An estimated 400,000 motorcyclists descended on Washington, D.C., today. They were part of Rolling Thunder, an annual gathering in the nation’s capital to honor the nation’s war dead. And as promised, here during Memorial Day I’m providing free fiction in the form of a Mordecai Slate short story called, “Samurai Blade.” Slate has been featured in seven short stories to date, and a novel that will soon be published. So here now, without further ado, is the second of three parts of “Samurai Blade.”
John M. Whalen
It was near dusk when Nate Courtland looked up from his card game and saw the stranger walk into the Blue Canary. The stranger was a little over 6 feet tall, lean but broad shouldered, and wore a moustache on his upper lip. His eyes were deep set and he had a hawkish nose. He was dressed in black denim pants and grey shirt with a black denim jacket over it. A six gun in a black, silver-studded holster was strapped on his right leg. Courtland watched the man walk up to the bar and stare up at the sword hanging over the mirror. Jake, the bartender, asked him what he’d have.
“I’d like to have a look at that sword,” the man said.
“I meant, what will you have to drink?” the barkeep said.
“Whiskey,” the man said. “But first the sword.”
Jake looked over at Courtland. The saloon keeper folded his hand and stood up. “I’m out, boys,” he said and walked over to the bar. “Show it to him,” he told the bartender. The stranger turned and looked at him with piercing dark grey eyes.
“I’m Nate Courtland,” he said.
“The name’s Slate,” the man said without offering his hand. The bartender pulled the sword down off the wall and handed it to the stranger. Slate pulled the blade free of its scabbard.
“Mighty handsome sword, isn’t it,” Courtland said.
“It’s a nodachi,” Slate said, turning the blade over so the light shone on it. “Samurai who serve as body guards use them. The long handle is made for a two-handed grip. The samurai wear them on their backs. The long length makes it easier for them to reach back for it.” He pointed with a finger. “See that long swerving line down the center of the blade? It’s called the hamon. It’s the result of the way the sword was forged. The sword maker’s signature.”
“I’m impressed,” Courtland said. “How do you know so much about it? You a collector?”
“No,” Slate said. “But I’ve known men who are.” His dark eyes shot him a sharp glance. “And I’ve known men who know how to use them. They’re a dying breed. How’d you get it?”
“Off a Samurai.”
“A samurai in Dodge?”
“Believe it or not,” Courtland said. “He came through on the train. He stopped here for a few days about a month ago. On his way toCalifornia, he said. I won it from him.”
“You won it?”
“A straight flush beats a full house every time.”
Slate gripped the handle with both hands and stood silent for a moment, a half smile playing on his lips. The smile disappeared suddenly and his body stiffened and he turned his head as if he were hearing something. His eyes shifted, as though something had moved in his line of vision. Then he picked up the scabbard and slid the long blade back into it.
“That’s an interesting story,” he said. He handed the nodachi back to the barkeep and picked up his whiskey. He tossed the drink down and put the glass on the bar. He put six bits down. “Keep the change,” he told the bartender. “After he lost the sword to you,” he said to Courtland, “then what happened?”
“Nothing,” Courtland said. “He got on the next train and went west. Why you asking?”
Slate’s gaze hardened. “A samurai who lost his sword that way, would have to commit seppuku. Ritual suicide. Better known as hara kiri.”
Courtland frowned. “Really? Maybe he didn’t know the rules.”
“In fact, I’d say the only way you could have gotten that sword would have been to kill him.”
Courtland scratched the side of his jaw with his manicured fingernails. “Is that right?” He leaned on the bar and waved his hand in a circle. The four men he’d been playing poker with got up from the table and started over toward them. They formed a half circle around Slate and Courtland and stood watching them. One of them a tall, thin man with bad skin and cold blue eyes stood nearest Slate, his arms folded over his chest. He wore two guns and there was a sneering smile on his lips.
“Why all the questions, stranger?” Courtland said. “What’s your interest?”
“Just curious,” Slate answered. “I’m even more curious about what happened here about a month back. The soldier boy you shot. The one who came after you with that sword.”
Courtland pursed his lips and tapped his fingers on the bar top. “That woman send you here?” he asked. “The boy’s mother? I told her what happened. The deputy sheriff told her. She’s a stubborn one. She hire you to stir up trouble?”
