This is the story of two travelers, Gabe Valentine and Violetta Talbot, who ride out into the untamed wilderness of the Old West, hunting ghosts for fun and profit, haunted by sinister forces, and always finding trouble, even when they don’t try. Gabe makes a homecoming in the ranch he left so long ago, where something threatens the cowboys of Collins Ranch.
A white hot sun spread across the dry cracked land of the New Mexico desert. Not much changed the landscape. Mountains stood in the distance, bright orange and red, but the land around was filled only with spiked bushes and dry brush. The still air disturbed nothing, and the heat settled down on the land like a blanket. Where the brush broke away, a wood fence rose up, tilted by wind and weather, surrounding a large stretch of flat land, brushed with grass, and wood structures bleached by the sun. Cattle roamed in the distance, some grazing on the low grass at the ranch, others wandered far into the distance. There were people working, some repairing the fences, others on horseback bringing cattle closer. The sign for the Collins Ranch clattered against the wooden gate.
Gabe lifted his hands to his lips as they came close and gave a bird-like hoot. The man working on the fences closest to him and Violetta stood and responded in kind. This sent a ripple effect through the workers, who all lifted their heads and responded in kind. Most were already dropping their work to see the travelers come in.
It was Silva at the fence. He grinned at them and called, “Been a long time!”
Gabe hopped down from his horse and grabbed his arm in the general greeting that men did. Violetta shook her head as she climbed down after him. A crowd of folks came closer, and Gabe recognized most of the people in the small crowd. There was Galen and Roy and Ruben, who along with Silva remained at the ranch throughout the year. Amos and Ysabel were there as well, laughing as they saw him.
“Where’ve you been!” Ruben said, smacking his shoulder. “Silva claimed you were off being some monster hunter.”
“I remember this one!” Silva grabbed Violetta, and she smiled up at him.
“Getting ready for the round up?” Gabe asked.
“It’s that time of year again.” Roy smiled. “It’ll be a full house.”
“There’s a handful of folks still out herding the cows,” Galen said. “We gotta have a reunion.”
They walked back towards the barn. New faces and old followed. They met Adrian and Saul, and Abner rode in from wrangling, Marie behind him.Gabe had not seen her in a year, and she was grinning big when she saw him. Her dark hair fell in thick ringlets around her face, messily tied back in the heat, and her brown eyes were wide and bright. She hopped off her horse and ran forward, throwing her arms around Gabe. He buried his face in her hair and breathed in the scent of her skin and the dust that covered her and all the things he’d missed.
She pulled away and gave a sheepish look to the others. “Alright, it’s not a show.”
Violetta shoved the others away to give the couple their peace. Marie gave a little laugh as she turned back to him, placing her hands on his face.
“Gabe Valentine,” she said. “You have been away too long.”
“That is a fact.” He took her hands and kissed them each. “I suppose you’ll tell me you ran off with some rich baron.”
“I told you I wouldn’t wait. Lucky for you, you’re the only eligible man worth looking at around here. Now be truthful. You and that girl got into all kinds of trouble, didn’t you?”
“Only the kind that includes ghosts and devils.”
“Oh is that all?” She slapped his chest. “Every day I think about what a fool you are.”
“Only every day?”
“Well every day now,” she said, “that we’ve got this devil bird on our hands.”
They walked back to the gathered workers, who were gathered around Violetta as she regaled them with the ghost they’d been chasing right before they’d received the letter from the ranch.
“It’s quite a life you’ve been living,” Silva said as Gabe came up to him.
“Apparently it’s spreading.” He put an arm on his friend. “Y’all got a thunderbird.”
“We got something,” Roy said. “It keeps snatching up cows.”
Amos nodded. “It’s why we’re doing the roundup early. We aren’t sure how many it took.”
“You’ve seen it?” Violetta asked.
“Middle of the day.” Amos held his arms out wide. “Me and Ysabel are out by the rocks, and this thing comes out of nowhere.”
“It snatched up a cow straight off the ground,” Ysabel agreed. “Damn near gave us a heart attack too.”
“What did it look like?” Gabe asked.
“It didn’t look like a bird, really,” Amos said. “Was kind of leathery, like a bat, with this long beak.”
“They’re the only two that have actually seen it,” Silva said. “We figured you two had experience with beasts like that.”
“Only if they’re trying to eat us,” Violetta said.
