“The Burnt Passage” by Joseph Devon

TWA 54 Joe-01

In the heat of the desert sun, Leonard Johnson ran his tongue over the cut on his lip. The cut was scabbed over, creating a strange piece of lip that had no sensation, no connection to him, but brushing over it caused the rest of his lip to move and the cut underneath to release sharp pain.

It was like a magic trick to his addled head, his tongue could feel something that was not his lip, and then his lip would react like it was his lip. The pain flaring up was interesting too. Anything that distracted him from the heat was of interest.

The rest of his lips were badly chapped and without the protective scab of his cut, they would easily crack at the brush of his tongue, or if they got hung up trying to slide against his dry teeth.

His boots moved methodically over the white sand. Walking had become just something he did, not something he thought about, hours ago.

He had the sun-toned body of a lifetime rider, so what skin was exposed wasn’t too red, but his head was throbbing and strange black flashes were appearing as he stumbled along.

On his left were a stretch of dark cliffs. It was tempting to try and climb them. They didn’t look too high, but they were an ugly mix of basalt and crystal. The wind and sand did nothing to them and plenty of prisoners who had chosen The Burnt Passage instead of the gallows had sliced their hands and arms to pieces on those cliffs, because on the other side was the green of the crescent. On the other side there was water and plants and shade. That was the hell of The Burnt Passage. That was why the town founders had allowed for prisoners to opt to take this walk instead of face the gallows. They found it metaphorical. Salvation being so close and all of that.

Leonard, swaying in his boots, knew enough about the area to know that this far south there was no making it over the cliffs. Not only that but they dove deep into the earth as well, cutting the landscape in two so on one side you had the green crescent and on the other…he turned and looked at the endless expanse of desert cooking in the sun on his right.

He shook his head and cursed. He had been a fool to let himself get trapped like this.

—–

The Colonel wore a silk suit with a classically stitched waistcoat. Everything about him looked expensive, but it was a look that didn’t fit on his burly and craggy frame. It was like too much expensive paint slopped over rough wood. It did little to hide his animal gaze as he peered around the room, locking on and gutting everything he saw. His gray whiskers were grown in full down his cheekbones and his hair was course and wiry. There were some who joked in whispers about his wooly head bearing a resemblance to the sheep that his family had made their fortune on, but these things tended to stay as whispers.

There was virility in his body, and his hands still looked like they could rope, tie, and shear a sheep as easily as they could snap a chicken’s neck. The only sign of his age was in his walk. One of his knees had been broken decades ago and it hadn’t healed correctly. It caused him tremendous pain to walk on, but you would never know anything was wrong except that he used a cane, a black wooden stick with a pewter ram’s head on top.

“They’re deciding right this minute which part of the crescent they’re going to sluice all that dam’s water through,” he was saying, “and right this minute they’re deciding to send a final scouting party here, to the East Crescent. I’ve done everything possible in hell’s dominion to guarantee that. What I can’t guarantee is what they’ll say once that final scouting prospect comes through. Oh, sure, I’ll ply them with brandy and cigars and we’ll look at all the stock in those rolling green hills running up to the mountains, and they’ll see what a paradise this place could be with more water.”

He was walking back and forth behind the desk in his study as he talked. Sitting, reluctantly, on a chair in front of him was his son, Katchum. The study was a reflection of The Colonel, stately and ornate and overblown. Katchum, however, ran opposite from everything else. He was wearing riding gear and was dressed for dirt and sun, not posh staterooms. He wore a pair of pistols on a worn leather belt and his spurs were scratching the waxy sheen of the hardwood floor.

“But, hell, its water,” The Colonel said with emphasis, locking his eyes on Katchum. “Anywhere they run that water will turn green. They’re not looking for land. What they’re looking for is civilization. Do you get that? They’re looking for the next great town along the crescent. They’re looking to scrub away the black marks of the past and draw in money and new people from the homeland. And that has nothing to do with stock or crops or water. That has to do with which part of The Crescent has put the past behind it.”