Slate turned slightly to face him, his eyes narrowed. “Got any idea why that boy came after you, Courtland?” he asked.
“Just went plum whiskey loco, I guess.”
Courtland watched Slate’s eyes, as they moved over each of the four men surrounding them. The stranger was cold as ice.
“Who knows?” Slate said.
Courtland pointed a finger at him. “I’ll tell you this one time,” Courtland said. “I run a legitimate business here. I didn’t want to shoot that soldier, but I didn’t have any choice. That’s what I told the boy’s mother, and that’s the truth. Now if you want to make something more out of it, that’s your business. But right now, I’d appreciate it if you’d get out of here.”
Slate looked past Courtland and the other men. His eyes swept over the room and lingered a moment on the corner by the piano.
“You may be right,” Slate said. “I don’t think you did have any choice. And that’s a damn shame.”
“What do you mean by that?” Courtland said,
“Just an idea I have,” Slate said.
Courtland nodded and the blue-eyed man unfolded his arms and stepped closer to Slate. He let his hands hover over the pistols. “Mr. Courtland told you to get out of here, mister,” he said. “Are you going to go?”
Slate took a step closer to him. “You know, son,” he said, “if you’re gonna face a man down you shouldn’t stand so close. I bet I could draw and pistol whip you before you even clear leather. Want to try?”
“Easy, Chaw,” Courtland said. “We don’t want any trouble.”
Chaw’s face was red. “Nobody talks to me that way,” he said. His eyes shot from Courtland back to Slate. His hand went for his revolver. Slate’s gun came out in a blur and Chaw fell to the floor, his hand over his suddenly shattered nose.
Slate kept the gun on the others. “I’ll be going, Courtland,” he said. “But I’ll be back.”
He backed away, his eyes moving over the gunmen facing him.
“I wouldn’t advise it,” the saloon keeper said. “My men will have orders to shoot you on sight.”
Slate pulled his Buckskin up at the top of a hill. He’d ridden most of the night but it would still be an hour or two before daylight. He reached down and patted the horse’s dark mane, and looked down at the Kiowa wikkiups scattered along the banks of theArkansas River. He’d come here for help. He’d felt something in the Blue Canary, when he held the sword, felt it trying to get at him— half seen it almost. He didn’t know what it was, but Mrs. Wilkins was right. There was something evil in Dodge and in that place. Black Star might know what it was.
He raised his hands to his mouth and made the sound of an owl three times. Three owl cries came in response from a rock that sat on a higher hill and a Kiowa brave appeared at the top of it, a drawn bow and arrow in his hands. Two braves appeared from out of nowhere on either side of Slate’s horse. Slate reached into one of the pockets in his jacket and pulled out a flattened piece of silver about five inches long. The moonlight, glinting on its surface as he held it out and showed it to the Kiowa braves, revealed an eagle, its wings spread wide, hand-engraved on the surface of the talisman. The braves nodded their heads and shouted excitedly. One of the Kiowa grabbed the bridle of Slate’s horse and they led him down to the village.
A leather thong was looped through a hole at one end of the talisman, and Slate took off his hat and slipped the loop around his neck. The village was asleep, smoke rising from the tops of some of the teepees. Slate saw dead pheasants and duck hanging in front of several of the wigwams— game from the day before drying in the air. Further back he saw the pen where they kept their ponies. A brave, only half awake, stepped out of his teepee to watch as they passed by. They led Slate to the largest wikkiup in the village and stopped before it. Slate dismounted.
A tall, broad shouldered Kiowa stepped out. He wore buckskin pants and moccasins and no shirt. His deep-set eyes peered at the man who had come to his village at so late an hour. A deep furrow creased his forehead as he glared at the visitor. Then his eyes fell on the amulet and he smiled.
“Mord-ecai,” he said. “My friend. It is good to see you. But you come late. My braves, they might have mistaken you for a deer or even a wolf. Your scalp might have ended up on my lodge pole.”
“I could think of worse places for it to hang, Yellow Moon,” Slate said. “Besides, I figured thissilver eagle you gave me would give me safe passage.”
“You are welcome, Mord-ecai. The man who carries the spinning rifle and the silver bullets. Have you brought your rifle, Mord-ecai? I would like to see it again.”