They walked through the ranch, which almost exactly as Gabe remembered it. The herds of cow stretched from the wooden fences to the tall ridges in the distance, the landscape flat and cracked. The sky was a bowl overhead, clouds offering no reprieve from the heat and the sun. It brought back memories of days spent bent over the hard rock of land, trying to dig shovels into its soil, and long rides on horseback growing losing count of cows and having to start all over again. It also carried with it the laughter of his friends, and the sweet smile of Marie as she chased after calves, and the lazy breeze cooling the sweat against their faces. He had not quite expected the amount of nostalgia the air would bring him. He’d lived many other places, worked with many other people, but this was a place he could think of as home.
The ranch hands weren’t eager to get to work now that the travelers had arrived. Silva talked the most, and with wide sweeping gestures he told them every funny story from the moment Gabe left to the moment he returned. Galen was quiet beside him, smiling and laughing but just as straight-laced as ever. He’d grown a lot in the past year, including the beard that now covered his chin. Roy listened with his brown eyes down, squeezing his fingers together, but Amos leaned on him and got them all laughing. Ruben was showing off a little in front of Violetta, the large man looking even larger these days with muscle, and Thea grabbed his hand laughing and showed off her own impressive strength, Ysabel cheering her on. The others Gabe hadn’t met before–Abner, Saul, Adrian–they warned they’d heard plenty of stories. They talked and laughed and reminisced for a long time before the conversation circled back again to what had brought the travelers here in the first place.
“Is it just an animal?” Violetta asked. “I thought thunderbirds were a thing like a roc.”
“The Sioux have their sky bird,” Ysabel said, “but it don’t look a thing like it.”
“There’s not much else to call it,” Roy said. “It makes this sound. We can hear it all the way back here, when its wings start moving. Sounds like a storm rolling in.”
“It has to be big to pick up a cow whole.” Gabe spied the ridges in the distance. “Not much for it to hide behind.”
“We went hunting for it a week ago.” Silva gestured to the sky. “Couldn’t find a single sign of it, and then as soon as we head back, a few more cows are disappeared.”
“We started hiring hands back on, finally,” Marie said. “So we’ve been trying to keep a vigil. Too much cattle though, spread out too far.”
“Remember when we thought it’d be easier transporting by train?” Galen gave a sigh.
“Is there a place where it seems to strike more?” Violetta asked.
“Hard to tell with the cattle wandering.” Marie shielded her eyes as she gazed back over the cows. “But I bet there’s a decent place to start.”
Amos and Marie rode with them out to the ridge. The cows called as they passed, puttering out of the way of the horses. They’d managed to herd most of the cattle back to the ranch, and it was slow going weaving through the animals. Further from the ranch they broke away, but there were large groups still in the distance, their hides branded with a CR. Marie rode her horse closer to Gabe.
“What’s that look for?” he asked.
She was studying his face. “You’re a strange man, Gabe Valentine.”
“And why is that?”
“Judging by the stories you’re telling, it seems you’ve faced all number of horrors between here and back. It’s the sort of thing that changes a man.”
“Finding out ghosts are real is a bit of a startlement.” He gave a shrug. “More interesting what’s fake.”
“You don’t seem all that changed.”
“Neither do you,” he said.
She gave him a hard look. “I ain’t throwing myself at deadly things for fun.”
“This is your devil bird we’re chasing after.”
“I just imagine a man who’s seen as much as you wouldn’t look so pleased with himself.”
He grinned at her. “Do I look pleased with myself?”
She reared her horse back, allowing Violetta and Amos to catch up. Marie turned to them.
“You deal with him all day,” she said. “You must be a saint.”
Violetta laughed. “I can honestly say I’ve never been called that.”
Amos rolled his eyes. “I remember how happy I was, thinking it’d be quiet without you, Gabe.”
“Is it ever quiet around here?” he asked.
“Sometimes,” Marie said. “On Sundays.”
The expanse of the desert became crowded as the ridges came closer. Rocks jutted out of the ground, and the cows had thinned out considerably. The horses slowed, and Amos kept one eye on the horizon.
“I can’t imagine how a thing that big comes out of nowhere,” Violetta said.
“It’s got to be in the ridges.” Amos pointed along the crooked lines the thin mountains made. “We know there’s got to be caves in them.”
“Bats pour out at sunset,” Marie said. “Hundreds of them. Couldn’t tell where they came from, but they’d swoop down.”
“I remember,” Gabe said. “I remember about thirty cows got sick from them too.”
“Here’s about where we saw it.” Amos gestured around.
They were between two tall slopes of rock, shadow casting across the whole breadth of the desert plain in between. The majority of the straggling cattle had taken residence here, where they were promised shade at all parts of the day, and yellow-green tufts of grass pushed up through the cracked ground. They dismounted.