The Colonel came around to the front of his desk and attempted to assume a more relaxed pose so as to get through to Katchum. He leaned on the desk and sighed.

“This is no place for me or my father’s kind any more.” His eyes wandered over Katchum’s outfit, rough and worn. He gave an almost imperceptible shake of his head, then he remembered what he was saying and he reached into his waistcoat pocket. He withdrew a sheet of paper and unfolded it to show a wanted flyer with Leonard’s face on it.

“We cannot have some…degenerate wandering about in our territory. Some deranged cannibal!” he shook the paper in Katchum’s face.

“You want me to round up the boys and make an example of him, dad?”

The Colonel grunted as he lifted his cane up, putting his weight on both good and bad knees. And with his eyes locked onto Katchum the entire time, he swung his cane and cracked his son across the face.

“You do not listen, boy!” The Colonel fumed for a bit, then spat out with disgust, “That criminal killed the wrong son.” He said these words to his living son almost like they amounted to an apology; he would never have had to beat his other son were he still alive.

Katchum was wide-eyed, desperate to display understanding as to what his father was saying as he sat up in his chair with his hand on his cheek.

“I do not need,” The Colonel went on, “the scouting party to come through here and hear tales of criminals being hung from trees or torn apart by horses by you and your band of thugs. We need to show due process. We need to show that the law exists here. We need to show them civilization!”

“Well what do you want, then?”

“We need you, acting as a deputy, to bring him in.”

“How’m I supposed to do that? He’s out in the bush god only knows where.”

“He has,” The Colonel walked stiffly back around to the other side of his desk, “a connection with one of the…” The Colonel cleared his throat. “…ladies…at Buck’s establishment.”

Katchum’s eyes lit up and he grew excited now that the conversation had turned to whores. “Well now maybe that outlaw ain’t so crazy after all.”

The Colonel latched his eyes on Katchum, fuming from behind his desk, all angry disappointment.

“I’m speaking about his younger niece, Desiree” The Colonel said. “If you recall, she fell into life at Buck’s establishment after her parents, Leonard’s sister, were tragically killed. He will come to visit her there soon enough.”

“How do you know that?”

The Colonel just stared at Katchum, disappointed.

—-

Leonard Johnson wandered into Buck’s saloon. He had the worn look of someone who had been out in the bush too long, but it extended beyond frayed seams and sandy skin. His eyes were distant, like he was just going through the motions as he came and stood at the bar.

“How you doing, Buck,” Leonard said. “Word got to me that the lantern in the back window was lit. So here I am. Everything all right with Desiree?”

“Just fine,” Buck answered succinctly. Buck got a glass from the shelf and poured out a shot of Leonard’s usual, his face smiling and polite, but his eyes never engaging with Leonard.

“Well ain’t you chatty?” Leonard asked.

Buck didn’t anything.

Leonard’s eyes narrowed as he studied the empty bar. “Buck?” he asked, looking at the empty chairs, beginning to feel unsettled. “I don’t know that I’ve ever seen the place this empty…” he stopped talking as he saw one of Katchum’s boys step past one of the windows. “Buck?” he said again.

“I’m sorry, kid,” Buck said.

Another one of Katchum’s boys walked quietly through the back door as two more walked in through the front. Then the slow sound of Katchum’s boots came from the upstairs hallway and he came onto the balcony and walked down the stairs.

“Is Desiree okay?” Leonard asked.

“Never in any danger, Leonard,” Katchum boomed. He crossed the bar and stood in front of Leonard.

“Clever plan your daddy came up with,” Leonard said simply, immediately accepting the situation. “Lord knows you’re too dumb to have done this.”

Katchum barely exerted himself, whipping a revolver out of his holster and cracking Leonard across the face with it, splitting his lower lip into a burst of dark red blood.

Leonard staggered back and grabbed onto the bar for support before he toppled to the floor. He blinked his eyes and looked up at Katchum. Then he passed out.

—–

The gallows were a neat structure in front of the new town hall, which was still under construction, its half built brick facade less imposing than the wooden platform with a fresh noose hanging from a crossbeam.

