For Yeomanrand, Yuletide 2012
She scrambled up, and up, and into the chamber. She felt the rough claws latch around her ankle but ignored them. The borrowed body was dead in any case. Hastily she focused her mind on its own image, logic and memory flung into tight, intricate patterns, resonating with the energy of the bracelet which was about to-
fierce light, heat, glory, triumph, desperate consciousness grasping for a hold somewhere, hold, hold…
shifting patterns of interference, ionizing radiation, scattered signals bouncing from layer to layer of the atmosphere, from wall to wall of the canyons…
decaying, cooling, dying, faltering…
They caught the echoes of her being and held her. She was-they were alive. They seethed, restless in their tens of thousands, with one poised at the center, creating, ordering, directing. They cycled in/out as this face of the planet turned into darkness, then into light.
Gradually the fragments of her mind found each other and clung together. Slowly she learned to balance her consciousness atop a myriad tiny moving sparks of purpose, learned to see through their faceted eyes, learned to read the movements that signaled angle of light, polarization, distance. Bit by bit she came to recognize the exquisite chemical traces of nectar, pollen, pheromones. Hesitantly, riding over the endless busyness of the hive's preparation for winter, she laid her search atop theirs.
She tasted for hints of tanned leather, iron, sweat. Watched for tall dark motion like trees afoot. Listened for rumors of sweetness hidden in shade, smooth surfaces with no foot-grip.
(A worker landed on Jake's hand. He brushed her away without noticing. She took his taste back home on her feet.)
The days were shortening. She had little time, and if the hive went dormant before she found him, he could be hundreds of miles away by spring.
The next day another bee found the same taste on his hatband. He didn't notice this one either. The scout reported back to the hive: new angle, greater distance. He was moving out of range.
She leaped, that evening, from the last returning bees to the first scattered vanguard of an emerging bat colony. A quarter of a million of them, emitting high chirps that converged with their own echoes to map the canyon walls, pinpoint the spiraling paths of moths and night-flying beetles. They filled the air for miles and miles around and they located Jake (scent of his sweat, texture of his hair) that same night and every night afterwards. During the nights she endured the fragmentation of her consciousness as best she could; in the daytime, while her hosts rested, packed body to body, clinging to the warm damp rock, her thoughts gathered themselves in their sleeping brains.
Five days later Jake set up camp on the very edge of their range. She cast around for another vehicle. Nothing large enough, complex enough, numerous enough. By tomorrow he would be beyond her reach. She grew anxious as the east grew pale and the bats began to stream homeward. Nothing that could hold her…
… but him.
She fell out of the sky and into his dreaming mind.
Pain followed her in. He shifted, groaned. She tried to superimpose her pattern lightly on his own without disturbing it, but even the least contact she could make was too much. His dream (vague images of thirst and heat and gold) became nightmare (restraint, coercion) became panic (too close, too tight, too dark, out OUT) and he woke gasping and shuddering and clawing at his face, his chest. His mind was as hard, swift and dangerous as his hands, and she shifted and dodged as he tried to tear her out of himself.
Jake, be still!
Her panicked voice coming from inside his own head shocked and terrified him, and he froze.
Tentatively, softly, she shared with him an image. A body in his arms, heavy and limp, dripping water and blood onto the thirsty ground.
"Ella," he said, his voice a harsh croak, mouth dry with fear.
Carry me a while longer.
His consent was hesitant, wordless. With the patience of long practice he took in the pain and held it, acknowledged it, tucked it away, as he'd done with the pull of old scars and the ragged grinding of the bullet lodged against his fourth rib.
Do something simple. Tend the horse.
Slowly he got to his feet, stumbled into the familiar sequence, catch the mare, unhobble her, water her, until his body took over, hands sure and steady with hoof pick and currycomb, and he relaxed into the routine. His pulse slowed, his breathing eased.
"Ella," he whispered. "What can I do?"
Bear with me. Not for long.
I need people. A town.
"There's still a bounty on me."
One of the pueblos?
"I don't speak their lingo."
I can give it to you.
She felt the stab of fear go through him.
No. Never mind. Absolution?
Immediate resistance. But he thought about it, wrestled with it. "What do you aim to do?"
I need a body, she said reluctantly.
Not just fear this time but anger, revulsion. "No. I won't-"
She cut him off. I don't mean to kill for it, she said. I can work with a corpse, if I get to it soon enough.
The nightmare image was vivid in his mind, Alice rising from her grave (she'd had no grave), turning to him with a stranger's eyes.
"No," he said again. "It ain't right."
How did you think I managed the first time?
