish stick fighting, was the first martial art Pops had ever trained in. He had learned it from his father when only a lad. He knew that Clanton was versed in the art as well. He also knew that Clanton would be caught up in the drama of moment.

Pops tossed one of the blackthorn sticks to Clanton, who gripped it in eager hands. Oh, this will be epic, Mad Dog thought. They will tell of my vanquishing of O’Rourke for a hundred years!

Pops and Clanton squared off. The others stepped back to give them room to maneuver. Each man held his stick horizontally in front of him, gripping it with both hands spaced shoulder-width apart. Held in this manner the ends of the stick could be used as extensions of the fists to deliver sharp blows while infighting. Or one end of the stick could be released and snapped out to strike at greater range.

To the stunned spectators it seemed that less than the space of a heartbeat had elapsed from the time the fighters squared off before they erupted into violent action. There was no circling about to take each other’s measure. The fight was on in an instant.

Mad Dog Clanton launched himself at Pops, swinging and snapping his stick in a blinding blur. He came in fast and furious, hoping to smother his opponent and force him into a defensive posture from the outset. His aim was to overwhelm Pops’ superior technique. Mad Dog laughed maniacally as he came on, but there was method to his madness. That laughter was meant to rattle Pops and psych him out. Nor was Clanton by any means lacking in technical skill and discipline. Despite the fury of his attack, he was always in control.

Though not exactly caught off guard, Pops was forced to give ground before the suddenness of Clanton’s assault. He backed up a few steps. Emboldened, Clanton sought to press his advantage and redoubled his exertions.

Pops wielded his own stick to fend off Clanton’s swings and thrusts with icy precision. Clanton was unable to penetrate his defenses. And when Clanton left an opening, Pops instantly went on the offensive to exploit it. Clanton dared not let himself grow reckless.

Clanton realized that he had lost the initiative. Now he and Pops were fighting on more or less equal footing. The sticks flashed out and back, cracking against one another. They were driven by sinewy arms that never seemed to tire or falter. Thrust, parry, riposte; so it went for many long minutes. Those closest to the battle noticed a slight scent of burnt wood hanging in the air. It was from the friction caused by the rapid, repeated contact of the two blackthorn sticks.

There was no laughter now as Clanton strove against O’Rourke in deadly earnest. Each sought some way to break the stalemate. Pops tried lulling his opponent into a pattern, but Clanton proved too wary. Clanton offered what appeared to be a convenient opening in order to tempt O’Rourke into a trap. However Pops refused to take the bait.

Clanton felt his energy begin to flag, but could detect no loss of precision in O’Rourke’s technique. He sensed victory slipping from him. Desperate, he threw caution to the wind and staked everything on a bold gambit. God help him if it backfired.

Clanton feinted a low blow, as though striking at his opponent’s thigh, then abruptly went high with it. O’Rourke caught the move and raised his weapon in time to check Clanton’s stick as it came humming at his head. He got his guard up a split-second too late to deflect the stick cleanly away, however. Instead Clanton’s stick merely slid past O’Rourke’s. Owing as much to luck as skill, Clanton managed to angle his stick towards his rival’s face. The point of the stick struck O’Rourke’s chin with enough concentrated force to dislocate the jaw of a lesser man.

O’Rourke reeled back, momentarily stunned. It was all the break his enemy needed. An instant later a white flash exploded inside Pop’s skull as the knobby end of Mad Dog Clanton’s shillelagh crashed sickeningly into his temple.

Dazed and semi-conscious, Pops struggled to remain on his feet. He saw the ground rushing up at him and dropped to his knees to avoid crashing headlong to the earth. He raised his stick to ward off further blows, but a brutal hand-smash caused the weapon to slip from his fingers.

Mad Dog Clanton now began to rain heavy blows about O’Rourke’s unprotected head, back and shoulders. He struck gleefully as though attempting to pound his enemy into the ground like a tent peg.

Pops saw the world spinning and growing black. He knew he was about to go under.

“Too old,” he muttered, “Too old…”

With those words Pops slumped to the ground in defeat. Darkness overcame him.

Mad Dog Clanton howled in savage glee. With both hands he raised his shillelagh on high like some angry god’s war club. He stood poised to bring it down on his fallen enemy’s skull with bone-crunching impact.