Violetta stretched as soon as her feet hit the solid dirt. They’d been riding for days after they’d received the message from the ranch, and her legs were sore, her back hurt, and she was tired of the motion underneath her. She gazed up at the edges of the ridges, trying to discern cave from shadow of stone. Everything in the sun bleached desert blurred together for her, and she’d have to rely on Gabe’s better trained eye.
“It just swooped down,” Amos was saying, mimicking the motion with his warm. “I thought I’d gone insane for a second, until Ysabel chased after it. She fired at it in the air, but it didn’t seem to hit.”
“I’ve never seen anything like that.” She reached for her journal, sitting in her bag. She’d filled it since coming to the America, finding stories and legends, witnesses recounting tales, and sketches of things she’d seen. There were always odd legends she’d scribbled in the side, but she couldn’t remember anything resembling what he’d described.
“It’s found a way to hide, for certain,” Marie said. “We thought about flushing some of the caves we did know about, but they’re too small to fit anything like that, and it’s too dangerous on us.”
They walked around the cows, who mooed passively at their presence. Amos and Marie followed the path they took to roundup, patting some of the cows along to help out when the work started up again. They were at full staff now that it was time to move the herd, though these days it was done with the convenience of a locomotive. Amos pointed out at the ranches in the distance who were employing barbed fencing, making it difficult for the cows to move around. Marie took Gabe’s arm and strolled away from them, claiming a better gander at the rock face.
“It’s no different out here,” Gabe said.
“Nothing ever seems to change.” She tugged him along. “Including you.”
“It’s not as wild out there as you think.”
He followed her along, where the cliff face bent back. The slope of the stone was an easy one, and the two ridges looked as if mighty hands had pulled a mountain apart.
“Nothing is anymore,” Marie said as she sat upon a boulder. “Used to be driving cattle up the western coasts, fighting off thieves and coyotes the same.”
“Mostly it was being dead tired after two weeks of riding and getting drunk in that bar in Nevada.”
She grinned. “Silva would inevitably start a fight. Now he just does it down at O’Toole’s.”
“You were thinking I’d change?”
She held out her hands to him, curling their fingers together. Marie was like a sunset, a brush of warm colors in a blue sky, glowing while everything else seemed to fade.
“I try to be a practical gal,” she said, smoothing her calloused thumb against the palm of his skin. “We promised we wouldn’t wait, because there’d be no way to tell how long. But I find myself watching the horizon all the same.”
He pulled her up, wrapping his arms around her waist. “You’re a hard woman to forget, Marie Wells.”
“And if waiting is a thing we can do,” she continued, “then maybe we’re something worth keeping.”
Gabe opened his mouth to reply, and a screech sounded through the sky. The sun blinked as a great shadow passed over it, and they saw the outstretched wings, as wide as a barn, and the strange beaked face. It swooped low, and its grey leathery skin blurred as its great claws snatched a cow whole, dragging it up into the air. They all ran towards it, and Amos tugged his rifle free of the horses. He raised it up, pointed at the sky, but the cows had sensed danger. A stampede was threatening as they gave wallowing cries.
Marie threw her legs over her horse and rode after the dark shadow in the sky, Gabe and Amos just behind her. Violetta was not as quick, and her horse became skittish at the sudden push from the cattle. The thunderbird glided around the ridges. It flapped its great wings, and the rush of air pushed against them. It dropped out of sight, and the horses struggled against the wave of cows that were screaming in fear, but they pushed through to the other side of the mountain. Marie pulled her horse as she rounded the side.
“It’s gone!” she shouted to the others.
The sky was empty and clear. No sound of its large wings, not even the ghost cries of the cattle, just the cloudless blue that stretched over the landscape.
Amos was turning around already, shouting, “Marie! The cows!”
She twisted the reigns of her horse, and they raced after the growing stampede. Violetta hesitated, but Gabe was already chasing after them, guiding the cattle into a tighter huddle. They pushed the cattle in, and Amos managed to get in front of the herd. He pulled his horse to the right, and the cattle curved with him. Violetta watched as the herd of cattle bowled into each other, circling closer, and when they ran out of room, the cows began to calm.
Amos trotted back around, and they watched the cows in case any more panic would start. They returned to the mountain, where Violetta had hopped off her horse and was investigating the ridge.
“It’s got to be here,” she said. “There’s nowhere else it would go.”
“It shouldn’t be so quiet,” Marie mumbled. “A thing that big shouldn’t be able to sneak.”
“There’s enough of us,” Amos said. “We can search it. Maybe camp out here tonight and see if we can spot it.”
“Not a bad plan.” Gabe nodded to the cattle, who had already forgotten the thing that had scared them. “With its food supply right there, it’s bound to come out again.”
