Interlude In Gehenna

Reading Time: 18 minutes

I never had anything against Indians. They did a lot of damage to white folk, but nothing most of us wouldn’t have done if we were in their place. I always figured they were just like the rest of us, trying to carve out enough space to survive in. I killed my share of them, but, unlike some of the men in my regiment, I never went out of my way to inflict more harm than the situation called for. I was never a trophy hunter. Maybe that has something to do with why I’m still here to write this all down.

The day Joe Johnston handed his army over to Sherman, putting an end to the Confederacy and the need for men like me to spend my days killing rebels; I resigned my commission and headed back out to Arizona Territory. I’d spent three bloody years in the East and I was eager to get back to the open plains where a man could stretch out his limbs without the fear of hitting another man in the face, and where men lived and died under the watchful gaze of the sun rather than in some dank hollow, mired in the handiwork of pestilence. I had heard the sheriff of a town called Gehenna, just a few miles out from Prescott, needed a deputy, and, having some experience in that line, I had decided to offer my services.

(Illustration by Marie Ginga from an iImage by Ega Maulana from Pixabay)

After riding for several days without seeing another human or any sign of the chaos they refer to as “civilization,” I saw a vast herd of cattle grazing on the tall grass surrounding the town. Little more than a camp now, I’d been told the town was destined to be a trading post where ranchers could stock up, or escape from the loneliness of life on the plains, though I suspected few could presently afford to abandon their labors or waste their gold on frivolities. Still, that was the plan, and the barrooms were stocked with gin to be served by women willing to sell considerably more than alcohol.

On the outskirts of the town there was a large tent. An old Indian sat cross-legged on a blanket by the opening, puffing on a clay pipe. On the side of the tent a woman squatted, holding up the hem of her dress while a dog sniffed at the puddle she was making. By the time I reached the tent the woman, who had seen me riding up, was inside, collecting blankets to hang over the rope stretched between two posts. The man did not rise, but seemed to be directing her with a series of nods and grunts.

“We have warm blankets,” proclaimed the woman, stretching out her hands toward the blankets draped over the line. I had to admit they did look more inviting than the coarse lice ridden carpets the government had inflicted upon its soldiers, but I shook my head to indicate I wasn’t interested.

“Maybe you are thirsty,” she said, taking a jug from the old man and handing it up to me. A rag was stuffed in the mouth in place of a cork. I sniffed at it without removing the rag and felt the hair in my nostrils burn.

“I’m looking for Sheriff Harris,” I told her as I handed the jug back, rag still in place. “Know where I can find him?” At the mention of Harris’ name the woman scowled, spit on the ground, and made a hasty retreat into the tent.

“Look for him in the saloon,” said the old man, looking up from his pipe for the first time since I rode up. His black eyes, only slightly dimmed by his advanced years, bore into me, picking me apart to be digested.

“Do not involve yourself with this man, warrior,” the old man said, the lines in his forehead and around his mouth deepening into furrows, his eyes reflecting the sadness of one who knows his advice will not be heeded. I opened my mouth to inquire into his meaning, but my words died in my throat. He had already dropped his chin to his chest, his broad brimmed hat shielding him from interrogation. The smoke from his pipe wafted up from under the brim, causing my horse to pull back as he sniffed it. The animal attempted to take me back over the plains I had just traversed, but I yanked on the reigns and managed to right his course. After a few hesitant steps, I had him heading toward the distant town at a slow gallop and had no more trouble with him.

The town consisted of two rows of clapboard buildings separated by a rutted path just wide enough to admit the passage of two wagons traveling side by side. Though faces appeared at the windows, peering furtively through the dirty panes as I passed, I saw but one man on the street. As he approached on his mount, a stench accompanied him, and, seeking the source, I saw a dead mule at the end of the rope trailing behind him. His old mare struggled with its burden as the man slapped at the beast’s shank to little effect. As I came up alongside him I hailed him and inquired about the sheriff.

“Check the saloon,” he muttered without removing the bandana that covered his nose and mouth. His eyes narrowed in something akin to disgust, but I couldn’t tell if this had been inspired by my inquiry or the rancid odor that would have no doubt compelled me to retch had I not been accustomed to the effluvium of the battlefield. Redoubling his efforts to impel his horse forward, he continued on, leaving me to find the saloon on my own. I steered my horse to the side to avoid the mule, and waited for the cloud of flies to thin out.