He was but a second from delivering his coup de grace when Shadow flung herself across Pops’ prostrate form. Clanton stayed his hand due to stunned amazement rather than any impulse to mercy. He stood bewildered as Shadow dropped her nunchaku and looked up at him. She raised her open hands in a wordless plea for a time-out. Curious, Clanton lowered his stick. He glared down at the pale upturned oval of her face, but said nothing. It was her move.

Around them, the ring of spectators awaited the next development in the same tense silence they had borne witness to the battle between Clanton and O’Rourke. The crowd seemed to hold its breath.

With slow deliberate movements, Shadow picked up the blackthorn stick Pops had dropped. Just as slowly she rose and backed away from Pops’ fallen form. As she did so she looked Clanton in the eye, holding his gaze, and issued a challenge.

“Finish the single combat with me!” she said boldly, “I’m the one you want. I killed Sailor. I killed him, then I cut his balls off!” Her bearing was deliberately haughty. She was going all out to provoke him.

Mad Dog Clanton snarled as though livid with venomous rage. But in his black heart there surged a savage joy. His most blasphemous prayers were being answered.

Already he had decisively beaten Connor O’Rourke in single combat, for all to see. Now he would kill his girl and avenge Sailor. She would lie dead at his feet and O’Rourke would be a broken man.

Clanton brandished his stick in a menacing fashion, swiping at empty air to put the scare into his new opponent. Then he began advancing on the girl.

Shadow backed away, but not in fear. She was ready for the fight and just needed more room to maneuver. Shadow had only a little training in Irish stick fighting, but was thoroughly versed in the Filipino stick fighting art of kali. She knew she was physically outmatched by the hairy giant who now stalked bellowing towards her. Her plan involved delivering a hand-smash to Clanton’s weapon hand, using a snake disarm to pluck the weapon from his loosened grip, then wielding both sticks to batter him down as she had done to that guy in Wheeling.

Mad Dog Clanton did not know what skill the girl possessed, and did not much care. He was confident that his greater size and strength would easily vanquish her. He aimed to smite her down with one blow, just like swatting a fly.

Clanton swung his stick up and over in a great swooping arc with the intention of bringing the knobby end right down on the girl’s head. Shadow instinctively raised her own stick in a roof block to defect it. The impact of his stick on hers nearly broke her grip and tore her weapon from her grasp. Clanton’s stick barely glanced off hers and went whistling past her head, missing it by inches.

Shadow had nearly lost the fight right then and there. Even so, Clanton’s reckless move provided her with an opening that she was quick to exploit. Swinging her stick out and back, she delivered a swift solid blow to Clanton’s unprotected side. Clanton winced as the hard stick impacted against his ribs.

Now it was his turn to back up. Not even Mad Dog Clanton could take too many clouts like that. Adjusting his strategy, he now strove to match his opponent’s technique while bringing his superior strength to bear.

Clanton went right back on the offensive with a speed belying his massive bulk. Shadow found herself hard-pressed to counter his moves. He came in and out so fast that there was no opportunity to strike his hand and secure his weapon. Clanton knew he held the advantage. He taunted his smaller foe.

“Ha ha, girly! O’Rourke himself could not stand before me. What chance have you?”

Shadow was all too aware of her imminent peril. She could not withstand Mad Dog Clanton’s power and ferocity for long. She had to find some way to take him down, and fast.

In the back of her mind there flashed the old maxim, “The bigger they are the harder they fall.” That was the plain truth of the matter. One could not afford to play games with a bigger, stronger enemy. Physically outmatched in a life-or-death struggle, one had few options. The most viable was to attack the enemy’s most vulnerable spots --eyes, throat, groin, knees. As Pops had once told her, “It doesn’t matter what kind of badass some joker is if he can’t walk, see or breathe.”

Shadow got her chance when Clanton took a swing at her head. Instead of blocking with her stick she ducked under it. As she did so she lashed out with a side thrust kick aimed at Clanton’s knee. The unexpected move worked. The kick connected right on target. There was a sickening crack of splintering bone as Clanton’s knee bent opposite the way it was designed. Clanton toppled like a dead tree blasted by lightning.

Clanton hit the ground with a heavy thud. There he writhed helplessly on his back and howled in pain. Shadow strode over to him and raised her blackthorn stick. She stood poised to bring it down in the center of Clanton’s face.

