The Ballad of Zarahelma Two Crows is a weird west novel I began writing in episodic form in 2014. Soon after writing the first three chapters life got busy and the project was put on hiatus, eventually to be forgotten.

On February 25th 2020 I decided to finish writing it.

I plan on having it ready for Beta Readers by early 2021.

Prologue

Rain was falling like the wrath of God, beating the wide dirt street into a slag of mud and horseshit. A mountainous lawman slouched against a post under the shelter of the veranda and gazed through the sheets of rain into the darkness. He dipped his frybread into a tin pan of old woman Bitsinnie’s mutton stew.

“You think they’ll be coming down the road,” Mr. Henry asked the bear of a man beside him, clutching his Winchester repeater tight to his chest.

“Nope.”

“Then whatcha watching for?”

The lawman chewed on a grease-soaked chunk of bread. Licking his fingers he creased his eyes like paper cuts and gazed harder. “Ain’t watching nothin’. I’m thinking, Mr. Henry.”

Mr. Henry could see his wife Esther and their little ones peering at the two men through the window. He shooed them away. Looking back up at the lawman he asked, “Thinking what?”

“Thinking, Mr. Henry, that Mrs. Bitsinnie makes just about the finest mutton stew I ever tasted.” He handed Mr. Henry the tin pan, sopped clean by the frybread, and smoothed his grizzled black beard. “I was also thinking,” he added, “that if I was going to raid a two-bit town in the arse-end of nowhere, this is the kind of weather I’d do it in.”

“When do you think they’ll come?”

“Right soon,” he replied. “I can smell ’em.”

Dropping the plate, Mr. Henry clutched his rifle tighter. The scent of waterlogged earth, manure, and sagebrush was heavy in the wet air. “I don’t smell nothing out of the ordinary,” he said.

“You didn’t share a teat with a litter of Jackalopes, neither.”

He had a point. Folks always figured the lawman a might bit odd, but Mr. Henry reckoned any man orphaned as a babe and suckled by fearsome critters is gonna have peculiar habits.

The lawman drew his custom-built revolver and inspected the action. The massive pistol was chambered for the elephant-stopping .577 Snider rifle cartridge. In any other man’s hands it would’ve looked ridiculously huge.

“When they come, don’t get all nervous-like and start shooting at shadows.” He looked down at Mr. Henry. “You hear?”

“Yessir,” the frightened man stuttered.

“Mighty noble of you to stand and fight for your hearth and home, Mr. Henry.” He dropped the huge nickel-plated revolver back in its holster and checked its matching twin. “But I don’t expect you to. These ain’t regular hooligans we’re dealing with, and ain’t no one would think you less of a man to sit this one out.”

“Ain’t no Injun gonna drive me off my land,” Mr. Henry said, trying to find his resolve. He caught the lawman’s raised eyebrow and quickly added, “No offense, sir.”

The lawman shrugged. “None taken,” he said, looking up and down the street and pursing his lips. Catching a whiff of something on the wind, he snapped his head up and around, scanning the underside of the porch roof. He pulled a bandanna over his mouth and nose, and motioned Mr. Henry to do likewise.

Fast as a rattlesnake, he drew both of his hand cannons, cocking each as he trained them above him.

“Stop skulking around up there, £eechaa’itsa’ii biyaazh, and come out where I can see you,” he ordered. A high-pitched, chittering laugh replied. Mr. Henry never heard the like, and ice water flowed through his veins.

The lawman fired both guns into the porch roof. Mr. Henry’s ears rang from the deafening blast, and the laughter above the two men twisted into a tortured shriek, followed by profane cursing. A dark, writhing shape tumbled off the roof and into the river of mud at their feet.

Without ceremony, the lawman fired another volley into the hairy, doglike beast. Shuddering, it transformed before their eyes into the body of a young man, naked as a jaybird and painted white from head to toe.

Another figure pounced from above, quiet and lithe as a polecat, transforming into a tall woman as it landed in front of them. She stood defiant, staring them down. Long black hair woven with raven feathers cascaded over her narrow shoulders, floating around her in defiance to the wind and rain, as if she were underwater. Besides the white paint and feathers, she wore nothing she wasn’t born with. Try as he might to look away, Mr. Henry found himself transfixed.

Her charms had no effect on the lawman.

“Yá’át’ééh, Tʼóó Bílaʼ Dijool,” she cooed with a voice like melting rum butter.

The lawman stood motionless. Mr. Henry attempted to speak, but found his throat too dry to manage anything more than a weak rasp.

“Why’d you go and shoot my brother?” she asked with a full-lipped pout that made Mr. Henry’s heart race. “That wasn’t very nice.”

“T’áadoo baa shíni’,” the lawman spat.

She shrugged and stepped over the body. “It’s been a long time, shínaaí. Come to take me away again?”

The lawman grunted in reply. “This time I’ll see you meet the hangman.”