The bartender was a big man who didn’t seem all too happy to have his nap interrupted. Leaning back in a rocking  chair at the end of the bar with his feet up on a stool, he opened his eyes just enough to get a glimpse of me from over his rather prominent nose, and asked me what I wanted. When I told him I was looking for the sheriff, he lifted an arm to point over my left shoulder. The effort seemed to exhaust him. He was already sawing wood by the time his arm dropped back down.

I turned to see the only other man in the barroom, slumped over a table in the far corner with his hand around an empty glass. The bottle next to it was also empty. I walked over and cleared my throat, but the man did not stir. I reached down and rapped on the edge of the table, but this too was ignored. I walked around the table and kicked at the leg of his chair.

“I heard you the first time,” he muttered, raising his head to glare at me with bloodshot eyes. “Go tell your problems to someone who gives a damn and leave me alone.”

“I heard you’re in need of a deputy,” I informed him. “I’m here to offer my services.”

He sat up and looked me over like I was a two-headed calf. After a minute or two he spit on the floor, wiped his mouth with a dirty sleeve, and started to raise his glass to his lips before remembering it was empty.

“What makes you think I need a deputy? There ain’t nothing to steal in this town, and it’s too damn hot for anybody to take the trouble to do any fight’n. Go back to where you came from while you can still wash the stink of this place off of yourself.”

He staggered across the room, grabbed a bottle from the shelf behind the sleeping bartender, and collapsed onto a stool at the bar to concentrate on working the cork out. I let him take a long chug before reminding him I was still there.

“The men I talked to claimed this town was going to be booming once the railroad came through.” I informed him. “You’re going to need all the help you can get.”

“The men you talked to are fools, and so are you if you think there’s going to be any track put down within a hundred miles of here. The men out here have heads as hard as diamonds and as empty as an orphan’s belly. Ain’t a one selling a yard of land to any railroad as long as his cattle can graze on it. Even if they did, he wouldn’t allow it.”

There was nothing more to say, though I was curious as to the identity of whomever it was who “wouldn’t allow it.”  I slipped behind the sleeping man, found a glass, and set it down on the bar. Harris filled it for me, and we toasted each other before scorching our throats. My eyes only watered a little, but it was enough to get a chuckle out of Harris.

“This ain’t the place for you,” he said, patting me on the shoulder. “Hell, this ain’t the place for anybody.”

“Then why are you here?” I asked him.

“I got nowhere left to run to,” he said somberly, toying with the gold ring on his right index finger.  “He drove me farther and farther out, till he finally chased me right into hell. Long as I stay put, the devil seems content to leave me be.”

Under most circumstances, I would have let his utterance lie, considering them the ramblings of a drunkard and not worthy of further deliberation, but the liquor had already tainted my judgment. I slid my glass toward him and inquired into the identity of this devil he claimed was pursuing him while he poured. He glanced at the bartender long enough to determine the man was still asleep, took a swig from the bottle, and shuddered as it burned its way down his gullet.

“I guess I might as well tell somebody,” he said. “Might be good to get it all off my chest.”

He paused a minute, obviously trying to decide where to start, and then continued: “I was stationed at Fort Defiance as a private in the 3rd Infantry, had only been there about a month,  when Manuelito stormed it with a thousand Navajo braves. There were only a hundred and fifty of us,” he said, addressing his reflection in the mirror behind the bar. “We beat them back, but they put up one hell of a fight. You know how it is. Being in battle is like being caught in a tornado. Everything is kinda whirling around while you shoot into the wind and pray nothing comes back at you. It was like that then, though probably not as bad for the boys behind the walls of the fort. I was with a group of four that got caught outside when they surprised us. They were coming in from the other side, but there wasn’t any place to take cover. Some of them made their way around and spotted us. We would have been slaughtered on the spot, but some of the boys inside saw what was going on and fired down on the Navajo as they charged. Most of them fell back, and we made a run for it, but one brave was undeterred by the bullets. It was the damned thing I ever saw. Holding a musket in both hands he ran at us, screaming like his head was on fire. The bullets whizzing about meant nothing to him.

“A ladder dropped down the side of the fort, and my companions scurried up it, but my blood was up, and I wanted a crack at the brave breathing down my neck. I turned and dropped to one knee and aimed just as he raised his musket over his head with the intention of spearing me with the bayonet. My aim was high, but I hit my mark. His gun exploded in his hands. I watched him fall back onto the ground and roll about, clutching his arms tight against his chest.”

The bartender muttered something in his sleep, jolting Harris back to the present. We both took a drink, and Harris gave his reflection one last look before turning away from the bar. The lines of his face deepened, etching a bitterness into his features that was hard to look at.