Katchum was there, all but preening as he watched Leonard led up onto the platform.

The Colonel was there, cane in hand, his eyes pinned on Leonard.

There was a small crowd at the foot of the platform. They were quiet, unsure of what they were seeing. Some of them knew Leonard, all of them knew the Colonel and Katchum. Almost no one believed that Leonard had committed the crimes listed on the flyer. The part about him being a cannibal was just ludicrous. All they knew was that Leonard had left town for the wilderness around when his sister’s farm had caught fire and she had turned up dead with her husband.

They might have believed what was happening more if he had been accused of setting the fire, or of some more graspable crime. But instead there was a strange list of heinous acts that did not fit in with what they knew about Leonard. The proceedings felt more like a family squabble being settled than a criminal being brought to justice.

There was some pomp and circumstance from the priest, and then Leonard was asked if he had any last words.

“The Burnt Passage,” he had said.

The Colonel swore under his breath and Katchum looked at his daddy confused. The crowd had liked it, though, and there was no way to avoid the law in this matter, so they had been obliged to let him face the desert instead of hanging.

—–

He stood, rocking in his riding boots, and stared at the remains of what he thought was a buzzard. The bones were whiter than anything he had ever seen sitting in the desert. Scorched by the sun for weeks and blasted by the wind carried sand, the bones had a soft look of bright white that made his head dizzy.

He tried to swallow but barely felt anything to swallow, and as he brushed his tongue over the cut on his lip, he wondered if the noose might not have been the correct choice after all.

He looked around at the black cliffs rising on his left, locking him onto The Burnt Passage. Facing east they only offered shade during the very early morning. He looked at the stretch of desert on his right. This had to be the most hellish strip of land east of the crescent. It was no wonder the town father’s had included it as a prisoner’s choice in the face of a hanging.

He climbed up a small dune and stopped again, a brief pant of a laugh shaking his chest. In front of him was another skeleton, human this time. It was the third one he’d seen so far. He walked up to it and collapsed on his knees and began searching it over. There was a threadbare outfit that fell apart as he pawed at it. There was nothing of use on the skeleton.

He was about to stand back up when he happened to glance at the side of the skull. There was a circular hole bored into it. Leonard shook his head. The rumors were true. The Colonel didn’t like to leave anything to chance. Even those who chose to walk the Burnt Path were finished off with a shot to the head, just to make sure.

He let his head roll and a dizziness overtook him for a few seconds before he blinked his eyes hard to refocus and resumed walking forward. He had been such a fool to let himself get trapped like this.

—–

Katchum was sitting again in The Colonel’s study. The old man was agitated, walking up and down the room, his cane thumping with each step.

“He ain’t gonna make it,” Katchum said, hoping to placate his father.

The Colonel reared on him, planting his cane on the floor with a loud rap. “And how do you know that?”

“Ain’t no one comes back from the Burnt Passage.”

“Of course people have come back from the Burnt Passage, you simpleton. It is just a strip of desert. People have ridden it and…bah! This whole superstition is exactly the problem now anyway. It was one thing to have a wanted criminal at large. It would be another for that criminal to go free because of some asinine archaic loophole to justice.”

“But you didn’t say anything at the gallows. You even agreed to walk him out to the pass.”

“I’m not going to defy an entire town’s worth of goodwill by mocking their habits. The Burnt Passage is every guilty man’s right according to these heehaws. And I am their superior. Which means that I believe in a dead man’s right to walk into the desert as well.”

He stopped pacing in front of his glass gun case. He leaned his cane against the wall, then opened the case and took out a rifle. Grunting as he set his weight on his bad leg momentarily he sighted down the rifle, eyes like claws as he aimed at the other side of the room. He nodded and then picked up his cane and hobbled over to Katchum, the rifle in his free hand.

“Here,” he said, handing the rifle over. “Ride out there and finish him off.”

Katchum looked at the Colonel wide-eyed. “But the law says that he has to walk it all by himself with no interference.”

The Colonel only stared at Katchum.

Katchum reached up and took the rifle.