“Oh, I don’t think so,” she purred, and stepped closer.

“No games, Nakai.” He brought up both his guns.

Across the street four men perched in a line along the rafters. Long black hair obscured their faces, and their painted bodies glowed like foxfire through the driving rain.

Nakai retreated a pace. Locking her eyes with Mr. Henry’s, she brought a hand to her lips. The lawman shouted something, but his warning was miles away. All Mr. Henry could hear was her honey voice in his mind, promising pleasures no man had the courage to imagine. Time slowed and he pulled the bandanna off his face and moved to her. She smiled, and blew a kiss. A cloud of white dust billowed from her lips toward him.

Next thing Mr. Henry knew, the lawman had him snatched up like a rag-doll and was running them both down the length of the veranda. He was shooting that god-awful loud gun of his and screaming at Mr. Henry to wake the hell up.

He smashed through the front door and deposited Mr. Henry roughly on a pile of potato sacks.

From where he lay, Mr. Henry watched the four men on the rooftops as they danced and hopped in the rain. Their wet hair lashed in the windstorm like serpents. As one body they leapt, shifting into giant coyotes as they flew to the ground. They raced across the muddy street toward the house, yapping and howling.

The lawman crouched below the window and reloaded his revolvers. He tossed a heavy empty cartridge at Mr. Henry, hitting him in the forehead.

“Ow!” Mr. Henry winced. “Whatcha gone do that for?”

The lawman grinned through his beard. “Just making sure you was back with us, Mr. Henry.”

The devilish sound of the coyotes’ barking surrounded the house. Mr. Henry lifted himself up, surprised to find that he was still clutching his rifle.

“Esther!” Mr. Henry called to the room in the back. “You and the young’uns okay?”

Her voice trembled as she replied, “We’re fine, but there’s a woman outside, Tom, beggin’ me to let her in. She sounds so scared!”

“Don’t let her fool you, ma’am,” the lawman shouted. “She’s worse than the lot of ’em put together.” He looked over to Mr. Henry and said, “They can’t come in ‘less they’re invited, but they’re damned wily and they’ll try to draw you out. I’m going after these four—you need to protect your family. Think you can keep your head straight this time?”

Mr. Henry hesitated a moment, uncertain, and said that he’d do his best.

“The trick with the yee naldlooshi,” he said, “is don’t look ’em in the eye.”

“Weren’t that skinwalker’s eyes I was lookin’ at,” Mr. Henry muttered.

The lawman chuckled in that deep, gravelly way of his and scooted over to the shattered doorway. Sometimes it was hard to tell if the man was laughing or coughing up briers.

Mr. Henry left the lawman scanning the street as fleeting shadows darted and yelped in the rain. With tortured howls they taunted Mr. Henry to come out after them, but the thunder of the lawman’s guns drowned out the jeers.

Driving rain was lashing through the back room from an open window. Mr Henry’s two oldest children sat on the floor, clutching each other. It only took him a heartbeat to realize his wife and their baby were missing.

“Where’s Mama?” Panic clutched at his heart as it fell like a lodestone into his boots. “Where’s Mama and the little one?”

“Mama—Mama just handed Jonah to that Injun woman—just handed him to her right through the window,” his tiny Sarah-Anne stammered. “Then she followed right after her. We—we tried to stop her but she wouldn’t stop, Daddy. She wouldn’t stop!”

Mr. Henry hopped through the window and ran out into the darkness screaming Esther’s name.

She was walking through the field, ankle-deep in the sucking red mud. Dropping his rifle, he grabbed her by the shoulders and shook her. “Where’s Jonah?” Mr. Henry screamed through the wind and rain. She looked at him with dead eyes and tried to speak, but the wind snatched the words out of her mouth.

Lightning struck an old sycamore, flooding the field with the brilliance of a hundred noonday suns. In the flash they saw the woman, the skinwalker Nakai, making for the raging arroyo with their Jonah clutched against her bosom. As she ran her hair flowed out behind her, feathering into great black wings. She turned to Mr. Henry, and in that instant her face flashed between that of a beautiful woman and a giant crow.

Cruel laughter filled his mind as the world plunged back into darkness. She took flight, their son clutched in her mighty talons.

Mr. Henry fell to his knees and scrabbled for his rifle, but a rough hand pulled him out of the muck.

“She’s long gone,” the lawman stared down at Mr. Henry from atop his horse. “You best see to your wife and other youngsters.”

“We can’t just let her run off with my son,” Mr. Henry shrieked. “We have to go after her!”

“Ain’t no ‘we’ in this here equation, Mr. Henry,” the lawman shouted back over the squall. “But I’ll find your son. And I’ll bring him back to you. Or my name ain’t Zarahemla Two Crows.”


To be continued…


Artwork by Brina Williamson. Follow her on Twitter @BrinaWilliamson.

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