“We only lost one man, with three more wounded,” he continued. “The Navajo left seven on the field. Among them was the man I had taken down. I made of point of getting to him first, curious to see what kind of man disregards danger like that, and to see what damage I had done to him. He was still alive, but he wasn’t going to be firing anymore muskets. His hands were mangled up pretty bad. He looked me dead in the eyes, and, even though he didn’t speak, and I mostly likely wouldn’t have understood him if he had, I knew what he wanted me to do. I raised my rifle, which still had a shot in the barrel, and pointed it at his head.”

“I would have done as much,” I told him. “A man like that couldn’t live as a cripple.”

“Yep, only I didn’t do it,” Harris responded. “I didn’t get the chance. Captain Shepherd had ahold of my gun before I could pull the trigger. He wanted to know how Manuelito had managed to arm so many of his braves with government rifles, and was determined to make the Indian tell him before he died. I told him he would sooner get gold out of a sow’s ass, but he insisted. I’ll never forget the contempt in that brave’s eyes as he watched me lower my gun. I was the one who’d maimed him. It was my responsibility to finish the job.”

“There wasn’t much you could do,” I told him.

“Nayenezgani—that was his name—didn’t see it that way. He cursed me while they sawed off what was left of his hands, and ranted about revenge as the fever squeezed the sweat out of him for the three days after. Then, on the fourth day, he was gone.”

“I’ve seen a good many men succumb to the sickness after suffering such a trial,” I told him. “In this case, it was for the best.”

“Not dead,” he responded, shaking his head. “Gone. He was just gone, vanished in the night like some God damned ghost. Nobody gave him much mind because nobody figured he was in any shape to get off the cot we had laid him on. Seems he just walked right out. And that’s when my troubles started.  I couldn’t shake the feeling that he was watching me. I was sure Nayenezgani was always just a few steps behind me, waiting for the right moment to strike. Even when I was trying to sleep, with the walls of the fort and over a hundred men between me and that one lone crippled Indian, I felt the odds were against me.

“By the time I finished my hitch at Fort Defiance, the South was gathering troops, and I decided to throw in with them. It wasn’t so much that I agreed with their cause, but I figured it was the best way for me to put some distance between me and Arizona without having to go off to some place cold. I was hoping to end up somewhere in Florida, or at least on the East coast, but I ended up falling short. I was stationed at Fort Henry on the Tennessee River. So much for staying warm! I nearly froze my ass off waiting for something to happen out there.

“Something finally did happen. Grant was planning on bringing all of hell down on us, and it didn’t take a military genius to know the fort wouldn’t hold up. So, one rainy night in February, I found myself marching through the ankle deep mud of the Tennessee countryside, the idea being to cover as many miles as we could before the Yankees noticed we had slipped off. It turned out we didn’t fool anybody. Grant sent his cavalry after us.

“We had a good head start, and the roads behind us got worse as the rain came down, so they were having a rough time catching up. Those of us in the rear were expected to engage and hold off any Union troops managing to get close enough to shoot, and a handful did get within range. A ball whizzed past my head and lodged in the shoulder of the man marching ahead and to my right. I turned and dropped, ready to send some fire back at them, but my powder was wet. I rolled off the road into the bushes, and hoped the other boys would have enough dry powder to beat them off, or that I could at least slip their notice till I could join back up with my regiment and finish the twelve mile march to Fort Donelson.

I watched as two Union boys fought over who was gonna be first to climb in a wagon stuck in the muck by the side of the road. I guess they thought it was one of our supply wagons. I could have told them there wasn’t anything in it worth fighting over since I’d already peeked in as we passed it. These fools were rolling around in the mud, doing more damage to each other than they ever could to the enemy,  when an officer, I couldn’t tell his rank, came upon them and gave them ten kinds of hell. He ordered them to burn the wagon, which went up pretty fast despite the rain. The flames lit up the area pretty good, and I sank back, hugging the earth and praying they wouldn’t spot me.