“You will do this. You alone. You will leave your gear and tackle outside the stable where it can be seen. You will go out past the south gate near sundown and you will find a filly there with no brand. You will ride her out to the Burnt Passage, and you will finish off Leonard with this gun. Do you understand?”

“Why can’t I take my boys and—“

“Were you not listening? We can not be seen to be interfering in the town’s law. We cannot have this traced back to us. We cannot have this going wrong, nor can anyone know about this. Leonard must simply disappear. That is it. Katchum,” he said, and his eyes relented, “you are the only one I can trust with this.”

—–

Leonard stumbled, his toe dragging in the sand mid-step causing him to fall forward onto one knee. He knelt, and breathed in and out, and waited for a minute until he felt ready to stand up again. It was getting dark, which was something. The sun wouldn’t be beating down from above anymore, then again, night out in the open desert wasn’t anything to be looking forward to.

He had wandered west, and was up against the dark black ridge of the cliff line. There was still no shade, just the sun setting over the endless sands to the east. It was almost worse by the cliffs actually as the dark, glassy rocks soaked up the heat and emitted it like an oven.

There was a high crest, a landmark of sorts, above his head and he walked until he was under the sharp uptick in the cliff’s outline. He looked down and spotted a smooth copper disc about a foot wide. He grunted, and shaking his head in amazement he got his fingers in under the edges of the disk and lifted up and found a small hollowed out rock cavern underneath, big enough to house a backpack’s worth of items.

Just then he heard, closing fast, the sound of hoof beats.

He paused where he was, the open rock cavern next to him, and listened as the horse and rider drew closer.

He heard a whinny and the slough of hooves stopping and pawing at the sand. He nodded and rolled over, sitting next to the cabinet, and looked up at Katchum astride an unmarked filly.

Katchum had a rifle slung over his shoulder, which he took off as he dismounted a dozen yards from Leonard. He raised the rifle and took aim.

Leonard smiled at him tiredly through cracked lips. “You truly are dumb.”

This wasn’t what Katchum was expecting a dying man to say, so he paused, his eyes narrowing as he tried to figure out what was happening. He felt he should have the upper hand in this situation, it ate at him how calm Leonard was. “Bet you’re mighty thirsty, outlaw,” he said, throwing the words like an opening volley.

Leonard calmly and slowly reached a hand into the little rock cavern and withdrew a water skin. Then he pulled the cork and took a long drink.

Katchum was wild-eyed with anger. “You cheating son of a bitch! You had some of your friends stash that here for you?”

“No, Katchum.”

“Don’t matter any,” Katchum went on as if Leonard hadn’t spoken. “You’ll have a bullet through your head soon enough.”

“No, Katchum,” Leonard repeated.

Katchum pulled the trigger on the rifle and there was a loud report and then nothing happened. He glared at Leonard, who was still staring calmly at him, and levered another round in and stepped forward on the sand and fired again. Again there was a loud crash echoing back from the rocks, and again nothing happened. Katchum looked wildly at the rifle, then pointed it at the sand and fired another round. There was a crash and then nothing.

“You have no lead in your bullets, Katchum,” Leonard explained.

“Well I can still bash your brains in,” Katchum said, no longer interested in questioning what was going on. He turned the rifle around and got a good grip on the barrel.

As he took a few more steps towards Leonard, Leonard reached across into the rock cavern. He pulled his hand out with a revolver in it.

Katchum paused, staring at the dull metal in the setting sun. Then he smirked. “How do I know your bullets have lead—”

A roar sounded from the revolver and the sand at his feet kicked up as a bullet struck.

Katchum was shied away from the impact, shielding his eyes. “Are you crazy? You could’ve hit me with a ricochet!” he screamed.

Leonard stared. “You sniveling piece of shit. You came out here to kill an unarmed man and you complain when…” he trailed off, tired. Then he slowly got to his feet, keeping the revolver on Katchum.

“Well what? Maybe I knew you wouldn’t be unarmed, huh? Maybe I knew you’d cheat and put a weapon out here,” Katchum said defiantly, grasping at anything to make sense of what was going on.