Before she could do so, Clanton raised his hand. “Quarter!” he cried.

Shadow looked down at her fallen foe. She had dealt him a terrible injury. A break like that could never fully heal. Clanton was going to be permanently disabled. He would never fight again.

“All this ends now,” Shadow said sternly.

But before Clanton could respond, the harsh voice of another grated in her ears.

“You witch!”

Shadow whirled to confront what could only be a new source of danger. She found herself looking down the barrel of a revolver held by Joel Clanton, Mad Dog’s forgotten son. The spindly youth’s body trembled with rage and tension, but his gun hand held steady. There were tears in his eyes as he said, “You killed my brother. You crippled my father. Now you’re going to hell.”

Shadow saw his finger tighten on the trigger, saw the chamber of the revolver begin to turn, saw her death upon her. But then, as the hammer fell and the gun boomed, there was a blur of motion as another hurled himself into the space between Joel and Shadow. It was Arthur. Shadow could only watch in sick horror as Arthur fell, stuck by the bullet meant for her.

Joel had no chance to try a second shot. Before the echo of the first one died, a huge dark canine shape came hurtling through the air and struck him like a cannonball. Joel was bowled over and borne to the ground by a great black hound. He dropped the gun, freeing his hands to fend off the slavering jaws that came a mere instant from tearing out his throat. Following Pops’ instructions, Cathy Gorman had unleashed Pain.

Shadow ran to Arthur and knelt beside him. Joel strove with all his desperate strength to keep the dog from his throat. And at the sound of the gunshot, Pops had begun to stir. He shook his head, lion-like, and began to rise. Onlookers could only marvel at his toughness and resilience. Pops straightened and stood erect. He was a little wobbly, but his fierce blue eyes were clear. He took in the situation at a glance.

Pops had barely gained his feet when he heard someone calling out to him. It was Mad Dog Clanton, writhing on the ground and clutching his ruined leg. “O’Rourke… O’Rourke,” he croaked, “Call off your dog. Please, O’Rourke! Spare my boy!”

Pops glowered down at him, his face grim. “It looks like your boy shot down a good man.”

“To both our everlasting shame!” Mad Dog wailed passionately, tears flowing from his eyes, “But he’s all I have left! Spare him.”

Joel was now shrieking as though he were being chased by devils. The dog’s fangs had already mangled one of his arms.

Mad Dog continued his impassioned entreaty, “I beg of you, O’Rourke. I’m going to be a cripple. I can trouble ye no more. For the loss of your man I forgo vengeance for Sailor. It’s over. I swear it on my dead wife’s grave.”

Pops took a somber moment to reflect, then said, “Pain. Heel.”

Instantly, as though a switch had been thrown, the great hound broke off its attack and glided over to its master.

Shadow looked up from where she knelt cradling Arthur’s head in her lap. Her face was an expressionless white mask. “Pops…” she hissed.

O’Rourke shook his head sadly. “This must end somewhere.”

Joel rose unsteadily and staggered over to his father. One arm hung uselessly at his side dripping blood. He raised his father into a sitting position. With no little difficulty, Joel gradually managed to help his father to stand. Mad Dog placed one arm about his son’s shoulder for support. With his other hand he gripped the blackthorn stick he had so recently fought with. Now he used it as a cane.

Together Mad Dog and Joel made their slow painful way off the field. They headed towards the triage center where other participants in the day’s big fight had already gone for treatment.

“Lean on me, Pa,” Joel said, “I’ll take care of you. We’ll be okay.”

Watching them go, Pops mused, “This could be the best thing for both of them.”

Shadow paid them no heed. All of her attention was on Arthur. She cradled his head in her lap and stroked his hair. Shadow had seen enough gunshot wounds to know he was done for and sinking fast.

Arthur looked up at Shadow and spoke softly. “I don’t regret a thing,” he told her, “Couldn’t stand to lose you. Shadow, you are… I found a world where someone like you can be…” With an effort, he focused his thoughts. “This is where I truly lived, finally. Glad to die here. Become a part of it.”

His eyes closed but his lips continued to move, whispering now. Shadow realized he wasn’t talking to her anymore. He had gone somewhere else.

“Sabrina. Oh Sabrina. You’re a good woman. Don’t listen to those assholes. You help people. They don’t…”

And then he died.

[Next: "Homecoming" --the conclusion!]