They turned back to prepare.
A plan was made. Amos was the oldest among them and he’d been around the longest, so he put it to work. There were twelve hands on staff at the moment, enough to make a camp for the night. They gathered up their supplies and rode to where they’d seen the bird disappear. The east ridge offered a grand view of an otherwise featureless land. More mountains were in the distance, and at sunset they turned red with the light, glowing like embers in the fading daylight. Ysabel and Violetta started the fire together, and Roy and Saul set up a cook stand. In a large metal pot they tossed all sorts of things and let it stew. Someone would occasionally come around and stir with the large ladle, but there wasn’t a proper cook among them, Silva warned, and so they only ate when they got hungry. Cowboys also carried an innumerable amount of flasks, Violetta soon realized, after the third one had been passed her way.
“You aren’t worried?” she asked as Roy poured some into a tin cup for her.
“I suspect a cowboy who can’t do his job with a bit of whiskey in him shouldn’t bother with the name,” he said.
“Besides,” Ruben called from the fire, “you’ll want it when the night sets in.”
It was a party more than a hunt, no doubt helped by the return of their prodigal son, though no one commented when Gabe and Marie disappeared with more than a few waggled eyebrows and suggestive gestures. And, yes, when the sun finally rested its head down and the night moved in like a blanket, the heat drew away from the landscape. Violetta found herself shivering at the edge of the ridge where she looked down at the cows below. A chorus of sleepy moos sounded up from the valley as the cows settled into their nighttime stances. No doubt the thunderbird grew hungrily easily thanks to its size, and here was a buffet for the taking. Her eyes glanced over the rock face of the ridge, trying to gauge where such a thing could hide, but the night made it even harder to see.
A song had started up. She’d gotten used to Gabe singing to pass the time as they rode between settlement and town, and she was delighted to see all of the ranch hands joining in. Violetta moved back towards the fire, sipping on her whiskey, as they all let out a call that resounded off the ridge face.
They called, “With my saddle all shedded and cattle all bedded, nothing wild seems to be wrong. Make my bed ‘neath the skies, I look up at the stars, and then I can sing you this call.”
They let out what Violetta could only call a yodel, and she let out a laugh that spread to the others. A few started the next verse, but Galen and Roy started laughing as well, their faces red from their flasks. It quickly devolved from there, and Silva placed an arm around Violetta, grinning.
“It’s a cattle call,” he said.
“It’s the most ridiculous thing I’ve ever heard.” She grinned back at him.
“There aren’t too many happy songs to sing,” Thea said. “Most cowboy songs are about how terrible it is to be a cowboy.”
“Those are more trail songs,” Saul said. “When it is terrible to be a cowboy.”
“All day I face the barren waste,” Abner crooned, “without the taste of water, cool water.”
“The nights are cool and I’m a fool each star’s a pool of water,” Ruben and Thea joined in.
“Lots of long hours working,” Adrian said, “and very little else.”
“Must be the same for you,” Ysabel said as she stretched out. “Riding all over the place. That much travel must be tiring.”
“It can be.” Violetta sipped from her cup, hoping they wouldn’t notice her cringing on the hard liquor. “But it’s worth it to get to a place.”
“You’ve seen some strange things,” Roy said.
“Sure. Ghosts and monsters and things.”
“Can’t imagine what’d make a person chase those sort of things,” Saul said.
“Gabe went and did it.” Galen stirred the pot some more, though the insides had long since started to blacken. “Though he never sat still very well.”
“Lots of sitting still out here,” Ruben said.
“We make our own fun out here,” Amos said.
Violetta didn’t doubt it, as her own face felt hot from the whiskey in her hands. The moon was high overhead, and the chorus around her mixed with the night time coyote howls and cacophony of bugs. The stars were never quite as clear as they were out here, and the whole sky sat above them like a bowl, galaxies stretching the fit to the horizon, and stars dusted across in brilliant formations. Violetta was still unused to the vastness of the desert, or the continent in general. London had been a forest of buildings built close together on thin streets that curved and crawled every way, and she had never felt alone, but out here, even among the large group of people that sang songs and told stories around her, she could lay on her back and gaze up at the stars and feel like the only person for miles. She wondered if this unending loneliness drove them insane at times, or if it was a comfort. She closed her eyes and knew there were not for miles birds or muddy creeks or trees whose skinny branches reached to the sky.
Beside her, or possibly a thousand miles away, she heard Amos start singing.