And she saw in his memory that he had thought about it, had tried not to think about it, about something eating the soul out of Ella Swenson and walking the earth in her shape.
No, she said. Ella drowned in a flash flood along with her kin. There was nobody left to care.
"Then we find another one like that," said Jake, "or you ride with me."
I can't. Not for long. It would kill you.
"Best we get moving then," he said.
As they rode, he showed her where they were, his mental map clear and vivid. Absolution, too far behind them. Mexico, too far ahead. Tucson, the capital, perhaps three days' ride to their south and west.
There. Take me there.
"They're bound to recognize me. I've been there before."
I'll take care of it.
By sunset, he was slumped in the saddle, eyes closed, exhausted. He moved like an old, old man as he pulled off the saddle and saddlebags, threw his bedroll on a more or less level patch of ground. He tried to eat, but couldn't keep anything down but water. He said nothing, but lay tightly curled in his blanket, unable to sleep.
Two more days, Jake. Hold on.
" 'M all right," he muttered.
She kept as still and quiet as she could. Tiny random flickers of activity shivered through his overwhelmed nervous system. Before long, if the pressure of this doubled consciousness continued, they would progress to seizures.
She did what she could for his hard-worn body. Slowly she worked at the ragged cartilage in his knees and hips, mending and rebuilding it, until it was glassy-smooth. She eased the bullet fragment a little further from the rib, a little closer to the skin. Later, if she could find a host, she could perhaps remove it for him. There were tiny parasites in his blood, damaging the red cells; she stopped their reproduction but left them to die off gradually, so as not to trigger fever.
She watched and listened as the stars slowly wheeled past overhead. Nothing larger than a coyote, nothing more numerous than a handful of moths, passed by.
The next day was pure torment.
Jake could barely sit upright. The pain in his head was so bad she could almost feel it too; the blood pounding in his temples until his vision whited out and all light, all sound was pain. He couldn't see to guide the horse, so she split off a small share of herself to look through the mare's eyes and pick a path through the saguaros.
They found water a little after noon, a small trickle down a rock face that was enough for Jake to bathe his face and drink a few sips. The mare pawed at the small patch of damp earth at the foot of the bluff, but there was nothing there for her.
By evening, Jake could open his eyes just a slit, enough to see a smudge of smoke on the horizon. He was too weak to unsaddle the horse or set up camp; he slid down and sat in the sand, his back to a boulder, head lolling. Small tremors fluttered along his legs and arms.
Overhead, Ella sensed movement. Wings. She extended her awareness and brushed the mind of a bat. Two. Three. A dozen.
Jake. I'm going to leave you for a while.
"Don't," he whispered.
I'll be back. But this is going to hurt. I'm sorry. She envisioned cloth plastered to a wound with dried blood, being torn off.
He nodded understanding, wincing as the motion redoubled his headache.
She tore herself free as quickly as she could, to get it over with. His hoarse scream faded rapidly behind her as she scattered upward with the bats.
For the duration of the night, she could do nothing but hold on, try to keep the integrity of her mind as her hosts wheeled and tumbled through the sky in their countless thousands. By dawn she was exhausted. As the bats gathered into their roost, she took the first rest she'd had since destroying the raiders' ship. She thought with regret of Jake, and ached with frustration at her bodiless state.
The next night she spent in learning the contours of the town, reading the movements of its people. Over three thousand of them; none, as far as she could tell, currently dying. A shame.
One building in particular intrigued her; there was the scent of corruption about it. At least one corpse lay there, not fresh. She thought the smell suggested more than one, for more than a few days. The windows were shut; she could neither get inside nor bounce echoes off what lay within. She burned its location into her memory.
Towards dawn she found Jake again. To her relief, he was still alive, and even able to stand and walk. She dropped back into his mind and he staggered, then fell to his hands and knees. She contracted herself down from her stretched, widely-scattered state and took stock. He'd eaten and drunk. He must have slept at some point. He seemed stronger, though he fisted his hands and clenched his teeth against the pain of her intrusion.
I'm sorry. Not long now.
He nodded, eyes screwed shut.
Rest if you can.
After a while the pain seemed to ease and he sat up. He wiped the dirt off his hands. She pondered the house, sifted through the vague and fading scraps of memory she'd inherited from Ella. A word drifted up.
And if she'd had lungs, she would have taken a deep, hopeful breath.
After a long struggle, he was finally able to give her control of his hands and arms, stop fighting her long enough that she could neaten his hair and the short, shaggy beard he'd grown in the weeks since he'd left Absolution. When she finished, he looked older, graver, less hard; a man worn by circumstance and hardship, with hard-won wisdom and dignity. She talked him into caching all his weapons and most of his supplies, riding into town at dusk unarmed. He didn't have to pretend the exhausted slump or the lines of pain around his eyes. He stumbled slightly going up the two steps to the undertaker's door, and he braced himself on the doorframe before he knocked.