The men on the road marched on, and I thought I might be in the clear, when I heard a sound behind me and rolled onto my back to stare down the muzzle of a rifle. The boy in blue seemed more scared of me than I was of him, which worried me. He didn’t seem inclined to chance letting me get up so he could take me prisoner. I tried to think of something to keep him from putting a bullet in my brain, but all I could come up with was to raise my hands and tell him I was willing to surrender. As my hands went up, his eyes got wide, and I knew he was about to fire. Instead, he groaned and bent back like he had been kicked by a mule in the small of the back. His eyes rolled back up into his head, and he dropped, revealing a big man standing behind him. The man was dressed all in black, his face concealed by the hood of his cloak. Blood was dripping from the blade that extended from the right sleeve of his coat. I looked at the dead Yankee, and saw he had been slit from his waist to his shoulder blades. The stranger ran his blade up his left forearm, and a black gloved fist opened. Then he bent down and ran the blade down his arm in the opposite direction. The gloved fingers snapped shut, and the dead man was lifted up by his hair until his face was directly before the face under the hood. He just held him there like that for about a minute, and then plunged the blade into the man’s stomach before casting him away like an old rag doll.

“I will not be cheated,” he said before turning to me and adding, “You are mine.”

“He stepped forward, and I covered my face with my arms, expecting the blade to come down at me. Instead he just chuckled and stepped back again. He raised his right arm and waved the dagger as if bidding me farewell, and then he was gone, vanishing into the shadows. I admit I was pretty shaken up, but what bothered me the most was that parting wave. As he raised his arm, his sleeve had slid down to reveal a blade not gripped in a hand, but attached by a sort of leather sheath to his wrist. Call me a coward, but I couldn’t bring myself to chase after my regiment alone in the dark knowing he was out there. I found some Yankees and surrendered myself, glad to be under guard.”

He slammed the empty bottle down on the bar, and waved a fist in my face.

“I ain’t afraid of any man,” he growled. “Only this wasn’t a man, not anymore. Somehow, Nayenezgani had clawed his way out of whatever hell those heathens go to, and he was after me.”

He slid off the stool to walk across the room to the window. The bartender coughed, and looked around the room like he was seeing it for the first time.

“Mind keeping an eye on thing while I visit the privy?” he asked, his question directed at Harris. Harris waved the man on but said nothing, his gaze fixed on the road outside. Something in his demeanor made me tense up, and it was only later that I realized it was the instinctive reaction of  solider watching a sentry scan the horizon for signs of imminent attack.

“I spent a month in a Union prison camp before getting paroled,” he said, turning from the window. He went over and sat in the chair at the table where I had first greeted him. I grabbed another bottle and two glasses from behind the bar and followed.

“I was done with fighting,” he announced as I filled his glass. “Despite my pledge to abstain from taking up arms, a condition of my parole, I hitched back up with the Confederate army long enough to steal a rifle and a horse, and then headed out West for Frisco. I figured I could set myself up as a prospector, or maybe do some surveying if I could get ahold of the tools. I tried to take a more northern route since I didn’t want to chance getting nabbed and strung up as a deserter, and was about twenty miles outside of Omaha when my horse ran off in the night. I had tied her to a tree a good way back from the fire, but even from where I sat, I could tell the rope had been cut. Leading from the tree to just a few feet from where I slept, there were foot prints, the ones closest to me being deepest and most pronounced. Somebody had stood there for a good while, watching me sleep.

“After that I was constantly on my guard, but I was never able to pin the bastard down. Nayenezgani found ways to let me know he was still with me, though.  It was mostly small things, like a dead skunk tossed into the fire while I slept, or things disappearing right from under my nose.  The devil taunted me, knowing I couldn’t catch him. It was worse whenever I tried to establish myself in a town, or tried to find some means to support myself. Livestock I was tending would vanish, or be slaughtered, and equipment I had purchased would be sabotaged. I took a job with the railroad, and somehow he managed to tear up the tracks as fast as we could lay them down. That went on for three days before he got ahold of my hat and some of my tools, and left them by the wreckage for the foreman to find. I was let go, and was damn lucky I didn’t get lynched.

“For a while I boarded with a family just outside of Florence, helping them tend their ranch. They were good people, and I came to see them as kin, but he found me there too. One night the youngest daughter, just five years old, showed me an arrowhead a strange Indian had given her. It was his way of letting me know they were all in danger. I struck out the next morning, determined to stick to the woods as much as possible.

“I lived off the land for the next few months, hunting and, I have to confess, stealing occasionally, to get by. Then one day, I decided I had had enough. I was going to turn the tables and hunt him. I headed back to Arizona, and tried to retrace his steps from the night he disappeared from the fort. The Navajo shunned me, but I learned from an Apache squaw that she had tended to a Navajo brave who fit the description while working at a mission around the time of my adversary’s escape. She told me he had said little, but had vanished, along with a gold crucifix, worth a small fortune, from the monastery, not long after learning of a man in Tucson who fixed up injured soldiers with artificial limbs.