O bury me not on that lone prairie
Where the wild coyote will howl o’er me
Where the buffalo roams the prairie sea
O bury me not on that lone prairie
It makes no difference, so I’ve been told
Where the body lies when life grows cold
But grant, I pray, one wish to me
O bury me not on that lone prairie
Not too far away, but far enough for privacy, Gabe and Marie sang a different song.
The night had done its work for them, as they lay beneath the canvas sky, fingers entwined, long kisses shared, laughing just because they were happy. It’s unsure, if a devil bird had flown past them, close enough that the wind of its wings would slap their faces, if at this exact moment they would’ve even noticed.
“You think it’s alright?” Marie asked as they laid back, their heads against the roll as a pillow. “Chasing after spirits like that?”
“Most of the time it ain’t even spirits.” Gabe had his arm across her, and the scent of her hair and the warmth of the stone made any movement away an agony. “Most of the time people want to see what they want to believe.”
“I used to wonder what sort of man would do a thing like that.”
“What sort of man, do you think?”
“Well I know you.” She shifted so she was looking at him, her large brown eyes studying his face. “I know you’re a man who doesn’t rest easy, and the sort to chase after a thing on a whim. You’re never happy to stay too long.”
“Depends on where I’m staying,” he said.
“No. You wander. It’s what you’ve always done. How long were you even at the ranch?”
“And before that? Where’d you work?”
“I did leather work for a year or so.” He shook his head. “I know what you’re going to say.”
“We never made promises, did we.” She sat back again, eyes trained up at the sky. “We never asked each other for more than we had to give.”
“And we never said words we didn’t mean,” Gabe said. “You thought I was flirting just to flirt, didn’t you?”
“Lots of men do,” she said.
“Sure,” he said, because it was true, especially around here, where traveling far made a man lonely and women seemed impressed on how easily you could hogtie a calf. “But like you said, it’s been a year, and here we are.”
He squeezed her hand tighter. There were an ocean of words, the most of them piling up like waves the type that rocked boats and sent sailors to their doom. The problem with being practical, they’d realized, was that it did very little in the here and now. They could tell themselves not to make promises and not to hold on, but there was something implicit in the way their hands fell across their skin, in the gentleness of their words, in the way they curled hands as though that was the way nature intended. A kiss could be as meaningless as a word, but a press of the shoulder, the way one head fell on the other’s shoulders, the silence that stretched between them not because they’d run out of things to say but only because they knew they did not need to say it, that could mean so much more.
“I have promised you, darling, that never,” Gabe sang, “would words from my lip cause you pain. My life will be yours forever, if you only say you love me again.”
Marie smiled and answered, “There never could be such a longing, in the heart of a poor cowboy’s breast, as dwells in this heart you are breaking, while I wait in my home in the west.”
They did not finish the song. It would’ve been too much to bear.
Violetta did not dream at all, for the first time in a long time. The whiskey might’ve helped. She rose groggily from her bedroll just as dawn painted pink lines above the horizon. Around her the cowboys slept. The fire had long since gone out. She peered down at the cows below, who shuffled and moved slowly in reaction to the breaking day.
Her eyes kept on the rising sun, whose rays had barely chased away the stars. Like everything else in the sky, the desert made it a thousand times more vibrant, as though the landscape reflected its colors back to it. She rose to her feet, stretching as she went. Despite the hard floor, the uneven sleep, the early awakening, and the late night, this was the best she’d felt in a while. She watched the rocks turn brilliant pink and tomato red, and she was so enthralled with the display it took her a moment to see the shape against the ravine wall. The morning shadows passed over it strangely, and her eyes had told her it was a rock, but her mind told her rocks didn’t have wings.
She grabbed the person nearest her, Silva, and her gun. He awakened with bleary eyes, and she dragged him to his feet, gesturing wordlessly to the rock face. The thunderbird unfurled its wings in the new light, and from its throat came a birdlike sound, in the way that a tiger’s growl could be considered catlike. It was a deep and ancient sound, like the landscape around it, born thousands of years ago.
Silva, awake now, took his rifle and shot. There was so much bird, it seemed impossible to miss, but the bird only lifted its head, and with a great rush of wind, it pushed away from the cliff edge and rose up. The cow below already sensed it as soon as it moved, and they began to push against each other to get away. The ensuing ruckus was enough to draw everyone else from their beds, even Gabe and Marie, who scrambled up the ridge in the noise. The creature flew up into the sky, flapping its great wings.
“It’s up!” Silva called to them.
“Goddamn!” It was Saul who was quickest. “How long has it been here?”