The footsteps that approached were slow and uneven. A slight, grey-haired man in a sober coat peered out at him.
"You got the wrong door, friend," he said mildly. "Saloon's down that way; hotel's other side of the street."
"You the undertaker?" Jake rasped.
"That's me. Hiram Wilkerson."
"Then I got the right door," said Jake. "I need a coffin and a grave."
The old man looked him up and down. "You don't look drunk," he said.
"Best come in and sit down, friend. Drunk or not, you don't look too good."
Jake followed him in, sank onto one of the faded velvet chairs in the parlor, hung his head as if it were too much work to hold it up any longer. "I'm sick," he said, "and I figure I ain't got much longer. No kin to bury me. Don't want to end up on a midden."
"I ain't a charity," the undertaker began.
Jake held up a hand. "I ain't askin' for charity. I know the work. My uncle did this, when I was a boy. I helped some. I can help you for the time I have left, if you'll put me away decent when I'm done."
The old man studied him for a while. "You don't look like you got much work in you."
"Had a long ride today," Jake replied. "I'll be some better by daylight. I got this-" he pulled a tiny nugget of gold from his pocket, held it out. "You put me up for the night, let me help out around the place tomorrow. Then we can deal."
The old man took the fragment of gold, studied it, looked back at Jake. "All right," he said. "Might be we can come to an arrangement. Follow me."
Jake levered himself slowly out of the chair and followed him through a door at the back.
"This here's where I sleep sometimes when I have to wait on someone," said the undertaker. "Should do you all right for the night."
Jake nodded. "Obliged," he said quietly, and sat down on the narrow couch. It took some time for him to gather the strength to pull off his boots.
The old man studied him a while longer, then nodded. "Goodnight," he said, and closed the door softly behind him.
As soon as they were alone, Jake collapsed onto his back on the couch, breathing hard.
Let me show you what he does, said Ella. Then I'll go. If he offers you clothes, take them. Stay indoors.
Jake nodded. Ella took the images she'd stolen from the undertaker's memory and showed them to him, slow and easy, until he nodded again in comprehension.
Sleep well, Jake. Eat and sleep as much as you can. Get stronger. I'll be back.
This time he was ready. When she left he bit down hard on a rolled-up edge of the blanket and kept silent.
When she returned two nights later, Ella learned from Jake that most of the bodies that passed through Hiram Wilkerson's hands would be useless: their blood drained and replaced with arsenic water. Their best chance would be to find one destined for a pauper's grave; those would merely be washed, wrapped in a clean sheet and lowered into the earth. And of course, grieving kin would be scarce, a point that carried great weight with Jake. That left only the considerable problem of getting the body back out of the grave, leaving aside the damage that the weight of earth and stones would do.
Best if we could take the body before it's buried, said Ella. Wrap something else up to take its place. A dog or a deer.
"Don't see how," Jake said. "He keeps a close eye on things."
I could… keep him from doing that.
Jake's spine stiffened. "No. He's dealt fair with me."
Just a small sickness. Like if he ate spoiled food. Let him take to his bed for a day and you take care of the work.
Jake resisted still. "I… maybe. Let me think it over."
Not much harm done, Jake.
"No, but… we're not them."
What do you mean?
"Them others. The ones that killed Alice and your people. They just took whatever they wanted. I did too, before. But I don't aim to do that now."
A corpse is no use to anyone. If we don't take it, it just rots in the ground.
"Still. Wilkerson… he tries to do what's right. Decent." Jake closed his eyes, rubbed them.
Your head hurting?
"It ain't bad yet."
Time for me to go. I'll be back.
In the end it was Jake who found the solution.
There was a clutter of footsteps on the porch just before dark, a scuffling of boots, a too-light knock on the door. Jake heard the floorboards creak as Hiram went to answer it.
"What can I-"
There was silence at first, then a confusion of voices, "-Mexicans-"
"-beating his wife and the boy-"
"-snuck off when nobody was looking, hid the body-"
Jake came out of the back room then, slowly, and saw for himself the slight, gangly body, hair matted, face black and swollen, with bruising all around the throat.
"When did you find him?" he asked, barely above a whisper.
" 'Bout an hour ago," said one of the men. They were ranch hands, rough and dirty and sweat-stained, and there was a helpless grief in their faces for this child none of them had known.