Slate reached up and slid the carbine out of its saddle holster. It was a Colt Model 1855. A rifle with a cylinder that revolved like a pistol.
“Tell me again the story of the rifle,” Yellow Moon said.
“The Army made ‘em during the War,” Slate said. “But they weren’t much good. The percussion caps they fired leaked powder and after they kept blowing up in their hands, they gave up on them. I bought a few of them and modified the cylinder to fit .45 shells.”
“Silver shells with the bad smell.”
“That’s right, Yellow Moon. A very bad smell. Dipped in garlic. Bad for the things in the night.”
“We shoot now,” Yellow Moon said.
They walked back out of the village the way Slate had come in and climbed back up the hill he had looked down from.
“Go ahead,” Slate said.
Yellow Moon raised the rifle up to his shoulder and aimed it as the moon. Six shots shattered the silence of the night, and Yellow Moon laughed as he watched the cylinder turn with each shot. When the cylinder was empty, he turned to Slate. “More.”
Slate pulled another cylinder out of his jacket pocket and the chief exchanged it for the empty one. Again he squeezed the trigger and laughed loud as the silver bullets flew out into the darkness. Back in the village women screamed and men hollered and came out of their wigwams, but when they saw their chief at the top of the hill, they shook their heads and went back inside. Yellow Moon handed the rifle back to Slate.
“Thank you, Demon Hunter,” he said. “I must have one rifle like this.”
“I’ll send you one. Just don’t tell the Bureau of Indian Affairs.”
“Tell me, what monster do you seek my help to kill this night?”
“It’s not your help I seek, this time,” Slate said. “I must speak to Black Star.”
The chief’s face turned somber. “The medicine man is very old now,” he said. “He will not live many more winters. But his medicine is still powerful. Let us go see him.”
A few minutes later Slate and Yellow Moon squatted in the Medicine Man’s lodge. The interior was hung with the petrified bodies of birds and small animals. Skulls lay in a stack at the rear of the lodge. Black Star, a wizened old man with deeply wrinkled dark skin and large dark eyes stared at Slate across the fire between them. His wife, White Flower, nearly as old as he, hunched down behind Black Star.
“You hunt something, Demon Hunter,” the medicine man said. “Something not of this world. What is it?”
“I’m not sure,” Slate said. “I saw only a shadow. I felt it. It moves quickly and it is very angry. I saw it back in Dodge when I touched a long blade. It has killed one man and is responsible for the death of another.”
The old man nodded, then his hand moved and dipped into a small clay pot on the ground next to his leg. His fingers flicked some kind of dust into the fire. A cloud of white smoke rose up. A small dark shape formed within the cloud and hovered in the air. Slate knew it was a miniature version of what he had sensed only vaguely in the Blue Canary. It was a man dressed in a dark robe. His face was obscured in shadow but he held a long sword and his arms moved rapidly. The sword made vicious slashes through the air. The figure turned in angry circles, the blade swinging wildly about. The shadow faded and floated up into the darkness above the fire and disappeared.
“It wishes only to kill,” Black Star said. “It will be difficult to destroy, because it is already dead. It is filled with hate and rage. It is insane. But that is only because no one can understand what it desires.”
“What does it desire?”
The shaman looked up from the fire and gazed into Slate’s eyes. “To leave this world with honor.” He turned to his wife and grunted a few words in Kiowa. White Flower picked up a gourd lying next to her and poured a clear liquid into a clay cup. She handed it to Black Star.
“Drink this, demon hunter,” the medicine man. “With this you will be able to see him more clearly.”
Slate took the cup. The liquid had a pungent odor and tasted bitter when he swallowed it. Black Star mumbled again to his wife, and White Flower reached for a small leather pouch that lay on the ground along with several others, close to where the skulls were piled. She handed the pouch to Black Star.
“Take this,” he said, handing Slate the pouch. “With this you have a chance.”
Yellow Moon suddenly brandished Slate’s rifle. “Mord-ecai will kill it,” he said. “With the spinning rifle.”
“No,” Black Star said. “The spinning rifle will be of no use. You must find another way to send this spirit home, or the spirit will haunt you forever.”
Copyright 2011 by John M. Whalen
End of Part Two