The thunderbird turned its trajectory down and opened its claws to grasp for its breakfast. Violetta turned, realizing there was a firing squad behind her, and she ducked low as their guns followed the creature in its descent. Then all at once they rang out shots, and for the first time it seemed disturbed. It swooped, knocking its wing into the rock face, and its head turned up at them. It let out another great caw, and to everyone’s horror it flew towards them. It slammed against the flat face of the ridge they were on, shaking the dirt beneath their feet, and its long beak lay on the dirt. Its beak was razor sharp, larger than any man, its wide black eyes stared furtively around. Amos had the sense to reload his gun as they all scrambled back, and he raised it to the creature’s eye. Then the monster swung its head, opened its great maw, and screeched furtively before falling back.
“Quickly!” Amos shouted.
They regathered themselves, bringing their guns to the cliff edge, and the creature drove up towards the sky, flapping its huge wings, and with it came the sound of thunder. They fired again, and then it swooped low, knocking once more into the cliffside. Violetta felt the ground move underneath her, and she gripped onto Silva for support.
“It’s gone into the mountain!” Thea called.
“What?” Roy looked over the edge. “There’s nowhere for it to go.”
“We saw it.” Galen pointed along the line of rocks. “Somehow it found a way in.”
“A cave that big would be impossible to hide,” Violetta said as she joined them.
“You’d be amazed at what can hide in the desert,” Gabe said beside her.
The group trekked down the ridge and looked at the rock face. The craggled stone zig-zagged in odd ways, and it was odd, even in the bright morning, now that the sun had started its climb across the sky, the way the shadows fell. Some places were inky dark, and others opened to meet the sun. A creature in the desert had to find shade, and it had to do so privately. Gabe doubted this creature had any predators to worry, but somehow it had stayed hidden for so long.
“Someone’s got to climb it,” Saul said.
Ysabel shook her head. “There’s no way.”
“A bit of rope, someone watching up top.” Roy gave a shrug. “Could be done.”
“And then what?” Galen asked. “What do we do then?”
“We’ve got to kill it, don’t we?” Silva looked at them. “I’ll go.”
Ysabel rolled her eyes. “No surprise there.”
“He’s right though,” Abner said. “We’ve at least got to flush it out.”
There was a bit of a squabble, but Ruben and Thea gathered up the rope, and Adrian and Abner stood up on the top of the ridge. Silva tied the rope to a hook on his waist, and Gabe volunteered as well. Violetta stood beside him as they finished setting up the slapdash rig.
“So even if I weren’t around,” she said, “this is what you’d be up to.”
He grinned at her and placed his hat on her head. “I think we’ll be alright.”
She looked at Marie, who was arguing over knots with Galen. Just about everyone had a rifle strapped to their backs. The most of the ranch hands had stayed on the ground in case they did manage to flush the bird out.
“Even if we do,” Marie had said as they’d carried everything up the ridge, “we’ve tried shooting it before. What good will it do?”
“It steals cattle whole,” Silva had said in response. “We can’t let it keep going. Best case scenario it comes out of our pay. Worst case, we’re all out of a job.”
“Just try to shoot it better,” Amos said.
Violetta watched from above, along with Marie, she supposed for the same reason. Secretly, she’d always felt a bit like she’d stolen Gabe away, even if it wasn’t in the usual way. She hadn’t known, when she’d shown up here on the ranch a little over a year ago, anything about Gabe or his lady love, only that she’d felt alone for all her life and for the first time it was a bit like having a friend. He’d told her about Marie after they’d left already. Violetta remembered her though. Marie was pretty with her hair full of curls and her heart shaped face, and she’d seemed prettier for the layer of dirt and rough clothes. Now Marie leaned over the ridge, just over Abner’s back, her lips twisted into a frown, her shoulders squared as if ready for a fight.
“Sometimes I think that man has a death wish,” she said.
Violetta had allowed herself a curious glance down, but the more she realized how far they were from the ground, the sicker she got. “Funny. He says that about me all the time.”
Marie looked at her. “Suppose you go around encouraging him.”
“This isn’t our usual bag.” She tried to offer a smile but it felt more like a grimace. “I prefer running around at night on flat land.”
It was supposed to be a joke, but Marie’s expression wasn’t amused, but at least it wasn’t amused back down at the man she loved.
“He thinks he’s so clever,” she muttered.
“He usually is.” Violetta looked down before her eyes jutted up to the horizon in self-defense. “But we all have our moments.”
Scaling a rock face was the least of Gabe’s problems today. Compared to the things he’d seen with Violetta, it wasn’t even registering.
The desert was all optical illusion. Something about the flatness of the land and the way the heat hit it. It was a spell all its own. Light rays caught onto it, and then it didn’t let go, shaping it to the thing it wanted to be instead. It’s how they could stare at the ridge sides and miss the giant hole in its face. Even direct on, they had a bit of trouble. It wasn’t until Silva put his foot down and caught only air that they’d even been sure.