Behind him his horse sneezed loudly, its muzzle bobbing up and down.

“I didn’t ‘cheat’,” Leonard said, despising the use of the word which implied this was a game.

“So then how did you manage to find a gun out—”

“Your father,” Leonard yelled, his voice newly lubricated from the water he had drunk.

Katchum stared, puzzled.

“Where are your pistols, Katchum?”

“I left them with my tackle. Made it look like I was still in the house somewhere so no one would know where I was.”

“No. You left them because your father told you to so that you would use that gun with no bullets in it when you were out here. You came alone, because your father told you to. You brought that horse, because your father told you to. Just like you brought me in, like your father told you to.”

Katchum was starting to understand what Leonard was saying, and his face was a mix of anger and difficult thinking.

Behind him his horse whinnied, a sheer high noise that sounded eerie in the desert.

“He didn’t want either of us in his precious civilization, Katchum. He sent you to trap me. And once I,” Leonard cursed at himself under his breath, “stupidly came into town, he made a deal with me to trap you out here. Hell I thought he’d just send us both out here to die,” he waved at the empty cavern cut into the rock by the copper disc, “but the damn supplies were there just like he said.”

Katchum rolled his shoulders back haughtily, suddenly very sure of himself. “One of us is going to survive.”

“I might,” Leonard conceded, the barrel of his pistol still aimed at Katchum.

“What I mean,” Katchum said, enunciating clearly in an attempt to control the conversation, “is that my daddy still sent me out here on a horse. One of us could ride back, hell you probably aren’t a great shot at the moment with that pistol, might as such be me riding back.”

Leonard shook his head slightly.

Katchum’s horse began to sneeze behind him again, an ugly sound coming from deep in its throat. Red blood mixed with snot poured out of its muzzle and pelted the sand, clumping and clotting into a dull maroon paste. Wheezing and whinnying, eyes filled with fright, the horse reared up and toppled over.

Katchum ran over and slid up to the horse on his knees. He watched it take a few last deep breaths before it went still, its dark eyes rolled back showing some white as it lay in the sand, blood pouring out of its mouth and nose. He quickly examined the filly’s muzzle and his eyes went puzzled as he spotted something wrong. He pulled at a leather string that was dangling from the horse’s nostril and a long knotted cord tied with metal spikes came out.

“And that’s why he wanted you on that horse,” Leonard said.

Katchum stared up at Leonard, misplaced anger on his face as he glared at the pistol.

“Look at you,” Leonard said. “You still think this is about me.”

“Aint it?” Katchum said, slowly rising to his feet, his pants caked with blood soaked sand.

“Nah,” Leonard said. “This is about the Colonel. This is about what’s coming across this land, what has been for some time.”

“Civilization,” Katchum said, parroting his father. “Big words from a dirty cannibal.”

“Aw hell, Katchum, I’m not a cannibal. Your dad made up every crime he could think of to print on that poster after I disappeared.”

“You mean after you killed my brother and ran away.”

“You mean after I showed up too late to stop your brother from killing my sister and husband and setting fire to their farm.” Leonard’s face set hard in place, the chapped lips, the burnt red cheekbones, they all paled compared to the hate in his eyes as he spoke about his family, and for the first time he looked like he could actually use the gun in his hands to kill. “I kill you, my niece grows up in peace. That’s what your father offered me.”

Katchum didn’t answer, some deep part of him recognizing the change in Leonard’s face.

“We both disappear out here and ‘civilization’ comes to town and what’s left of my family gets a share of it.”

“Well go on then,” Katchum said, and to his credit he seemed willing to risk being shot.

Leonard’s face relaxed, lost its coldness, and he just looked disgusted again. “But you know what I think? I think every town on the Crescent has their problems. I don’t think one criminal was going to make a difference. I think this is actually about your father, The Colonel, having everyone under his thumb they way he needs it to be. He thinks everyone is born into a trap. You love your family, you care about something in this world enough to fear him taking it away from you, and he thinks he’s got you under control.”