"Pauper's grave is the best I can do for him," said Hiram. "You boys know times have been hard-"
"I'll pay," said Jake. "Give him the casket and grave you and me agreed on. Find him some clothes. I'll clean him up. No need to fool with embalming. We can bury him in the morning."
Hiram looked long and intently at him. Finally he nodded. "Show 'em where to set him down," he said. "I've got a partly finished casket I can cut down to size. Won't take but a few hours."
Once the men had left, Jake began slowly, methodically washing the body, teasing out the mats and knots in the dark hair, trimming it to some semblance of neatness. After a while he got up and opened the window. The sun had set and bats were beginning to flit across the purpling sky.
"Hiram!" Jake called urgently.
The old man stumbled across the hallway. "What in-oh my sweet God."
"Boy ain't dead," said Jake, and indeed the child was sitting up, looking wary but alert, dark eyes neither bloodshot nor bulging, throat barely bruised, face no longer swollen nor discolored. He looked at the undertaker and broke into a smile of surpassing sweetness.
"Gracias, Señor," he said.
"¿Hablas Inglés?" Hiram asked.
"No, lo siento."
"¿Cómo se llamas?
"¿Quieres volver a tus padres, Aurelio?"
"No. No, por favor. Tengo miedo."
"¿Quieres quedarte aquí?" asked Jake, haltingly.
"Sí. Con su permiso. Puedo trabajar."
Hiram looked back and forth between the two of them. He seemed to ponder for a long, long moment. Then: "All right," he said. "We'll see how it goes."
Just after dawn, as the old man slept, worn out by his late night, the boy and Jake rode out together, tracking Aurelio's parents.
A few miles outside of town, they found the boy's mother in a shallow grave just off the trail. The coyotes had already been at her.
A mile farther, and they found the father, drunk, face-down in a pool of his own vomit.
Jake dismounted, turned him over with the toe of his boot. The man snorted but didn't wake up.
Jake and Aurelio shared a long look. Then, without haste and without wasted motion, Jake broke the man's neck. He dragged the body to the edge of a nearby wash and pitched it over headfirst. Then he erased the drag marks with a pine branch, washed his hands with water from his canteen, and rode back to town. Aurelio/Ella, his new body thus paid for, rested his head on Jake's back and planned their next move.
And so the undertaker, his boarder, and his new apprentice settled in together.
Jake's health seemed to improve a great deal; so much so that after a month, he told Hiram he was thinking of moving on.
"I'll owe you some wages, then," the old man said.
"Keep it. For room and board," said Jake. "And the boy's food and clothes, too."
"You aim to take him with you?"
Jake nodded, looking out the window to where Aurelio was saddling his horse. "Thinking about heading to Las Cruces. Says he might have some family there that could take him in."
Hiram nodded. "Seems like the thing to do." He turned his gaze back to Jake. "Well," he said. "Good luck to you both."
Jake shook the undertaker's hand, packed his few belongings, slung the thin saddlebags onto the horse and mounted. He reached down and helped the boy mount behind him, and the two of them rode east out of town without looking back.
"So. Do I stay like this, or keep looking?" Aurelio/Ella asked, as they retrieved Jake's weapons and supplies from the cache.
"Up to you," said Jake.
The boy said nothing for a while. Jake finished stowing his gear in the saddlebags and adjusted the rifle in its scabbard, and they remounted.
"When I was Ella," the boy said, "seemed like you wanted something from me."
"Might have," said Jake. "Don't signify now."
"Then what do you want, Jake?"
He was quiet for a long time. "Be good to have someone around. Someone who knows."
"I can see that." They rode on for a while.
"How do you figure on making a living?" Aurelio/Ella asked.
"Been studyin' on that," said Jake. "You got any ideas?"
"You first," said the boy.
"You can heal things," Jake said hesitantly. "Could we… could you set up as a curandero? Lot of folks around here believe in that."
"Oh," Aurelio/Ella said. "That's… it's not that easy, Jake. I can heal a body, but I have to be in it. You know what that's like. Even to save a life…."
"You could ask. They could say no."
"How would we explain it to them?"
"Tell 'em it's magic."
"And what if they decide I'm some kind of demon, and come after me?"
"Well," Jake said. He turned in the saddle, looking back at the boy, with his rare smile lighting his blue eyes. "That's what you got me for."
Translation ( Please forgive my rudimentary Spanish!):
"Thank you, Sir," he said.
"Do you speak English?" Hiram asked.
"I'm sorry, no."
"What's your name?
"Do you want to go back to your parents, Aurelio?"
"No. No, please. I'm scared."
"Do you want to stay here?" asked Jake, haltingly.
"Yes. If you'll let me. I can work."