It wasn’t quite a giant hole in the side of the mountain. The rocks jutted out around it. It was taller than either of them but didn’t seem large enough for the bird that had bedeviled their cattle. The makeshift harness hadn’t felt quite safe enough, so Gabe was glad to put his feet on solid ground. Silva seemed to be enjoying himself. He hooted down the cave wall, and his voice carried like some ancient bird call.
“Quiet,” Gabe said, slapping his arm. “What if it hears?”
“It’s trapped enough in here.” He looked around at the cave walls. “Surprised we’ve never noticed it.”
“Suppose we don’t look up much.” He glanced back at the opposite ridge and wondered if there was a matching twin to this. More places for devil birds to hide.
Silva pulled his rifle off his back. Once they started down the long cavern, it seemed a bit more likely the bird was there. The walls opened up around them, curving as though something had drilled here. On the ceiling above were the stumps of stalactites whose remnants now littered the ground beneath them. Long, wide scratch marks covered the walls as well, like gashes in the stone. Gabe put his hand to one, feeling the groove. He wished more of them could’ve made it up the rock face.
Once they were away from the entrance, little light made it in. They hadn’t thought about a lantern, but luckily there was enough sun to keep from going blind. The yellow rock that made up all the desert he knew seemed to darken in color, turning grey-green. This was an ancient place. They could feel it in their bones. Rock and stone held the world’s memories. It remembered a time when it was underwater, a time when great rifts had shook it to its roots and split it in two, a time when it was full and fat and the wind had carried away pieces of it until it was only sand. The outside of this mountain was hard dirt cracked and dry and burnt by the sun, but the last thing the inside ever saw was water.
It still didn’t seem room enough for the beast, but Gabe imagined the thing had survived by getting by. It must find a place to hide near enough food to keep it going, and then move one when either wasn’t an option. The cow would’ve been perfect, except for all the cowhands that kept watch over them. He bet before the roundup started, it was content.
It didn’t seem the mountain went this deep, but the darkness didn’t help. Soon they would run out of light, and he didn’t want to face the thunderbird without being able to see it. The passageway sloped down. Their footsteps resounded off every wall, so stealth wasn’t much of an option.
“Just like old times,” Silva said as he pulled his rifle from his back.
“Sure,” Gabe said. “Though I think I’d rather face a coyote than this.”
“Well great big beasties are more your game now.”
He couldn’t deny it. He was getting used to things like this.
Further down, the wind pushed through the stone like it was breathing. There might’ve been things living here before, like the bats and snakes and the tiny crawling creatures that disappeared so easily, but the thunderbird had torn apart the cave. The walls were marred with scratchmarks, and more rock dust covered the ground. Gabe was so busy watching the surroundings he didn’t notice the ground underneath him drop away until Silva grabbed his arm.
The cave descended suddenly into a black pit. Within it they could hear breathing.
“It’s gotta be in there,” Silva said as he raised his rifle.
“Sure.” Gabe placed a hand on the cave wall as he peered into the darkness. “You think you’ll hit it?”
“It’s the size of a barn.” He clicked back the hammer. “I think even it would be embarrassed if I missed.”
The shot in the cave rang out like cannon fire. The shockwave of it rang out in the empty space, remaining much longer than welcome. Then the thunderbird answered. Out of the darkness rose a taloned, winged arm. Claws scraped against the stone as the beaked face of it brought itself up like a dragon. It opened its mouth and shrieked so loudly it knocked the both of them back.
Gabe reacted first. He’d had more practice at it. He grabbed Silva by the collar and shoved him forward. The thunderbird did struggle as it tried to wrap its wings close and slide through the cave passage. Its beak snapped close to their backs, and they ran faster. The beast screamed and howled as it twisted around, trying to catch them, but getting caught in the close confines of the cave. Sunlight streamed in again, and the light at the end of the tunnel was blinding. Silva stopped short of the entrance, turned, raised his gun again. The thunderbird was scrambling more and more, its wings tight against its frame, snapping angrily at the air. Silva reloaded the rifle and shot for its eye, but the bullet bounced of the beak, leaving a mark. He reloaded again, fumbling, and shot.
“No time,” Gabe said as he pulled him back.
“We’re not going to get a better shot!”
He raised the rifle to fire one more time, the thunderbird closing in. Gabe reached for the rope, grabbed his arm, and pulled them both out as the thunderbird burst out from the confines. It rolled in the air, and then its wings spread wide. Gunshots lit up from the ground.