Leonard shook his head. “No. Your brother killed my sister. I killed your brother. Your dad wants me to kill you. Maybe my niece has a son who grows up and your dad wants to kill him. It keeps going on and on and it doesn’t matter if water comes through here or not. It doesn’t matter what flows over this land if you ain’t got control of your own life. You let yourself live in fear and you can never escape it. And I want out.”

He eyed Katchum, then picked up the water skin. “I aint’ gonna shoot you. And I ain’t gonna die out here. I’ve got enough water to make the north passage now. And that’s how it’s going to be.” He started walking north, away from town.

“What about me?” Katchum yelled.

“I made it this far without water, Katchum,” Leonard shouted back to him. “I’m sure you’ll be fine. Hell it’s not even daytime out.”

Katchum looked wildly to the north, then to the black cliffs in front of him, then at the darkening desert to the east. Still thinking things over he took a few steps south back towards town, then a few more, then he started off in a trot.

The sun set and the two men disappeared into the night, and on the desert floor the dead filly lay. Her blood was still flowing in rivulets over the sand, down the dunes, soaking into the land all around her.

 

 

 


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IMG_4358Hailing from New Jersey, Joseph Devon is sarcastic, caustic, abrasive, and yet a surprisingly good cook. As the eldest member of the arena’s cadre, Joseph has come to rely on discipline over flash and dozens of rewrites over bursts of creativity. He also sometimes remembers where he put his dentures. Joseph grew up fighting for attention over loud guidos and even louder New Yorkers and polished a knack for concise, striking imagery. A fan of most anything silly, Joseph also has a depth hidden under his love of talking animals that can rope in unsuspecting readers and make them think before they realize they’re reading anything of substance. Joseph is the author of the first two books of the Matthew and Epp trilogy, Probability Angels and Persistent Illusions and is hard at work on the third.

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6 Comments

  1. As I’ve come to expect from Joe, this is another solid entry. There’s nothing here that’s exactly blowing my mind, but neither are there any weak points, nothing I can point to and say, “I like this, except…”
    In particular I felt the resolution tied all the pieces together nicely, and left me with a feeling of hope that the cycles of violence and greed that threaten to trap us all can be broken.

  2. Sometimes you read a western and expect a gun fight. This time we got a man moving on. Long echoes of violence are more interesting than submitting to fate, but one has an end and the other keeps rolling.

    Strong work from Joe. I dig the idea of a town with an obstacle so harsh it would be a transcending miracle if you survived. I liked the Colonel more than his son and was hoping he would be eating dirt by the end of it, but this way is better.

  3. Basalt and crystal cliffs. I’m no geologist, so the image of these cliffs adds a science fiction edge to the story. We could be anywhere. I liked that.

    I also liked how Joseph, with just a few lines of description and some brief dialogue, tells you everything you need to know about The Colonel.

    I was a little confused over the sequence of events that put Leonard on the Wanted list, but it’s not important because the story isn’t concerned with past or future. It takes place in the moment. I liked that too.

    Tony said it: strong work.

  4. Yeah, I got the sense this wasn’t a typical Western, i.e. taking place in Monument Valley in 1893 or something. Maybe I missed something in the story, but why the hell did the Colonial want Katchum dead? Was it because of what he did to Leonard’s family? I’m chalking up my confusion on this point from me reading it so fast because damn did I like this. Like Al said, nothing that made me go ‘aw snap’ or anything, but there ain’t a thing to complain about with this one.

  5. The setting of this story has a weird The Dark Tower meets Garcia Marquez vibe to me, which I find myself liking in spite of the fact that it took me a while to get into it.

    It’s a very solid story, and I love the way that Leonard chooses to sidestep the Colonel’s trap. I feel like I should care more about Katchum’s decision than I do. (Several puns come to mind on that name…)

    I wonder a little if the landscape of the Crescent and the Burnt Passage is so vast that the characters perhaps get swallowed up by it to some extent. Perhaps it would better in a novel than a short story? I really enjoy having read the short story, but I feel like I want a stronger emotional attachment to at least one of the characters…

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