Here is another teaser from the second End Trails weird western, GIVEN NAMES, a coming-of-age story that takes strange and disturbing turns.
Native American culture in fiction often gets loaded with supernatural mysticism - dream-catchers that really catch dreams, Ancient Indian Burial Grounds™ reanimating dead pets - and I didn't want to do the same. Here, the weirdness is not about magic but perception, how we see ourselves and how others see us.
In the last excerpt, the young narrator Circling Bird was still learning to hunt. This time, he gets a taste of the real thing...
The hunters watch as we pass, talking low into each other’s ears, nodding, smiling, frowning—and we straighten our backs though they ache, pretend not to see them evaluating us, try not to blush when laughter bursts out amongst them, force ourselves to talk about important things, not playing like the boys we are because we all want to be men.
As we squat and eat together, nervous like a flock of birds, the hunters come and stand before us with the sun shining down from behind, making tall, strong shadows of them.
“It is time for some little boys to taste the hunt,” says one—it is Prairie Wind, we all know his voice, but his face can’t be seen now with the sun blazing at his back. “Which boys are ready, though…”
A forest of hands rise, we all say “Me” or “I am” and Prairie Wind makes a slow show of considering—but though we all want to go, in truth there are only four to be picked. The four eldest, those born the year that I was born. It is our turn. Our childhood begins to end today.
He picks me third, leaving River Stones for last and drawing out the moment, making him squirm, until one of the other hunters punches his arm and he relents. He jerks his head, laughs when his son leaps up so fast he leaves the ground. River Stones runs to where we have gathered and crashes into us with a whoop, knocking us all to the ground again.
We are going to be hunters tomorrow: handsome Laughing Smile, who has the prettiest sister in the tribe, even if she is old like the other adults; Dresses In Mud, who often seems solemn like his father, but is sharp-witted and funny; my best friend River Stones; and I. That night we lie and look at the stars, watching any cloud that covers them with frightened eyes, urging it to pass, hoping for the next day to be clear. A round moon shines on us.
In the morning the hunters crawl out from their tents and laugh at us, lined up and waiting with our children’s spears in hand. They go to drink at the stream, add their water to it, taking their time while we fidget and will them to hurry. At last they collect their weapons and divide into groups, five of them leading us away to the south.
Prairie Wind falls back from the others, and we run on each side of him as he instructs us. When we find tracks, the hunters will go ahead and we boys will follow after, practicing our tracking in their wake. If the hunting is good, we will be allowed to follow more closely. We hide our disappointment at another delay, praying that the hunters are victorious.
We catch up to the hunters, who are crouched in discussion. Prairie Winds joins them, looks to where they point, on the ground and into the forest. They depart, half-bent, trotting on quick and silent feet through the undergrowth. Then they are gone.
We cluster where the hunters had crouched. Laughing Smile points out the tracks first and River Stones scowls. “Follow me,” he says in a whisper, and swipes his palm across his mouth. There will be no more talking now, unless it is lip to ear.
With exaggerated care he sets off in the direction the hunters vanished, where the tracks are leading, and the others follow. I pause a second more to see the tracks better for myself, then bring up the rear. I’ve always known I will never be a hunter, but today at least I am, we are, and even as the last in line it is thrilling.
We go with careful steps, high knees, dipping toes, my friends ahead of me with their faces down, searching for the tracks, each one pointing them out in turn. I should be watching for them too, but instead my eyes are on the tree line, masking what lies beyond them—a barrier, where my youth is left behind and adulthood awaits.
My foot comes down with a loud crunch, and I flinch at what can only be the squishing of a snail beneath my weight. I hop on one foot, the truth of it glistening under my moccasin, and I look up to see Laughing Smile bent over, quaking, Dresses in Mud amused and shaking his head, and, ahead of us all, River Stones staring at me with his arms outstretched in disbelief.
Once Laughing Smile has control of himself—he at least keeps his silence, River Stones indicates to me with a significant glance—we continue. Crossing the tree line, the forest is all around us, quiet and still. Though it is neither in truth. Its breathing sounds through the leaves high above us, sunlight drifts on the ground with their movement. The smell of it is thick, as unlike the air of the meadows as night is unlike day, and everywhere there is the click and rattle of things unseen, birdsong of countless sorts—all the life in the dimness beneath the canopy.
We add our little sounds to their chorus, the rustling of our trousers, the press of moccasins upon the soft mulch, our thundering heartbeats. Our attention, even mine, is divided between watching the ground for deadwood, branches or twigs that would crack deafeningly under a careless footfall, and scanning the endless trees in the thrilling, foolish hope of being first to see the prey, even before the hunters that passed ahead of us.
Behind me, I hear the breaking of old fallen wood.
River Stones twists around, frowning, my name on his lips, thinking I am to blame again.
His eyes grow wide, his face pales, and I turn.
Things are about to go very, very wrong...
So, once again, Given Names is published on February 9th, but everyone on my mailing list will get it for free, so if you want to sign up before then, with my blessings.