Gabe could see the shots hit the creature, but its hide was too thick for them to wound properly. It was buffeted by the shots, and one managed to pierce the wing. He dragged Silva up, retrieved his own rifle, and aimed for the thin skin there. The thunderbird tilted, swinging down. The ranch hands on the ground scattered as it slammed in front of them.
It struggled up, its wings pushing up dirt and dust. Another wave of bullets compounded its struggle. It pounded its wings trying to get away, but they were already roping it. The cows were going mad with the great big thing that had taken up their grazing ground. Another stampede was threatening, but they were too scattered and panicked. Gabe felt a jerk in his stomach and saw the four figures above pulling them up.
“That wasn’t so hard,” Violetta said as she helped them over the edge.
Gabe looked at her, out of breath. Silva was laughing.
“Is it dead?” Marie shielded her eyes as she looked at the ground.
“Not quite.” Abner was looking too. “We’ll have to round up the cows again.”
“Great.” Amos sighed. “More work.”
Silva had collapsed on the ground. “That was the worst thing I’ve ever done.”
“Why are you laughing then?” Gabe asked.
“Because you do it every day!”
Gabe slapped his arm and came to his feet. Marie rested a hand on him.
“You alright?” she asked.
He managed a smile. “Never better.”
They watched the thunderbird below scream and thrash until it stopped, and then they went down to help.
It took six horses to drag the thing. Roy and Galen had wanted a picture.
“What for?” Saul asked.
“Look at it,” Roy said. “It’s some kind of monster.”
“Better to let it be,” Amos said, and that was that.
They weren’t really sure what to do with it, but they took it out to the desert, as far as they could manage, and they left it there. Better to let the coyotes and the vultures pick at it. Besides, it was too big to bury.
There was celebration as the night set in. They did a proper cookout with beef steaks and chicken breasts and more whiskey was poured. They’d finish counting the cattle another day. For now their problem was solved. Singing filled the night time air, and even Violetta tried to learn the words. Gabe and Marie sat close to each other, sharing a flask. They didn’t say much the whole time, but they ducked their heads close and drifted off together, holding hands.
Dawn rang out like an alarm bell. None of them were ready for it.
Violetta gathered up her things. Already most of the cowboys were trailing off to do their work. Amos clasped Gabe’s arm and told him a curt, manly farewell. Roy and Galen joked with him before riding off. Thea gave Violetta’s shoulder a little squeeze, a sort of honorary gesture. Silva wrapped his arms around his friend and winked at Violetta as he climbed onto his horse. The excitement was over. There was work to be done.
Marie took Gabe’s hand and led him away from the others. There weren’t too many things to say. A goodbye felt too final. She curled her hands in his and looked up at him with her brown eyes.
“We never asked for more than the other had to give,” she said. “So when I ask you something, don’t go making promises you don’t intend to keep.”
“Marie,” he said, but she took his face between her hands.
“I love you, Gabe Valentine,” she said, “and I want you to come home someday. For good. But that’s not a thing you want.”
He placed his hand over hers. “There’s still a lot of the world left to see.”
“I thought so. Just… come back to me. Try not to die. Stop running headfirst in danger, if you think you can help it. Bring the girl too, she seems alright, but just promise I’ll see you again.”
He smiled. “I love you too, Marie Wells, and we’ll see each other. I promise.”
Satisfied, she kissed him. The cattle ran past, and the world shook beneath their feet.
Their horses stocked up, their bags ready to go, Violetta and Gabe said their final goodbyes. Violetta looked uncertain as she climbed onto her horse, not for the usual reasons.
“You could stay,” she said as they turned east.
He looked at her. “Why would you say that?”
She shrugged. “I didn’t really know you a year ago, did I? I asked you to come with me because–because I wanted a friend I guess. But this is clearly your home, and your people, and your–you know, Marie.”
He had a thoughtful look in his eyes. “Maybe. Maybe it could be.”
“Well,” Violetta said, “I wouldn’t be offended if you decided to–to stay. I’d understand, even.”
He smiled. “You trying to get rid of me?”
“No, I just don’t you to feel obligated.”
He looked back at the ranch. The sky was blue over the yellow land, the sun already beating down. Cattle gave indignant moos as cowhands herded them along. Memories flooded in like a rising tide. He saw Marie watching them go.
“I think I could stand another year of you,” he said. “Supposing you could do the same.”
She pulled her hair over her shoulder. It was still morning and the sun was getting unbearable. “If you’re sure.”
“There’s still time to get sick of each other.”
They rode away, the sun rising overhead, bleaching out everything, until there was nothing left but dirt.