“I tracked down this man, a peculiar fella named Kurtzman, and was told all about the crazy Indian who had made some unusual requests. The old cuss was proud of his work, and showed me his plans. There was a sort of cup in which all kinds of things, like a knife blade or a hook, could be attached, and there were mechanical hands that could be opened and closed, and the fingers locked in place, by sliding knobs up and down a piece attached to the forearm.  Another set looked like tongs, and could be operated by bending the arm at the elbow. I listened to him crow about how clever it all was, but I just felt sick. I had seen what those damned contraptions were capable of.”

Harris’ head dropped, and he mumbled something I couldn’t understand. I waited until he slumped to the side, nearly falling off his chair, and then got him up and walked him over to the rocking chair the bartender had previously occupied. He was finished. I wasn’t going to hear how his tale ended, but I wasn’t putting much stock in what he said anyway. It had been nothing more than the ramblings of a disillusioned drunkard. I didn’t believe for a second that a crippled Indian had been able to chase him all over the country, even with the aid of mechanical contrivances.

I left him there to grapple with his nightmares, and went out to search for a place to bed down for the night. Flies still buzzed around the dark trail left in the dust by the mule.  I took a cigar from my vest pocket and lit it, hoping to dispel the putrescence still hanging in the air. Dusk bruised the sky, casting a purple pall over the town. It was an empty town, a town of faded dreams and failed aspirations, populated by ghosts. As I untied my horse from the post outside the saloon, I noticed the beast seemed heated, apparently agitated by the dead rat floating in the brackish water of the trough before him. It seemed Harris’ nightmare had seeped out to consume the entire town, and I was anxious to not be a part of it. I rode off, my only desire being to put as many miles between myself and Gehenna as I possibly could before nightfall. I headed across the plains toward the distant hills.

About five miles out, as lightning cleaved the sky behind me, my progress was blocked by a precipice extending as far as I could see in all directions. The night was moonless, and there was no chance of finding a path around, so I selected a spot under an outcropping of rock that might provide some shelter from the approaching storm, and gathered some wood for a fire.

The storm roared out of Gehenna, bringing a clamor that brought my thoughts back to the battlefield.  My horse was in quite a state, rearing up and threatening to snap its bonds with each clap of thunder. I was in no position to calm him. I was lucky enough that the wind whisked the rain past my shelter without blowing too much in upon me, and I had no desire to venture out. I admit though, it was more than a desire to stay dry that held me in place. Perhaps it was the drink I had consumed, or maybe I still carried some of the gloom I had encountered in that forlorn town, but I found myself plagued by morbid fantasies. I imagined an army of Confederate dead was marching upon me, all the men I had killed in the front lines, thirsting for vengeance. I saw their faces leering at me through the rain, and pressed myself against the wall of my rocky enclosure as the heavens threw cannon balls of light at me.

Just as the wind changed direction, pelting me with rain and blowing out my already sputtering fire, a flash of lightning lit up the scene before me, showing not an army, but one man, standing at the flank of my horse. I only glimpsed him for a second as the horse reared up, but it was long enough to make out the long black cloak and the silver blade protruding from his right sleeve. I tried to discount it as an illusion, and even considered the possibility that Harris had gone mad and had disguised himself as his imaginary nemesis. Another flash of lightning revealed my horse was gone, the frayed end of the rope that had secured him waving mockingly in the wind. I saw no sign of the man, which worried, rather than relieved, me. I spent the remainder of the night huddled down, my colt in one hand, and my knife in the other.

I must have dozed off at some point, for when I opened my eyes the shadow of the cliff stretched out before me. I stepped out and looked up at the slate gray sky. The storm had exhausted itself, but I was still miles from civilization with no horse. Examining the tracks for a clue to which direction the horse had taken, I found a wooden box at the base of the tree. Someone had gone to the trouble to engrave an emblem in the lid.  It reminded me of symbols I had seen Indians use in their rituals, but I had no idea as to its meaning. The box was unlocked, and I lifted the lid. Inside was a pair of human hands, severed at the wrist. On the index finger of the right hand there was a gold ring.


This story previously appeared in the author’s anthology Souls In A Blender.
Edited by Marie Ginga


Lamont A. Turner's work has appeared in over 200 online and print venues including Mystery Weekly, Mystery Tribune, Cosmic Horror Monthly, Christmas Gothic, and other magazines, podcasts and anthologies. His collections, "Souls In A Blender" and "Bleeding Out In The Rain" were recently published by St.Rooster Books. Check out his author page on Amazon.